Frank Zappa once asked the pertinent question: Does humour belong in music? Of course it does, that is, unless music for you is another form of cultural hair-shirt. No debate that one of the greatest practitioners of nose-thumbing in the face of pomposity in the mid-20th Century were Spike Jones & His City Slickers who Kevin Courrier wrote about in Critics at Large a couple of years back.
Jones turned musical history into a broadly satirical farce. He made a mockery of honoured classics like Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which he recast as a ridiculously hysterical horse race. The unbearably dippy standard “Love in Bloom” was torn to shreds in much the same manner that The Marx Brothers laid waste to Il Travatore in A Night at the Opera(1935). Johann Strauss’ delicate Blue Danube waltz was transformed into a drunken brawl (in contrast to the lame reverence shown by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey). In their assault on Bizet’s Carmen, the group’s “messy-soprano” Eileen Gallagher is heard frightening off three bulls with the mere shriek of her opening aria. Michael “Cub” Coda, of The Brownsville Station (who once sang about "Smoking in the Boy's Room"), remembers his father seeing Spike Jones at the Michigan Theatre in Detroit back in 1945. “They were crazy,” he recalled his dad telling him. “The stage went black and all these sirens and gunshots started going off. Then the stage lit up and it was Spike Jones and His City Slickers…They had a guy playing a toilet seat with strings on it, people onstage wearing wigs and crazy outfits – oh geez, they were nuts.” This nutty group spent their career blowing raspberries at High Art. And they did it with an all-American gusto.
|Spike Jones & His City Slickers|
Spike Jones, a hayseed Harry Partch, unleashed a vast assortment of homemade musical weapons on the public, including the latrinophone – a toilet seat strung with catgut – as well as bathroom plungers and bicycle horns. These appliances put across a multitude of rude noises. Their brand of musical nonsense would continue until about the time Elvis entered the building. While the King stole all the pop thunder at RCA, the City Slickers slid into oblivion. They parted company with Jones and signed with Liberty Records in 1959 where they became resigned to doing straight-forward standards. Spike Jones would die from emphysema in 1965 at the age of 53.
For one brief period in American pop music, though, Spike Jones and His City Slickers created a legacy of disrepute that, like The Marx Brothers, was genuinely American in spirit. Their shared mission was to make outrageous noises in the church of good taste.