Frank Zappa, 1970 © Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Frank Zappa finally got his posthumous revenge. Forty-two years after his sold-out 200 Motels concert was cancelled at the Royal Albert Hall on grounds of obscenity (“filth for filth’s sake” in the words of the RAH’s general manager at the time Frank Mundy), the piece had its UK premiere this week in the Royal Festival Hall; among its memorable lines, delivered in a mock-pitying tone: “Lord, have mercy on the people in England for the terrible food these people must eat” (this was the 70s, remember).
The show was part of the year-long The Rest is Noise festival of 20th-century music at the Southbank, inspired by Alex Ross’s book of that title. We were told that there were some in the audience who’d had tickets for the original performance (and there certainly were one or two Frank Zappa lookalikes in evidence). There is a film 200 Motels, which is apparently almost unwatchable but, according to Zappa (who died in 1993 aged 52), “For the audience that already knows and appreciates [his band] The Mothers of Invention, 200 Motels will provide a logical extension of our concerts and recordings . . . . For those that can’t stand The Mothers and have always felt we were nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf perverts, 200 Motels will probably confirm their worst suspicions”.
It’s certainly a weird and wonderful piece, satirically scathing and characteristically scatological. I can see that it might have caused offence in the early 70s, but today it’s more funny than anything and at times childishly zany (it’s not always possible to buy the whole Zappa package). The 200 motels were visited by Zappa and his band on one tour in the 1960s, and the piece is in part a cry of boredom provoked by life on the road (it’s set in the town of Centerville). The first two soloists, Frank and Mark, have the appearance of bozo roadies; they are later joined by a totally unprepared journalist (a superb performance by the soprano Claron McFadden) who has come to interview a scornful Zappa. Tony Guilfoyle does a passable impersonation as Frank (below), while the musician’s daughter Diva Zappa seductively filled the role of Groupie 2, along with Groupie 1 Sophia Brous. And, something of a surprise, Jay Rayner, better known as a food writer and broadcaster, appears, winningly, as the bass Bad Conscience (Rayner looks like he could have slotted seamlessly into The Mothers of Invention).
© Chris Christodoulou
Not forgetting the full forces of the BBC Concert Orchestra and Southbank Sinfonia, under the appropriately enthusiastic baton of Jurjen Hempel, the London Voices and a 7-piece rock band. What the audience got for this one-off performance in the presence of the artist’s widow Gail Zappa was 90 minutes of dissonant, occasionally sublime and occasionally plain overblown music. Close your eyes at times and you could almost believe you were listening to Schoenberg at his most lushly orchestrated; Edgard Varèse has also been invoked (according to Gail Zappa, her husband “always loved . . . Varèse and Stravinsky”). Writing in the programme note, the singer-songwriter Alan Clayson talks of how the work “highlights its creator’s pre-eminence in breaching the abyss between highbrow and lowbrow, pop and ‘classical’, ‘real’ singing and rock’n’roll hollering. Finally, “it will reinforce” Zappa’s position “as the most remarkable North American composer of the twentieth century and perhaps any other time”. Wow! Certainly one of the most inventive – not for nothing was his band called The Mothers of Invention.
Finally, in a week that was marked by the news of the death of Lou Reed, it’s worth being reminded of the fact that when Zappa was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, the eloquent and rather beautiful tribute was given by . . . Lou Reed. It’s worth hearing. Two great, but very different, musicians.
And at this point, can I suggest that Lou Reed’s Rock n Roll Animal (recorded in 1973 in New York) is simply the best live rock and roll album of all? It’s hard not to love the camp-ironic way in which Reed delivers the lines “I wish that / I was born a thousand years ago. / I wish that / I’d sailed the darkened seas / on a great big clipper ship, going from this land here to that. / I’d put on a sailor’s suit and cap . . .”.
Not far behind it on my list would be an album of live recordings made over a period of 20 years (1968–88) and at many different venues (200 motels . . . ): the intermittently brilliant You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, by Frank Zappa.