Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Track-by-track: Why Weird Al's debut album is an unheralded (punk) masterpiece

"Weird Al" as he appeared on the cover of his eponymous debut LP.

"My whole first album was recorded extremely quickly, and without a lot of attention to detail or production value. Basically, we didn't have any money, and we were doing it as quickly as we could. The perfectionist in me would like to just re-record that whole first album, although I don't have the George Lucas impulse to actually redo everything I've done in the past. I like to let things exist in their historical perspective. People like 'Another One Rides The Bus' the way that it is, with my drummer banging on the accordion case. I don't think they'd really want to hear it done with Pro Tools in a 98-track studio."
-"Weird Al" Yankovic in a 2007 interview with The AV Club

With a career now into its fourth decade, Alfred Matthew "Weird Al" Yankovic has certainly exceeded all expectations for a novelty artist in terms of longevity and popularity. One of the keys to his success, one might argue, has been the ease with which he has adapted to changing musical styles and fads over the last 30 years. His recordings, videos, and stage act have all certainly become slicker and more technically polished over time. A song like "Pancreas" from his last studio album, Straight Outta Lynwood, might even be described as "pretty" with its stacked harmonies and fussy, Brian Wilson-inspired arrangement.
Al and his squeezebox in the raw, early days.
There is nothing "pretty" or "fussy" about Yankovic's eponymous 1983 album. Clocking in at a little over 32 minutes (virtually the same length as the Beatles' debut LP), "Weird Al" Yankovic is a half-hour of almost-undiluted musical ugliness, the closest thing to a punk album Yankovic has ever recorded. The rude, homely sounds of Yankovic's accordion are prominently heard on each of the album's twelve tracks, and Yankovic's singing voice is much more gravelly and nasal on this LP than it is today. The new-millennium Yankovic has no consistent comedic or musical persona. He's become a Zelig-like chameleon, shifting effortlessly between genres from song to song and changing his appearance and musical style as needed. But back in 1983, Yankovic did have a more-or-less consistent persona. He was the twitchy, hyperactive, seemingly-a-little-pissed-off child of American junk culture, a one-man museum of kitsch. Clad in defiantly tacky Hawaiian shirts and sporting a mustache-and-glasses combo which made him look like he was wearing a permanent Groucho Marx disguise, Yankovic sang about processed junk food and old TV reruns with an edgy, urgent intensity reminiscent of the original punk rock. Indeed, "Weird Al" Yankovic may be accurately described as novelty music's answer to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. Although it is pieced together from songs recorded between 1979 and 1982, there are even some common motifs running through the lyrics, almost giving this LP the feel of a "concept album."

But now, let us examine this album track by track:

1. "Ricky"

A parody of Toni Basil's megahit, "Mickey" (itself a remake of "Hey Kitty" by Racey), "Ricky" is Yankovic's tribute to the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. The song is presented as a musical dialogue/argument between the series' two principal characters, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Aping Desi Arnaz's Cuban accent, Yankovic plays the role of Ricky while voice actress Tress MacNeille is Lucy. In the YouTube age, this kind of pop-culture cross-breeding (combining a current pop hit with an old sitcom) is commonplace, but back in 1983 this was still kind of an "out there" idea. Back then, it was just Al and SCTV doing this kind of stuff on a nationwide basis. Not too many musicians were singing about the pervasive effect television has had on our lives, let alone the fact that we are more conversant with the trials and travails of the Ricardos and the Mertzes than we are with the supposedly "great" works of Western Literature or perhaps even with our own families. Tellingly, Yankovic's combative lyrics get at some nasty subtext lurking beneath the surface of this cheerful sitcom, as when Ricky complains, "I'm sick of Fred and Ethel always coming over here, cause Fred eats all our pretzel sticks and then he spills his beer!"

2. "Gotta Boogie"
One thing you have to understand about the early 1980s is that the last vestiges of the 1970s still hadn't quite disappeared yet. Disco, in particular, was a late 1970s musical trend that was still inspiring backlash in the new decade. (Note, please, the scene in 1980's Airplane! in which the title vehicle manages to knock a disco radio station's transmission tower over.) Yankovic does his part in killing off disco by taking one of the genre's beloved cliches and turning it into an extended gross-out joke about nose-picking. Like "Such a Groovy Guy" on Side 2, "Gotta Boogie" presents us with a would-be Travolta type deprived of his coolness and rendered disgusting to women. "Wanna boogie?" Yankovic asks a female backup singer. "Get that boogie out of my face!" she replies.

