We call him Weird Al.
"Awesome Al" would be just as appropriate. Actually,
Charmingly Genial Al"
would just about hit the nail on the head, though it'd be a little hard to fit on a theater marquee or a CD label.
Whatever you choose to call him, Alfred Matthew Yankovic is rock music's greatest humorist. Since his first LP came out in 1983 he has sold more funny records, CDs and tapes than any other person on this planet.
That's doubly remarkable because funny music, the music I play on my radio show, is a genre with more than its share of one-hit wonders. Except for the late Frank Zappa (who would rather have you remember him for his serious music) you have to go all the way back to Spike Jones in the 1940s to find another creator of funny music who was as consistently successful and brilliant for as long a time as Al has been.
Having known Al since 1976 (when I gave him his first-ever media exposure by playing one of his home-made tapes on the air) I can testify that he's uniquely qualified for all that success. His keen mind, nimble body, prodigious energy and fine voice are obvious to anyone who hears or see him, but what I fine most remarkable is his dedication to his work. I've never met any performer who pays more attention to detail. Without ever taking himself too seriously, Al manages to be an absolute perfectionist. That extends to his personal life as well: he's a non-smoker, non-drinker (he once turned down a multi-million dollar offer to do beer commercials) and strict vegetarian.
Though he's still best known for his song parodies, as always, every new project seems to bring out another dimension to his talent, another Thing That Al Can Do.
Our story begins October 23, 1959, when our hero first drew breath. He made his film debut not long afterward, in one of numerous home movies which his parents shot as a hobby. (Some of them can be seen in Al's first home video, The Compleat Al.) Home was 3626 Burton Ave. in Lynwood, California, a multicultural working-class suburb of Los Angeles; Al would live there with his parents until he went off to college.
Al's father, Nick Yankovic, is from Kansas City, Kansas. He came to California after World War II, and worked in a steel factory, a pipe factory, a bedspring factory, and as a forklift operator, security guard and gas station attendant. He's been semi-retired since 1977. "My dad is responsible for a lot of my attitude toward life," says Al. "He always stressed when I was a kid that I should do whatever made me happy, because that's the key to success, doing for a living whatever makes you happy."
In 1949, Nick married Mary Vivalda, who had come to California from Kentucky. Mary had gone to business college, worked as a switchboard operator for a bank, and eventually became a secretary and stenographer for Firestone.
Ten years later along came Al, Nick and Mary's only child. Nothing terribly dramatic or traumatic occurred during Al's early childhood. In retrospect, though, one event does stand out. "A door-to-door salesman came through our neighborhood," says Al, "trying to solicit business for a local music school. Kids were offered a choice between guitar lessons and accordion lessons. Since Frankie Yankovic (no relation) was America's Polka King, my parents opted for accordion lessons, perhaps because they figured there should be at least one more accordion-playing Yankovic in the world."
Al took his first lesson October 22, 1966, the day before his seventh birthday. "They start you out with a beginner accordion," says Al, "and then after you've been taking lessons for a while they con you into buying a somewhat bigger accordion, and finally you graduate to the adult size. I still play the in-between size today. Sometimes I get criticized by accordion purists for not playing the adult size, but that would make it a lot harder to jump around on stage."
Rock 'n roll was not part of the accordion school curriculum in 1966. Instead Al learned pop songs from the pre-rock era, a few short classical pieces, and of course lots and lots of polkas. Along with Frankie Yankovic, his early role model was Myron Floren of the Lawrence Welk TV show (who signed an autograph for Al in what may have been the second most momentous event of his childhood).
Little Alfred also had a little portable record player and some kids' records he doesn't recall much, except for "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron" and Johnny Cash's version of Shel Silverstein's "Boa Constrictor," the first funny song Al remembers enjoying.
"I got into pop music kind of late," Al recalls. "I think the first pop tune I took a shine to was 'Classical Gas' by Mason Williams [a hit in 1968]. I was into Elton John a lot during the 70s, and that was partly how I learned to play rock 'n roll on the accordion, by playing the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album over and over and trying to play along with it on the accordion."
Young Al's major cultural input, as you might well guess from many of his songs, was television. "There was only one TV in the house, but my parents usually deferred to me. I watched a lot more TV than a healthy child probably should. A lot of cartoons, any sitcom that was on, variety shows, The Twilight Zone. One show I really used to like was Mr. Terrific, with Stephen Strimpell and Dick Gautier -- pretty obscure, lasted only a season . Mr. Terrific would take a power pill that would make him a superhero, but then the pill would wear off and if he was in midair he would crash into a haystack or something like that. Bizarre little show. At recess in second grade I'd pretend I was Mr. Terrific."
That was at Woodrow Wilson elementary school in Lynwood. "I always was a good student. I started kindergarten a year early, and then skipped from second to third grade. My classmates seemed to think I was some kind of rocket scientist so I was labeled a nerd early on. I got my fair share of verbal abuse, but I learned to run pretty fast so I didn't get beat up a lot.
"I was always called Alfred in those days, never Al. I was associated with Alfred the butler from Batman, Alfred Hitchcock, and of course Alfred E. Neuman -- I was a voracious reader of Mad magazine, definitely a major influence. I think I might have been called Poindexter a few times too.
"My favorite subject was probably math. This seems kind of warped but I can remember solving algebra problems for fun when I was in seventh or eighth grade. That was at Hosler Junior High. Then I went to Lynwood Senior High, which was right across the street from my house, 30 feet away."
Being two years younger than most of his classmates, Al didn't go out for sports of big social events. His main extracurricular activity was the National Forensics League. He was on the Lynwood High forensics team which would compete with teams from other schools at public speaking tournaments. His specialties were "humorous interpretation" (he'd memorize and perform a comedy monologue written by someone else) and "expository" (an original speech, which in Al's case also tended to be humorous.) "I did pretty well in competition, usually brought home some kind of trophy."
Al did pretty well in his studies, too: he was valedictorian of his senior class. He belonged to two honor societies: the Roundtablers and the California Scholastic Federation. "I also was in the Key Club, an offshoot of Kiwanis," Al continues. "And I worked on the yearbook, the Accolade. They let me write most of the captions for it. I joined the Thespians, and was in the school play, Rebel Without A Cause -- I played Crunch, one of the gang members. And I also was in a club called the Volcano Worshippers, which did absolutely nothing. We started the club just to get an extra picture of ourselves in the yearbook.
On Sunday nights at home, Al would tune in The Dr. Demento Show. "I remember the first time I heard the show. It was in '71 or '72. I listened for awhile and I remember my mom came into the room and heard some [risque] song and demanded that I turn that thing off immediately, but I was hooked and continued to listen week after week. If it hadn't been for the Dr. Demento Show, my life would have taken a dramatically different course. Luckily, those weekly doses of Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg warped me at an early age."
