Friday, November 8, 2013

A Tribute to The Great Doctor Demento!!

Doctor Demento is STILL ALIVE! Just thought I'd get that out of the way, right away. This is not a posthumous tribute! At the time of writing this blog, Demento (Barret Hansen) is still very much alive and well and working with a production team on the film documentary of his career, now spanning over 40 years.

Doctor Demento is one of those true radio-show hosts with personality. He helped introduce a whole generation of people to some of the funniest and strangest music that ever had been created. As a DJ, starting out in the late sixties, the Doctor was more interested in the stranger side of music, and while he was working at an L.A. radio station in 1970, came up with the on-air persona of Doctor Demento when he began getting more and more requests from listeners for the stranger, funnier, weirder songs. He helped us all expand our musical minds beyond the mundane, and he continues to do so.

In promotional photos, Doctor Demento appears as an eccentric but pleasant bearded man wearing a top hat, bow tie and larger-than-necessary glasses. On air, Demento's persona came across like a lovable but wacky uncle and with a rather zany, but fun-loving voice. Doctor Demento was strange, but he was not a morning-zoo bone-head making prank calls. Neither was he an Alice-in-Wonderland character come to life, like some sugar-fuelled goofy video-jockeys of the 80s and 90s. He was a smart and knowledgeable radio talent that attracted the listener closer to the radio as the next song started. He began his broadcast with mad howls and giggles of glee and the spinning of party-rattles and called his audience "dementites" and "dementoids". His goofiness only created more intrigue for the listener to wonder what the next song might be like. As the Doctor, he began a weekly radio-show that would eventually be syndicated and broadcast right across North America. The Doctor no longer does live broadcast, his show recorded ahead of time and mostly for digital download, but he still doing his thing, almost 40 yrs later, with the help of the internet and modern production facilities called Meep Morp Studios.
   Doctor Demento is due to have his own story told in a documentary movie that is going into production currently. I, myself, had discovered Dr Demento in 1980s through his syndicated radio show that was broadcast weekly from California U.S.A . However, he started in 1970, so let's start from there.

Classic Demento:
The music that Dr Demento played on his early radio shows were mostly novelty songs and comedy music. When he started his show in 1970 quite a few of these tunes were already classics long before they got to his show. Songs like 'Shaving Cream ' by Benny Bell or the classic song: 'Cocktails for two' by Spike Jones were already well-known and Demento merely presented it to a younger generation. He was also known to play the already famous songs like 'Monster Mash' by Boris Pickett or 'The Purple People Eater' by Sheb Woolley.

The Songs that the others wouldn't play were perfect for Doctor Demento:

Playing classics wasn't out of the question, but even in his earliest career, what set the Doctor apart from other comedy radio guys was that sometimes he let us listen to the kind of stuff that the other guys wouldn't play. Some of these songs could've actually been lost to history if not for the Doctor's own personal archive.
  A song by Harry Roy & His Bat Club Boys from way back in 1931 called 'My Girl's Pussy' would make a return visit to the Demento show every now and again, though he usually played the version by Harry Crumb & His Cheap suit Serenaders. (Yes, that's the same Harry Crumb that drew the cartoons.) Songs that the other radio shows avoided turned out to be perfect songs for the Demento audience. And why not? They were really just a tongue-in-cheek joke or a play on words.

  The song 'Transfusion' (1956), a song about a speeder or drunk driver getting in an accident and needing a blood transfusion, was actually banned from some other radio stations because it was deemed to serious to joke about. Not too serious for Demento, though, whose audience thought the songs message was only more powerful for the humour added to it.
  Not only did the Doctor play classic music that others wouldn't play, he often picked up something of current (at that time) music that other radio personalities may not have been interested in. There was a song by AC/DC on the Dirty Deeds album (1976) with their original singer Bon Scott. Other radio stations didn't actually outright ban the tune, but they wouldn't play it either. It was the one about Ballroom Dancing. Well Doctor Demento found it perfect for his show.

The Comedy Skit that turns into a Funny Song:

Doctor Demento did play some stand-up comedy recordings on his radio show, including George Carlin and other controversial comedians, but what was often perfect for the Demento show was the kind of audio-based sketch comedy that ended with a song. Everyone knows Monty Python's 'I'm a Lumberjack', but a Canadian comedy troupe named: The Frantics enjoyed a big Demento Show hit with their recording of the song: 'Ti Kwan Leep', better known as: 'Boot to the Head'
(Just a suggestion: ignore the pictures and just listen through these audio comedy routines, especially if you've never heard them before.)
Cheech And Chong also enjoyed more than a few Demento hits, one of them being the  great 'Basketball Jones' about a 4'11" Basketball Star averaging a whopping 132 points per game.

