Let’s be blunt: No one needs novelty songs.
Loosely defined as “a satirical or comedic parody of popular music,” most people instinctively leave the room – or the house – at the first whiff.
Or do they? What, then, explains the enduring popularity of Dr. Demento, querulous-voiced prankster and legitimate, if puzzling, cultural icon? A rock ’n roll writer, label A&R man, and sometime roadie, he began broadcasting a rock and oldies show at Pasadena station KPPC in 1970. He quickly found that the novelty songs he slipped in – notably Nervous Norvus’ “Transfusion,” a truly demented tale about reckless driving, and a precursor to the Cramps’ psychobilly – were what his listeners really wanted to hear.
Now 76, Dr. Demento – a.k.a. Barret Eugene Hansen – ceased terrestrial radio broadcast in 2010, though his program persists online. And now we’re treated to Dr. Demento Covered in Punk, by some counts his 15th official album release. If you’re already hooked on the good doctor’s offbeat charms, you’re likely not in need of encouragement to purchase this collection of supposedly “punk” covers (more on that later) interspersed with the Doctor’s commentary. But can we rightfully recommend this 2+ hour compilation to the rest of the record-buying public? The answer, surprisingly, is: “Yes!” Sort of.
Given the album’s long running time, let’s stick to highlights, disc by disc (roughly half the running time is devoted to the good Doctor’s inimitable between-song banter and guest segments).
Disc 1 begins with Osaka Popstar’s pop-punk cover of “Fish Heads,” a song you may not recognize by name (but surely will by ear). First released in 1978 by “brothers” Art and Artie Barnes (actually Bill Mumy and Robert Haimer), it was made into a spellbindingly odd video by a young Bill Paxton and caused a brief sensation when it was screened during two consecutive Saturday Night Live episodes in 1980. “Fish Heads” is a verifiable earworm, and this version has a toe-tapping drive and spunk. Regardless of which version you prefer, “Fish Heads” remains the Dr. Demento Show’s most-requested song – no small feat, considering its nearly 50-year run – and an obvious labor of love on the part of Osaka Popstar mastermind (and the producer of Dr. Demento Covered in Punk) John Cafiero, who began writing the Barnes’ fan letters while still in grammar school.
Next up we’re treated to a truly inspired pairing: Horror-rock titans the Cramps’ classic “Garbageman” – a song which itself makes numerous references to obscure rockabilly and trash-rock predecessors – covered by none other than William Shatner. As you’re no doubt well aware, in 1968 Shatner released The Transformed Man, widely recognized as one of the worst cover albums – or perhaps worst albums of any genre – of all time. Here, his signature and cavalier disregard for tempo and phrasing intact, Shatner manages to breathe new life into one of the world’s most-loved cult band’s most-loved songs. No small feat, and perhaps worth the price of admission alone.
Other notable moments on the first slab of grooved polycarbonate include the B-52s’ Fred Schneider – who some might already consider to be a parody artist – covering “Fluffy,” a 1980 effort originally by Gloria Balsam that regularly rises to the top (bottom?) of many worst-ever lists. Does Schneider’s cover improve a monumentally abysmal song? No. Then by inverse logic, does that make it, in fact, a better song? We’ll leave that epochal question to you, dear reader.
Colleen Green’s cover of Heathen Dan’s “I Like” –
itself a parody of Tom. T Hall’s 1973 country hit “I Love” – is a standout. Dreamy vocals and a spare bedroom-pop production lend a distinctive charm to lines like “I like smokin’ me some grass / Gettin’ cut with glass / Sniffin’ my cocaine / And pain.”
Quintron & Miss Pussycat deliver an affecting, moody take on Roky Erickson’s 1980 “Creature With The Atom Brain,” already a strange and genuinely unsettling song with an overlay of tragedy, given the former 13th Floor Elevators singer’s decades of struggles with mental illness. And Los Straitjackets turn in an appealingly faithful and vintage-sounding cover of “It’s a Gas,” originally released in 1963 and credited to one Alfred E. Neuman. Supposedly, the sax player on the original session was King Curtis, though it’s unclear who performed the belches.
