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Zappa's 50th Anniversary Edition of "200 Motels" is worth the price of admission

The 50th anniversary box set of Frank Zappa's soundtrack to "200 Motes" is all you ever wanted to hear in an expanded edition, and then some.



Zappa Records/UMe (Box Set)

4 Stars

This box set explores every aspect of the soundtrack of Frank Zappa’s absurdist 1971 “surrealistic documentary” (as Zappa described it), from demo outtakes to alternate versions, from dialog protection reels to the final remastered album, to extras deemed “Bonus Swill.” It’s all you ever wanted to hear in an expanded edition, and then some.

As explained in the informative booklet, it’s something of a miracle that this set exists at all. Joe Tavers, the set’s co-producer and “Vaultmeister,” had to rebuild the soundtrack from the safety copies Zappa made of the master mixes, which turned out to be incomplete, leading him on a “search and seizure mission” to track down everything he could, ultimately managing to come up with enough to fill six CDs.

The original soundtrack readily conveys the freewheeling spirit of the film, with its sudden leaps from orchestral music (provided by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) to the idiosyncratic, distinctive rock of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention to bits of dialogue (“Hey twerp! Play me something I can enjoy!”). Not to mention excursions into jazz, avant garde, and other musical forms. You also get what’s essentially an alternate audio version of the movie via the dialog protection reels, which features material that never made it into the final film, making it of special interest to completists.

Completists will also relish the wealth of unreleased material to wade through. A series of rough mixes recorded in February ’71 for example. These are unadorned tracks before Zappa added his embellishments, making for rawer, more raucous listening. Among the “Swill” are two contrasting pieces about Ringo Starr’s involvement with the film. Asked if Starr liked working on it, Zappa replies, “It’s hard to tell … but he still talks to me.” For his part, Starr enjoyed the film’s off-the-wall element, and his role as “the devil Frank” (Starr’s character, Larry the Dwarf, is dressed up to look like Zappa).

In a nice touch, the set’s book reproduces both positive and negative reviews on the final page (one reviewer calls the film “a brilliant pastiche of color, motion and music”; another calls it “mindless”). The set also includes a poster, “Do Not Disturb” door hanger, and your very own 200 Motels keychain. Also available in a 2-CD edition, and two vinyl editions (one on red vinyl), the first time it’s been available in that format for decades.

Indulge yourself, but beware of what happens at rock androll hotels — you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

— Gillian G. Gaar