Postmodern Jukebox and Genre-Bending

the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band
The Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band. (L-R) Awfthe Wallé, B♭ Baxter, Buffalo Steve, Sgt. Charts, Dr. Mabuse DOA, and Little Orphan Ollie.

I have terrible taste in music. At least that’s what I’ve been told. If I put my iTunes library on shuffle, it won’t be too long before somebody asks “What the hell is that?” Most of my favorite bands are on the weird side, as I have a perverse fondness for genre-bending, combining two or more styles of music into one ill-conceived creature that should not be.

Lately I’ve been a huge fan of Postmodern Jukebox, Scott Bradlee’s YouTube phenomenon that takes songs from one genre and turns them into another, converting Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” into a hillbilly hoedown and Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” into a jazz number straight out of Gatsby. Occasionally, I’ll hear one of their songs and have to go look up the original artist, only to discover that the amazing R&B-gospel roof-raiser I just listened to was originally a generic boy-band song from One Direction.

Probably my favorite thing Bradlee has done is a little solo piano track, a mash-up of George Gershwin and Freddy Mercury called “Bohemian Rhapsody in Blue.” Here, listen to this:

That’s what I’m talking about. It’s silly and absurd, but it’s also smart and skillful. This is the appeal for me; in order to appreciate it, you have to be familiar with two very distinct genres of music, and in order to pull it off, he has to be able to see where the two pieces can merge together. And the result is wonderful.

Postmodern Jukebox is just the latest in a long line of musicians who bend the rules and defy the boundaries; I’ve been a fan of several of them, going all the way back to Spike Jones and His City Slickers and Homer & Jethro. Let’s dig around in my collection and see what we find, eh?

First, let’s give credit where it’s due, and hear something from the aforementioned Spike Jones, arguably the progenitor of this entire field. (Side note: his lead singer/comedian/narrator is Doodles Weaver, whose brother was former CBS exec Pat Weaver, which means Doodles is Sigourney Weaver’s uncle. It’s a weird world.)

And now we’ll move on to this bit of lunacy.

Back in 1970, a recording engineer named Ted Templeman (who later discovered Van Halen and produced their first several albums) was screwing around with his multi-track recording studio and decided to turn himself into twins who sing in harmony. Ted Templeman became “The Templeton Twins,” who recorded with a band known as “Teddy Turner and His Bunsen Burners,” which was comprised entirely of Ted Templeman. The Templeton Twins recorded current popular songs in 1930s style, a stylistic shift later emulated by many other performers including the previously mentioned PMJ.

I was introduced to the Templeton Twins in 1978 by an actor friend named John Eddings, when we played opposite each other in a community theater production of Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam (he was Bogie, I was Allan), and he suggested the Twins as appropriate incidental music. I still owe him for that one.

 

But a few years before that, I had discovered the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band, a six-man group of UCLA alumni (performing under the aliases B-Flat Baxter, Awfthe Wallé, Buffalo Steve, Sgt. Charts, Little Orphan Ollie and Dr. Mabuse DOA) who played a mix of classical and pop music in the style of the great Spike Jones; the band featured three trombones, three saxophones, tuba, trumpet, guitars, piano, organ, bundt pan, gong, drums, slide whistle, English police siren, marimba tin cans, accordion, Dornophone (so named for the doctor who repaired Dr. Mabuse’s deviated septum, allowing him to play his nose as an imitation theremin), whoopie cushion, and a handful of other instruments including kazoo and trash can lids. Their performances were complete anarchy, and I loved seeing them at Pasadena’s famous Ice House a few times a year. A few of their more popular songs were “The Martian March,” “Beethoven’s Ninth” (featuring the most brilliant execution of the “Ode to Joy” ever recorded), a smooth jazz version of “Purple Haze,” and “Swamp Lake,” in which Delibes’ Coppelia collides with cheerleaders to create a rock anthem. They are probably best known for providing the incidental music for the Dr. Demento radio program, especially their iconic cover of Felix Figeroa’s tribute to Los Angeles street names, “Pico and Sepulveda.” The RRGTCB remains my all-time favorite musical act, much to the chagrin of my bride.

