There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
“Time,” the poet-philosopher Steve Miller once sang, “keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the fu-ture.” And so it is that three decades have passed since mild-mannered music scholar Barry Hansen put on a top hat, grabbed a bicycle horn, and became hyper-giddy disc jockey Dr. Demento. As he did for his 20th and 25th anniversaries, Demento has marked the Big Three-Oh by gathering the most popular recordings and significant obscurities that he plays each week on his syndicated radio program (which, tragically, is not currently broadcast in the D.C. market) and presenting them on a handsomely packaged two-disc set.
Among the best of the 42 cuts is Travesty, Ltd.’s droll sketch “Rock and Roll Doctor.” “I don’t advocate drugs, I just prescribe them,” says the venally oblivious pseudo talk-show host to his cluelessly desperate callers. Hahaha, I laugh each time I hear it. And not only because I am the Rock and Roll Doctor, but also because I got two fat checks from Rhino for the privilege of being included in this collection. However, in the interest of pesky full disclosure, let me say that it’s probably not the best cut. After all, there is strong competition from Mel Blanc, Tom Lehrer, National Lampoon, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Cheech, Chong, Chuck Berry, Loudon Wainwright III, Monty Python, the Coasters, George Carlin, and Alfred E. Neuman, among many others, several of whom are “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Anyway, because serious critics stay far, far away from the dread novelty genre, I become the best man for this job by default. Well, default and devotion, because—shades of Sy Sperling—I’m not only a creator of wacky nonsense, but president of the Novelty Record Club for Geeks.
Demento himself prefers the term “funny” to “novelty,” making the valid point that the Frank Zappa cuts he routinely plays are much more than novelties. In fact, like everything else, the novelty genre has changed mightily in the years since Demento first took to the airwaves. In days past, a novelty record presumed a record contract, which implies elaborate recording studios and professional musicians. Indeed, many novelty recordings were the product of singers, songwriters, and musicians letting their hair down. Like Phil Harris’ “The Thing”: A No. 1 hit in 1950, the silly shaggy-dog song is also a tightly arranged, bouncy big-band number.
But, as Demento points out in his extensive and informative liner notes, by the early ’70s, the music industry had changed. Long-haired rock bands were writing their own music, and that music was becoming increasingly serious. The rise of prog-rock coincided with the collapse of button-down comedy records, and labels began releasing double-disc “concept” albums. Whereas Alan Sherman parodies had once shared playlists with the songs of Herman’s Hermits and Andy Williams, radio tightened its programming and the market began segmenting into narrowly focused formats. The Dr. Demento Show became the only place on the dial to hear unserious music and comedy. Demento writes:
Who knows how many 45s “Fish Heads” or “Dead Puppies” or “Existential Blues” might have sold if it hadn’t been for the way the business was being run? Regardless, they became huge hits on The Dr. Demento Show. The fact that the records were hard to find only added to their appeal. I should have bought stock in Maxell and TDK, considering all the blank tapes that got filled up around the country when I was on the air.
I can personally attest to the truth of that statement, having boxes of cassette air checks (though I also have the fish-head-shaped “Fish Heads” vinyl disc, God help me).
And now the music biz has changed again. The development of home recording technology has made it possible for everyone and anyone to assemble his own novelty recordings. With the plague of zany morning DJs, everyone and anyone is. Got a goofy one-joke parody of a Top 10 hit? Sing into the mike and send it to Demento. The democratization of the means of music production translates into dozens of tapes in Demento’s mailbox every week. Today, his radio show draws less from Hansen’s voluminous stacks of rare wax and more from the insane but often brilliant rantings of the masses. The most famous example is, of course, “Weird Al.”
Since Al has achieved the status of his own VH-1 Behind the Music episode, we’ll just say that America’s premier parodist is represented here by “Another One Rides the Bus,” “Yoda,” and “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.”
What must be discussed is the Canadian comedy connection. Something is going on up there that deserves study. In addition to SCTV, the Kids in the Hall, and Lorne Greene (listen to him singing the Bonanza theme and try not to laugh), many of Saturday Night Live’s cast members have been full-fledged Canucks (thanks, no doubt, to Canadian Lorne Michaels). Incredibly, five of the artists on this disc are from the Great White North. There are also three from the U.K. and one from Australia. Nearly a quarter of the laughs on this album come from outside our borders! America—is Adam Sandler the best we can do? Perhaps the South Park boys were onto something with “Blame Canada” (not included here).
