JAIMIE VERNON – WHERE HAVE ALL THE NOVELTY SONGS GONE?

vernon_1997This week Frank & Moon Unit Zappa’s novelty hit “Valley Girl” turned 30 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qb21lsCQ3EM. For those too young to remember, that’s the 1982 song…not the 1983 movie starring Nicolas “I’m A Coppola So Fuck YOU!” Cage.  It’s what we old geezers like to refer to as a novelty song. Novelty songs were, and should still be, tunes reflecting social trends and fads – in the guise of humourous observational commentary, parody or satire.

Zappa2There’s an argument to be made for Frank Zappa’s entire oeuvre being one run-on novelty song (“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”, “Jewish Princess”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3-Z_gVbsxc, “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”, “Dancin’ Fool”, et al), but that would negate Zappa’s skill as an absurdist observationalist. His songs and the albums they came from were deliberately shocking, aggravating, humourous, ribald, clever, and brilliantly executed. He was a sociologist that happened to wear a guitar and have a MENSA-sized I.Q. “Valley Girl” stands as a keen observation of teen life in California circa 1982. Zappa certainly didn’t invent the genre – Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Lenny Bruce, and others did similar takes…Frank just set the whole thing to music.

FugsFolk artists had been delivering such social commentaries before Frank – with a lot less wit (i.e. none at all…though The Kingston Trio’s “M.T.A.” had its moment of whimsy). But, it took some truly cutting edge satire – and an incredible amount of drugs – to take it to the next level. The Fugs were a hippie commune set to carnival music with such epic Not-Suitable-For-Work odes as “Coca Cola Douche” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YJmUZXGxD0 and “Saran Wrap” (a paean to wrapping one’s schlong in plastic wrap to bang your girlfriend when you’ve got no cash for condoms). They were highly offensive and funny in a ‘bum tit tit, play my hairy banjo’ kinda way.

Wild Man FischerMeanwhile, Zappa’s protégé, Larry Wayne “Wild Man” Fischer, was – for all intents and purposes – out of his mind. No one was really sure if he was the real deal or putting on an act…until you saw footage of him attempting to carry on a meaningful conversation. He was institutionalized at age 16 for attacking his mother with a knife. It was later discovered that he had severe schizoid paranoia and was bi-polar. He claims to have escaped from his hospital and wandered the streets singing his bizarre sing-song poetry for $0.10 a recital – only because nobody bothered looking for him. Zappa discovered him and would call him the ‘Godfather of Outsider Music’. He produced Fischer’s debut album of material that was ‘not quite musical’ entitled ‘An Evening With Wild Man Fischer’.  Legend has it that Zappa locked him in the recording studio for hours without a break – and let the tape recorder roll. A cappella ‘songs’ like “Merry Go Round” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHqR1Rql5r8 and “Jennifer Jones” showcased the unsettling thought process of a man who needed medical care and understanding. Fischer never quite hit the mainstream though he did manage an appearance on Rowan & Martin’s ‘Laugh In’ comedy show. After struggling to find his way in the world he managed to fall into the orbit of the novelty hit duo Barnes & Barnes (Bill Mumy and Robert Haimer) of “Fish Heads” fame who got Fischer to record a duet with Rosemary Clooney entitled “It’s a Hard Business”. Fischer died in June 2011 as a legendary cult figure. Probably for all the wrong reasons.

Of course, Zappa, The Fugs, Wild Man Fischer and extreme musical agitator Captain Beefheart aren’t really the originators of novelty. At least not by our grandpappy’s definition.

TIN PAN ALLEY NEW YORKThe true origins of the novelty song – and its purveyors – started in Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s. The songwriting and publishing empires in New York City at that time divided its songs (and writers) into three divisions – ballads, dance music and novelty. Unusual songs like the stuttering “K-K-K-Katy”, the whimsical “Yes, We Have No Bananas” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jT6JkceQ9FU and the exotically fantastical “Oh, By Jingo” rated amongst the era’s most popular tunes performed live in theatres, dance halls and across the wireless speakers of a new fangled invention called The Radio.

Spike JonesAnd when radio expanded beyond theatre of the mind and radio skits over to pure musical hit parades, the novelty genre flourished. One of the first tunes to have public impact was Spike Jones’ “Der Fuerher’s Face” in 1942 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1583adUqSg. It would be used in Walt Disney’s Donald Duck propaganda film of the same name in 1943. Jones would follow this with “Cocktails for Two” in 1944, a parody of Vaughn Monroe’s “Ghost Riders In the Sky” (which originally had a verse in it making fun of Vaughn’s singing which was later excised by the record label – which Vaughn owned shares in) and “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” in 1948.

