In 1977 Frank Zappa’s contract with Warner Brothers ended and he finally got the unfettered freedom that he’d been yearning to have for years. “Sheik Yerbouti” was the first release on Zappa Records and I get the feeling that Frank wanted to celebrate the occasion by having some fun. While many might consider this double LP too frivolous I beg to differ. The man’s humorous side was never hidden from public view so to expect him to conceal it as if it were something he was ashamed of is to dismiss a huge part of his personality for no good reason. For those inclined to limit themselves to his more “serious” endeavors there’s plenty of albums available that more readily accentuate Zappa’s adventurous jazz/rock fusion explorations but I think to do so hampers one’s ability to completely understand his genius. This wasn’t just some wise guy with distinctive facial hair who surrounded himself with eclectic collections of musical virtuosos, this was FRANK ZAPPA! He was openly rebellious and to expect him to play by the rules was pure folly. This is no masterpiece of prog rock or modern jazz but I doubt that he was trying to make one this time around. I think he just wanted to reiterate to the industry that in his realm there were no sacred cows to be revered and, by combining live tracks with studio add-ons and effects, demonstrate that he refused to be restricted or corralled by traditional methodology. “Sheik Yerbouti” displays splendidly the mixture of wit and immense talent that made Frank the stellar, one-of-a-kind 20th century savant who influenced millions of musicians worldwide during his too-short 52 years on Terra Firma.
The first five cuts are a non-stop medley of tunes that appear to be a lampoon of the trends that surfaced and thrived (at least for a while) during the 70s, starting with a hilarious send up of R&B Doo-Wop sensibilities entitled “I Have Been in You.” I find the crude lyrics and the high-pitched backup vocals to be an absolute hoot because Motown was never this brutally honest about sex although they sang about it all the time. From there he cruises into “Flakes,” a great skewering of Californians in general coupled with proggy interludes and rhythm guitarist Adrian Belew’s faux Bob Dylanisms that only the mind of Mr. Zappa could make work. “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” is next, a rocking stab at the New Wave movement that also gives a wink to the pretentious performance artists of that era via free-form word association. “I’m So Cute” then barges in. It reminds me of some of the silly British glam acts that tried so hard to be outrageous but were only successful at becoming ridiculously dated. The southern-fried boogie craze gets its turn on the grill with “Jones Crusher,” a driving number faithfully rendered complete with inane words and an overblown concert finale. “Whatever Happened to All the Fun in the World?” is the first of several brief forays into an abstract dimension that’ll give you cause to grin. It’s not all vaudeville, though. On “Rat Tomago” Frank cuts loose on the fret board and proceeds to dazzle and stun your ears with his inimitable axe-wielding ferocity. It’s pretty much a droning on-stage jam but who cares when the guitar playing is this fierce? “Wait a Minute” is another short spasm of incidental hijinks. Those of the politically correct persuasion had best skip “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” a bold slice of satire that’s bound to offend the sensitive. My opinion is that if you can’t enjoy a chuckle over this song then you’re taking yourself way too seriously (Something Zappa avoided like the plague.) Lighten up, for heaven’s sake.
“Rubber Shirt” is an experimental detour into jazz land where Terry Bozzio’s drums and Patrick O’Hearn’s bass guitar roam free. Frank, ever the mad scientist, combined two totally unrelated tracks to construct something intriguing. It goes to show that he was never afraid to “put it all out there.” He wasn’t as concerned about the common man’s acceptance of his fearless craft as he was of staying true to it. “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango” is a strange journey into Latino territory where Zappa colors far outside the well-defined lines. It’s definitely not for the musically conservative ear. On the odd little ditty, “Baby Snakes,” it’s back to unapologetic funny business for a few minutes. “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin” is a sly poke at rock & roll theatrical productions. (Makes me wonder what FZ would’ve thought of extravaganzas like the recent insipid “Rock of Ages” stage show and movie.) “City of Tiny Lites” is a prime example of why there’ll never be another Frank. It’s a tightly-compacted conglomerate of rock, prog, funk, jazz and humor that’s a testament to his unmitigated gall. “Dancin’ Fool” follows, an incredibly spot-on swipe at the vapid disco phenomenon. (The tune actually crossed over into dance clubs for a spell in ’79 to Zappa’s astonishment.) “Jewish Princess” is Spike Jones on LSD. Sometimes making music can be made for no other purpose than to elicit a giggle or two and I’m okay with that. Let it be exactly what it is and don’t overanalyze. “Wild Love” is a highly complex, intricate arrangement of musical passages and assorted absurdities that defies description. Think jazz/rock fusion tossed in a blender. The album ends with 12:36 of “Yo Mama,” an epic that showcases Frank’s progressive leanings eloquently. Here structure and spontaneity get swirled together brilliantly. I realize that a lot of folks won’t “get it” but I’m glad that I do. It’s greatness.
“Sheik Yerbouti” went on to become Zappa’s biggest seller. It rose to #21 on the LP charts and, to date, has sold over 2 million copies. Not bad for an anti-establishment non-conformist. While I can dig that this stuff ain’t for everybody I think it’s still better than most of the self-righteous garbage I hear on radio and TV today. No one dares to be sarcastic anymore for fear of reprisals from the right or left and that’s a shame because we need to be reminded from time to time that we’re all crazy, neurotic messes that don’t seem to know when to take a chill pill and have a good laugh at ourselves. Frank Zappa took on that dirty job with pleasure and, in hindsight, it’s obvious that he didn’t scar anybody for life with his playful jabs. “Sheik Yerbouti” is a harmless yet entertaining escape from the hum drum.