Sunday, January 1, 2006

Unserious Music

Note:  This was originally written in in 2003 on my website.  I’m moving it to my blog.

Not musical comedy (though I love that).  I mean the composer/performers who made their fame writing and performing humorous songs.  The best of these are rolling on the floor funny.

I've always like comedy in music.  When I was in college, I had a weekly two-hour show of musical weirdness I called "Nothing Serious," where I'd play the oddest cuts I could find, including some by groups not known for their sense of humor (Cream's "Mother's Lament," Procol Harum's "Mabel"), novelty tunes, and pure weirdness (Lol Coxhill, for instance, whose version of "I am the Walrus" -- scroll down to hear an excerpt -- is officially the weirdest song ever recorded.).

But there were some people whose entire output was funny.  They tend to be passed off as "novelty acts," but some of them can be compared favorable to any songwriter you name.  They wrote songs that can still make you laugh today.  Most are long gone, with no one filling their footsteps.  Humor is the ugly stepchild of music these days, ignored because "humor is subjective" and thus may not sell as well as the same old crap.

So, as a respite from serious music, here is a list of people whose music (if you can find it) is sure to make you laugh.


"Pfft in der furher's face": Spike Jones and His City Slickers

The grandfather of them all, Spike Jones started performing in the 40s.  He's actually the last of this group that I heard.  My mother used to sing "All I want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" when I was a kid, but never mentioned Jones.  I was blissfully unaware of him other than hearing the name somewhere and seeing pictures of this guy with a square face wearing a checked sportcoat.

Spike Jones and his washboard abs.It was Dr. Demento that was responsible for me finding out about Jones. I've never actually heard any of his radio shows, but I do respect his work in bringing these performers to light (I believe he's played songs by all the people I'm mentioning).  I had picked up a cassette tape of his in the late 80s:  best novelty tunes of the 1940s.  It had Jones' "Cocktails for Two."

What a revelation!  "Cocktails for Two" is a somewhat romantic and sophisticated song about sharing a quiet drink together.  Until Jones got hold of it, that is.  Each line of the song is punctuated by a cacophony of sounds that is just plain hilarious.  Cowbells, nonsense syllables, gunshots -- you never know what you'll hear next, even if you heard the song several times before.  I think it may be one of his best.

But it has fine company.  Other great songs by him include "Clink, Clink, Another Drink" (with Mel Blanc!), "My Old Flame" (with a corny Peter Lorre imitation), "Der Fuhrer's Face," "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," "Dance of the Hours," and "The William Tell Overture" (though I do find "Beetlebaum" a bit tiresome).

Jones predated rock music (and hated it when it came along), but his songs show a bizarre musicianship; they were as tight a band as ever performed (quite an accomplishment considering how people had to constantly switch off instruments for effect).  He was truly a genius.


"All the world is in tune on a spring afternoon.": Tom Lehrer

Arguable the best songwriter of them all.  Lehrer is also the best-known name on this list these days (at least, in the US), even though he hasn't recorded anything since the mid-60s.  He vies with being the best lyricist of the bunch, his songs just filled with clever wordplay (I'm especially fond of that long group of -gility rhymes in "When You Are Old and Gray."

I discovered Lehrer in the early 60s.  My cousins (Robbie, Andrea, Carla, and Marcia) had a copy of That Was the Year that Was at their house, and I'd listen to it when I visited.  It was amazing.  I was very into political satire at that point (and used to watch That Was the Week That Was on TV, though I didn't recall the songs), and just plain loved his take on current events.  "Pollution" was a special favorite, as was "So Long, Mom," "Who's Next," and "The Vatican Rag," though, being Jewish, I had no idea about what he was singing about (Genuflect?  Rosaries?). 

Now, however, I'm less impressed by this.  Topical humor dates badly, and except for "So Long, Mom" and (sadly) "Pollution," the songs are only funny if they're explained.  I can remember why, but you young 'uns probably would need a long explanation as to what "George Murphy" and "Werner Von Braun" is.

Lehrer never put his photo onto his records.Somehow I also managed to pick up on "Poisoning the Pigeons in the Park," perhaps his best.  I even sung it when I auditioned for one of the Youth on Stage plays.

Then, a few years ago, I stumbled upon the Rhino Records compilation of his first two albums:  Songs by Tom Lehrer and More Songs by Tom Lehrer.  I had heard them once or twice years ago, but now I finally could understand.

