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Time Enough for Weird: Novelty Songs in the iPod Age

1 September 2009 Things We Like 113,444 views 13 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

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.

Geoff Carter

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  1. What about Lonnie Donegan’s classic “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Overnight)?”


  2. Wow, I was beginning to think that I was the only soul on this planet who still knew that song, a favorite in my house when I was growing up. “If tin whistles are made of tine, what do they make foghorns out of?” Thanks for bringing that one back to me, even if odds are good that it’ll be stuck in my head for the next week to ten days.

  3. Oh Oh Oh! I have a small dose of Allan Sherman that pops up in the strangest places. Sometimes my shuffle will give me the following:
    Separate Ways (Journey) > Divine Hammer (The Breeders) > Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (Sherman) > Pictures on my Wall (Echo and the Bunnymen)… somehow, it all works out.

  4. Someone I was surprised not to see was Stephen Lynch, who combines an angelic voice, classically trained acoustic guitar playing. . .and some REALLY surprising lyrics. If you like Weird Al, but always wished you could find someone a little less tame (And who writes his own songs), Stephen Lynch is the guy to listen to.

  5. You wash your face in my sink? In my SINK?

  6. […] has worked. Or will work. Via TMN, via MonkeyGoggles, via WFMU, God bless linking, listen to Work Song from Postal Employees in […]

  7. Does anyone have a recording of that song about the ferryboat running aground when the pilot was trying to impress some woman?

  8. Wow, that first song is wonderful. Thank you for bringing back a wonderful college memory for me. I get my unusual little moments of “What the heck is that?” from The Sesame Street Sounds Archive. I should warn you: it plays a random track automatically as you go to the site.

  9. […] Time Enough for Weird: Novelty Songs in the iPod Age << Monkey Goggles (tags: music weird novelty queen) […]

  10. Just two words: “BULBOUS BOUFFANT”

    (Wait for the start of white-bread rant-chant at 2:50 point of the video.)

  11. […] Like the T-1000 before him, Pogo (born Nick Bertke) is an unstoppable force. The gifted young composer and film editor has a singular knack for assembling dreamy dance tracks from the most unlikely sources — family films, mostly, including Disney’s animated features and the “Harry Potter” movies.  (I wrote about his wonderful remix of “The King and I” here.) […]

  12. […] received any airplay in the U.S. shouldn’t stop you from looking it up on YouTube. It rivals Komar & Melamid’s “Most Unwanted Song” (a 20 minute-plus opus that includes operatic rapping paired with tuba) as the sort of grating […]

  13. […] Give Javier Grillo-Marxuach a deal and let him do something wonderful. You worked with him on "The Middleman," a series that is now finding its audience on DVD. By the time he gets around to making a nice, […]

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