Ray Padgett, creator of covermesongs.com, recently fashioned his passion for cover versions into book form. Cover Me: The Stories Behind The Greatest Cover Songs Of All Time came out earlier this month, and it examines everything from Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along The Watchtower” to Talking Heads’ “Take Me To The River” in grand detail. In this exclusive excerpt, Padgett goes deep on Weird Al Yankovic’s lesser-known endeavors—not the parodies, but the cover songs.
Weird Al still isn’t sure why his parents first bought him an accordion. “I can only conjecture, but I guess they thought that if you played the accordion, you’re a one-man band, the life of any party,” he says, laughing (many of his sentences end with a laugh). “They were just looking out for my social life.”
As part of his early accordion lessons, Al listened to a lot of polka music. And even when Al wasn’t trying to play polka music, whatever he was trying to play still sounded like it. “Everything I play on the accordion winds up sounding sort of like a polka to many people,” he jokes. “I learned early on that there was humor to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of rock and roll and polka music.”
He first explored that juxtaposition in college in the late 1970s, performing at California Polytechnic’s campus coffee shop. “Mostly it was guys coming in with their acoustic guitar playing Dan Fogelberg covers, very mellow and laid-back,” he remembers. “I used to go up with my accordion and my friend Joel who played the bongos, and we’d do what we called ‘A Medley of Every Song Ever Written In The History Of The World.’ It was just random songs—everything from the theme to 2001 to ‘Hava Nagila.’ The crowd went nuts. That’s when I first thought, People like this.”
Unlike the parodies Al later became famous for, the polka-fied medleys of popular songs were honest-to-goodness covers. He sang the words straight, not adding any of his own lyrical jokes. The humor came in the music, recontextualizing well-known songs into ridiculous accordion-and-bongo arrangements. “You’re hearing something that’s familiar in a very different way, which is also part of the reason parodies are funny,” he says. “As has been said many times, a lot of comedy is the element of surprise. It’s taking you down a road and then making a sharp left turn.”
He was inspired by comedy music predecessors like 1940s bandleader satirist Spike Jones, who occasionally performed a zany polka cover of some serious composer like Tchaikovsky. “I listened to a lot of polka music, because I want to make sure it passes muster with a hardcore polka enthusiast,” Al says. “But it’s comedy, so my medleys owe as much to Spike Jones as they do to traditional polka music.”
As he continued his open-mic performances, Al began recording early song parodies on his tape player and gained local notoriety on Dr. Demento’s comedy-music radio show. Even once Al got a real band and regional fame in southern California (among a small group of comedy nerds), he kept the polka covers in his setlists. Soon, bongo-playing Joel was no more, replaced by Al’s longtime drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz.
In those early days, Al would throw random songs into his polka medleys, “local-interest kind of stuff, things that maybe people outside of L.A. wouldn’t know,” as Schwartz puts it. One early polka medley included tracks by Bad Brains, Suburban Lawns, and The Normal—not exactly “mass appeal” choices.
The polka medleys remained a concert-only gag, though. When Al recorded his debut album in 1982, it blended original comedy songs with parodies of current artists like Joan Jett and the Knack. There were no polkas to be seen—though, as he points out today, the accordion was so prominent that every song sounded kind of like a polka.
The polka covers transitioned from a live novelty to one of the most enduring components of his career when Al realized one thing: the medleys were funnier if you knew the original songs. The local-interest choices had to go. From now on, he would only polka-fy huge hits.
Al first recorded a polka medley on his second album, 1984’s In 3-D. Gone were the obscure oddities from the live shows, The Plasmatics and Bad Brains, replaced by Clash and Talking Heads hits.
The resulting song, “Polkas On 45,” kicks off with Devo’s “Jocko Homo” and rockets from there into Deep Purple, Berlin, and The Beatles. In the polka context, these disparate bands blend together into a zany accordion-fueled sprint. The more somber the original, the funnier to hear it goofed up (a chipper “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is particularly inspired).
“Comedically, I like something that just seems wrong done polka-style,” he says. “If it’s a song that’s already upbeat and happy and bouncy, it’s not nearly as funny. It’s funnier to do Nine Inch Nails as a polka.”
Since that first album, he’s recorded a polka cover medley on every album but one, polka-fying the era’s biggest hits in every one. If the early coffee-shop polkas were “A Medley Of Every Song Ever Written In The History Of The World,” these became more like “A Medley Of Every Song Ever Written In The Past 12 Months.”
The song choices often end up being hits he tried—and failed—to parody. On 2014’s Mandatory Fun, Daft Punk’s massive hit “Get Lucky” would have been one of the most obvious songs to parody. But all Al’s attempts failed, simply because the song has so few words. (“You need enough syllables to be able to actually make jokes,” he says.) So it ended up in the polka medley.