They were brilliant.  Favorites include "Be Prepared," "Irish Ballad," "My Home Town," the medley of "love" songs at the end, "The Elements ," -- well, just everything.  And it wasn't just the lyrics.  Just about all the songs had the ability to get into your head and stay there.

Lehrer stopped performing and writing music in the mid-60s; it seems he felt that he had outgrown that aspect of life and it was time to move on.  I respect that decision, but damn, I wish he hadn't quit.


"Mud, mud, glorious mud": Flanders and Swann

I rediscovered Flanders and Swann on New Year's Eve 2005, when the local First Night celebration had a couple of singers performing their songs. Susan asked me who they were and I had the perfect description:  The British version of Tom Lehrer.

Flanders and Swann contemplate mudThe two composed the songs together:  Michael Flanders writing the lyrics (and usually singing lead) and Donald Swann playing piano and writing the music.  Flanders was chunky and bearded and was in a wheelchair (from polio); Swann thin and tall and wore glasses. 

Up until that New Year's, I actually had only heard the once, and not on record.  Their show, "At the Drop of Another Hat," was broadcast on TV in the early 60s.  I had enjoyed Lehrer at that point and heard the comparison and decided to watch. 

I don't remember much about it.  I enjoyed it, and the songs were great, but one viewing was not enough to get them to stick in my mind.  I do remember being impressed that Flanders was in a wheelchair; you didn't see that sort of thing on TV in the 60s.  I wanted to hear more, but never saw the album, and eventually forgot about them until the Wombat sang their masterpiece "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear" at an Albacon.  And then, the performance at First Night, which inspired me to get one of their CDs.

Flanders was as good with lyrics as Lehrer was, and Swann wrote tunes just about as good.  Like Lehrer, they did topical songs ("All Gall" about Charles DeGaulle) and those with a scientific bent ("First and Second Law," dealing with thermodynamics the way Lehrer dealt with chemistry in "The Elements").

But Flanders and Swann were very British, and a lot of their humor doesn't travel well.  A few of their topical songs are a bit dated.  But their best are timeless, with a dry British wit.  Something like "The Gnu Song" is like Dr. Seuss set to music, while "The Gas Man Cometh," is as relevant today as ever.  "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear" is still great, and their signature tune -- "The Hippopotamus Song" -- is a lovely bit of nonsense.


"And they say that we'll have fun if it stops raining": Allan Sherman

My Son, the Allan ShermanI originally didn't want to include Sherman; I was only considering people who actually wrote words andlyrics.  It's one thing to rewrite lyrics to an existing tune and a whole different dimension to be good enough to create your own tune yourself.  And about (not particularly) "Weird" Al Yankovic, the less said the better, other than that both Larry Siegel and Frank Jacobs (who invented the genre for Mad Magazinea year before Sherman), Sherman, and Christine Nelson did it better and earlier, and Spike Jones, Lol Coxhill, and Vivian Stanshall were gloriously weirder on their worst day than Yankovic has been in his entire career.

Sherman gained fame putting lyrics to existing songs:  "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" for instance.  Even after all this time, he is still the best of it.  It's hard to see just what a sensation he was when My Son, the Folk Singer came out.  It was a time where comedy albums still sold well (some of the biggest best sellers of the early 60s were The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart and The First Family), and Sherman was one of the most successful.  His first three albums went to #1 on the album charts.  Not comedy album chart -- they went to #1 competing against all other songwriters.

I also remember him from a book he wrote:  The Rape of the A.P.E., a history of sexual mores in 40s and 50s America and how the sexual revolution of the 60s changed.  Fascinating read. 


"Busses do go.  Not where you go.": Christine Nelson

Christine NelsonSome of the names here are pretty obscure, but no one is as obscure as Christine Nelson.  Even Blotto might ring a few bells, but Nelson is so forgotten that you can't even Google her.  (Well, not entirely true.  A quick search shows her at #4, with a New York Times minibiography that mentions her film career -- and gets it wrong).  When I went to look her up a few years ago (and not knowing her name), it took some very diligent goolesearching to finally come up with it.

If you know Allan Sherman well, you can identify her (though probably not by name):  She sang with him as a duet in his classic "Sarah Jackman."  It's a good bet you don't know anything about her album (built upon that claim to fame) "Did'Ja Come to Play Cards or to Talk."  It's never been on CD, though you can find LP versions of it on the Internet for ridiculously high prices.