In a particularly appropriate twist, Shonen Knife take a stab at “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Eat It,” itself a parody of…oh nevermind, you probably already know that. What you might not know is that we have Dr. Demento to “thank” for “Weird Al” in the first place: After the Doctor spoke at Yankovic’s high school, the 16-year-old budding satirist handed him a homemade cassette tape. The rest is, for better or worse, history.
A cover of ‘50s novelty song “The Thing” is, objectively, not punk. But it is Adam West’s last artistic contribution to this mortal coil, and a reminder of his peculiarly hammy, yet knowing genius in the role of Batman and a multitude of others.
With a gasp of relief as the end of disc one comes into sight, we’re treated to Joan Jett lending her iconic glam-punk treatment to the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Science Fiction / Double Feature.” And yes, it’s worth the wait.
Disc 2 kicks off with SoCal stalwarts the Vandals having a go at pioneering satirist Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week,” an acerbic commentary on school desegregation that, sadly, hasn’t aged much. Then, goth-cello outfit Rasputina tackle “Those Two Dreadful Children” by Cruella De Ville, an obscure Northern Irish band who somehow blended goth, post-punk and novelty songs into an impressively bewildering style all their own.
Capitalizing on Demento’s long-running relationship with another trailblazer of parody, Missing Persons cover Frank Zappa’s “Disco Boy.” Though they were written off as lightweights, perhaps with some justification, vocalist Dale Bozzio’s chirpy, affected stylings are a perfect vehicle for Zappa’s, shall we say, less-than-generous feelings towards disco.
If we were forced to pick just one of the many more or less pop-punk contibutions to this collection, it might well be the Misfits’ take on “The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati,” a rightly little-known song by 70s novelty-rock outfit Rose & the Arrangement. Even lacking Glenn Danzig, who took nearly 30 years off from his veritable franchise of horror-rock due to legal acrimony, the iteration of the band on this recording – including Dez Cadena, perhaps Black Flag’s best vocalist, though he’s relegated to guitar here – gives this schlockfest a run for its money.
The “musical” portion of the disc ends on a high note, with “Weird Al” himself delivering a spirited, credible version of the Ramones’ minimalist masterpiece “Beat on the Brat.” At this juncture we venture to say the listener may feel – if only for a fleeting moment – they are, indeed, “punk.”
If we’ve devoted scant coverage to the many pop-punk tracks included here – Nobunny’s take on “Surfin’ Bird,” Balzac’s “Rat Fink,” and the Meatmen’s “I Love Beans,” to name just a few – it’s not for their lack of effort. But given the genuine, well, novelty of many of the other tracks included here – “punk” or not – the ones that fall squarely in the pop-punk genre become harder to differentiate.
This raises a deeper question about what, exactly, constitutes “punk.” When Ramones was released in 1976, even many musicians found it unlistenable: Abrasive, offensive, aggressive, lacking in musical ability and creativity, and worse were thrown at it. Today, the sound of the Ramones is relatively mainstream, insofar as they played fast, catchy, melodic guitar-based rock (for the sake of argument, let’s ignore the lyrics about bashing in kids’ skulls with baseball bats).
So if pop-punk – roughly speaking, the sound the Ramones pioneered – has achieved mass popularity and airtime, then does it force a reaction from anymore anymore? Regardless of musical genre, wasn’t that the inspiration behind punk in the first place?
If you make it to the end of Dr. Demento Covered in Punk – not a foregone conclusion, by any means – you will, hopefully, have garnered an appreciation for singular music fan Barret Eugene Hansen’s unique enthusiasms and idiosyncratic worldview, one he’s shared with a sometimes puzzled audience for nearly 50 years.
But perhaps the most “punk” thing about this collection is the sheer torrent of material – good, bad, and just blindingly awful – it contains. It brings to mind Devo’s “Can U Take It?” a song that would be perfectly at home on any Dr. Demento show:
Dreamed I laid a toaster
Daddy caught me in the act
Can you take it?
Apparently, some audiences in the early ‘70s found that song in particular so antagonistic and threatening that they physically assaulted the band while on stage.
The provocative, free, and hilariously weird spirit behind Devo and so many other memorable punk-era artists animates all of Dr. Demento’s work, including this exhausting, but ultimately worthwhile album. Now that’s punk.