Novelty songs we enjoy as music
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I know novelty or gag songs are written more to tickle the funny bone than stir the soul, but there are a few joke songs out there that I honestly enjoy beyond the point where I just think they’re goofy. I was thinking, for instance, that Tim And Eric’s song "Petite Feet" has a Hall and Oates-style catchiness that makes me wish it were a full, fleshed-out tune. (I also always secretly yearn to hear "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" at someone’s wedding reception—it’s stupid, but I would seriously dance my ass off to that song.) What are some novelty songs you enjoy unironically? —Claire Zulkey
I’ll start by necessarily acknowledging the elephant in the room in any discussion of novelty songs that can be enjoyed for their songcraft: “Weird Al” Yankovic has made a career out of crafting them. Everyone knows him for his parodies, but he doesn’t ever get enough credit for his originals, which are often clever, well-observed style pastiches of other bands (a favorite of mine is “Everything You Know Is Wrong,” styled after They Might Be Giants), and are sometimes just really catchy, silly pop songs. (Yes, I sing “Melanie” to myself on car trips.) That aside, probably the novelty-ish album I’ve listened to most in the past decade has been the soundtrack to A Mighty Wind, the Christopher Guest mockumentary sending up folk music and professional folksingers. Songs like “Never Did No Wanderin’,” “Blood On The Coal,” and “Potato’s In The Paddy Wagon” (the last one a deliberately horrible story-song prominently featuring Jane Lynch and Parker Posey) are funny and biting at the same time, pitch-perfect mockery of folk music, but also hooky songs in their own right, worth listening to even after the novelty fades.
I have to like the music as much as (or more than) the humor for a novelty song to work. That’s certainly the case with my favorite novelty of all, Hoosier Hot Shots’ “I Like Bananas (Because They Have No Bones).” The music itself is novel—slide-whistle and clarinet in tandem tend to automatically evoke Laurel & Hardy, and the lines they play are certainly intended to be silly, as they are on all the Hot Shots’ recordings. The only slightly tweaked straightness of the singing makes it work—and of course the words, which are agile as well as goofy: “Don’t give me no peaches / They are full of stones / I like bananas / Because they have no bones / Don’t give me tomatoes / Can’t stand ice-cream cones / I like bananas / Because they have no bones.” Not to mention mysterious: What kind of person can’t stand ice-cream cones?
I feel like hearing a full-length version of The Be Sharps’ “Baby On Board,” from the “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” episode of The Simpsons, would kill the magic of the short-and-sweet take they do on the roof of Moe’s Tavern, but every time I hear those harmonies at the end, I do kind of wish that a full version existed. I feel the same way about “The Greatest Frank Of All,” from the “Village Of The Giants” episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a.k.a. the farewell episode for TV’s Frank. (Dammit, I’m getting a little misty just thinking about it…) But the most brilliant novelty number in this field that I’ve discovered in recent years is… Well, it’s a couple of decades old, actually. “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow” was written by a gentleman named Dale Gonyea, but I stumbled upon it on iTunes through the version by Australian pianist Simon Gallaher. I have since learned, however, that it was actually released as a single in ’79 by Ray Stevens, and subsequently earned a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Recording. And rightfully so: The lyrics aren’t what you’d call highbrow humor, but the music is such a spot-on parody of Manilow’s late-’70s sound that, at least as of this writing, it’s cited right next to the work of “Weird Al” Yankovic in Wikipedia’s article on pastiches. Admittedly, your non-novelty mileage will vary based directly on how much you dig Barry, but every time the track pops up on the iPod, damned if I’m not right there pleading for Mr. Manilow’s help, too.
