I love music, and I have a special affection for cleverly written, expertly performed, lovingly produced tunes that not only deliver the musical goods but also take a satirical jab at convention with a dry sense of humor. Fitting that bill perfectly are the songs on four very different albums that never fail to amuse me.
The Rutles was released in 1978 as the soundtrack album for Eric Idle’s All You Need Is Cash, a television mockumentary that parodies the rise and fall of The Beatles. The show itself is uneven, but its incredible attention to detail is mirrored in 14 songs written and produced by Neil Innes, a founding member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Monty Python collaborator. Innes and a group of session musicians manage to emulate the Beatles as faithfully as any tribute band while slyly stretching a variety of Fab Four styles into the absurd without so much as a wink or a nod.
The piano ballad Cheese and Onions is a brilliant sendup of John Lennon’s penchant for nonsensical lyrics featuring Innes in a dead-on vocal impersonation. “Do I have to spell it out?” he complains nasally before – you guessed it – actually spelling the title of the song letter by letter. Paul McCartney is ridiculed with Doubleback Alley, a lightweight romp that populates its shabby equivalent of Penny Lane with an assortment of sordid characters. There’s barely a funny line in Living in Hope, but singer John Halsey’s hilarious emulation of Ringo Starr’s vocal style makes me laugh every time. Even George Harrison, a friend of the Pythons, does not escape unscathed, thanks to the relentless drone of tabla and sitar on Nevertheless. While the writing and performances are top-notch, it’s the production that really makes the album. It sounds just like the Beatles, from the instruments to the sound effects.
The same level of verisimilitude is evident in the 1984 soundtrack album for This Is Spinal Tap, the unparalleled spoof of heavy metal created by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. The quartet wrote all of the songs, while the performing trio of Guest, McKean and Shearer produced the album. Every metal band stereotype is woven into the music – crunching chords, thunderous drums, hyperactive solos, flirtations with pedestrian satanism, juvenile preoccupations with sex, quoting riffs from classical music, and a fascination with the mystic wisdom of ancient peoples. The fictitious members of Spinal Tap take it all quite seriously, and therefore even the most ridiculous material is performed absolutely straight.
As with The Rutles, it’s the stellar production of Spinal Tap that elevates the superb writing and performing to another level. Big Bottom, for example, is funny enough on paper. “How can I leave this behind?” can rightfully take its place among the greatest of comic lyrics. Add to that the unabashed zeal of Michael McKean delivering the vocals of David St. Hubbins, and you ratchet up the funny. But listen closely to the guitars, and you realize that the three founding members of Tap are all playing bass.
You don’t have to know much about heavy metal to enjoy Spinal Tap, but there are plenty of rewards for those who do. In addition to mocking metal, Spinal Tap goes the extra mile by creating a backstory for the band that allows for parodies of George Martin string arrangements (Cups and Cakes), the smirking swagger of the Rolling Stones (Gimme Some Money), and trippy flower-power psychedelia (Listen to the Flower People). As the Tap note themselves, there’s a fine line between stupid and clever, and This Is Spinal Tap walks that tightrope beautifully.
While Pat Boone’s In A Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy is also inspired by heavy metal, it scores its satirical points in a completely different manner. I remember slipping the 1997 release into the CD player expecting to hear Boone growling over familiar renderings of metal classics. Instead, I was delighted to discover that the album actually features big-band arrangements accompanied by smooth-as-silk vocals. Like The Rutles and Spinal Tap, In A Metal Mood doesn’t go out of its way to make sure you get the joke. It doesn’t have to, of course. Pat Boone + swing + metal = funny, simple as that.
Much of the album is suitably loud and bombastic, with orchestrated horns blaring out lead guitar riffs. Panama is given a Latin jazz treatment (Boone sanitizes the double-entendre raunch of David Lee Roth by altering his infamous monologue to “Think I’ll just reach down here…ease the seat back.”), and a Black Magic Woman-style groove drives a saucy Smoke on the Water. I challenge anyone to listen to Boone rattling off the lyrics of Paradise City over a fast-walking upright bass line with upbeat piano riffs and not laugh. There are tender moments as well, most notably a ridiculously gentle version of Love Hurts, delivered as straight as Boone himself. It’s a wonderful device, because whereas the very sound of heavy metal often distracts from the inanity of its lyrics, the arrangements and performances on In A Metal Mood emphasize that weakness.
Apparently the album didn’t sit well for many of Boone’s fans, perhaps because they were disappointed to see their favorite vocal stylist promoting the project clad in leather and sporting a studded dog collar. Most likely they did not realize that despite its metal imagery, the songs themselves are, like their singer, about as threatening as a tall glass of white milk. Not only does Pat Boone lampoon heavy metal, he also pokes fun at himself.
Which brings us full circle, because Thrillington may be the ultimate example of self-parody, and it was instigated by a Beatle. Commissioned by Paul McCartney, Thrillington is ostensibly the work of Percy “Thrills” Thrillington. The 1977 release (actually recorded at Abbey Road in 1971) is an instrumental, easy-listening cover of Paul and Linda McCartney’s 1971 Ram in its entirety. This is no small feat, as Ram presents McCartney about as loose and uninhibited as at any point of his career. Songs like Too Many People, 3 Legs, and Smile Away are not obvious fodder for Muzak. Thanks to the creativity of arranger Richard Hewson, however, Thrillington manages suitably milquetoast versions of every moment of Ram. McCartney is credited only as the songwriter, as though P.T. Thrillington were a real artist.
The results are laugh-out-loud funny, from the wailing soprano sax of Ram On to the scatting choral vocals of Dear Boy. Always blasted for being the syrupy romantic softie of the Beatles, McCartney extrapolates that criticism to its silliest extreme through Hewson’s elevator-ready arrangements. In a parodic tour de force, he manages to make fun of himself and his critics while simultaneously celebrating and ridiculing the easy-listening genre.
These four albums are unique, but they all share that special quality that distinguishes labors of love, an attention to subtlety and nuance that is absent from lesser works. Whenever I am out driving from here to there, I am frequently listening to my iPod in its shuffle mode. On those odd occasions when a number from The Rutles, This Is Spinal Tap, In A Metal Mood, or Thrillington comes up, it is sure to put a smile on my commuting face.