Anarchy Swings


Writing in The New York Sun, Will Friedwald explains what made Spike Jones great:

Jones…brought two major innovations to American pop. The first was the idea that sound effects used on radio and film soundtracks, when used in tempo and rhythm, could become an essential part of the music; instead of building to a rim shot or a clarinet break, Jones would punctuate a melody with a gunshot, a cowbell, a car backfiring, or a woman screaming. Ornette Coleman once expressed admiration for this element of Jones's performance—the idea of dissolving the barrier between noise and music—and one can imagine John Cage or the avant-gardists of any other musical epoch feeling the same way.

Before Jones, nearly every bandleader played novelty songs, but they were considered the low-slung end of the music business: Jones discovered that it was possible to extract great comedy from great music, from Tchaikovsky (as in "The Nutcracker") to Johnny Mercer ("That Old Black Magic" and "Laura"). Jones also played silly songs, but he was funniest when he took a piece of real music and relentlessly gagged it up—not just with garbage cans, barking dogs, bird calls, and falling anvils, but with a band that sounded like Salvador Dalí's idea of Dixieland.

A new DVD collection, Spike Jones: The Legend, collects four hours of Jones' TV specials from 1951 and 1952. Friedwald doesn't care for Jones' television series of the late '50s, writing that it "reduced Jones's inspired lunacy to mere grist for the variety-show mill, with guest stars and sketches that were almost never as funny as we'd have liked them to be." But he loves these earlier programs, especially the first one in the set: "This hour-long show is easily the most entertaining piece of visual footage that Jones and his band, the City Slickers, left us. As time passed and he did more television, the more like everyone else Jones became, but this first show is more or less a camera pointed in the direction of Jones's legendary touring stage show."

All the bits that you've heard about are here: the bass saxophonist who sends a frog flying out of the bell of his instrument; trombonists whose trousers fall and rise according to the pitch of the note they play; two headless dudes enjoying a pantomime conversation; the bass fiddle that gives birth to a midget; two chickens serenading each other to the tune of "Holiday for Strings," as if to illustrate that hope is the thing with feathers or that they know why the guy in the bird suit sings; the harpist on the sidelines of the action who spends most of the show knitting and puffing on a nasty-looking stogie during her own solo. You can't trust any instrument: Everything from the piano to the violin is liable to explode at any moment.

Then there's the ringleader himself, who, when he isn't conducting a classical piece with a toilet plunger for a baton, chasing a chorus girl with a giant sword, or parading in mermaid drag, is a remarkably understated presence, looking on from the side with a David Letterman-like smirk.

This clip is pre-TV, but it should give you the flavor of Jones' work:

Elsewhere: Kevin Grace mocks me for something I wrote about Jones.