The big talk in the music industry recently was Weird Al Yankovic hitting the number one position on the album chart. Weird Al has been creating parodies of popular songs since the early 80s. Song parodies were not new when Weird Al starting recording. There are four styles of song parodies and Weird Al has recorded all but one of these styles.
Crazy version or "Tearing it up": This was the style preferred by Spike Jones and his City Slicker. The Hoosier Hotshots and early Homer and Jethro records took pop song and turned them into country swing/bluegrass numbers. Since his In 3-D LP, Weird Al has recorded a medley of popular songs performed as polkas. While we're mentioning the polka medleys, we should also point out that while Weird Al was parodying the then popular medley craze of the early 80s, he probably continued these as a tribute to both Spike Jones (gunshots and gargling turn up in these frequently) and Alan Sherman, who included medleys of shorter parodies on his LPs. Classical parody artist P.D.Q Bach would fall into this category.
Sound alike: For the most part this was the forte of Stan Freberg, I can only think of one other recording like this. Freberg didn't change the words (the exception is his "Cry" parody) and barely changed the arrangement. However, he made the joke out of the singer's delivery or the musician's flair or the record's production. While Weird Al has credited Stan Freberg as an influence, he has never recorded a parody of this style.
Stylistic or homages: The masters of this kind of parody were performers of The National Lampoon Radio Hour. The architects of these parodies were usually Christopher Guest and Paul Shaffer. They even recorded one whole LP of parodies entitled Goodbye Pop. Before The National Lampoon, Benny Hill was creating these for his TV show, later releasing them on record. Sometimes these are best with the visual image of Hill pretending to be Mick Jagger or Kenny Rogers. Weird Al has parodied or paid homage to performers such as Bob Dylan, Devo and They Might Be Giants, as well as 70s soft rock, 90s hair bands and 50s rock and roll.
Same tune/different lyrics: This is the style of parody used most by Weird Al. It was also the style used most by Allan Sherman and Homer and Jethro. Sheb Wooley recorded several LPs of this style of parody under the name Ben Colder. Basically these artist took a popular song and rewrote the lyrics, but left the tune the same.
Here is a list of some of my favorite song parodies. Some are well-known and some are obscure, but can probably be found by Googling the title.
1) "Eat It" - Weird Al Yankovic (Parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It") This not only made Weird Al a household name but it legitimized song parodies as an art form. Weird Al benefited from the music video revolution because he could parody both the song "Beat It" as well as the video.
2) "Try" - Stan Freberg (Parody of Johnny Ray's "Cry") Before he was name dropped in British pop songs of the 80s, Johnny Ray was the singer who shook up the music world before Elvis. He wore a back brace and two hearing aids. His singing would go from an overly drawn-out enunciated (which Bob Dylan admits to imitating) soft voice to a screaming mournful wail with in a few seconds. On stage, Ray grabbed and jerked his clothes like he had a bad itch beneath them. This is one of the few Freburg parodies where he changed the lyrics to Ray's hit "Cry" and even mentions Ray's other big hit "The Little White Cloud the Cried" before he begins sounding like an emergency vehicle siren.
3) "The Art Rock Suite" & "Goodbye Pop" - National Lampoon (Parody of art/prog rock genre and Elton John respectfully) The National Lampoon LP Goodbye Pop 1952 -1975 is comprised of several great parodies of different artist and styles, as well as parodies of FM radio and documentaries. I listed these two together because of the songs on the LP, these are great as rock songs on their own. According to the liner notes, "there are 28 groups wrong with this song." Even if you don't want to guess who is being parodied, this song is a fun rocker. According to the intellectual narrator, Roger DeSwans (voiced by Christopher Guest), this is a song by a British rock band called The Dog's Breakfast. We hear an interview from a member of the group, who sounds suspiciously like Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap (Guest does this voice too). The song changes tempo, vocals and styles with pokes at Queen, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Focus, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Yes.