I’m not from Chicago, and I first heard the ’85 Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle” around the same time Fruity Pebbles was airing its “Rappin’ Barney” commercials, and instantly understood that the two shared a cringe-y miscalculation. But during the summer of 1986, I was a significantly more impressionable 7-year-old living in Bayside, New York, a pebble’s toss from Shea Stadium in Flushing. The Mets were in the middle of their seemingly destined World Series run, buoyed by a core roster of All-Stars who were almost unilaterally conditioned by amphetamines, cocaine, or alcohol. Which might explain their eager participation in “Let’s Go Mets Go!”, a power-rock anthem that hinged on chanted repetition of that titular chorus, an opening salvo announcing “We’ve got the teamwork / to make the dream work” and a blustery lead vocal by Tom Bernfeld that’s the stuff of future Mr. Show satires. Fun facts about “Let’s Go Mets Go!”: It was conceived by Jerry Della Femina, the NY ad exec who supposedly inspired Mad Men, and its accompanying video (never mind its 26-minute making-of) eventually went triple platinum and featured cameos by the likes of Howard Stern and, appropriately, Cameo. But to a dieheard young Mets fan 25 years ago, the song, like the team itself, was simply amazin’. It’s still played on the big scoreboard in the Mets’ new CitiField environs, and continues to produce pure, unadulterated joy and shameless nostalgia in every orange-and-blue devotee. Every so often, my friends and I will pop in my original VHS of the video, not because it’s ironic or embarrassing, but because it reminds us of when our team’s guys were the kings of New York, and it makes us want to stand up and shout, “Let’s go Mets!”
I’ll probably get crucified for this, but I really, really liked the music of MTV’s mock boy band, 2gether. Though the band was short-lived, lasting for only a couple of years and a couple of seasons of smart mockumentary TV, they produced some really fun, appropriately parenthesized songs like “Say It (Don’t Spray It)” and “The Hardest Part Of Breaking Up (Is Getting Back Your Stuff).” One of the members died in real life in 2001 (R.I.P. QT), ultimately breaking up the joke, but we’ll always have tracks like “U + Me = Us (Calculus)” to get us through those sad memories.
Even before I’d actually heard his show or his records as a kid, I knew I’d love Dr. Demento. I mean, with a name like that, how could I not? Of course, the legendary radio DJ’s long association with “Weird Al” Yankovic didn’t hurt. But it’s one of the most notoriously annoying songs Demento ever championed, “Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes, that remains my favorite Dementoid anthem. I probably gravitated to the song because everyone else hated it, and I just loved how people’s noses would wrinkle at the mere mention of it. Beneath its layers of Chipmunks-meets-Residents weirdness, you have to admit it’s catchy as hell. That’s what makes it extra-annoying, right? When I later learned that actor and science-fiction cult figure Billy Mumy was half the enigmatic duo, that just made it even cooler. Barnes & Barnes wound up being Demento’s house band of sorts, appearing on numerous comps and even backing him on his unofficial theme song (“Doctor Of Dementia,” naturally). But “Fish Heads” will always be the tastiest.
A few years back, my wife introduced me to Heartland Music’s Wacky Favorites, a two-disc compilation of classic novelty songs that I only recently connected with a mugging-centric commercial that haunted cable networks in the mid-’90s. The track list is thick with Dr. Demento favorites and novelty staples: “Surfin’ Bird,” “Witch Doctor,” “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp),” et al. Nonetheless, Wacky Favorites did manage to surprise me with “Alley Oop,” a musical tribute to V.T. Hamlin’s comic-strip caveman recorded by The Hollywood Argyles. Like a lot of the artists we’ve brought up in this AVQ&A, the Argyles weren’t a real band, per se—they were the in-studio creation of music-industry lifers Gary Paxton and Kim Fowley. And while I find the Argyles’ biographical information endlessly fascinating (especially stuff about Fowley, best known for being the Svengali-like figure behind The Runaways, and/or a world-class skeeze), the, ahem, primitive minimalism of the group’s biggest hit stands up on its own as well. So do Paxton’s snarled vocals, which lend an odd, hepcat affectation to lyrics I suspect aren’t entirely true to the source material. The song’s been covered a number of times—the Argyles’ version followed an original by the song’s author, “Elvira” songwriter Dallas Frazier; the Beach Boys later mashed it up with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on Beach Boys’ Party!—but the doo-wop-flavored version Paxton and Fowley cooked up in 1960 is the best. It’s a perfect distillation of legitimate musical acumen, off-the-cuff fun, and—like the Heartland collection that eventually carried it into the next century—a bit of savvy marketing.