3. "I Love Rocky Road"
Nowadays when he records a song parody, Yankovic tries to carefully mimic the source material note-for-note. The results are generally quite flattering to the original record, which is probably why artists are (generally) happy to give Yankovic their consent to have their songs parodied. But in the early 1980s, a Yankovic parody was a full-on musical assault. His early spoofs make complete travesties of the original records, mocking the vocals and the arrangement. "I Love Rocky Road" is a great example, with Yankovic's accordion and "Musical Mike" Kieffer's flatulent hand noises riding roughshod over the guitars. Joan Jett's gritty, "tough as nails" vocals and leather-jacketed rock star posturing are also rendered ridiculous, since Yankovic is singing about an ice cream parlor, i.e. just about the least "rock & roll" place to hang out, with the possible exception of a bingo hall.

4. "Buckingham Blues"
Starting life as a parody of "Jack & Diane," "Buckingham Blues" is one of the most interesting and sadly neglected songs on the album. (Naturally, the untimely death of Princess Di has cast an unfortunate pall over this track.) What stands out to me is that Al Yankovic was kind of an angry young man, the Elvis Costello of Lynwood almost. There's a definite sense of class resentment in Al's sneering description of Charles and Diana's cushy life. How better to demonstrate how "trivial" their problems are than by recording this song in the style of American blues music, traditionally the refuge of underprivileged and overworked African-Americans? Again, junk food continues to be a lyrical motif: "They don't serve no Twinkies with their afternoon tea/Never had a dinner made by Chef Boyardee!" One more lyrical grenade hidden within this song: "And Lady Di, well, she must have it pretty rough/Gotta hang around the house all day making babies and stuff!"

5. "Happy Birthday"
I called this LP Al's "punk" album, and here's the track that proves it -- the unquestioned highlight of Side One, at least for me. According to Al, this was his attempt to recreate the sound of cult favorite singer-songwriter Tonio K, which might make it the earliest of his so-called "style parodies. These songs emulate the overall sound of a performer rather than spoof one particular song. "Gotta Boogie" is a spastic, hyperactive tune with an almost Ramones-like feel. It all but dares you to have a happy birthday despite the abundant misery and suffering in the world, all of which Al is only too happy to catalog. The song is largely written in the second person, so it's like Al is getting right in your face and accusing you. "Well, what's the matter, little friend? You think this party is the pits? Enjoy it while you can because we'll soon be blown to bits!" This one track, in my opinion, is more biting and more badass than anything Green Day have ever committed to tape.

6. "Stop Draggin' My Car Around"
Another conspicuously unflattering song parody, this one takes on "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" by Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty. Ms. Nicks and Mr. Petty have two of rock's more, uh, idiosyncratic singing voices, and Yankovic takes full advantage of this by drawing out the vowels and adding weird inflections to the words. Somehow, for instance, the phrase "use the phone" becomes "eeyuuwwze thuuh pheauuuuwwnn." Al manages to get in some digs at the image-obsessed Southern California club scene as well here. At one point, he impersonates a shallow club owner who has had one of his customer's cars towed away for no good reason: "I really like your snaggletooth necklace/Your pants are groovy and your hair's okay/But then that car of yours is so uncool/Like, wow, I'm sorry but we towed it away."


1. "My Balogna"
This hyperkinetic, way-too-excited ode to processed luncheon meat, a spoof of the Knack's unavoidable smash hit "My Sharona," is the song which made young Alfred Yankovic's career back in 1979. It's his "Love Me Do," his "Satisfaction," his "Tik Tok." It even got him signed to Capitol Records for about five minutes. The version presented on this album is not the crude original single release, the one recorded in an echo-y bathroom. No, this is a (slightly) gussied-up studio remake done especially for the LP. Lyrically, there is not much to comment upon here, just the "Sharona"/"balogna" pun and the frenzied testimony of a man whose Oscar Mayer addiction has clearly reached critical mass. ("I'm the city's biggest balogna buyer!" he either brags or confesses.) This is one of the earliest of Yankovic's many, many songs about monomania -- obsession with one thing to the exclusion of all else, usually something completely banal and unexciting. What always makes me smile when I hear this song is the prominence of Al's accordion in the arrangement. The opening bars have a ludicrously chintzy, rinky-dink sound I find inherently funny, especially when you think about the strutting confidence of the original Knack record. It's such a tiny little sound, the musical equivalent a paramecium earnestly making its way across a football field.

