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Frank Zappa: Sheik Yerbouti - Album Of The Week Club review

An album stuffed with jokes that haven't aged well, made to make a quick buck? Or is there something more to Frank Zappa's most commercial album, Sheik Yerbouti?

Frank Zappa: Sheik Yerbouti
(Image: © UMC)
Frank Zappa: Sheik Yerbouti

(Image credit: UMC)

I Have Been in You
Flakes
Broken Hearts Are for Assholes
I'm So Cute
Jones Crusher
What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World
Rat Tomago
We've Got to Get into Something Real
Bobby Brown
Rubber Shirt
The Sheik Yerbouti Tango
Baby Snakes
Tryin' to Grow a Chin
City of Tiny Lites
Dancin' Fool
Jewish Princess
Wild Love
Yo' Mama

Sheik Yerbouti is as close as Frank Zappa came to chasing after commercial success. It even spawned a minor hit single in Bobby Brown Goes Down, and the disco send- up Dancin’ Fool.

If Zappa’s humour appeals to you, then this is probably going to be your favourite Zappa album, being full of (mostly dirty) jokes about Carter-era America. Most, like the Peter Frampton parody I Have Been In You, are toe-curling, but they are also brilliant songs. Nowhere is the great Zappa contradiction more marked.

"I was drawn to Frank because of the humour," drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy told us. "I remember being an eleven-year-old kid, and being able to listen to songs like Jewish Princess or Broken Hearts Are for Assholes, all these songs that I felt like I was listening to a 'dirty album'! I was able to learn about sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll through these satirical lyrics of Frank Zappa. 

"At first I was drawn to that album because of the humour, but when I became a more serious musician, I started realising what the hell was going on behind the lyrics. And that album was the first time I heard Terry Bozzio playing drums. I grew to appreciate that album on a musical level - as well as the rest of the Zappa catalog, which shaped who I am. 

"To this day, Frank is still one of my biggest heroes of all-time."

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in March 1979

  • Roxy Music - Manifesto
  • Motorhead - Overkill
  • Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Angel Station
  • The Only Ones - Even Serpents Shine
  • Eddie and the Hot Rods - Thriller
  • Chrome - Half Machine Lip Moves
  • Bad Company - Desolation Angels
  • The Beach Boys - L.A.
  • Van Halen - Van Halen II
  • Ian Hunter - You're Never Alone with a Schizophrenic 
  • Supertramp - Breakfast in America
  • Triumph - Just a Game
  • Magazine - Secondhand Daylight
  • Badfinger - Airwaves
  • U.K. - Danger Money
  • The Tubes - Remote Control
  • Bachman–Turner Overdrive - Rock n' Roll Nights

What they said...

"Instrumentally, Sheik Yerbouti is a refreshingly straightforward record. Zappa refrains from pulling too many doo-wop gags or musique concrète tricks, instead conducting his tight, punkish ensemble through hard-rock operettas (e.g., Flakes, City of Tiny Lites) that actually score points over some of his clever concertos of yore." (Rolling Stone)

"The 'dumb entertainment' (as Zappa liked to describe this style) on Sheik Yerbouti was some of his dumbest, for better or worse, and the music was undeniably good – easily some of his best since Apostrophe, and certainly the most accessible. Even if it sometimes drifts a bit, fans of Zappa's '70s work will find Sheik Yerbouti on nearly an equal level with Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation, both in terms of humour and musical quality." (AllMusic)

"Sheik Yerbouti  is not all comic puffery. There is a lot of incredible music intertwined which – coupled with some of the most aggressive between song production/editing he'd done since Uncle Meat and We're Only In It For The Money – makes the album holds together very well as an end-to-end listening experience." (Audiophile Review)

What you said...

Marco LG:  Like many others, I became familiar with the music of Frank Zappa in my early twenties, only in my case this means just a couple of years after his untimely death. At the time his music was a revelation for me, and the more I listened the more I regretted not discovering him before. 

I became obsessed with all things Zappa: read several books, including his autobiography written with Peter Occhiogrosso, watched several interviews, including the (in)famous speech at the PMRC Senate hearing, and listened to hours and hours of his music. 

I cannot claim I know it all and I certainly haven’t listened to all his albums, not even all the 62 that were released during his life let alone the more than 100 currently comprising his official body of work.