In 1973 I gave a talk at Lynwood High, and Al was one of the crowd of students who came up to the podium afterward to get autographs and chat. At age 13, he was too shy to say much, but he gave me a tape -- his entry in a contest we had that year, looking for a new version of my theme song. Al's entry was not one of the winners -- about the only distinction on the Dr. Demento show he hasn't won!
"If at first you don't succeed..." Three years later Al tried again. He made up a song about the Yankovic family car, a 1964 Plymouth Belvedere which Al had learned to drive when he turned 16. He recorded it on a small portable cassette recorder and sent me the tape.
"Belvedere Cruising" might not have been the very best song I ever heard, but it had some clever lines, and that accordion definitely caught my ear. I put the tape on the air immediately. Rock 'n roll style accordion was not something one normally heard in 1976, from anybody!
A few weeks later I got another tape from Alfred Yankovic (that was still what people called him, remember) which was much better. "School Cafeteria" was a song any student or former student could relate to, and it quickly made my Top Ten count-down of the most requested songs of the week (helped out just a little but by a petition signed by hundreds of Alfred's fellow Lynwood High students).
Several more tapes followed in quick succession. But Al wasn't yet ready to consider music as a career. "I was very adult minded and never thought I could really have fun doing something for a living." Besides, he already had his vocation decided.
"Back in junior high, I had a drafting class. I had a teacher named Mr. Harsh who was one of those inspirational teachers, kind of opened my eyes. It was the most fun I'd had in school, and I decided I wanted to do something revolving around drafting. I had a guidance counselor who told me 'Well, you're good at math, you're good at drafting, so why don't you become an architect?' So when I was 12 years old I made the decision to be an architect, and I planned to go to Cal Poly [California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo, CA] which had one of the best architecture schools in the country. At that point I had my whole life figured out."
So off to San Luis Obispo, a small city midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, sometimes called "SLO Town" for its laid-back lifestyle. I didn't hear much from him during his first year, as he immersed himself in architecture. During his sophomore year, though, he found a new extracurricular activity -- and a new name.
"I became Weird Al for the campus FM radio station," he recalls. "They might have been calling me that in the dorms before I started, I'm not too sure, but I know I took it on professionally when I started doing radio. At that time I wasn't playing weird music, I had to follow my station's format, but in my heart I wanted to be the surrogate Dr. Demento for San Luis Obispo, so 'Weird Al' seemed appropriate. Everyone else had an air name, so that was mine. My first shift was midnight to 3 A.M. on Wednesday.
"I got in big trouble about my fourth or fifth show. It had been raining really hard that night and people were calling, saying 'Do we have to go to school tomorrow?' because the week before they had canceled some evening classes due to torrential rain. I said 'I don't know, call the housing department or something.' A little later I got a call from someone saying, 'This is the housing department, and I'm calling to officially let you know there will be no school tomorrow.' And more and more people kept calling, I even got calls from other radio stations in town asking about it, so I finally made the announcement on the air that there would be no school tomorrow.
"Half an hour later the campus police stormed into the radio station, and they were not happy! They immediately took me off the air. I was told that attendance was down 70% the next day. I later heard that when people studying for finals heard my announcement, they threw their books in the air and partied the rest of the night. Obviously the call I'd gotten from the 'housing department' was a prank call; school was not canceled. I didn't know if I should ever show my face in that city again.
"They managed to forgive me over time; I just got my wrist slapped. They knew how embarrassed I was over the whole thing. I'm sure that to this day they tell the story."
As time went on he sneaked in more and more of his favorite funny records into the show, along with what was then called New Wave rock. Meanwhile he found a new outlet for his own music. Every Thursday night a room in the Student Union was turned into what was called Coffeehouse. "It was kind of like an amateur night," says Al. "Any student could get up and play a few songs. It was mostly folkies, people who would go up with their acoustic guitars and play Dan Fogelberg or something, so when I went up with my accordion and my friend Joel with his bongos and we played Tom Lehrer songs and a few of my own it was definitely a little different."
It was during his junior year Al appeared on records for the first time. He wrote and sang a song about San Luis Obispo called "Take Me Down" which appeared on a locally produced LP of various unsigned artists from the area. He also narrated a Flexidisc distributed to new Cal Poly students as part of their "Week of Welcome" orientation kit. Little did Al realize that he was very soon to be featured on a far better-known record label.
In the summer of 1979, just before Al's senior year, "My Sharona" by The Knack became a monster hit. The song's irresistible rock riffs inspired Al to write a new set of lyrics, a song parody he called "My Bologna." Al made a tape of it for the Dr. Demento show, using the Cal Poly radio station's equipment. He already knew that the tiled men's room across the hall from the station would make an acoustically perfect studio. He found a microphone cord long enough to reach back to the station's tape deck, and soon "My Bologna" was immortalized on reel-to-reel tape.
The response I got when I played it on the air dwarfed not only that for all his earlier tapes, but practically everything else I played that whole year. But that wasn't all. "The Knack came to do a concert at Cal Poly," Al recalls, "and I weaseled my way backstage to meet the band. It happened that Rupert Perry, who was then vice president of Capitol Records, was there to see the Knack, who were on Capitol. When I introduced myself to [Knack lead singer] Doug Feiger as the kid who did 'My Bologna' he said 'Oh, that's really a great song!' and then he turned to Rupert Perry and said 'You guys oughta put this song out on Capitol Records' and Rupert said 'OK, let's do it!'
I had just turned 20 years old, and this was beyond my wildest expectations. The next month it came out on a Capitol single, and they paid me $500 for the master of that and 'School Cafeteria' which became the flip side, and gave me a six-month contract. That was when I started to think that maybe I had a career in music. I remember being escorted through the Capitol Records tower [in Hollywood], being introduced to all the secretaries as their newest artist, seeing all the gold records on the wall. It just made me think, boy, this would be a lot more fun than being an architect and hovering over a drawing board 20 hours a day. Besides, by then I was only getting average grades in architecture, which was kind of a blow to me after getting nothing but straight A's all through high school."
Al got another blow when he discovered that Capitol had no intention of doing the sort of promotion that might make him a star. Nor was the label interested in releasing his follow-up, "Baby Likes Burping" (a parody of The Knack's "Baby Talks Dirty.") "I decided to go ahead and finish school," Al says, "and see where things took me from there."
Al received his Bachelor of Science degree at the end of 1980. Meanwhile, the urge to parody had struck again: in September he turned Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" into "Another One Rides the Bus."
I'd scheduled Al to do a guest appearance on my show September 14, the day before he had to go back to San Luis Obispo. It just so happened that I'd also invited Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz to that show. Jon and some friends had made a tape of "The Woodsy Owl Song" which I'd played several times. While waiting to go on, Al and Jon got acquainted.
When Al found out that Bermuda was a drummer, he was enlisted to bang on Al's accordion case, Dan "Damaskas" Hollombe, whose song "Making Love in a Subaru" had been a hit on the show, volunteered to sing the bass part. They rehearsed the song once or twice in the hallway, and then, bang, it was live on the air, with Al reading his just-completed lyrics from the big loose-leaf notebook he carried with him everywhere in those days.