2. "The Check's in the Mail"

Like Paul McCartney before him, Al apparently has a penchant for old-timey-sounding tunes with a vaguely 1920s feel to them. He includes two such numbers on his debut LP, and this is the first of them. It's a rite of passage for all musicians to sing about the lying sleazeballs they encounter on a regular basis (promoters, club owners, various record company weasels and lawyers), and Al gets it out of the way on his first album. Lyrically, this is almost a Randy Newman-type character study: a musical monologue by an unreliable, disreputable narrator. The storyteller here is a fast-talking conman whose speech consists entirely of cliches, empty promises, and outright lies -- all strung together so cheerfully and skillfully that he practically turns lying into an artform. The man is truly a bullshit artist, even rationalizing at one point, "I'm proud to say you're not the only critic of mine." Another way to look at this song is as Al's answer to "Have a Cigar" by Pink Floyd from their Wish You Were Here LP. In Pink Floyd's song, a clueless businessman asks the band, "By the way, which one's Pink?" In Al's song, the motormouthed narrator casually adds at the end of a meeting, "Say, what was your name anyway?"

3. "Another Rides the Bus"
I wrote earlier about Al's early song parodies being travesties of the original records rather than tributes to them. Nowhere is that more apparent than on this track. Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" was the slickest pop record of its day, in many ways a predecessor of the studio-perfected, aerodynamic pop-dance records which now populate the Top 40. In sharp contrast, Al's version is perhaps the ugliest and crudest track on the entire album. Recorded live on The Dr. Demento Show and only slightly "sweetened" for LP release, "Another One Rides the Bus" has an extremely minimalist arrangement, with Al hashing out some approximation of the melody on his accordion while drummer "Bermuda" Schwartz flails away on the instrument's empty case. Meanwhile, the various Dementites and Dementoids in the studio join in with obscene-sounding panting, groaning, and slurping noises. Al's vocals are exceptionally growly and strained as he conveys the anger and paranoia of the urban commuter: "I think I'm missing a contact lens! I think my wallet's gone! And I think this bus is stoppin' again to let a couple more freaks get on! LOOK OUT!" In an example of something Al almost certainly would not do today, the song includes a reference to a then-recent tragedy: the trampling deaths of several fans at a Who concert in Cincinnati. ("I haven't been in a crowd like this since I went to see the Who!") Maybe my favorite moment in the song, though, is when Al abandons the lyrics altogether and simply impersonates the wordless vocalizations of Freddy Mercury.
SIDE NOTE: In later years, the parody/original/parody pattern would become fairly rigid on Yankovic's albums. But that formula had not been quite established back in 1983, so this LP ends with three Al originals, at least two of which are about death.

4. "I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead"
If the "Weird Al" Yankovic LP was Al's formal introduction to the world, then this very song was its thesis statement, a succinct and vivid summation of exactly who Alfred Matthew Yankovic was. There was a vaguely anti-Southern-California vibe to "Stop Draggin' My Car Around" on Side One, but this song is where he really gets to vent his frustrations about the spaced-out, New-Age-y residents (or "cosmic cowboys") of his home state. He slanders and rejects virtually everything they hold dear, from psychoanalysis to Joni Mitchell. As the chorus makes abundantly clear, Al sees the "laid-back" SoCal lifestyle as a kind of living death and wants nothing to do with it. The young Yankovic demonstrates a "lust for life" every bit as convincing as Iggy Pop's. One of the more fascinating lines occurs during the bridge: "Don't want no part of that vegetarian scene." Al, of course, is now a vegetarian himself. One wonders if he has mellowed in other ways, too. Does he now own a redwood hot tub?

