Weird Al - The Originals (Spotify playlist)
Now that Weird Al seems to have completed a 14-album, 30-year contract (!!!), seems like a good time to do an informal retrospective of his work. As someone who had the obligatory Weird Al obsession at age 10-12 (roughly 1994-1997), I feel about as qualified to do this as every other person who has wandered in and out of casual Al fandom since [insert number of years since you were 10-12]. In zodiac terms, I’m on the cusp of Alapalooza/Bad Hair Day (which is why, yes, “Livin’ in the Fridge” is on my parodies list).
As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up with a very well-curated set of Dr. Demento tapes that my dad received from an early internet buddy (this was c. 1988). But because of the highly selective nature of these tapes, which were, among other things, cleaned up for the glut of stupid sex-obsessed tracks that swamped any given Dr. Demento show in the late 80s, Weird Al didn’t appear very often. I think “Another One Rides the Bus” was on there somewhere, but for the most part, these tapes prepared me for Weird Al even as he was, unbeknownst to me, dominating the Demento show. What this means, I hope, is that I actually had an accidental glimpse into Weird Al’s novelty childhood — 30s and 40s big band novelties, dumber-than-norm surf rock, and comedy records from the 50s and 60s.
Sasha Frere-Jones has a nice-enough reflection on Weird Al in the New Yorker. But he’s underestimating the edge that Weird Al brought (and I’d say still can bring) to the table. First, as Anthony pointed out in his (convincing!) plea to produce Weird Al’s next phase, the early parodies are raw and off-the-cuff — “Another One Rides the Bus” has about as much relation to post-“Eat It” professionalism as “Love Me Do” has to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Weird Al wasn’t terribly removed from the general new wave sound or spirit in the beginning; when he channels Tonio K. he’s got some real venom.
And second, anyone who has listened to a full Weird Al album in the car with their parents knows, his non-parodies get pretty ugly. As someone who still knows “One More Minute” by heart, I can attest that some of these songs were secretly tucked into the middle of genteel-sounding cassette tapes along with Adam Sandler’s “Medium Pace” and the Jerky Boys.
There are at least four distinct modes of Weird Al: parodies, style parodies, originals, and polka medleys. I’ve made four mixes, each about 50-60 minutes, for each mode, and I’m starting with the most overlooked — the Al originals.
Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between an original and a “style parody.” For the sake of coherence, I reserve “style parodies” for songs that are immediately and undeniably recognizable as a particular band or artist (or even a song, but not strictly a parody). Otherwise we’re faced with the uncategorizable mess of all influences as being “style parodies,” which isn’t even fair to Weird Al, who is very upfront about whose style he’s copying/copping.
Tracklist and commentary under the cut.
- The Weird Al Show Theme
- UHF (single version)
- Since You’ve Been Gone
- This Is the Life
- That Boy Could Dance
- Christmas at Ground Zero
- Gotta Boogie
- One More Minute
- Such a Groovy Guy
- Harvey the Wonder Hamster
- Hardware Store
- Don’t Wear Those Shoes
- You Don’t Love Me Anymore
- Weasel Stomping Day
- Jackson Park Express
- Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung
On his first few albums, Weird Al had several novelty originals, accordion-driven, ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll pastiche like “Such a Groovy Guy” (complete with Zappa-esque semi-sarcastic backup singers) and “Check’s in the Mail” and “One of Those Days.” A lot of these scan as filler, but a few are inspired, even threatening, if not quite succeeding, to transcend the novelty tag, like sprightly Elton John lite-rocker “Don’t Wear Those Shoes,” whose rush of syncopated verses presages their (better) style parody of TMBG in the 90s.
There are the “pure Demento” cuts, a good novelty premise given sufficiently groan-inducing genre set dressing, like honky-tonky “That Boy Could Dance,” with its sideshow goon star, one-joke disco track “Gotta Boogie” (“…on my finger and I can’t get it off!”), and the perennial “Christmas at Ground Zero.”
Weird Al has a streak of misogyny-as-commentary-or-is-it to rival John Lennon, full of self-pitying manchildren and stalkers obsessing over a woman, or the idea of one — along with “One More Minute,” there’s lugubrious creepster ballad “Melanie”; doo-wop number “Since You’ve Been Gone,” with its Tom Lehrer-ish punchline; borderline style parody (I think it’s too broad to signify) of “More Than Words” balladry “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” with its murderous, psychotic ex; and, most recently, and arguably most impressively, “Jackson Park Express,” whose description as a Cat Stevens style parody doesn’t do justice to the internal monologue of a guy reading too much into the microgestures of a woman on the bus.
The rest of the mix is rounded out by just-plain-stupid but nonetheless amusing afterthoughts like 21-second “Harvey the Wonder Hamster” (the realization that he’s just a regular hamster was a comedy revelation at 11 years old — my first taste of anti-humor!), the sickening, splattering bridge to “Weasel Stomping Day,” pitch-black “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung,” breakneck cartoon collage “Hardware Store,” and the theme song to Weird Al’s Saturday morning TV show, an exercise similar to the unlistenable (even for Weird Al) 11-minute “Albuquerque” that is mercifully just over a minute.
And finally there are the couple of soundtrack contributions, which were more frequent in the 80s (with the exception of "Polkamon," his track for the 2000 Pokemon movie). “UHF” might be as close as Weird Al ever got to a “straight” single — a mildly amusing ode to the weird world of high-frequency but low-viewership television that people born after 1990 probably won’t understand. “This Is the Life” is a charming ragtime contribution to Depression-era gangster spoof Johnny Dangerously.
The originals are for the most part hardcore Weird Al fans only, but I’ve tried to put them together into as listenable a collection as possible. Next installment will feature the style parodies, a side of Weird Al that is, if not overlooked, then certainly less appreciated than they should be — the style parodies are consistently his best work.