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Digital Hygiene Dilemma
October 2, 2010 10:13 PM   Subscribe

Frank Zappa's 200 Motels has finally seen an official DVD release, presented by co-director Tony Palmer. Sadly, it appears to be kind of a bumpy ride. (Previously)
posted by mintcake! (56 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fantastic article. I will not be purchasing the DVD. Maybe I'll break open my unopened Joe's Garage album instead and give it a listen.
posted by davejay at 10:49 PM on October 2, 2010


Zappa always claimed he had never taken acid. After I saw this movie (when I was in college) I said, "yeah, right."

Still, I have to say that casting Ringo Starr as Zappa was a stroke of brilliance.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:56 PM on October 2, 2010


Thanks for this. Sad reading.
posted by fartknocker at 11:23 PM on October 2, 2010


That last link is a whole lot of information for a whole lot of "what's the point?". I can't believe anyone cares about 200 Motels so much to conduct such thorough analysis. That's some serious dedication or self loathing or something I'm almost scared to consider.

It's strange that Zappa claimed to be sober throughout the whole production. Which I guess means he claimed responsibility for that trainwreck of a movie. It mystifies me to this day that people see value in that whole boring, self indulgent production.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:38 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey man, some people recognize Zappa for the giant monster, ummm, thing that he was. 200 Motels is part of that. Plus I seem to recall some entertaining moments here and there. I do admit to sleeping through most of it when we tried to watch it again a few years ago.

Compare and contrast the ongoing carbonization iconization of Michael Jackson, and tell me Thriller will stand up as well as 200 Motels has after all these years!
posted by sneebler at 11:52 PM on October 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't believe anyone cares about 200 Motels so much to conduct such thorough analysis.

Somewhere on the internet, a strange young man will analyse anything at all to this level, if not far beyond it. The net is still a geek paradise.
posted by quarsan at 11:54 PM on October 2, 2010


...and A Great Place To Raise Your Kids Up.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 12:06 AM on October 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


almost related Zappa and Nesmith (Monkey of Head) switch roles

I can't believe anyone cares about 200 Motels so much to conduct such thorough analysis.

nice thread dump. meanwhile there's this thing call "history"
posted by victors at 12:53 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Off topic.
Zappa always seemed like something I would probably like, but my perception (which could be wrong) is that he made like 73 impenetrably arty records.

Where would a lad with an adventurous ear begin in the Zappa canon?

Give me the easy one.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:05 AM on October 3, 2010


Give me the easy one.

Hot Rats?
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:12 AM on October 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


I had the 85 VHS version and watched it once. I hate that movie and most of the associated music. And that is coming from a Zappa fanatic. That said, it is a historical document to a great composer and I admire the effort. I have an mp3 of a panel interview he did at Syracuse University (Beefheart and Duke were with him on the panel) given to me by jonmc. He goes into great detail about the making of the movie. Based on what he says, it's a wonder it even saw the light of day.

Senor Cardgage: "Give me the easy one"

There are no easy ones. Depends on what you can palate initially (a musical gateway drug, if you will). I bought "Sheik Yerbouti" on vinyl when it came out because it blew my mind. It has all the ribaldry and rock you'd want in one album/CD. Most people will tell you "Apostrophe" and/or "Overnight Sensation" (which ARE great albums) because of "Dinah Moe Hum" or "Yellow Snow" but those are even a little earlier than I like my Frank.

Whatever you do, don't get "200 Motels" because quite frankly, it sucks.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 1:19 AM on October 3, 2010


Senor Cardgage:
Impenetrably arty only fits minority of his music, imo. Though much of his output was seems to be impenetrably sarcastic and novelty-ish to a fault. My kids listen through Apostrophe (') with no trouble. If it can hold their ears for the 30 or so minutes, it might hold yours, also.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:22 AM on October 3, 2010


I really thought this would not interest me, but I actually found quite the opposite - thanks very much for posting, mintcake!
posted by Sutekh at 2:02 AM on October 3, 2010


Señor Cardgage hey my phone added the tilde automatically whaddya know how nifty: Absolutely Free, Hot Rats, Joe's Garage. Uncle Meat is one of my favorites but it's not for everyone.

While I really like those records, I gotta admit that a LOT of his output leaves me cold. Or maybe "puzzled and irritated" is more accurate. And maybe that's what Frank was shooting for.

200 Motels is, well, crap.

I'm glad we had Frank Zappa. But I'm REALLY glad we didn't have JUST Frank Zappa, you know?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:00 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


That last link is a whole lot of information for a whole lot of "what's the point?". I can't believe anyone cares about 200 Motels so much to conduct such thorough analysis.

