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MUSIC: Spike Up the Band

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

No one in pop music seems to have fun any more. Rapsters, grunge artists, even balladeers — their faces are all contorted into an Edvard Munch shriek, as if they were slaves to the agony of art. Hardly anyone wants to be an entertainer.

The world needs Spike Jones, the 1940s bandleader with a Dead End Kid’s mug and a wardrobe of cacophonous checks and plaids. Jones had fun with music. He took a sedate standard like Laura or Chloe, played it straight for a minute and then revved it up double-time and orchestrated it for tuba, kazoo and other instruments that mimic indiscreet bodily functions. Then he set this raucous pastiche to a junkyard syncopation of washboards, cap pistols, Klaxon and bicycle horns, pie pans and garbage cans — augmented by bird whistles, brays and tag lines from radio ads (“Super Suds!” “Bromo Seltzer!” “Beeeeee Ohhhhhh!”) — until the whole thing sounded the way Fibber McGee’s closet clattered, the way a Tex Avery cartoon looks, the way Bart Simpson’s mind works.

From the day in late 1942 when Spike Jones & His City Slickers stormed the charts with Der Feuhrer’s Face, they were the official naughty boys of music. They slowed down when Musicians Union boss James V. Petrillo imposed a two- year ban on union members’ making records, but they hit the top spot in late ’44, when their impudent version of Cocktails for Two sold two million records. Four years later, the holiday jape All I Want for Christmas (My Two Front Teeth) sold 1.5 million copies in six weeks. Jones cinched his renown with a high-rated radio show and an exhaustive skein of one-night stands. Chester Gould and Al Kapp put him into their comic strips. Movies and TV beckoned. For a decade, Lindley Armstrong Jones was the maestro satirist of the Hit Parade — and a crucial influence on such musicaliconoclasts as Stan Freberg, Ernie Kovacs, Tom Lehrer and Frank Zappa.

That was then, and it’s now too. Jones is again the cult rage. Jordan R. Young’s carefully researched biography Spike Jones: The Man Who Murdered Music (Past Times Publishing; 00 pages; $0.00) is making its own noise in book stores. Rhino Records has issued The Spike Jones Anthology, a handsome, 40- song dose of the band’s top tunes, including the chirping, barking, cackling Love in Bloom and the magnificent Hawaiian War Chant, which climaxes with a wail of electric-guitar dissonance that predates Jimi Hendrix by 20 years. A quirkier collection — Spiked!, on Catalyst — has some prime oddities, notably a suave, six-part ribbing of The Nutcracker Suite (1945), which must count as one of the earliest “concept albums.”

Spiked! arrives with a cultural pedigree: cover art by Art (Maus) Spiegelman and liner notes by author-recluse Thomas (Gravity’s Rainbow) Pynchon. “Yet there remains about Spike’s work what is sometimes an almost uncomfortable complexity,” proclaims Pynchon, later anointing Jones as “a conceptual artist with a head for business.” One would like to drag semiology in here too, for the Slickers never saw a text they couldn’t subvert. But Jones’ tactic was not deconstruction so much as demolition. His long-touring Musical Depreciation Revue was a frontal assault on sonic propriety. Even his nickname was an action verb, pithily expressing what the man did to music. He drove it into the ground, he impaled it on a drumstick, he laced it with aural rotgut, he deleted it from all genteel associations. He spiked it.

Jones was born in 1911 in Long Beach, California. His father worked in a railroad depot, and train whistles, station bells and telegraph keys set the tone for Jones’ sound. By his early 20s Jones had already formed several bands, but he paid the rent with studio sessions. As a drummer he backed Bing Crosby on the original recording of White Christmas, Fred Astaire on I Ain’t Hep to That Step But I’ll Dig It. Assembling the Slickin 1941 Jones scrounged club dates until he found a song (destined for a Disney cartoon) that gave the raspberry to Hitler. Thus began the Feuhrer furor.

Some stars emerged from the band, including monologist Doodles Weaver (Sigourney’s dad) and clarinetist Mickey Katz (Joel Grey’s dad). Trumpeter George Rock also did baby voices and Woody Woodpecker noises. One guy was hired simply because he could belch a perfect E flat. But being one of the Jones boys required more than a facility for rudeness. It demanded ace musicianship to tackle, and then mangle, every musical genre from Dixieland to country to klezmer to big band — and Bizet, Liszt, Brahms and the other classical composers whom Spike insulted so deftly.

How innocent it all sounds now. And how precious, in a musical age that has no room for a modern Spike Jones, because the amiable conventions of mainstream culture — the object of his burlesque — have long since vanished. The new Spike CDs are a welcome reminder of a time when pop music was so demure and so universal in its appeal that a daredevil insider could give it the razz.

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