Everyone has a Weird Al memory — whether it was hearing a song of his while you were growing up, watching a video on MTV, or just a general knowledge of his persona, Weird Al Yankovic is undoubtedly an icon. But if you start comparing memories, one man has more than anyone…besides maybe Al himself. It’s Jon Schwartz, the musician’s longtime drummer and photographer, who performed both duties for him for decades.
Schwartz is about to release Black & White & Weird All Over, a 208-page, hardcover coffee table book filled with never before seen photos of Weird Al’s rise to fame, from 1983 through 1986. That includes music video shoots for songs like “I Love Rocky Road” and “Eat It,” as well as glimpses into the recording studio on the album The Polka Party.
None of which are sci-fi. But we at Gizmodo figured there might be some crossover between sci-fi fans and Weird Al fans so we did a little Q&A with Schwartz over email about Al’s sci-fi roots. Check it out.
Germain Lussier, Gizmodo: Al is kind of a nerd god. Did you know he had that in him immediately, and what are some ways his geekiness has manifested itself over the course of your friendship?
Jon Schwartz: I think most fans of the Dr. Demento Show, Monty Python, and The Three Stooges possess a high nerd factor. That described both of us and is undoubtedly why we get along so well. It helps that we’re still young at heart which also keeps things fun, even after 40 years. Things never get too serious.
Gizmodo: We’re running a few photos from your book of Al in the creepy eyes from the “Eat It” video shoot. What’s the story there?
Schwartz: Those were a nod to Michael Jackson’s demon eyes in the “Thriller” video, made with a little Hollywood magic. They’re ping pong balls sliced and painted yellow with a black cat’s eye pupil, “cemented” over Al’s eyes and touched-up with make-up for a seamless look. Except there weren’t holes for him to see through! Al was led by the hand to the set for the final shot where he looks up into the camera.
Gizmodo: What is the first specifically sci-fi memory you have of Al? Is it a song, you two watching a movie, a specific discussion?
Schwartz: Al had just recorded “Yoda” shortly before I met him, so I figured he was keen on sci-fi. It wasn’t a prominent theme in his music, but there were several songs that revealed that side of him including “Slime Creatures From Outer Space,” “Attack of the Radioactive Hamsters From a Planet Near Mars,” “I Think I’m a Clone Now,” right through the most recent album’s conspiracy tinged “Foil.” You also see a bit of it in the videos, in “Dare To Be Stupid” Al is operating an interocitor.
Gizmodo: Two of the most iconic Weird Al sci-fi songs are both Star Wars related: “Yoda” and “The Saga Begins.” Using those two songs, how do you think he changed, how did the music change, and do you have any specific memories or stories about those songs?
Schwartz: There’s a 20-year gap between those songs, with each being a parody of an older song. That speaks well of the original songs, Star Wars, and Al’s ability to tie them all together and make them relevant. And they’ve remained relevant — both “Yoda” and “Saga” are fan favourites after 40 and 21 years respectively. Al manages to keep them as fresh as when they were new. In that respect, he hasn’t really changed much. He still appeals to younger, nerdy fans, and at the same time has kept a large percentage of fans from 30-plus years ago. The age range is quite wide at a Weird Al show, from six to 60 and up. The older fans even bring their kids and grandkids.
“Yoda” has been performed at just about every show Al has done since recording it in 1980. That was an accordion-only version, and fans of the Dr. Demento show enjoyed that until a full-band version was released on the Dare To Be Stupid album in 1985. What most fans don’t know is that we had also recorded the song for the first album, but permission didn’t come through as planned, and the track was scrapped before Al could overdub his vocals. None of us have a copy and the tapes are buried deep in Sony’s vault, making it the rarest recording of all.
“Saga” was among the first recordings made in a new studio after leaving our long-time home at Santa Monica Sound Recorders. Al had a very good idea of the plot of The Phantom Menace in advance of the movie’s release (thanks to internet leaks!) and had pretty much written the whole song without having seen the film. But in order be 100% accurate, he waited until he could attend an advance screening, and we recorded the song a few days later. The “Saga” single and Running With Scissors album were released about a month after the movie was released, so the timing was just right.