If I had to pick out one moment as the most exciting thing that has ever happened on the Dr. Demento Show, that would definitely be the one. And the audience agreed: for the next few weeks we got twice as many requests for "Another One Rides the Bus" as for everything else put together. Thank goodness I had a tape rolling! We even got it in stereo. Over the next couple of months that tape was duplicated and re-duplicated all over the world, as the song took on a life of its own.
Al, meanwhile, was back in SLO Town finishing up his degree. "I would get home from class and my roommate would say, 'Oh, New Zealand just called, they want to know how they can get 'Another One Rides the Bus.' So I knew I had a sizeable underground hit." A Miami radio station flew him there one weekend to perform the song at a concert; it was the first time Al had ever been on an airplane.
The Dr. Demento Show gained a couple of dozen new station affiliates just because of that song. Translating all that into record sales, though, proved problematic. One sizable label did offer Al a contract, but changed its mind before the deal could be finalized, costing Al a couple of precious weeks. Finally he decided to borrow some money and put the record out himself, just to have something out there while the song was hot...and that's how "Bus" showed up on a 7" EP on Placebo Records. It was to be the label's only release.
Al didn't have much luck getting those EP's into the major record store chains, but the disc did give a few lucky fans a chance to hear "Bus" plus three originals including "Mr. Frump In the Iron Lung," a favorite from Al's Cal Poly Coffeehouse appearances, and "Happy Birthday" which was recorded in early 1981 especially for the Placebo EP. This compilation features the original Placebo version of "Happy Birthday," recorded in Bermuda's brother's garage in Los Angeles using Al's then-just-purchased 4-track cassette Porta-Studio. (Bermuda's brother, Richard "Bopcat" Bennett, who plays guitar on the track, is now a prominent Nashville studio musician and record producer.) I was there to give the background vocals an extra touch of Dementia.
Al continued to try to place "Bus" with major labels, and in February 1981 he got a deal with TK Records, a major player in the disco boom of the late 1970s. A 45 was rush-released, and quickly made Billboard's "Bubbling Under" chart before cruel fate struck again: TK Records, in financial trouble, abruptly closed down. Al went ahead with a scheduled appearance on NBC-TV's Tomorrow show in New York on April 21, bringing Bermuda along to bang on the accordion case.
Back home, Al needed a place to stay and broccoli to eat, so he went looking for a day job -- "anything that wasn't architecture-related!" He wound up in the mailroom at Westwood One Radio Networks, the company that distributed The Dr. Demento Show at the time (along with dozens of other programs). Westwood One soon promoted him to the traffic department, where his entire job consisted of calling radio stations to remind them they had to fill out a form and mail it in each week for every Westwood One show they carried. Al soon decided this was not the way he preferred to relate to radio stations, and found himself back in the mailroom while he pondered his next career move. His experience inspired a song (see "Dog Eat Dog," below).
All this time, "Bus" continued to be one of the most requested songs on the Dr. Demento Show, along with a new song of Al's called "Yoda." So when I was booked to do a stage show at a large nightclub in Phoenix, I brought Al along to sing and play his hits. Jay Levey, a Los Angeles artists' manager, who had set up the appearance for me, was backstage that night. Jay picks up the story: "It was amazing. Al was introduced, and he comes out with his accordion and pours all of his energy into a set of parodies and originals. The crowd went wild and rushed the stage. I'm blown away. After his set, he comes off stage and I ask him if he ever thought about putting a band together and having a real career. In this quiet, shy voice, he says, 'Well, sure.' The rest, I guess, is history." Jay has guided Al's career ever since and has also been Al's invaluable creative collaborator on many projects (as we shall see).
The next step was putting a band together. Bermuda Schwartz would be the drummer, of course, but who would play bass? After trying a couple of friends and acquaintances who didn't quite work out, Al decided to hold open auditions. For a whole afternoon he listened to a new candidate every 20 minutes. One was head and shoulders above the rest: Steve Jay. Steve had come to L.A. from Tampa, with an impressive resume which included a couple of years spent in Africa seeking out and recording traditional tribal musicians. (Two LP's of Steve's discoveries were released on the Nonesuch label).
Back in Tampa, Steve had been in a band or two with a guitarist named Jim West. Jim had been playing professionally since he was 16, and in 1981 held a steady job as guitarist in the house band of one of Tampa's most popular nightclubs. Steve talked him into coming to L.A., and as soon as Al heard him play, the band was complete. Jim, Steve and Bermuda have been Al's band ever since, one of the music business' more remarkable long-term relationships. (In 1991, keyboardist Ruben Valtierra was added to the band for live performances).
The new band's first major show almost was its last. They opened for a then-popular New Wave band, Missing Persons, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. "We got pelted for 45 minutes," Al recalls. "Everything they could possibly find to throw. I've never seen any opening act treated that badly. After the first song nobody even applauded, they just screamed 'Get off the stage!' Later that night, after suffering that humiliating defeat, I was walking to my car in the parking lot, and this 12 year old boy comes up to me and says 'Are you Weird Al?' I said yes, and he said 'YOU SUCK!' That was the capper of the evening. For a while we weren't sure if we wanted to continue. We finally decided that at least for the time being, we should headline, even if it was in tiny, cruddy clubs. That way we would know that the people were there to see us."
Once again it was a song parody that took Al's career to the next level. This time it was "I Love Rocky Road," based on the Joan Jett hit, "I Love Rock 'n Roll." Al's experience with "Bus" had taught him that things might go more smoothly if he obtained permission from the original publisher of a song before he tried to interest record companies in his parody version. He tracked down one of the co-writers of the song, Jake Hooker, who loved Al's parody the moment he heard it. Jake even got more enthusiastic after hearing demos of Al's other songs.
Jake also happened to be the manager of Rick Derringer, the ace rock guitarist (and leader of the McCoys of "Hang On Sloopy" fame) who had also produced hit albums for both Johnny and Edgar Winter, and was looking for more artists to produce. Jake suggested that Rick would be the perfect producer for Al; Rick listened to the tapes and agreed.
With Rick's hitmaking reputation, he was able to persuade Cherokee Studios, one of the more renowned independent recording studios in Hollywood to record an album's worth of Al's songs "on spec," promising that the studio would be paid when a deal was signed.
The sessions took place in March 1982 -- Al's first-ever experience in a proper recording studio. Nine splendid tracks were recorded in just a few days. Then came the hard part. At one major label after another, it was the same story: they loved the music, or at least said they did, but none of them could quite bring themselves to actually sign an artist who did funny music. No one wanted another "one-hit wonder," and no one could see Al's potential for being so much more than that.
Undaunted, Jay Levey took matters into his own hands. "I took a tape of 'I Love Rocky Road' to KIQQ-FM," Jay recalls. KIQQ was then one of the leading Top 40 stations in Los Angeles. "I played it for the program director. He flipped, and put it on the air immediately. By the next day it was one of their most requested songs."