I remember seeing 200 Motels in the cinema on release. At the time, I was a huge Zappa fan, but the movie was completely unwatchable. In that sense, Tony Palmer was right.

That said, I'm glad someone cares enough about it to do this. I read the article from end to end, and was completely entranced the whole way through. Passion is infectious.

Give me the easy one.

We're Only In It For The Money was where I started. It seemed easy enough to me. Lots of the later stuff sucks, unless you enjoy muso masturbation. Hot Rats is a good alternative.

40 years on, Beefheart's work really seems to stand up far better than Zappa's, whereas at the time, it seemed less accessible for some reason.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:03 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Give me the easy one.
Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar
Guitar

I actually prefer these because they feature Frank as a performing musician. And a lot of the mythos surrounding Zappa quite often overlooks the simple fact that the guy could seriously play.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:13 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Watching 200 Motels, a couple of years back, reminded me of why my ex, a fervent Beatles fan, warned me to never, ever watch Magical Mystery Tour. I scoffed, but because I couldn't find a copy of the film for years, I didn't get a chance to ignore his warning until just a few years ago.

Besides, it's the Beatles, man. They can do no wrong.

Except, well, do you ever wish you could unsee something? I mean—it's the Beatles, so even if it's bad, it's gotta be kinda good, but it's just…not. It's not fun bad, like The Apple, either, or the kind of bad where the years go by and people figure out that it's not quite as bad as they first thought—it's just a sad document of in-fighting band members too high to know better after the loss of their manager, even now.

I'm not as fervent a Zappa fan as I am a Beatles fan, but I adore Hot Rats and Zappa's uncompromising muscianship of his best periods, so I got myself a copy of 200 Motels and—

Do you ever wish you could unsee something?

Fortunately, Youtube comes to the rescue, and we've got wild little gems like "King Kong" played live in a studio, which are just the essence of the thing, of the moment when it all came together just exactly right. Ignore the sixties-era jumpcuts and stupid psychedelic editing and that dumb blue statue cutaway, and you've got a taskmaster as demanding and amazing as James Brown, albeit at the helm of a hippie orchestra. It's a good jumping-off point for new Zappa fans in the way his embarrassing noxious novelty records and his music from the ear-jangling period when he figured out that his Synclavier could play 128th notes.

If you've failed to heed the warnings and watched 200 Motels, please clear your head with a viewing of Zappa shredding idiots on Crossfire, circa 1986, which is even more fun for me because foamy pro-censorship panelist John Lofton is my neighbor and the father-in-law of my former boss, so anytime I got into it with the guy, all I could do was dream of having the deep sardonic composure Frank has there.
posted by sonascope at 4:20 AM on October 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


P.S. YMMV, and my previous is, of course, IMHO.
posted by sonascope at 4:24 AM on October 3, 2010


Yeah, I saw this at 15 or so and wish I could un-see it too. Bad and disturbing and pathetic, all at the same time.

And in my own humble opinion, Zappa is the most over-rated rock musician of the modern era. Masturbatory noodling is not virtuosity, using odd time signatures doesn't make you a composer instead of a songwriter, and broad, juvenile humor is not incisive wit. He had a few moments, and I'm sure he was a great guy and all, but Zappa worship, which was prevalent among my fellow white male rockers during my long ago 70s youth, blech. Boring and pretentious.

There, I said it. Been waiting for years to do so.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:49 AM on October 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


FWIW, I never became a deep Frank Zappa fan, although I started to explore his music after Joe's Garage began to be replayed multiple times in my household.

It was my first exposure to him, and again, it was as far as I got really. But I love the album, the musicianship on display and the concept.
posted by jeremias at 5:45 AM on October 3, 2010


Give me the easy one.

Dunno if it's the easy one, but I always suggest One Size Fits All as an entry point.
posted by BoatMeme at 5:45 AM on October 3, 2010


wow. some serious research. but Voiceprint have a reputation for not being too fussy about their product. some of the live cds they've put out have had the most appalling sub-bootleg sound quality and packaging.

having said that 200 Motels isn't worth a great deal of care and attention IMHO...
posted by peterkins at 6:31 AM on October 3, 2010


In Eastern Europe, where I'm from, Zappa is a legend pretty much on a par with say, John Lennon. There are tribute bands, streets named after him, even statues. But, aside from a few early records, I never got it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:54 AM on October 3, 2010


Tony Palmer ... Tony Palmer ... Oh yeah. He did that late 1970s British TV documentary on pop music called "All You Need is Love". The whole thing runs about 15 hours, and was shown in hour long segments. "All You Need is Love" is probably available at your local library on DVD. It is a rather astonishing work and a must-see for anyone interested in popular music from from the beginning of the 20th century to the mid-1970s.

