Monday, 24 October 2011

You can call him Al

Thirty years is a long time in the music business. With tastes constantly evolving, and audiences proving notoriously fickle, any artist pursuing a long-term career needs to be willing to adapt to changing styles. Which is perhaps the best explanation for why ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Sunday, continues to be the world’s biggest name in the somewhat niche field of pop parodies.

To the uninitiated, Alfred Yankovic is the guy who made ‘Eat It’ twenty seven years ago, rendering himself a curious footnote in the MTV archives as the first artist to hit the charts with a spoof video. That’s the one anyone mentions, if his name happens to pop up in conversation, usually followed by an expression of surprise – “Is he still a thing?”

With thirteen albums, 12 million record sales and a Grammy award to his somewhat disingenuous nickname, Al’s most definitely a thing. And he deserves far more credit than the occasional dimly remembered recollection of a song about eating pie.

This time last year, London got its first taste of the comic legend, as he brought his labour-intensive stage show to Kentish Town for his first ever show in the capital. Admittedly, there was a whiff of the IT helpdesk in the assembled throng, but on the whole the crowd was as diverse as Al’s back catalogue. Because, whereas some artists find a style and stick to it for as long as they can, Al is something of an aural magpie - gradually working his way through music history and attempting to create authentic pastiches of pretty much every genre ever recorded.

It helps that he’s backed by one of the most talented bands working today, capable of recreating every style of music with unnerving accuracy. From the Beach Boys to Talking Heads, REM to Phil Spector, there’s nothing that they can’t replicate. So accurate are these pastiches, that in many cases, the original artists are keen to lend their support to Al’s efforts. Michael Jackson was a big fan, not only approving the use of two of his biggest hits, but even giving Al the run of the subway set from his pre-teen recreation of Bad, in the otherwise ill-advised Moonwalker. 

Mark Knopfler, who is to fun what TOWIE is to Shakespeare, only agreed to licence ‘Money For Nothing’ if he was allowed to do the guitar solo himself. Even Kurt Cobain, not known for flights of lighthearted fancy, regarded Al’s ‘Smells Like Nirvana’ as representing the most sincere form of flattery, telling MTV “Oh, I laughed my butt off. I thought it was one of the funniest things I ever saw. He has some good people working for him. Those people really know how to... I mean, I'm sure he has a lot to do with it, but they really know how to reproduce things to the T. He had the exact same setup. It's the same video with him in it. It's great.”

But Al doesn’t just do reworded spoofs of popular songs, he’s also created an impressive back catalogue of original compositions, each based on a particular style of music. Again, Al’s ear for accuracy has ensured that the artists being honoured want to get involved. Ben Folds played piano on ‘Why Does This Always Happen To Me’ which was a parody of his alternative rock trio, and Ray Manzarek turned up on keyboards and bass, helping to recreate The Doors’ distinctive sound.

Legally, Al’s entitled to satirise any song he chooses, but as a matter of courtesy he always seeks approval from the artists in question. The vast majority say yes immediately, feeling (like Cobain did) that a Weird Al spoof is a sure sign that they’ve entered the zeitgeist. Occasionally, the record labels get involved and make trouble, with recent examples being James Blunt and Lady Gaga. In the latter case, Gaga was shocked to learn that her manager had said ‘no’ without speaking to her first. In the end, Al offered to donate the proceeding from ‘Perform This Way’ to the Human Rights Campaign, in honour of the original song’s humanitarian intentions, and he scored his biggest hit in half a decade. Incidentally, the only flat-out ‘no’ he’s ever received came from Paisley Park. Sadly, if you want to laugh at Prince, you’ll just have to watch Purple Rain again.

Given Al’s propensity for poking fun at pop music, it’s easy to dismiss him as a purveyor of unimaginative juvenilia. Admittedly, not all of his back catalogue works – apparently, even the makers of novelty songs get notes from the record label about the sort of material they ought to be recording. Then again, if I came up with a song called 'Girls Just Wanna Have Lunch' I'd be looking to shift the blame too. But when Al’s left to his own devices, he can deliver a level of wordplay and linguistic dexterity that would have given the great Ronnie Barker a run for his money. 

Whether he’s composing a song entirely from palindromes (‘Bob’) or compiling every conceivable dismemberment pun for ‘Party in a Leper Colony’ (“There's a guy in the hot tub, I don't know who, Wait a minute, it looks like Stu.”), his way with words can be a wonder to behold. And he’s no slouch on the delivery either. Just check out the bridge on Hardware Store, where he spits out over 120 words in 30 seconds, even providing his own back-up harmonies.

Like most music artists, Al’s an acquired taste. Some people find his material puerile, anodyne and unimaginative – an out-dated relic from the early days of music videos. Others, like me, see him as a musical librarian, meticulously cataloguing every major genre trend, and finding a way to puncture the pomposity with a surreal perspective all-too-rare in American popular culture. 

If you can get past the shameless mugging and occasionally dated references, here are five of Al's finest moments:

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