You know, it's rare to find someone this obscure in the days of Google.  I can say anything I want about her without fear of contradiction.  She had the greatest voice in the history of music, with an eight octave range, and her songs were so good that dozens of composers gave up their careers after hearing one song, knowing they could never dream of topping her.

Well, no.  She was funny, but not successful enough to be more than an obscure footnote. 

But I had her album years ago, and it was good.  (I actually don't remember if she wrote any of the songs or lyrics, but I'm keeping her here, anyway.) Most impressive was "Driving Test":

Left is the clutch and right is the gas
And the brake pedal is just in between
Left is the clutch and right is the gas
And you stop on red and go on green.
If they would give out medals
For mixing up the pedals
I would have more than England's queen.
Every driver on the road
Looks like he'll explode
When I go on red and stop on green.

Other songs (like "Don't Leave the Table," "Pokeracci," "Gripes," and the title song) were about playing cards (and the games played at the table without cards). "Dr Moe" was, IIRC, about a gynecologist (and it all went over my head when I listened to it). You can find a track list at

The album was quite funny.  I'd love to hear it again, and I'm glad to give her a place on the Internet.


"'Cause the Humanoid Boogie's Full of Humanoid Rock 'n Roll": The Bonzo Dog Band

The Bonzos are my musical heroes.

I first found out about them in the late 60s. I was working in my father's store with a guy named Keith Cowan.  We were experimenting with selling records, and Keith, who was a few years older than me, would go over the list of new releases and pick out groups to order.

The noises of your bodies are part of this record.One was the Bonzo Dog Band's second album,Urban Spaceman (note to any British reading this:  that was the US version of The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse, with the title song added).  He insisted we order it, describing one of the songs of the previous album as "one insane crescendo."

When I came in, I was fascinated.  I had just gotten my first stereo system, and this was the second album I ever bought (after Sgt. Pepper).

The album was eye-opening.  The best way to describe the Bonzos was "The British Spike Jones."  They were even more insane than Jones, and did it all to a rock beat.  The songs were clever and weird and I loved them.

The core of the group were Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes (who later wrote music for Monty Python), "Legs" Larry Smith (nicknamed for his tap dancing skills), Roger Ruskin Spear, and Rodney Slater, along with various other members that came and went.

The Bonzos produced four albums:  Gorilla, Urban Spaceman, Tadpoles, and Keynsham before breaking up.  They got together once more for an inferior reunion album, Let's Make Up and Be Friendly.  The first three are pure comic genius.

Gorilla (recorded under their original name of "The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band") included both original songs and covers and contains their most famous cut, "The Intro and the Outro," in which the band is introduced . . . and then some.  They claim people like John Wayne on xylophone, Adoph Hitler on vibes, Eric Claption on ukulele, Roy Rogers on Trigger.  It goes on for about three minutes, with all sorts of absurd names being brought into the mix. 

The album also includes such classics as "Death Cab for Cutie" (yes, that's where they got their name).  Stanshall sings it in a dead-on Elvis impersonation which can be seen on the Beatles'sMagical Mystery Tour video), "Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold" (with Spike-Jones-like bizarre instrumentation), "I'm Bored," "The Sound of Music" (the insane crescendo), "Look Out There's a Monster Coming," and several others.

Their next was even better.  It was all original songs, led (in the US version) by their UK hit single "I'm the Urban Spaceman" (produced by Apollo C. Vermouth, a pseudonym for Paul McCartney, who also played banjo on it).  I also loved "My Pink Half of the Drainpipe" (about a boring neighbor), "Humanoid Boogie," "Trouser Press" (which gave its name to a rock magazine) . . . well, the entire album.

The third masterpiece, Tadpoles, was evidently made up of songs from their TV appearances in the UK.  Their version of "Monster Mash" is by far the best ever. "Ali-Baba's Camel" is what Steve Martin wished he could have done with "King Tut." "Doctor Jazz" was another hilarious jazz jam; "Mr. Apollo" was a send up of bodybuilders; "Hunting Tigers Out in 'Indiah'" is a great children's song.  There's not a weak cut on the album.

Keynsham was a step down:  funny, but not as insane.  There was a stress between Stanshall and Innes, the two main songwriters.  Stanshall was a madman; Innes was more quietly funny and satiric.  Still, "Tent" and "Busted" were classics, and the rest of the songs, though good, were more mildly amusing that out and out assaults.

After the breakup, Let's Make Up and Be Friendly was like most reunion albums:  a shadow of the original.  The cover actually showed Bonzo, the dog the group was named after (not Reagan's monkey); the original Bonzo was a very successful comic strip in the UK.

