Imagine using the latest track by Fergie or Alicia Keys and cramming it full of car horns and gunshots -- that's Spike Jones and his City Slickers.
Spike Jones was a human cartoon. He was the best of Bugs Bunny meshed with the diabolic (and delightfully demented) worst of Daffy Duck. He was Tom Lehrer without the Harvard chutzpah (Spike came from the school of hard entertainment knocks), a music deconstructionist whose sonic satire was so smart because it played it all so dumb.
The cultural impact of rock 'n' roll all but ended his big band buffoonery, and an addiction to cigarettes cut short his life at age 53. As much an innovator as an imitator, an agent provocateur in a medium that never quite took itself all that seriously, Spike merged comedy and the concerto into something quite sublime. Yet ask anyone today about his import or legacy and you're bound to get comments regarding Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or any number of music videos.
Sadly, a certain Adam Spiegel (who certainly meant no disrespect when he stole the bandleader's tag for his own "Spike Jonze" nickname) has usurped the once famed novelty craftsman, the yang to the swing era's yin. A few may still recognize his most notable hit, the crackpot yuletide goof "All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth", yet he had massive chart success with the World War II wackiness of "Der Fuehrer's Face" (for Disney's propaganda cartoon Donald Duck in Axis Land) as well as Tin Pan Alley classic "Cocktails for Two". In fact, as his fame grew, getting 'spiked' was considered a badge of show business honor -- much like having your song spoofed by the '80s version of Spike, accordion savant Weird Al Yankovic.
Yet there was much more to this reed thin visionary (who got his nickname from his resemblance to a certain piece of railroad construction equipment) than psychotic sonic experiments. He was an old hat vaudevillian, a showman whose concerts were part performance, part parody, of everything inherent in the business of show, and while his humor could be as simplistic as slipping on a banana peel, there was a 'wink wink' level of sophistication which hipsters could read as a satiric strata of irony. In fact, while watching Spike Jones and his City Slickers work their way through numerous tunes -- classical and contemporary -- as part of the Infinity Entertainment's DVD subtitled The Legend, we catch that occasional glint in the bandleader's eye. It acts as acknowledgement that there was a pre-post modern method to his Musical Depreciation Revue madness.
This fabulous four disc overview, covering four TV appearances, a selection of supplements, and a CD celebrating his attempts at radio sitcom pilots and other off kilter musings, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Spike's musical myth. Sadly, much of his work in the early days of the medium (he was, wisely, one of the first stars to embrace television as a viable entertainment avenue) is lost, the victim of poor preservation, network cost cutting, and a lack of forward vision. The fourth DVD here does indeed present a pair of attempted comedy showcases -- Spike's Chase and Sanborn Hour was already a popular offering -- which argue for his reverse Edgar Bergen sense of showmanship. Unlike the famed ventriloquist, who played better without the audience's ability to see his act, the City Slickers were too visual for the wireless. The burgeoning network variety hours were far friendlier to their outrageous anarchy.
This is clearly visible on the first two DVDs of the set. Disc one offers two 1951 appearances from the popular Colgate Comedy Hour. It was on this show where such famed acts as Martin and Lewis got their major mainstream push. Spike is right at home in the variety format, easily incorporating skits, live commercials, guest stars, and broad physical comedy into his act. Both the 11 February and 16 September shows give the musician and his band of bad boys (including recognizable members like Doodles Weaver) a perfect venue for their unhinged antics. There are riffs on Ruskies, mermaids, making movies in Hollywood, cavemen, and a nonstop barrage of mangled tunes. As part of his repertoire, we hear hilarious versions of "Laura", "Glow Worm" and "Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy", along with "Cocktails" and "Christmas".
Disc two drops Spike into the All Star Revue, another popular TV series. Here, he works with more established musical acts like his wife Helen Grayco, Liberace, and vocalist Billy Eckstine. There's a more frenzied pace, a larger reliance on spectacle and slapstick, and theme ideas (the City Slickers treat the audience to a sonic journey around the world). Yet Spike remains forever the same. Dressed in a loud, checkerboard suit and sporting shoulder pads that would make linebackers (or Joan Crawford) jealous, he looks like a child's rubber faced doll come to life. Conducting the band with any number of 'batons' -- a baseball bat, a mop, a plunger -- he treats the melee as bumbling business as usual. Intermittently, he will step back from his role as leader and accompany the gang on his own homemade doohickey, a wild amalgamation of pots, pans, bells, whistles, washboards, sound effects and other atonal accoutrement.
There are running gags everywhere -- the harpist whose lack of use mandate she spend her time onstage mindlessly knitting, the off key or out of sync player, the visitor violating Spike's space, the singer swamped by the band's creative cacophony -- and most of it still holds up quite well some 55 years later. Part of the reason is the innate oddness of it all. While Yankovic was successful thanks to flawless recreations the era's pop hits (with his own surreal lyrics), all Spike was doing was taking a standard song and slaughtering its arrangement. Imagine using the latest track by Fergie or Alicia Keys and cramming it full of car horns and gunshots -- that's Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Of course, they were accomplished artists in their own right. You have to know the rules in order to break them. But the weirdness factor definitely helps this material maintain some current relevancy.
Then there is the lasting impact. Disc three walks us through a half hour of Spike's genius, allowing old bandmates, his wife, and Yankovic himself, to defend Spike's place in the entertainment pantheon -- and it does a good job of preserving same. Some of the bits are surprising in their insight (the Person to Person interview from 1960) as well as highlighting the best bits from the City Slickers' repertoire (including the hilarious drag number "It's Tough to Be a Girl Musician…Especially If You Happen to Be a Man"). There's also a discussion of props, the use of sight gags, and the attention to detail most casual fans miss. Indeed, along with Disc four's more staged material, one can see Spike becoming a fixture of prime time's future. Sadly, the fickle nature of culture and the eye opening earthquakes of the '60s secured his underappreciated status.
While it would have been nice to see one of Spike's biggest proponents, Dr. Demento, address his own continuing support of the clown prince of percussion, Spike Jones, The Legend, is a wonderful place to begin any investigation of the novelty savant. It shows the musician -- and his madness -- at his very best, and preserves enough of what makes Spike important to overcome some of the more dated, drawn out dopiness.
But remember, there's brains and brilliance here as well, something not overlooked by the City Slickers' more adamant supporters. For a 1994 compilation of tracks, none other than reclusive author of Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon, wrote the liner notes. He noted that Spike's act created "moments of true innocence", which in our horrible, rat racing world, was "like good cowbell solos, few and far between". The dichotomy that was Spike Jones couldn't be summed up better. He was, and remains, an American original.
The Spike Jones Band