About a decade later, I stumbled upon an album by a group known as Big Daddy, a concept band that falls right in line with my perverse fondness for music that’s been messed with. Rather than just playing music in weird ways for the hell of it, Big Daddy had a back-story. According to the liner notes, the band was booked for a tour of southeast Asia in 1959, arriving just in time for massive political upheaval. They were taken prisoner in Cambodia and held as presumed spies. Finally, in the early ’80s, they were released and returned to America to resume their career. They tried to play current songs, but they played them the way they had always played, resulting in three albums of  ’80s songs played in ’50s style. Their fourth album was a ’50s cover of the entire Sgt. Pepper album; if you’ve ever wondered what “A Day in the Life” would sound like if performed by Buddy Holly, here’s your chance. Recently the band reunited and released an album of Broadway and film tunes in their signature style.

By the early 2000s, mash-up and genre-bent music was becoming a cottage industry, with Beatallica (heavy metal versions of Beatles songs), Hayseed Dixie (bluegrass versions of hard rock songs), Lounge Against the Machine (lounge versions of lots of stuff), Those Darn Accordions! (you guessed it), Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (punk covers of decidedly not-punk tunes), The Benzedrine Monks of Santo Domonica (Gregorian chant versions of pop songs; yes, really), Mozart TV (classical versions of TV theme songs) and a whole bunch more. Even Paul Anka and Pat Boone got into it, releasing collections of rock songs done in their usual style. Anka’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a crime against music, I highly recommend it, but his “Lovecats” is just wrong. Just about the time one might think the gimmick has been played out, along comes a maniac producer to raise the stakes.

Ross Wright earns his living scoring music for the movies, but like everyone in LA he has a side-project. Wright’s alternate persona is Elvis Schoenberg, conductor of the Orchestre Surreal, which could most accurately be described as “the mutant love-child of Spike Jones and Cirque du Soleil.” The 30+ piece orchestra, featuring Dangerous Dan and the Divine Miss Thang on vocals, combines iconic rock songs with well-known classical compositions and bizarre spoken-word interludes. Here’s their version of “Purple Haze”….

But to really put the lid on this sort of thing, you need to go to Norway. That’s where you’ll find Farmers Market, a popular five-man jazz-blues-classical-pop-bluegrass-Bulgarian-folk-speed-metal band whose music could be called “ADD Rock.” Presented without comment:

And now it’s your turn. What music to you listen to that makes people ask “what the hell is that?”

19 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    I tend to love stuff like this. When I was still in elementary school, my older brother bought one of those Dr. Demento compilations (Dr. Demento’s Delights) which I think I ended up listening to more than he did. So I’ve always had a taste for the unusual, and was pretty unfazed and quite amused when Weird Al later showed up on the music scene.
    I also got that “what the hell is that?” response from a lot of my peers in both high school and college, because I really liked (and still do like) prog rock (Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, etc.) and even Krautrock.
    Anyway, thanks for the tips on a few of these, I’d never heard of Postmodern Jukebox or Big Daddy, or Orchestre Surreal for that matter, although I’ve heard that rendition of Purple Haze somewhere before. (By the way, re: it’s Richard Cheese, not Lounge Against the Machine – that’s the name of his first album; he’s recorded well over 10 albums and a few live ones as well.)

