With the help of Rhino Records, Dr. Demento has now crowned his lifetime devotion to the musically comic and absurd with "Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Hits of All Time," a six-album series available as a boxed set or individually. If there is a surprise to this six-album monument to pop's silly underbelly, it's that the listening experience is more illuminating than humorous.
A fairer share of the songs here, like Rusty Warren's supposedly salacious "Bounce Your Boobies," are either too dated or inane to be funny. Some, like Rodney Dangerfield's recent "Rappin' With Rodney" are just novelties, earning a one-time chuckle and that's all. Others, like the Trashman's "Surfin' Bird," are so musically powerful and comic that they long ago shed their novelty status. Regardless of how hard you laugh, these records, along with Demento's superb notes, reveal much about the changing nature of music and culture.
The first album, "The 1940s and Before" (Rhino RNLP 820), begins with the utterly simplistic "Okeh Laughing Record," a 1922 disc in which two people laugh uproariously while another plays the trumpet. The humor improves, though, with classics from first-rate comics like the Marx Brothers, Jimmy Durante and Spike Jones, as well as as Cab Calloway's unforgettable "Minnie the Moocher." If the jokes on "The 1940s" tend to be shopworn, Felix Figuero's 1947 "Pico and Sepulveda" remains a daffy spoof of Latin music because its laughs reside in the hilarious musical arrangement itself.
The next two albums, "The 1950s" (RNLP 821) and "The 1960s" (RNLP 822), are the most consistently entertaining in the series. Early rock 'n' roll was inherently good natured and comic, and, with the rise of Top 40 radio, deejays were especially receptive to outrageous, attention-grabbing records.
"The 1950s" offers smash novelty hits like Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater" and Buchanan and Goodman's landmark record, "Flying Saucer." Better, however, are the Cadets' comic "Stranded in the Jungle" and Nervous Norvus' lurid post-auto accident opus "Transfusion." Of the nonrock sides, Tom Lehrer seems ahead of his time with "The Masochism Tango," admitting "I ache for the touch of your lips, dear/ But much more for the touch of your whips, dear."
"The 1960s" is even better, as rock 'n' roll indulged a final carefree period before the decade and its music got serious. The Ran-Dells' "Martian Hop" and the Hollywood Argyles' "Alley Oop" may represent the final collapse of the doo-wop style, but at least the music went out goofing and grinning. With its promise of impending psychosis, Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" was banned from many households lest it prove contagious. Then there was Tiny Tim, whose musical joke, as evidenced by "Tip Toe Through the Tulips," was simply to play the music of the '20s.
If "The 1970s" (RNLP 823) and "The 1980s" (RNLP 824) are less enjoyable collections, it's partly because rock was a bigger and more serious business, and the new radio formats were unreceptive to potentially offensive or outrageous records. Because novelty records had little chance of becoming hits, they seemed to sacrifice musical values in favor of merely verbal or conceptual humor. Two delightful exceptions from the 1970s are Randy Newman's "Short People" and Loudon Wainwright's "Dead Skunk," both superb pop records enlivened with sharp and witty lyrics.
Given rock's stiff upper lip, it's not surprising that the best records on "The 1980s" make fun of the music itself. The big star is Weird Al Yankovic, the accordion maestro who parodies big hits by big stars, turning, for example, Michael Jackson's "Beat It" into "Eat It." In the same way, Bruce Springstone's "Bedrock Rap" mocks the style of You Know Who, while D.C.'s own Travesty Ltd. takes on all of rock culture in "Rock 'n' Roll Doctor."
If the last record in the series, "Christmas" (RNLP 825), is the worst, it's may be that the yuletide presents such a fat target for offbeat humor that it all ends up sounding obvious, as in Elmo and Patsy's recent hit, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."