The group continued to show up in the UK music scene for years.  Stanshall appeared on radio with Keith Moon, spent some time in a mental institution, recorded four albums, and had his biggest musical success with his co-songwriting credit with Steve Winwood on "Arc of a Diver."  Sadly, Stanshall died in an apartment fire in 1995.

Innes joined up with Eric Idle to write songs for Monty Python (e.g., "I Love the Yangtzee" and "Brave Sir Robin," which he sang in Holy Grail).  He also wrote all the Rutles songs and played Ron Nasty in the film.  He's still writing and performing (with five albums at least) and, like everyone, has a web page.  Some nice MP3s of his work and a couple of Bonzo songs he wrote.

Roger Ruskin Spear put out the album Electric Shocks, the closest thing to a Bonzo Dog Band Album after the group broke up.  "Legs" Larry showed up tap dancing on Elton John's "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself."

The Bonzos are legendary in the UK.  It was nice to know that, when Tony Blair used the phrase "Cool Britannia," people in the UK chastised him for using the name from a Bonzo song.  They were big on TV (and children's shows) there, and people still remember. 

And the Bonzos are certainly one of the top rock groups for compilations:  All Music Guide lists 15 of them, or three time the number of albums they released while together.  In fact, the original albums are out of print, since the anthology "Cornology" has everything on the albums, plus singles (though, oddly, it fails to include their "No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Get In.").

Everything you want to know about the Bonzos can be found at theBonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band Page (which really makes this article redundant, but it's my web page, so I can do what I want).


"Santa Doesn't Cop Out On Dope":  Martin Mull

imageHow could I have forgotten Martin Mull? He's one of the best known names among these, but not for his songs.  Mull has had a very successful acting career, with over 100 titles listed in the IMDB.But before he came to prominence in shows like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; Roseanne; and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and in movies like My Bodyguard, and Mr. Mom, he put out several successful comedy music albums (and before that, he was a successful visual artist).

Mull was pretty much a solo act. He had a nice, whitebread sense of the absurd.  He was wryly amusing, and also knew how to write a good tune.

Probably his best album is his live Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture in Your Living Room.  Part music, part standup, it was recorded in front of a small live audience.  Some of the jokes are self-explanatory:  "Dueling Tubas," for instance.  "Licks Off Of Records" is about a musician who can only play music he's heard on record.  "Ukulele Blues" is upper class white man's blues played -- quite well -- on ukulele ("I woke up this afternoon/saw both cars were gone/Well, I feel so sad and lonely/I threw my drink across the lawsn").  And then there's the politically uncorrect "(How Could I Not Miss) A Girl Your Size."  It's all made better by Mull's standup commentary.

His album Normal was also pretty good, with the title song, "Wood Shop" (with Crosby, Stills, Black and Decker), and "The Blacks Are Giving Me the Blues."

The albums sales were weak, and Mull turned his interests to acting.  He did do a couple of Christmas singles:  "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope," and "Santa Fly" (the latter jumping on the blaxploitation music bandwagon).


"White stuff on my nose": Blotto

Almost as obscure as Christine Nelson, Blotto was nearly as good as the Bonzos.  They are slightly better known than Nelson, since their top song, "I Wanna be a Lifeguard," was a staple on MTV in its early days. 

Hello, My name is Blotto. What's Yours?Blotto was a local group in the Albany area.  The original lineup was Broadway Blotto, Bowtie Blotto, Sergeant Blotto, Blanche Blotto, Cheese Blotto, and Lee Harvey Blotto.  Blanche left the group and was replaced by Chevrolet Blotto because he happened to have the right last name.  (I knew Blanche in college, BTW, and Susan knew her in high school.  Small world.)

Blotto was well polished for a local act (the core had had some success as The Star Spangled Washboard Band), and wrote most of their own songs.  "I Wanna Be a Lifeguard" was a surf music parody about a shoe salesman's secret dream ("Summer blondes revealing tan lines/I'll make more moves than Allied Van Lines").  "We Are the Nowtones" was about the ultimate cover band.  "My Baby's the Star of a Driver's Ed Movie" parodied death rock.  "Heavy Metal Head" parodied that genre.

Other than "Lifeguard," Blotto never caught on.  In their heyday, they only produced EPs, not an album.  Their songs have been collected and put on CD and they still get together from time to time.

Of all the people listed here, Blotto is the only ones still making music (though they have done very little new since the 80s).  You can find out about them and download some MP3s of their music at

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