The original “American Pie” was over eight and a half minutes, but in order to be more radio-friendly for the ‘90s, Al removed some verses and choruses to bring in his parody at five and a half minutes. “Saga” is also a concert highlight thanks to the appearance onstage of members from local 501st Legion chapters. That began in 2003 at the Western Washington Fair near Seattle, and by 2007 had become a regular part of the live show. The members are usually huge Al fans, and love being part of the show!
Gizmodo: Take me through what you know of the Weird Al process. How does he hear a song and figure out, “Oh this is gonna be a Star Wars parody” or “Oh this is gonna be a food parody.” Or does he have the parody idea first and then fit it to the song?
Schwartz: Like a lot of kids, or adults who are kids at heart, Al would hear a lyric and think of a different, silly line that fits. “Whole Lotta Love” easily became “Whole Lotta Lunch,” “Beat It” became “Eat It” and so on. In fact, food was a common theme for several of his early parodies. The same lyric twists applied to elements of pop culture, and Star Wars’ Yoda character immediately brought the Kinks’ “Lola” to mind for a parody.
Of course, it helped if the target song was well-known so that the listener could appreciate why Al’s new lyrics are funny. If a song was over-played and people were kind of sick of it, that also made it ripe for parody. It was a bonus if the target song’s video had potential for parody, although Al sometimes took his video in a completely different direction. For example, “Ricky” was about as far from Toni Basil’s “Mickey” as you could get. Once Al had a full song’s worth of lyrics, then it was time to seek permission from the original song’s writers. If Al got the go-ahead, the band was then expected to re-create the music as closely as possible, and that could be challenging. It took a keen ear and an open mind to explore new sounds and styles, and I’m proud to say we never let Al down.
In the event that Al only had a few basic lyrics, the partial parody was often relegated to a medley as a “concert-only” song. In some cases where the parody was complete but permission was denied, such as “Snack All Night” and “Chicken Pot Pie,” a portion of the song might also end up in the medley. There’s a list of all concert songs in the weirdal.com Archives section.
Gizmodo: Finally, what are your top five Weird Al genre songs (sci-fi, horror, etc), and why?
Schwartz: Sci-fi: “Slime Creatures From Outer Space” is an Al original that sounds a bit like Thomas Dolby’s “Hyperactive.” It’s uptempo, has some space-age synth sounds, I got to use my new Simmons electronic drums on the track, and there’s even a drum solo — what’s not to like? Special mention for “Attack of the Radioactive Hamsters From a Planet Near Mars,” a fun e-z rocker with spacey sounds, and also Al’s longest song title.
Horror: “Nature Trail To Hell In 3-D” is a rockin’ song with Cub Scouts getting hacked up, severed heads, you know, the usual fare. Lots of fun to play live. Special mention for “Jurassic Park” where I got to play the parts of one of my favourite drummers, Hal Blaine, who played on the original “MacArthur Park.” I was acquainted with Hal, and when I played him our song, he got kinda weepy. I hope it was because I did a good job!
Catastrophes: Is that even a genre? With Al it is! “Christmas At Ground Zero” is a cheerful ditty about the end of the world, incongruously set to a classic Phil Spector Christmas song vibe. I again got to “be” Hal Blaine on that one and also played sleigh bells (or as I call them, SLAY bells!).
Dance: “Word Crimes” has some of Al’s best lyrics, a great animated video, and is also fun to play live. It’s a fun lesson spawned from the grammatical errors so prevalent on the ‘net, and I learned a few things as well. Many fans regard it as the lead track from the Mandatory Fun album, and I would have to agree.
Rap: “Couch Potato” is a parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and based on one of Al’s recurring themes, pop culture. In this case, it’s about being a couch potato in front of the TV, and the lyrics include a plethora of TV shows, channels, and celebrity names. There was no video for this one, Eminem OK’d the recording but wouldn’t grant the sync rights needed for the video. But that didn’t keep the album out of Billboard’s top 10, which is testimony to the strength of the song alone.
Black & White & Weird All Over is out on November 17. Order a copy at this link.