One of the record companies that had originally passed on Al was Scotti Bros., an independent company based in Santa Monica which produced hit TV shows and movies as well as records. Scotti Bros. had just launched a new record label called Rock 'n Roll Records, distributed by CBS; veteran record man Tad Dowd was in charge. Jay continues the story: "Tad had wanted to sign Al the first time around, but he couldn't persuade the powers that be. When he saw what happened at radio with 'Rocky Road,' it gave him all the ammunition he needed to come back to us with a contract. Tad was there in the beginning, and has been our champion at the label and in the world at large ever since."
The deal was signed and plans were made for Al's first album, to be released in April 1983, featuring "I Love Rocky Road" along with eight other tracks recorded at Cherokee plus the original Dr. Demento Show performance of "Another One Rides the Bus."
Two more tracks were needed to fill out the LP, and in early 1983 they were recorded at Scotti Bros.' own studios in Santa Monica. The engineer was Tony Papa, who has worked on all of Al's albums ever since, another remarkable long-term relationship.
One of the two new tracks was "Ricky," another pivotal point in Al's career. A parody of Toni Basil's late 1982 million-seller "Mickey," the lyrics were based on TV's beloved I Love Lucy. Al nailed Ricky Ricardo's vocal style and Cuban accent perfectly; all he needed was Lucy! An ad seeking Lucy impressionists was placed in that show-biz bible Daily Variety. It got only two responses, but one of them was the very talented Tress MacNeille. She played Lucy not only on the record but also in Al's first video, which helped the single and LP become fair-sized hits (#63 and #139 respectively in Billboard) and introduced the world to a whole new dimension of Al's talent.
"It was the infancy of MTV as well as the infancy of my career," says Al. "'Ricky' was one of the few comedy videos on the channel, and it definitely started to make me think in visual terms, because I saw the potential for this new medium.
The whole video was shot in one day, at a friend's house. First thing in the morning, we did the band scenes where I looked like myself. Then I went to the makeup room to get made up as Ricky Ricardo, which involved getting my mustache shaved off and stuffing my long hair under a short hair wig. It took about an hour and a half. When my makeup was finished I went to the back yard which was being used as a a holding area for my band and the extras. I was able to mill about freely and hear everybody talking about me because nobody recognized who I was!"
Al also made a video for "I Love Rocky Road" commandeering a defunct restaurant next to an airstrip in a small town 50 miles from L.A. You can see me for a couple of seconds as the make-believe ice cream parlor's cashier. Left on the cutting room floor was a sequence featuring a 50-piece youth accordion band. "I still feel bad we didn't get to use those kids," Al says.
In the late summer of 1983 Jay put together a three-week East Coast/Midwest tour for Al and me. It was billed as "AN EVENING OF DEMENTIA WITH DR. DEMENTO IN PERSON PLUS 'WEIRD AL' YANKOVIC." I played taped hits from the show, screened short films such as "Fish Heads," and then brought on Al and his band. Al, Bermuda and I rode in a rented station wagon, with Jay doing most of the driving. Steve and Jim followed in a U-Haul with the equipment. We played the Bottom Line in New York and other famous clubs, took the boat ride under Niagara Falls, and discovered another of Al's talents: he can catch a catnap anywhere, anytime, in almost any position. (Al is famous for his weird positions; he loves to catch TV talk show hosts off guard by suddenly tucking one foot behind his head.)
After the tour, Al got right down to work on a follow-up album. (He doesn't often write songs on the road, preferring to concentrate his energies on the performances and the inevitable unending rounds of radio, TV and press interviews.) He wrote and recorded several originals before turning his attention to a new round of parodies (a pattern he has followed on most of his albums to this day).
"Eat It," based on Michael Jackson's "Beat It" (from Thriller, the biggest selling album of all time) was the last track to be recorded for the album. Before that could happen, Al faced the daunting task of getting Jackson's permission. "We took a chance," Al remembers. "We actually didn't think he'd let us do it, but our philosophy is, it never hurts to ask. So Jay called up Michael's people, and told them what we wanted. We heard back not too long after that Michael thought it was a funny idea, and we could go right ahead." Rick Derringer himself plays the spectacular guitar solo on the record. Jay directed the video; he would direct most of Al's videos for the next eight years.
"Eat It" won a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording, while the video won the American Video Award for Best Male Performance. It's hard to overestimate the impact of that song and that video. "Beat It" had been played and shown all over America and the world, and "Eat It" followed everywhere it went. "Eat It" was especially prominent on MTV, which had grown tremendously since the days of "Ricky" just a year earlier. It injected Al straight into the psyche of pop culture. "It seemed like it was almost overnight," Al remembers. "I was on tour at the time, and I remember being in a fast food restaurant -- Charlottesville, Virginia -- and all of a sudden people were pointing and saying 'Look, there's the 'Eat It' guy!" Before long the "3-D Tour" was able to trade in the precariously top-heavy camper truck it had started out in for a real live tour bus. I MC'd and showed my demented films at many of the shows, but this time, as you might imagine, Al got top billing.
The audience response to "Eat It" on MTV prompted the network to air a four-hour special called Al-TV, in which Al played his favorite rock videos and did clever short comedy bits. More Al-TV specials would be made in the years to come.
People magazine picked the 3-D album as one of the ten best of 1984. Indeed, the album has many other delights along with "Eat It." "Polkas On 45" evolved from a polka medley Al had performed at that infamous Santa Monica concert with Missing Persons a couple of years earlier. Despite that inglorious start, the polka medley has become a long-standing tradition. How does Al select the songs for the polka medley? "I just pick songs that sound slightly better done polka style -- the way God intended."
"Midnight Star", an original song, was Al's salute to supermarket tabloids. "Initially I thought that should be the leadoff single from the 3-D album. Then I regained my senses and 'Eat It' was put out instead. A lot of the headlines in the song are actual tabloid headlines; only a few were fabricated. For a couple of years I'd had a Weekly World News article about the Incredible Frog Boy taped on my wall. Once I got the idea for the song I spent a few weeks collecting old tabloids and writing down headlines. After I come up with a concept for a song, I always spend a week or two jotting down ideas. I like to get pages and pages of notes before I actually start writing the lyrics." (Midnight Star later became the name of a quarterly fanzine about Al, published in Houston, Texas).
"Mr. Popeil": "It's not about Ron Popeil, the founder of Ronco, but about his dad, the guy who invented the Vegematic and the Pocket Fisherman. He did pitches for them on TV before Ronco was started. Mr. Popeil was a big facet of American pop culture; he started the whole genre of marketing these gimmicky gadgets on TV. Around the time I was writing the song, I came across a magazine article about me, and right next to it I saw a story about Mr. Popeil's daughter, Lisa Popeil, who was a classically trained singer who had worked with Frank Zappa. I thought it would be great if we could get her to sing on the track, and she agreed to do it. It was very odd, though, to be in the studio directing Lisa how to sing her own name!" Al got some musical inspiration for this song from the B-52's; it's one of many examples of what he calls a "style parody."
