ROLLING STONE magazine good-naturedly bestowed last year's Quote of the Year Award upon Frank Zappa for describing "rock journalism" as "People who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read." Articulate and outspoken, Zappa has never been afraid to bite the "invisible hand" that feeds him, even insulting the "boys and girls" who buy his records and scream for "Louie, Louie" from concert hall audiences.
On his latest album, Sheik Yerbouti (on Zappa Records), he lashes out more than ever before at today's "young generation." Zappa mocks punk, disco, kinky sex, JAPs, and yes -- even Peter Frampton. As for the album's title, well, only Zappa could concoct a name that uses disco jargon to suggest OPEC domination. Unfortunately, the music itself is mechanical and boring, and the lyrics provoke the listener without providing any insight in return.
Yerbouti, a double album, is Zappa's 25th official release. In his nearly 15 years of recording and performing, Zappa has been the most persistent of rock's "enfants terribles." And yet, at the same time, his ingenuity has contributed much to the music. If he doesn't do drugs or Mister Rodgers imitations, he does have a knack for social satire that betrays an electric intelligence.
During the late sixties, he was as much amused by the "flower punks" of the Summer of Love as he was by the contagious mediocrity which brought plastic furniture to the suburbs. Never one to take the world seriously, Zappa has long since moved to Montana and become a dental floss tycoon. Hi ho!
The subject Zappa has always handled most masterfully is mass America: crass commercialism, media hype, and the other things that numb our minds. From his songs of 1965 "Who Are the Brain Police?", to his more recent commemoration of television "I Am the Slime," Zappa has to his credit rock's choicest statements on mass euthanasia (though admittedly, because their babies are treatin' them bad, other songwriters rarely address such topics). Zappa's critical eye looked beyond the government and Vietnam to the covert "moral faseism" of American society. While others lambast politicians and corporate honchos, he criticizes everything and everyone. Zappa has increasingly maligned the music business for becoming an industry that manufactures popular tastes as well as loveable records. He shows listeners how their minds can be transformed into commercial by-products.
SEXUAL perversity is perhaps Zappa's best-known theme, stemming from his noted lack of sexual inhibitions. If, as a cherubic young schoolboy, Francis Vincent has been cast as the innocent child in "The Emperor and His Clothes," he would sooner have made unflattering remarks about the emperor's genitals than about his lack of apparel. Always fond of extended "comedy show" tunes, Zappa has recorded rock's kinkiest scenarios on wax with nary a batting of his beady eyes. (Those of unsalvageable purient interest may refer to the Live at the Fillmore East "white album," or the equally memorable Overnight Sensation classic, "Dinah-Moe-Humm.") Believe it or not, parts of Yerbouti shock the sensibilities as never before. As for romance, there's "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes." No explanations needed. But unlike similar efforts on other albums, these songs lack the intelligent insight needed to redeem the abuse they dole out.
There are some songs that work. Relative to pop music's more recent trends, Zappa recently observed, "Disco music makes it possible for mellow, laid-back, boring kinds of people to meet each other and reproduce." Marshalling his talents to forge a particularly scathing attack on disco, Frank wrote "Dancin' Fool," which is due to be spun at Boston-Boston any night now. In this song, some lame guy decides he'd rather be a fool and get laughed at than not dance at all. "I got it all together man / With my very own disco clothes,hey! / My shirts half open, t' show you my chains / 'N a spoon is up my nose." What a dummy. Dance to that refrain! "I'm a dancin' foo-o-o-l!"
A similarly vitriolic comment on the subverted chicness of punk, "I'm So Cute" emulates the "beat-it-into-their-heads" method: stupid words, short lines, and screaming repetition. Many of the other songs on this album, although not deliberately mimicking punk, are painfully consistent with this style. And they're boring. Zappa lets his compositions ramble in a way that shames his genius as an arranger. Usually a clever and inventive songwriter, Zappa here contrives disappointingly sparse and uncreative lyrics. Only his provoking cynicism remains.
In the past few years, Zappa has become increasingly monomaniacal regarding his music, Though an iconoclast who deplauds seriousness of any kind, he works like a demon in the recording studio, With enough original material on tape to press at least twenty albums, he has long since become a faultlessly conscientious producer. And as a performer, he rehearses his bands unmercifully, six hours a day for months before a tour, "getting it right." The ultimate indication of his extreme nature is his renaming of the Mothers of Invention. They are now simply "Zappa."
Sheik Yerbouti, while a neat idea, shows more than anything else Zappa's growing tendency to churn out songs that rely solely on shock value and unnerving repetition. In his best moments, Zappa is a musician of wit and surprise. A diverse composer and a melodically gifted guitarist, he is capable of highly original fusions of rock and jazz. Why drain all his energies on social satire when others will continue to produce it unwittingly? American Society provides more than enough material for satire--Zappa the critic will always persist. Let us hope that he can revive his musical ingenuity.