Anything that happens when you’re eight years old can mark you for life – just ask Sigmund Freud!Art Spiegelman
Few memories take me back to the goofiness of childhood and adolescence more than “Wacky Packages” and novelty songs. And thanks to some wonderful collections, I know I’m not alone. In 2008, The Topps Co. dedicated a marvelous little book to what we in fifth grade called Wacky Packs, providing a lead-in by Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus creator and former Wacky Packs contributor Art Spiegelman. In it, he wrote, “Anything that happens when you’re eight years old can mark you for life – just ask Sigmund Freud!
Wackies were a young child’s first exposure to subverting adult consumer culture.” Substitute “eleven” for “eight,” and I’m right with you, Art. In much the same way, novelty songs found ways to make me giggle while subverting all types of pop culture. Here’s a baker’s dozen I enjoyed immensely in the ’70s and ’80s:
13. “Kong” Dickie Goodman, the originator of the “break-in” record with snippets of contemporary pop hits around topical storylines, was better at it than any of his competitors (knockoffs like The Delegates’ “Convention ’72” paled in comparison). The reason that this one ranks comparatively low is that not only did it fail to click with mass audiences – settling for a No. 48 Billboard peak in March 1977 – but it also tracks the storyline of his much bigger mid-70s break-in almost completely, even to the hilariously apt out-of-context splice of an adult-contemporary smash.
12. “General Hospi-tale” The Afternoon Delights, an act whose name itself spoofs a No. 1 goofball ’70s song as well as the then-popular ABC daytime motto “Love in the Afternoon,” recorded this silly pop/rap highlighting the 1981 storylines of the uber-soap. Although I’d never seen an episode prior to the college-crowd-event wedding of Luke and Laura, I enjoyed the spirit of this record. (I was an “All My Children” – and, later, “One Life to Live” – fan myself.)
11. “Take Off” Bob and Doug McKenzie (SCTV’s Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) and Rush’s Geddy Lee team up for stratospheric silliness – “Take off to the Great White North/It’s a beauty way to go!” So many funny lines (“Except for him! I’m a band!” “Like it was sung by angels!”) make this both a funny comedy record and a spoof of both late ‘70s/early ’80s corporate rock and the ego antics of late night comedians turned superstars in comedy troupes.
10. “The Super-Bowl Shuffle” I know: This record by The Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew (the wildly popular 1985 incarnation of the Windy City football team) isn’t intentionally a comedy record. Or is it? After all, can a song with the lyrics, “We’re so bad, we know we’re good,” really not realize it’s a spoof? I don’t think so. The boys seem to be having a lot of fun, and for a good cause; the gold record (and #41 Billboard hit) brought in more than $300,000 for area charities. (And side note to Rabbits Rabbits: The guys’ dorky dancing abilities only make them look hotter, right?)
9. “Pac-Man Fever” Buckner and Garcia’s ode to the video game obsession of 1981/82 can’t help but bring back memories of money and time spent at the arcades at Indiana University Bloomington my freshman year. The authentic sounds from the game provide some extra sparkle, but nothing is more of its early ’80s time than that screaming guitar solo in the middle. I didn’t buy this song at the time, but Rhino’s excellent “Totally ’80s” boxed set includes not just this, but No. 12, No. 11 and No. 3 as well, along with dozens of great songs that aren’t novelty songs (at least, not intentionally so).
8. “The Curly Shuffle” I’m not the world’s biggest Three Stooges fan, but two of my closest buddies from high school were, so I wound up becoming very familiar with all of the punch-lines referenced in this No. 15 Billboard hit by the Chicago band Jump ’N the Saddle. What I enjoyed as much as the comedy in this hit was the clear musicianship of the band. It’s too bad this was their only hit. (Side note 2 to Rabbits Rabbits: I had the single, with no picture jacket. Pretty sure you were the one who turned me on, so to speak, to the album jacket.)
