There has always been a group of musicians who were just a bit off-center. When my mom was waiting for my dad to get back from the war, it was Spike Jones. Jones, a gifted musician and bandleader, used guns, whistles, pots, pans, cowbells, hammers, bird calls, klaxon horns, bricks, gargling, breaking glass, and God knows what else to make some truly wonderful and unforgettable music.
Jones was quite the celebrity in his day. But when the Big Band sound died, his music slipped into obscurity. Sure, Big Band stations can still be found, but what are the odds that a serious deejay would dare play the William Tell Overture that segued into a truly bizarre horse race (…and Beetlebaum…)?
Well, Mr. Jones, who died too young at the age of 53 in 1965, would have been quite pleased with the emergence of a 1970 jock at KPPC in Los Angeles. His name was Barry Hansen, but the persona he created that year was Dr. Demento.
It all started when Hansen got a deejay gig while still in high school. He was in charge of serving up sock hop music at local dances. The young jock had discovered, in his childhood, a store that sold 78’s for a nickel apiece. The music was quite hit and miss, but some of the misses were hysterical.
Hansen was hooked on the deejay thing, and pursued a musical career. This included working as a roadie for Spirit and Canned Heat, both out of L.A. 1970 found him spinning records at KPPC. His specialty was oldies, and some of them were quite obscure and funky. One in particular attracted the attention of fellow DJ Steven Clean: Transfusion, by Nervous Norvus. “You have to be demented to play that!” he told Hansen.
An idea was born.
He changed his on-air name to Dr. Demento and began specializing in songs that were, well, nowadays we would describe them as the kinds of songs you’d hear on the Dr. Demento show. Viewers ate it up. Spike Jones was suddenly thrust onto the children of the parents who remembered him from the 40’s, and the kids loved him! The good Doctor relished digging up old gems from his massive collection of 78’s. Benny Bell’s 1940’s record Shaving Cream might have become forgotten without Dr. Demento’s help. The show’s closing theme was Cheerio, Cherry Lips, Cheerio, a 1929 Scrappy Lambert recording.
But there were a plethora of newer songs, too. Hello Mudda, Hello Faddah, Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, They’re Coming to Take Me Away (ha ha!), One Horned, One Eyed Flying Purple People Eater, Monster Mash, and my all-time favorite: Star Trekking. That last song makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it. “It’s worse than that, he’s dead, Jim! He’s dead, Jim! He’s dead, Jim!” Oh, by the way, on the very first Dr. Demento show, a ditty called The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins was sung by none other than Leonard Nimoy.
The show became syndicated in 1974, and is still around today, I’m happy to say. In 1976, an aspiring musician sent in some tapes, and Dr. Demento liked what he heard. So did the listeners. Thus was launched the career of Weird Al Yankovic.
The Doctor is going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a few days as of presstime, and it will be a better place for his presence. Unfortunately, no local station carries him in my area, but I do have some collections on mp3. They’re a hoot to listen to, and we should all be grateful that Barry Hansen was demented enough to dig them up for us.