My opinion, maybe unsurprisingly, is that Frank Zappa was a genius but he was also a man of his time obsessed with exposing (perhaps making fun of) certain aspects of American culture. This poses a problem, because many of his lyrics make sense only in an American context and only during a certain period. It also means that some of his humour gets lost to a non-American audience and some lyrics comes across as dated and quite frankly plain rude.

A recurring theme, especially in his sixties and seventies output, is sex; and Sheik Yerbouti is full of sexual references, many very explicit others more subtle. I have to admit I don’t always feel comfortable with this, I probably never did but when I was in my twenties it wasn’t a problem, now that I am in my forties it is. But I will also add my favourite music by Frank Zappa has always been instrumental: The Grand Wazoo and Hot Rats, the synclavier pieces in Jazz From Hell, and the symphonic albums, especially The Yellow Shark which is the last album published while he was still alive and is probably the culmination of his symphonic ambition, where he finally got his music performed as he wanted.

In short, Frank Zappa himself didn’t believe all his catalogue had the same artistic value and for me Sheik Yerbouti is to be included in the list of albums Frank published to make a quick buck. The musicianship is top notch, as it always was with his band, but the contents are sub-par when compared to the standards of his major work, standards that elevated him above just the status of rock icon and earned him the reputation of a great American composer of the 20th century. It really is a shame the public image of Frank Zappa is still linked solely to a picture of him sitting on a loo and a few questionable songs like Bobby Brown Goes Down and Dinah-Moe Humm.

John Waters: This is a 110% must have album. Whether you like Frank or not, if you have humour and an irreverent bone in your body you will get a lot of enjoyment from Sheik Yerbouti.

Scottie Sindora: A good starter record if you’ve never listened to Frank before. It’s an interesting piece of work in that he took the basic tracks from live recordings and did a lot of over dubs. Lyrically it’s a little juvenile. Musically it’s not his most daring or interesting work but if you look at it in the context of what was happening at the time, it’s a great statement of where he was.

Pontus Norshammar: I’m a huge Zappa fan. Right now waiting for the Halloween 81 box set. Sheik Yerbooti is the album that non-Zappa fans owns. It captures the late 70s band in a very accessible way. The album is strange since it was released over two years after recording had begun in October of 1977. Further live recordings were done in early 1978. Legal wrangling with Warner Brothers meant it had to be canned until March of 79. 

By the time Zappa toured the album half the band appearing on the record had split. It had a surprise hit with Bobby Brown Goes Down and that meant it reached people outside of the Zappa devotees in a way that hadn’t happened since the Apostrophe (‘) album in 74. It gave Zappa his equivalent to Smoke On The Water – a song that people who didn’t give a shit about Frank Zappa actually liked.

With basic tracks recorded live then heavily overdubbed/rearranged in the studio it is a very slick album by Zappa standards. Faves are City Of Tiny Lights, Flakes, Tryin To Grow Me A Chin, Wild Love and Yo' Mama.

A good album bur not favourite Zappa album. To me it’s a bit too normal by his standards. 8/10.

James Hazley: Honestly this is my favourite Frank era. It's amongst the funniest rock'n'roll music ever recorded. None of this stuff could be released today and today's PC environment.

John Davidson: I know this will have a lot of fans. I'm not one of them.

Maybe it's the humour not translating over to the UK .

Maybe it's just me.

The music has moments of interest but the lyrics dominate a lot of the songs and aren't all that funny or interesting.

I've tried Zappa many times in the last 40 years as so many folks recommend him.

It would be easy to write him off as art school music, but he clearly connects to a reasonably wide audience.

Just not me.

The Tubes are a more commercial and accessible version of what Zappa does on this album.

Uli Hassinger: As far as I know it there are two groups of people: The Zappa enthusiasts and aficionados, and the others, who are thinking, "What the fuck is this?". 

Zappa has created his own music cosmos. He mixes almost every music style in existence, with catchy melodies combined with weird words. It took me nearly 25 years to find an approach to his music so that I'm able to listen to a full album and enjoy it.

This one is one of his more accessible works. It's still a wild mix of genres, but in Zappa terms it's quite melodious. The most catchy song by far is Bobby Brown, which climbed up to number 4 in the German charts back in the day, probably because nobody understood the lyrics. I still like the combination of an easy listening melody and the fun and explicit lyrics. It's hard to pick further tracks out, but I would choose I Have Been In You, Broken Hearts Are For Assholes and Baby Snakes.

