Day Three: "Another One Rides The Bus" from Another One Rides The Bus EP and the "Weird Al" Yankovic album
One of my only regrets about researching Weird Al: The Book was that I never got to interview Dr. Demento for it. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the good, strange Doctor in Yankovic’s career. He was more than just a professional mentor. He was like a second father to the pop parodist, a guru who adopted the guise of professional jester but who, like Al, was freakishly smart.
In an analog realm where DJs actually spun records and were compensated both with salaries and sweet, sweet payola (not to mention the occasional smooch from a foxy lady or marijuana cigarette, if we can get PG for a second here), Demento was like a human Wikipedia. He was, and remains, a man who seemed to know just about everything when it came to novelty performers. Demento wasn’t just a man; he was a world onto himself. It was that world that “Weird Al” fell in love with as a young man.
This was one of a number of areas where my childhood and Al’s childhood overlapped. As a ten year old, I was addicted to the radio. Pop music was my world. As a child, albums like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports and “Weird Al” In 3-D were like a form of magic to me.
I adored the radio, and lived for the countdowns, both in the officially official form of Casey Kasem’s Top 40 rundown (oh, how I was captivated by the man’s pauses and phrasing!) and in the funhouse mirror version found on The Dr. Demento Show and its trademark “Funny Five” countdown.
The “Funny Five” was the first world that Al conquered, the first place where a weird only child from Lynwood, California who had taken to calling himself “Weird Al” Yankovic in homage to the professional moniker of the host of the Dr. Demento Show could loom large as something approaching a God. A nasal-voiced, curly-haired, accordion-playing God, but a God all the same. Al had found his tribe. He had found people like him. Oddballs. Nuts. Goofs. Outcasts. People whose obsessions veered far from the norm, for whom Allan Sherman was a much bigger and more important star than Elvis Presley.
The world of The Dr. Demento Show was a true meritocracy where a geek barely into his teens could write and record a song at home using only an accordion, his voice and some primitive recording equipment and then experience the unbelievable thrill of hearing their voice and their song on the radio.
When Yankovic began releasing music professionally, first through the titans at Capitol, who gave Yankovic the incredible honor of releasing a single on the home of the Beatles not long after turning 20 and the considerably lesser honor of being paid 500 dollars for the single and b-side, and then through Placebo, a makeshift label Yankovic formed to release his Another One Rides The Bus EP, his recording career was essentially an extension of Dr. Demento’s show.
To make the association even stronger, “Another One Rides The Bus”, the single that properly launched Al’s career, was famously recorded live in the KMET control room for The Dr. Demento Show with Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz banging away percussively on an accordion case in preparation for his later role as Al’s drummer. Dr. Demento lent Al the money to manufacture a thousand copies of the Another One Rides The Bus EP to sell on consignment at record stores.
In that respect “Another One Rides The Bus” represents the high water mark of Al and his mentor’s relationship and the beginning of the end. After “Another One Rides The Bus” and particularly “Eat It” from Yankovic’s follow-up LP, Yankovic would belong to the world, not just like-minded Poindexters whose lives revolved around The Dr. Demento Show.
Yankovic would never leave that world entirely but after “Another One Rides The Bus” he became a big fish in the big pool of top 40 mainstream pop music, not just the biggest name in the small pond of comedy music. Yankovic became big enough for major cultural figures to dismiss or mischaracterize his name and output.
A Variety review credited the single to “Mel Yankovic” while Brian May paid Al the curious tribute of praising the parody as “hilarious” while attributing the spoof to one “Mad Al”, who I like to think of as Al’s non-union Mexican equivalent. But that was mere prelude to Tom Snyder chucklingly dismissing Yankovic as a nutty little novelty act with absolutely no future as a musician, a man who could only hope to have the kind of cultural impact and longevity of Buckner & Garcia, while introducing him during his television debut on The Tomorrow Show.
Three and a half decades later, Snyder is dead while Al is on top of the world. I'm not saying the two are related, but it is striking how little you hear from Coolio and James Blunt these days. Disrespect the godfather of comedy music and the consequences can be severe.
Even at that early age, Yankovic was a consummate professional. Given the curious nature of his chosen trade, that meant that he fully committed to wild-eyed, manic, vaudeville mugging despite being given an introduction by Snyder that was actually more of a sustained insult.
As a mustachioed, bespectacled accordion player hoping to make it in the cutthroat, Darwinianworld of pop music, Al exploited every gimmick and novelty at his disposal. In a pre-“Weird Al” age, when people thought about the accordion, which, to be fair, they almost never did, they thought of white-haired older gentleman with clear roots in the old country, like Lawrence Welk and Frankie Yankovic, not manic teenagers in love with comedy and the entirety of pop music.
The one-man-band nature of Yankovic’s early shtick was another gimmick. Part of the goofball appeal of “Another One Rides The Bus” lie in hearing one accordion player and a kid beating an accordion case replicating the big, swaggering, full-body sound of Queen, a band full of virtuosos, including, but not limited to, guitarist Brian May and vocalist Freddie Mercury.
Incidentally, Sylvester Stallone very much wanted “Another One Bites The Dust” to be theme for Rocky III but Queen turned him down, which means that Al came somewhat close to parodying three theme songs from Rocky movies (including James Brown's "Living In America" from Rocky IV), although if “Another One Rides The Bus” had been the theme to Rocky III it’s safe to say “Eye of the Tiger” would not exist.
Yankovic and Mercury are both mustachioed showman but that's where their similarities end. “Another One Bites The Dust” is a screamingly effeminate macho anthem, a strange, seemingly contradictory sub-genre Queen completely owned. “Another One Bites The Dust” makes mastery seem effortless, but particularly in his early days part of Al’s whole aesthetic involved exerting as much effort as possible.
After Queen performed “Another One Bites The Dust”, they seemed ready to swagger confidently in tandem down the streets of whatever major metropolis they’re rocking like John Travolta at the end of Staying Alive. After Al finished playing “Another One Rides The Bus”, in sharp contrast, he seemed exhausted and depleted, like he was ready to collapse in a heap, or sleep for a number of years.
Queen were consummate corporate pop artists: beautiful, charismatic men who also happened to be dazzlingly accomplished musicians. Al and his newfound percussionist and future drummer/right hand man could never hope to match them on the level of professionalism or polish so, in true punk rock tradition, they made up for it with screaming, snotty, irreverent intensity. After all, who needs musicianship when you have deafening volume? Who needs professionalism when you have intensity?
That rawness was enhanced by having the official release of “Another One Rides The Bus” be the live recording from The Dr. Demento Show instead of something recorded and then lovingly finessed in a studio by a professional producer. There was, and remains, a magic and an excitement to the live Dr. Demento Show recording of “Another One Rides The Bus.” Al and his newfound collaborator captured lightning in a bottle, if you’ll excuse the cliche. Even when Al and Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz had a guitar god of a producer in Rick Derringer and a budget to make a long-playing album, they held onto a three year-old recording of “Another One Rides The Bus” recorded under the loving eye of Al’s mentor instead of re-recording it in a more professional setting.
The enraged Al of “Another One Rides The Bus” knows that he has to scream to be heard by a cold and apathetic world and industry. Thirty seven years later, that feral howl of nerd rage continues to resonate.