Friday, November 1, 2013


Earlier this week, We hopped over to London for a couple of days. The obvious reason and scheduled hightlight was to be Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”. We weren’t disappointed.

Zappa’s “200 Motels” should have been performed in London, at the Royal Albert Hall, in 1971. It got cancelled because someone at the Royal Albert Hall considered the performance “Outrageous filth”.
Zappa brought this breach of contract to trial and did win the case. Unfortunately, he did not receive any financial compensation as the court could not convict a royal institution.
The project got buried in the Zappa vaults…

Flash forward to June 2000.
After a couple of years of vaulternative investigations, and of searching and ordening the original scores (by Todd Yvega, Ali N.Askin and Joe Travers) the “200 Motels” piece did get its world premiere in Amsterdam.
A fabulous and memorable event. Part of the Holland Festival.

Flash forward to October 2013.
So when we heard that “200 Motels” would finally be performed in the UK, almost 15 years after our Amsterdam escapade, we didn’t hesitate too long. Three days of London, built around the concert, were booked.

Day one saw us arriving around 14:00 h at St.Pancras. After solving the subway puzzle and checking in at the hotel, we went for the mandatory walk in Oxford Street. Not exactly my cup of tea. I just followed the other half of the company. (Those of you who know her know that discussion is futile.)
The rest of Monday consisted of meeting up with Zjakki, checking out Denmark Street, enjoying an excellent Korean meal, and strolling through Soho and Chinatown. A fine start that got concluded with a lukewarm British beer.

Day two should have brought us to the Tate Modern museum. Fate (and a lot of guts) decided different.
Charing Cross Road, Trafalgar Square and the Hungerford Bridge took us to the Southbank, where the Royal Festival Hall is located. Following the Thames should have brought us to the Tate Modern. However, we got pulled away by a very impressive expo entitled “Indigenous Arts / Sustainable Acts” at the Bargehouse at the Oxo Tower Warf. Contemporary performance-based art. Loved it.
In the meantime, we had learned that “200 Motels” would have a dress rehearsal in the afternoon. From 14:30 h until 17:30 h.
We took a shot at it, and sneaked in.

picture: Al Fresco

At that time, there were about fifteen people in the hall. I recognised Gail Zappa, Diva, and Joe Travers. People were discussing and everyone was running around. We took a seat.
Musicians were slowly filling the stage. The BBC Concert Orchestra, The Southbank Sinfonia, The London Voices, the rock band (including Scott Thunes and Joe Travers). The various soloists / vocalists were waiting and hanging around next to the stage.
I think I also recognised Annie Whitehead who I once had the pleasure of meeting at my friend’s Danny’s house before a concert by The Wrong Object. My guerilla / camouflage state did keep me from socializing though…

Conductor Jurjen Hempel took the stage and didn’t waste any time. He started with a cut from ‘I’m Stealing The Room’ (?) before going to the very start, the ‘Overture’, and following the set sequence. There were a lot of interruptions and comments. I always thought a dress rehearsal would be more fluent.
To be quite honest, I wasn’t impressed at first. And it wasn’t just the technical (microphone) problems. The whole performance had bad dynamics. Ian Shaw and Brendan Reilly weren’t Flo & Eddie, and the other vocalists could hardly be heard. The rock musicians could be seen, but not be heard at all.
This did not look good.
Shortly before the 20-minute break, though, things started to look brighter again. Mainly because of soprano Claron McFadden. This lady can sing.
When I first heard Claron McFadden (at the 2000 Amsterdam performance), I had never heard of her before. The last ten years, she has been doing a lot of interesting projects. I haven’t seen any of the operas she took part in, but I did enjoy Corrie van Binsbergen’s “Over De Bergen”, and the Artvark Saxophone Quartet’s “Sly Meets Callas”, both of which featured Claron McFadden in a prominent role.
The rehearsal ended with ‘Penis Dimension’ and ‘Strictly Genteel’. Wow…

We left the hall around 17:30 h and returned (after a quick snack) for the pre-concert talk.
Hosted by Gillian Moore (chief of Classical Music at The Roundhouse), the event kicked off with Richard Strange, Jay Rayner & Tony Guilfoyle (three of the “200 Motels” vocalists) to perform ‘Drool, Britannia’, as taken from The Frank Zappa Real Book.
The threesome reenacted a part of the 1971 court hearing. Hilarious.

picture: Al Fresco

Next up was a chat with Jurjen Hempel, Scott Thunes, Joe Travers & Gail Zappa. Nice.

picture: Al Fresco

The concert itself started at 19:30 h. This time, we were seated somewhere around row 40, I guess. The second that the concert started, I knew things would turn out OK. The guys at the P.A knew their job. The London Voices vocal choir had been turned up. Percussion sounded better and the dynamics were good.
This was nice.

Again, the climax got triggered by Claron McFadden.
This was a very fine concert.

Claron McFadden - soprano
Tony Guilfoyle - Frank
Richard Strange - narrator, Rance
Ian Shaw - Mark
Brendan Reilly - Howard, Cowboy Burt
Sophia Brous - Groupie 1 (Janet), Larry the Dwarf
Diva Zappa - Groupie 2 (Lucy)
Jessica Hynes - Good Conscience, Donovan
Jay Rayner - Bad Conscience, Ginger
Scott Thunes - Jeff
BBC Concert Orchestra
Southbank Sinfonia
London Voices
Rock Band (including Joe Travers and Scott Thunes)
Jurjen Hempel - conductor

the program

Went On The Road
Tuna Sandwich Suite
The Restaurant Scene
Touring Can Make You Crazy
What's The Name Of Your Group?
Can I Help You With This Dummy?
The Pleated Gazelle
I'm Stealing The Room
Shove It Right In
Penis Dimension
Strictly Genteel

picture: Chris Christodoulou

Day three had us walking through Soho again and visiting some comic book and record shops. I bought a 7” by Clear Spot, which I thought was a funny  name for a band.
We returned to Belgium in the afternoon.
Three days of London, including Zappa’s “200 Motels”.
Music is the best.

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