Wacky Favorites ad:
Because of one unfortunate moment on the original run of Beavis And Butt-head, many people think of Ween as a novelty band. After seeing the high-pitched schizo video for “Push Th’ Little Daisies” get skewered by Mike Judge’s heavy-metal-loving idiots, the creation of Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman was branded as a “weirdo” band, liked only by college kids who spent their studying time doing whippets and guzzling Mountain Dew. But Ween has proven to be a real band, adept at simultaneously paying tribute to and satirizing many different styles of pop and rock. And when Melchiondo and Freeman put their minds to making a real pop song, they often do a great job, as they do on the 1997 song “Ocean Man.” Yes, it was on the SpongeBob SquarePants movie soundtrack, but that came seven years after the song was released. It’s eminently singable, and lyrics like “Ocean man / the crust is elusive when it casts forth to the childlike man” evoked a feeling of being under the sea more than 90 percent of the songs in The Little Mermaid ever did.
This almost certainly shouldn’t count, because I don’t pull this one up on my iPod all that often, but I do have a very large soft spot for a little-known cover of “The Wanderer,” performed by Foreign Intrigue. The group evokes the song via a ridiculous, over-the-top impression of former Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger. When I tell people about this song, they’ve almost never heard of it (and I’m thankful it’s popped up on YouTube, since otherwise it sounds like something I made up in a fever dream), but “The Wanderer” is a good song, the Kissinger gimmick is just strange enough to have looped around to being funny again (now, for how strange it is, as opposed to how topical it was in the ’70s), and I’m always reminded of the first time I heard this, which was when my dad happened upon it on one of those compilations of old rock ’n’ roll hits. He laughed so hard at this that he had to play it again immediately for my mother, then explain to me at length who Henry Kissinger was. So I learned something from it, I guess.
This is a bit of a tricky one for me, because I love a lot of what falls under the rubric of novelty music. The first concert I ever attended was my childhood hero “Weird Al” opening for the Monkees. I aspired to be a novelty musician myself as a young man, and scored a minor hit in the third grade of Milwaukee Jewish Day School with my Madonna parody “Like A Sturgeon.” I’ve probably listened to Lonely Island’s Turtleneck & Chain more than any other album this year, but I am going to go with Dewey Cox and the Walk Hard soundtrack. There was a huge publicity push for this loving homage to self-destructive rockers, co-written by Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow, but when the film flopped, the character seemed to have run its course. That’s a shame, because I think the Walk Hard soundtrack is a masterpiece full of loving, beautifully crafted pastiches, brilliantly satirical covers like the Dewey Cox disco version of David Bowie’s “Starman,” and even a bona fide anthem in “Beautiful Ride.” The joke of “Beautiful Ride” is that Cox must sum up everything he’s learned and experienced over in the four perfect minutes before he dies, but like pretty much every song in the movie, it works as both a parody of inspirational anthems and as a gorgeous, unexpectedly moving ballad in its own right. It was written for a fictional character in a goofy musical spoof, but I would so have “Beautiful Ride” played at my wedding.