"I Lost On Jeopardy" was the second video from the 3-D album, a parody of Greg Kihn's hit song, "Jeopardy" (whose original lyrics have nothing to do with the TV show of the same name).
"We got Merv Griffin's blessing on that," Al says, referring to the creator of Jeopardy. "I went on The Merv Griffin Show and he told the audience that I was helping to bring Jeopardy back on the air. This was shortly before the show was revived with Alex Trebek. When I did the song it was more of a nostalgia piece about the old days with Art Fleming and Don Pardo, both of whom appeared in the video, along with Greg Kihn." Al's parents make a cameo appearance in the video as well. I can be seen briefly as an assistant producer in the TV studio.
"Buy Me A Condo:" "I thought it'd be fun to do a song about a Rastafarian who'd become Westernized, so I listened to a lot of Bob Marley and other reggae records, just to get the style down, and then wrote some lyrics about Cuisinarts and wall-to-wall carpeting."
"King of Suede": "I remember when I was writing this song I'd go around to Wilson's House of Suede and Leather and Zachary All and places like that. I'd walk around with my notebook and look at various garments and scribble down notes. I got a lot of nasty stares from store managers."
Album number three, DARE TO BE STUPID, appeared in June 1985 and promptly went gold like its predecessor, reaching #50 in Billboard. Trivia: This was the first album of funny music ever released on compact disc.
The first track to be recorded was "This Is The Life." "I was approached to do the title song for the movie Johnny Dangerously, which was kind of a 1930s gangster spoof. In the movie the Michael Keaton character celebrates 'the good life,' because crime *did* pay for him, so the song is taken from that. It seemed like a better way to go than writing a song called 'Johnny Dangerously.'" Incidental intelligence: 1) Al listened to a lot of 1930s records in the Demento Archives to get a feel for the musical style. He did the elaborate instrumental arrangement himself. 2) Due to the strange ways of big corporations, the song does not appear on home video copies of Johnny Dangerously, though you'll find it's still there if you happen to catch the flick on TV.
"Yoda" was written back in 1980, during the initial run of The Empire Strikes Back whose most memorable character it celebrates. A demo Al made at that time was a huge hit on the Dr. Demento Show, but the complex process of getting permission from both filmmaker George Lucas and the publishers of the Kinks' "Lola" delayed its commercial release five years. In fact the song publishers turned Al down, and the song might never have been released if Al hadn't happened to run into songwriter Ray Davies and ask him why. Davies, it turned out, had never even been asked about it. Ever since, Al has gone directly to the songwriters whenever possible.
Al has often been asked why he didn't play accordion on the commercial release, as he had on the demo. "It's kind of a backlash from the first album, where we had accordion on everything. It just became a little overwhelming to me. For a while I was relegating the accordion to just the polka medleys. I'm probably going to be using a bit more accordion in the future; I get letters from people saying they miss the accordion on the records."
"Like a Surgeon", a parody of Madonna's "Like a Virgin (written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly) was the first single and video from the Dare To Be Stupid album. "Oddly enough that was suggested by Madonna herself," says Al. "She was talking to a friend of hers one day and happened to wonder aloud when Weird Al was going to turn 'Like a Virgin' into 'Like a Surgeon.' The person she was talking to happened to know Jay and of course word eventually got back to me. As much as I try to discourage people from giving me parody ideas, in this case I made an exception."
The video was shot in an actual hospital which had just gone out of business. "We had a live lion roaming the corridors. That scared off a few of our extras after the first day of shooting."
"One More Minute": "That's still one of my favorites. I was just about to start writing songs for what become the Dare To Be Stupid album when my girlfriend broke up with me. I didn't feel much like being funny at the time, but by writing a really bitter love song I was able to get past it. Doing the record and the video were cathartic experiences for me."
"I Want a New Duck": A parody of "I Want A New Drug" by Huey Lewis and the News. "I went to the library and read up on ducks for a week. Disney later used the song as part of one of their DTV video specials, using Donald Duck and various Disney clips to go with the song. Stan Freberg [whose brilliant satires and parodies were record hits in the 1950s and early 1960s] narrated that special, which was another big kick for me."
"Dare To Be Stupid": "Inspired by Devo. I played the tune for Mark Mothersbaugh [of Devo] and he loved it; he was sorry he couldn't be in the video. We went to a stock footage library, and Jay and I went through hours and hours of old films, picking out various images that seemed appropriate. There was also new animation by David Peters, a brilliant collage artist known for his greeting cards for Paper Moon Graphics featuring dinosaurs. I would have a chance to use his dinosaur-related talents later on."
The three videos made to promote the Dare To Be Stupid album also appeared, along with all of Al's earlier videos, in a 90-minute CBS-Fox home video called The Compleat Al. Directed by Jay and Robert K. Weiss (producer of the Blues Brothers movie, all three Naked Gun films, and many others) it's a hilarious semi-fictional retelling of Al's life story. This ground-breaking production was one of the first programs of its kind to be made specifically for the home video market. A 60 minute version was shown on Showtime.
Al's 1985 media blitz also included a book, The Authorized Al, authorized by Al himself (Tino Insana did most of the actual writing). It's another entertaining semi-imaginary retelling of the legend of Al. Shamefully, it has gone out of print, and now ranks up there with the original Capitol 45 of "My Bologna" among the elite Weird Al collector's items.
Through the summer of 1985 Al and his "Stupid Band" rode their "Stupid Bus" (actually a fairly posh Silver Eagle) all across America on their "Stupid Tour," Al's biggest tour of the 1980s. I was along for part of the ride, including a brush with Hurricane Gloria in Kingston, N.Y. (The show went on as usual that night.) The "Stupid Tour" was in every way bigger and better than what had come before, with costume changes, carefully designed lighting, and several of Al's videos cleverly integrated into the stage show. It looked and sounded like a big name rock 'n roll tour, which indeed it was.
Al greatly expanded his wardrobe for that tour. "For my first two years of touring I wore some pants that were given to me by somebody in my college, they were just going to throw them away. Those are the pants you see on the back of my first album. They turned out to be extremely hot and sweaty on stage, so since '85 I've opted for cooler wear. For the '85 tour we stipulated in all our contracts that for every show we did the promoter had to supply one garish Hawaiian shirt. I eventually accumulated a couple of closets full. I also had some amazing sequined ones specially made for The Compleat Al." He also has a closetful of Vans, those multi-colored canvas-topped shoes he always wears. "Whenever I need some they let me go to their warehouse and take home an armload."
