Styles & Forms | Novelty Songs | Popular & Novelty

Straddling genres from pop to rock, country to dance, novelty songs tell humorous stories using satire, wackiness or a topical link with television, film or a popular craze. Though often musically dubious, they have enjoyed massive, but generally fleeting, success in the modern era.

Music and comedy have been bed fellows since the days of music hall and vaudeville, when many singers doubled as comedians, incorporating burlesque and innuendo into their performances. The tradition was continued by Spike Jones’ anarchic rock and classical parodies of the 1940s and 1950s (1942’s ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face’), Tom Lehrer’s twisted pop music satires of the 1950s and 1960s (‘I Hold Your Hand In Mine’ from 1953) and Ray Stevens’ country crossovers in the 1960s and 1970s (‘Bridget The Midget’, 1971).

Sherman Conquers America

Perhaps the most successful musical humourist of the post-war years was Allan Sherman, a Jewish comedian who was the toast of America’s radio waves during the early 1960s. Specializing in spot-on parodies of folk songs and popular hymns and classical works, his most famous hit was ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’. His first three LPs went to the top of the charts; legend has it that President Kennedy was overheard singing ‘Sarah Jackman’, Sherman’s version of the French standard ‘Frère Jacques’.

Since Sherman’s star waned in the mid-1960s, there have been very few consistently successful novelty singers, but plenty of popular novelty songs. Some of these were light-hearted digressions by established American performers (Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ (1972) and Johnny Cash’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’ (1979)) and unlikely celebrities (William Shatner’s cover of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, 1968).

A Long Line Of One-Hit Wonders

Britain has a particular thirst for silly one-offs: the comedian Benny Hill had a hit with ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)’ in 1971, as did actor Clive Dunn in the same year, with an eponymous spin-off from his Grandad series. The Tweets even coerced Britons into performing the actions to their ‘Birdie Song’ for much of 1981.

Links with non-musical popular culture often provided inspiration and publicity. Carl Douglas’s ‘Kung-Fu Fighting’ ruthlessly exploited the 1970s enthusiasm for martial arts; The Firm topped the UK charts in 1987 with ‘Star Trekkin’, which was based around the sci-fi show; and Eric Idle hit the No. 1 spot in 1991 with ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’, from the film Monty Python’s Life Of Brian.

Two notable exceptions transcended one-hit wonder status: Rolf Harris and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. The latter was the king of parodic pop on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 1980s and 1990s. His favourite target was Michael Jackson, whose ‘Beat It’ and ‘Bad’ he reworked in food-fixated style as ‘Eat It’ and ‘I’m Fat’.

Harris’s popularity is largely a result of an ironic appetite for lovable cheesiness. The Australian artist and TV personality made his musical debut in 1963 and has remained popular in the UK ever...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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