Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sheik Yerbouti

I find considerable irony in the fact that “Sheik Yerbouti” is among the Zappa recordings that fall into the category of either loving it or hating it. I can see such a dichotomy of opinion existing when it comes to some of the more complex works, such as “200 Motels,” or “Uncle Meat.” But with “Sheik Yerbouti,” it’s the simplicity of much of the material that seems to be at the center of all the controversy. That, and the album’s prurient humor.

For example, there is the ever-so-terse Robert Christgau who opines with, “If this be social ‘satire,’ how come its sole targets are ordinary citizens whose weirdnesses happen to diverge from those of the retentive gent at the control board? Or are we to read his new fixation on buggery as an indication of approval? Makes you wonder whether his primo guitar solo on Yo' Mama and those as-unique-as-they-used-to-be rhythms and textures are as arid spiritually as he is. As if there were any question after all these years.”

Mark Prindle in his comments divides his opinion based on the two LPs contained in the original release, castigating sides 1 and 2, but heaping praise on sides 3 and 4. “If anything, his unfunny X-rated comedy made his music LESS palatable to most sensible listeners!” writes Prindle. “There’s a great 30-minute EP hidden within this double-album, but boy do you have to swog and swishle your way through reams and reams of smelly smelly chicken bellies to get to it.”

The replies to Prindle’s comments on his blog exemplify the split in opinion, as all of them laud the album.

But in some respects I agree with Prindle. Sides 3 and 4 are stronger than 1 and 2, but the first album in this double album set remains good stuff in my opinion. And let’s face it; Zappa himself has admitted that his material can often be stupid. It’s a joke, and if taken too seriously, well, you’ll just be unhappy.

Consider my situation: what do you think my reaction to songs like “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” and “Bobby Brown” might be considering the fact I am gay? Admittedly, I wondered if Zappa were a homophobe. But that would also make him an anti-Semite and a misogynist, and the release of “You Are What You Is” would confirm him as being a racist. That’s nonsense. So when I consider how Zappa showed very little discretion when choosing targets to lampoon, as well as the fact that his satirical snipes are often so far over the top that their hyperbole requires them to be taken as less-than-serious, I have to conclude that either Zappa hated everybody, or that he hated the way that all people lull themselves into comfortable zones of ignorance. I choose the latter conclusion. We are all deluded in some way, and Zappa time and time again exposed our delusions for us with such sophomoric delivery that we often just didn’t get it.

Which is probably why the two sides of the LP release I found myself playing over and over again were sides 1 and 3. And of these two sides, my favorite tracks have been “Flakes” and “City of Tiny Lites.”

With “Flakes,” we not only have a humorous story line, but great song structure and orchestration as well. And when the song cuts into the bridge section with the lyrics, “I am a moron and this is my wife/ she’s frosting a cake with a paper knife,” Zappa effectively pulls into the song icons of American culture and advertising and couples them with a description of the lemming-like behavior of the consumer mentality. And Adrian Belew’s impression of Bob Dylan during this song is spot on. Still, despite the musical structure of “Flakes,” it is the lyrical content that impresses me the most.

However, it’s the music in “City of Tiny Lites” that makes it a favorite for me. Lyrically, there’s not much to this song. There’s no real narrative, overtly at least. But listening to the sweeping sound of the melody’s theme combined with the mundane lyrics, it’s not difficult to call up an image of seeing the flickering lights of Los Angeles from a view high up in the hills. “You’re so big/It’s so tiny/Every cloud is silver liney.” And the song is structured in a manner to easily accommodate a long guitar solo, which made this item a fixture in many a Zappa concert.

Side 2 has two outstanding guitar solo tracks that were both taken from the Feb. 15, 1978 show at the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin; “Rat Tomago” and “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango.” The former was taken from the solo during the 1978 concert’s performance of “The Torture Never Stops,” while the latter was pulled from a performance of “Little House I Used to Live In.” And, of course, there is the solo within “Yo’ Mama.” But, as was often the case with much of Zappa’s material, this song is a mix of live material from multiple performances and studio overdubs. Somewhere there is an article that alludes to the song’s origin. The lyrical theme has to do with an individual’s ineptitude. Allegedly, Zappa wrote it after one of the musicians failed miserably to properly know his or her material prior to a performance and was subsequently fined as punishment. Please leave a comment if you know the link to this article, which was published I believe in the mid-1980s.

Almost everyone I know who is familiar with the album will immediately mention “Bobby Brown.” It’s like a Freudian word association: I say “Sheik Yerbouti” and the immediate reply is, “Bobby Brown.” Interesting, in a way, when you consider the song’s content: A straight man who eventually drifts into the gay S&M subculture. Probably the second song to come to mind for many is “Jewish Princess,” a song that drew condemnation and a request for an apology from Zappa by the Anti Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith. Needless to say, Zappa refused. However, the song was seldom, if ever, played live following this incident. Francois Couture opines that it may have been the extensive overdubbing Zappa did with the song for the vinyl release that may have rendered it virtually impossible to effectively perform live, although Couture does not discount the possibility that Zappa’s decision to avoid live performances of the song may have been influenced by reaction to it.