There are archival clips in here I've never seen anyplace else, and Palmer scored intimate interviews with people like Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby, and Eubie Blake (talking about meeting Scott Joplin, imitating Joplin's voice, and telling how when Joplin sat down to play Maple Leaf Rag -- it sucked), an incredible hour-long segment featuring and scripted by Stephen Sondheim (really humanized him for me), along with other truly priceless moments captured in that strange, unbuttoned cultural pause that was the mid-70s just before Punk and Star Wars.

The special is also shamelessly padded with abrupt and bizarre cuts to modern day strippers (full-frontal nudity), random scenery, out-of-context audience reaction shots, and interviews with and musical interludes from performers who may have seemed important at the time, but who quickly vanished off the face of the earth. (He has a mind-blowing film of an elderly Nick Lucas performing "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" which Palmer senselessly intercuts with footage of rodeo riders -- basically spoiling our last glimpse of the "Crooning Trubador".)

Anyhow, based on having watched "All You Need is Love", I can say confidently that Tony Palmer is capable of anything, and I have no doubt that the viewer of "200 Motels" will feel like the people at the end of the movie "Magic Christian", wading through a vat of ordure, and finding riches there.
posted by Faze at 7:17 AM on October 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Give me the easy one.

None, but if you want to hear "songs," "Strictly Commercial" is a serviceable greatest hits package. ...But I'd start with "Absolutely Free."
posted by applemeat at 7:40 AM on October 3, 2010


Caution: Zany.
posted by uraniumwilly at 7:45 AM on October 3, 2010


200 Motels is one of my favorite Zappa records, but I don't think I would recommend it to people other than Zappa fans (if you don't like both big dumb rock and atonal orchestral music, at least half of the soundtrack will piss you off), and I have no desire to see the film.

Where would a lad with an adventurous ear begin in the Zappa canon?

This is always a tough question because he had a bunch of different styles so the shallow end of the swimming pool to start wading into is different for everyone. Some possible starting points are:

Absolutely Free (1967) - sloppy polystylistic 60's fun, with interesting micro- and macro-medleys.
Hot Rats (1969) - often regarded as the first fusion record.
One Size Fits All (1974) - highlight of the great last incarnation of the Mothers of Invention, rock + prog + funk.
You Are What You Is (1981) - great pop songs, with a lot of vocal harmonies.

There are probably many Zappa fans who wouldn't recommend any of those four, though...
posted by dfan at 7:54 AM on October 3, 2010


Ah... All You Need is Love... didn't that have a disturbing interview with the reclusive Phil Spector, who goes on to perform a rather strange solo acoustic version of River Deep Mountain High?

And some creepy slo-mo footage of the Osmonds and Kiss set to Holst's Mars?

All You Need is Love was also published as an illustrated book which is worth a look.
One of my favourite music books, along with Reebee Garofalo's 'Rockin Out', and Barney Hoskyns' 'Waiting for The Sun'.
posted by ovvl at 8:46 AM on October 3, 2010


Nobody's going to suggest starting with Freak Out?
posted by stinkycheese at 9:36 AM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Am I the only person here who likes 200 Motels, both the movie and the album? There are some kick-ass driving rock tunes and the amazing orchestral piece Strictly Genteel on the sound-track. And the movie is fucking funny. Yes, it is a total trainwreck, but come on, Keith Moon in a nun's habit being molested with a smoking genie lamp? That's comedy gold. Reading the article, I am rather bummed that what resulted from the original script is a cut-down hodge podge lacking many scenes and the narrative structure Zappa envisioned, as I imagine that the film as pictured would probably have been just as weird but far more coherent. Given the limitations, though, they made an entertaining and crazy piece of work.

And as for the "Dude, he was OBVIOUSLY on acid, look how weird it is!" comments, I think that's pretty dismissive of the powers of human creativity. I'm not saying he definitely wasn't ever on drugs (although I tend to believe the statements made by him, his family, his former musicians, and even those people with whom he fell out that he was disdainful of drug use and was never a real user) but come on, just because something has fast cuts and strange colors, that means the creators were on hallucinogens? Even if that's the case, then Tony Palmer would be the one person who was tripping -- as the article makes clear, he was the engineer behind most of the technical aspects of the film, including the rapid cuts, while Zappa was the one working on the structural aspects.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:42 AM on October 3, 2010


Compare and contrast the ongoing carbonization iconization of Michael Jackson, and tell me Thriller will stand up as well as 200 Motels has after all these years!

I am here to tell you that, yes, Thriller will still be an awesome album 30 years from now.

