Time Enough for Weird: Novelty Songs in the iPod Age
Novelty songs have traditionally been lonely souls. They’re something that an artist dashes off in a lighthearted moment, like Chuck Berry’s 1972 track “My Ding-a-Ling” — the rock-and-roll great’s only number one hit on the pop charts, reportedly to his horror. Or they’re targeted parodies, created by musical satirists like the brilliant “Weird Al” Yankovic. Or they’re simply weird numbers created by weirder musicians, many of whom — here the late Wesley Willis comes to mind — have no idea that what they’re doing is unusual or funny.
For the longest time, these songs had nowhere to gather in numbers, except on Dr. Demento’s radio program. They were loners, freaks — tracks that DJs played late at night, if ever. But those lonely days are over. The way we listen to music has changed, and now every novelty track has as much chance of coming up in an iTunes shuffle as Beyonce or Radiohead. At last, Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” can mix it up with Prince’s “Purple Rain” in a sonic world that’s free of prejudgment.
On that order, I’d like to recommend ten novelty tracks that hold places of honor in my iTunes folder. Not all of them are easy or fun to listen to, and at least two of them may drive you to madness. But if your taste in novelty tracks begins and ends at Weird Al, or if you haven’t listened to the immortal Dr. Demento since you were 12, it’s time to introduce some fresh crazy blood into your shuffle.
“Canceling Stamps at the University of Ghana Post Office” by unknown
This live recording of postal workers whistling (and stamping, and collating) while they work is one of the happiest pieces of music you’ll ever hear in your life. It actually makes you want to get a job in a post office.
“Frontier Psychiatrist” by The Avalanches
Assembled, Frankenstein-like, from three seemingly disparate sources – Bert Kaempfert’s easy-listening standard “My Way of Life,” a scene from John Waters’ “Polyester” and a comedy routine by Canadian comedy team Wayne & Shuster – “Frontier Psychiatrist” is an epic journey, a four-and-a-half minute piece of audio theater that begins with a schoolboy getting expelled, plumbs the dark underside of the American frontier, and ends with speaking lessons from a parrot. I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never heard anything like it.
“The Most Unwanted Music” by Komar, Melamid & Soldier
Conceptual artists Vitaly Komar, Alex Melamid and David Soldier polled 500 people about music – which instruments, genres and concepts did they like most, and which did they like the least? The “unwanted” elements – tuba, rapping, opera, holiday themes, political lyrics and, um, Wal-Mart – are combined to make this 25-minute masterpiece, which the artists claimed would be appreciated by “fewer than 200 individuals of the world’s total population.” It may fill you with the urge to stuff peanut butter into your ears.
“Nannou” by Aphex Twin (available via iTunes)
This one almost doesn’t belong here — it’s not funny, or even weird. But if you take novelty songs as lonely pieces of music that don’t fit in with others, then this beguilingly gorgeous piece of music by electronic musician Richard D. James absolutely fits the bill. Normally James wrests his havoc sounds from synthesizers, but in “Nannou,” he took a low-tech approach: Every sound on “Nannou” is sampled from wind-up music boxes.
“Trailer Music” by Pizzicato Five
So few things in this world truly deserve to be called “pop-u-luxe.” This bright, shiny “trailer” for Pizzicato Five’s “Happy End of the World” album could be used to sell anything, from dishwasher soap to world peace. You can practically see trails of starbursts exploding from the speakers, each one containing the word “NEW!”
“Bill Gates” by Critters Buggin
Seattle-based chaos jazz quartet Critters Buggin crafted the mother of all upbeat paranoid rants with this 1996 homage to The Last Emperor of Redmond. The “lyrics,” spoken by radio newsman Boyd “Doc” Britton, are taken from the conspiracy theories of Francis E. Dec; the beats come directly from the streets of Seattle, where the influence of the “world-wide Communist gangster computer god” more or less keeps the WiFi-friendly coffeehouse economy afloat.
“Anna” by Pogo
Like several of the musicians on this list, collage artist Pogo (nee Nick Bertke) takes samples from a main source and reconstitutes them into something extraordinary — in this case, family films. He’s made dreamy dance tracks from the “Harry Potter” movies, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but with this audacious re-shuffling of elements from “The King and I,” Pogo’s earned his berth in hi-fi heaven.
“Is Midi Wonder?” by Don Augusto
This beepin’ cover of Stevie Wonder’s bleepin’ “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is what robot bachelors put on the hi-fi when entertaining that very special fem-bot. Where do you think iPhones come from?
“War Photographer” by Jason Forrest
I’m sorry to give you so many mash-ups and collages, but this funky reconstruction by Forrest — who sometimes plays gigs under the cheekily plundered moniker “DJ Donna Summer” — takes nearly every horn-driven pop-funk hit of the 1970s (particularly Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel”) and uses them to make what Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum rightly calls “an epic-sized Stax-ified “Theme from Shaft.” As a bonus, the iPod-ready video of the track, available free here, pictures Vikings doing what they were born to do: transforming into giant, guitar-wielding robots.
“Bo Rhap” by The Kleptones
The Kleptones are really just Eric Kleptone, a British DJ who creates mash-ups of classic rock songs and current hip-hop favories. In “Bo Rhap,” Kleptone fuses together every known cover version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — yes, even Weird Al’s — and in the process creates something that may very well be the world’s most unwanted music. You be the judge.