I struggled with what to call the exact genre of music I am listing here. “Novelty” song usually denotes something purposely made for humorous and/or parody purposes: for example, “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Ha” by Napoleon XIV, or Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.”
But what about unintentionally funny/weird/WTF songs? For example, the great William Shatner’s cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (which, if you’ve seen his performance of said cover, you just know he initially took deadly seriously).
Do songs from a subgenre the public-at-large aren’t that familiar with really qualify as “novelties?” And/or songs from countries where English is not the primary language? Is PSY’s “Gangham Style” truly a novelty song? Or Las Ketchup’s “Asereje” (a.k.a. “The Ketchup Song”)?
Finally: it should be noted that in the 1990s, there were many bands whose entire oeuvre sounds like novelty songs. I number among them Cake, Butthole Surfers, The Rentals, The Presidents of the United States of America, and Bloodhound Gang.
In short, is a true novelty song a matter of purposeful intent to be unusual or funny? Like Weird Al? Or is the term itself kind of meaningless and reductive at this point anyhow? I’m not sure, but I just gotta get this list done so I’m going to wing it.
Here’s my 10 Most Favorite Novelty Songs Of All Time!
10. “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen (1963)
This song really slaps (hello, fellow kids) and would have made it higher on the list if not for the fact that it’s pretty pop-culturally ubiquitous at this point. The smash hit was the melding of two earlier songs by the Rivingtons, “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” & “The Bird Is The Word,” with the Trashmen just sort of…borrowing (?!) them. The rest is pop music history, with the song-writing credits being reverted to the Rivingtons after they finally threatened to sue. Fun fact: the video clip above is the one most associated with “Surfin’ Bird,” but the wacky dancer is actually a Dutch comedian following along with the song.
9. “Common People” by William Shatner (2004)
No, the Shat’s “Rocket Man” didn’t make my personal list but this remake of the Pulp song did. The lyrics are just perfect for Shatner’s laid-back-but-dramatic read, and the whole Has Been album, produced/arranged by Ben Folds, is entertaining. While “Rocket Man”–and indeed, Shatner’s entire 1968 debut recording The Transformed Man–might be seen as a sort of a joke, songs like “Common People” are genius redemptions of the noted actor’s style.
8. “Shaving Cream” by Benny Bell/Paul Wynn (1946/1975)
Oh my GOD I love listening to this song! Originally written by Benny Bell in 1946 & recorded by Paul Wynn, the premise of this ditty is to continually lead the listener into believing the singer is about to say the word “shit”–then replacing the expletive with “shaving cream” at the very last minute. The song had a resurgence of popularity in the early1970s, when it was played on the “Casey Kasem’s American Top 40” of novelty songs, the Dr. Demento Show. Much like “Surfin’ Bird,” there was a bit of confusion over who originally recorded “Shaving Cream,” with songwriter Bell being credited (as well as getting his own album) until Vanguard Records officially listing Wynn as the actual singer in 1975.
7. “Mope” by Bloodhound Gang (1999)
Pac-Man is high on crack in this one.
6. “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” by Tiny Tim (1979)
As with Shatner’s “Rocket Man,” I tie this unusual rendering of a classic song to the artist’s TV performance; in this case, Tiny Tim’s 1979 appearance on “The Tonight Show.” While the late-night program was in many ways instrumental in starting Tiny’s career, by the end of the 1970’s he was feeling burned out. Somewhat overweight, confused, and wearing a tailor-made suit with Golden Age DC Comics covers on it, he ends the song stripping & collapsing on the floor. But still: so enjoyable & catchy. If it’s possible to marry and carry the children of a grainy YouTube clip, I would do so here. As for the more well-known of his tunes, here’s a case where an artist’s entire body of work could be classified as “novelty songs”…so are they really?
5. “Captain Lou’s History Of Music/Captain Lou” by NRBQ/Captain Lou Albano
1985’s The Wrestling Album is, in my opinion, truly a novelty album. Released by the then-WWF (World Wrestling Federation), it was filled with an intriguing mix of cover tunes & originals sung (at least partially) by pro wrestlers. “Land Of A Thousand Dances,” recorded by most of the WWF roster, was the big hit here, but I’m going to go with the slightly more obscure “Captain Lou’s History Of Music” for this list. The genesis of this song was NRBQ’s “Captain Lou” (1983), with wrestling (and NRBQ) manager Lou Albano doing a manic cameo that degenerates into nonsensical intonations by the end. I always connect the Wrestling Album version with an unofficial animutation fan video by Neil Cicierega, “Captain Lou’s Steady Descent Into Madness”; hence why I placed that version at the top of this entry.
Here’s the NRBQ original:
4. “Hurt Feelings,” by Flight Of The Conchords (2009)
Of course…isn’t every song by this New Zealand musical comedy duo a novelty? Perhaps the best ones, at least for me, sort of stand on their own right. “Hurt Feelings,” a parody of a rap song, was the first single released from the Conchords’ 2009 album I Told You I Was Freaky; it was also featured on the “Tough Brets” episode of their eponymous HBO series. It’s basically a list of all the times the two have had their feelings hurt, and who hasn’t been there? Please note the slow, Magnolia-style reprise version of the song later in the episode, sung as a montage by the whole cast.
3. “I Lost On Jeopardy,” by Weird Al Yankovic (1984)
It’s a pretty intimidating task to only choose one Weird Al song for this list. After all, the first music single I ever purchased for myself was “Eat It.” But “I Lost On Jeopardy,” beyond having a very memorable music video, was also notable in the sense that as a little kid I honestly believed it was the real song, rather than “Jeopardy” by the Greg Kihn Band. Bonus: Kihn appears at the end of the Weird Al video, referencing his own original music video. And of course, Dr. Demento also cameos, sort of the king of the Novelty Songs giving Al his official blessing.
2. “Detachable Penis,” by King Missile (1992)
Oh, where to begin with this song? It hit me just at the right time, in the early 1990s as I was hanging out at many of the exact locales of the avant-garde band King Missile’s music video. St. Mark’s, the Kiev restaurant, Love Saves The Day–I hung out at all those places! Cool! I even recognized the peeps selling their items on a blanket in the street. I wasn’t so sure, however, what “detachable penis” really meant; though over time I have.
1 . “Frontier Psychiatrist” by The Avalanches (2000)
Is this song by the Australian electronic band The Avalanches too relatively “new” to deserve such a hallowed place as #1 on this list? Well, too bad! Made mostly of samples from such diverse sources as the John Waters movie Polyester, Lawrence of Arabia, an Enoch Light composition from the Sixties, and a Wayne & Shuster comedy sketch, it’s admittedly the music video that cements it for me as an absolute treasure. It’s the only video I’ve ever seen that ingeniously works in visuals for every single sample in the song. More than a novelty song, “Frontier Psychiatrist” is just one of my favorite tunes period…
…and, when you think of it, can’t we say that about all the songs on this list?