What can I say about this elixir? Try it on steaks, cleans nylons, small crafts warning! It's great for the home, the office, on fruits!!!
I'd like to start by thanking Rykodisc for this album's existence on CD. They went to a lot of trouble to get the rights to the soundtrack from MGM, and then went all out on the packaging (thick booklet with lots of movie stills, behind-the-scenes photos and copious notes), and even included bonus radio promos and a video of the movie trailer. This is a tremendously nice package of great music, and from what I've read Ryko actually lost money on this one. And yet when the CDs first came out, all some people in alt.fan.frank-zappa could do was complain about the sound quality. It is a little below average, but that's because the master tapes never sounded very good. Before the CDs came out, I bought a used vinyl copy (which cost more than the CDs), and it sounded even worse.
Anyway, on to the album itself. It's credited to Frank Zappa, with a note saying "Featuring the Mothers of Invention and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra". I'm curious about how Zappa got this movie made when just a couple years earlier he had to give up on the Uncle Meat movie. Not only was this movie finished (well, released anyway - Frank said that he only achieved a fraction of what he was trying to do with the movie before the money ran out), but it even featured an orchestra and a star-studded cast (Ringo Star, Keith Moon, Theodore Bikel). This was also Zappa's first combination of rock and orchestral elements (even some operatic vocals) since Lumpy Gravy, and in my opinion this album is even better.
The plotline of the movie is simple on the surface, but with complexities underneath. The basic plot is summed up as "touring can make you crazy". We get to see a surreal, stylized version of what it's like to be in a rock band on the road, as they visit small towns, redneck bars, and of course, 200 motels. Meanwhile, the devil tries to tempt members of the band, some members leave for exciting new solo careers, and other members compete for the attention of groupies.
The first side of the album, with all the tuna sandwich stuff, sets up the lifestyle of the touring band - rock and roll interviews, and discovering that each small town is just like the last small town. Next, the band encounters local rednecks such as Cowboy Burt, who don't take kindly to these long-haired punks. After that, we learn about the lifestyle of groupies, as they prepare themselves for an evening of meeting the rock stars.
Side three begins with the music from an animated section of the movie. One of the band members does some odd drugs and ends up trying to steal his entire hotel room while making plans to embark on a fabulous career as a solo artist. Most of this occurs during Dental Hygiene Dilemma, which is one of my favorite tracks from the album (and the source of the quote at the top of this review). After that, the band and the groupies finally get to interact. Then the album goes into a section that no one seems to know what to make of - the bits with the nun suit, the newts, the lad and the girl. This is dada in action, and Zappa music at its strangest. My theory is that by this point the musicians have finally gone crazy, so this section isn't supposed to make sense. Maybe Zappa composed it after a long day on the road to that 200th motel.
The album concludes with the epic Strictly Genteel / 200 Motels Finale. "Strictly" is one of the most conventionally beautiful pieces Frank ever wrote. In this version, the beauty of the song is downplayed by the addition of some goofy and humorous lyrics (which are appropriate, even necessary, for the movie), but several nice instrumental versions of the song also exist. My favorite is the one on the London Symphony Orchestra album. After Strictly Genteel, the rock band comes back to the forefront to end the album with an absurd but rockin' finale song.
Following the album proper, we get several bonus tracks. Nothing essential, but it's nice to have the radio promos. I love the one that has the serious-announcer-type guy saying "The wide screen erupts with absurdities; explodes with spine-tingling psychological terror. The mere human mind boggles at the philosophical implications as Frank Zappa's 200 Motels is unleashed in the totality of its pagan splendor, its primordial fury, star studded cast and everything!".
All in all, this is a must-have album for Zappa fans. It ties together all the conceptual continuity of the entire Flo and Eddie period. It's got several classic Zappa rock tracks, like Mystery Roach, Lonesome Cowboy Burt, Magic Fingers and others. There's also a bunch of great orchestral pieces - a couple of my favorites are Mysterioso and Strictly Genteel.
In my Freaks and Motherfu*#@%! write-up, I mentioned that Zappa should have used the version of Holiday in Berlin that had lyrics somewhere in 200 Motels. I don't know how I missed it up til now, but I believe the track Would You Like a Snack actually does use the first minute or so of that song.
Also - did anyone else notice the lack of Ringo Starr on the CD cover painting? Inside the case there's a fold-out, expanded poster of the same painting, and in that version Ringo is standing next to Theodore Bikel in the foreground, plus he's also being lowered by wires from the top of the painting. But on the CD cover, the Ringo standing next to Bikel is entirely missing (they must have repainted that part of the picture to remove him) and the one on the wires has a white mask painted over his face. I wonder what the story was there - was there some legal issue with using Ringo's likeness to "promote" the album? If so, why wasn't he removed from the inside poster? Odd.