On “Polkas on 45” by Weird Al Yankovic by Michael Fournier
My grade school best friend and I wrote parodies of popular songs. Rick Springfield’s “Love Somebody” became – you guessed it! – “Hate Somebody,” the title track of our fake band’s second album, each recorded on a side of a mercifully lost cassette.
We drew album art after we finished math quizzes. Our ‘records’ would alternate tracks by vocalist; we’d record it on his boombox.
On the day of our recording session – which I remember as twenty first takes – we immediately came across a factor we hadn’t considered.
“How will we do a band?”
“We’ll tape it.”
“No, like, what about the music in the back?”
“One of us will sing it.”
I nodded. In retrospect, not because I thought the idea would work, but because there was nothing else to do.
Of course the idea of our parody band was linked to Weird Al.
Everyone at school thought “Eat It” was hilarious. Sightings on MTV became less elusive as the video’s popularity grew.
On a visit to the family eye doctor in New Hampshire my dad and I stopped at the record store, where I convinced him to buy me a copy of “In 3-D.”
I picked up the silliness frequency loud and clear.
And Weird Al made me feel informed. MTV, in its nascent stages, played maybe a hundred songs. Getting caught up in that arena was easy. But I marveled at my parents’ ability to sing along with every song on the car radio. Yet when my peers played music for me, I was stumped. And I didn’t know where to begin.
Weird Al required some digging to get the jokes, pre-internet: not just the song parodies but also the polkas which appeared on every album, mashups before the word existed. Medleys, then – choruses and hooks from dozens of pop songs all smooshed together. Weeks later, months sometimes, years, some staple would come on at a pizza parlor or department store, a “Hot Blooded” or “L.A. Woman,” and I’d get a little jolt of excitement as another piece of context fit into the larger puzzle alongside edges I already knew, like “Hey Jude” or, because of MTV, “Burning Down The House.”
The Chipmunks, too, were a piece.
I came home from school to a 12 x 12 parcel.
“I thought you might like this,” my mom said, handing it to me.
On the cover of the record inside: Alvin carving his guitar-playing likeness into Mount Rushmore.
I devoured the contents. And like Weird Al’s album, digging was required: the Chipmunks were playing covers. The album credited songwriters, but not bands. I knew Devo and Pat Benitar, but was otherwise lost until I encountered the originals in the wild.
Maybe in retrospect our ‘band’ was the manifestation of acquisition. (You know, in addition to aping our favorite and making fart jokes set to music.) It’s easy, now, to see a throughline from singing ‘backing tracks’ huddled around a boombox in grade school to junior high in a different state, where I spent school lunches alone in the library, studying microfiche articles about the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys (themselves no stranger to silliness) to the chance, later, to move to a city and see bands play three or four nights a week.
We thought we were just passing time, drawing album covers and arguing about song sequencing. But now it’s easy to see it was more.
About the Author:
Michael T. Fournier is the author of two novels released by Three Rooms Press, and a book-length discussion of the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime album for the 33 1/3 series. His writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Pitchfork, Chunklet, Razorcake, Entropy, Electric Literature and more. Fournier is publisher of Cabildo Quarterly, a broadsheet literary journal.