Various Artists Dr. Demento Covered in Punk

[Caf Muzeck / Demented Punk; 2018]

Styles: punk, humor, bodily functions
Others: NOFX, Weird Al, Lonely Island

Even though the term “novelty music” is seldom used nowadays, I still think it’s overused. In fact, let’s try to do away with it altogether. I suspect Barry Hansen, best known as Los Angeles-based DJ Dr. Demento, would agree. Once posed by the AV Club with the question regarding the future of novelty music, referring to earwormy (for some, irritating) songs like “Purple People Eater,” the good Doctor did not trash the term. He instead answered by referring to the music that made him known — “Transfusion,” “Monster Mash,” and Weird Al’s first — as “funny songs.” This may not appear to be an important distinction, but referring to silly pop music that sounds like conventional pop music — even with some big variations on vocal style, lyrical content, or whether or not it includes bodily sounds — doesn’t exclude some terrifically written songs from the pop spectrum.

Considering “novelty” can be a term tagged to much popular music, many of these songs often have a better shelf life than more “serious” stuff. And in some cases, funny songs still chart pretty highly. Arguably, one could similarly defend punk rock music. With its roots in a kind of pop music conservatism — reviving three chords and simple, often bizarre lyrics amidst an era of impressive yet bloated album rock — punk rock has received more than its share of marginalization. Now, especially as it’s fashionable (maybe less so), it’s still approached by the mainstream as an Other. Let me paraphrase from Michael Robbins’s brilliant, bizarre book Equipment for Living: if enough of a community enjoys it, it’s pop music. Most genres are pop music, even if they don’t sound it. And the community that enjoys funny songs — a globe-spanning, ageless one free of stylistic limitations — is very much vibrant in Dr. Demento Covered in Punk, already one of the best pop records of 2018.

It’s the stuff of hand buzzers and whoopie cushions: individual, simple joys but carefully crafted and compiled. It’s an album that works well with the individual tracks, but the context and the encyclopedic knowledge that the Doctor has about pop music (he knew a lot about Prince when I met him) make it better. At 64 tracks, bumpers and banter included, it’s built like a commercial-free broadcast of Dr. Demento’s show, serving as a primer for what it’s all about. Having not heard a broadcast of his show prior, it’s a good one — the takeaway is that the show covers various styles, backgrounds, and senses of humor. And the Doctor is the frontman here, his voice reminiscent of a clown who doesn’t hate his life decisions (Drew Friedman’s cover art even punks the Doctor up, making him look more demented than he actually is), providing trivia and tooting his own horn on occasion. But that’s all surface stuff; when one lays out the tracks — what connects them, what makes them different — the album not only offers a history of comedic music and its place in the mainstream, but also acknowledges the overlap between funny songs, punk rock, and conventional pop as inseparable. They must co-exist.

The first song is a cover of “Fish Heads” by Osaka Popstar, the anime-themed band that once featured Jerry Only and Marky Ramone, fronted by the compilation’s producer and curator John Cafiero. “Fish Heads” serves as an example of what a simple “novelty” song is and what a punk song is conventionally perceived as. Doctor mentions that it was also written on a napkin at a Chinese restaurant; there’s something punk about writing fast, even if the song itself is not. That sentiment, of course, will be revived later in the album. Speaking of playing slow: no classic-era punk band did that better than The Cramps. Like much of their catalog, “Garbageman” is itself a tribute to funny songs, even directly stating “the bird is the word.”. It’s revived by William Shatner, who’s mostly known for talk-singing, but the song grinds in such a way that the Shat is essentially doing a dead-on Lux impersonation. It’s a rarity for his own catalog. Much later, Weird Al rebels against type in doing, for once, a non-parodic cover of The Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat.” Then comes a retooled version of borscht-era “Shaving Cream,” which brings up the use of curse words. In punk, it’s of course inseparable, but there’s something to be said about getting up close before pulling up.

Yes, these are bad songs for bad people. But rarely has a compilation worked to state a point, even if it’s made without beating you over the head with a rubber sledgehammer. The album got me thinking: Like how “Fluffy” and “Dead Puppies” bring up thoughts about what constitutes bad singing and the prevalence of dogs in punk culture. Or how “Suicide is Painless,” written by Robert Altman’s 15-year-old son in under 15 minutes, got me thinking more about the recurrence of death in punk music, whether lyrically or how it becomes embedded in its mythology. Or how the bombastic, show-stopping appearance of the late Adam West in the onetime mainstream hit “The Thing” got me thinking about punk’s dead stars. There is no reference to his passing on the album, which I think is good. There is insight into how funny punk songs can be isolating and kinda sad (Colleen Green’s “I Like”), into what qualifies as a youth anthem (is “Institutionalized,” covered here by Andy Merrill a.k.a. Brak any more emblematic than the belch-filled “It’s a Gas”?), into how these songs cycle through many generations (“Surfin Bird” and “Rat Fink” are covered here for the upteenth time), and into how the early generations are still respected (Fred Schneider, The Misfits, Weird Al, and Dead Milkmen all appear, and are all covered). Can a musical be dumb and punk? Can funny songs be intellectual? Is it just for American boys, or can it be enjoyed by girls from Japan? How polished must the instrumentation be? Is pure energy alone enough? Whenever an album seeks to break barriers without being obvious or too self-important, it’s worthwhile. A month after its release (sorry, I’m lazy), Covered in Punk continues to provide.

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