Top Ten: "Weird Al" Yankovic Song Parodies
Weird Al Rocks!!
In his more than three decades (!) as a recording artist, funnyman "Weird Al" Yankovic has elevated himself to the position of High Priest of Pop Music Parody. When he first achieved prominence in the early '80s thanks to Doctor Demento's radio show, Al's shtick - accordian-laced parodies of current hits (i.e. Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" became "Another One Rides the Bus," the Knack's "My Sharona" became "My Bologna") - seemed destined for a quick trip to "one hit wonder" land ala "Disco Duck," or even worse, permanent "novelty item" status. But if you want to call him a novelty act, then Weird Al has become one of the most successful "novelty acts" of all time, selling over 12 million albums and earning numerous Grammy Awards over the course of his career. In fact, Al has outlasted many of the one-hit wonders whose music he's parodied!
Al's not a one trick pony. Parodies of other people's songs aren't all he does, and each of Al's studio albums contains its share of hilarious original songs (some of my favorites include "Dare To Be Stupid," the brilliant "Nature Trail to Hell," and "This Is the Life," the theme song to the cult comedy film "Johnny Dangerously") but parodies remain his bread and butter. Here are my ten favorite Al parodies, many of which were made successful thanks to his trademark irreverent music videos. Each is well worth investigating, even if you aren't familiar with the song he's making fun of.
#10: "Jurassic Park" (1993)
Richard Harris' late '60s chestnut "MacArthur Park" is widely considered to be one of the worst songs ever recorded (who can forget that tear-jerking, overwrought chorus about someone leaving the cake out in the rain?), which made it ripe for a parody. In Al's version based on the dinosaur-movie hit, he laments that "someone turned the fence off in the rain," and that he thinks the dinosaurs "are out to harm me, 'cause they sure don't act like Barney." The track was accompanied by a hilarious Claymation video in which "Barney" gets his head bitten off by a T-Rex, and after a cartoon Al gets swallowed by a dinosaur, he discovers a souvenir stand inside the beast's stomach, where a grinning employee tries to sell him a "I Got Eaten Alive at Jurassic Park" t-shirt.
#9: "Amish Paradise" (1996)
Al's 1996 take off on Coolio's hit "Gangsta's Paradise" turned a gritty tale of the urban streets into a lighthearted treatise on the simplicity of Amish life ("As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain, I take a look at my wife and realize...she's very plain.") This song also represents one of the rare times that Weird Al courted controversy with a parody. As a rule, when Al wants to do a take-off on a hit song, he contacts the songwriter/composer for permission. In the case of "Amish Paradise," someone at Coolio's management apparently gave Al the idea that it was OK to take on "Gangsta's Paradise," but Coolio himself never approved of the idea and was very vocal about Al's "desecration" of his song. The two eventually mended fences, but Al has been very careful ever since about making sure to speak to the artist directly to get permission, rather than going through their management or record label
#8: "I Lost On Jeopardy" (1984)
This parody is probably better known nowadays than the original song - "Jeopardy," by early '80s rocker Greg Kihn. While Kihn's original was a tale of love gone wrong, Al's version tells the story of his disastrous experience as a contestant on the TV game show. Al finds himself up against "a plumber and an architect, both with a Ph.D." and is quickly crushed in the game ("Well I got the Daily Double now... and then my mind went blank!"). The song came complete with a guest voice appearance by original "Jeopardy" announcer Don Pardo telling Al what he didn't win ("You don't even get a lousy copy of our home game!") before dismissing him as "a complete loser." Along with Pardo and original "Jeopardy" host Art Fleming, Greg Kihn himself made a cameo in the song's music video. Fun fact: the current long-running TV revival of "Jeopardy," hosted by Alex Trebek, premiered three months after this video.
#7: "I Love Rocky Road" (1982)
Al takes on Joan Jett's "I Love Rock N Roll" in this accordian-filled ode to his favorite ice cream flavor. The ultra-low-budget video for this track is a hoot, with a leather-jacket-clad Yankovic appropriating all of Jett's tough-gal moves in an ice cream parlor, sneering out lyrics like "Chocolate's gettin' old, vanilla just leaves me cold." I bet even Joan Jett herself would gladly sit down and "have a triple scoop" with Al for his fine work on this track.