GriffinThe innocuousness and catchy lyrical & melodic hooks of the material lent themselves to hits for many artists – both established and those attempting to cross over from traditional radio to the new ‘popular’ format. Eileen Barton released the Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill, and Clem Watts written “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake” in 1950. Bing Crosby followed with “Pistol Packin’ Mama” followed by Merv Griffin (yes, that Merv Griffin) and his “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nf670orHKcA

Patti PageIt would take Patti Page to truly break through in December 1952 with the Bob Merrill penned “(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AkLE4X-bbU which was punctuated by a call and response by yappy dogs barking – courtesy of the song’s arranger and producer. The song reached #1 in 1953 and sold more than two million singles (that’s a little 7” piece of vinyl with a spindle hole in the middle, kids!). Unable to move the original record in England due to poor distribution outside the US, the song repeated its success overseas by an artist named Lita Roza – the first female UK artist to hit #1.

GoodmanFor the Boomer Generation the real novelty era didn’t take off until Dickie Goodman re-wrote H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ as two 2-minute single sides featuring the voice of an intrepid reporter (Goodman) questioning people about what they were witnessing during the Martian invasion. The record was called “The Flying Saucer Parts I & II” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfay_-zHrCE and featured the first known use of sampled music – as a means to punctuate the answers to the reporter’s questions. Goodman was sued for copyright infringement (40 years before rap artists were tapped for doing the same). Goodman was undaunted and released over 50 singles using the same technique – this time with song clearances. His biggest success would be “Mr. Jaws” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMt01N58EAo which reached #4 in 1975 as a parody of the hit film ‘Jaws’. It would be Goodman’s biggest selling record. From 1956 to 1987 Goodman racked up 17 Top-40 novelty hits.

ChipmunksA contemporary of Goodman’s was David Seville (aka Ross Bagdasarian) who discovered that if you slowed down a recording tape while singing or talking and then played it back in real-time, the voice would speed up. He experimented with the technique on a song called “The Bird On My Head” peaking at #34 but hit the ground running with the tune “Witch Doctor” in 1958 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9O9a7M2F5s8 which reached #1 with a bullet. Seville then went after something more ambitious – creating the voices for three anthropomorphic animated chipmunks named Simon, Theodore and Alvin all voiced by Bagdasarian. Albums and singles followed – including the hit “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hAUWyp0qzs. Even after the passing of Seville in 1972, the Chipmunks have lived on through his son and daughter-in-law.

Purple PeopleThere were other one-hit novelties as well: Allen Sherman’s “Hello Mudda, Hello Faddah”, Dusty Fletcher’s “Open the Door, Richard”, Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater”, The Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop”, The Coasters’ “Charlie Brown”, Lonnie Donegan’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour”, Shirley Ellis’ “The Name Game”, Larry Verne’s “Mr. Custer”, Rolf Harris’ “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport”, Royal Guardsmen “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron”, Benny Bell’s “Shaving Cream”, Roger Miller’s “You Can’t Roller Skate In a Buffalo Herd”, The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”, Napolean XIV’s “They’re Coming To Take Me Away” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnzHtm1jhL4, Stan Freberg’s “St. George And The Dragonet”, Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, Top Glazer & The Do Re Mi Children’s Choir’s “On Top of Spaghetti” and the three-time repeat charting champion: Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash”.

SilversteinOf course, the novelty record has always been big business. DJ’s, actors, and legit artists have recorded faddish pop singles for no other purpose than to make money. Many have made careers out of it. CHUM-AM in Toronto had an entire side business of station DJ’s recording novelty songs. Guys like Garry Ferrier were writing and recording songs that CHUM could play exclusively including “The Battle of Queenston Heights”, “Ringo-Deer” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GWU85dEFHc, “Do the Frankie” and the nonsensical “Like A Dribbling Fram” under the name The Race Marbles; Shel Silverstein – a children’s book author, satirist, cartoonist and songwriter – gave many others novelty hits with “A Boy Named Sue” (Johnny Cash), “The Unicorn” (The Irish Rovers) and “Cover of The Rolling Stone” as well as “Freakin’ At the Freakers Ball” (Dr. Hook & The Medicine); Jim Stafford did “Spiders & Snakes”, “Ragwood Weed”, “Swamp With”, “Big City Miss Ruthann” and “My Girl Bill”; Ray Stevens brought us “Ahab the Arab”, “Gitarzan”, “Jeremy Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving, Fast-Acting, Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills” and his biggest novelty hit – “The Streak” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI-TXC8AEyQ which cashed in on the publicly nudity fad at the time. Stevens was one of the few novelty artists to have a straight pop hit as well – 1970’s “Everything Is Beautiful”; Canada’s rockers-turned-folk-satirists Bowser & Blue had “Polka Dot Undies” while raunchy Smothers Brothers-like MacLean & MacLean gave us “Dolly Parton’s Tits”.

loudon wainwright IIIStevens was one of the lucky ones. Many artists end up with novelty hits while attempting to make a mark with their serious songwriting pursuits. Loudon Wainwright III – an actor and folk music activist ended up as a novelty and one-hit wonder on the back of a quaint little ditty called “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UejelYnVI3U. He was never really able to shake the song. Similarly, Steam claims their attempt at being taken serious as artists was destroyed with the instant success of their throwaway track called “Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye”.

