Day Ten: "Stop Draggin' My Car Around" from "Weird Al" Yankovic
“Stop Draggin' My Car Around” occupies a strange place in Al’s oeuvre in that it’s the first parody song he released that did not do great things for his career. It was the first time Al officially released a parody of a hit song that was not a milestone in the way his previous spoofs had been.
“My Bologna” got Al signed to Capitol records and made him a national recording artists only a few months after exiting his teens. It made the most distinguished goof in Dr. Demento’s Army of Oddballs a bona fide professional recording artist—on the label that put out The Beatles no less.
“Another One Rides The Bus” did even more for Al. It got him on national television back when that meant something, even if Al’s appearance on The Tomorrow Show was distinguished in part by Tom Snyder’s laughing dismissal of Al and his art as little more than a foolish novelty.
“Ricky” got Al on MTV, which would serve as a second home throughout the 1980s and quickly emerge as an essential component of his nascent multi-media empire. The song was also Al’s first single to crack the top 100, soaring as high as 63. “I Love Rocky Road”, meanwhile, led to Al getting a rock star for a producer when the song’s co-writer, Jake Hooker, suggested that virtuoso guitarist Rick Derringer man the boards for Al’s full-length debut.
Derringer would become the producer of Al’s first six albums in addition to occasionally playing guitar as well as other instruments. Derringer gave Al instant musical credibility. Here was a guitar god who had played for the demanding, exacting likes of Steely Dan, had hit songs as both a solo artist and as a member of the Real McCoys, of “Hang On Sloopy” fame, and played with a veritable who’s who of contemporary artists, from Kiss to Cyndi Lauper to Barbra Streisand to the Winter brothers, both before and after their zombifaction.
Al was no longer a kinky-haired genius geek with an accordion entertaining his fellow college students or the nerds on The Dr. Demento Show. He was a professional musician with a band, aproven rock and roll professional for a producer and a whole album to prove himself to a skeptical music industry. In that respect “Stop Draggin' My Car Around” is fascinating as the first of what would become dozens of parody songs that would live and die as album tracks, never subjected to the heat or intense scrutiny of the songs groomed and selected to do righteous battle on the pop charts, radio and MTV.
If these album-only parodies aren’t under the same commercial pressure as singles, the expectations are understandably and justifiably a lot higher than they are for non-parodies. After all, Al only parodies hit songs, so these songs have already proven themselves to be successful. Al has always been able to piggy-back on the public’s affection for the song he’s spoofing, or, at least its familiarity (with the notable exception of his “Ruthless People” parody “Toothless People” but we’ll get to that later) so it’s a whole lot easier to get a mainstream top 40, MTV audience that wouldn’t know Dr. Demento from Dr. Jonas Salk interested in a parody of a hit Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks duet than it is, say, a neo-vaudeville number like “Mr. Frump In The Iron Lung.”
Rock and roll has a tendency to take itself too seriously. So it has fallen upon Al, in his sacred designation as its unofficial, official prankster, to undercut that seriousness, to serve as a perpetual reminder that pop music is silly, and fun, and life-affirming, and not fundamentally somber.
“Stop Draggin' My Car Around”, accordingly enough, undercuts the somber, moody gloom of the song it’s parodying, and Stevie Nicks’ hyper-emotional delivery, through the skillful application of Mike Kieffer’s signature percussive flatulent vocal wizardry. Now generally Kieffer’s signature brand of hand flatulence is my least favorite element of Al’s early recordings and I can’t say I’m sad that he quickly moved beyond his reliance on this weird, juvenile gimmick. Yet there’s something about the somber, sincere ache of Petty and Nicks’ duet that makes Kieffer’s strange specialty feel like a righteous blast of vulgarity instead of merely vulgar.
As the title conveys, “Stop Draggin' My Car Around” is a song about a car, a rock and roll perennial. But because this a “Weird Al” Yankovic song the usual defiant pride of the car song is replaced by a nebbishy inability to keep the lemon in question out of the avaricious claws of the tow-truck industry. Over an irreverent, accordion and fart-noise-fueled simulation of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker’s New Wave romantic melodrama, Al shares several tales of being unexpectedly and unhappily separated by circumstances and fate’s cruelty from his decrepit automobile.
By the time “Stop Draggin' My Car Around” came out Yankovic had developed such an indelible visual aesthetic that when the song’s narrator sings, “Took my baby to the local disco, I was jumpin' like a maniac” we don’t just imagine a generic swinger out on the dance floor, we imagine Al with his crazy mop of hair, his glasses, his Hawaiian shirt and his giant geek glasses boogying up a storm. That image immediately becomes much funnier.
From an early age, Al understood the importance of specificity in comedy. “Stop Draggin' My Car Around” is consequently full of funky, memorable little details, like the disco owner who takes Al into the backroom, praises his “Snaggletooth necklace” and his pants, yet pulls back and will only say that Al’s hair is “okay” before informing him that his car has been towed away purely as a matter of style.
Later in the song Al begins a verse with “Now I'm in home, I'm watchin' Gilligan's Island”, which would be a throwaway reference if Al didn’t close out the decade with the UHF soundtrack, which included a Gilligan’s Island-themed “Wild Thing” parody. The television is seemingly always on in “Weird Al” songs and there always seems to be an ancient re-run on. Hell, when Al recorded “Jeopardy”, the show had been off the air for ages. The song’s popularity helped spur the Alex Trebek-led revival, so it only seems like he was singing about a current hit instead of something from television’s past.
The first non-single parody Al ever commercially released is an eminently worthy addition to the overflowing musical canon of songs about sub-par automobiles. The song may not have moved Al’s career forward the way “My Bologna”, “I Love Rocky Road”, “Another One Rides The Bus” and “Ricky” did but it helped illustrate that there was more to Al than singles and juvenilia, and helped illustrate conclusively that Al was a bona fide album artist, not just a kid with a couple of silly songs who got lucky.