    Otherwise, there’s quite a few bands in my part of the world like Farmer’s Market (awesome stuff!): the mixing of local folk and Gypsy stylings with rock, punk and jazz has been quite fashionable in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, etc. for quite some time now. One of my favorites is a band called Gustafi, who are a little bit rock, a little bit polka, a little bit punk with a dash of local folk music thrown in for good measure. I went to one of their live shows a few years ago – most fun I’ve had at a concert in ages (and don’t worry about not understanding the lyrics – I know Croatian and can only understand about a third of what they’re saying, most of their lyrics are in a local dialect).
    A somewhat similar band that I’ve come to like is Gogol Bordello, whose music is this wonderful blend of Gypsy, punk and rockabilly. For those who may be unfamiliar with them, this appearance on David Letterman’s show a while back is a good illustration of their music and showmanship.

      1. Also, Dr. Demento’s Delights was a great album. As much as I love Weird Al, I have to grudgingly admit that he kind of ruined the Dr. Demento show. He opened the door for listener submissions, 95% of which were crap, and a program that had been about unearthing genuinely odd and (sometimes unintentionally) hilarious recordings became an often-painful barrage of half-baked efforts by less-talented amateurs. Weird Al is a musical genius; his imitators, not so much.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Man, that takes me back to college. I grew up in a small, rural town, with a radio station that had farm reports and mostly light rock offerings. I heard more Neil Sedaka than any child should. American Bandstand was about my only link to rock music (at least, what Dick Clark would promote). Every once in a while, I stumbled onto a gem, often novelty songs. I loved that stuff, from Rick Dees and Disco Duck, to Pac Man Fever, to classics, like Alan Sherman. College is where I was introduced to Dr Demento, by some friends who were from Chicago, which got his radio show. They passed me tapes of stuff from the show, then the anniversary album collection came out, with the chronological discs. That opened up things like Tom Lehrer and others; and, of course, MTV introduced me to Weird Al.
    One of my favorite oddities is a song from “Classy” Freddie Blassie, a notorious pro wrestling heel, in the 50s and 60s, and a manager in the WWWF (as the WWF/WWE was then known). He had a song, built around his favorite crowd taunt, “pencil-neck geek.” It’s more of a spoken word set to music kind of thing; but it was awesome.
    One can’t talk about absurd music without mentioning the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, with Neil Innes. They were a regular feature of the pre-Monty Python Terry Jones & Eric Idle series, Do Not Adjust Your Set. Innes I knew from Python; but, I had only heard of the band, in books about Python. When Do Not Adjust Your Set turned up (in a partial collection) on dvd, I got to enjoy them in all of their bizarre wonder. That, of course, would lead to Python album music favorites, and things like Eric Idle’s The Rutles.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    ps Wrestling had another absurd connection to music (no, not Cindy Lauper). back in the 50s or 60s, a city orchestra teamed up with a wrestling promoter for a fundraiser. The symphony played during the intermission between matches. Then, during the main event, the orchestra provided a soundtrack. They would change the music to match the action. At one point, the heel left the ring, pushed the conductor off the podium and took over conducting the orchestra. It was such a brilliant idea!

  4. MikeMoyle

    Oh, lordy!

    I have so many of these genre-bending acts that I love: Babaloo, a punk mambo band out of the Boston area; The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, rock anthems with added bagpipe; Puya, a Puerto Rican rock group who the Boston Globe music critic once described as the love-child of Motorhead and Tito Puente; and awhile back I put several videos up on YT of the latest iteration of a good friend’s group, The Speakeasy String Quartet, playing note-for-note transcriptions of ragtime and early jazz classics scored for classical string quartet.

    Then, there are the one-offs, where an act will do one “not-our-normal-repertoire” number just for grins: De Dannan’s Hibernian Rhapsody (Hungarian Rhapsody on accordion, penny whistle, fiddle,and bodhran); Steeleye Span’s cover of To Know Him is to Love Him (with David Bowie on tenor sax);, or; The Ebony Hillbillies’ bluegrass version of Sexual Healing.

    And then, of course, come Christmas-time, my holiday mix includes The Hampton String Quartet’s pastiche album What If Mozart Wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, The Oriental Echo Ensembles’s Chang King Christmas, and Oy to the World: A Klezmer Christmas by The Klezmonauts.

