Saturday, 18 August 2018

Sheik Yerbouti - Frank Zappa

Provenance: In a not insignificant number of ways I am my father's son, and nowhere is this more evident than my tastes when they edge towards the weirder end of the popular music spectrum. White Noise, Gryphon and today's subject - Frank Zappa - all came into my orbit as a consequence of my dad's listening habits.

In the instance of Sheik Yerbouti, I bought this to signal a small amount of independence. How so? Because dad didn't own this album. I distinctly recall as a youngster being impressed by cover art of both Overnite Sensation and Hot Rats, I thought the guy's name was cool (it sounds like a freakin' laser) and some of the songs made me laugh. Thus when I was older and casting around for my own bit of Zappanalia, I went for an album that was considered one of his more 'hard rock' efforts, as per my own inclinations at the time. Hence Sheik Yerbouti.

May I drift a little here? When it comes to worst fanbases of all time, you have to consider those of the Grateful Dead, Britney Spears and Pantera. They all have their demerits, but for me nothing comes close to being stuck with a Zappa fan when the topic of conversation is Zappa. I've had my head forcibly banged for me watching Iron Maiden, met some Megadeth fans who were happy to show me their Neo-Nazi tattoo collections and saw not one but three fights break out within spitting distance during a Madness gig. I'd happily endure all that again, and then some, if I didn't have to spend another moment in the presence of a Frank Zappa fan (my dad excluded, who is the epitome of the exception that proves the rule).

Review: Well, this is a bit of a disappointment.

I can imagine that, aged sixteen, I found some of this stuff funny. However, I've never found scatalogical humour particularly engaging, and any youthful proclivity I may have had towards it has certainly dimmed with age. In terms of my Zappa listening these days, it tends towards the more instrumental side, Mothers of Invention era cuts or Hot Rats (because 'Willie the Pimp  features the greatest violin riff in rock music). Sheik Yerbouti has slipped to the bottom of the pile, and giving it a listen for this review has done little to rehabilitate it.

You know, 'I Have Been In You' might have elicited the odd yuk back when Peter Frampton was a ubiquitous presence in the homes of Middle America, but pastiche is a dodgy thing to pull off at the best of times. It's saying something that the parodical Bob Dylan harmonica stylings on 'Flakes' is the highlight of 'Flakes'. And revisiting the notion of jokes ageing poorly - whew - 'Jewish Princess' (yep) and 'Bobby Brown (Goes Down)' (a discotheque staple on continental Europe, which is enough to make me a full on Brexiter) would've surely been offensive forty or so years ago. In 2018 they come across as positively Neanderthal with their depictions of Jewish women and homosexuality, respectively. A former English Literature teacher of mine once felt moved to describe Zappa as a 'poet'.

I'm happy to say that, amongst the more overtly comedic songs, one still holds up - 'Dancin' Fool' is a stabby little lampoon of the disco scene that works through a combination of splenetic observational humour and metrical tricksiness, the latter effectively turning it into a disco track that can't be danced to. 'Tryin' To Grow a Chin' is also a lot of fun, drummer Terry Bozzio providing a demented vocal. Plus I like false endings, and this song's got one (sorry to spoil it for you, folks - but are you really going to listen to Sheik Yerbouti any time soon?).

Here's the frustrating part; the first track that appears to privilege musicianship above cheap thrills, the instrumental 'Rat Tomago', hits the mark. The push-pull percussion, jazzy keys and wild guitar improvisations afford a glimpse into realms beyond this album's - consciously applied - limitations. Oh, enjoyed that music, did ya? Never mind, here's some wisecracks about fisting. With Sheik Yerbouti we've reached a point in Zappa's career where he needed to do the stoopid stuff (and take it out on tour) to fund his more serious compositions, which had become prohibitively expensive, especially where recording orchestral works were concerned. At least, that was the line trotted out at the time. Who knows? Maybe that was the case, but then again maybe he just got a kick out of stigmatising homosexuality via the medium of comedy song.

As I have intimated, there are hints of a better (and shorter) album here; all the instrumental cuts are great, with 'The Sheik Yerbouti Tango' coming out on top because it sounds just that little bit out of control. Zappa fans might scream that their formalist hero knew exactly what he was doing, but I think it's sometimes pretty neat to hear the seams of the music. (Isn't this where improvisation becomes truly interesting? When instead of falling back on the rock / jazz / blues playbook of licks, they take their instrument on a journey that teeters between inspiration and failure?). Of the 'straighter' rock stuff, 'Broken Hearts Are For Assholes' has a certain appealing mania to it, even if it does descend into a coda about 'poop chutes'. 'Baby Snakes' is here and gone far too quickly, which is a shame because it's a little gem of hard-edged surrealism. 'City of Tiny Lites' really kicks out the jams - a spacey and strangely soulful number that skips along on busy percussion and a rubbery bass line. The guitar solo is fucking badass too.

I will say this - aside from the more objectionable extremes of Zappa's lyric writing, I enjoyed the experience of revisiting Sheik Yerbouti more than I had expected. It's also told me something about myself, and the ageing process. When I was in my teens, I would often skip the 'boring' instrumental tracks so I could get to the next chucklefest. Now, it would be the other way around. Once upon a time, this would've been my favourite Zappa album because it had some rawk 'n' roll on it, but now I gravitate towards his jazzier output (which coincides with a general awakening to jazz as a genre, I guess). Anyway, Sheik Yerbouti certainly treats the ol' lugholes to some interesting snippets of music, but you have to ask yourself whether it's worth wading through all the snark and calculated dumbassery to reach.

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