[from MadeLoud / December 12, 2008]
In 1975, The Beatles had been dissolved for five years and stood mostly uncontested in the discussion of greatest rock band ever, same for some spirited disagreement by Rolling Stones fans and later contention by Ledheads, Deadheads, and to some extent any fans of pretty much any band that ever existed thereafter.
Academic discussion aside, The Beatles’ position became cemented on an episode of the BBC’s Rutland Weekend Television when four lads in awful suits and mop-tops hit the stage to perform a jangly pop song about being in love, complete with full-out Rickenbacker authority.
Of course, the Brits on stage in 1975 were not The Beatles but The Rutles, a parody band conceived as a send-up of the Fab Four, and eventual progenitors of an entire school of music based solely on aping artists and genres equally out of love and satirical contempt. As other similarly-conceived acts took on everything from heavy metal to gangsta rap, certain patterns began to emerge. On the surface, they may just be silly potshots at famous people, but in reality these so-called novelty acts may be just as insightful (and possibly just as relevant) as the very musicians they’re making fun of.
For example, Jimi Hendrix died the ultimate party’s-over death in 1970 by drowning in his own vomit. Ten years later, both AC/DC frontman Bon Scott and Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham did the same, but by 1984 the film This Is Spinal Tap turned that idea into immortal comedic gold by retelling the tale of fictional drummer Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs who died choking on someone else’s vomit. In one fell swoop, those three legends’ cautionary tales of the perils of rock-n-roll excess suddenly became the absolute funniest thing you can’t dust for, and someone dying young becomes the best joke at the movies. Hendrix, Zeppelin and Bon Scott-era AC/DC sit unquestionably atop the mountain of hard rock heroes, but their respective demises rendered them unable to really ever do anything past their creative heights to taint their legacies. Their status as subtle big-screen fodder means not only that their individual work was important in and of itself, but that their deaths were ultimately just as significant. Those three certainly rocked, but rocking alone means nothing if no one makes such a big deal of the fact that you ever stopped doing it, and few artists have ever been able to sing about their own death without sounding either strangely grim (a la Jeff Buckley) or extremely macabre (a la Kurt Cobain).
Critics of spoof bands often decry the overt lack of innovation required to mimic the real thing, but those critics are missing the point entirely. Spoof bands may write songs in an identical vein to the bands they draw material from, but with the exception of all but maybe four people, no one’s really invented a new songwriting form for centuries anyway. Tenacious D may blatantly cop elements of “Stairway to Heaven,” but the countless lawsuits should have told people a thing or two about exactly how innovative Led Zeppelin really were – including the aforementioned epic, which in turn borrowed quite liberally from the song “Taurus” by folk rockers Spirit, with whom Zeppelin toured in the late 1960s. Honolulu starbright, the equation remains the same, but apparently has more than one solution : borrowing from a wide array of styles and forbearers has been the key to countless bands’ successes, but that concept isn’t always entirely apparent as the band’s catalog is still in progress. Sometimes it takes a joke band to point out someone else’s serious musical diversity.
In other cases, very respected and very legitimate artists turn the tables by spoofing themselves. In late 2004 and early 2005, there was arguably no rapper on a sharper ascent than Atlanta’s Lil’ Jon, who’d made himself one of the great hype men with the infectious “hyyeah!” and “hwhat?” injected into countless tracks of the day. Rick Rubin called him one of the greatest rappers ever, yet Jon’s finest work came on the throwaway track “Get Lower” from the Chris Rock comedy album Never Scared. The best metal album of 2007, Dethklok’s The Dethalbum, was released by a cartoon band whose real-life touring personnel had previously worked with the likes of Steve Vai and Dweezil Zappa. If Rubin knows hip-hop so well, why is a stand-up comic responsible for delivering the best rapper’s best performance? Even more shockingly, if metal is supposed to be taken seriously, why are late-night cartoons setting the agenda? And if it’s supposed to be a joke, why do they need such instrumental heavyweights to pull it off? It’s moves like these that make joke bands just a little less of a joke, although the animated hilarity of Dethklok frontman Nathan Explosion singing about committing crimes underwater may be the single most comedically entertaining moment in heavy metal history, intentional or otherwise. Slayer and Ozzy may touch more lives, but neither will ever match the sheer entertainment value of a pack of murderous mermaids.
And therein lies the true value of novelty, spoof, joke, and comedy bands. Music immortals become accessible and at least a little more understandable once we can laugh with (and at) them; when the audience is forced to accept artistic flaws and idiosyncrasies, art becomes less mythical and more real, and ultimately more human.