#6: "The Saga Begins" (1999)
"The Saga Begins" wasn't Al's first song to be inspired by the "Star Wars" saga (see my #1 pick for that), but it was definitely his most ambitious. Ingeniously blending the storyline of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" with the music of Don McLean's "American Pie," Al re-tells the story of a "small fry" who "left home and kissed his Mommy goodbye, saying soon I'm gonna be a Jedi." Both Don McLean and George Lucas have professed their love for this parody, with McLean admitting that he occasionally slips into Al's version while performing "American Pie" in concert.
#5: "Smells Like Nirvana" (1992)
Al had been out of the spotlight for a couple of years after the disastrous response to his movie debut, 1989's "UHF," but he entered the 1990s in fine style and scored a major hit with this takeoff on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Using the same sets as Nirvana's video and a lot of the same actors and crew, the clip caused many MTV viewers to do a double-take when it aired! Al's version got a rabid "thumbs up" from the Nirvana band members, who said that being parodied by Weird Al was a sign that they'd truly "made it."
#4: "Eat It" (1984)
Nobody was bigger than Michael Jackson in 1984, and Al wisely chose to hitch a ride on the M.J. bandwagon with this takeoff on "Beat It." Once again, a song about a serious topic - street fights between gangs - became an ode to foodstuffs once Al got through with it. The video for the song was a pitch-perfect copy of the "Beat It" video, with Al sporting an MJ-style red leather jacket with multitudes of zippers on it, and a pair of street toughs battling it out in an old warehouse - with forks and spoons rather than switchblades. Al would continue his Jackson association with 1988's Even Worse album, which featured "Fat," the classic parody of MJ's "Bad."
#3: "Gump" (1996)
The Presidents of the United States of America were a goofy pop-grunge band whose (thankfully) lone hit, "Lump," was quite possibly the most irritating song of the mid 1990s. Al took the tune and turned it into an ode to Tom Hanks' film "Forrest Gump," complete with a Hanks lookalike passing out chocolates on a park bench for the accompanying video. I still can't stand the original "Lump" but I have to give Al credit for taking the track and turning it into something entertaining and listenable!! Wherever The Presidents of the United States of America are now, I bet they wish they'd had half of Al's knack for writing memorable humorous, goofy songs!!
#2: "Ricky" (1983)
When I first saw "Ricky" on MTV sometime in 1983 I wasn't quite sure what the heck I was witnessing. "Ricky" was a pretty bizarre sight for a 13 year old who was used to seeing Styx, Motley Crue and Loverboy videos on the channel - a Ricky Ricardo impersonator playing an approximation of Toni Basil's irritating hit "Mickey" on the accordion while a Lucille Ball lookalike cavorted around, whining and begging "Ricky" to let her "be in the show." My reaction was probably something along the lines of "What the $%#! is this?"... but just like the original "Mickey," "Ricky" was almost Satanically catchy, to the point that before long I found myself humming the tune (and singing along in a bad impression of Ricky's voice). Fun fact: "Lucy" was portrayed by actress Tress Macnelle, who now provides a multitude of voices on "The Simpsons."
#1: "Yoda" (1985)
This ode to the diminutive Jedi Master of the "Star Wars" saga, set to the tune of the Kinks' classic "Lola," is my favorite Al parody and has been since I first heard it way back in 1985. Al's band totally nails the flavor of the original and the lyrics are gut bustingly inspired. ("I know Darth Vader's really got you annoyed, but remember if you kill him then you'll be unemployed...") To be honest, I know the lyrics to "Yoda" better than I know the ones for "Lola," and if "Lola" comes on the radio in the car, I've been known to belt out the "Yoda" lyrics over it on more than one occasion...which has caused me to get some strange looks from fellow motorists when I'm stuck in traffic!
Get Your WEIRD on!
And the Hits Keep On Comin'!
Weird Al Yankovic has showed no signs of slowing down in the 21st century. His 2011 album Alpocalypse, featured parodies of songs by current favorites like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus and his concert tours continue to draw faithful crowds of devotees. My only problem is that as I get older, I don't keep track of who's in the top 40... so many times I'm not familiar with some of the songs Al's making fun of.
2013 marked the 30th anniversary of the release of Al's debut album, and his newest CD, Mandatory Fun, became his first-ever #1 album on Billboard when it was released in July 2014. Not bad for a guy that many in the record industry predicted would be a "one hit wonder!"
Between the constant flow of new material and his frequent appearances on TV, in movies and other media, it looks like Weird Al doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. Long live the Crown Prince of Comedy Pop, and keep it Weird!