Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Mozart of Mayhem: Spike Jones and His City Slickers

While re-watching The Marx Brothers in Monkey Business (1931) last week on TCM, I was trying to think of who might possibly be their musical equivalent. (Of course, The Marx Brothers had their own fair share of musical absurdity in their comedies.) Ultimately, I didn’t have to look too much farther than Spike Jones and His City Slickers. From the early forties to the mid-fifties, Spike Jones and his group tore into the pomposity of high culture with a savage intent. Jones implemented a storehouse of rude sounds that made composer Erik Satie’s experiments in Parade (1916) seem polite.

Jones turned musical history into a broadly satirical farce. He made a mockery of honoured classics like Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which he recast as a ridiculously hysterical horse race. The unbearably dippy standard “Love in Bloom” was torn to shreds in much the same manner that The Marx Brothers laid waste to Il Travatore in A Night at the Opera (1935). Johann Strauss’ delicate Blue Danube waltz was transformed into a drunken brawl (in contrast to the lame reverence shown by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey). In their assault on Bizet’s Carmen, the group’s “messy-soprano” Eileen Gallagher is heard frightening off three bulls with the mere shriek of her opening aria. Michael “Cub” Coda, of The Brownsville Station (who once sang about "Smoking in the Boy's Room"), remembers his father seeing Spike Jones at the Michigan Theatre in Detroit back in 1945. “They were crazy,” he recalled his dad telling him. “The stage went black and all these sirens and gunshots started going off. Then the stage lit up and it was Spike Jones and His City Slickers…They had a guy playing a toilet seat with strings on it, people onstage wearing wigs and crazy outfits – oh geez, they were nuts.” This nutty group spent their career blowing raspberries at High Art. And they did it with an all-American gusto.

Spike Jones & His City Slickers
Hailing from Long Beach, California, Jones first put together a college dance band that he patterned after Red Nichols’ Five Pennies. But performing standards bored him to pieces. When he met the multi-talented Del Porter, who played xylophone, violin, sax, and clarinet, and had hung out with the great impressionist Mel Blanc, Jones saw the possibility for integrating a little mayhem into the mix. They began as the Feather Merchants, but by the end of the thirties, they became Spike Jones and His City Slickers and their distinct lunacy caught the attention of RCA Records. By this time, the group included violinist Carl Greyson, whose tenor vocal style displayed a twisted grin in songs like “Cocktails For Two”; Red Ingle, who mutilated the sentimental weepie “Chloe,” turning it into a beautiful act of desperate desecration; Winstead “Doodles” Weaver, a former comedian who created the droll voice of the race-track announcer on the William Tell Overture; Freddie Morgan, a goofy-faced, mad banjo player; “Babyface” George David Rock, a trumpet player with the sweet kid voice in “All I Want For Christmas”; and Dr. Horatio Q. Birdbath (a.k.a. Purves Pullen) who contributed mightily to the massacre of “Love in Bloom.” Sir Frederick Gas (a.k.a. Earl Bennett) provided ample demonstrations of his peculiar emissions on songs like “Happy New Year” and “Knock Knock.” The City Slickers dressed like inebriated renegades out of a Preston Sturges comedy, with loud clothes and goofy hats. Their stage presence was a dada explosion from Dogpatch.

Spike Jones, a hayseed Harry Partch, unleashed a vast assortment of homemade musical weapons on the public, including the latrinophone – a toilet seat strung with catgut – as well as bathroom plungers and bicycle horns. These appliances put across a multitude of rude noises. Their brand of musical nonsense would continue until about the time Elvis entered the building. While the King stole all the pop thunder at RCA, the City Slickers slid into oblivion. They parted company with Jones and signed with Liberty Records in 1959 where they became resigned to doing straight-forward standards. Spike Jones would die from emphysema in 1965 at the age of 53.

For one brief period in American pop music, though, Spike Jones and His City Slickers created a legacy of disrepute that, like The Marx Brothers, was genuinely American in spirit. Their shared mission was to make outrageous noises in the church of good taste.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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