By Lisa Marklinger
CALGARY – Destiny works in peculiar ways — whether we call it luck, coincidence or something even more decorative like doom; certain albums have a way of burrowing themselves into a mood, a moment, or a movement and the best of them have all the staying power to last through generations.
Few artists have been successful enough to earn four Grammys, record 14 albums and have forty hits in the Top 40 over the course of a four-decade career. Even fewer artists can claim they got there by teaching themselves how to play rock ‘n’ roll music on their accordion, then writing and recording parodies of other artists’ recordings.
“Weird Al” Yankovic began his rise to fame as many artists would have in the mid-‘70s: with a homemade cassette tape and a radio show host sagacious enough to see his potential. Today, being parodied by “Weird Al” is not merely a rite of passage; it is akin to a knighthood in the music industry.
In 1983, Yankovic released his debut self-titled album, which featured the accordion on each track. It was met with lukewarm reception and written off by some critics as a passing fad. Flashes of his genius are present in parodies of Queen (“Another One Rides The Bus”), The Knack (“My Bologna”), The Arrows (“I Love Rocky Road”) and Toni Basil (“Ricky”).
From 1984–1989, Yankovic bombarded the music market almost yearly with four albums —“Weird Al” Yankovic in 3-D (1984); Dare to Be Stupid (1985); Polka Party! (1986) and Even Worse (1989).
He made his mark on the industry with “Eat it,” a parody of “Beat It,” recorded with the express permission of Michael Jackson. On 3-D, Al also debuts what would become one of his trademarks: a medley of popular songs a la polka. 3-D also includes a takedown of infomercial pitchman Ron Popeil, and while it’s unlikely anyone was clamouring for one, “Mr. Popeil” does it anyway.
While it was evident Yankovic enjoyed making squeezebox parodies of popular hits ranging from Madonna (“Like A Surgeon” Dare To Be Stupid), to James Brown (“Living With A Hernia” Polka Party), and even George Harrison (“This Song’s Just Six Words Long” Even Worse), he also wanted to be known for his original compositions right from the beginning. “Such A Groovy Guy” (“Weird Al” Yankovic) was an early highlight, as well as the title track of Dare To Be Stupid — a Devo-inspired track and possibly Yankovic’s most enduring non-parody song with its absurdist lyrics, catchy hooks and Al’s use of two distinct voices to create a sort of one-man duet.
The ‘90s brought us Off The Deep End (1992); Alapalooza (1993); Bad Hair Day (1996) and Running With Scissors (1999). Original composition “Trigger Happy” (Off The Deep End) is a fun and lively little ditty, poking fun at gun-happy conservatives, which, even today, is sadly appropriate. With Kurt Cobain’s blessing, in the parody “Smells Like Nirvana,” Yankovic pokes fun at Nirvana’s biggest hit and Cobain’s incomprehensibility. Alapalooza went double platinum in Canada, capitalizing on the dinosaur craze happening at the time with “Jurassic Park,” a parody of “MacArthur Park,” about the titular theme park of the future. After another brief hiatus, Bad Hair Day was released, which was his longest charting ever at 56 weeks. It featured parody singles “Amish Paradise” and “Gump,” both charting on the Billboard Top 100. / Running With Scissors hit number 16 on the Billboard 200, and while the hit “The Saga Begins” wasn’t Yankovic’s first take on Star Wars, it was the first one that relied entirely on spoiler websites to recount the plot of The Phantom Menace (which hadn’t been released yet). “Truck Driving Song,” about a trucker who dresses like a woman, is… about a trucker who dresses like a woman, and is probably the biggest miss on the album.
The new millennium brought Yankovic fresh ideas and new concepts to poke fun at while showing us that there’s probably a little bit of “Weird Al” in all of us, mostly when driving to and from work.
Poodle Hat (2003); Straight Outta Lynwood (2006); Alpocalypse (2011) and Mandatory Fun (2014) include parodies of Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” (“eBay”), Chamillionaire’s “Rollin’” (“White and Nerdy”), Lady Gaga (“Perform This Way”) and Lorde’s “Royals” (“Foil”) respectively.
It’s hard to believe it took as long as it did, but the Grammy-winning Mandatory Fun became Al’s first number-one album in the US. Though it had no leadoff single, “Word Crimes” became his 40th top 40 hit, making him one of few artists to achieve the distinction in four different decades. The album closes with the nine-minute “Jackson Park Express,” a laugh-out-loud-in-public type of song about two strangers who don’t meet each other on the bus, but one talks to the other in their head by reading their facial expressions. Elsewhere, the Ben Folds-esque “Why Does This Always Happen To Me” (Poodle Hat), pokes fun at first world-type problems, as does “First World Problems” (Mandatory Fun), “Ringtone” (Alpocalypse) and “I’ll Sue Ya” (Straight Outta Lynwood).
Formidably rambunctious as he is, “Weird Al” has a knack for really capturing the human spirit. Especially if you have a bulimic soul.
“Weird Al” Yankovic The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour hits May 31 at The Grey Eagle Event Centre (Calgary), June 2 at River Cree Resort & Casino (Enoch) and on June 5 at Burton Cummings Theatre (Winnipeg)“Weird Al” Yankovic, accordion, Burton Cummings Theatre, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, River Cree Resort & Casino, The Grey Eagle Event Centre, The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent