Why Frank Zappa’s ‘Sleep Dirt’ Was Both Compromise and Middle Finger
Like much of the material that came out under Frank Zappa's name in the late '70s, 1979's Sleep Dirt has a complicated history. Also like much of the work that ended the artist's most prolific decade, Sleep Dirt had its roots in a shelved, four-LP set that Zappa's record company refused to release.
It all stemmed from a 1976 falling out with manager Herb Cohen, who co-owned a label distributed by Warner Bros. called DiscReet Records with Zappa. After Zappa's relationship with Cohen soured and they ended up in court, the record company temporarily sided with Zappa and allowed him to release some projects without Cohen.
In 1977, Zappa gave Warners an ambitious four-album set called Lather, which was made up of various material recorded over the past eight years. Naturally, the bottom line-minded company balked at releasing such an uncommercial project, which was kinda Zappa's kiss-off farewell to the label anyway, since he was contractually obligated to deliver four more albums before he was free to do what he wanted.
Plus, Warner Bros. was now siding with Cohen.
So Zappa returned to the editing room and split Lather into four separate albums: 1977's Zappa in New York, 1978's Studio Tan, 1979's Orchestral Favorites and Sleep Dirt, an entirely instrumental LP combining his usual mix of avant-rock, jazz-fusion and proficiently played prog. After more back and forth with Warners, the label eventually decided to release the records – but without Zappa's input, which meant that liner notes, cover art and other details were left in the hands of neglectful company suits.
The resulting seven-song set, as released, was both a compromise and a middle finger. With songs like the seven-minute opener "Filthy Habits" and the 13-minute closer "The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution" bookending the album, Sleep Dirt doesn't sound as disjointed as its origins let on. And the title track remains one of Zappa's best instrumentals from the period.
But the material was better served on Lather, which finally saw official release in 1996, three years after Zappa's death. Five Sleep Dirt songs were supposed to be on the shelved project, albeit it in slightly different forms. Plus, the abridged Sleep Dirt itself was originally called Hot Rats III by Zappa before Warners put a stop to that too.
So, as far as these sort of things go, Sleep Dirt is not a bad album. But its showing on the chart – Sleep Dirt stalled at No. 175 – was the lowest of the quartet of albums restructured from Lather. A few months after this Jan. 19, 1979 release, but before Orchestral Favorites came out, Zappa issued Sheik Yerbouti on his own Zappa Records. It made it all the way to No. 21, his second-best showing on the album chart, and marked a major victory in the singular artist's groundbreaking career.