To me a ‘novelty’ is something with immediately identifiable charms but lacking in genuine quality and long term appeal.
When I think of novelty value my mind goes straight to such ‘classics’ as ‘Who let the dogs out?’, ‘The Macarena’, ummm how about everything the awful Good Charlotte ever excreted, and a million other songs that were momentarily notable but vanished a week later.
A truly successful novelty song requires an awful lot of luck. It’s certain that there have been dozens of songs similar (and likely better than) Gangnam Style released in recent years, for some reason it was the song with the guy in the toilet imploring you to dance like a horse that took off.
Well done Psy, you’re a millionaire now. And a trivia question in about 6 months time.
Remember maybe a decade ago a song that arrived from nowhere and ruled the airwaves for a month or so called ‘I don’t want you back’? Me neither. And it somehow inspired a female response song that was almost as successful.
The point is though, that not all novelty stuff need be mindless crap created by idiots lucky enough to have one idea that somehow arrived at the right time to connect with the public.
Some of it can be good, here are a half dozen examples of songs that were initially crafted around a gimmick or a single hook, but have not only stood the test of time, but also emerged as solid songs in their own right.
The Blues Brothers were born from a Saturday Night Live skit, which like many other SNL skits was fleshed out and expanded into a feature length film. Unlike all other SNL films, The Blues Brothers ended as something truly special.
Jake and Elwood Blues were the frontmen for an R&B band that covered some of the great blues songs in history. And because the backing band was chock full of genuinely talented and charismatic musicians, and the songs were selected judiciously, the musical results were as good as the film.
But none of this would’ve happened if the singers were awful, which is where the late John Belushi steps in. His Jake Blues is a born showman with a perfectly suited voice for the material.
With brother Elwood jumping around like a goose by his side and occasionally filling in with some nifty harmonica, Jake makes songs like Sweet Home Chicago and She caught the Katy memorable in their own right.
Of course it helps having such luminaries as John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway and Aretha Franklin filling in the gaps, and the soundtrack sold millions.
A duo of fat middle aged white guys who bicker constantly and have a desire for rockin that far outweighs their rockin ability. Tenacious D are also named after an obscure phrase coined by NBA commentator Marv Albert. Maybe a recipe for laughs, but hardly for musical immortality.
But with the rotund and ebullient Jack Black’s charisma behind the microphone and an all star cast of backing musicians behind the scenes (Dave Grohl among them), Black and co-founder Kyle Gass put together an album that is both hilarious and chock full of hard rock goodness.
While songs like F her Gently, Tribute and Karate bring the funny, mock-rockers like The Road, Lee, Rock your Socks and Kielbasa are good enough tunes to find their way to the iPod on musical credibility alone.
The D are far more a comedy act than a real band, though they have toured globally as a musical act, and their last two albums have been decidedly mediocre, but I can happily put on their debut and enjoy the bulk of it non-ironically. And I often do.
This album is a real shame. A shame because it is practically unheard of despite being full of really good songs.
A so called ‘supergroup’ put together by a man with more aliases than Fletch, most notably Dan the Automator, as whom he produced a bunch of good tunes including those by De La Soul and the Gorillaz. Lovage is a jokey concept album with a bunch of skits, some tongue in cheek instrumentals and musical pastiches of samples and pieced together dialogue. But all these are mere filler.
The strength of Lovage are the half dozen or so genuine songs with Mike Patton and Jennifer Charles sharing vocal duties, where the subject matter is uniformly adult in nature without veering too far into smutty territory. Many of these songs are especially worthwhile, To catch a thief, Book of the month and Stroker Ace in particular all firmly entrenched in my iPod and never skipped regardless of the setting.
The problem with a novelty album centred around tunes for the bedoir, is how one might market it. No-one seemed to find a way beyond the cheesy cd cover above, so hardly anyone ever even found out about these cracking tracks.
Flight of the Conchords
I miss them too. Jemaine and Bret (‘Brit’) only graced the small screen for a couple series, which impels me to look at the skinny DVD set and feel sad about what might have been.
Each episode ran around 25 minutes and contained two short musical numbers, some part of the plot, some clumsily shoehorned in.
But during that all too brief run New Zealand’s third most successful folk parody duo managed to come up with some classics.
Ladies of the World and Business Time work on many levels, while Mother’uckas and Too many dicks (on the dance floor) are a little more straightforward.
Perhaps their greatest achievement though is making parody rap music that doesn’t make you cringe, something no amount of skits from a million other shows have managed over the years.
The Muppets are everyone’s favourite talking socks. Now since Jason Segal’s 2011 reboot, we can be assured that another generation can grow up safe in the knowledge that a diva pig, a bad stand up comedian bear, and a ‘whatever’ can be lead about by a spindly legged frog.
The often overlooked strength if the Muppets is just how great some of their songs actually are. The reason Rainbow Connection still brings a misty sensation to the eye after a quarter century is because its a damn good song. It helps that Jim Henson was also a damn good singer, even in frog form.
And everyone knows ma-na-ma-na is because it is simple, catchy and far more memorable than so many other crappy tunes. Admit it, you’re humming it in your head right now.
More recently, ‘Life’s a happy song’ from the 2011 movie is insanely catchy, which may have a lot to do with the fact that Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie wrote it.
Matt Stone & Trey Parker
America FUCK YEAH!
Freedom isn’t Free!
All tracks from Team America: World Police, sung in gloriously over the top faux macho, and all songs better than half of the trumped up faux macho that passes for popular music these days.
Not cracking it? How about Uncle Fucker, mmmmmkay, or Kyle’s Mom is a big fat Bitch from the South Park film? All show-tuney instead of rocky, but all catchy as hell nonetheless.
Say what you want about the peurile language, the casual obscenity and the controversial plot lines, no-one can argue that these boys can’t pen a great melody and clever lyrics.
I especially like the throwaway lines that often pop up a second or two after the song proper has completed…
wait for it…
(Suck my balls.)
And there you have it, half a dozen artists and/or sources better known for everything but the music, but featuring several tracks that are better than you think.
Even if the tv shows, movies and comedy acts don’t ring your bell, the music is well worth checking out. I can listen to the Lovage album and enjoy it from first track to last as a musical work, ditto (the hilarious) Business Time or Tenacious D’s The Road. And what would The Blues Brothers movie really be without the music?
People are quick to judge and pigeon hole. I should know, I have one of the fastest judgement trigger fingers going around, but good music is good music, regardless of where it comes from.
By the way, I don’t know if Dee-Lite’s ‘Groove is in the Heart’ is a novelty song in the purest sense, but it is a brilliantly catchy song. But I’ll get to that elsewhere at another time. As well as a lot of other things…