Saturday, December 19, 2015


Spike Jones was too corny for critics to call a genius. In his lifetime, he wasn't even given credit for the brilliance of his arrangements and the expert musicianship of his band. What Spike did in a 40's recording studio in one take would take most any band a month of rehearsals and weeks of Pro Tools overdubs and punch-ins.

Compulsively smoking, intensely scowling, Jones was the perfectionist who made sure every gunshot, every smack of a tin can, every toot of a horn, was perfectly timed and in the right key. He had a keen ear for young talent, and gave breaks to a lot of beloved weirdos like Red Ingle, Doodles Weaver and Paul Frees.

Jones had an uncanny ability to produce comic art, not just parody. While "Weird Al" has done some great things, let's face it, it doesn't take much skill to bawl "Eat It" as a parody of "Beat It," especially when you're not altering the music too much. Compare that with Spike Jones' innovative mash-ups, like turning "Dance of the Hours" into a car race complete with feverishly corny announcer Doodles Weaver. Red Ingle's brawling "Chloe" is so great, it stands on its own as great comedy more than a spoof. When I first listened to it, I had no idea there was actually a serious song about a guy trudging swamps searching for "Chloe," like a cartoonish bag in some Mad Magazine panels hunting for her boy Little Willie Elder. As for "My Old Flame," after pretending to offer a traditional version of it, a Jeckyl band singer gives way for Mr. Hyde, Paul Frees doing his definitive version of Peter Lorre. Lorre himself was impressed by it. A pioneer in sick humor, Spike offered a pretty disturbing comic punchline: immolating the ex-girlfriend and punctuating the match-strike with her sudden scream.

At the time it was released, "Spike Jones in Stereo" (well, it was also released in monaural as "Spike Jones in Hi-Fi") got little respect. Spike's 40's formula of cacaphony and corn was no longer novel, and it seemed that critics and fans didn't appreciate the subtleties that Spike brought to long-play albums. It seemed that a very narrow circle of warped comedy fans and Forry Ackerman-esque pun-appreciative devotees of those famous monsters of filmland made this disc a cult classic.

Aside from demanding the best vocal talent and musicians, Spike Jones and his arranger added a vast repertoire of sonic seasonings to the mix. One of my favorites was the perfect monster mash-up of Poe's "Raven" to Dvorak's "Humoresque." Yes, the poem's cadence and the unlikely music match perfectly.

Another example of freaky finesse, is how the opening melody of "Teenage Brain Surgeon"is body-snatched from "Elegie," written by Jules Massenet in 1872. Most anyone else (except maybe Tom Lehrer) would've just knocked off a frantic rock song, content to match a teenybop dance melody to some sick humor. Here, there's a comic shock between the opening, legitimately chilling creepiness of "Elegie" and it's sudden kick into a teen beat. The original was rendered extra-spooky by gloriously deep-voiced Thurl Ravenscroft, best remembered as the voice of "Tony the Tiger" in vintage Frosted Flakes commercials and the guy who sang "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."

Since you should get the album, and since this IS the blog of less renown, that version isn't below. Instead, it's "Teenage Brain Surgeon" covered by somebody called Doctor X. It appears on a crazy album called "The Crazy Album," issued in 1978 and long out of print. The double-vinyl indie bootleg compiled novelty originals ("Martian Hop" by The Randells) and covers ("They're Coming to Take Me Away" by The Duke of Waterloo). The bootlegger swiped the original Spike Jones "Der Fuhrer's Face" but didn't also filch Spike's version of "Teenage Brain Surgeon."

Doctor X is no Ravenscroft, and the anonymous musicians don't have the panache and splash of Spike's band, but the essential brilliance of the concept is still there, which is the musical expertise to know what oldie to borrow and how to make it new.

PS, calling attention to "Teenage Brain Surgeon" doesn't mean this blog endorses Ben Carson for President. The blog only endorses obscure cover versions, musical oddities, and offbeat (but on key) neglected works of genius.

Doctor X Teenage Brain Surgeon

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