As was mentioned before, this is a good album to try to find a way into the musical cosmos of Zappa. I don't know any other music which can be compared to that. Most likely because nobody as strange and varied as Zappa is walking the planet these days. 7/10

Benny Buchtrup: Amazing album, though not my favourite Zappa release. Cool place to start for an introduction.

Matthew Joseph Hughes: I have tried Zappa again and again over the years. I know I'll eventually run out of stuff and get more heavily into him, but this album is the one that has been the most accessible for me. Baby Snakes.

Jonathan Novajosky: As much as I want to come on here and trash this album for being stupid and a waste of time, I have to admit I sort of liked a few of these songs. Strangely enough, some of the really wild and vulgar ones happened to be my favoUrites. I don't know why, I just found them to be pretty catchy. 

Bobby Brown Goes Down was probably my top choice after going through the album, but I also liked Flakes and Dancin' Fool.

Sheik Yerbouti is a complete change of pace from what I normally listen to, but I find Zappa too far out there to enjoy. I don't know how I'm supposed to feel after listening to this. Is it supposed to purely be comedy? I truly have no idea, especially because most of the songs are more annoying than funny. This is an album you put on once in a blue moon for kicks. And definitely not one to play around people you aren't comfortable with. 4/10

Laurance Price: His satire on American culture is iconic.

Mike Knoop: I'm starting to feel like the unofficial scold of the group, but the humour of Sheik Yerbouti has not aged well. At all. Generally mean-spirited lyrics, often topped with a huge and unhealthy helping of misogyny.

I liked this album a lot, along with Over-Nite Sensation, when I was in my post-college twenties and single. That was a long time ago. I still enjoy a lot of the music but now the infantile lyrics derail songs like I Have Been In You and Yo' Mama. At least the latter is a an excellent eight-minute jam sandwiched between two minutes of spiteful lyrics at either end. Because I've read a lot about Zappa and have access to Urban Dictionary, I know what Baby Snakes and Jones Crusher are about but at least there's some attempt at innuendo. I just have to skip past Jewish Princess, Bobby Brown..., and Broken Hearts...". 

Even Flakes comes across as "Get off my lawn" crankiness. And that sucks, because the musicianship is awesome. But the lyrics might be a preview of what Taylor Swift could be writing in another decade.

Terry Bozzio does make me smile with his faux-punk vocals on I'm So Cute and Tryin' to Grow a Chin. And I unabashedly like City of Tiny Lites, sung by Adrian Belew, the bass-heavy funk jazz instrumental, Rubber Shirt, and what is essentially a five-minute guitar solo, Rat Tomago.

Please don't tell me if any of those are actually code for something filthy.

David Ferguson: This is one of two Zappa albums I own, both on vinyl, still have them. Discovered this in college, of course I'd heard Dancin' Fool but was sold on the sheer outrageousness of Bobby Brown, Jewish Princess and Broken Hearts.

Shane Hall: About time we included a Zappa album.

Composer. Guitarist. Producer. Lyricist. Social satirist. Frank Zappa was rock's great iconoclast, in my view. Sheik Yerbouti is an excellent example of Zappa's ability to observe and skewer popular culture. Released in the late 1970s, Sheik Yerbouti included lyrical shots at disco, sexual preoccupations, and a lot more.

The album attracted more than a little controversy, largely because of the S&M-themed Bobby Brown Goes Down and Jewish Princess. The latter song caught the attention of the Anti-Defamation League, which demanded an apology. Zappa refused, stating that "Unlike the unicorn, such creatures do exist – and deserve to be commemorated with their own special opus."

Because of his technically demanding music, Zappa's bands had a reputation for being a kind of finishing school for gifted musicians. Band members on Sheik Yerbouti include drummer Terry Bozzio, bass guitarist Patrick O'Hearn, and guitarist and singer Adrian Belew.

Highlights are Broken Hearts Are For Assholes, City of Tiny Lights, Jewish Princess, Bobby Brown Goes Down, Dancin' Fool, and Jones Crusher.

Fantastic album from my all-time favourite musician!

John Davidson: The guitar work on this album (and others by Frank Zappa) are doubtless what makes it worth talking about on these pages and on tracks like Rat Tomago I can see what the attraction is. But and its a big but (no pun intended) the satirical, juvenile lyrics and faux lounge style on much of the album is a real turn off.