    …that’s all that I can think of, off he top of my head.

    (And, yes; Google Bordello are awesome!)

  5. Le Messor

    (I did not recognise the Farmers’ Market song.)

    I can’t find it, but Dinosaur comics once did a strip about this. T-Rex came to the conclusion that all songs are recorded in the wrong genre.

    Y’know, Jim, when you start talking about a genre-bender cover artist, my first instinct is to go to their page and see if they covered my favourite band.
    In this case, I never made it. Because… because… well, my favourite band’s Queen, and you’ve already posted that!
    You should hear Tolga Kashif’s Queen Symphony… the music of Queen as scored by Howard Shore.

    As far as I know, The Benzedrine Monks only released one album… but there’s also a band called Gregorian who do the same thing. I really like them. They’re a little less Gregorian (ironically), in that they use instruments and female vocals, but they sound amazing (and have about a dozen albums by now).

    Like Hayseed Dixie, The Fargone Beauties do C & W versions of real songs. They may also have only one album (The Dark Side Of The Moo). Both have done Fat-Bottomed Girls.

    Then there’s things like Little Roger and the Goosebumps’ Stairway To Gilligan’s Island (which inspired “Weird Al”‘s Beverly Hillbillies / Money For Nothing).

    Going the other direction, you get B. Bumble and the Stingers’ Nut Rocker, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (give Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) a listen), and Bond (kinda).

    … I’ll stop now.

    1. Watson

      According to the late Geoff “Db” Cooper (AKA Dr. Mabuse, of the RRGTCB), The Benzedrine Monks were actually the same guys behind Big Daddy.

      On an unrelated note, how about an Irish Tango?
      Last Tango in Tipperary by Shenanigan:

  6. JMills

    Not genre-bending, but one of my favorite mash-up bands is Rock Sugar. Due to legal issues with a certain lead singer of a certain 80’s hair band, sales of Rock Sugar’s album have been halted, but you can catch their stuff on YouTube. Love “Shook Me Like a Prayer” and “Voices in the Jungle” in particular.

    Almost always get a “What the… ?” when people hear me playing them over the computer.

  7. Filament

    Some of you may like the band Insect Trust of the late sixties and early 70’s. There’s was a mix of folk, modern jazz, blues, and other American genres. In a period which valued eclectic hippy music and art, they truly lived it. Here is a link to an NPR article:
    http://www.npr.org/2012/11/20/165494325/the-insect-trust-an-american-band-deconstructed

    Jazz drummers Elvin Jones and Bernard Purdie were members of some of the incarnations of the band. It’s very interesting to read about what the core members had done during their time with music. Some of the core members were previously in the Holy Modal Rounders. There are some songs available on You Tube if you’d like to sample some.

    I actually won my first album by them in a raffle at the local teen dance club in 1970, as a choice if you wanted the “psychedelic” album. I had a hard time with it initially but grew to listening to it more of the years. I found it influential to my musical tastes.

  8. Simon

    Okay, I don’t know most of yours, so I’ll have to defensively strike back with my own stumpers!

    – “genre-bending, combining two or more styles of music into one ill-conceived creature that should not be”

    It seems to me you’ve talked about two or three different sort of things, no?

    (1) Taking one old song from genre A and covering it in genre B.

    There’s a ton in that style, maybe the easiest. Besides your examples, I’m reminded of:

    * Apocalyptica, a great band of classically-trained cellists who started with uneven cover albums (METALLICA BY FOUR CELLOS, INQUISITION SYMPHONY), before making some great original music with a mix of cellos and electric guitar (CULT, REFLECTIONS), and then going very poppy (APOCALYPTICA, WORLDS COLLIDE).
    * A lot of electronica artists doing interesting “remixes” of themselves or others, and sometimes wildly genre-bending. Such as Aphex Twin (26 MIXES FOR CASH), The Future Sound of London (PAPUA NEW GUINEA TRANSLATIONS), or Autechre (BASSCAD REMIXES).
    * THE BEATLES GO BAROQUE, an album from a pop orchestra rewriting their hits as baroque music. (I’ve heard it once and couldn’t identify the original songs without the playlist.)
    * I remember hearing a disco cover of Beethoven’s 5TH SYMPHONY. (I guess there must have been a ton of disco covers of any popular classical ditty!)