The 'Discovery' of Weird Al Yankovic

For years, Doctor Demento's fans listened for  new songs and contributions from 'that weird-guy' 'Weird' Al Yankovic to be played on his weekly syndicated radio show. You simply wouldn't hear his songs anywhere else....until Weird Al Yankovic's 'In 3D' album. From the first time that Demento played 'I lost on Jeopardy' the game-show parody of The Greg Kiln Band's great hit song, Weird Al began to gain a larger and larger following the more his songs were played.
    Weird Al had a mix of skills. He was a killer polka-accordion player with an excellent sense of 2/4 timing. He had a strong, powerful voice that could convey emotion and passion (especially where food is concerned) and he had a knack (remember My Bologna?) for parody of musicians and especially their videos. He also had a great gift for some exciting comedy weirdness of his own writing.  'Weird' Al proved to be not-too-weird for mainstream radio or video, but he was just as talented as the Demento fans thought he was. Though he may have used Doctor Demento's show as a launching pad, he would always remember the show and the fans that got him his chance.
   Starting off, isn't everything, though. Al built his career by improving his skills. He quickly learned and got better and better as a musician, writer and as a performer and Weird Al's band would prove to be a formidable live act in the years to come. Live shows impress fans and those fans tell other fans, which is why he is still so popular now.
   Weird Al Fans from the early 80s Demento days would probably prefer his album Dare to be Stupid, but it was Al's 2006 'Straight Outta Lynwood' that would get him his first top ten album charting on Billboard. (That album contains the very sophisticated parody of Green Day's politically-charged 'American Idiot' called: Canadian Idiot. Along with Al's sullen, but heartfelt ode to his own Pancreas.)

Some Respect for Demento's 'Real Music' Capacity

   With all the comedy and jokes and novelty songs, you might suspect that the Doctor was part quack and knew little or nothing of 'real music'. However, this Doctor is no joke and is 100% the music man, likely far more knowledgeable than your average DJ and about a hundred times smarter than those 2 insulting bums on the morning-zoo show in many cities. Not only does the good Doctor have a treasure trove of records that any collector would envy, he also has the mental knowledge of where many of these strange and funny musicians got their ideas and inspirations.
   Doctor Demento's alter ego, the real-life Barret Hansen has a degree in musical studies and wrote several books on musicology including one entirely about the blues. He is also a frequent lecturer about music and music history.
   The truth is there were many songs that Demento played that were just as strong musically as they were strange or funny. Most, if not all, of the Doctor's musical choices were undoubtedly 'real music' in that, it may have had a comedy or satirical edge, but it usually consisted of quite a high level of musicianship and creativity. The Doctor Proved you didn't have to give up musical quality, or skill to be humorous, artsy or even strange. Some of these musicians were not only good, but actually highly skilled and quite inspiring to other artists. The music of the inimitable and always eccentric Frank Zappa (now in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame) made frequent appearances on the Doctor Demento show and one of my own personal all-time favourite Demento 'Discoveries' was the band Wall of Voodoo and their classic song 'Mexican Radio' about a south-of-texas radio DJ that can't speak a word of spanish.

The Weirdest (and perhaps the very best) of The Doctor Demento Show:
    Some of the songs that have been heard on Doctor Demento's show were the kind of strange that made you unsure if you should admit to your friends that you liked it. Back in the 80s, if you didn't have a tape-recording of the song to play for your friends and then tried to describe a song like 'Fish Heads' or worse, attempt to sing the tune on a bus or public place to people who hadn't heard the song... I can only imagine what people would think of you. Certainly someone might change seats or even buses to avoid the person singing the crazy songs, and who knows... maybe someone might call some authorities of some kind. But some of the songs that Demento played were bent just that far. Perhaps slightly beyond normal human understanding.

   Zappa was odd and Weird Al might be weird, but the song 'Existential Blues' had to be tacked-on sideways to the top corner of the highly-unorthodox list of the absolutely crazy-strange. A collection of different and diverging philosophical thoughts, while at the same time telling a moral-story with multiple characters, it was written by a man named Tom 'T-Bone' Stankus and he usually performed the song as a solo act. Miraculously some 4 guys in a band called Mr Bungle managed to convince each other to perform this convoluted and incredibly complex song one night in 1991 in front of a live audience. If you've never heard the song 'Existential Blues' before, I will say ahead of time that Mr Bungle plays it as it was written, with only one major change: They inserted another Dr Demento favourite song called 'Pencil Neck Geek' directly into the middle of the performance.