Although most of the tracks are songs, there are several sketches. “Bulbous Bouffant,” by Montreal’s the Vestibules, turns such mellifluous words as “galoshes,” “blubber,” and “gazebo” into a delightful tone poem. It was Demento’s most requested track of the ’90s, and deservedly so, being an infectious exercise that bears repeated listening.
CBC alumni the Frantics have two cuts here, the best of which is “Last Will and Temperament,” a finely acted piece that made the phrase “boot to the head” a catch phrase on campuses. The Dead Alewives are from Milwaukee, which is close to Canada. Their “Dungeons and Dragons” skit absolutely nails the head of every dice-throwing geek with embarrassing precision. I weep in recognition.
There are several minisets within the track list, songs arranged in loosely thematic groups. So Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” follows Bowser & Blue’s double-entendre “Polka Dot Undies” follows Ivor Biggun’s single-entendre disco ditty “Bras on 45”; likewise, Loudon Wainwright III’s one hit, “Dead Skunk,” follows Jack Blanchard & Misty Morgan’s jaunty country stroll “Tennessee Bird Walk” follows Rolf Harris’ overexposed yet charming “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.”
Although the show has become a playground for home-grown and indie wiseacres, Dementia 2000! contains a fair share of well-known artists. The works of Monty Python (“Lumberjack Song”), George Carlin (“Ice Box Man”), Tom Lehrer (“The Elements”), National Lampoon (“Deteriorata”), and Cheech & Chong (“(How I Spent My Summer Vacation) or A Day at the Beach With Pedro & Man—Part 1”) are readily available, though some of these cuts appear on CD for the first time here.
A mainstay of novelty industry is the “golden-throat” genre, created by celebrities who think they can sing. Leonard Nimoy has been battling shipmate Shatner for the crown for years. With “I Am Not” Spock’s happy hippy-dippy crooning of “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” the first officer takes control of the helm. We just don’t hear enough hobbit songs these days.
Among the lesser-known performers is the brilliant but cruelly overlooked Henry Phillips. His sharp, dry wit is comparable to those of Steve Martin and Martin Mull. Phillips is represented by “On the Shoulders of Freaks,” the title tune of his first album, a darkly comic dissertation on the foibles of our cultural icons.
SoCal band Big Daddy has released a couple of stellar concept albums, recasting current hits in deviously appropriate oldies formats. In “Hamster Love,” singer JoAnne Montana does Toni Tennille to perfection for an un-PETA-approved version of “Muskrat Love.” Mmmm…good.
More Canucks, Corky & the Juice Pigs, sing hauntingly about “the only gay Eskimo” on “Eskimo.” If it weren’t on this disc, one might suspect it was a real lament.
Rhino released a best-of-Mad-magazine disc a few years ago, but it’s always nice to hear Alfred E. Neuman belch his way through the raucous early ’60s romp “It’s a Gas.”
The late Jimmy Cross was capitalizing on the death-rock trend of the late-’50s and early-’60s when he recorded “I Want My Baby Back,” a tale of extreme obsession that manages a nice sonic punch line, unlike so many comedy records.
“If reggae is to cannabis what polkas are to beer,” writes Demento, “then ‘Smoke Two Joints’ by the Toyes is definitely marijuana’s answer to the ‘Beer Barrel Polka.’” Another hard-to-find rarity, it was recorded in Honolulu in ’83 and is an example of a novelty tune that you can dance to.
My personal favorites are a pair of very obscure tunes that I never expected to have in any better format than the crumbling cassette tape of an old Demento show. I was surprised to learn that Meri Wilson’s “Telephone Man” was recorded in 1977. It has an Eisenhower-era feel about it, though the saucy innuendo about a hunky phone man who thrills the lady of the house with his installation technique (“I got one in the kitchen and I got one in the hall…”) would not have made it past the DAR. Sultry silliness is always a turn-on.
Betty Johnson’s “The Little Blue Man” is from the Ike decade, but its style goes back even further, to ’40s pop crooners. A fun fact: This waltzing story about a mysterious, childlike blue fellow who falls in love with the singer and won’t leave her alone was written by Fred Ebb, of the very respectable Broadway show Cabaret—perhaps you’ve heard of it?
Which is enough of a pedigree for me to suggest that novelty records be taken seriously. These crazy recordings say as much about America—oh, and Canada—as the imperial hegemony of Backstreet Britney Aguilera Bizkit. And are a welcome antidote to same. CP