Day Eighteen: "Polkas on .45" from In 3-D
As I have chronicled in exhausting detail here, the accordion was central to the grand gestalt of Al's early career. During the heady days when a slot in the Funny Five represented Al’s highest aspiration, the incongruity of rock and roll being performed on an accordion by a bespectacled teenager represented much of his early shtick.
The accordion continued to occupy a central place on 1983’s “Weird Al” Yankovic but by In 3-D Al, producer Rick Derringer and his band were ready to retire the gimmick of being an accordion-powered rock group. Al wasn’t entirely ready to put his trusty squeezebox into storage, however. It still played a role in live performances and on In 3-D Al and his collaborators found a brilliant and surprisingly sustainable way to bring it back to a place of importance in Al’s life and work by setting aside one track on every LP for a polka medley of classic or contemporary hits.
Al’s polkafied take on the hits of the day afford him a wonderful opportunity to send up the way pop music is packaged and sold as nothing more than another soulless consumer item in a capitalist wasteland/wonderland where everything is for sale. Al’s obsession with consumerism and the disposability of consumer culture extends to being unusually honest, if typically sly and irreverent about the ways in which, as an entertainer, he too is a consumer product to be purchased, consumed and savored.
The album cover of Medium Rarities, the outtakes and rarities collection that is being included with Al’s upcoming box set, depicts a shrink-wrapped but smiling Al both as his usual charming delightful self and something that can be picked up on a supermarket aisle, purchased alongside bologna and spam and Rocky Road ice cream and consumed in the comfort of your own home. It depicts him as something to be bought as much as listened to.
Medium Rarities’ cover depicts Al and his music as product. “Polkas On .45” expands upon that by depicting pretty much the sum of pop music as disposable consumer product no different from a jingle for a laundry detergent or trash bags.
The title and the format of "Polkas on .45" is a riff on Stars on .45, a short-lived novelty group that briefly had enormous international success cranking out medleys of popular hits, sometimes by a specific group like The Beatles or Rolling Stones and The Andrews Sisters, and sometimes grouped by genre. A group of session musicians led by Golden Earring's original drummer would faithfully recreate popular songs and unite them via a common tempo or drumbeat.
The idea was to give consumers (and people who purchased Stars on .45 were consumers more than they were music lovers) maximum bang for the buck. Why buy a Beatles album when you can buy a single combining eight Beatles covers in a ten-minute span? By reducing timeless art like the music of the Beatles into instantly disposable product, Stars on .45 ended up desecrating the music it was ostensibly paying tribute to. Give The Beatles’ music all the same backbeat and it ceases to be the Beatles in any real way, just a sad simulacrum of authenticity.
“Polka on .45” brought Al’s accordion back to the focus for a medley of classic rock hits that brilliant satirizes the cynical calculation of the Stars on .45 series/aesthetic, with its relentless emphasis on hits and familiarity over coherence and integrity while puncturing the pretension and self-importance of rock music, another specialty of Al's.
The medley eliminates difference and puts everything on bizarrely equal footing. Outside of “Polkas On .45” just about the only thing Berlin’s “Sex (I’m A)” and The Beatles’ majestic, melancholy and tender “Hey Jude” have in common is that they’re both music. Within the weird world of “Polkas On .45” however, these two wildly different songs from different eras and wildly different performers bleed right into each other. Al brightly volunteers, “I’m a little girl when we make love together” during the portion of the medley devoted to Berlin’s “Sex (I’m A)” just as glibly as he delivers the heart wrenching chorus of “Hey Jude.”
In Al and his band’s capable hands, towering, somber masterpieces are impishly recreated as silly little oompah ditties. “Hey Joe”, for example, stops being a dour treatise on the emptiness of revenge and the ugliness of our culture of violence and becomes a silly little song about a dude getting shot, complete with cartoonish sound effects depicting gunfire as less tragic than “wacky.”
In Al’s typically genial, casual way, “Polkas on .45” slaughters musical sacred cows. The Who’s “My Generation” may be the ultimate countercultural, “important” musical anthem but in the hands of Al and his merry mirth makers it just sounds silly. “Polkas on .45” is fascinating as well for the rare notes of reverence thrown in with all that silliness. Two of Al’s favorite groups—Talking Heads and Devo—make the grade, foreshadowing the homages he’d record to them in the very near future, one of which would provide the title of Al’s next album.
Before I began this project I saw polka medleys as one of the more disposable and less essential components of Al’s careers. I now look at them much differently, as one of the cornerstones of Al’s satirical aesthetic. The accordion would be employed much sparingly after “Weird Al” Yankovic but on “Polkas on .45” he made the most out of its fascinating limitations and peculiarities.
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