Also: seconding the recommendation of Tony Palmer's 15 hour "all you need is love" documentary. Fantastic stuff absolutely packed with amazing clips.
posted by the bricabrac man at 9:43 AM on October 3, 2010


stinkycheese: I second that. And add, start with "Freak Out", admire "Absolutely Free", dig "We're Only in for the Money", listen to "Hot Rats" and "Uncle Meat" at least once. Then go on and do something productive with your life.
posted by Faze at 9:44 AM on October 3, 2010


Can't wait to read this. From what I remember, 200 Motels was a logistical disaster, and it was a wonder that the final cut was ever produced.

And as for recs, I'm surprised that no one has suggested Cheap Thrills, which was expressly put together for people new to Zappa. Great mix of studio, live, spoken bits, etc. Another totally slept-on album is Make a Jazz Noise Here, a double-disc stitched together from one of his last tours. Huge sound that mixes jazz, classical and rock in a much more palatable way than any prog that I can think of.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 10:02 AM on October 3, 2010


>most over-rated rock musician of the modern era...Boring and pretentious

these are the moments I like MeFi the least. Sorry for not digging out the links but the threads where a parochial understanding an artist or their achievements ends up being stated as fact such as Joni Mitchell sings out of key or Neil Young can't write lyrics. To flat out state that Frank Zappa didn't have any talent worth noting is the same kind of silly hubris. You may have to go digging into his vast output for something you, personally enjoy, or his overall style may not speak to you but to roundly dismiss his abilities is well... pretentious. The idea that "I don't like it, therefore it sucks" is just infantile.

Give me the easy one.

You should be able to start with others who cover him, like The Persuasions or his covers of others like Stolen Moments or Whipping Post.

For the inescapable "arty" in his music, I never understood why Lumpy Gravy isn't mentioned more. You have to take it all in (not just snippets) but to my ears it is a major achievement and eminently penetrable by an adventurous rock fan. The themes are beautiful and the arranging and orchestration is top shelf.

Something else to consider is that to fully appreciate Zappa you can't start and end at rock music. It helps (a lot) to be familiar with modern classical music, especially Varèse.

Zappa was a unique talent who always reached for something different and always in his own voice, a true artist. He didn't always make it to where he was trying to get but then that's why they call it "taking risks."
posted by victors at 10:05 AM on October 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


Nobody's going to suggest starting with Freak Out?
I wouldn't. While I eventually grew to love Freak Out, I don't think it's aged quite as well as the other Mothers albums. The low budget sound quality doesn't help. For me, at least, I needed to hear a lot more of what 60s radio pop sounded like prior to 1966 to put it in its proper context.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:22 AM on October 3, 2010


TrialByMedia: "Nobody's going to suggest starting with Freak Out?
I wouldn't. While I eventually grew to love Freak Out, I don't think it's aged quite as well as the other Mothers albums. The low budget sound quality doesn't help. For me, at least, I needed to hear a lot more of what 60s radio pop sounded like prior to 1966 to put it in its proper context
"

Agreed. I would suggest starting at "We're Only In It For The Money" (Ryko version if you can find it). As far as conceptual continuity, this has it in spades.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:59 AM on October 3, 2010


> Am I the only person here who likes 200 Motels, both the movie and the album?

Oh dear no, you are not. It's wonderful from beginning to end. It seems likely to me that people who don't care for it may just not have the background to get half the jokes. Ready to pick up on the piquant Stockhausen parodies that do to Karlheinz just what Karlheinz needs doing to him? Not if you haven't listened to lots of echt Stockhausen you aren't. One example of many.

For me it caused lifelong thought contamination. The boys in the band finish primping in the rock-star lighted mirrors and then troop down to the fake nightclub (rather obviously a cheap stage set, the camera makes no effort to avoid picking up the plywood and two-by-four structure) to pick up hot chix? I've seen quite a number of fake nightclubs since then. If fact I don't remember seeing any other kind. And the contamination spreads. Mention X, and the fake X applies. Religions, Presidents, opinions, social mores--look, there's the 2x4s holding 'em up!

N.b. for fans, the movie (tape version, anyway, can't speak for the new DVD) is worth having because it has the missing for-males punch line from Penis Dimension, not found on the (vinyl) sound track recording:

   Hiya friends. Now just be honest about it. Did you ever consider the possibliity that the size of your penis
   (and in the case of many dignified ladies, that the size of the titties themselves) might provide elements
   of sub.conscious.tensionnnnn? Weird, twisted anxieties? That could force a human being to have to become...
   a politician. A policeman. A jesuit monk. Heh, a rock and roll guitar player. A wino. You name it.

