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The Wackiness Of The Novelty Record

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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.

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Chuck Small

Journalist-turned-high school counselor. Happily ensconced in Raleigh, N.C., with hubby of 31 years (9 legal).

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mt58
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mt58
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March 22, 2022 6:38 am

Well done, cstolliver! So much fun!

And I was amazed to learn that the genius of Art Spiegelman had such a backstory!

lovethisconcept
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March 22, 2022 9:52 am
Reply to  mt58

I was really unaware of Art Spiegelman before Maus and had no idea that he had ever done subversive trading cards. But it makes perfect sense that he would.

mt58
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March 22, 2022 9:58 am

I’m with you there. One of my favorite things about our legacy hangout was that I learned an interesting new thing nearly every day.

I want to replicate that at tnocs.com. The Spiegelman factoid is ‘Final Jeopardy’-worthy!

Virgindog
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March 22, 2022 8:28 am

I think my favorite novelty tune is “They’re Coming To Take Me Away” by Napoleon XIV. The B-side was the same song, but backwards. Listen to that a couple times and you be happy to see those nice young men in their clean white coats.

lovethisconcept
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March 22, 2022 9:55 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I remember hearing that as a kid, while riding in the backseat as my mother drove us around a strange city late at night, completely lost. It was terrifying in a way that I can’t explain. Hearing it later, it just seems kind of fun and silly. But that night it chilled my sister and me to the bone.

Both Grouse
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March 22, 2022 10:24 am

Being lost in a strange city at night is unsettling enough. With that song added in, I can totally understand your reaction.

dutchg8r
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March 22, 2022 1:18 pm

Ok, that just gave me the heebie-jeebies just reading that was your soundtrack to an unwelcome side jaunt….

LinkCrawford
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March 30, 2022 4:03 pm

My wife loved scaring the tar out of our kids by playing this song loud when they were young.

ArchieLeech
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March 31, 2022 10:06 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

My handsome younger brother and I were staying over at my aunt’s back in ’73 – it was the year of The Sting. I was 11, he was 7. We fell asleep on the pull-out sofa with the radio under us – I was particularly fond of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” playing in the dark. We both woke up, FREAKED OUT, by the sound of “Ha-Ha” playing – I can still feel the sweat on my skin.

thegue
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March 22, 2022 12:50 pm

What a read, cstolliver!

I owned 8 of the 13 you’ve mentioned, and was very aware of “Super Bowl Shuffle” even if I didn’t purchase it.

*During my senior year at college, I was in charge of music for my fraternity’s parties. At first, I’d interject an early 80s/disco song, but they became the focus of the crowd, so I wound up making about 10 mixed tapes covering 1979-85. In that way, our party was unique to the other parties on campus.

Pac Man Fever and The Curly Shuffle made their appearance, not so much for their “danceability”, but rather to set the tone for the evening.

Your best work here? “Wet Dreams” That song was a classic, and my friends and I can quote most of it to this day.

Both Grouse
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March 22, 2022 1:10 pm

Nice write-up cstolliver! I’m only familiar with a few of these (are we able to post utube links here, mt?), and Bob and Doug McKenzie is my fave. Their friendly lunkheadedness really struck a chord with early-pube Grouse. And having Geddy Lee on board added a couple of points.

dutchg8r
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March 22, 2022 1:10 pm

Believe it or not, parody songs and novelty songs are an area I am woefully uneducated in. I figure it was mainly due to the fact I did not have much exposure to that genre as a kid, because considering how captivated I was with Weird Al’s stuff from the get-go, I probably would have treated it like having all-you-can-eat cotton candy and be a perpetual giggle box. “Another One Rides the Bus”, “I Lost on Jeopardy”, “I Love Rocky Road” – I think those were all around when I had just turned 7. The fact I knew the original songs, and could relate his parodies to them, and totally understand the humor behind them, I actually recall thinking “wow, I’m so grown up.” [Eyeroll] Definitely associate his early stuff with listening to the radio in our kitchen that was on as long as someone was awake in the house.

I mentioned my earliest exposure to novelty tunes at one point in ‘gum post last year, but it’s perfect to revisit for this topic today…

My mom’s grandmother (as I called her, Mom-Mom) loved music. She didn’t really play piano, but she still had this gorgeous, ornate upright piano in the living room I’d mess around ‘playing’ on. And her stereo console was practically the size of 3 steamer trunks, with this large library of mostly 78 records, some 33’s in the mix but mostly a lot of big band and Lawrence Welk oldies.

But there was one particular record everyone knew was her soundtrack when she wanted to unwind. We called it The Laughing Record, but I have no idea what it’s official title was. But if Mom-Mom was pouring herself a little glass of Sherry, you knew it was laughing record time. So she’d put the record on, sit in her chair, and almost immediately start chuckling.