Al's next album, POLKA PARTY, came out in October 1986. Alas, it was a commercial disappointment, only reaching #177 in Billboard. How did Al react to that? "I thought it was the end of my career," he says with a chuckle. "I figured I'd peaked with 'Eat It' and 'Like A Surgeon' and now people were slowly forgetting about me and I was well on my way to obscurity. Since then I've realized that careers have peaks and valleys, and whenever I go through the rough times, another peak might be right around the corner."
Nevertheless, several tracks for Polka Party became enduring favorites. "Addicted To Spuds" (based on Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love") is perhaps the most popular of Al's parodies which has never been made into a video. Al and the band did perform it at the MTV New Year's Ball in 1986, using life-size Mr. Potatohead costumes (supplied by Hasbro, the toy company) which Al continued to use on stage for years afterwards.
"Dog Eat Dog": "That's one of my favorite songs off the album," says Al. "It's inspired by Talking Heads, and also by my days working in the traffic department at Westwood One -- my first and hopefully only desk job. At first I thought it was kinda cool that I had a phone and a desk and a little cubicle to call my own, but after a while I felt like my soul had been sucked out of me. The song is kind of a tongue-in-cheek look at office life."
"Living With a Hernia" was the first video and single from Polka Party. Al started out, of course, by doing research on hernias. "It was a real thrill to do James Brown. I'm a total non-dancer, never went to any dances in high school, but if I analytically dissect a dance routine I can figure it out. We brought in a choreographer named Chester Whitmore, who has helped me on other videos as well. We shot that video in Las Vegas, on the same stage where James Brown did the original 'Living In America.'"
"Here's Johnny": "El DeBarge, Ed McMahon. We got John Roarke, the guy who did all the impersonations on the TV show Fridays, to do the Ed McMahon voice."
"Christmas At Ground Zero": "A cheery little tune about death, destruction and the end of the world" is how Al describes it. "Ever since 'Eat It' Scotti Bros. had been trying to get me to do a Christmas record. I think this song is a little different from what they were expecting. Some radio stations actually banned the record, somehow reasoning that most people didn't want to hear about nuclear annihilation during the holiday season."
The record company wasn't interested in making a video, but Al insisted. He wound up directing the video himself (his first video director's credit). It's mostly a montage of early Cold War 'duck and cover' footage with one new shot, filmed in a part of the Bronx that actually looked like a bomb had fallen on it.
Regardless of what some radio stations thought of the song, Dr. Demento listeners loved it. "Christmas At Ground Zero" has been our most requested Christmas song since "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."
There was no real tour for Polka Party. Al did spend a big chunk of 1987 on the road, though, opening for the reformed Monkees. ("Actually, they closed for me," Al rationalizes). At least the Monkees crowds were far more enthusiastic than those Missing Persons fans back in '82.
And after this "valley" there indeed came a "peak" -- the EVEN WORSE album. Released in April 1988, it became Al's biggest selling album thus far, and eventually went platinum. This was the first Weird Al album where the cover art was also a parody, of Michael Jackson's Bad album in this case.
"Bad," the song, was the source of the first single and video from Even Worse, "Fat." "Part of me didn't want to do another Michael Jackson parody," says Al. "I was still primarily known as the 'Eat It" guy and I didn't want to become known as the guy who just rides Michael's coattails. But when I heard the song "Bad," almost immediately the concept of "Fat" came to mind, and I visualized myself expanding to 800 pounds and bouncing around a subway set, and I just thought those visuals were too funny not to be used. So once again we approached Michael and he was kind enough to let us shoot it on a subway set he had constructed for part of his Moonwalker video.
We put an ad in the trades for 'Very Fat Dancers.' You can find anything in Los Angeles, after all. We got some really good people from that ad. Actually, one of the dancers we used was a guy who just happened to be delivering some pizzas to our casting office. He'd never been a professional dancer, but he had the perfect physique and he worked out great."
Al's makeup for the video -- carefully sculpted latex appliances along with the spectacular Fat Suit -- took four hours to put on each day. "Once I was into makeup I was there for the whole day. It was kind of scary -- I actually got used to seeing myself look that way. The suit wasn't that heavy but by the end of the day I felt like I was wearing a portable sauna." The makeup was done by Kevin Yagher, who's perhaps best known for his work on the Child's Play movies and HBO's Tales From the Crypt. "Fat" has of course been a highlight of Al's stage show ever since, thanks to another custom-made Fat Suit and makeup cleverly crafted so that it only takes him about two and a half minutes to get in or out of it.
The "Fat" video won Al his second Grammy, for Best Concept Video. The follow-up single was Al's parody of "La Bamba," called "Lasagna." "My original thought for this was to record the entire song in Italian [Al is part Italian on his mother's side]. I was actually going through Italian phrase books and dictionaries until I realized that the humor would be lost on 99% of the audience, so I decided to do the whole thing in English but with kind of a bad Italian accent."
"Good Old Days": "That was another experiment. I wanted to see if I could write a song as if Charlie Manson and James Taylor were collaborating."
"Melanie" is one of Al's few songs that might be rated PG-13 if it were a movie. Like Spike Jones, Al prefers to "work clean." "Sometimes I have an alternate verse to a song that I only sing to my friends," he says.
"You Make Me": "That was kind of an Oingo Boingo soundalike, a fun one to do. It's about as close as I ever come to writing a real love song."
"Alimony" is a parody of Billy Idol's 1987 remake of Tommy James' "Mony Mony." Don't take the lyrics literally: Al has never been divorced (or married either, as of this writing).
In the fall of 1988 CBS Records' classical division released a CD of the children's classic Peter and the Wolf. Al narrated, using his own revision of the original text, while Wendy Carlos played Prokofiev's music on synthesizer. The disc also contained Carnival of the Animals - Part Two, featuring whimsical poems written and read by Al along with Carlos' original music.
Al made his feature film debut that autumn, with a cameo in Tapeheads. He also did a much-noticed cameo that year in The Naked Gun. (He's since done cameos in both Naked Gun sequels).
Next came the most monumental project of Al's entire career so far: his own feature film for Orion Pictures, called UHF. Al starred in the film, and co-wrote it with Jay Levey, who directed. "Jay and I had been kicking around the idea for a film since 1985. We wrote most of it in the latter half of 1986. It took about six months to write the first draft of the screenplay. The studio would make suggestions and we'd do rewrites. Actually we were given a lot of leeway by Orion. For better of worse it was pretty much the movie we wanted to make."
Al plays George Newman, a daft but likable young lad who becomes manager of what must be the most decrepit television station in America. Through ingenuity, luck and the previously unknown performing talents of the station's janitor (played by Michael Richards, later of Seinfeld fame), the station becomes an overnight success. The rest of the plot has to do with the schemes of an evil competitor (played by film legend Kevin McCarthy) to drive the station out of business.
The film connected spectacularly well with preview audiences, but ultimately got lost in the shuffle of a summer dominated by the first Batman movie. It has thrived on cable to this day, though, and the home video version has sold very well. There's enormous audience response when clips from the film are played at Al's concerts. People often come up to Al and tell him they've seen UHF thirty or forty times.
