Successful rock parodies are few and far between, and until Weird Al Yankovic came along, rock on the accordion--either straight or parodied--was virtually non-existent.
"There's not a big market for accordion players," Yankovic admits, "especially not for those doing the kind of music I'm doing. Ever since graduating from college I've had to make the payments on my mansion and yacht by working in a mail room. It's just recently that I've given my life over full time to rock 'n' roll accordion music."
The 23-year-old Yankovic, who performs tonight at the Wax Museum with inveterate disc spinner Dr. Demento and local funsters Travesty Ltd., has yet to strike it rich, though he is inching his way up the singles charts with "Ricky," a hilarious homage to the Ricardo clan inspired by Tony Basil's "Mickey."
He thought he had it made with "Another One Rides the Bus," which bore a remarkable resemblance to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," and which jumped on the charts soon after being played on Demento's nationally syndicated radio program.
"I got a lot of good publicity with 'Another One Rides the Bus,' but my company (TK Records) went bankrupt about two weeks after the record came out; they owed about $7 million to various people, and I was one of them, so I never made a penny off of that. 'Ricky' is my first actual, bona fide hit. Last week it was 74 with a bullet and I hear it's selling pretty well. I might make some money after all."
It started for Yankovic in 1979 with the delicious "My Bologna" (somehow The Knack's "My Sharona" never sounded the same after that), followed by the Queen take-off.
As he gets more successful, Yankovic is also careful to approach the original songwriters for permission to parody. He's well aware of the problems encountered by Little Roger and the Goosebumps with their hilarious send-up, "Stairway to Gilligan's Island." Little Roger managed to get sued by both Led Zeppelin, whose "Stairway to Heaven" has long been the single most requested song on rock radio, and the producers of "Gilligan's Island," who were definitely not amused to have their lyrics grafted.
"Nowadays we don't just go around doing any parodies we want. We carefully go about things legally. We approach the various writers of the original songs and kindly ask their permission. Usually they have a sense of humor about it and say, 'Okay,' and then we set about writing the parody."
Yankovic plays his accordion in front of a full band after having spent his formative years backed only by bongos and a jew's harp. His debut album on the Scotti Brothers label features some top Los Angeles studio musicians, including guitarist Rick Derringer, who also produced the effort. It's a far cry from "My Bologna," which was recorded in an acoustic-tiled bathroom.
Yankovic's relationship with the nationally syndicated Demento show (heard here Sunday nights on WJOK) goes back to those formative years when, as a 15-year-old high school student, he sent the master of vinyl lunacy "a tape of one of my songs on a 39-cent cassette. I never thought he'd listen to it, but he played it that very Sunday. I got excited and started sending him bigger and better-produced tapes--59 cents and 89 cents. The rest is history."