“Weird” Al Yankovic’s albums are no different than the more fashionably cool records by groups like the Stooges or Funkadelic – They are snatched up eagerly as soon as we put them out in the shop. That’s right, “Weird” Al in 3-D, Dare to be Stupid and the coveted UHF soundtrack are high demand records.
Nobody talks about it in the record shop but everyone between the age of about 45-25 has a favorite “Weird” Al song. He has sold millions of albums, including four gold records and six platinum records as measured by Billboard.
“Weird” Al had already appeared on the national syndicated musical comedy radio program, The Dr. Demento Show, before he released his first album (it’s where he debuted the hilarious Queen parody “Another One Rides the Bus”) – It was the first thing he recorded in a professional studio and was produced by dinosaur rocker Rick Derringer (mostly a session guitarist who played with Edgar Winters, Alice Cooper and Steely Dan – he had a hit with a cover of “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” in 1973).
(“Another On Rides the Bus”)
The album has hilariously juvenile cover art (not by MAD Magazine’s legendary Mort Drucker, as many people think, but by a Brazilian artist named Rogerio). “Weird” Al is seen dreaming of stardom on the front cover and on the back performing before an audience and dreaming of being back in his bedroom. The funniest things on “Weird” Al Yankovic are the song parodies, like “Another One Rides the Bus” and this lampoon of a Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks hit:
(“Stop Draggin’ my Car Around”)
The album sold modestly (which is pretty good for comedy) but many listeners were turned off by it’s polka-based instrumentation. Every song was performed with accordion, guitar, bass and drums, and was accented by silly hand production and gross noises. Their saving grace was in “Weird” Al’s light-hearted hilarity, a contract to the divisiveness that was common in comedy records of the period.
“Weird” Al’s second album brought in a higher caliber of session musicians and the parodies attempted to sound like the originals. “Eat It”, for instance, even has a rockin’ solo similar to the one by Eddie Van Halen in the original, Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (the prince of pop, by the way, thought the parody was “a funny idea”). Rick Derringer played the new solo, which has a goofy explosion at the end.
The album and the single “Eat It” were a hit, and also launched “Weird” Al’s video career on MTV.
One of the reasons I think we all love “Weird” Al is his hilarious video parodies, which he has continued to do with great success for each new album since 3-D. At a time when music videos were taking themselves dreadfully seriously, videos like “Eat It” and “Like a Surgeon” provided needed comic relief.
The success of his videos led, no doubt, to his opportunity to write and direct his own movie, the totally underrated comedy UHF, in which “Weird” Al, Kramer from Seinfeld and the Nanny lady from This is Spinal Tap save a cable television station with a cast of oddballs.
(“King of Suede”)
When I was eight years old I didn’t even know which songs were parodies on 3-D and “Weird” Al’s next, and best, album Dare to be Stupid. “King of Suede”, for instance, is still more memorable to me than any song the Police recorded. And while that is probably not how most people feel, I think we can all agree that nobody remembers “Jeopardy” by the Greg Kihn Band.
Another memorable thing about “Weird” Al’s albums, besides the goofy originals like “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung” and “Nature Trail to Hell”, are the polka medleys. Each album contains a rapid-fire sequence of pop songs performed in polka style with humor and genuine enthusiasm. Often each part of the medley is so fun you wish they’d perform the entire song. The soundtrack to UHF contains “Weird” Al’s polka tribute to the Rolling Stones:
(“Hot Rocks Polka”)
Some artists have not appreciated “Weird” Al’s sense of humor. Michael Jackson requested he not record a parody of “Black or White” (“Snack all Night”) because of the original song’s serious message. Michael also let “Weird” Al parody two other songs and use the set from his “Bad” video, so he was on the whole a supporter. Coolio, on the other hand, was super-pissed about “Amish Paradise”, a parody of his monster hit “Gangster’s Paradise”, even though his label granted the artist’s permission. Kind of ironic, since his song was based pretty substantially on Stevie Wonder’s “Pasttime Paradise” from Songs in the Key of Life. I, for one, can’t help but wonder if Stevie Wonder got any royalty payments for “Amish Paradise” even though it was twice removed from his original, haunting and beautiful song.
Prince has always refused permission to “Weird” Al, and according to a Wired interview with “Weird” Al when the two were seated in the same row at the American Music Awards Prince’s lawyers sent him a request that he not make eye contact (you can read it here ’cause that’s hilarious).
Many artists have raved about the parodies, notably Kurt Cobain, who proclaimed “Weird” Al a musical genius, but originally was concerned the parody of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would be about food. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits even played guitar on the parody of his band’s hit “Money for Nothing”!
He has recorded two hilarious Star Wars songs, both parodies. “Yoda” is based on the Kink’s “Lola” and follows the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. “The Saga Begins” uses Don McLean’s epic “American Pie” to tell the story of The Phantom Menace.
“Weird” Al sort of disappears between albums and he’s never been a particularly dynamic celebrity – he has always maintained an active touring schedule and if you ever get a chance to see him perform you won’t regret it. He puts on a great show!
I recall that it was just before he was scheduled to perform here in Mankato that his parents died in a tragic accident (carbon monoxide poisoning in their home from a closed flue on the fireplace). He didn’t cancel his concert and later told a reporter, “Since my music had helped many of my fans through tough times, maybe it would work for me as well.” Always accessible to his fans and a genuine lover of music, “Weird” Al is a unique figure in the past three decades of pop music history. Besides Spike Jones I cannot think of anyone whose creativity and humor came through so naturally as to make it seem easy to be so goddamn funny.