Get our free newsletter
Dr. Demento 25th Anniversary Collection: More of the Greatest Novelty Records of All Time
Among the fashionable set, novelty records and parody songs are sneered at as the lowest form of art imaginable. Barret Hansen, owner of more than 200,000 “demented discs,” has never been fashionable. “Barry” to his friends, “Dr. Demento” to everyone else, he has championed the maligned genre most of his so-called adult life. Unlike the cognoscenti, he’s willing to admit that music can be silly, stupid, and embarrassing—all kinds of things in addition to “serious,” “important,” and “meaningful.”
Since accidentally becoming a DJ on a Los Angeles radio station in 1970, Hansen has labored to bring respect to the bastard pop child. This release marks the silver anniversary of his program, which is heard locally on WHFS (99.1 FM) Sunday nights between the not-terribly-convenient but understandable hours of midnight to 2 a.m. (I’m listening to it now!).
As the golden age of comedy and novelty recordings—the mid-’50s through the mid-’60s—faded, Hansen almost single-handedly kept the flame flickering, feeding listeners weekly doses of Tom Lehrer, Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, and many more obscure artists drawn from a personal collection that included some of the earliest wax- cylinder sound recordings.
A respected musicologist with a master’s degree in folk music, Hansen approaches the goofy genre as if it were folk music, which in a way it is. Adding context and detail through his chatter, Hansen grants works like Benny Bell’s “Everybody Wants My Fanny” and Jump ‘N the Saddle’s “The Curly Shuffle” a seriousness of purpose that most listeners would find, at best, highly charitable.
Dr. Demento 25th Anniversary Collection, a two-disc set of 36 favorites, follows on the heels of a 20th-anniversary compilation, which followed at the same distance the six-volume The Greatest Novelty Records of All Time. In the petty interest of full disclosure, I must confess that the Doctor has been very kind to me, playing many of my divertissements on his show over the years. He saw fit to include my “Rock & Roll Doctor” sketch on both the Greatest set—still available, thank you—and his 1982 Demento’s Mementos LP. I still get royalty checks. The last one totaled $50.04, which, for reasons that will be explained in my bitter memoir, is split 10 ways. So if you wish to suggest that my opinion can be purchased for five bucks, well, you may have a point, but I’ll still have to ask you to step outside.
Parody is both easier and more difficult than it seems. Easy because much of the hard musical work has already been done. Tune into a wacky morning radio show, however, and the pitfalls become painfully apparent. So much topical comedy is just spur-of-the-moment, one-joke semi-inspiration operating at the level of—shudder—DJ humor. To hold an audience’s attention after the joke becomes clear takes a fair degree of cleverness and style.
In his own goofy way, “Weird Al” Yankovic is a master of this craft. His impeccable production never distracts, leaving the focus on his lyrics, which are generally inventive enough to keep one listening, building on the gag through the entire tune. “Smells Like Nirvana” is a better work than his big hit “Eat It” because it’s (almost) about something, skewering grunge generally and Nirvana specifically. Of course, it works best as a video (Rolling Stone chose it as one of the 100 best rock videos), but it’s such fine mimicry that if you don’t listen too closely, you can enjoy it as if it were the real deal.
Older rock classics are not exempt from such treatment. Stan Freberg is generally a sharp satirist, given to full-blown orchestrations and letter-perfect imitations. However, in taking on Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel,” he only reveals himself to be an uninformed square. The very echo technique he mocks is what gives his recording its most listenable aspect. The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” is a rock classic, yet its overheated melodrama certainly qualifies it for inclusion on this disc. In its place is “Leader of the Laundromat” by the Detergents, one of whom—Ron Dante—went on to become one of the kings of bubble-gum music.
Christine Lavin probably doesn’t think of herself as “demented.” After all, she records heartfelt modern folk and has her own label that releases the work of bright up-and-comers. But maybe she’s too clever for her own good, because she’s best known for her comic songs. “Sensitive New Age Guys” features an all-wuss chorus supporting (almost) everything Lavin sings. The list of thoughtful qualities is especially sharp (“Who loves Three Men and a Baby, a movie I hated?” “Sensitive new age guys”). The collection includes quite a few otherwise legitimate (and I use that term loosely) acts that, like Lavin, have been pulled into the Demento universe: the Beat Farmers (“Happy Boy”), Green Jellÿ (“Three Little Pigs”), They Might Be Giants (“Particle Man”), and Brownsville Station (“The Martian Boogie”).
Not content with television notoriety, many of today’s TV stars want to be rock stars as well. Alanis Morissette seems to have succeeded. David Hasselhoff hasn’t—yet. Previously, actors realized that their proper place in the music business was as quick-hit novelty artists. Art Carney, aided by a brassy arrangement, good-naturedly cashed in on his Honeymooners Ed Norton character with “Song of the Sewer.” Likewise, Leonard Nimoy put on his Spock ears to record “Highly Illogical.” Of course, this is not as amusing as his covers of pop songs, several of which are collected on the “Golden Throats” anthologies.
The double-entendre is quite popular in the often juvenile world of Dementia. John Forster’s “Entering Marion” makes more out of city limit road signs than is probably necessary. Benny Bell takes an even lower road with “Shaving Cream” (in 1946, you couldn’t say “shit”). Surprisingly, Meri Wilson’s “Peter the Meter Reader” was recorded in 1981, though the style and attitude sound more like 1961. A sequel to her “Telephone Man” ditty, this walking-bass-riff-with-giggles recalls the ’50s and ’60s “adult” albums of Rusty Warren and Ruth Wallis that parents hid at the back of their collections and only brought them out at parties after the kids were asleep. Or so they thought.
Not everything here is parody or sexual innuendo. There is a fair amount of original strangeness. One could argue that the Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit” just takes doo-wop’s penchant for gobbledygook to its logical extreme. “Fast Food,” by radio comedy husband-and-wife team Stevens and Grdnic presents the slim premise that speakers at fast-food drive-thru lanes are indecipherable. But the cut works because Joy Grdnic’s garbled voice —aided by a dippy synth-bass track—is irresistibly funny.
Tony Burrello was vocal coach to the likes of Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale and, uh, Pia Zadora. Frustrated at the pitiful state of modern music—this was in 1953—he co- wrote “There’s a New Sound” to mock the era’s sorry musical standards, going so far as to release it on his own Horrible label. Standards were so low that the repetitious two-four piano and halfhearted vocal made it a major hit. There are many “new sounds” on these two discs, old, new, and indescribable: the basic guitar strumming of Utah Phillips’ “Moose Turd Pie,” the home studio shenanigans of Barnes and Barnes’ “I Gotta Get a Fake I.D.,” the unnerving falsetto of Tiny Tim’s “Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips With Me,” and Spike Jones’ clattering dismantling of “Dance of the Hours.”
Like the dictum that any environment is changed by the very act of observing it, Dr. Demento’s weekly excavation of the bizarre has altered the landscape of Dementia. Much of his current playlist is made up of amateur tapes sent in by avid listeners. (The “best” of these are compiled and made available to those who join the Demento Society.) Such devotion should ensure that novelty records aren’t going away. And every now and then, they’ll still hit the pop charts. After all, what is Beck if not a one-hit novelty act? I wouldn’t be surprised if “Loser” appeared on the 30th-anniversary album.