Mind Widening Music: Bizarro Music #5 – Spike Jones
by Lee Widener
In this month’s column it is my great pleasure to present an artist I consider the grandfather of Bizarro music, Spike Jones. Spike Jones was a drummer, percussionist, composer and bandleader mostly popular in the 40s and 50s, though he did release some recordings in the 1960s.
As a drummer, he rose through the ranks, playing in many different bands, combos and orchestras, but Spike wasn’t happy playing things straight. He loved to clown around, and he and his fellow musicians would practice after hours, playing parodies and jazzed up versions of popular hits. They recorded their sessions and pressed discs to share with family and friends. One of these recordings made it to the hands of an RCA Victor executive, who signed Spike and his band to a contract. Their first release was “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” a novelty tune ridiculing Adolf Hitler. It reached number three on the U.S. charts and Spike Jones and his City Slickers became stars.
Just as Bizarro Fiction takes genre fiction and filters it through a funhouse mirror so that it becomes something strange and wonderful, Spike Jones warped popular and classical music so that it transformed into something that could only be judged on its own merits. His version of the William Tell Overture, filled with sound effects and bad jokes, told the story of a very unusual horse race. As a percussionist, Spike peppered his recordings with gunshots, pots and pans, cutlery, bells, whistles, explosions and general mayhem. Here is a theatrical short where Spike skewers a popular hit of the time, “Cocktails for Two,” which includes one of Spike Jones’ trademarks, a vocal affectation referred to as “gugging,” a repeated rapid fire use of the glottal stop.
Spike and the City Slickers, accomplished musicians and singers all, could be seen in movies, endless touring with his act “The Musical Depreciation Society,” and most importantly on the upstart medium of television where he was a frequent guest and had several series of his own. The visual value of Spike’s performances cannot be overestimated. He and his band wore outrageously loud suits, and filled each number with endless sight gags that stretched the boundaries of reality. Here is their version of the popular tune “That Old Black Magic,” with vocals by Billy Barty, one of the original Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz, doing impressions of Johnnie Ray, James Cagney, Jimmy Durante, and others.
One of the characteristics of Bizarro Fiction is that it’s critical of mainstream society and cultural norms. Spike Jones’ music destroyed the mainstream music of the day, and ridiculed high-brow music with his decidedly low-brow antics. In this final clip from his tv show the sponsor decides the show needs a little class. The solution is to have the entire band dress as women. I don’t know how that’s classy, but it sure is bizarre.
There is a lot more Spike Jones on youtube. I encourage you to seek it out.
Lee Widener is a lifelong collector of weird music. For ten years he ran the internet radio station NeverEndingWonder Radio, which specialized in odd, unusual, freaky and bizarre music, and still runs a small Halloween themed radio station, which can be found at Welcome to Weirdsville . He is the author of “David Bowie is Trying to Kill Me!” and “Rock N Roll Head Case” published in October 2015 by Eraserhead Press.