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.

NEXT: Rant: Burn the Rich

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  1. A-flipp’n-Men
    Spike Jones is America’s greatest musical genius.


    “Hello? You don’t say. You don’t say! You don’t say. You don’t SAY!”


    “WHO WAS IT?”

    “He didn’t say!”

    Often forgotten is how talented as musicians they were. All this stuff was done live, no edits, and the timing impeccable. Both the records and the TV show were entertaining.

  3. Spike Jones was great. A pioneer.

    Frank Zappa puts him in the deep shade.

  4. In an appalling note of self-referential triumphalism, I will give my favorite Spike Jones line:

    “I’ve got more suits than Howard Johnson’s has flavors.”

    Well, if you were age 10 in 1955, that killed. Sadly, the world has moved on, and so have I. Spike has ended up in the box with the other things that don’t work for me any more, like the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

  5. Is it just me, or is Mr. Beck gunning for the coveted position of Most Abrasive Commenter at H & R?

    In the Low Substantive Content Division, anyway.

  6. Spike Jones spoiled me. I cannot hear the music from Carmen now without without singing the lyrics from Spike Jones Murders Carmen.

    I played that disc so much that I memorized the lyrics to this day. I damn near wore the grooves off that sucker.

  7. The Grace piece was definitely reaching . . . for what I can’t say. The “mocking” didn’t really work, though.

  8. My favorite Spike Jones number is the version of Pagliacci he did with Homer and Jethro called Pal-Yatchee, a hillbilly play-by-play of the opera.

    Funny then, funny now.

  9. Did it leave you itchy and scratchy?

  10. It did. And the melody is catchy.

  11. “I always knew it would be hard.” – Hillary Clinton,

    It seems all of Slick Willy’s women have been known to say that.

  12. “There’s no use complainin’/’cause outside it’s a-rainin’.”

  13. Sorry, wrong thread.

  14. Isaac Bartram | December 14, 2007, 5:33pm | #
    Spike Jones spoiled me. I cannot hear the music from Carmen now without without singing the lyrics from Spike Jones Murders Carmen.

    I can’t hear the Toreador Song without singing, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be! Be not inept, stay out of debt,” from the Gilligan’s Island musical version of Hamlet.

  15. Just last week I was trying to explain Jones’ wacky brilliance to a co-worker. He’s quite possibly the only performing artist ever to credit “poontangophone” as an instrument in the liner notes.

  16. Now I know why I always liked Spike.
    I liked Victor Borge too. Even paid for tickets to see him!
    See how much fun peaceful anarchy can be?
    Liked Zappa too.

  17. All together now…

    “Ven der Fuhrer says, ‘Wir ist der Masterrace,’

    Ve Heil! (phhht),

    Heil! (phhht),

    right in der Fuhrer’s Face…

  18. We had Spike Jones on the box,
    she said, “I can’t take the way he sings,
    but I love to hear him talk”

  19. Funny that Zappa has been mentioned twice so far on this thread. I’m fairly sure that Spike Jones was the only pop musician to whom FZ ever wrote a fan letter.

    And despite the criticisms cited above of the Spike Jones TV show, I hope that DVD collection includes a must-see battle of the bands that the City Slickers waged against Perez Prado’s orchestra. Towards the end, Jones was maniacally hurling percussion instruments to the stage.

    And if you ever get a copy of the “Spiked!” CD compilation on Catalyst Records, be sure to read the liner notes by Thomas Pynchon.

    My uncle gave me a copy of “Dinner Music For People Who Aren’t Very Hungry” for Christmas around 40 years ago and every track has stayed remained lodged in my mind ever since.

  20. All together now…

    “Ven der Fuhrer says, ‘Wir ist der Masterrace,’

    It just ain’t right to post that without a video link…

  21. ….dissolving the barrier between noise and music….

    It was a trail blazed by disco and I see further evidence that this is being done daily, at any given red light in any given city across the land.

  22. Next to Fibber McGee my Old Man loved Spike Jones best. Never failed to put a smile on his face.

  23. Not to love ze fuhrer is a great disgrace,

    So ve Heil! Heil! And kiss ze fuhrer’s face.

  24. It’s Cabbage by a head,
    And Banana coming up to the bunch!
    And Mother-in-Law nagging at the rail!

  25. Before Jones, nearly every bandleader played novelty songs, but they were considered the low-slung end of the music business

    I disagree slightly, not that Jones wasn’t an innovator. Jones wasn’t such an “odd man out” considering the legacy of Fats Waller and others. Early R&B artist Louis Jordan had quite a successful career from the late 30s to early 50s with what might be termed “novelty songs.” Yet, I’d put any song by Jordan up against the crap that passes (lyrically or musically) for “R&B” these days.

    I also put Stan Freberg up there with Jones, particularly his take on Belafonte’s “Banana Boat.”

  26. I also put Stan Freberg up there with Jones, particularly his take on Belafonte’s “Banana Boat.”

    Too piercing, man.

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