"There are some scenes that still make me laugh after seeing them thousands of times...and others that make me cringe. Storywise I guess it was a little cornball, but I still think UHF is a funny movie. I'd like to make another movie like that, but I'd have to take another six months off to write it, and there'd still be no guarantee it would ever get made. So right now I feel more comfortable putting all my energy into the records and videos and concert tours, because at least I know they're going to happen."
One of the highlights of the film was the video for "Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies." Mixing the lyrics of an old TV theme with a new rock hit admittedly wasn't a new idea; Al had done it on the 3-D album with "The Brady Bunch" and the whole process can be traced back to the 1978 underground hit "Gilligan's Island (Stairway)" by Little Roger and the Goosebumps, to the tune of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Back in his college Coffeehouse days Al often performed a number called "The Beverly Hillbillies Miss You" to the music of the Rolling Stones.
Among the many people that had to be asked for permission was Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, composer of "Money For Nothing." He said "You can use my song only if I get to play guitar on your version!" And so he did. Lawyers dictated the song's compound fracture of a title; Al would have preferred "Money For the Beverly Hillbillies" or "Beverly Hillbillies For Nothing."
The song is perfectly complimented in the video by Rick Morris's computer animation. "Rick has edited nearly all of our videos," says Al. "He's an incredibly talented guy, terrific to work with. This was really a labor of love for him because he wanted to showcase his computer animation skills, to show the world he could do it."
There was a UHF soundtrack album, which also got lost in the shuffle due to the film's short theatrical run. Many fans are just now discovering it for the first time. Al made a most remarkable video for the song "UHF," featuring his impressions of the Beatles, Prince, Billy Idol, George Michael, INXS, Randy Newman, Robert Palmer, David Byrne, Guns N' Roses, Peter Gabriel and Z.Z. Top. Most of these impressions are visual parodies of those artists' videos. It's the most complex, ambitious music video production Al's been involved in so far.
The UHF album also contains several splendid parodies and Weird Al originals that have no connection with the film. Three of them are included here.
"The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota": "This was inspired by a book that was given to me called Roadside America, which featured all the campy places around the country that one could possibly visit. All the places mentioned in the song actually exist. I was originally going to keep the song down to about four minutes. I generally write a lot more verses than I need. But then I decided this should be my epic. It's the longest song in my catalog. Musically it was inspired by Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot, all their storyteller songs, those sprawling narratives.
"Not too long ago I was walking down a seedy part of Hollywood Boulevard kinda late at night, and this gang of severe looking punks was following me, and I basically thought they were going to kill me. But then they came up to me and shook my hand, and said 'We really like "Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota."'"
"Spam" is a parody of R.E.M.'s "Stand." Al: "I've always loved R.E.M.'s production. It was fun to pick that one apart and figure out some of those almost subliminal parts -- parts that would fade in and out, little bell sounds, things you don't really hear on first listening."
"Generic Blues": "I just wanted to write the ultimate blues song. I was told recently that B.B. King mentioned it as one of his ten favorite blues songs of all time."
After the UHF album, Scotti Bros. changed their distribution from CBS to BMG. Al's albums were reissued on the Scotti Bros. label, including the first album which had never been on CD before.
Al was back in the recording studio in June 1990, recording original songs for a new album which he hoped to have ready for release by the end of the year. There was one big change: he was now producing his own sessions. "I loved working with Rick Derringer in the studio, but over the years I'd been getting more and more involved in the production end of things, and it just got to the point where I felt like I could hold the reins all by myself."
The sessions went smoothly, but when it came time to do the parodies for the new album, the fates conspired to put Al on hold. For a year or two there just didn't seem to be anything new on the pop charts with enough impact to support a parody that would match the success of "Eat It" or "Fat." Al steadfastly refused to release an album without a potential hit song he had total confidence in.
Al did complete one project in the meantime, another impressive testament to his diverse talents and his sense of TV history. Babalu Music was a collection of Ricky Ricardo's musical numbers for the I Love Lucy show, compiled by Al and released on both audio and video. The title track of both versions was a montage of original Lucy music and dialogue, cleverly produced and arranged by Al with a new rhythm track for dance clubs and video channels.
The song that finally made the next album come together was Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which Al transformed into "Smells Like Nirvana." Once again the cover art and album title became part of the joke, with Al swimming OFF THE DEEP END after a doughnut on a fishhook, in perfect parody of the baby swimming after a dollar bill on Nirvana's Nevermind.
Al: "I wanted to make sure that when I came back after that long hiatus, it was with something strong, and it wasn't until Nirvana that I felt I had a real contender. Everyone was talking about how they really liked that Nirvana song but had no idea what the words were, so that was the direction I took.
I heard that Nirvana was going to appear on Saturday Night Live, so I phoned Victoria Jackson (who was in the cast at the time and had also been in UHF) and asked her to grab Kurt Cobain and put him on the phone with me. It turned out that Kurt was familiar with my work and when I asked if I could do a parody of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' he agreed without hesitation. Then, almost as an afterthought, he asked 'Is it going to be a song about food?' and I said no, in fact it's going to be a song about how nobody can understand your lyrics, and he said 'Oh, that's a funny idea, go ahead!'"
Al's video used the same set as the original, the same janitor, some of the same cheerleaders and many of the same extras. The video also had a few things that weren't in the original, such as Dick Van Patten and various farm animals. It got almost as much play on MTV as the original. Rolling Stone made it #68 on their list of the 100 best videos of all time. Spy magazine selected it as Video of the Year, and at the MTV Video Awards Al was nominated for Best Male Performance alongside the likes of Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen. The video propelled the Off The Deep End album up to #17 in Billboard, matching Al's all-time high. Kurt Cobain told a Chicago interviewer that was the one moment when he felt he'd really made it, when Weird Al did a parody of him.
"I suppose that song will never again be as funny as it once was," Al said after Cobain's suicide. He still performs 'Smells Like Nirvana,' though -- "Kurt was a fan of the song and I think he would have wanted it that way. From time to time in my career, I've gotten letters from kids who said they were on the brink of suicide, or suffering major bouts of depression, and listening to my music kind of got them out of that. I can't tell you what a letter like that means to me. I never dreamed my songs could have such a positive effect on people."
The Off The Deep End album had many more highlights to offer, including an up-to-date polka medley, "Polka Your Eyes Out." (Al performed this on my 20th anniversary special on the Comedy Central cable network.) "I Can't Watch This" is a parody of "U Can't Touch This" by Hammer, rap music's flavor of the month at the time -- but mainly it's a devastating satire of modern-day television. "Gee, from your earlier songs I thought that you *liked* television!" one fan wrote to Al.