   Or in the case of the ladies (the ones that can't afford a silicone beef-up) they may become writers of hot books.
   Manuel, the gardener, placed his burning phallus in her quivering quim. Yes, or they become Carmelite nuns. Gonzo, the lead guitar player,
    placed his mutated member in her slithering slit. Ooo, or racehorse jockeys. THERE IS NO REASON WHY YOU OR YOUR LOVED ONES
   SHOULD SUFFER. Things are bad enough, without the size of your organ adding even more misery to the troubles
   of the world!

   Now, if you're a lady and you've got munchkin tits, you can console yourself with this age-old line
   from primary school:

      Anything over a mouthful, IS WASTED!

   Yes! and isn't it the truth? And if you're a guy, and one night you're at a party and you're trying to be cool,
   I mean, you aren't even wearing any underwear you're being so cool, and somebody hits on you one night,
   and looks you up and down and he says uh,

      Eight inches? or less?

   Well let me tell you, brother, that's the time when you got to turn around and look that son of a bitch right
   between the eyes. And you got to tell him these words:

Missing punch line (spoken in Ringo Liverpool voice by Ringo-dressed-up-as-Frank)
      Oi got three sweat socks and a bar o' beauty soap down moi pants.

Further thought contamination, occasioned ever since by guys in tight jeans with lumpy fronts: those three sweat socks and that bar of beauty soap sure do get around.
posted by jfuller at 1:04 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems likely to me that people who don't care for it may just not have the background to get half the jokes. Ready to pick up on the piquant Stockhausen parodies that do to Karlheinz just what Karlheinz needs doing to him? Not if you haven't listened to lots of echt Stockhausen you aren't. One example of many.

i'm not sure that arcane musicological pastiche aimed at a pretty soft target coupled with groupie gags and repetitive jokes about ex members of your band (poor old jeff simmons) makes for a great film, but hardcore FZ fans (i speak as an ex member of that exclusive club) have always argued this kind of 'oh you just don't get it' approach. i like a fair bit of zappa (and have to second those who've spoken up for the sublime 'lumpy gravy', but that attitude makes me wish i didn't.
posted by peterkins at 1:21 PM on October 3, 2010


Give me the easy one.

I'd start with Absolutely Free and everything else from the 60s.

For me the key to Zappa was differentiating the early, original Mothers of Invention albums (roughly 1966-1970) from everything after. Like so many things of this type, the tension between Zappa's most complicated ideas and the simple R&B/garage roots of the early band is a lot more interesting than, as observed above, the "freedom" allowed by doing 128th notes on a Synclavier. And the humor is another thing that actually kept me out of Zappa for a long time, but the humor on those earlier albums is a lot...funnier. Later, he got both more scatological and contemptuous of his audience.
posted by anazgnos at 1:26 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


> but hardcore FZ fans (i speak as an ex member of that exclusive club) have always argued this kind of 'oh you just don't get it' approach.

I think there's a difference between emperor's clothes syndrome (including it's art because I say it is) and inside jokes, you had to be there, kind of you-don't-get-it which is what I think jfuller was getting at.

A lot of people don't get Zappa for lots of reasons that I think are valid, I don't think pointing that out automatically implies elitism.

And yea, a bunch of inside jokes does not a great movie make and 200 Motels proves that.
posted by victors at 1:47 PM on October 3, 2010


I think there's a difference between emperor's clothes syndrome (including it's art because I say it is) and inside jokes, you had to be there, kind of you-don't-get-it which is what I think jfuller was getting at.

i agree.

A lot of people don't get Zappa for lots of reasons that I think are valid, I don't think pointing that out automatically implies elitism.

if pastiches of contemporary avant garde composition aren't elitist, i'm really not sure what is....
posted by peterkins at 1:59 PM on October 3, 2010


Give me the easy one.
Cruisin' With Reuben & The Jets is doo-wop; ya can't get much simpler than that.
I really like Just Another Band From L.A., especially "Billy The Mountain". The jokes and musical themes come at you fast & furious and yet the whole thing never gets all musically complicated.
And jfuller, is "piquant Stockhausen" a pun on the Zappa semi-bootleg "Stockholm Piquantique"?
posted by frodisaur at 2:25 PM on October 3, 2010


Give me the easy one.

The easiest Zappa track of all was probably Valley Girl, but it might also be the least representative of his catalog. Although that statement is practically meaningless since his catalog was so broad. One would have to first establish at least a score of sub-genres he enjoyed and then try to find a particular recording of a particular song to represent each. In many cases, the same song was re-recorded in a completely different style and many songs were a combination of different styles in one. The song Peaches en Regalia was a favorite for re-interpretation. I'm sure I've heard at least 6 completely different renditions. And that's not counting tribute versions performed by other bands, for instance The Dixie Dregs. This reggae version of the Johnny Cash song, Ring of Fire, is also well worth checking out. The version on The Greatest Band You Never Heard sounds a lot better and includes amusing stage antics, too.

