Notes from the PD No. 2 – When the Novelty Wears Off

Despite the fact I recently announced on Ello, Twitter, and Facebook that KoHoSo Radio 66 will have Monster Mash in the rotation on October 30th and 31st, I do have a general rule about such songs. I won’t play them.

Just like the "no hippies" comment I made in good humor in my previous post in the "Notes from the PD" series, I don’t want anybody to misunderstand. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is a bigger fan of comedy and novelty records…and the mid-20th Century was a golden era for them.

Yep…I was the kid in your class that couldn’t stop talking about Dr. Demento, had tapes of every show he could afford to record, and found every other source of comedy he could bring in on his radio (Jerry Gordon’s program Sunday nights on KSFO out of San Francisco was a favorite). For every Bob Marley record I had, I also had Bob Newhart. My Joan Jett album came just before Spike Jones.

The thing I learned the hard way in my fledgling radio career in trying to share oddball stuff from Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer to the early days of Weird Al Yankovic was that their songs have an extremely limited audience. Believe it or not, even if you’re one of those people that still laugh at Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh no matter how many times you’ve heard it, most people find songs like that to be a buzz kill especially when put in with "regular" music.

There’s also something else about novelty songs that most of their fans don’t realize…they require close listening. To be honest, radio — even streaming — is often something put on in the background. Yes, certain songs might get turned up here and there but, overall, it’s something to fill in a void or to set a scene. If that is interrupted with something absolutely requiring attention, it more often than not gets switched off.

So, in general, that’s why listeners to KoHoSo Radio 66 will not hear out-and-out novelty songs. However, that’s quite a blurred line in the years from 1946 through 1966.

The prime example is certainly the Coasters. There’s no doubt that almost every one of their hits has humor and could easily fit into one of Dr. Demento’s podcasts. Yet, these songs are so classic and such a part of early rock & roll and R&B that they simply cannot be left out.

There’s even more subtle examples. One that always comes to mind is how songs were written using the names from other popular songs of the time…certainly a "novelty" trick. My favorite of this type of song is one I have loved since I first remember my mother playing her records for me — Short Fat Fannie by Larry Williams. It references many other songs from Heartbreak Hotel to Blueberry Hill with Jim Dandy and Long Tall Sally as some of the characters. Still, it’s a classic, it rocks, and it isn’t so nuts that it’s a turn-off.

The difference can often be the sounds on the record. This is why people still love The One on the Right is on the Left by Johnny Cash but want to take a hatchet to their speakers the millisecond they hear a chipmunk.

Then there’s Peter Griffin‘s favorite song, Surfin’ Bird. That’s about as outlandish as it gets. Yet, thanks to its appearance on Family Guy bringing it back into wide popularity and even a strange amount of respect, it just can’t be left out.

So…as can be seen, these things can be a tough call. Basically, I ask myself…

1. Does a song require close listening? If yes, it doesn’t get played.

2. Does the song rock? If yes, it gets considered.

3. Does the song have any irritating sounds or vocals? Minus the weird break in Surfin’ Bird as almost everybody is accustomed to it…if yes, it doesn’t get played.

I hope that helps clear up my thinking in regard to the big novelty hits of the mid-20th Century and why most of them will not be played on KoHoSo Radio 66. This is especially true as we approach that ultimate time of year for novelty songs, Christmas. While I will sprinkle some holiday cheer into the playlist beginning Monday, November 30th, there will be no Singing Dogs, no "two front teeth", and absolutely, positively no chipmunks.

Just remember…when the overall focus is music, novelty songs are like that one weird thing you love to eat that makes everybody else nauseous. It’s best to share only with your one other weird friend that likes it too and leave everybody else out of it.

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