Dr. Demento has been associated with all things odd in music for nearly 50 years through his radio show. In the 1970s and ’80s, the show, often on late at night and unreliably programmed in local markets, provided a place for aficionados of novelty songs and other strange music to get their fix. By the ’90s, the Doctor was something of an icon, lauded by comedians and musicians for his show’s influence on them.
The show continues to this day in an online streaming format, and the new compilation Dr. Demento Covered in Punk is a two-CD set structured as if it were an episode of the show. Producer/musician/superfan John Cafiero put together the album, but Dr. Demento does DJ duties, hosting segments between songs explaining where the originals being covered came from as well as information about the artists doing the covers. That makes for an entertaining, immersive experience the first time through the album. Subsequent listens involved a lot of skipping of the Demento segments, at least for me.
Like most compilations, Doctor Demento Covered in Punk is hit and miss, with a collection of relatively big names and much less large names covering songs made famous on the show. Cafiero is at the center of this, with his band Osaka Popstar doing several of the covers and the rest of the band (made up of rock pros like Dean Rispler, Sal Maida, and Dennis Diken) serving as the de facto house band for many of the other artists featured on the record. Having these guys on board certainly helps with the professional level of the recordings; they give old timers like William Shatner, Adam West, and Uncle Floyd the musical energy needed to consider their covers “punk”. Sometimes the more offbeat, lesser-known artists have the most interesting takes on this material, though, which ties into the Dr. Demento aesthetic pretty nicely.
Osaka Popstar and James Kochalka Superstar turn in versions of iconic Demento songs “Fish Heads” and “Dead Puppies” that are exactly what you’d expect. Fast, high energy, guitar-drenched takes on the songs. Similarly, Uncle Floyd’s house band-backed rendition of “Shaving Cream” hits all the expected beats, complete with altered, punk-oriented lyrics. As with the original song, every short verse ends with the refrain “Shaving cream / Be nice and clean” instead of the expected word “shit”. William Shatner turns up to do his spoken word with attitude thing for the Cramps’ trash classic “Garbageman”, which is entertaining. Adam West’s performance of 1950’s hit “The Thing” is similarly spoken-word, but he has a lot more energy than Shatner. The song also has a weird poignancy, being that it ends with the protagonist dying and West himself passed away between recording the song and the album’s release.
Other rock veterans show up and turn in pleasing, strong performances. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts do a rocked-up version of Rocky Horror power ballad “Science Fiction / Double Feature”. The Vandals buzzsaw their way through Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week”, while the Misfits very appropriately choose to do “The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati”. Japanese punk veterans Shonen Knife graft Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” guitar riff onto Weird Al’s “Eat It”, and it works surprisingly well. The most interesting choice by a big name, though, has to be the B-52’s Fred Schneider doing “Fluffy”. The original is sung intentionally horribly by Gloria Balsam, and is infamous nearly entirely for her performance. Schneider wisely doesn’t try to duplicate Balsam, bringing his own speak-singing style to the song and making it fun in its own right.
A few other artists really dig in and offer interesting arrangements of these songs. Rasputina takes the already-hectic “Two Dreadful Children” and turns it into a swirling electric cello nightmare, while Andy Merrill voicing Brak (of the 1990sSpace Ghost Coast to Coast and early 2000s [Adult Swim] fame) does a thoroughly deconstructed version of Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” using the “stupidest instruments possible”. In this case, those instruments are the toy accordion, ukulele, and jaw harp. Jon Wurster uses his Best Show character Philly Boy Roy to perform the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” with altered, Philadelphia-centric lyrics.
On the other end of the spectrum the two Frank Zappa covers, “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” (credited to Missing Persons, although it’s really just singer Dale Bozzio and session ace Billy Sherwood) and “Disco Boy” (by the Meatmen), don’t come close to out-Zappa-ing Zappa or even doing anything particularly interesting with the songs. Performance art weirdos the Kipper Kids do the Muppets’ classic “Mahna Mahna” as a bunch of farts and gagging noises. One the one hand, taking a silly song and making it gross is a pretty punk rock thing to do. On the other hand, the song is unlistenable in this form, so I chalk that up as a failure.
Other oddities here are the situations where an artist is covered and also does a cover themselves. That happens with Fred Schneider, whose innuendo-laden “Monster” is given a good reading by Nobunny. Weird Al also shows up to do an appropriately high energy take on The Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat”. And in the record’s most head-spinningly recursive song, Japanese Misfits idolizers Balzac do a cover of the Misfits’ “Rat Fink”, which was itself a cover of the same song by Allan Sherman, which was a parody of ’50s novelty hit “Rag Mop”. Amusingly, in the liner notes the Misfits admit that they never knew “Rat Fink” was itself a parody until talking to John Cafiero for this album.
Dr. Demento Covered in Punk is a lot of fun, but its appeal is very specific. For those in that subset of punk rock fans who also like weird novelty music, this is going to be a great listen. If you don’t take punk music super seriously and aren’t dedicated to the original arrangements of these novelty songs this album will also be a good time. For a lot of other people, the 30-plus songs and 30-plus Demento interstitials that make up Dr. Demento Covered in Punk will probably be a bit much.