While Warner Bros. was in the middle of grudgingly releasing the dense, difficult Lather material, Zappa was busy setting up his own independent label, Zappa Records. And what’s the first thing he releases on that label? An album Warner’s would have killed to call their own, one that has gone on to be Zappa’s best-selling record around the world.
Sheik Yerbouti is the apex of Zappa’s ‘70s sleaze-rock style, the culmination of every sex-obsessed, guitar-heavy thread he’s woven since Fillmore East – June 1971. It’s a huge double record, running to 72 minutes, and it is entirely comprised of humorous rock tunes and guitar jams. The late ‘70s band is here in full force, including Adrian Belew on guitars, Patrick O’Hearn on bass, Terry Bozzio on drums and Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf on keyboards. The sound is slick and radio-ready, the songs catchy and fun, the playing tight and joyous.
It is, in essence, the hit record Warner Bros. wanted from Zappa, and he cannily saved it for himself. This is the album on which Zappa’s social consciousness goes completely to sleep, the one on which he completes his transformation into a smirking jackass. But it’s so much fun that its frat-boy antics and sense of self-satisfaction can largely be forgiven. This record just wants to rock out, and it does so convincingly. Even its title works to that end – Sheik Yerbouti is pronounced “shake your booty.”
Most of the basic tracks for this album were recorded live, in a variety of venues in 1977 and 1978. It’s not a true live album, since all of this material was overdubbed and punched up in the studio, but it retains that on-stage energy for its whole running time. Zappa, Belew, Bozzio and O’Hearn make for a crushing rock combo, especially on pummeling numbers like “I’m So Cute” and “Trying to Grow a Chin.” Belew sings lead on the driving “City of Tiny Lites,” while Bozzio and O’Hearn get a spotlight piece to themselves – “Rubber Shirt” melds a bass solo and a drum improv, recorded separately.
Zappa made extensive use of his cut-and-paste technique on Sheik Yerbouti as well, placing live recordings in new contexts to create something completely other. “Rat Tomago” is a guitar solo plucked from a February 1978 performance of “The Torture Never Stops,” while “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango” is a jam spliced out of a rendition of “The Little House I Used to Live In,” from the same concert. The 12-minute closer “Yo Mama” was assembled in the studio – the vocal sections were recorded live on Feb. 28, 1978, while the extended guitar solo was recorded three days earlier, with parts of the backing track laid to tape a month before. It all sounds seamless on the record.
But none of those musical achievements explain the album’s popularity. Sheik Yerbouti’s calling card, its raison d’etre, is its sniggering locker room humor. The album begins with “I Have Been In You,” a sexually driven parody of Peter Frampton’s “I’m In You” that contains the line “There ain’t no time to wash your stinky hand, go ahead and roll over, I’m going in you again.” It sets the tone. “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” starts off as an inspirational number, but ends with Zappa repeating, “Don’t fool yourself, girl, it’s going right up your poop chute.” “Jones Crusher” is exactly what it sounds like – a song about a woman who “can push, she can shove ‘till it’s just a nub.”
Most of this is harmless, stupid fun. “Dancin’ Fool” is one of Zappa’s biggest hits – it was even nominated for a Grammy for best male vocal, though it didn't win. A semi-sequel to “Disco Boy,” this catchy number is about disco fans who cannot help but dance, despite their lack of ability. (“One of my legs is shorter than the other and both of my feet’s too long,” Zappa sings, referencing his recovery from being pushed off the stage in 1971.) “Baby Snakes” is about penises, of course, but it’s so obvious that it’s actually funny. And “Wild Love,” the record’s most complex composition, is another in a long line of observational pieces casting a jaded eye on youthful relationships.
But Zappa does cross the line of good taste twice on this album, and your ability to roll with these lyrics will determine your feelings about Sheik Yerbouti. The first is, ironically, the album’s biggest hit around the world. In “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” Zappa details the sexual escapades of an all-American kid (“I got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper, let her do all the work and maybe later I’ll rape her”) who runs afoul of “women’s liberation” when he has sex with a “dyke by the name of Freddie.” This encounter pushes Bobby into sadomasochism (“I can take about an hour on the tower of power, so long as I gets a little golden shower”), and he ends up a “sexual spastic.” “Oh God, I am the American dream, with a spindle up my butt ‘till it makes me scream…”
The song’s music draws on Zappa’s love of ‘50s balladry, with some synth cheese ladled on, and his point is the same as it’s been since Absolutely Free – beneath the veneer of respectability lies depravity. But he’s never made that point with less artfulness than he does here.
“Jewish Princess,” the other problematic number, suffers from the same lack of subtlety. It is what it sounds like – a song detailing every heinous cultural stereotype of Jewish women (and inventing a few more), with a smirk and a smack on the ass. Zappa’s dream princess has “overworked gums, and squeaks when she comes,” she “don’t know shit about cooking and is arrogant looking,” has a “pre-moistened dumper,” “titanic tits and sandblasted zits,” and a “garlic aroma that could level Tacoma.” She can even be poor, he says, “so long as she does it with four on the floor.”
It’s an impossible song to defend. (Is there any excuse for the line “I just want a Yemenite hole”?) The Anti-Defamation League criticized Zappa for this song, and he refused them an apology, saying, “Unlike the unicorn, such creatures do exist, and deserve to be commemorated with their own special opus.” There’s no question Zappa has the right to pen a song like this. The question should be whether the listener wants to spend time in the company of someone who would pen a song like this.
This will not be the last time Zappa pushes this particular envelope. Sheik Yerbouti is one of his most cynical records, aimed at the funny bones of frat boys and primed to expand on the radio success of Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (‘). In that light, the album’s success is a fait accompli, but it spurred him to continue down this path on albums like Joe’s Garage. Those who are here for the brilliant accomplishments of one of America’s most prolific composers may find this lyrical trend troubling, and perhaps detrimental to their appreciation of the musical bounty on offer.
After all that, it seems odd to say that Sheik Yerbouti is one of Zappa’s very best rock records, but it is. For a double album, it is remarkably fluid, and its energy never flags. The band’s playing is remarkable, especially considering the live setting, and Zappa’s guitar solos are as striking as ever, particularly the extended one in “Yo Mama.” This album creates a further division between Zappa’s rock and compositional sides, mainly by being just about the absolute pinnacle of the former. If Zappa has been a somewhat hesitant rock god in the past, this is the album on which he jumps in with both of his too-long feet.
Which version to buy: Hands down, the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster. The previous version on Ryko was awful – compressed, thin, full of audio mistakes. This new version reverts to the vinyl master, meaning it also restores two full minutes of “I’m So Cute,” and the sound quality is magnificent.
Next week: Orchestral Favorites.