Wikipedia tells me that a novelty song is “a comical or nonsensical song, performed principally for its comical effect”. I guess that’s pretty much what I would have said if someone asked me to define a novelty song – but let’s at least take Wiki’s word for it.
A few years ago I bought a double-CD of 50 novelty songs. I don’t remember ever listening to it. Couldn’t do it. But, more recently, I found volume four of Dr Demento presents: The Greatest Novelty Records of All Time. It deals with the 1970s and features a few, er, gems.
Steve Martin singing King Tut, of course “Weird Al” is on there, The Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the great novelty-song writer Allan Sherman is represented also. It’s funny hearing Randy Newman’s Short People on this record – yes, it’s something of a novelty song, and I’m not trying to defend it here, it’s not my favourite of Randy Newman’s songs (how you’d pick just one favourite from his pen is anybody’s guess) but it was just weird hearing it as a novelty song.
Listening to it on the original album – or on a Randy Newman compilation it doesn’t stick out as an obvious novelty song. It’s just another Randy Newman song. Part of his work. I like it. It was certainly part of my introduction to the world of Randy Newman but hearing it on this compilation brought it home that Short People really is/was a novelty song.
Perhaps the best (and by that – when dealing with novelty songs – we also mean worst) inclusion on this Dr Demento compilation is Pencil Neck Geek by Classy Freddie Blassie (any pro-wrestling fans reading this – or having it read to them – will know exactly who Classy Freddie Blassie is/was).
We all grew up with novelty songs if we grew up listening to the radio – they’re a staple. DJs love them. They sometimes make their own novelty songs and thrash them on air. A classic Kiwi example would be Stole My Car, the parody of How Bizarre.
I’m a bit sick of average comedians pulling out the acoustic guitar and vamping away to plug together some silly rhymes – but plenty of great comedians have had their way with a novelty song. From Steve Martin’s King Tut, something of a mini-phenomenon really, through to the song parodies that continue on Saturday Night Live – most famously via The Lonely Island.
Those tend to be reliant on the video to sell the humour of the song in most cases. Allan Sherman was a key antecedent when we’re talking about “funny” songs by comedians. You can go further back to Flanders and Swann, the wonderful Tom Lehrer, the Goons…you can go way back…
But my real introduction to novelty songs – as something you could, I dunno, treat seriously came from two sources in particular. I collected up a few silly bits and pieces along the way, I had the hideous Dame Edna Everage Party Experience album on vinyl – I was about 10 years old. I still have the 12″ of Alf singing Stuck On Earth. I’ve even played it in public – more than once. And recently, too. Sadly, I lost my 7″ of Elliott Goblet singing Friday On My Mind. It used to sound particularly great played at 33 rather than 45, as I recall.
But the two great touchstones for me, outside of all that bargain-bin madness, was finding out about Ray Stevens. Particularly his Gitarzan song. And then Tom Lehrer. I collected up a bunch of Lehrer’s albums, but the one that was the revelation, the introduction, the one that sold me on this unique talent was An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. Recorded in 1959 – I can still get a good chuckle out of some of his between-song banter. The little ditties about The Elements and Oedipus Rex and Clementine and Poisoning Pigeons In The Park still raise a dry smile. Lehrer’s deadpan delivery and musical satire made him a droll prospect, a sharp mind informing his work. He was a Harvard lecturer – a mathematician. He went on to write music for The Electric Company – so it turns out I had been listening to Tom Lehrer before I even knew who he was.
He’s still alive, he’s 93. You’ve gotta love this quote from Lehrer, “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while”. He’s joking of course. But you can see there, in that somehow straight-faced-but-with-tongue-in-cheek comment the influence that Lehrer must have had on Randy Newman. That dripping-with-droll banter.
Some novelty songs drive me bonkers – of course they’re supposed to. But some I find myself drawn to, a similar sense of nostalgia as to when I recall old TV themes perhaps.
People write off “Weird Al” Yankovic, but that guy has made a serious career of writing funny songs, creating parody videos. I enjoyed speaking to him ; I sat through his live DVD and though it was not great there are still one or two songs that tickle my fancy. I love his Amish Paradise and White And Nerdy. But it was his Michael Jackson parodies in the 1980s that made me think he was amazing. And hilarious. I was allowed to think that then. I was 10 or 11 years old.