There are any number of things we’re taught as children that we are later asked to revisit, diminish or dismiss. I’d suggest that among these is parody, a genre too easily cast aside.
There’s no good reason why. The word itself has been in the language half a millenium and Shakespeare, just before its first appearance, regularly indulged, so it’s hardly new. Perhaps its recognizability works against it; the keepers of the cultural kingdom often appear to use popularity as a reverse screen.
One consequence of that is that pitch-perfect parodists get scant credit for their hard work. I call that the Weird Al effect. For decades now ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic has been regaling or tormenting us with juvenile rewrites of popular hits. That obscures the effort his contemporaries and forebears put in.
Let’s celebrate passing the middle of the third season with a look at some master parodists. There’ll be a playlist, I promise.
1712 Overture, P.D.Q. Bach (Orchestra Unknown)
P.D.Q. Bach, the 21st of Bach’s 20 children, is the brainchild of Peter Schickele, a Julliard graduate, schooled in composition. Schickele ‘discovered’ the works of the lesser Bach in his student days and, as a “Professor at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople,” has pursued them. While that sort of humor doesn’t play with everyone, Schickele knows his business. Listen to this and Tchaikovsky will never hold the same place in your heart.
Moonlight Sonata, Ludwig von Beethoven, Victor Borge
Schieckle was omnivorous in his skewering–musicology, norms of performance, hallowed reverence, scholarship–nothing was sacred. Victor Borge brought a unique blend of stand-up and slapstick to the concert stage, reminding everyone that music was entertainment meant to draw us together. The son of Danish musicians, Borge was a childhood prodigy who escaped Europe before WWII started. In my own early years, I’d run to the TV every time Borge was on and revel in the silliness, even as I understood, impilictly, his mastery. Here’s Borge in a bit that NRBQ borrowed for their performance of a more popular tune.
Hello Mabel, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band
For me, execution makes a parody perfect. Neil Innes, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and master executor, began his career as a member of Britain’s Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, a storied outfit. Equally comfortable working in an ensemble or solo, Innes’ body of work makes choosing difficult. This band piece takes its gentle swipes at musicals from an earlier period, a genre on which I was raised.
Stairway to Heaven–Frank Zappa and the Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life
I’ve been trying to move chronolgically and this 1988 twist on what’s arguably the greatest rock song of the 1970s could be stuck in either decade. Frank Zappa was always a satrisit and parodist–1968’s We’re Only in it for the Money, credited to The Mothers of Invention, took on the mainstream and the counter-culture, starting with the Sgt. Pepper-like cover.
Zappa was never my guy, which is strange considering he pissed off lots of people, was whip smart, sported a juvenile streak and had talent by the trainload. Fact is, he’s written and played some beautiful melodies, and “Joe’s Garage,” for me, is a nearly perfect song, conveying mood and images seamlessly. Always known, like James Brown, for his tight band, here he goes to town on a monument, tossing in some dischordant guitar, sitting down to play, taking his guitar off during the solo so you know who’s not playing and transcribing Jimmy Page‘s guitar solo for the horn section (presumably they did their own choreography). The comments suggest it’s an act of homage. You decide.
In 1984, Rob Reiner and a talented crew of actor/musicians released the definitive musical parody. This is Spinal Tap was billed as a rockumentary and featured original songs in a number of styles but mostly heavy metal, a genre I don’t know how you could take seriously after laughing your way through this film. The band and movie’s perfection lies in hitting every note, pardon the pun, just right–so much so that you can argue endlessly about just which bands are being sent up.
This tune–the band’s Stairway–seemlessly blends it all: pre-Arthurian English mysticism, dual vocalists, bass lines walking through major scales, endless tintabulating on crash and ride cymbals, Richie Blackmore-like arpeggios, a mandolin break that leads into a Celtic hoedown and dancing druids. Sabbath? Zeppelin? Purple? Rainbow? Does it even matter. Even 25 years later it’s fabulous, as seen here in Glastonbury in 2009.
Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off my Brain–Ween
You might think, at this point that costumery and pageant are requirements of musical parody. Perish the thought. in 1996, Ween, the pseduonymous band from New Hope, released an album of ten country songs, each representing a different, noticable style emanating from Nashville and its satellites. Played by some of the Music City’s finest studio hands, the show went on the road in dungarees and tee shirts. Even the Spanish-inflected acoustic guitar solos survived.
BONUS CUT AND PLAYLIST
Inner City Pressure–Flight of the Conchords
In case it isn’t clear, parody will, thankfully, always be with us, suitable updated for the times. I tend to run behind, and I’ve left out much that I’ll try to work into the playlist. In the meantime, here’s a now decade-old track from a pair of immensely talented seeming dunderheads that proves it is possible to out-arch that which is already arch.
Here’s the playlist, enjoy: