Frank Zappa settles an old score after 42 years: Banned in 1971, '200 Motels' will finally be played in the UK


Sanchez Manning
Saturday 10 August 2013 21:12 BST
Zappa was infuriated by his brush with the classical music scene
Zappa was infuriated by his brush with the classical music scene (Hulton Archive)

Frank Zappa vowed never to return to Britain unless he got an apology from the Queen after the Royal Albert Hall cancelled a musical performance of his notorious film score 200 Motels in 1971. Zappa did eventually return to the UK but died without getting an apology from anybody. Now there will be redress of a kind when the show is finally given its UK premiere.

Made at Pinewood Studios, the film was said to present a surrealistic vision of life on the road for Zappa and his band, the Mothers of Invention, and the phenomenon of groupies. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was enlisted to play a concert of the film's music at the Albert Hall. But things turned sour when the orchestra's lead trumpet player, John Wilbraham, pulled out, objecting to being asked to speak four-letter words included in the lyrics. In newspaper reports at the time Mr Wilbraham commented: "The whole thing revolted me."

Then, three days before the concert was due to be performed in February 1971 to a sell-out audience of almost 5,000 fans, the Royal Albert Hall cancelled it. The concert hall spokesman commented at the time, saying: "The programme content was not agreeable to us." Its then general manager, Frank Mundy, went one step further, describing 200 Motels' songs as "filth for filth's sake".

Despite being played across the world, the music for 200 Motels was never performed in Britain. But after years of negotiation with the Zappa estate it will get its first airing as part of the Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise festival this autumn.

Tony Palmer, Zappa's co-director, said the musician was furious at the decision to cancel. "The Albert Hall management, which at that point was very stuffy and very conservative, hadn't been told exactly what it was that was going to be performed. I think someone tipped them off that there were various songs like 'Penis Dimension' and they thought that was just totally pornographic and unacceptable, so they cancelled it. Frank's response was fury. "

Mr Palmer said he thought the Albert Hall should still feel "shame" for the decision. "Personally I'm looking forward to the Southbank Centre concert because I want to see if the music has stood the test of time. I'm absolutely sure it will be packed out. At the time I thought what the Albert Hall was doing was outrageous. And I'm sure Frank, from wherever he is, will now be saying, 'I told you so'."

When Zappa and his manager sued, Mr Palmer agreed to appear as a witness in the hearing at the High Court in London in 1975. "The judge questioned me and said we're not having homosexuality in the Albert Hall. So I said to the judge that, in the Prom season just gone Death in Venice had been performed, which was clearly about the homosexual attraction between a man and a young boy. The judge looked at me and said 'Who is that by?' And I said Benjamin Britten, and he said, 'Could you spell it?' At that point we knew the game was up and the judge didn't have the slightest idea what we were talking about."

The judge, Mr Justice Mocatta, was none too impressed when Zappa's song "Penis Dimension" was played in court, asking: "Have I got to listen to this?" Zappa lost his claim for £8,000 damages.

Gillian Moore, organiser of The Rest is Noise festival, said: "We need to present this big outrageous piece of work, which is so much of its time. Zappa felt bruised by his encounters with London's classical music scene in the early 1970s, so I hope that we can rehabilitate its reputation by making a piece which is respectful to the original work."

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