Two other songs I really like are “I’m So Cute” and “Trying to Grow a Chin.” Terry Bozzio’s screeching vocals on “I’m So Cute” are spot on, the shrill hyperbole making the necessary point; not so much about “pretty people” being self-centered prigs, but rather, regarding the circular logic behind the lyrics, “Ugly is bad/And bad is wrong/And wrong is sinful/and sin leads to eternal damnation/And hot burnin’ fire!” Bozzio’s shrill timbre in his voice is effectively used again for “Trying to Grow a Chin,” with a reprise line that is just plain awesome despite its dark message: “I wanna be dead/In bed/Please kill me/’Cause that would thrill me.”

Overall, I think “Sheik Yerbouti” is among Zappa’s finest material, a tour de force mix of comedic and intricate musical themes served up for your listening pleasure … or not.

I rate this 4.5 out of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Album released March 3, 1979, Zappa Records.

LP release:

Side One
1. I Have Been In You (3:33)
2. Flakes (6:41)
3. Broken Hearts Are For Assholes (3:46)
4. I'm So Cute (4:20)

Side Two
1. Jones Crusher (2:49)
2. What Ever Happened To All The Fun In The World (0:33)
3. Rat Tomago (5:15)
4. We've Got To Get Into Something Real (0:32)
5. Bobby Brown (2:43)
6. Rubber Shirt (2:58)
7. The Sheik Yerbouti Tango (2:44)

Side Three
1. Baby Snakes (1:50)
2. Tryin' To Grow A Chin (3:32)
3. City Of Tiny Lites (5:30)
4. Dancin' Fool (3:43)
5. Jewish Princess (3:16)

Side Four
1. Wild Love (4:10)
2. Yo' Mama (12:38)

CD release:

1. I Have Been In You (3:34)
2. Flakes (6:42)
3. Broken Hearts Are For Assholes (3:42)
4. I'm So Cute (3:09)
5. Jones Crusher (2:50)
6. What Ever Happened To All The Fun In The World (0:33)
7. Rat Tomago (5:16)
8. Wait A Minute (0:33)
9. Bobby Brown Goes Down (2:49)
10. Rubber Shirt (2:45)
11. The Sheik Yerbouti Tango (3:56)
12. Baby Snakes (1:50)
13. Tryin' To Grow A Chin (3:31)
14. City Of Tiny Lites (5:32)
15. Dancin' Fool (3:44)
16. Jewish Princess (3:17)
17. Wild Love (4:10)
18. Yo' Mama (12:37)


Frank Zappa (lead guitar, vocals)
Adrian Belew (rhythm guitar, vocals)
Tommy Mars (keyboards, vocals)
Peter Wolf (keyboards)
Patrick O'Hearn (bass, vocals)
Terry Bozzio (drums, vocals)
Ed Mann, David Ocker (clarinets on "Wild Love")
Napoleon Murphy Brock (background vocals)
Andre Lewis (background vocals)
Randy Thornton (background vocals)
Davey Moire (background vocals)


DJ Useo said...

You sure do a fine read.Very engaging comments throughout.
This was not a fave Zappa album of mine originally,but now it's great!
He challenges one in diff ways on this record.
I played it immediately after reading & wonder of wonders my wife even liked some.
Best wishes on the fine blog.

Richard Harrold said...

Thanks for the feedback. And thanks for reading!

Knox said...

Very nice review. IMHO Cristgau's an asshat with an overworked vocabulary. Sheik was an album I listened to front to back over and over. Not so much because I loved it (though I came to) but because I had it it as a cassette which on auto-reverse played as I worked. It was the longest recording I had, so that's what I worked to for a couple of months. It still isn't my favorite, but 'Yo Mama,' 'Rat Tomago' and The 'Tango' are pieces I still cue up on playlists.

THANK YOU for your posts.

dfan said...

You're thinking of Tommy Mars with the "Yo Mama" story. It's excerpted here:

I just really discovered Zappa for the first time a few months ago and am listening to the whole oeuvre chronologically. I just got to Sheik Yerbouti and found it really disappointing compared to the ambition of most of his earlier work, although it will probably improve as I settle into it.

Adrian said...

If someone were to say 'pick one track that is a route into Zappa's oeuvre, "Yo Mama" is the one I'd have them listen to. Jazzy melodic tune, slick band, great drums parts, sardonic lyrics, inimitable guitar.

Anonymous said...

The more You listen to it, the more you love it. Of course sarcasm could sound offensive to those who, in general, feel they are the "chosen ones". I'm hardly trying to transcribe Yo Mama from the record, but the stuff is difficult. Almost just sweat, by now. Swap Je**sh with Jellish and You'll perform it on stage. The original anyway speaks for itself. Love to FZ.