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?”