Day Fifty-Eight: "Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies" from UHF – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack and Other Stuff
Well folks, we have officially made it six albums and fifty-eight songs into an obsessive exploration of the music and life of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic without this column finding any audience whatsoever. And that’s puzzling to me because “Weird Al” Yankovic is an extraordinarily popular and beloved entertainer, a gosh darn American treasure if you ask me. Yet there’s nevertheless something about this project that keeps it from ever catching on with anything beyond a tiny, almost mathematically insignificant number of readers.
I am continually astonished at how unpopular this column is. From a cost/benefit perspective I should have ended it months ago, when it became apparent that no matter how big, or how high profile a song I chronicled here was, it’d never be read by more than a few hundred readers, but I do not give up easily.
My mama didn’t raise no quitter. In fact, she didn’t raise me at all, having abandoned me when I was two years old. But this column is not about my inability to trust people due to parental abandonment. This is not about my formative emotional traumas or mommy issues. Nor is it about how incredibly unpopular this column is, despite my best efforts and the popularity of its subject.
No, the Weird Accordion to Al is about the music and culture of “Weird Al” Yankovic and with this entry we’ve passed another milestone. We’ve worked our way through “Weird Al” Yankovic, In 3-D, Dare To Be Stupid, Polka Party and Even Worse. So I am just going to take a moment here to pat myself on the back. That’s a whole lot of work! Those are a whole bunch of silly songs! And I wrote about every last one of them and tried to find something funny and interesting and insightful to say about all of them, even if it’s a minute-long cover of the George of the Jungle theme song or a faux-commercial for the popular Milton Bradley game Twister.
So now we’ve moved beyond the comeback success of Even Worse, the album that got Al back into the good graces of fans and critics after the creative and commercial failure of Polka Party! and onto the soundtrack for Al’s 1989 cinematic vehicle UHF. In the twenty-eight years since its release, UHF has made a remarkable transformation from high-profile flop to beloved cult success. It’s gone from being one of Al’s biggest failures to one of his most beloved cult successes.
The soundtrack, however, has not been so lucky. Like Polka Party!, Al’s biggest failure up to this point, it’s an album that attracts contrarian defenders more than it does passionate advocates. It peaked at 146 on the Billboard charts despite being connected to the release of a major motion picture and remains one of the few Al albums from this era never to go Gold.
Listening to the album today it’s easy to see why. When Al was working on the UHF soundtrack he was also working on a movie he not only starred in but co-wrote. And he was still in his twenties. That’s an extraordinary amount of work and pressure to throw on anyone that young, even someone as self-disciplined and scarily efficient and accomplished as Al.
Something had to give, and listening to UHF it’s easy to get the sense that the music became something of an afterthought rather than the engine driving the project. UHF feels less like an organic companion to Al’s big movie break than a collection of tracks Al and his band put together before the deadline for turning in the album passed.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the first and last track on each “Weird Al” Yankovic album. The first song is generally the big first single, the big parody, and perhaps most importantly, the big music video. Yankovic had “Lucy”, also Al’s first proper music video. In 3-D had “Eat It.” Dare To Be Stupid had “Like A Surgeon.” Polka Party! had “Living With A Hernia” and Even Worse has “Fat.”
The UHF soundtrack deviates from tradition by making its first track a big parody that doubled as a big single and big music video in “Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” but the first single is actually “UHF.” As the theme song to what everyone hoped would be a hit movie, that might qualify as a no-brainer except that “UHF” has the commercial disadvantage of being an original and also of being relatively straightforward.
But if "Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies" is unusual in not being a first single despite being the first song on the album and a parody of a smash song and music video, in many ways it fits perfectly with Al’s aesthetic. It is, after all, yet another song about television, in this case a little slab of undeservedly beloved hot garbage called The Beverly Hillbillies. Of UHF’s first four tracks, half are parodies about terrible, kitschy television sitcoms from the 1960s.
I forget who it it was, but someone talked about how Mel Brooks’ deep love and understanding for horror movies and westerns is apparent in every frame of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles but by the time he got to Spaceballs you could tell he’d maybe seen Star Wars twice, and the second time he was just scribbling notes for the exceedingly commercial parody he felt he had to make.
Al is the Mel Brooks of music. I mean that as the very highest praise. He’s the best of the best because he clearly understands and loves what he’s singing and writing about. But like Brooks, you can definitely tell when he’s writing about something he’s genuinely passionate about, like Star Wars or I Love Lucy or Devo, and when he's writing about something because there’s maybe a single or music video to be gleaned from it.
I doubt Al, an intimidatingly intelligent human being, has any special love for The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island, which we will be revisiting later. It feels like “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” owes its existence to the fact that “I want my MTV” and “Beverly Hillbillies” take up the exact same amount of sonic space and time if you sing them correctly.
Thematically, there’s a certain synchronicity between the two songs, and I’m not just writing that because Sting co-wrote and sings back-up on “Money for Nothing.” Both songs are about singers contemplating the enviable, moneyed existence of people whose lives of privilege and comfort they can seemingly barely comprehend.
“Money For Nothing” finds rock stars Mark Knopfler and our old buddy Sting (who we recently checked in with on “Velvet Elvis”) signing from the perspective of working-class galoots grumbling about how rich rock stars like Mark Knopfler and Sting get their “money for nothing” and their “chicks for free.”
“Money for Nothing” is a comic song, a rock star’s cheeky take on rock-star envy, but it’s not funny. As its title clumsily conveys, “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” borrows even more extensively from the song it’s parodying than most Al songs. Al and his band perfectly reproduce the backing track of course, beginning with that otherworldly, alien falsetto croon of “Beverly Hillbillies” in the space where the original features “I want my MTV”, which, ironically, is exactly the kind of sentiment you would find in a “Weird Al” Yankovic song, combining, as it does, television, commercials and instantly identifiable catchphrases from across the pop culture spectrum.
After the ghostly “Beverly Hillbillies” that open the song, the lyrics don’t really kick in until after a full minute, as Al and his gang (and guest players Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher from Dire Straits) perfectly reproduces the electronic, synthetic vibe of the original before that instantly iconic guitar part leading to the vocals.
What fascinates me about “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” is that it perfectly recreates the song sonically but Al’s lyrics borrow a lot of the structure, themes and actual words of the television theme song, as well as from “Money for Nothing.” It’s as if Al sat down with the lyrics for both songs and, by cutting and pasting, created something new almost completely out of the raw material that is “Money for Nothing” and The Beverly Hillbillies theme song.
As its title conveys, “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” resembles an early mash-up in a lot of ways, as does “The Brady Bunch”, another ironic ode to beloved small-screen hot garbage. Al songs that share the plot or premise of movies or TV shows have never been favorites of mine, with the notable exception of tracks like “Yoda” or “Lucy”, which manage to comment irreverently yet lovingly on pop culture, instead of merely outlining the premises of their subjects, but this opens one of Al’s weakest albums on a fairly solid note.
UHF would close on a much stronger note with the all-time oddball classic “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” but it seems appropriate, if not inevitable, that Al’s big-screen tribute to the small screen would open with one of Al’s patented ambivalent exploration of TV dreck, set to a song famous largely for having an innovative video that played on MTV all the time.
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