Others got in and quickly cashed out: C.W. McCall’s “Convoy”, Rick Dee’s (a US D.J.) “Disco Duck”, Homemade Theatre’s “Santa Jaws” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BU-wfjmMeWs, Brad Stanfield’s “Gumball Wizard”, and Steve Martin’s “King Tut” among others.

Jingle CatsIn the 1980s and 1990s there were pocket hopefuls to keep the freak flag flying – Buckner & Garia’s “Pac Man Fever”, Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie”, Tone Loc’s “Funky Cold Medina”, MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This”, Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back (I Cannot Lie)”,  Jingle Dogs/Cats’ “Jingle Bells”, Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, the previously mentioned Barnes & Barnes mind-fuck known as “Fish Heads”, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”, Lou Bega’s “Mambo #5”, the Flying Pickets’ remake of “Money (That’s What I Want)”, Corky & The Juice Pigs’ “Eskimo”, Moxy Fruvous’ “King of Spain”, Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy”, Barenaked Ladies’ “If I Had a Million Dollars”, Radio Free Vestibule’s “The Grunge Song” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds6ux49-AKU and even Devo’s own “Whip It” have lifted our fast-food musical hearts.

Weird AlOf course, through it all we’ve had to lean on one individual to help keep the word ‘novelty’ in our vocabulary: Weird Al Yankovic. The cover tune parodist and food-themed satirist has kept us amused as well as bemused for the last 25 years with re-workings of songs by The Knack (“My Bologna”), Michael Jackson (“Eat It”), Madonna (“Like a Surgeon”), Joan Jett (“I Love Rocky Road”), and even Greg Kihn (“I Lost on Jeopardy”). He has tapped the zeitgeist and earned the respect of famous rock stars the world over (except for Prince who does not possess the humour gene). Yankovic occasionally hits pay-dirt with original songs as well including “Bob” – spoof of all things Dylan using nothing but lyrical palindromes.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnJdxUwF1Wg

But most of those novelties are already 20 years old. With the death of irony (which began the day after September 11th) our multi-tasking, digital media world has grown short on true comic musical genius. In the parlance of a very famous Bat-villain I must ask the Millennials: “Why. So. Serious?”

I’ve racked my brain all week trying to compile a list of novelty hits from the last 15 years. It’s sad. It’s sparse. Maybe I’ve missed all the action in my aging, non-multi-tasking world. But here’s what I’ve been able to dig up:
1) Baha Men – “Who Let the Dogs Out?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qkuu0Lwb5EM
2) Oxhorn – “ROFLMAO Song! (World of Warcraft)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEWgs6YQR9A
3) Deidre LaCarte’s  – “Hamster Dance” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3G5IXn0K7A
4) Erwin Beekveld – “They’re Taking The Hobbits To Isengard” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXbCw1U61FU
5) Andrew Huang – “Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing On Rainbows” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWM2joNb9NE
6) Parry Gripp – “Baby Monkey (Going Backwards On A Pig)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_sfnQDr1-o
7) Amanda Palmer – “Please Drop Me” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMi7wRfmoMs
Silverman8) Saturday Night Live – “Dick In A Box” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhwbxEfy7fg
9) Rachel Bloom – “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1IxOS4VzKM
10) Sarah Silverman – “Fucking Matt Damon” (starts at 2:15) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1IxOS4VzKM
11) Psy – “Gangnam Style” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bZkp7q19f0
12) Jonti Picking – “Badger Badger Badger” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8IrCRO9piw
13) Eduard Khal – “Trololo” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTSA_sWGM44
14) Rebecca Black  – “Friday” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfVsfOSbJY0
15) Momo Momo – “Nyan Cat (Pop Tart Cat)” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QH2-TGUlwu4

Like, gag me with a spoon. Like, Oh My Gawd!

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

=JV=                                                                            

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 35 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 17 of those years. He is also the author of the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ both of which are available at Amazon.com or http://www.bullseyecanada.com

2 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – WHERE HAVE ALL THE NOVELTY SONGS GONE?”

  1. Doug Thompson Says:

    Jaimie, you briefly mentioned Stan Freberg and his “St. George and the Dragonet” (which never charted), but Stan’s contribution to the ‘Novelty hit’ genre is actually quite large. Starting in 1955, Freberg hit the Billboard singles chart at # 16 with “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, a classic parody and his most successful release. That was followed by “Nuttin’ For Christmas”, then by his hilarious interpretation of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Banana Boat (Day-O)”, “Wun’erful, Wun’erful”, Freberg’s take on Lawrence Welk,
    “Green Chri$tma$”, Stan’s scathing indictment of the mercenary aspects of the holidays and Freberg’s final charted 45 in 1960, “The Old Payola Roll Blues”, one of my personal favourites. Jesse ‘The Maytag Repair Man’ White is perfectly cast as the sleazy record company executive who could care less about talent.

  2. Great stuff as per usual – which of these sold the most or is there a top 10 list of these – I think u left out – my fav – Can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd and Trailers for sale or rent.

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