Since Weird Al’s now done a dozen polkas using more or less the same formula as the original “Polkas On 45,” recording them these days should be easy. It isn’t. Al is a perfectionist in the studio, taking these silly songs very, very seriously. As Schwartz says, “He’s extremely . . . I won’t say anal, but I will say meticulous.”
Al could just sing over a basic polka beat—he could even use the same one for every polka—but he doesn’t. Al records a demo at home, then brings it into the studio with his band. They record the main band (drums, bass, banjo—as always, from scratch), the accordion, and Al’s vocals. But where most people would call that polka done, for Al that’s where the real work begins.
The silly sound effects and funny noises that make the polka covers more The Simpsons than the symphony are all done live. “The wacky horns, the fart cushion—they’re live every time,” Schwartz says. “I keep telling him, I’ve got samples from the last one, we could just assemble them. He’ll say no. We’ve done like five or six takes on a toy siren whistle until he gets it exactly right. It has to be exactly the right ‘quack’ on the duck call—and if it’s not exactly right, you’re going to do it again.”
When pressed, Al explains why he puts so much effort into the polkas’ goofy sound effects.
“One of my favorite parts of recording in the studio is being with my whole band sitting in a circle around a microphone and doing claps. We certainly have so many clapping samples at this point that we could just use those, but that’s not fun! For example, on [non-polka original song] ‘Weasel Stomping Day,’ we went through a lot of iterations of trying to come up with sound effects for weasels being stomped and crushed. We literally had a microphone over a trash bucket and we would try every single fruit—biting into an apple, crunching celery—until the waste barrel filled up with food items we broke and mangled and bit into to try to get the proper sounds. I like doing it the organic, hands-on way. It’s just one of the simple pleasures in life.”
Once recorded, there is one more hurdle to clear before a polka cover’s release, and it shows another way in which a parody and a cover song differ: legality. An artist doesn’t need anyone’s permission to cover a song; they just need to buy a license. With a parody, though, one needs neither permission nor any sort of license. A parody is considered satire and falls under a totally different law. Yankovic does get permission from the artists he parodies, but only because he wants to, not because he has to.
When he is recording the polka covers, though, he, like anyone else, needs to get a license. In fact, he needs a bunch of licenses: one for each song he’s covering. “Polkas On 45” contained 13 songs, so he needed 13 licenses: from The Beatles, The Police, Devo, etc. Which brings up a particular quirk of cover-song copyright law.
When you cover a song, you need to pay a set royalty rate—but the same rate applies even if you only cover part of that song. In Yankovic’s polka medleys, he is sometimes covering only five or ten seconds of a song, but the law doesn’t make that distinction.
Which presented him and his label with a problem. Especially in the early days, the license fees would add up to more than his budget for the entire album. So he and his manager worked out a system. When Yankovic finishes recording a polka medley, they figure out exactly what percentage each song takes up, and negotiate with that song’s publisher to pay that percentage of the regular royalty.
For instance, on that first polka, The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” takes up roughly 7 percent of the song. The Clash’s publisher would have to agree to take 7 percent of their usual fee. Instead of paying 13 royalties, Al would pay one royalty, split 13 ways.
“It’s daunting from a legal standpoint,” Yankovic says. “My manager has to go to every one of those publishers that owns the song rights and get their permission to use it in a medley. For every polka medley, my manager has a thick file of paperwork to deal with regarding just the legalities.”
With this system, though, he loses one of the main protections copyright law offers cover songs. If you’re asking for something other than the standard mechanical license—like a discount—the publisher can say no. And occasionally they do. Yankovic once tried an all-U2 covers medley that died when the publisher wouldn’t agree to his royalty system. Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” had to be struck from a medley when the publisher demanded the full rate (they relented a decade later, letting Al polka “Beverly Hills”).
“At this point, thankfully, I’ve got a track record so we get very few turn-downs from publishers,” Yankovic says. “A lot of times if a publisher is giving us a hard time—and sometimes they do because they’d only make a fraction of what they’d normally make—I have to go to the artist and say hey, your publisher’s not playing nice with us, can you please get on that? Some of these artists have grown up on my music at this point, which is of course very flattering, but also helpful when I’m trying to get permission for things.”
Weird Al’s latest album Mandatory Fun, his first-ever No. 1, was the last album on his longtime contract with RCA Records. During interviews, he repeatedly claimed it might be his last album, period.
He’s long complained that the traditional album cycle is ill-suited to parodies; they risk coming out after people have forgotten the originals. He may switch to just releasing singles in the future, putting out a new parody song as soon as he’s done with it.
But without an album—and without a record company budget to license all these cover songs—is there a future for the polka medley? Will he perform a new medley in his upcoming no-parodies tour, perhaps? Al doesn’t know.
“It is a lot of work, particularly for my manager, but I know that fans like them a lot. One option is maybe I won’t record them anymore, maybe it will just be something I do live in concert. Or maybe I will release a new polka as a single. Now that I’m in the freeform stage of my career and not beholden to releasing albums, I can do anything I want to. I guess I just don’t know what I want yet.”