Spike Jones on the Box ► Monday Musical Appreciation

On this day in 1911 Lindley Armstrong Jones was born. He later got the nickname Spike because he was as thin as a railroad spike.

Spike Jones was, essentially, a drummer. He got his first drum kit at the age of 11 and never looked back. As a young man he played in various bands, orchestra pits and radio shows as he was coming up. As a drummer in the John Scott Trotter Orchestra, Jones can be heard playing on Bing Crosby‘s biggest hit “White Christmas.”

Bored with playing the same music night after night, Spike found some musicians who were as warped as he was and they started playing parodies of the songs of the day for their own enjoyment. Then they started recording the songs to play for their wives.

One of those recordings found its way to RCA Records, where Spike Jones and His City Slickers recorded their first single, “Der Fuhrer’s Face.” The song, written by Oliver Wallace, was skedded for a 1943 Donald Duck cartoon called, originally, “Donald Duck in Nutzi Land,” and later “Der Fuhrer’s Face. It later won an Academy Award.

However, Spike Jones’ version was released first and became a huge hit.
Jones thought this would be a flash in the pan, but the ‘Merkin public surprised him. They demanded more from Spike Jones and His City Slickers and Jones was happy to accommodate them.

As the shows became more elaborate, Jones’ impeccable timing came to the fore, with guns, whistles, and pots and pans all taking the place of percussion in some songs. He called his concerts Musical Depreciation.

It wasn’t just the hit parade that Spike Jones and His City Slickers parodied. According to the WikiWackyWoo:

Among the series of recordings in the 1940s were humorous takes on the classics such as the adaptation of Liszt‘s Liebesträume, played at a breakneck pace on unusual instruments. Others followed: Rossini‘s William Tell Overture was rendered on kitchen implements using a horse race as a backdrop, with one of the “horses” in the “race” likely to have inspired the nickname of the lone chrome yellow-painted SNJ aircraft flown by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels
aerobatic team’s shows in the late 1940s, “Beetle Bomb”. In live shows
Spike would acknowledge the applause with complete solemnity, saying
“Thank you, music lovers.” An LP collection of twelve of these “homicides” was released by RCA (on its prestigious Red Seal label) in 1971 as Spike Jones Is Murdering the Classics. They include such tours de force as Pal-Yat-Chee (Pagliacci), sung by the Hillbilly humorists Homer and Jethro, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, Tchaikovsky’s None but the Lonely Heart, and Bizet’s Carmen.

The first time I ever heard a Spike Jones tune, it was on an 78 RPM platter of “My Old Flame”at Craig Portman’s house. It was one of his parents’ records. We played it dozens of times and laughred because we were just old enough to recognize the impersonation of Peter Lorre talk/singing the lyrics as the scenario became more and more macabre. [Later we used the stack of wax as Frisbees, long before the Frisbee was invented. While I’m not proud of that fact today, I’d still like to find Craig Portman, who moved to California when we were still teenagers. Google has been no help.]

Comedy music has a long and honourable history, as the Wiki also tells us:

There is a clear line of influence from the Hoosier Hot Shots, Freddie Fisher and his Schnickelfritzers and the Marx Brothers to Spike Jones — and to Stan Freberg, Gerard Hoffnung, Peter Schickele‘s P.D.Q. Bach, The Goons, Mr. Bungle, Frank Zappa, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Billy Barty [who appeared with Spike Jones] appeared in Yankovic’s film UHF
and a video based on the movie. According to David Wild’s review in
Rolling Stone Magazine, Elvis Costello’s 1989 Album “Spike” was named
partly in tribute to Jones.

Syndicated radio personality Dr. Demento regularly features Jones’ music on his program of comedy and novelty tracks. Jones is mentioned in The Band‘s song, “Up on Cripple Creek“. (The song’s protagonist’s paramour states of Jones: “I can’t take the way he sings, but I love to hear him talk.”) Novelist Thomas Pynchon is an admirer and wrote the liner notes for a 1994 reissue, Spiked! (BMG Catalyst). A scene in the romantic comedy I.Q. shows a man demonstrating the sound of his new stereo to Meg Ryan‘s character by playing a record of Jones’ music.

As always, it’s about the music. Here’s a selection:










About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.

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