The record was probably from the 1930s. All it was was a guy trying to play the trombone, and the gal he was trying to play for. Only he sucked at it, constantly sounded like he was farting, and he and the gal catch a serious case of giggle fits, and that’s all that happens for like 10 minutes is them dying hysterically. Totally infectious, cause you couldn’t help but laugh along within 20 seconds. Mom-Mom would be wiping tears every time she was listening, she’d be laughing so hard.

My low brow humor is purely hereditary. I can’t help it. 😁

ArchieLeech
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April 1, 2022 12:39 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

We are here to bring you back to your childhood.
The Laughing Record.

Last edited 1 year ago by ArchieLeech
JJ Live At Leeds
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March 22, 2022 1:37 pm

As a Brit, we love a novelty record. This has been an education though. The only one I’m familiar with is The Streak, a #1 here as well. There’s a couple that I vaguely know but mostly I guess its a case that you had to be there, as cultural and geographical distance means they get lost in translation.

Perhaps there’s room for a UK version of this to similarly baffle and horrify you all….

lovethisconcept
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March 22, 2022 2:03 pm

Some of the UK novelties that have come up in TNOCS have been horrifying. A whole post would be terrifying. I think you should do it.

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 22, 2022 2:38 pm

There’s enough that I could compile a truly awful list just of novelties that topped the charts. As Saint Nothing will have already expertly covered them I’ll need to dig a bit deeper further down the charts. Won’t be hard finding candidates though, the difficulty is narrowing them down. I’ll see what I can do….

lovethisconcept
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March 22, 2022 3:53 pm

It will be hard to find anything more truly awful than Mr. Blobby. But my hat is off to you for the attempt.

mt58
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March 22, 2022 4:01 pm

C’mon, friend JJ… your public is clamoring for this!

(mt puts on a copy of “Gimme Dat Ding” by The Pipkins, just to pass the time…)

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 22, 2022 5:38 pm
Reply to  mt58

I’ve made a start on shortlisting some candidates. I’ll need to find some time to pull it all together but rest assured I’m on the case.

dutchg8r
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March 22, 2022 5:10 pm

[Chanting grows louder]

Do it, do it, do it, do it…..

The more bonkers the better! I’ve always been perplexed at the Brits fascination with songs even I think are dumb. Trust me, that’s a pretty low bar too.

blu_cheez
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March 22, 2022 6:17 pm

Some of my other favorites (staying with the “no Weird Al” rule):

o King Tut – Steve Martin
o Shaddup You Face – Joe Dolce
o The Chanukah Song – Adam Sandler
o I Put A Spell On You – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (I *think* this is a novelty song)
o Rubber Biscuit – The Chips (also a novelty song?)

Great article – I’ll have to dig up my Wacky Packages collection for another look-through….

Pauly Steyreen
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March 22, 2022 9:38 pm

No list of novelty songs can be complete without the following classics:

“Dead Puppies” by Ogden Edsl
“Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes
The aforementioned Napoleon XIV song (“They’re Coming to Take Me Away”)
“Shaving Cream” by Benny Bell

lovethisconcept
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March 22, 2022 10:42 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Oh my, you remind me of the fun I had traumatizing my daughter with “Dead Puppies” when she was younger. Such fun memories. Imagine the thrill of pride that I had when I heard her serenade her future husband (they didn’t know that yet) on his very first visit to our house with the same song. I, of course, joined in. His comment? “Y’all are sick.” But he kept coming around, and now he is one of us.

Pauly Steyreen
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March 23, 2022 10:21 am

That story is classic, lovethisconcept! I wouldn’t peg “Dead Puppies” as the prelude to a love story, but here we are. That is so damn awesome!!!

lovethisconcept
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March 23, 2022 10:58 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Just goes to show that there’s someone for everyone, no matter how strange.

Eric-J
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March 27, 2022 11:09 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

One of the members of Barnes and Barnes, of “Fish Heads” was Bill Mumy, better known as Will Robinson from Lost in Space (or Lennier from Babylon 5.)

lovethisconcept
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April 2, 2022 11:40 am
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I had no idea. Another bit of trivia you can’t get anywhere else.

Aaron3000
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March 23, 2022 9:49 pm

“Wet Dream” reminded me of another “tune” that got some airplay when I was younger, and then I happily rediscovered it on another Dr. Demento collection: “Fast Food” by Stevens & Grdnic. Gradual descent into insanity has never tasted as sweet (…as a large orange drink?)

Last edited 1 year ago by Aaron3000
Eric-J
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March 27, 2022 11:10 pm

Pac-Man Fever was the first cassette I bought with my own money. (I’m pretty sure Weird Al’s “In 3-D” was the second.)

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