"Goodbye Pop" is a dead-on homage to early 70s Elton John, written and sung by David Letterman's bandleader, Paul Shaffer. The song is not a much of a comedy piece as it is a great tribute to rock and roll history. Someone should remake this song, because this is just a great song.
|BLACK LACE aka THOSE TWO WET GITS|
The satirical British TV show Spitting Image frequently parodied popular songs and performers. They decided a parody of Black Lace's goofy dance hits would be a hit with the audience. "The Chicken Song" had not only strange dance direction but some rather prophetic lines: "Hold a chicken in the air, Stick a deckchair up your nose, Buy a jumbo jet, And then bury all your clothes. Skin yourself alive, Learn to speak Arapaho, Climb inside a dog, And behead an Eskimo, Now you've heard it once, Your brain will spring a leak and though you hate this song, You'll be humming it for weeks." The joke backfired because "The Chicken Song" turned out to be more successful than any of the Black Lace songs and, in the end, became more annoying as well. The writers of the TV show at one point apologized for "inflicting that song on the innocent public." Unlike any of Black Lace's songs, "The Chicken Song" received airplay in the United States thanks to Dr. Demento and its use in three Spitting Image TV specials
5) "Great Men Repeat Themselves" - Homer & Jethro (Parody of Buddy Starcher "History Repeats Itself") I'm not sure at what point after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy people began compiling list of coincidences in the lives of President Abraham Lincoln and President Kennedy. This list is still circulated today and even has a listing on Snopes that analyzes these facts. In 1966, a country singer named Buddy Starcher recorded a spoken word record entitled "History Repeats Itself." Never missing a chance to parody a country hit, Homer and Jethro came up with "Great Men Repeat Themselves," which compares then then current President Lyndon Johnson with then popular TV character Batman (above). Sheb Wooley also recorded a version under his Ben Colder persona that also parodied Senator Everette Dirksen's "Gallant Men" spoken word record. The Homer & Jethro recording is best because it pokes fun at the excessive numerology and mathematics in Starcher's record and the original list, leading Jethro Burns to conclude that "There is only one Batman."
7) "I Lost On Jeopardy" - Weird Al Yankovic (Parody of the Greg Kihn Band "Jeopardy") You have to list a parody that is responsible for reviving a game show. Before becoming a horror/mystery novelist and classic rock DJ, Greg Kihn put out some great moody power pop songs in the 80s. The biggest was "Jeopardy" with its infectious guitar riff, pulsating bass line and great video about a wedding that turns into a cross between Carnival of Souls and It Came From Beneath the Sea. Weird Al figured the song had to be turned into a song about the game show Jeopardy. At the time this video was released, Jeopardy had been off the air for three years (the second run of the show was cancelled in 1979). Besides the satiric jokes about the show, it ends with Jeopardy's announcer, the late Don Pardo, reading a list of stuff Weird Al "didn't win" such as Turtle Wax and Rice A-Roni. Merv Griffin was trying to bring back the game show at the time this song and video came out. It's popularity helped spur renewed interest in the TV show and the revived syndicated version is still on the air today.
8) "You Went the Wrong Way, Ole King Louie" - Allan Sherman (Parody of "You Came Along Way From St. Louis" performed here by Rosemary Clooney) For the most part, Allan Sherman (above) used American folk songs and pop standards for parodies that satirized Jewish suburban life. He made two that poked fun at history. "Won't You Come Home, Disraeli" (Based on "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey") and this ditty about the French Revolution. Part of what makes the one fun is an arrangement that the piano playing the riff from the theme to Peter Gunn.
9) "Just Wanna Be In Your Band" - Benny Hill (Parody of "Lucille," "The Gambler" and "Coward of the County" by Kenny Rogers) My regret is that I couldn't find video of Benny Hill doing this stylistic parody of Kenny Rogers country story songs on his show in the 80s. The version TV was longer and featured different lyrics (Including a line about a midget). Hill has Rogers voice down to a tee and the song is filled with Hill trademark bad puns.
|HOMER & JETHRO|
10) "Gone" - Homer & Jethro (Parody of "Gone" by Ferlin Husky) I have two things in common with Homer & Jethro. Homer & Jethro and myself have both worked at KWTO radio in Springfield, Missouri. The other is we think the backing vocals on Ferlin Husky's 1957 hit "Gone" are some of the worst backing vocals ever (Dickie Goodman did too - listen to the end of "Flying Saucer The 2nd"). I have always pictured a group of people culled from the streets of Nashville and told "Ya'll wanna sing on a country record. Stand in front of the mic and when I point to ya sing 'Now you've gone." That's all ya gotta do." Besides the obvious pokes at the vocals, this song contains lyrics like, "You can take your heart back now, I ordered liver anyhow" and "You wore a newspaper dress to the ball, it caught on fire and you started to squawl, burnt yer front page, sports section and all." You have to wonder what these guys would have done to Zac Brown Band, Luke Bryan and Taylor Swift. Then again...