    Maybe a subset is re-interpreting something with a very different instrumentation?

    * Miles Davis’s SKETCHES OF SPAIN has Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” adapted for jazz trumpet, natch.
    * I’m a bit fond of Bach’s GOLDBERG VARIATIONS for piano, so I can tell you there are some great-to-interesting covers performed with: full-range chromatic accordion (Stefan Hussong, more nostalgic than melancholic), strings (Gaede Trio, twice slower and longer), and church organ (Elena Barshai).
    * In the opposite corner, Orff’s CARMINA BURANA got an often nice piano adaptation (Eric Chumachenco).

    (2) Making a medley of two old songs of genres A and B.

    * Wasn’t there a cottage industry of that in the 1980s? I seem to remember some article about it, amusingly with tons of them being medleys of “Billie Jean” morphing in and out of various songs from different genres.
    * A lot of jazz bands have recorded medleys or suites of 2 to 10 jazz/blues/classical standards, sometimes of very different eras, styles, and tempos. (Dave Brubeck, for one I can think of.)

    (3) Combining genres A and B to create new music in a hybrid genre.

    * Early jazz-rock and jazz-funk fusions? Such as Miles Davis or Chick Corea/Return to Forever.
    * Some prog-rock or art-rock fusions? Maybe King Crimson’s first albums of rock-jazz, or Pink Floyd’s orchestral rock on ATOM HEART MOTHER?
    * Some “ethnic fusion” or such? Dead Can Dance did some ethnic/rock fusion before breaking up, and both Lisa Gerrard and Loreena McKennitt have done world/celtic fusion albums. Maybe Peter Gabriel’s world/rock’s soundtrack for LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, too?
    * Some “post-rock” bands? Such as the punk/rock/folk/blues/noise/classical blends of those known as GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR and SILVER MT. ZION.
    * Some composite “world jazz”, “nu-jazz”, or “post-jazz”? Such as Trilok Gurtu (THE GLIMPSE, MILES GURTU), Nils Petter Molvær (KHMER, NP3, ER) or Jaga Jazzist (LIVE WITH BRITTEN SINFONIA, joyful orchestral jazz-rock).

    – “What music [do] you listen to that makes people ask ‘what the hell is that?’ ”

    Obvious bait is obvious. I’ll take it! Hm, depending on which people, that could be half my music, so I assume you want really strange stuff rather than just weird lyrics or noisy music?

    Some electronica can really be out there, though not often very fun:

    * Aphex Twin’s SELECTED AMBIENT WORKS II is a classic of loops allegedly based on synesthesy and dreams.
    * Autechre got increasingly abstract and inhuman as years went by, so everyone has their drop-out point. You’re already in deeply robotic territory with TRI REPETAE, CHIASTIC SLIDE, LP5, or EP7, but I can’t make much sense of DRAFT 7.30, UNTILTED, or QUARISTICE…
    * Boards of Canada’s MUSIC HAS THE RIGHT TO CHILDREN or GEOGADDI, a bunch of short and weird ambient loops from a world its own.
    * Coil is not unlike the Velvet Underground, an equally unknown and influential experimental band all over the map style-wise, from acid/house to industrial to neo-classical to dark ambient to drone/noise/electronic madness, 40+ recordings, many under other names. (Clive Baker called them, “The only group I’ve heard on disc, whose records I’ve taken off because they made my bowels churn.”) There’s been a very nice and very incomplete 2-CD showcase (THE GOLDEN HARE WITH A VOICE OF SILVER).
    * Pete Namlook & Klaus Schulze’s series DARK SIDE OF THE MOOG, whose 11 volumes are quite different and often weird. For instance, most of VOL. 2 is like the soundtrack to a movie you don’t see, with the first 15 minutes being just the noises of someone walking away from a chiming bell, through a forest and into a sea cave where ambient/house music starts. VOL. 5 and 8 are alien ambient/chill/trance music, while VOL. 9 and 10 have bizarre dark-ambient.