But overall, it's all fairly approachable from some perspective, and possibly un-listenable from several others. The trick is figuring out which works for you.

But as have been mentioned by others up the thread, Apostrophe/Overnight Sensation, One Size Fits All, Sheik Yerbouti, are great places to start.

Zappa's right up there with Bach and Miles Davis as far as I'm concerned. Few contributors to the collection of works we humans have mustered come anywhere near accomplishing this much.
posted by fartknocker at 2:32 PM on October 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm glad we had Frank Zappa. But I'm REALLY glad we didn't have JUST Frank Zappa, you know?

That's a funny thing to say. And I'm glad that, as anyone with at least one rictus (pooched-out, succulent, or otherwise) can easily establish for his or herself, your supposition is purely imaginary and could never actually occur in this world. But since you brought it up, I counter that if such a reality did exist, Zappa would, in fact, be among the very best choices we could make in that case.

Please, share your pick.
posted by fartknocker at 3:10 PM on October 3, 2010


if pastiches of contemporary avant garde composition aren't elitist, i'm really not sure what is....

eh, I was referring to when defenders of Zappa say "you don't get it" in what may sound like a condescending way.

is the movie itself elitist? personally I thought a lot of the movie, and his career for that matter, was a satire of elitism, or more precisely, a failed attempt at it. He definitely had a chip on his shoulder - try to count the number of times he referred to himself as "ugly"
posted by victors at 3:26 PM on October 3, 2010


I have to say I prefer Zappa when he is not singing - it is usually too campy for me. The songs most accessible to me as a someone not too familiar with Zappa's full body of work are a few tunes from Zoot Allures: Black Napkins and Zoot Allures. Also, Rubber Shirt from Sheik Yerbouti.

What other songs are there along the lines of those instrumentals? Would love to dig in some more...
posted by SNACKeR at 3:50 PM on October 3, 2010


The version of Watermelon In Easter Hay (originally on Joe's Garage) on the Guitar record is perhaps the loveliest rock instrumental I've ever heard. It's seriously right up there with Sleepwalk. (Can't find a link to that specific version, but this performance is also really good.)
posted by mintcake! at 4:37 PM on October 3, 2010


When I was a kid, the Mothers of Invention were magical. This was in the Sixties. They were sui generis. They were funny.

Then, as other rock composers tried merging classical and jazz elements into their music, the results (e.g. Emerson, Lake and Palmer) were intolerable. Zappa knew Xenakis. He was different. Hot Rats was good. Ruben and the Jets was a masterpiece of melody and cultural appropriation in just the right admixture of irony and tribute.

After about 1971, I'm afraid I lost my love for Frank. But in the ears of my partner, he can do no wrong. Her favorite band doesn't suck.
posted by kozad at 6:03 PM on October 3, 2010


As far as I'm concerned Frank is one of the great treasures that U.S.Ania has given the world. Was all of his work good? No, but part of what made Zappa fuckin' ZAPPA was his willingness to push his ideas all the way to the prepice and beyond. Yeah, sometimes, they fell like lead balloons, but more often they soared so, so very high.

FWIW, here's my list of essential Zappa: All albums with the Mothers through Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Apostrophe, Overnight Sensation, Sheik Yerbouti, Joe's Garage and (postuhmously) Imaginary Diseases.
posted by KingEdRa at 7:17 PM on October 3, 2010


I do not particularly enjoy listening to Zappa's music, but I must admit that he was a genius.

Best prank ever: when accused of corrupting the nation's youth, he brought his own children out in front of the cameras, sober and articulate, to explain the concept of responsible parenting to the nation's outraged legislators.
posted by ovvl at 8:20 PM on October 3, 2010


Watermelon in Easter Hay from 'Guitar' is probably one of the top ten most beautiful pieces of guitar music ever recorded. I have said for many years that this live version is far superior to the studio original, and an absolute scientific proof of Zappa's mastery of the instrument, and of the emotions necessary to take guitar playing to it's finest levels. I am very glad to see others here note this track. It should be sent into space as an artefact of our species.

People who dismiss Zappa as intellectual and his music sterile simply haven't listened to his playing. He was one of the all time greatest guitarists of his era.

I can list many examples of guitar pieces from his work that are deeply sensitive, emotive, full of feel. The greatest guitarists alive today speak of Zappa's playing with reverence. There are good reasons for this.