|HOMER & JETHRO IN BEATLE WIGS|
11) "She Loves You" - Homer & Jethro (Parody of "She Loves You" by the Beatles) After recording a bad anti-Beatle novelty song called "Gonna Send Them Home," Homer & Jethro made up for it ten-fold with two great parodies of Beatles songs that are perfect copies of the instrumentation on the original Beatle hits. The truth is Homer & Jethro (and producer Chet Atkins) were closet jazz fans and talented musicians. Of the two songs, "I Want to Hold You Hand" and "She Loves You," I prefer the B-side "She Loves You." After the 'yeah-yeah-yeah' open, Homer & Jethro sings "You think you lost yer love, well I think that is mighty fine, and now that she is gone, you can have this gal of mine, cause she loves you and I just don't know what fer. She loves you and now you're stuck with her."
12) "Waste of Money" - Allan Sherman (Parody of "Taste of Honey" by Herb Alpert) After "Pop Hates The Beatles" and "Crazy Downtown" drove away the kids who fell in love with him with "Hello Mutha, Hello Fatha," he got back to poking fun at one of his favorite subjects, consumer culture. A guy tries to attract women by going into debt buying cars, pearl necklaces and tight pants. He winds up dating a girl from Household Finance Loans.
13) "Mother Goose's Sweet Potato Sparkling Wine" - National Lampoon (Parody of James Taylor) This is not just a great parody of early James Taylor (imitation by Christopher Guest again) but a great poke at that teenage rite of passage known as Boone's Farm Wines. "I'm a wino at fourteen" and "It taste like Cheracol" are truer than anything ever written in a straight pop song. If you drank Boone's Farm in high school, this song will bring back memories. It also beats the heck out of hearing "You've Got a Friend" for the millionth time.
14) "Chow Mein and Bowling" & "Rodan" - Mike Nesmith (Parody of Jimmy Webb and "Joanne" by Mike Nesmith, respectively) It takes a big man to parody another artist, but it takes a bigger man to parody himself. The first song was written by a member of Mike Nesmith's band. Nesmith said on his Television Parts show that it was what it sounded like when "Richard Harris sings a Jimmy Webb song." The images of things that really don't go together, while spinning a tale of memories of young love, flowers, rare wine, food in the rain and playgrounds. It ends with a dramatic end like "MacArthur Park." Nesmith also made a short parody of "Joanne" for Elephant Parts about Rodan. "Her name was Rodan and she lived in the ocean off Japan."
15) "Detroit City #2" - Ben Colder (Sheb Wooley) (Parody of "Detroit City" by Bobby Bare) Singer/actor Sheb Wooley released parodies of popular country music songs under the name Ben Colder. I was close to listing the monster kid friendly parody of Jerry Wallace's "Shutters and Boards," but the more I think about it this parody works on two levels: Musically and lyrically. Bobby Bare, Tom Jones and Dean Martin all recorded the original song with the same twangy guitar part that almost sound like the guitar is coming untuned. Ben Colder berates the guitar player about not having the guitar properly tuned. In the original song, the singer regrets leaving his family farm in Tennessee to work at an automobile factory in Detroit. The singer also laments his drinking with the line "During the day I make the cars, at night I make the bars." The chorus is "I want to go home." Ben Colder on the other hand sings "I don't want to go home." He enjoys his job in the shock absorber division, going to bars after work and telling the girls that he is "the number one washer crammer in the whole shock absorber division."
16) "I've Got You Under My Skin" - Stan Freberg and "On Top of Spaghetti" by Tom Glazer & the Do-Re-Mi Children's Chorus (Parody of "On Top of Old Smokey" by the Weavers)
The Weavers released a version of the folk song "On Top of Old Smokey" in the early 50s which featured Pete Seeger speaking the lyrics of the song before the other members of the group sang them. It sounded like he was telling them what to sing next. Stan Freberg wondered what it would sound like if a pop standard was sung this way. Freberg also wondered what would happen if the person speaking the lyrics messed up. Would the singers stop or would they sing whatever the song leader said? The later was what happened and the group suddenly burst into "On Top of Old Smokey."