"Taco Grande." "A Gerardo parody. I got to use the Spanish I learned in high school. I was really thrilled to be at a point in my career where I could just call up Cheech Marin and say 'Hey, you wanna come to the studio and be on my record?' He was great to work with. The surprise was that I wanted him to do a rap in Spanish, and it turns out he doesn't know much more Spanish than I do. [Cheech was born and raised in Los Angeles] So I wrote out in English what I wanted him to say, had a bilingual secretary at Scotti Bros. translate it into Spanish, and Cheech read it phonetically."
By the way, that batch of originals recorded back in 1990 came out sounding just fine on the new album. Three of them are in this compilation, starting with "When I Was Your Age," in which Al takes one of the oldest cliches of sitcom-land and thoroughly reinvents it with some of his most perfectly crafted lyrics.
"Trigger Happy." "I just thought it would be fun to juxtapose a Beach Boys/Jan & Dean type surf riff with a song about a gun nut. I think the song's pro-gun control sentiment is fairly obvious, but one day I was doing an interview in Canada on a call-in talk show, and somebody called in and said 'Oh, I think it's great that you wrote this song, because I love guns, I got a lot of guns and I think it's great that you'd write a song like that.' Not wanting to explain the irony to someone who's heavily armed I simply said 'Thank you very much!'"
"You Don't Love Me Anymore." "Another song in the vein of 'One More Minute.' This one wasn't inspired by anybody in particular, though. The video is a parody of 'More Than Words' by Extreme, but the song itself is original, one of my few originals to get any kind of radio attention, they usually just go for the parodies. Steve chipped his tooth during the making of the video. He's biting into a big chunk of ham on a fork, and he bites into the fork along with it. You can actually see a wince of pain there." You can also see Robert Goulet in a special cameo appearance.
The Off The Deep End tour was Al's biggest and most spectacular yet, with almost a dozen costume changes. Though Al has always insisted he's not a dancer or an athlete, every show on that tour was powerful evidence to the contrary. The contracts for that tour called for each promoter to provide Al with a cheap guitar, which he would demolish at the end of "You Don't Love Me Anymore." Al got a few nasty lacerations before perfecting the art of injury-free guitar destruction. (After the tour he picked up a few more cuts and bruises while doing a genuinely perilous aerial stunt on CBS-TV's Circus of the Stars.)
Al got his fourth gold album for Off The Deep End, and his fifth for the awesome ALAPALOOZA, released October 5, 1993. The first single and video was "Jurassic Park." "I was driving a rent-a-car through Florida when the song 'Lola' came on the radio, and it got me thinking about how much fun I had doing 'Yoda,' where I took a then-current topic and combined it with a classic rock tune. Then I flashed on Jurassic Park which had just come out, and was already well on its way to becoming the biggest hit in box office history. I thought of various songs that I could combine that with, and when I hit on 'MacArthur Park' it felt like a natural. I got permission from Jimmy Webb (composer of 'MacArthur Park'), from Michael Crichton (author of the novel on which the movie is based) and of course from Steven Spielberg, whose blessing made it possible for us to cut through miles of legal red tape.
The animation for the video was done by Mark Osborne and Scott Nordlund. I found them through Bill Manspeaker, the lead singer of Green Jelly. I decided that it would be easier to do a clay animated video than to find real dinosaurs. Mark and Scott and their dedicated crew worked on it at breakneck speed, sleeping in shifts, and they came out with something that we're all very proud of. It's played in animation festivals all around the world."
Fast facts: 1) The "Yankosaurus" in the album booklet was designed by David Peters, who'd worked with Al on the "Dare To Be Stupid" video back in 1985. 2) The Japanese edition of the CD contains a bonus track of Al singing "Jurassic Park" in Japanese.
"Bedrock Anthem" was the album's second video, directed by Al. It's a parody of two Red Hot Chili Peppers hits, "Under the Bridge" and "Give It Away." Al: "I knew there was a Flintstones movie coming out, and I figured that for once I'd have my song out before the actual phenomenon. So I got to predate the movie by seven months. I'd always wanted to do a tribute to the Flintstones because I think they're a big part of pop culture. I did a lot of research, really immersed myself in the Flintstones. I watched over 100 Flintstones episodes, because I had to not only re-familiarize myself with the characters, I had to find actual sound bites and animation from the series to use in the song and the video."
"Achy Breaky Song." "I've sometimes been criticized for being too gentle in my parody. They can't accuse me of that here. I should stress that it's done in good fun. I have nothing personally against Billy Ray Cyrus! Actually so far nobody's complained to me about my making fun of Billy Ray, but people *have* said 'What do you have against the Village People?' or 'What's wrong with Abba?'" Footnotes: 1) "Achy Breaky Song" features the "hand music" of "Musical Mike" Kieffer, who for many years has helped me produce the Dr. Demento Show. Those odd squeaking sounds he makes are also prominent on "Eat It" and quite a few other Weird Al tracks. 2) "Achy Breaky Song" actually managed to get a fair amount of airplay on country stations.
"Frank's 2000" TV" is one of the original songs on Alapalooza. "Just another song about Capitalism, Greed and the American Dream," says Al. The music is R.E.M. inspired. I like the jangly guitars on their earlier work, so I wanted to write a song with that feel. I do all the harmonies myself, with the exception of Steve Jay's inhumanly low bass vocal on the words 'watts of Dolby sound'".
"Livin' In the Fridge" was the last song recorded for Alapalooza, just a few weeks before the album's release. "I needed one song to complete the record, and I had feelers out to several different artists at the time. I was fighting the deadline, and the idea was to do a parody on whoever I got permission from first. I'm glad it turned out to be Aerosmith because I've been a fan of theirs since my early teens. They're one of the few acts that I like as much now as I did back when I was thirteen. Of course, it was yet another food song. But like I always say, I owe my life to food -- if it weren't for food I wouldn't be here today."
"Harvey the Wonder Hamster" was written for one of MTV's Al-TV specials. "Just a silly little song that I'd sing to Harvey before I threw him out the window or pulverized him with a mallet. [A special stunt hamster would always stand in for Harvey at the appropriate moment]. I like to put a really short song on an album now and then, and I got a lot of requests to include this one."
|Al wrote "Headline News" especially for this compilation. In this parody of the Crash Test Dummies' provocative 1994 hit "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," Al miraculously breathes new life into three of the most over-exposed news stories in recent memory, while giving the bottom end of his vocal chords an impressive workout.|
Whatever the Next Big Thing in music (or pop culture in general) turns out to be, I sleep a whole lot better knowing that Weird Al will be there to put it all in perspective. If only the entire population of the universe could be as Weird as he.
DR. DEMENTO has played the "mad music and crazy comedy" of "Weird Al" Yankovic, Spike Jones, Frank Zappa and thousands of others on his weekly syndicated radio show since 1970. He has produced many CD and tape compilations of hits from the radio show and other kinds of music as well. Write to Dr. Demento at P.O. Box 884, Culver City, CA 90232.
[Text entered by Annie Sattler (firstname.lastname@example.org), Dec. 1994]