As for being over-rated... a lot of modern music owes a debt to Zappa. He may not have influenced popular music very much, but his technical approach to recording influenced engineers and producers over two generations, and you basically wouldn't have modern music as it is without him and a couple of other guys. He was a pioneer of multitrack recording and even invented, or fully shook down, much of what came to be basic multitrack recording techniques.

It was more or less just him and Les Paul, and those who took what they were doing and ran with it.

Let's not even get into his experimentations with sampling in the 80s with the Fairlight, which paved the way for everything we have today.

'Freak Out' is a difficult album to listen to, but without it, we wouldn't have had many of the great late 60s opuses such as, *ahem*, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was *directly influenced* by this work.

He experimented. Experiments often fail. But without people out there on the fringes trying to scout new territory, we don't get anywhere.

Those who insist Zappa must have been on drugs to create things like 200 Motels must also assume that Varèse and Stravinsky were on drugs. Surrealism or wildly weird art doesn't need drugs to be created. It requires imagination and courage.

And people on drugs do not have anywhere near the output of the incredibly prolific Zappa. Drugs may offer some transient creative spurts, but they inevitably cripple an artist's overall output, and when you look at how much work Zappa produced, that is definitely not in evidence.

I fail to see why the Zappa fans have not suggested, for the suggestible listener, the easiest entry into the Zappa canon:

APOSTROPHE

Once you have taken this in, then proceed directly to

LIVE AT THE ROXY & ELSEWHERE

The latter is one of the greatest live albums ever produced. It is up there in the pantheon of greatest albums of the late 20th century for the production values *alone*. This album was recorded on (IIRC) an 8 track R2R and some overdubs were done in the studio. But when you listen to it, you are at the gig.

Call yourself a producer or engineer and not have this album? Then you're a chump.

You can then also try "Over-Nite Sensation" which is the twin to Apostrophe. Tina Turner and the Ikettes did backing vocals on this album and Apostrophe. They are classics of 70s blues-rock-funk and the production on these albums is a fucking watermark. Dismiss them at your peril.

You may not like Zappa. You have to develop a taste for his music, it's not for everyone. It is difficult listening. But to dismiss him as a pretentious noodler is the view of, basically, an ignoramus.


I always regarded watching 200 Motels as a great test of endurance. It is a flawed masterpiece. Some music you don't listen to for pleasure, n'est pas?
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 9:10 PM on October 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


I include Zappa right up at the top of my musical influences as well as some philosophical.

I played drums growing up so identified with his band's various (and incredible) incarnations primarily through its drummer. My favorites are probably Ralph Humphrey, Terry Bozzio and Chester Thompson, but I love everything from his very early work, such as was included in Lost Episodes, to Flo and Eddie era, the more funky, jazzy later-era Mothers and post-Mothers '70s, to the early '80s to his Synclavier compositions. Zappa's last touring and studio band lineup had Chad Wackerman playing drums, probably my least favorite. Much more than his humor, this is the dividing line for me. The Wackerman era just wasn't that interesting to me musically. His playing is technically amazing but leaves me flat. I do, however, really like "Jazz from Hell," the highly technical Synclavier music people have mentioned, as well as "Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention" (more Synclavier plus some of his last decent studio songs, also "Porn Wars" about his fight against Tipper Gore's PMRC, mostly a Synclavier composition which includes some brilliant sampling from the Congressional hearings), and his very last, "Yellow Shark," an incredible orchestral recording with the Ensemble Modern.

That said, "200 Motels" is an oddity, an unfinished, incoherent work, but really funny in the strange, '60s-vocal-harmonies way the Mothers with Flo and Eddie were. Love Ringo's cameo in particular. The soundtrack isn't nearly as interesting as the live album "Fillmore East, June, 1971," IMO the best of the Flo and Eddie experience. For the more interesting compositions of the early Mothers era, look to "Uncle Meat" and "Lumpy Gravy," as others have mentioned.

eh, I was referring to when defenders of Zappa say "you don't get it" in what may sound like a condescending way.

I share his music with people gladly, but if they know little of him I usually warn them that this might be the kind of thing that's not for them, especially if we were playing something like "Sheik Yerbouti" or "Joe's Garage." Great albums, kinda raunchy and totally campy. I love both, but songs like "Jewish Princess," "Bobby Brown Goes Down" and "Stick It Out" are funny for all the wrong reasons ... which is great, but not everyone sees it that way. I prefer his composition to his lyrics, but as much as he dismissed lyrics in general he did a pretty good job of it sometimes, and other times at least he was entertaining. Juvenile, granted, and way too out there for a lot of people, but if you get it there is a lot of stuff to enjoy about it and to draw from, musically and otherwise ...
posted by krinklyfig at 9:28 PM on October 3, 2010


Henry C. Mabuse: "As for being over-rated... a lot of modern music owes a debt to Zappa. He may not have influenced popular music very much, but his technical approach to recording influenced engineers and producers over two generations, and you basically wouldn't have modern music as it is without him and a couple of other guys. He was a pioneer of multitrack recording and even invented, or fully shook down, much of what came to be basic multitrack recording techniques."

