the-theme-is:

 ”Weird Al” Yankovic: “Dare To Be Stupid” (Dare To Be Stupid, 1985)

A little obvious perhaps, but I can’t help myself—this guy was my hero when I was a kid. This is two themes in a row that have sent me to the Weird Al well. 

I kind of want a toaster guitar. 

I’d like to thank The Theme Is for giving me two sterling opportunities in the past week to post Weird Al Yankovic songs. 

I mean it when I say this guy was my hero when I was a kid. I was a skinny, short child, and I looked like a pretty easy target for any thick-foreheaded kid who wanted to push someone around, and I was also extremely awkward, spastic and goofy, in roughly that order, which did little to deter anyone who got me in their sights.

To give you an idea of the kind of goofy I was, after I saw Short Circuit, I mastered and then spoke constantly in the accent of Ben Jabituya (the Indian scientist played by Fisher Stevens) for about a month. It drove my mother crazy. Also, the Rice-a-Roni jingle became a fixation for a week or two after I saw Flight of the Navigator. Love you, Mom!

And yet, I never really got beat up or pushed around much. Physically, I was mostly left alone, and I think a very big reason for that was that I could make a joke out of just about anything, including myself. On some level, I knew this was something that could get me through, but I also figured that it was a strategy for living that had little potential to carry me successfully through adulthood. I never got a wedgy or slammed into a locker, but I still didn’t like being the goofy, awkward kid. On some level, I wanted to be more serious and thoughtful than I was.

And then I was introduced to “Weird Al” (after all these years, he still puts the “Weird Al” part in quotation marks) by, of all people my own father, who would come to regret letting me know about him around the time I forced him to listen to all of Polka Party on the way to summer camp.

Here was a guy who made a living not just cracking jokes, but cracking jokes within a pre-determined context he couldn’t really alter, kind of like me. He was turning the familiar inside-out, and it wasn’t long before I had every tape he’d released, which at the time wasn’t much. It was 1988 and Even Worse hadn’t come out yet (when it did later that year, you damn well bet I bought it).

So I committed my four Yankovic tapes to memory, to the extent that even to this day I remember them backward and forward, and not just the songs people actually remember from MTV like “Eat It,” but also the odd New Wave originals like “Mr. Popeil” and “Dog Eat Dog.” I didn’t learn “Sussudio” and “99 Luftbaloons” from the radio. I learned them from his polka medleys.

To this day, I’ll never forget laughing the first time I heard Iron Butterfly’s “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” for real, because I had memorized the riff as played on the accordion, and I couldn’t believe how ridiculous it sounded played on a menacing organ. Also, every time I hear Tears For Fears’ “Shout” I find myself singing Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” over the instrumental break, because Al followed “Shout” with “Papa” in one of his polka medleys. It happens every time. And I kind of love it.

It wasn’t long before I came to appreciate Al for more than just the set-ups and punchlines. The attention to detail in his videos and his best parodies can be astonishing. I loved the way he could combine a movie with a pop song and get his tweaks of both dead-on. One of my favorite lines of his comes in his parody of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” which of course was the theme from Rocky III.

The obvious joke in the parody is to make the parody the theme to Rocky XIII, a sequel in which Rocky is retired and running a deli. It’s a goofy idea, but he elevates it with a single couplet: “Never eats while on the job/he heard it’s good to stay hungry,” which so thoroughly captures the ethos of the Rocky movies it could practically run as a tagline on a DVD case. 

His attention to the cadence and tone of the original melody also impressed me, and I remember feeling sort of subversive listening to a few of his originals, especially “Happy Birthday,” which features some pretty on-the-nose lyrics about societal decay (sample: “there’s a mother in the ghetto with another mouth to feed,” this coming just a few lines before the chipper chorus tells you to eat cake and enjoy your birthday). 

Growing up, I often felt like I was seeing a slightly different world than everyone else around me, and I think Al was the first person to confirm to me that my angle was one that other people shared. I wrote a few of my own parodies—there is an outside chance that they are still in my parents’ basement, yellowing in a box somewhere—but I don’t remember them nearly as well as I remember all of Al’s.

I still listen to everything he puts out, and I was really pleased when his last couple albums found him regaining some of his edge (“Trapped in the Drive-Thru” kills me). I’m a very different person than I was when I first felt a connection with him (Hopefully! I was seven years old at the time), but I know very well that I wouldn’t be this particular different person if it wasn’t for his influence.

I’ve been a music critic for 12 years. On some level, that means I’m supposed to take this all very seriously. But on another level, Al taught me that I probably shouldn’t. So now and then it’s nice to go back, pull out In 3-D or Even Worse, and just for a minute, dare to be a bit stupid.

The Sound: “Total Recall” (Heads & Hearts, 1985)

When I was in college, I lived right in the heart of Boston. For this alone, I wouldn’t trade those four years for anything. One of the side effects of living there was that the addiction to recorded music I’d fallen into during high school grew much more intense. Back then, there were seven record stores within ten minutes’ walking distance, five of which focused on used CDs and/or vinyl. The other two were Tower (it became a Virgin MegaStore after I left—no idea what it is now) and the flagship Newbury Comics.

For those who don’t know, Newbury Comics is one of the most successful independent record store chains in North America, with stores sprinkled throughout New England—some are better than other, and the overall focus on CDs has of course shifted in the last decade, but in general it was well-run and carried a wide range of music, albeit with a focus on rock and pop. The original Newbury Street location was a wellspring of cool imports and hard-to-find indie rock.

Do you remember imports? If you’re under 25, you might be aware of but not recall a time when people would actually go out to a store and pay as much as $25 for a new album that wasn’t available domestically yet. Singles with two or three b-sides from the U.K. typically went for $9.99 (there might be a Quicktime video on there, too). Because of the cost, I tried to be careful about what I bought from the import bin, but I drew from it pretty often anyway. Very few things I bought from it ever came out in the US (one notable exception is the first Black Box Recorder album, though the UK cover art is superior to the US cover art, so I consider that a success, if a lesser one).

The Sound was one band that popped up in the import bin. Five albums, all at once—it was pretty clear they were reissues, but I’d never heard of The Sound, and you have to understand: at this point in my life UK post-punk was the center of my world. That’s how off-the-map this band had fallen, its albums out of print for over a decade until Renascent got the rights to most of them.

I looked them up on All Music Guide before I bought anything, but once I heard From The Lion’s Mouth (the first one I bought), I couldn’t scoop up the others quickly enough. Suddenly, I had a new band to love, and not only that but I was the only one around who seemed to even know who they were, much less love them. That was a funny feeling, probably the first time I’d latched onto a truly obscure band without someone or some publication pointing me toward it, and then there I was, this band’s only champion in my area, so far as I could tell.

Not that I was able to get the word out much. Music blogging wasn’t a thing back then, but I made sure most of my friends heard the band.

The Sound was led by Adrian Borland, who had been a member of the Outsiders, They formed in 1979 (an unreleased album they recorded that year was finally put out by Renascent), and broke up in 1988 after Borland had a serious mental breakdown that devastated the band’s ability to tour and work. Borland frequently struggled with depression—he continued making music in the 90s, but finally took his own life in 1999, shortly after those reissues came out.

The band has a lot of amazing songs, but over the years, “Total Recall” has risen to the top for me. In some ways, it’s the one that feels the most like Borland’s life from the standpoint of the present—a brilliant memory with a tinge of sadness.