Since popular music charts began novelty songs have always been popular. To qualify the recording must be intentionally humorous and/or an unusual song that sells because it captures or critiques a moment in popular culture or because, bizarrely it becomes its own moment in popular culture. For example what were you doing when Joe Dolce’s "Shaddup you face” was riding high in the charts, all over the world?
Novelty songs take many forms including parodies, or a comedic take on current events or fads that defy the usual categorization of music. Many use unusual lyrics, subjects, or instrumentation which then becomes unexpected hits. Not surprisingly the Christmas Season has become the best time to release a comic record hoping to cash in on the family spending frenzy. The golden era was between the 40s and 60s three and peaked in the late 50s, early sixties, just prior to the English Invasion. Many names come to mind from Spike Jones in the ’40s; Tom Lehrer in the ’50s; and Allan Sherman in the ’60s, novelty records probably appeal most because they help us release tensions from a hectic life style whether it is, during war time or just the madcap existence of modern life. Let’s hear some examples from the maestros at play.
By the 50s every home had a radiogram and once the initial flush of US rock’n’roll had died, prior to the eve of the British Invasion; the novelty record had its day. As the world moved into the Atomic Age, interest in space aliens and the supernatural soon caught in popular culture with books movies and records all mirroring the same fascination. Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman struck on the idea of splicing brief snippets of contemporary pop hits together much in the same style as Jive Bunny did in the eighties. Despite a wave of controversy over infringed copy copyrights Buchanan and Goodman’s ‘The Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)’ became a big hit in 1958.
Advancement in sound recording allowed voices to be recorded at half speed and played back at normal speed which gave enormous comedic appeal. Two major hits of the time were David Seville's "The Witch Doctor," and Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater," both used these special sounds effects.
Following his initial success David Seville developed a speeded-up voice technique and created three separate voices which he called The Chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore). “The Christmas Song” and ‘Alvin’s Harmonica were big hits in 1958 and 1959. The Chipmunks records sold in their millions.
An early incarnation of the Little River Band were called Drummond (who became Mississippi then LRB) had their own silly voice hit in 1971 with their version of Daddy Cool (originally by The Rays).
Another wave of novelty songs came in the late 50s and early 60s, this time they were ‘Answer Songs'. This was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of original hits and was recorded by lesser known acts happy to receive some reflected glory. In 1959, following Jim Reeve’s hit, ‘He’ll have to go,’ Jeanne Black released, "He'll Have to Stay."
Dodie Stevens replied to Elvis with "Yes, I'm Lonesome Tonight" (1960), and even Carole King had an answer to Neil Sedaka’s hit, ‘Oh Carol, with her version of ‘Oh Neil.’ Answer songs were never great commercial successes.
Sound innovations meant instrumentals remained popular and some of these were very ‘tongue in check. ’ Who can forget Lord Rockingham’s Hoots Toots Mon, The Champs, ‘Tequila,’ Brontosaurus Stomp by The Pildown Men and Nut Rocker by B Bumble and the Stingers.
Long before Michael Jackson’s Thriller, rhythm and horror was popular in the sixties with Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash,"(1962) and Screaming Lord Sutch’s ‘Jack the Ripper.’ The definitive 'r&h' was of course, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' with the definitive version of "I put a spell on you" (1956).
Novelty songs found countless other topics to address in popular culture. The success of TV’s detective series ’77 Sunset Strip’ gave Edd ‘Kookie’ Byrnes' and Connie Stevens a 1958 hit with "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb).”
Two years later Brian Hyland's took "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" to number one, which marked the beginning of the youth beach culture which included ‘He’s my blonde headed stompie wompie real gone surfer boy’ by Little Pattie (1964).
Self-deprecating songs like ‘Splish splash’ by Bobby Darin (1958); Larry Verne's "Mr. Custer," (1960); Lonnie Donegan’s “My old mans’ a dustman” (1960); ‘Goodness Gracious me’ Peter Sellars and Sophia Lorene (1960); Come outside Mike Sarne (1962) and Lucky Starr's ‘Ive been everywhere man’ (1962), all became international hits but there was an Australian who beat them to it on 1957, his name was Slim Dusty’s and the song “Pub with no beer.”
