Day Five: "Happy Birthday" from The "Another One Rides The Bus" EP and "Weird Al" Yankovic
“Happy Birthday” has the distinction of being the first pastiche “Weird Al” ever officially released. “Gotta Boogie” and “School Cafeteria” were not parodies but they also did not pay reverent homage to a specific artist the way the pastiches that follow would. It also has the distinction of being an homage to one of the most obscure artists Yankovic would ever honor and one of the most slept-on and overlooked.
Hell, going into this project I knew Tonio K. only as a man who inspired an early “Weird Al” song and as someone Yankovic had spoken highly of, as one of pop music’s true originals. Listening to “The Funky Western Civilization”, the song that inspired “Happy Birthday” and Life In The Foodchain, the 1980 album that birthed it, it’s easy to see why Al didn’t just like Tonio K. but saw him as something of a kindred spirit.
Tonio K. specialized in making songs that sound goofy and upbeat but are actually unrelentingly dark. He was a New Wave-era jester in the whip-smart and uber-demented mold of Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello, a man forever enjoying a deeply satisfying inside joke at the universe’s expense.
“The Funky Western Civilization” is the closest K came to a hit and the high water mark of his peppy brand of psychotic dance pop. Over maddeningly insistent “Roadrunner” style guitars and cheerful horns, K depicts contemporary society as a toxic mess of depravity and violence, debasement and despair before admonishing listeners to get up on their feet and celebrate our impending doom with the titular dance.
Introducing the most nihilistic dance yet, Tonio K. sneers, with razor-sharp sarcasm, “They put Hitler in the driver's seat and looked the other way/now they've got poison in the water and the whole world in a trance/but just because we're hypnotized, that don't mean we can't dance.” Tonio K.’s instructions to people perverse enough to want to dance the Funky Western Civilization are even more willfully sadistic and perverse.
Switching back and forth between stylized singing, vamping, talking and a kind of hipster jive that blurs the line between between all of the above, K implores listeners to “Just grab your partner by the hair/throw her down and leave her there” and then to, “Drag your partner through the dirt/leave him in a world of hurt” before finally “All's you gotta do is find some little kid somewhere/and throw him up in the air, never mind the parents.”
Oh, and then there’s also a french-accented spoken word segment from a woman identifying herself as both Joan Of Arc (yes, the Joan Of Arc) and a crazy kid who just loves dancing the Funky Western Civilization. “The Funky Western Civilization” wouldn’t feel out of place on The Dr. Demento Show, particularly alongside Al’s homage.
The comic conceit of “Happy Birthday” is the same as “The Funky Western Civilization.” Both songs are cheerful sounding anthems that celebrate things that should never be celebrated and use the unlikely vehicle of the birthday song and dance song as an ironic starting point for a quick, brutal list of some of the things that make the world such an inexorable horror show.
Like “The Funky Western Civilization”, “Happy Birthday” begins on a deceptively celebratory and cheerful note, with the maddeningly simple chorus of “Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday to You” repeated twice followed by a cheerful admonition,“Well, it's time to celebrate your birthday, it happens every year/We’ll eat a lot of broccoli and drink a lot of beer.” It isn’t long until things take a turn, however. The narrator tells the cursed birthday boy or girl that he should be happy to have something to eat because, “A million people every day are starving in the street.” This opens the floodgates of misery with “Your daddy's in the gutter with the wretched and the poor.”
The song is both cheerful and apocalyptic, with Al cheerfully singing lyrics like, “There's garbage in the water/There’s poison in the sky/I guess it won’t be long before we’re all gonna die.” In another, more explicitly punk context, lines like “The monkeys in the pentagon are gonna cook our goose/Their finger’s on the button, all they need is an excuse” and “Well there's a punk in the alley and he's looking for a fight/There’s an Arab on the corner buying everything in sight/There’ s a mother in the ghetto with another mouth to feed/Seems that everywhere you look today there’s misery and greed” would feel overtly political. They would resonate as social commentary delivered with a wink and a sneer.
But because Al is inhabiting a character inspired very directly by Tonio K.’s fascinating persona, there are multiple levels of distance and irony between Al and the words he’s delivering. Yankovic’s self-titled album is the punkest in Al’s oeuvre, in part because it is so thoroughly rooted in the New Wave of the time, which was essentially Punk Rock in glasses with a keyboard, or better yet keytar, his commitment to character and to comedy precluded making earnest political statements.
On “Happy Birthday”, Al tries on the punky, angry, nihilistic persona of Tonio K. for a song and finds it fits surprisingly well, but then had the wonderful luxury of being able to go back to being “Weird Al” Yankovic, as well as a rock and roll museum's worth of other famous pop stars.