Monday, October 12, 2009

239. "Weird Al" Yankovic: "Weird Al" Yankovic (1983)

You never forget your first love. Mine was "Weird Al" Yankovic. Sure, as a young boy I listened to top 40 occasionally, and I regularly grooved to my mom's Elton John, Billy Joel, and James Taylor records, but I didn't know the grip of musical obsession until 1984, when I first heard Eat It on a 45 RPM single at my daycare.

From there, I got every "Weird Al" tape I could find and listened to them incessantly. It's not odd that a prepubescent boy whose life ambition was to become Editor-In-Chief of Mad Magazine found Al's songs to be the pinnacle of comedy. But it is strange that I responded so strongly to parodies of songs I had never heard. That's right, a kind word for my musical awareness at this time in my life is "non-existent."

Now as I look at it, I wonder if I don't have Al to thank for my eclectic, expansive taste in music, heck even my interest in becoming educated about music history. Think about it, just by listening to his records, I was exposed to every pop genre imaginable. Really, studying Al's career is like doing a survey of the last 26 years of pop music. Are you ready?
I'll separate each album into three categories: Song Parodies, Style Parodies, and What The?! In addition, I'll keep a running tally of references to food and television (I may regret this).

* * *

"Weird Al" Yankovic's self-titled debut was never one of my favorites as a kid. I listened dutifully, of course, but I not nearly as much as I listened to his other albums. The easy conclusion would be that I had an innate sense that this was proto-Al, but in truth, the album presents the Yankovic shtick almost fully formed. Goofy parodies of then-popular songs? Check. Accordian? Check. Style parodies? Check. Hand fart noises? Check. However, that's not to say everything is in its right place just yet.

Song Parodies:
Ricky - the most clever parody on the album - actually improves upon its source material, Toni Basil's 1982 hit Micky. Instead of being annoying, it's about someone annoying. The Ricky of the title is Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy, and the song runs through the show's main tropes. My favorite line: "Oh Ricky what a pity don't you understand / That every day's a rerun and the laughter's always canned." Tress MacNeille (voice actor most famous for The Simpsons) does the voice of Lucy, and in especially inspired moment, the tune morphs in the the I Love Lucy theme at the end.

Sadly, not all the parodies are as inspired. Though they're all put across with great musical spirit, the lyrics are often lacking. I Love Rocky Road takes on Joan Jett's 1982 hit I Love Rock 'n' Roll. There's nothing in the lyrics that you can't get from reading the title, though when Al pleads "make it talk" during the accordion solo, it is pretty funny. Stop Draggin' My Car Around (after the Tom Petty / Stevie Nicks duet Stop Draggin' My Heart Around) is in the same boat. The narrator is addressing a repo man, and the joke gets old fast. Musically, Al misses a prime opportunity to imitate Stevie Nicks' overwrought singing style, instead doing the song as a solo (though the background vocals are pretty spot on). My Bologna, which got Al noticed early on and helped launch his career, is a parody of the 1979 Knack jailbait tune My Sharona. Once again, you get the idea once you hear the title, and a burp replaces the famous "wooo!" Classy.

The album's final parody is of Queen's 1980 hit Another One Bites the Dust (Another One Rides the Bus) and it recovers a bit. The song is simple and raw, and the lyrics are pretty clever ("The window doesn't open and the fan is broke / And my face is turning blue / I haven't been in a crowd like this / Since I went to see the Who.").

It's also worth noting that all of the parodies on this album prominently feature accordion, making them clearly discernible from the original. In later parodies, Al's band reproduced the instrumentation of the original songs a bit more faithfully.

Style Parodies:
As his career went on, Al got more direct with his style parodies (songs obviously in the style of an artist but with completely original lyrics and melody), but on his debut it's not that clear cut. Some songs fit clearly into a certain genre, but there are few that seem aimed at a particular musician.

One interesting aspect of the style parodies on "Weird Al" Yankovic is the social commentary Al manages to work in. The Kinksish (Kinksy?) Happy Birthday finds him reminding the birthday boy or girl that "You should be good and happy that there's something you can eat / A million people every day are starving in the street." One might say that it's a condemnation of comfort and privilege. That's a theme that shows up again in Buckingham Blues, another ironic juxtaposition of genre and subject along with a healthy dose of class commentary. The song tackles Prince Charles and Princess Diana (who had married in 1981) and imagines how tough their lives must be. Though the line "Bein' heir to the throne, it must be pretty hard / Gotta post for pictures out on the front lawn" is not nearly as funny now as it once was, given how Diana died.

The Check's In the Mail is a '20s style ragtime tune that addresses the go-go smile-and-stab-'em-in-the-back '80s. Over trumpet and ukulele accompaniment, Al's narrator bullshits and shmoozes ("Why don't you leave a message with my girl / I'll have lunch with your machine"). The power-poppy I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead addresses the curious rise of the yuppie / hippie hybrid. Overall, these songs show a man who's scoffs at convetions and pretense, and is in touch with the world around him.

But then you have Gotta Boogie, a disco style parody that contains exactly one joke. Instead of "boogie" meaning dance, it means a booger. Get it?! The style parodies are rounded out by the Elvis-in-Vegas tune Such a Groovy Guy, with a narrator who doesn't lack self-confidence. It's neither bad nor great.

What The?!
Mr. Frump In the Iron Lung, with another self-explanatory title, was supposedly a crowd favorite at Al's early concerts (at least according to the liner notes for the Al In the Box set), and I can see it playing well in person. But on record it seems mean and callous, especially since it ends in poor Mr. Frump's death. Not cool.

References to TV: 2
References to food: 3
Grade: C+
Fave Song: Ricky

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