    Some feedback-based experimental stuff:

    * Lou Reed’s METAL MACHINE MUSIC, obvs. (Though I rarely listen to it.)
    * Brian Eno’s NO PUSSYFOOTING, a weird tape-loop/echo-delay trick recording of KC’s Robert Fripp on the guitar.

    Some loop-based stuff:

    * Erik Satie’s VEXATIONS, a 90-second piano piece to be played 840 times (about one day). Stephane Ginsburgh recorded it as the hour-long 42 VEXATIONS, to be replayed twenty times. (It’s only a slightly eldritch piece, but some people seem unnerved once they realize that thing in the background is repeating itself again and again, heh.)
    * William Basinski’s series THE DISINTEGRATION LOOPS, allegedly made from music on old tape that he re-recorded once they started to fall apart, in a perpetual loop destroying and preserving them at the same time.
    * Biosphere’s SHENZHOU, an impressionistic collage of ambient fragments from a crackling vinyl recording of Debussy’s THE SEA.
    * The Cure’s CARNAGE VISORS, their very uncharacteristic soundtrack for some arthouse short.
    * Vidna Obmana’s SOUNDTRACK FOR THE AQUARIUM, water music commissioned for the Antwerp zoo.

    One of the strangest subsets of experimental or ambient music is “drone music” — beatless and slowly-shifting soundscapes of vibrations (from strings, organs, tape wizardry, or computers), such as:

    * Tony Conrad & Faust’s OUTSIDE THE DREAM SYNDICATE ALIVE, a 50-minute ballet of shrieking strings that should bore you and yet doesn’t if you pay attention to its slow patterns. (15 minutes in, a slow but brutal drum kicks in, maybe turning it into “drone-rock” for the rest of the performance.)
    * Coil again, as Time Machines, did TIME MACHINES, a hypnotic recording that aims to reproduce the experience of four drugs (without the listener taking them).
    * Tangerine Dream’s ZEIT or PHAEDRA, spacey soundscapes with strings or synths.
    * Klaus Schulze’s IRRLICHT, TIMEWIND, or DUNE, slowly unfolding dramas for organ or cello-and-synth.
    * Steve Roach’s IMMERSION: THREE, ambient drone that’d go well with the ocean of Tarkovski’s SOLARIS.
    * Stars of the Lid’s AVEC LAUDENUM, a kinda neo-classical ambient to fall asleep to.

    (I have withheld relatively-accepted stuff from Philip Glass, Mark Hollis, King Crimson’s “ProjeKcts”, Kraftwerk, Mike Oldfield, Radiohead, etc.)

  9. Filament

    I was a huge fan of 70’s and early 80’s progressive rock and fusion. A local alternative radio station (WXXP in Pittsburgh) at the time was very reliable for playing those two genres, as well as punk and New Wave. It was the best period for music in my life. The station had Dr. Demento and Mel Redding’ s Over the Blue Horizon (import music – we knew what import albums to spend what were big bucks for us on ) on Saturday nights, full albums every day of the week at midnight…just wonderful. Hard to say what were my favorite progressive rock and fusion albums: Tony Williams Lifetime’s Believer It, Soft Machine’s Alive and Well in Paris, the first two Pierre Moerlin’s Gong albums, most anything by Weather Report, first 4 or so Brian Eno albums. I still listen to all of those now.

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