Then there's this from Frank's autobiography:
We propose to acquire the rights to digitally duplicate THE BEST of every record company's difficult-to-move Quality Catalog Items [Q.C.I.], store them in a central processing location, and have them accessible by phone or cable TV, directly patchable into the user's home taping appliances, with the option of direct digital-to-digital transfer to the F-l (SONY consumer-level digital tape encoder), Beta Hi-Fi, or ordinary analog cassette (requiring the installation of a rentable D-A converter in the phone itself. . . the main chip is about twelve dollars). All accounting for royalty payments, billing to the consumer, etc., would be automatic, built into the software for the system. The consumer has the option of subscribing to one or more 'special interest category,' charged at a monthly rate, WITHOUT REGARD FOR THE QUANTITY OF MUSIC THE CUSTOMER WISHES TO TAPE.

Providing material in such quantity at a reduced cost could actually diminish the desire to duplicate and store it, since it would be available any time day or night. Monthly listings could be provided by catalog, reducing the on-line storage requirements of the computer. The entire service would be accessed by phone, even if the local reception is via TV cable. One advantage of the TV cable is: on those channels where nothing ever seems to happen (there's about seventy of them in L.A.), a visualization of the original cover art, including song lyrics, technical data, etc., could be displayed while the transmission is in progress, giving the project an
electronic whiff of the original point-of-purchase merchandising built into the album when it was 'an album,' since there are many consumers who like to fondle & fetish the packaging while the music is being played. In this situation, Fondlement & Fetishism Potential [F.F.P.] is supplied, without the cost of shipping tons of cardboard around. Most of the hardware devices are, even as you read this, available as off-the-shelf items, just waiting to be plugged into each other in order to put an end to the record business as we now know it.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:08 PM on October 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Sleep Dirt is my favorite thing I've heard done with a guitar.
posted by meadowlark lime at 3:34 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have a complicated feelings about Zappa. He has many, many moments of brilliance, and loveliness. He was an uncompromising force for good in the world - I truly believe that. But he was also unable to resist portraying the petty horribleness of Us, in excruciatingly exaggerated detail, over and over again. So even the most transcendently beautiful things he did are tainted with ridiculousness and filth (like how Watermelon in Easter Hay, mentioned above, is essentially the final heartbroken chapter in 1984, and it is the imaginary guitar solo played by our broken hero as he guides an industrial frosting machine to ejaculate into an endless line of muffins - and yet the song is absolutely gobsmackingly gorgeous).

200 Motels, although it has been years since I've seen it, struck me like that. Moments of truth and beauty wrapped up in a relentless ball web of filth and dismay. Ugh.

But yea, for me, you want to start with Zappa, start with "We're Only In It For The Money", where it is just as crazy, just as lovely, just as fiercely intricate, but it has a unifying theme and that unifying them is not "look at how gross everything is, in detail"

"What's the ugliest part of your body? Some say your nose, some say your toes but I think it's your mind."
posted by dirtdirt at 12:07 PM on October 4, 2010


sonascope: Watching 200 Motels, a couple of years back, reminded me of why my ex, a fervent Beatles fan, warned me to never, ever watch Magical Mystery Tour. I scoffed, but because I couldn't find a copy of the film for years, I didn't get a chance to ignore his warning until just a few years ago.

Besides, it's the Beatles, man. They can do no wrong.

Except, well, do you ever wish you could unsee something? I mean—it's the Beatles, so even if it's bad, it's gotta be kinda good, but it's just…not. It's not fun bad, like The Apple, either, or the kind of bad where the years go by and people figure out that it's not quite as bad as they first thought—it's just a sad document of in-fighting band members too high to know better after the loss of their manager, even now.


Hmmm... the real document of the Beatles' bickering would be Let It Be, which may not be re-released as long as Paul and Ringo are still alive, because forty-odd years down the pike it's still too painful for them to deal with. Magical Mystery Tour, according to the version of the band's history that I'm most familiar with, was Paul's attempt to get the band members interested in working together as a group again, as they were already growing apart by the time of Sgt. Pepper. The problem is that Paul didn't really have much of a concept aside from The Merry Pranksters meet pre-Monty Python British comedy, and it never gelled. Even though I loved the album as a kid, the booklet--which described the movie's plot, or what it had instead of one--left me with no particular desire to see the movie.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:50 PM on October 4, 2010


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