Day Ninety-Three: "Bohemian Polka" from Alapalooza
Well, Al-keteers, it seems appropriate that “Bohemian Polka” would be the ninety-second entry in this series, because it can’t help but inspire nostalgic memories of one of the true delights of the 1992 pop culture universe: Wayne’s World. “Bohemian Rhapsody" is the perfect song for Al to pay tribute to: when Alapalooza was released, it was an all-time classic that had roared back to life the year before as the soundtrack and inspiration to the most famous and iconic scene in Penelope Spheeris’ Wayne’s World, the feature-film adaptation of a TV show sketch about television that bears a more than fuzzy resemblance to Al’s own cult TV comedy, UHF. In that respect, the song was plugged into the cultural zeitgeist on multiple levels, but it also had the benefit of being timeless like other no longer timely songs Al has repurposed, such as the Kink’s “Lola”, “American Pie” and “Piano Man.”
“Bohemian Polka” is an outlier among Al’s polkas. It represents the first, and, to date, last time that he devoted the polka on his album not to a group of songs but rather to a single ditty. Then again, “ditty” doesn’t really do justice to the full scope and majesty of Queen’s creation, which has the curious quality of being at once big and ambitious, a typically theatrical and over-the-top musical “statement” and an enormous goof.
But “Bohemian Rhapsody” is less of a departure from Al’s previous and future polkas than it might appear because “Bohemian Rhapsody” is essentially a miniature medley that brings together a series of disparate segments and elements that might as well be different songs. Mercury’s timelessly cheeky magnum opus is essentially a medley in single-song form, so it’s a natural fit for Yankovic polka treatment.
As I’ve written earlier, I love Al’s polka medleys because they do such a terrific job of mocking rock’s tendency towards pretension and self-seriousness. That’s why “important” anthems like “Hey Jude” and “My Generation” are perfect for medleys. This makes “Bohemian Rhapsody” a fascinating song for Al to take on because I’ve always seen it as inherently comic, even parodic in its conception.
To me, it’s always played like a gleefully over-the-top parody of rock and roll ambition and artistry. Then again, I know the song primarily through Wayne’s World and Al’s parody, so I am seeing it through an intrinsically light-hearted, comic filter. I remember vividly listening to Queen’s greatest hits on tape while my dad and I were driving my sister to camp one Summer but I would say that my primary experience of “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t come from the song itself but rather from the funhouse-mirror versions from pop culture wisenheimers like Mike Myers and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Al’s polka medleys twist and contort and speed up familiar songs until they become ridiculous but “Bohemian Rhapsody” is already a ridiculously over-the-top exercise in pop melodrama. With “Bohemian Polka”, Al takes something that’s already extreme and excessive and makes it even more so.
“Bohemian Polka” represents the second time Al has taken on Queen’s oeuvre following the seminal early single “Another Rides the Bus”, a relic from an era in Al’s career when intensity and volume and energy were more important than methodically nailing all of the details of the recording Al was parodying.
By the time Al ended Alapalooza with “Bohemian Polka” Al had gone from the enthusiastic semi-amateur of “Another One Rides the Bus” to an accomplished professional obsessed with sounding exactly like what he was lampooning, but polkas have always been a place where Al didn’t have to sound like anything other than an accordion-wielding, polka-mad Alpine maniac.
I’m generally not a fan of sound effects on Al’s songs but they work spectacularly well on his medleys. “Bohemian Polka” is no exception. The selectively employed sound effects, like a cartoon gun-shot that accompanies “Mama, I just killed a man!” drag the song unmistakably into the world of wacky comedy.
The man singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” is overwhelmed with trembling, dark, overwhelming emotions—despair, hopelessness, self-hatred, ennui, anger—but because this is a polka, the overall tone is nevertheless upbeat, goofy and manic.
By the time Al recorded “Bohemian Polka” he’d long since abandoned the clever if limited gimmick of a goofball kid recording rock and roll songs from rock virtuosos and world-class musicians like Queen with an accordion except for the polka medley. The accordion makes a big comeback here and the wide variety of wacky sounds that can be made with it further serves to push the song further and further from the Wall of Sound lushness of its inspiration into something more Mad magazine than pop-opera.
“Bohemian Polka” ends Alapalooza on an appropriately energetic, madcap note. Al frequently puts his darkest, weirdest, most ambitious and sometimes brilliant song as the final track on the album, and while this doesn’t measure up to previous album-closers like “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” and “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” it’s delightful enough to justify its prominent positioning in the album.
This brings us to the end of Alapalooza so I figure it’s a good time to remind y’all that I will be taking a one week break between albums in an attempt to keep my brain from frying due to overwork. When we return next Monday it’ll be with Bad Hair Day and “Amish Paradise”, the song that instigated the “Weird Al” Yankovic-Coolio beef.
Forget 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination: I think I speak for everyone when I say that our nation truly lost its innocence once we learned that Coolio was pissed because he felt that “Weird Al” Yankovic was disrespecting the Amish community with his artistry so let’s savor this last moment of Garden of Eden-like purity in Al's career (and American culture) before the most-liked man in the history of entertainment (suck it, Tom Hanks! You’re despised compared to Al!) accidentally ended up briefly making a quasi-enemy.
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