5. "Such a Groovy Guy"

The late 1970s gave rise to an unpleasant new character on the American scene: the strutting and egocentric "male peacock," obsessed with sex (often kinky) and always on the make. Again reminiscent of Randy Newman, "Such a Groovy Guy" is a first-person monologue by just such a cretin. Believe it or not, there was once a whole generation of young men trying to follow the lead of John Travolta's Tony Manero character from Saturday Night Fever. One of these clowns got his (disgusting) comeuppance on Side One with "Gotta Boogie," and another is thoroughly humiliated in this song. Our hero starts by bragging about his wardrobe ("I got my alligator boots/I wear my pants skin tight") and then detailing his various fetishes ("For starters I could pour some chocolate pudding down your pants"). But it turns out he's saying all of these things to a woman who is dumping him, and he ends up getting needy and pathetic. "I mean you could do worse!" he pleads, desperately. In a startling development, Al has revealed in interviews that the song was inspired by something his then-girlfriend had heard from one of her exes. So devastating was this track that it took the awesome power of Bruce Campbell to finally rehabilitate the word "groovy." Fun fact: according to Al, this song was based on something his girlfriend at the time told him about an ex-boyfriend.

6. "Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung"
This is the album closer, and Al could not have chosen a darker, more morbid conclusion to his first collection of songs. Musically, "Mr. Frump" has a gentle, whimsical feel -- the second of those vaguely 1920s-ish numbers I mentioned earlier -- but the softness of the music only serves to ironically emphasize the utter callousness and bleakness of the lyrics. The title character is confined to an iron lung and is apparently "living" in a vegetative, non-communicative state. The song's cheerful narrator, one of Mr. Frump's regular hospital visitors, takes shocking advantage of the sad condition of his supposed "friend" by holding completely one-sided "conversations" with the poor, helpless man and shows not one bit of concern for Mr. Frump's obvious health problems. Jokes about iron lungs were a staple of the so-called "sick humor" that arose during the 1950s and 1960s, and it's amazing how many writers and comedians who came of age during those years have referenced the awful devices. There are "iron lung" scenes, for example, in such films as The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers and Cry-Baby by John Waters. Al builds his song around a simple gimmick: he found he could use the bellows of his accordion to mimic the sound of an iron lung. We not only hear Mr. Frump wheezing away at various points in the song, but we actually get to hear his last moments of life! I have to admit, when I first heard this song as a young child it freaked me out terribly. The very idea of iron lungs gave me claustrophobia-related nightmares, and I was horrified by the fact that anyone would sing about the death of an old man with so little feeling or sympathy. But, of course, I grew to love this song over time. In a way, it was an important comedic milestone for me -- one of my first examples of being able to laugh at death. It should be noted, however, that this was the song Al played at his unsuccessful audition for The Gong Show. Perhaps it was too crass even for Chuck Barris, which is truly saying something.

"It's Still Billy Joel To Me"

This song does not appear on "Weird Al" Yankovic for one very good reason: Billy Joel didn't like it one bit. And why should he? This is, without exception, the most scathing, negative song parody Al has ever done. Al does occasionally use his song parodies to poke fun at the original artists or records themselves. "Smells like Nirvana," "Achy Breaky Song," and "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long" come to mind. But never again would he do anything like this! When Billy Joel released his Glass Houses LP in 1980, it marked a major stylistic departure for the erstwhile Piano Man. He temporarily traded in his easy-listening, soft-rock stylings for a harder-edged, New-Wave-inspired sound. This struck many listeners and critics as an opportunistic "poseur" move by Joel, and Al really lets him have it with this song. This is two and a half brutal minutes of lyrical assault, the equivalent of a "diss track" in hip-hop. "Maybe he should dye his hair bright pink and stick a safety pin through his cheeks/Then he'd really fit the New Wave image but he couldn't sit down for weeks." Al's sharp lyrics imply that many 1970s artists were struggling to keep themselves relevant in the 1980s: "Now everybody thinks the New Wave is super/Just ask Linda Ronstadt or even Alice Cooper." It should be noted that Al actually did an officially-approved Billy Joel parody several decades later with "Ode to a Super Hero," a spoof of "Piano Man," but the harmless lyrics were about the Spider-Man films and didn't mention Billy Joel at all.