I remember the first time I heard the music of Spike Jones. I was maybe 9 years old, and. all the “glug glug glugs,” raspberries, bicycle horns, and the million other unconventional sounds felt custom made for my prepubescent comedy preferences. The songs Jones and his Orchestra(s) played were parodies of songs that I, for the most part, did not know. I didn’t care – Spike Jones was funny regardless if I didn’t get half the jokes. Now, as an adult, I still love Spike Jones, but i do wonder if perhaps my love of Jones might be nostalgic. After all, my comedy tastes have changed. Then again, I might appreciate some of the comedy on a deeper level, So, with that in mind, I decided to challenge myself. This is: I listen to Spike Jones with fresh ears.
For those of you who don’t know the music of Spike Jones, you’re about to get an education. Spike Jones was a 1940s band leader who brought comedy music to the mainstream. Spike Jones influence stretches far and wide, influencing the likes of Weird AL, Frank Zappa, and even Danny Elfman’s former band, Oingo Boingo. Director Spike Jonze probably chose his screen name in part as a tribute to Spike Jones. My favorite Elvis Costello album, Spike, was partly named in homage to Jones. While you might not know the music of Spike Jones, you probably cannot go a week without stumbling upon his influence. So why not listen to Spike Jones with me? Together we’ll see if he’s still funny, over half a century after his death.
Cocktails for Two (1945)
Cocktails for Two starts as an homage to the original source of the song….Jones does this with a lot of his parodies. This method showcases the conservative nature of popular music at the time, and why Spike Jones wanted to introduce something a little more absurd. In the case of Cocktails for Two, we listen to a couple female vocalists singing respectfully. We also hear a piano and a harp, both played at a medium to slow tempo. A few bars into the song, we swoon to the lead vocalist crooning the rest of the first verse and the bridge.
As we reach the chorus, all chaos happens. The principle instruments, a banjo and a horn section, clash with the earlier piano and harp. We hear gunshots, someone yelling “Yippie!,” a slide whistle, and even gargling! It’s quite a ride! Sarcasm laces the song, with a coughing fit after a line about smoking. A country fiddle plays ironically after the line “some exclusive chansonette.”
The original Cocktails for Two talks about the end of prohibition, but in a romantic way. We get a feeling of social galas, with people drinking respectively and quietly, while not getting too intoxicated. Spike Jones presents us with the reality – the end of prohibition was a great big, rowdy, drunken party.
As a novelty song, Cocktails for Two isn’t bad. It’s a fun little ditty (though not some exclusive chansonette). As a historical piece, Cocktails for Two also serves to show us exactly what happens after prohibition – mainly, people let loose with their inhibitions and go on massive, wild, benders.
We begin Laura with what sounds like the opening credits for a movie. Big band orchestration, a soft tempo a sweet, mellow tempo, and all around pleasant music. The intro makes me want to munch popcorn in anticipate to what comes next.
When the intro ends we hear the saddest sounding slide whistle ever – and then a New Orleans style jazz band on steroids. Eventually a crooner sings as seriously as possible. Meanwhile background sounds make fun of the lyrics at the end of the line. After the word “laugh, we hear a psychotic scream. After the word kiss, we hear slobbery noises. The song ends after we find out Laura is “only a dream” – followed by an over exaggerated snoring noise.
That’s Laura….a short and simple song. The original song was probably written in ten minutes, and Spike Jones exploits the ease of the this song at every turn.
William Tell Overture (1948)
We all know the William Tell Overture. This is nothing like the William Tell Overture you know. The song encompases a horse race, as described by the race announcer. Every single line is a pun, or at least a self aware joke. At one point a horse named Cabbage is leading “by a head.” A horse named dog biscuit “leads the pack,” A horse named assault passes another horse named battery – and the announcer proudly proclaims “assault and battery!” Finally, the winner, the straggler throughout the race, the humorously named “Beetlebaum.”
To say William Tell Overture holds up in our culture is certainly a stretch. Sure, horse races exist, but they’re nowhere near as popular as they used to be. Still, William Tell Overture is at least entertaining – especially if you like cheese ball humor.
(Ghost) Riders in The Sky (1949)
When I wrote about the covers of (Ghost) Riders in The Sky about a year ago, I almost included the Spike Jones version. Jones seems to get that the Vaughn Monroe version, which made the song famous, somehow misses the entire point of the original song. Still, I felt the cover just didn’t fit. That’s a mistake I must rectify right now, As the Spike Jones version deserved to be in that list more than the versions by the likes of Elvis Presley and REM!