 An artist calling himself Napoleon XIV wrote a song called 'They're Coming to Take Me Away. ha-haaa' and the song was quite popular on the Doctor Demento show. It deals with a man who knows he is going insane and blames his relationship with his ex-wife for his affliction. However, the strangest thing about the song was that it became a hit. Author/songwriter Jerry Samuels was awarded with a gold record for this song.

 The original song inspired an album titled: Napoleon XIV: 'The Second Coming'(1966) and that includes songs like: The Place where the nuts Hunt the Squirrels & Photogenic, Schizophrenic You. Both songs are equally weirdly strange. 

   The music and lyrics of some of this stuff was/is so weird that they actually caused the listener (me) to sincerely question the sanity of the artist. Put simply: sometimes the songs on the Doctor Demento show actually seemed quite demented. But that didn't stop them from becoming popular. Both Tom 'T-Bone' Stankus and Napoleon XIV returned, by audience request, to the Doctor Demento show over and again and became 2 of the most popular songs ever played on the Dr's show. Napoleon XIV and his album 'The Second Coming' were actually re-issued in 1985 due to renewed interest/demand from the Demento audience. Quite a remarkable thing when you think about it. Although, if you're listening to a guy who calls himself Doctor Demento, then this is kind of what you're looking for, isn't it?

Two Minutes of Opinion: It's very easy to criticize radio these days. Real, engaging and friendly personalities are few and far between. Fewer still are those who truly care about the music and their audience. At their worst, some DJs are grumpy, less-than-talented wanna-be comedians who seem to be accustomed to getting cheap laughs by constantly insulting people. I remember in the early 2000s, someone complaining to me that his favourite morning radio station misunderstood their personnel requirements. He told me: "They needed 2 DJs, but they hired two Damn Jackasses instead of two Disc Jockeys." The truth is that the audience-to-DJ relationship that existed in the 1970s-80s and the independent radio of the early 90s is gone and may never return unless there are some drastic changes.
   Aside from those meanies-in-the-morning, it isn't entirely the DJs fault. DJs don't 'discover' artists like they used to, instead they are given playlists that are stringent and imposed from their bosses and extracted from entirely corporate interests. Even those that still do live broadcast are largely without the real interaction of a true live show. It's no wonder that many people have chosen to get their morning music or afternoon coffee sounds with an mp3 player or via an internet music connection with less advertising and usually WITHOUT ANY DJ at all.
  The truth is that Doctor Demento's show in the 80s was pre-recorded and syndicated, but it depended heavily on feedback from listeners. Requests, usually in the form of postcards or written letters was an integral part of the show, and I'm sure that the Doctor himself read more than a few of those letters. Furthermore, the Doctor couldn't just go read the Billboard top-10 list to find out what songs to play. His kind of show required that the Doctor and his staff actually had to do some research and find these novelty songs and strange music in order to give him something new to talk about and to play every week. This is simply not how radio is run anymore. DJs are not viewed as valuable talent, nor as knowledgeable musical researchers, but just an interchangeable cog in the machine of broadcasting. As a result, someone like Doctor Demento is unfortunately a member of a constantly shrinking and ever more exclusive club: the thinking man's DJ. It's a dying breed, but Doctor Demento is still one of the very best!!

Demento Today: Doctor Demento today hosts his show online for download and hires himself out by request for private functions. He also is known to rock the mic on  the academic and music-fan lecture circuit.
   The Doctor is still looking for new and strange musical-stuff like 'My Cat is Afraid of the Vacuum Cleaner'(2006)
  And Finally...Demento is obviously still a fan of parody, but a parody involves changing the lyrics and re-writing them with a new, funny version, so since the eighties a new trend has emerged: Why parody a song when you can cover it word for word but completely re-interpret the music of the song and do it in the funniest and most inappropriate way? The latest to join this list of Demento-discovered talent is the uber-lounge-lizard extraordinaire: Richard Cheese. The post is of his cover-version of 'Creep' by Radiohead.

Credits and Essential Demento Info:
Doctor Demento's Website:
The Doctor's Documentary (In Production): Under the Smogberry Trees

Also: The Demented Database: The Searchable Database of Songs Played on Doctor Demento's Show which proved very helpful in writing this blog.