Big hits like, Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean (1961) and The Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las (1964), inspired send ups, including a very funny camp version of Leader of the Pack by Julian Clary.
In the UK Post the Goons era, saw the rise of Beyond the Fringe and university comedy with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore carrying the tradition of Flanders and Swann as sophisticated song birds. The Temperence Seven came with the wave of Modly Figs and reached the Top Five in the UK with Pasadena (1961). It took however, a hard working well respected music hall comedian called Benny Hill, to top of the charts in 1971 with ‘Ernie (The fastest milkcart in the West).
The fear African American music might corrupt white society in the US meant Doo Woop and R&B styles were frequently satirized in novelty songs, ironically this had the opposite effect and formed the basis for the new rock music that would follow. Doo-wop novelties included the Edsels' "Rama Lama Ding Dong" (1961), Barry Mann's "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)" (1961), and Johnny Cymbal's "Mr. Bass Man" (1963).
As the music changed to suit younger audiences, the margins between novelty and mainstream blurred. A new king jester emerged from an unlikely source. Freddie and the Dreamers was part of the British Invasion and made an art of novelty combining the craze for new dances with pure slapstick. The group enjoyed incredible popularity worldwide with ‘The Freddie” and a version of “Short shorts.”
Other UK other groups followed with Herman Hermit’s ‘I’m Henry the VIII, I am’ (1965), the more sophisticated and satirical, Kinks’ “Dedicated follower of fashion” (1966) and fabulous Bonzo Dog Doo Da Band with ‘Intro and outro’ (1967)
Releasing novelty records at Christmas made good commercial success and in 1968, The Scaffold set the scene in the UK with Lily the Pink. The same tradition continues with the Red Nose Appeal.
Arguably in the 70s the most successful performer of novelty songs was Ray Stevens with many fine examples including: "Ahab the Arab," "Gitarzan," “Brigit the Miget,” and "Along Came Jones."
In 1974, he caught the fad of running naked in public on vinyl with the superb, "The Streak." One year later, William Fries who was an advertising executive created an alter-ego to record another unforgettable novelty record which poked fun at the new craze of CB Radio. The song was “Convoy” and the singer C.W. McCall.
Shel Silverstein (1930 -1999) was a playboy cartoonist and expert satirist in his spare time, he wrote superb lyrics for Dr Hook and the Medicine Show. ‘Sylvia’s mother,’ 'Millionaire' and ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’ catapulted the group into the lime light in the early 70s.
The novelty record continues to be popular even now, and whilst not so frequently in the charts as in the golden era there are still some very clever novelty records around.
Worth a listen
Spike Jones and the City Slickers
Der Feurhrur’s Face /Flight of the bumblebee (1942)
The Bee Song
Pub with no beer (1957)
The Royal Teens
Short Shorts (1957)
Witch Doctor (1958)
The Purple People Eater (1958)
Chantilly Lace (1958)
Mad passionate love (1958)
You Need Hands (1958)
Rama Lama Ding Dong (1958 & 1961)
Pink Shoelaces (1959 )
Poisoning Pigeons in the Park (1959)
Charlie Brown (1959)
Along Came Jones (1959)
Little Egypt (1961)
Goodness gracious me (1960)
The Hollywood Argyles
The Custer (1960)
Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini (1960)
The Driving Instructor (1960)
Donald where’s your trousers (1961)
Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp) (1961)
Bobby "Boris" Pickett Monster Mash (1962)
Ahab, the Arab (1962)
Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport (1963)
Flanders and Swann
The Gnu Song (1963)
Mr. Bass Man (1963)
Freddy and the Dreamers
If you gonna make a full of somebody (1963)
Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter From Camp) (1963)
Peter Cook and Dudey Moore
They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa! (1966)
Lily the Pink (1968)
Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me - Tiny Tim (1968)
Sunny Afternoon (1969)
My ding a ling (1972)
The Streak (1974)
Convoy C.W. (1975)
Funky Gibbon (1975)