Nearly 40 years ago “Weird Al” Yankovic began building his fanbase the old-fashioned way: Radio.
Yankovic would send tapes to disc jockey and comedy song expert Dr Demento, who gave airtime to Yankovic’s early parodies of the Knack’s then-chart-topping new wave hit My Sharona (recast as My Bologna) and Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust (as Another One Rides The Bus).
Times have changed.
On-demand services have arguably supplanted radio, and Dr Demento, whose real name is Barret Hansen, jokes that the reaction today to Yankovic is a little different than it was back in the day.
“Now, the response is ‘My God, is he still around?’.”
Not only is Yankovic still going strong – his most recent album, 2014’s Mandatory Fun, debuted at No. 1 on the US pop chart – but he’s out to experiment. As the music industry transitions from album sales to streaming, Yankovic, now free of his record deal, is questioning what it means to be a veteran independent artiste in 2017.
“My record contract is over, and I’m not anticipating signing a new one,” he said.
He’s at work on a major career retrospective, one that will be released under a crowd-sourcing-like model, and he says he envisions the future Yankovic to become a primarily singles-based artist.
“I’m not saying the album is a dying format or that it’s not a valid medium,” he said. “But for me it always held me back a little bit. I know that sounds a little ironic after coming off a No. 1 album. But I have to stay true to what I think is the best way for me to get my material out.”
Chief among his concerns: The shelf life for a comedy song in the age of YouTube.
“It’s been frustrating in the past to have an idea for a song, then to write it and record it, and then have it sit in the can for a year until I have 12 songs to release all at once,” he said. “In today’s culture, where people have a short attention span and there are 10 million people on YouTube doing song parodies and funny material, things age pretty badly, and very quickly.
“For me to be competitive at all,” he continued, “I think it behooves me to think more of myself as a singles artiste going forward.”
First, though, Yankovic, who lives comfortably with his wife – photographer Suzanne Yankovic – and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, in the Hollywood Hills, is hard at work again, this time helping Sony Legacy compile a career-spanning box set, titled – what else? – Squeeze Box.
The 16-disc collection will gather all his original studio albums, from 1983’s “Weird Al” Yankovic through Mandatory Fun, plus a bonus disc of rarities, a 100-page book of photos and other “Weird Al” ephemera. It will be housed in a replica of one of his signature accordions.
It’s now been a bit more than 40 years since the four-time Grammy Award winner from Lynwood started seeping into the public consciousness, all thanks to an original song, Belvedere Cruising, which he wrote about his family’s Plymouth Belvedere, and mailed in 1976 to LA-based radio-show host Dr. Demento.
So what was it about Belvedere Cruising that caught Hansen’s ear?
“There was a line in that song, ‘There’s something about a Comet/That makes me want to vomit,’,” said Hansen. “He was referencing all these different car models and why they can’t compare to the Belvedere. That line woke me up. I thought, ‘This kid has some talent.’ He sent me another song, and then another, and they just kept getting better and better.”
It led to a 1982 record deal with the Columbia-associated Scotti Brothers label.
Over the ensuing decades Yankovic would amass an authoritative body of seriously silly work. Many of his songs have tweaked the over-arching seriousness of the entertainment world while also demonstrating a canny grasp of what is au courant in the pop music world at any given time.
Yankovic’s catalogue, though it relies on skewed takes of popular hits, also offers essentially a snapshot of pop trends. Don McLean, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift are among the many acts who fell in Yankovic’s crosshairs.
His brand of parody is generally considered legally safe under the 1st Amendment’s free speech protections and “fair use” interpretations of US copyright law, but Yankovic still prefers to work with the permission of the artistes whose songs he tweaks. That’s meant he has skipped Paul McCartney, Prince and Eminem, all of whom declined to give permission when he approached them with parody ideas.
On the other hand, some artistes are more than willing. He credits Madonna for suggesting the idea of turning her 1984 hit Like A Virgin into Like A Surgeon.
Today, Yankovic has outlasted many of the acts he lampooned – lovingly, for the most part – including Survivor, Men Without Hats and the Police. Not bad for a novelty act; except maybe don’t use that word around him.
“It is novelty, but that’s sort of a derisive term, or at least it’s used that way a lot,” he said. “(It’s) generally considered the domain of one-hit wonders, which is something I’ve been fighting since I signed a record deal.”
As far as Yankovic is concerned, musicians who incorporate humour into their work in a big way are often marginalised.
“Humour is such an important part of the human experience,” he said. “I just don’t know why showcasing it makes people think, ‘You’re not a real artiste.’ Artistes who inject humour into their music run the risk of being labelled a ‘joke’ band.
“I wear that label proudly, of course, but it’s sad to me that other artistes will hide the lighter side of their personality, or their sense of humour, because they’re afraid that it’s going to get points marked off their grade.”
Novelty or not, Yankovic is genuinely excited about moving into a new phase of his career, one that embraces the technological changes that have flummoxed many in the music business.
“For the first 15 years of my career,” Yankovic said, “everybody was looking at me and going, ‘When is he going away? He was supposed to last like 15 minutes.’
“It took me up until, gosh, probably the beginning of this century to get to the point where people decided ‘Oh, I guess he’s going to stick around for a while’.” – Tribune News Service/Randy Lewis