Pigeonholing They Might Be Giants as a “novelty” is not only unfair, it’s patently untrue. But throughout the band’s long, storied career, it’s produced plenty of songs that straddle the line between quirky and novelty. For every “She’s An Angel” or “Sleeping In The Flowers,” there’s a “Shoehorn With Teeth” or “Toddler Hiway.” But what’s always raised even those songs to another level is TMBG’s knack for pop hooks and lyrics that on the surface seem a bit silly, but occasionally pack some depth. How else to explain such a long, successful career for a band that’s writing a collection of children’s songs one minute and then covering Vancouver punk-pop outfit Cub the next? TMBG’s breakthrough 1990 album Flood featured quirky pop delights (“Birdhouse In Your Soul”) and songs that were just plain quirky (“Particle Man”), but none that straddled the line as well as “Istanbul.” The song is about how Istanbul was Constantinople, but is now Istanbul, which makes it hard to view it as anything but a silly novelty song. But making silly songs insanely catchy is what TMBG does best, and “Istanbul” is no different. In the end, the most proper video form for the song was, naturally, set to a cartoon. (Tiny Toon Adventures, to be exact.
Novelty songs—the term makes me cringe, but there it is—have always had a substantial overlap with the avant-garde: Listen to Spike Jones' “Cocktails For Two,” or cue up some of Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes scores without the accompanying cartoons, and you’ll hear a collision of cultures that never would have made it to a wide audience were it not funny. In conceptual terms, the same goes for the musicals of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whether it’s The Book Of Mormon or South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut or Team America: World Police. In addition to making swift, sharp points about, say, the repressiveness of organized religion or the infighting that takes down many a would-be insurrection, songs like “Turn It Off” and “La Resistance” serve as note-perfect musical parodies, both honoring and subverting their chosen form. And, of course, they’re catchy as H-E-double-hockey-sticks.
The Frogs might disagree, but most of their early oeuvre could reasonably be considered novelty songs—dirty, filthy, ridiculous novelty songs. In 1996, Matador released a compilation of the duo’s improv-heavy home recordings—of which there are literally dozens of hours—called My Daughter The Broad, and it’s a great place to start. If you don’t find the 11-second song “Who’s Sucking On Grandpa’s Balls Since Grandma Ain’t Home Tonight,” then you probably won’t like any of their other classics, either. Noted Frogs superfans include Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Billy Corgan, just so’s you know.
My initial instinct was to just say "Flight Of The Conchords" and leave it at that, but I have a hard time classifying musical comedy as “novelty,” especially when it’s as well-executed—in terms of both music and comedy—as FOC’s songs. The term “novelty” implies a certain tossed-off, ephemeral quality that I don’t think applies to “Bowie” or “Carol Brown” or “Business Time.” They’re silly and, yes, novel songs, but they’re as much songs as they are jokes, which I think excludes them from the “novelty” category. (Same goes for many of the entries on this list, if I may be all contentious about this.) I am comfortable, however, calling the Parry Grip oeuvre novelty songs: They’re slight, one-note gags set to music, and they are catchy as hell. Admittedly, a good part of their charm can be attributed to the cute YouTube videos that accompany them—or rather, inspire them, since the lyrics are basically just nonsensical descriptions of said videos set to music. But songs like "Hamster On A Piano," "Boogie Boogie Hedgehog," and "Shopping Penguin" are catchy—and yes, cute—enough to stand on their own without the visuals.
The small Wisconsin burg I grew up in put on a huge festival every autumn, the highlight of which was a lip-sync contest held in the high-school auditorium. (Note: You cannot possibly get more all-American than this.) Being a strangely attention-hungry indoor kid, I dominated the show year after year with props-heavy renditions of “Weird Al” songs. But near the end of my reign, I could sense the town was growing weary of Alfred Matthew Yankovic. Looking for a fresh source of inspiration, I picked up a cassette copy of Monty Python Sings. I didn’t know much about Python at the time, but the troupe’s wickedly clever, mostly Eric Idle-penned songs immediately struck a chord. Songs like “Galaxy Song,” “I Like Chinese,” “Finland,” “Bruces’ Philosophers Song,” and the monster hit “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” aren’t just one-note musical gags, they’re rock-solid pop and showtunes. Of course, I didn’t use any Python songs for my lip-sync that year; instead, I dressed up as a nerd and performed another novelty tune that (sort of) stands on its own, Mac Davis’ “It’s Hard To Be Humble.”