Monday, 15 October 2018

The Original Pop Parodist

The Original Pop Parodist
09 Aug

Humor and music aren’t always strange bedfellows, but they sometimes make for an uneasy fit. From Gilbert and Sullivan’s “My Object All Sublime” to Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” most comic songs are in fact musically straightforward ditties that just happen to tell a funny story. Take “Weird Al” Yankovic, pop music’s clown prince of parody, whose modus operandi is to write incongruous new lyrics for familiar songs. Give a careful listen to, say, “Eat It,” his cover version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and you’ll be struck by how closely the instrumental backing reproduces that of the original record. This disconnect is part of what makes Mr. Yankovic so funny: He puts a deliberately absurd spin on unfunny songs.

The staying power of Mr. Yankovic’s formula has long since proved itself. But there are other, more specifically musical ways to make funny music. Haydn, the most sophisticated of all musical comedians, did it by spicing up the time-honored formulas of classical music with startling musical jokes, the most celebrated of which is the explosive fortissimo chord that he detonates without warning a half-minute or so into the slow movement of his “Surprise” Symphony. And a century and a half later, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, American pop music’s first great comedy band, dusted off Haydn’s bottomless bag of tricks, using them to cut dozens of records that remain wildly funny to this day.

Mr. Yankovic first cracked the pop charts four decades ago and is still going strong in the age of streaming (“The Hamilton Polka,” for example, sends up Broadway’s hottest musical). Jones, by contrast, is largely forgotten today, though many of his singles, among them “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” “My Old Flame” and “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” were so popular that he actually had his own weekly TV series. One of his biggest hits, a 1942 version of “Cocktails for Two,” shows off his method (if you want to call it that) to sensational effect. The original song, written in 1934, is a sugary ballad that tells the tale of a romantic encounter “in some secluded rendezvous / That overlooks the avenue.” Accordingly, Jones’s recording starts off with a straight-down-the-center harp-accompanied vocal-group performance of the verse, one that never hints at the chaos to come. Then someone shouts “Whoopee!” and the rest of the band crashes in from out of nowhere with hard-charging, Dixieland-flavored banjo-and-tuba riffs that are interspersed with such exquisitely timed sound effects as a pistol shot, a bicycle horn, a clanging fire-station bell and—least likely of all—a hoedown fiddle. We take such subversive irony for granted now, but in the famously earnest 1940s, it was as shocking as a pie in the face with a horseshoe hidden in the filling.

Nothing in Jones’s previous life suggested that he longed to become a purveyor of musical slapstick. Born in 1911, he was a Hollywood session drummer who backed up the likes of Judy Garland and Bing Crosby (he’s the drummer on “White Christmas”). Like many another commercial instrumentalist, Jones grew tired of playing bland accompaniments to off-the-rack ballads, and put together a band of like-minded friends who recorded parodies of the hit songs of the day for their own amusement. No sooner did an executive for RCA Victor hear one of those performances than Jones and his colleagues were hustled into the nearest studio, and he spent the rest of his life performing similar parodies for delighted audiences from coast to coast.

Part of what makes Jones’s records so enduringly funny is that they are so well played. To watch his TV performances, many of which are on YouTube, is to see that he was a top-notch percussionist with a solid technique. It’s not surprising that he longed, like so many clowns, to occasionally play it straight. At one point he went so far as to put together a no-nonsense ensemble called Spike Jones and His Other Orchestra whose recordings include a 1946 version of “Laura” that opens with a gorgeous-sounding full-chorus rendition of David Raksin’s song. Only then do the City Slickers show up and start making mayhem.

Therein lay the secret of Jones’s success: Even when he was spoofing it raucously, he took pop music seriously. Small wonder that his admirers include Gary Giddins, the jazz critic, and Thomas Pynchon, who wrote the liner notes for a 1994 CD anthology called “Spiked!” that was produced by the classical music critic Tim Page, another City Slickers fan. Mr. Giddins put it nicely when he observed that Jones “made his meticulous art out of seeming chaos.” The operative word is “seeming.” As Mr. Pynchon says, “Kids admired his records for nearly the same set of reasons the grownups did—the rudeness, the grace of execution, the sheer percussive dementia.” It would never have occurred to me to speak of Jones’s “grace,” but Mr. Pynchon nailed it. The craziest of his records are all as lucidly organized as a six-door farce by Georges Feydeau. All the more reason why he deserves to be better known today: At a time when earnestness is choking off our collective sense of humor, we couldn’t ask for a better antidote than Spike Jones.

Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings,” a column about the arts, twice monthly. Write to him at



« »


Related Articles