7. “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow” From the get-go, this Ray Stevens song does an effectively faithful job of sending up the most-consistent Top 40 act of 1975-1981. What makes this work so well is that Stevens effectively keeps his tongue just in cheek for the most of the song, until the wonderful key change and the word he uses in it. I so wish Casey Kasem had the chance to count this down; alas, it climbed no higher than No. 49. (Manilow’s own “The Last Duet” with Lily Tomlin a few years later showed he could take the joke as well as be the butt of it, but it’s not quite as good if only because Stevens got there first.)
6. “Wet Dream” Of the songs in this list, this Kip Addotta nautical punfest is by far the least-known (outside of the land of Dr. Demento’s fans). For a little while, I thought I myself might have dreamt the recording, since I recall hearing it initially on Bob Dearborn’s syndicated mid-’80s “Night Time America,” which one of the stations in the Bloomington, Ind., market was running in 1985. When I transferred my music to an iPod, I made it a goal to track this track down, and successfully found it on a Dr. Demento collection. From listen one, Addotta had me hooked.
5. “Energy Crisis ’74” The second and most political of the three Goodman tracks on this list, its break- ins are often both funny and biting (the repeated use of Helen Reddy’s “Leave Me Alone” is a gratingly effective reminder of the Nixon presidency). And the literal fade-out at the end is effective, too. What keeps it from being his best is an odd bit about Gerald Ford that aims for satiric but comes off more sophomoric.
4. “The Streak” I know Ray Stevens’ politics are no laughing matter, and some of his “comedy” (“Ahab,” for one) isn’t either. That said, this is still a riot, although I will admit I’ll never find it as funny as I did at age 11. (“ Don’t look, Ethel ! It was too late; she’d already got a free shot!”) For those who think this song makes fun of Southerners or rural folks, Stevens is laughing with, not at, them. If anyone is the butt of this joke, it’s the folks showing off their anatomy in public. (True story: My dad, siblings and I took one of our Pennsylvania small-town cousins in 1974 to a Chicago White Sox night game, only to witness a streaker on the field. So, yeah, this summer ’74 No. 1 was very of its time.)
3. “Valley Girl” Frank Zappa and daughter Moon get their Top 40 day in the sun with this 1982 ode to California suburban teenagers and their unique way of speaking. Well, “unique” until this became a NO. 32 Billboard hit (despite or, maybe because of, its references to S&M and Mr. Bu-Fu) and a generation of middle and high schoolers decided to ape its catch-phrases and intonations. I couldn’t enjoy hearing this today more than once in a blue moon but still find myself laughing when I do.
2. “Mr. Jaws” This Dickie Goodman break-in went all the way to No. 4 in a seven-week run on AT40 in 1975. It deserved to be his biggest hit, catching the Steven Spielberg movie fad at exactly the right moment. Its most extended gag in the middle fittingly mocks the extended run of what would become the No. 1 song of 1975. It was so well-timed that five of its break-in songs were still in the Top 40 the week it debuted (including No. 1, Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”). And I will never hear the last song used without thinking of how Goodman used it here. Classic.
1. “Sister Mary Elephant” I’ll admit right up-front: I’m a product of both public and Catholic elementary schools. And it’s the Catholic school experience that makes Cheech and Chong’s 1974 satire ring so true. It’s not just the name gag, either: The way the nun elides what happened to her predecessor and keeps veering between sweetness and “Shadd—UP!!” was so true that you knew the writer (in this case, Cheech Marin) had to have gone to Catholic school. The gags abound: “Young man, now give me that knife!” “SHHHTTHHUNNG!! (sound of knife in a wall)” “Thank you!” all the way to the end (“I still gotta go to the can, man!”) How this song made it to AT40 is truly a triumph of subversive ‘70s disc jockeys. It’s the closest thing to Wacky Packages available on a 45.
To anyone wondering how I could do this and leave out Weird Al Yankovic, that was intentional: You could do a baker’s dozen just of his parodies. And that just might show up here sooner or later…
Which of these are your favorites? Which do you loathe, and why? What novelty songs from more recent decades stuck with you? Share below.