It's hard to see what audience Zappa was looking to attract with his anarchic musical shifts and his comedy lyrics but my guess is he was an artist first and foremost who wrote and performed to please himself and if others liked it - that was up to them.

As for the humour. Maybe its a UK/US thing but for all their 1970s 'shock' value the targets of his satirical wrath seem pretty soft and he appears to be punching down and around rather than 'up'.

Clearly a talented musician, but he's not playing songs I want to listen to. 4/10

Gary Claydon: Many years ago someone said to me that the trouble they had with Zappa was that they didn't know whether to laugh with him or at him. Personally, I'd always thought it was obvious that it was Zappa who was laughing at us.

By Sheikh Yerbouti I'd become, not exactly tired of Zappa but let's say I wasn't all that impressed anymore. This album was more focused on the humour than even previous efforts. Trouble was that humour seemed more sarcastic, more cynical, as a result more wearing. It still had it's moments but it's not aged well. Lyrically it was always problematic in places but 40 years on the somewhat juvenile, snigger inducing content now has a very high squirm factor.

Musically, Sheikh Yerbouti certainly wasn't his most out-there effort but his compositional skills are still obvious, his guitar playing is as excellent as ever and he's well supported by a very accomplished band. City of Tiny Lights is my favourite track here but overall this live/studio hybrid just wasn't all that interesting.

John Ray: It's funny because I listen to Sheik Yerbouti once a week at least. I can't play one track. It has to play from start to finish or I am incomplete.

Bill Griffin: I am firmly convinced that Frank wrote his lyrics and much of his music in a concerted effort to keep his audience small. He is a phenomenal guitarist and always surrounded himself with the best musicians he could find so the lack of commercial success must have been by design. 

I'm not a big enough fan to own everything Zappa (I do have an original pressing of Freak Out though) and only have a fraction of his output. This is Frank. I wouldn't say it's better or worse than any other album but, if one is a fan, it's a double album so there is twice as much to enjoy. The odds are better than good though that if I am in the mood for Zappa, Zoot Allures will get the nod.

Iain Macaulay: Does humour belong in music? Is there even humour in Zappa's albums or is it all just spiteful snarling smut and dirty jokes just for the sake of it? Who knows? So the lyrical content has not entirely aged well, but does that matter when the music is so up there in the stratosphere?

This is probably not the best Zappa album to review here, it should be Apostrophe in my opinion, but this Is his most commercial album so here we are.

What gets me about Zappa's output is that all these wonderful technical albums that made his name as a virtuoso musician, leading an immense band of equally immense musicians, were done to fund his orchestra material. The music he really wanted to make. It’s almost as if the joke is on us for buying the rock stuff. But what a cast of musicians he got to make this unearthly noise. Like he’d gathered together the house band for most evil American game show imaginable. The guy was a genius whatever way you look at it.

You can’t say that on stage anymore, no wonder, he made and broke the mould so no one could ever follow it.

Brian Carr: The year Frank Zappa died, Playboy published a full length interview with him. That interview may have been what inspired me to finally delve into his music (I actually listened to Dweezil before Frank!). Having grown up loving Saturday Night Live and MAD Magazine, his social commentary resonated with me. 

My first purchase was Apostrophe/Overnite Sensation packaged on one CD and the musicianship blew me away. I was hooked. Because it was available at the music store where I worked, my second Zappa purchase was Sheik Yerbouti, bought in June of 1994. 

At the time, my 21 year old self found it hilarious and I had a new musical hero. I eventually bought many Zappa releases, his biography The Real Frank Zappa Book (plus a couple others), DVDs when they were released and quickly realised how diverse his music was. I found that I liked a few of these albums even more than Sheik, so when it popped up as this week’s selection, I probably hadn’t listened to it in years.

I guess my attitude towards people in general has softened over the last 25+ years. I still recognise the humour in the songs, but the lyrics are so harsh at moments that it’s cringe-worthy. The band is stellar, as always, but I don’t think any of the tunes move me like others on the aforementioned Apostrophe, Overnite Sensation, Zoot Allures, Joe’s Garage or Hot Rats

Knowing there is Zappa music I like much better makes it tougher to make it through something like I’m So Cute. Even the instrumental tracks are less strong than music from other albums. I probably can’t rate it less than a 6 or 7 because it’s Zappa, but there are definitely warts there that I didn’t notice as a much younger man.

Final Score: 7.47⁄10 (86 votes cast, with a total score of 642)

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