Where would you find a chorus joyously waving flashing plastic penises, a pair of rock groupies, an eager journalist pleasuring herself with a rock star puppet, and two wannabe 70s superstars, all joined in the big anthem Strictly Genteel, interspersed with a huge orchestra playing something remarkably like Boulez, with funky electronic keyboard sounds smeared on top?
Only in 200 Motels, Frank Zappa’s savage parody of the rock group’s life on the road. Zappa knew whereof he wrote. He’d been touring with his band The Mothers of Invention for years, and knew all about the eager groupies climbing over security fences, the ghastly packaged food, the dreariness of living in Tacoma Inns. In the “surrealist documentary” he put together with film-maker Tony Palmer, an imaginary band pitches up in Centerville, the perfect Nowheresville of middle America, and finally “freaks out” and falls apart. This show is the musical portion of the film, with some of the songs omitted, and the orchestral episodes brought to the fore.
The life-style of 70s supergroups was famously extreme, and the show was bound to have its outrageous moments. It was too outrageous for 1971, when a performance at the Royal Albert Hall was cancelled. Forty-two years on, at this UK premiere, what was striking was the essential seriousness of the show, and the general absence of smut - apart from the episode featuring much discussion about penises, which frankly did go on a bit. It was the only longueur in a show which otherwise was bursting with invention.
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