Jones spends the entire song interpreting Vaughn Monroe’s (Ghost) Riders in the sky in a very literal matter. One vocalist sounds drunk and clueless, and the other, well, he just sounds clueless. At the end of the song Jones points out the melody of (Ghost) Riders in The Sky sounds strangely similar to the war ditty “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Jones also implies the drunken, clueless singer is Vaughn Monroe himself.
The more I listen to this parody, the more I appreciate it. As someone an expert on cover songs, one of my biggest annoyances are covers that miss the point of the song entirely. This cover mocks a cover that does just that. This cover pays tribute to a mound of garbage.
Chloe, originally a jazz standard recorded by the likes of Ethel Waters and Louise Armstrong. The song is simple….a song about someone pursuing their love throughout whatever trials and turmoils life they must endure. The thesis of the song is simply “I got to go where you are.”
Jones takes the song in a slightly different direction….the singer of the song is stalking Chloe. He makes this apparent by a few added vocals. At one point, a very angry voice yells “Where are you, you old bat” showing the singer is a little unstable and maybe even dangerous. Even more evidence of the character’s nefarious nature appears towards the end of the song, we hear a very creepy voice saying “Haha, I’m going to find you, my pretty baby.” Seriously….this line is nightmare fuel!
We don’t know why Jones went this direction. Maybe he thought Chloe was a lackluster song and deserved this treatment. Maybe he viewed Chloe like we now view “Baby it’s Cold Outside“. Sigh, maybe, Jones just saw an opportunity for a few cheap laughs. Regardless, the Spike Jones version of Chloe is both creepy and unsettling. Yet, interestingly enough, the Spike Jones version is also the most well known version Chloe. Go figure.
My Old Flame (1947)
My Old Flame, originally recorded by Duke Ellington’s orchestra, has an interesting dichotomy to say the least. The first portion of the song, in the tradition of Cocktails for Two, sounds like a normal, crooner based radio song – something you’d hear on the radio in the late 40s. As with other Spike Jones songs, however, this sugary sweet sounding melody gets interrupted by a conclave of noise. This time, a horn section, a few glugs and gulps, and even a siren.
Now we get to the fun part. A mad scientist sings, or rather grunts, the rest of the song. He makes comments about how he can’t remember his old flame’s name….and how he’ll have to look through his collection of human heads. He also mentions he removed her eye, and his new lovers “won’t even let me strangle them!” In the end, we find out why she’s his old flame….he poured a can of gasoline….and struck a match.
A sadistic approach to Duke Ellington to say the least, but a fun one to play at Halloween.
Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943)
Originally from a Donald Duck cartoon, Der Fuehrer’s face is an anti Nazi song. There’s not a lot to say about the Spike Jones version, as he does more of a cover than a parody of the song. Jones does, however, add a few noteworthy things to the song. The raspberries after every single “heil!” Originally, the song had a trombone note bellowing, but the raspberry sound….oh, that just adds insult to injury. I mean, who wouldn’t want to give the raspberry to Adolf Hitler? Fpppppt!
Probably the best part of either version of the song comes about while talking about the “new order” in a strong German accent. This becomes “dis,” so “this order,” becomes “dis order.” This works on so many levels, as the Nazi party was known as scrutinous rule followers. So to suggest they were disorderly at all, well, that might have been the ultimate insult.
What a great piece of political satire and commentary! I bet they play this song repeatedly to Hitler as part of his punishment in the ninth gully of the eighth circle of Hell.
Should You Listen to Spike Jones?
That depends on your tastes. If you like cheese ball comedy music, then you should certainly listen to Spike Jones. His music, even if you don’t know the original songs, are hysterical. Having said that, this is not the type of comedy that everyone loves.
Those that love history should also listen to Spike Jones. After all, his music is a time capsule of a different time and place. There’s social commentary from a bygone era. We see the music of the past, and its many flaws. We even get an early glimpse of what eventually becomes punk rock! Yes, I’ll go ahead and say it ….Spike Jones was the first punk musician! Ok, that’s a stretch, but he certainly wanted to tell the world what he thought of the current music scene. Mainly….fpppppt!
It’s a shame that Spike Jones did not live a long life. He died at age 53 in 1965 due to emphysema. I would have loved to see his take on the disco era, or even the new wave movement. Regardless of how short his life was, he brought laughs to countless millions, and his influence is still shining to this very day. I guess that answers my original question – as I listen to Spike Jones with fresh ears, I do indeed enjoy his music still, yet even. Heck, I even enjoy his music on a level I couldn’t comprehend in my childhood, as I see the historical context of his parodies.
I hope people continue to listen to Spike Jones for another half century