Folk singer Tom Glazer made a children's LP with a group of children singing a parody of "On Top of Old Smokey." Like Seeger, he speaks the lyric with the children singing it afterward. Legend has it that children at an elementary school in Lodi, California came up with the parody lyrics.
17) "You Always Hurt the One You Love" - Spike Jones and his City Slickers (Parody of the Ink Spots) This parody has lead to a misconception that the Ink Spots had a hit with "You Always Hurt the One You Love." The Mills Brothers had the hit, but Spike Jones decided to show the world what would happen if The Ink Spots, another pioneer R&B group, recorded the song. Both groups had a distinct style. The Mills Brothers songs started slow, then picked up to become jazzy and uptempo. The Ink Sports were slow with the same four-bar acoustic guitar accompaniment and the tenor voice of Bill Kenny. Mid-way through the song, bass sing Hoppy Jones would give a little talk to the lady Kenny was singing too. Jones would usually call this woman "Honey chile' or Honey lamb." Of course, after the Ink Spots imitation, Spike Jones and the boys let it rip with their typical musical mayhem.
|BONZO DOG BAND AND A GROUPIE|
18) "Kama Sutra" - Bonzo Dog Band (Parody of "Handy Man" by Jimmy Jones and "Calendar Girl" by Neil Sedaka) This song is the missing link between Jimmy Jones 1960 hit song "Handy Man" and Culture Club's 1984 hit "Karma Chameleon." It also has to be one of the shortest songs ever recorded (49 seconds). Bonzo Dog Band mashed up the tune of "Handy Man" with the tune of Neil Sedaka's "Calender Girl" for a quick risque rhyme.
19) "My Old Flame" - Spike Jones and his City Slickers (Parody of "My Old Flame" by Mae West and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Billie Holliday, Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman Orchestra) A monster kid favorite that still gets airplay at Halloween on some hipper radio stations. The more ironic thing about this is that this parody version is the most successful recording of this song and the one that made this song popular. Mae West introduced this song in a movie called Belle of the Nineties. Carl Grayson sings it straight at the beginning, but is soon interrupted by Spike and fire engines. The song slows back down and the song is then turned over to famous voice artist Paul Frees, who recites the lyrics as Peter Lorre, "My old flame, I can't even remember her name...I'll have to look through my collection of human heads." In the end, the Lorre-character douses his lover in gasoline and sets fire to his "old flame." Creepy fun.
20) "Cantata: Iphigenia in Brooklyn" & "Classical Rap" P.D.Q Bach - Peter Schickele (Parody of Cantatas, classical music, rap, respectively) Of the artist I'm featuring in this list, P.D.Q Bach is probably the artist that you either love or hate. Some people don't get the joke or feel it is above their head. Truth is the works of fictional P.D.Q Bach (above) that Professor Peter Schickele, of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, "discovers" often sound as if they could have been an influence on Spike Jones. They are filled with bike horns, doorbells, kazoos and sour notes, while the compositions veer into bits of "Beautiful Dreamer," "Shenandoah," "Peggy Sue" or "Batman." The two pieces I list here were recorded twenty-five years apart (1965 & 1990, respectfully), but are probably the most accessible to the casual listener. "Iphigenia in Brooklyn" is a parody of Gluck's Iphigenia in Aulis, but you need not have ever heard Gluck's opera to find this funny. Tenor John Ferrante sings about exorbitantly worded lyrics about a fish market and running noses.
"Classical Rap" is what happens if Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" was created with the audience that listens to classical music on the radio in mind, complete with samples of other famous classical pieces. Besides parodying the popular music trend of the day, it is a vicious but hilarious satire of the upper income set that listens to classical music. They must not be as touchy listeners to talk radio listeners, who believe you shouldn't make fun of them. NOTE: I linked to a recording of this track on YouTube. For some reason the video is a manga cartoon of some sort.
This has been an epic post and I could have listed several other great parodies. This also isn't a ranking (Which is why I put two on some of these), just a mix of some of my favorites that I wanted to feature in hopes that readers would discover these songs. My hope is you hunt these down and have a good laugh.