Dr. Demento: Covered in Nostalgia
For a very long time, I did not buy many, if any, new records for a very simple reason: if I wanted something, I could almost invariably get it for free, and probably before its release date, due to my profession as a music critic for The A.V Club. That was, of course, before I failed as a music critic en route to also failing as a mommy blogger, staff writer, head writer, television critic and ultimately film critic.
So I buy very few albums these days, and the new albums I buy have a tendency to feel old as fuck. That is certainly the case with the double-disc CD Dr. Demento: Covered in Punk. I figure that anything that features both American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic covering The Ramone’s “Beat on the Brat” (which is a great song but dreadful parenting advice) and Jon Wurster, in character as Philly Boy Roy, doing a Philadelphia-centric version of “Punk Rock Girl” was worth my money. I would suggest that it’s worth your money as well.
And, of course I have a deep nostalgic and emotional connection to The Dr. Demento Show. How could I not? He brought “Weird Al” Yankovic into my lives as well as those of everyone else’s. One of my only regrets about Weird Al: The Book is that I never got an opportunity to talk to him for it.
Just hearing that voice, at once zany, ,oddly academic and strangely soothing, brought back a flood of warm memories of listening to The Dr. Demento Show as a child, waiting patiently for the Funny Five with the same baited breath that accompanied the countdown to number one on Casey Kasem’s top 40 countdown.
Even in the early 1980s, when I started listening to The Dr. Demento Show, it seemed like the host of the show was ancient, had been around forever and knew everything. And that was thirty-five years ago. The good Doctor seems like he was never young and at this point like he’s like the Gandalf of the funny music world, a wizened repository of knowledge and wisdom.
It seems fitting that my attraction to Dr. Demento Covered in Punk is fueled by nostalgia, because so much of the project’s appeal is nostalgia-based. What was punk, after all, if not an intentional return to the wild, raucous anarchy of early rock and roll and rockabilly?
In that respect, Covered in Punk is a blast from the past in more ways than one, a slickly produced exercise in old-timey punk nostalgia featuring punked-up covers of The Dr. Demento Show favorites like Barnes & Barnes’ “Fish Heads” and Ogden Edsl’s “Dead Puppies”, William Shatner and Adam West William Shatnering and Adam Westing their way through covers of “Garbage Man” and “The Thing” ,respectively, and a whole bunch of stuff that, in the grand novelty song tradition, does not need to be heard twice or even once, for that matter.
Do I need to hear Brak from Space Ghost: Coast to Coast cover Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” ever again? Oh God no, but I suppose I am glad that it exists and that at least now I can go to my grave never having to wonder what it would be like if the Adult Swim fan favorite were to sing a seminal punk anthem of ironic angst.
That’s the thing about punk: its definition is broad to the point of meaninglessness. Groucho Marx is punk rock. So are trashy surf instrumentals and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (particularly as interpreted by Joan Jett, who crisply and compellingly covers “Science Fiction/Double Feature” here) and outsider artists from the 1960s and 1970s and lo-fi weirdoes.
“Beat on the Brat” is punk but is it really more punk rock than a teenaged “Weird Al” Yankovic bashing away at “Also sprach Zarathustra” on his accordion as a teenager at a coffee house talent open mic when he was a teenager?
Covered in Punk proves once again, sometimes to its detriment, that any song can qualify as punk if performed sloppily or ineptly enough. Yet it's precisely the project’s inclusionary, open and all-embracing aesthetic that makes it such a consistent delight and ultimately more than the sum of its sometimes sublime, sometimes sublimely skippable parts.
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