A 52-year-old copy of Melody Maker reproduced last week on a Facebook page devoted to old MMs reminded me that in February 1971 I was invited by Keith Moon to watch him appear in Frank Zappa’s movie 200 Motels, which was being filmed at Pinewood Studios, and Keith suggested that beforehand I meet him at the Castle Hotel in Windsor where he was staying with the rest of the cast. 

As it happened, Keith’s chauffeur in those days – Peter ‘Chalky’ White, this being before the redoubtable Dougal Butler took over – had been given the day off, leaving Keith stranded at the hotel when an unexpected call came through to say he was required on set. He was in a bit of a panic when I arrived but I saved the day driving Keith to Pinewood myself. Fortunately, my orange Mini had an inbuilt cassette player and a copy of The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits was lurking in there somewhere, so Keith wasn’t too bothered at having to ride in a car somewhat less well-appointed than the lilac Roller to which he was accustomed. He was a bit heavy on volume, as I recall. 

It was this cassette that I had in my car. 

Half an hour later we pulled up at the celebrated film studio and I spent an agreeable afternoon watching him, Frank, Ringo and assorted cast members doing their thing in a surreal movie that in many ways foreshadowed the rock videos that about ten years later would become essential for bands with chart ambitions. 

This occurred the week before The Who began a series of unadvertised shows at the Young Vic Theatre near Waterloo Station, which were to be filmed and recorded for Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse project, and it is likely that Keith mentioned to me that The Who would be “rehearsing” there the following Sunday while I was with him that day. As a result, I went down to the Young Vic on February 14 to see for myself, only to be greeted by Pete yelling, “What’s fucking Melody Maker doing here?” He told me not to write about it because the theatre would be swamped by Who fans if the group’s presence at the YV became public knowledge. I was as good as my word

        Here’s what I wrote about Keith in 200 Motels for MM

Keith Moon, dressed up as a nun with a painted white face, was chasing Ringo Starr through an orchestra pit set in a concentration camp. Ringo was carrying a harp and Keith’s wimple was poking out of the eyes of a violinist. The whole scene was surrounded by barbed wire so there was no chance of escape, and machine guns from the timpani level were trained on the conductor. 

Sounds rather bizarre, even in these days of Monty Python mania – but it’s all part of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels which was being shot at Pinewood last week. 

The part of the nun was to have been played by Mick Jagger but Moon took over principally to get some experience of appearing before film cameras before work started on the Who’s own film on Sunday. 

It was fortunate that I met Keith at his Windsor Hotel at the appointed time for his genial chauffeur Chalky, who had been wrongly informed that he had the day off, was nowhere to be seen – and Keith wanted to get to the studio. An emergency call had come through to say he was wanted on the set but Keith was penniless and stranded at the hotel.

“We’ve been filming all week and last week and it’s just like being on the road again,” he told me as I drove him hastily towards Pinewood while he played my cassette of his beloved Beach Boys. “I was only supposed to be doing two days filming but it turned out to be much longer because I keep cropping up in crowd scenes as well. 

“The whole movie is based on a group’s life on the road so those with experience of that are used to what is going on. We had Wilfred Bramble in one part but he gave up in despair because he didn’t know what was going on. Ringo’s chauffeur took the role instead.”

Pinewood is situated in the green fields of Buckinghamshire near Iver Heath. Hidden from the road, it encompasses acres of film sets, both inside and out, linked by corridors resembling tube stations. It is centred on what was once a rambling country home, which today houses offices, dining rooms and bars. 

The film set for 200 Motels was street in “anytown” USA. Keith showed me round, explaining who was what and apologising for his late appearance. Shooting starts very early in the morning – at a time when most pop people are midway through their night’s sleep. 

Someone suggests Keith pits on his nun’s costume for a procession scene and I am left to watch the action. Ringo is eating a custard pie and leaning against a wooden hut. He’s made up to look like Frank Zappa, with black hair everywhere, moustache and tiny beard below his bottom lip. The real Frank Zappa is rushing around with directions. Director Tony Palmer is not on the set. He’s in an office with monitor TV sets showing him what’s going on and speaking through a closed-circuit radio to the stage director.

Various members of the Mothers are wandering around in bizarre costumes, in particular Mark Volman who is wearing a black bra, panties and girdle. Girls taking the parts of groupies are in abundance.

Half an hour later Keith returns in his nun’s outfit with his face painted white. There’s a delay while a dance sequence is being shot and Keith shows me the orchestra set where his chase with Ringo was filmed. 

“I was rushing around there and it was no joke with half a ton of denim around me,” he said, indicating his nun’s habit. “I think I poked out the second violinist’s eye. They were all clutching their Stradivari in horror in case Ringo’s harp smashed them.”

I asked how this scene fitted into the plot but he didn’t seem to know. He did mention something about being raised from the ground on wires and flying into the sky.

“We had Tony Curtis down on our set yesterday and I was chatting with him,” Keith continued. “He does all his own stunt work and apparently he did a death-defying act yesterday but they discovered the camera wasn’t working properly. He didn’t want to risk his luck by doing it again.”

At last the procession scene is underway. To a background of ‘Penis Dimensions’, just about the entire cast walk down the street carrying lighted torches. There were about 20 guys dressed as Ku Klux Klan and their torches create enough smoke to reduce visibility down to a few yards. For effect Keith makes a big show of picking his nose during the scene. Nobody seems to mind.

At 5.20 exactly filming stops. Film technicians are strict union men and everything shuts down with remarkable speed. Keith changes and most of the cast make for the bar where talk centres of the organisation of the party on Friday night, the last day of filming. Not surprisingly, Keith figures pretty high in the organisation of the party, directing Chalky – who has since reappeared – to purchase bottles by the dozen and arrange music for all. 

Back at the hotel over dinner Keith talked about his role in the film and the Who film. “I’m really only doing this film to get the hand of working before cameras. I’ve never been on a film set before so the experience will come in useful for our own film. I’m not doing this for the money and I suppose anyone could dress up as a nun and do what I do. But it’s great to do and nice to get out of London for a while. I am thinking of buying a house near Windsor too.* 

“With our own film, each of us in the group is being given a section to write for themselves so I’m thinking of having my bit shot in Bermuda so we can all go over there. I don’t know what the film company will think about it though,” he added, with some doubt.

A few drinks later and I’m in no state to drive back to town. The spare bed in Chalky’s room looks inviting and the next thing I know it’s Friday morning. Keith is already down for breakfast, looking as if he’s never been to bed at all. Maybe he hasn’t but he has as much energy packed into his frame as three of me. It’s always been evident in his drumming and it now looks as if it’ll evident on the movie screen too.

*About a couple of months later Keith would buy Tara House on the outskirts of nearby Chertsey. It would become the playhouse of his dreams.  




Anonymous said...

Just before Frank Zappa was pushed over the Rainbow stage ??? Spring 1971?

Alan McK said...

Great story, Chris!

Alas, the finished result wasn't up to your recounting of its creation. I suffered through it once, to see Keith, but not even Keith can lure me back for a second viewing 😀.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Frank Zappa was pushed from the stage at the Rainbow on December 10, 1971. I write about the incident here: https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2014/01/normal_11.html