'Weird Al' Yankovic: The stories behind the songs
For 35 years, “Weird Al” Yankovic has been music’s most reliable satirist, sending up the biggest pop hits and the most iconic artists for the sake of belly laughs. We caught up with Yankovic to get the stories behind hits both big and small.
“My Bologna” (1979)
“I had sent Dr. Demento a few home made tapes before that, and the Knack in the summer of 1979 was inescapable. I was a college radio DJ and every other request on the phone line was a request for ‘My Sharona.’ I had a stupid idea to make it a song about lunch meat, and I took my accordion across the hall because the bathroom had this acoustically perfect tiled vibe—the old Bathroom Wall Of Sound. I sent it to Dr. Demento in hopes that he would play it, and it became a big hit on the show.
Back in those days, I didn’t ever think that this was going to be released on an album some day, so contacting the original artists was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought, ‘They’re never gonna hear this—why even bother them?’ But it turns out the Knack did hear it, and when I snuck backstage at a Knack concert later that year and talked to Doug Fieger, I introduced myself as the guy that did ‘My Bologna,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I love that song,’ and he turned to his right to a guy who happened to be the vice president of Capitol Records at the time and said, ‘You should put this guy’s song out on Capitol Records.’ And they did! It was pretty crazy.
As you can imagine, as a guy going for his architecture degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, that was pretty heady stuff. When I did ‘My Bologna,’ that was literally recorded in a bathroom across the hall from my college campus radio station, and when I found out that had been number one for two weeks in a row on the Dr. Demento Funny Five, I thought, ‘Well, it’ll never get better than this. I’ve reached my peak.'”
“Another One Rides The Bus” (1981)
“I think the first thing I ever sent to Dr. Demento, which has since been lost for posterity, was an entry into the ‘Pico and Sepulveda’ contest, where he would have fans send in their own versions of the theme song, which was ‘Pico and Sepulveda’ by Felix Figueroa, a song from the ‘40s where basically a guy just lists a bunch of famous streets and intersections in the Los Angeles area. I submitted a version which was horrible and one of the people who was a finalist ended up being my drummer John ‘Bermuda’ Schwartz. In fact, that’s how I met him.
Several years later, in 1980, he was invited to the show and I was invited to the show, and that’s where we met and literally an hour later he was banging on my accordion case and playing ‘Another One Rides The Bus.’ That was the only recorded version, the live sound check of that performance on the show. That became the record, and that was an hour after I met my drummer.
At that time, ‘Another One Rides The Bus’ ended up being the most requested song in the history of the show, and it got bootlegged around the world to the point where we were able to release it on a single and it actually charted. So I thought, ‘This is as big as it’s gonna get.'”
“I Love Rocky Road” (1983)
“Jake Hooker was part of a group called the Arrows, which did the song ‘I Love Rock and Roll,’ which Joan Jett had a hit with in the early ‘80s. Going into my first album, I realized I actually should be getting permission for this stuff, so when we approached the songwriters of ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ to do my parody ‘I Love Rocky Road,’ Jake Hooker said, ‘Well, that sounds like a great idea, and by the way I happen to manage Rick Derringer, and I think Rick would be really interested in being part of this project.’ I met with Rick, and I was a big fan of his, and I was honored and flattered that he wanted to work with me, and he ended up producing my first six albums.”
“Happy Birthday” (1983)
“That was an early pastiche. I do these songs which are basically style parodies. They’re not overt parodies of a particular song, but they’re meant to in an artist’s style. ‘Happy Birthday’ is actually one of two pastiches I had done of Tonio K, who is not obscure but he’s not an artist that a lot of people would immediately recognize. But I’m a huge fan of his, and that song was meant to be in his style. So it’s a very fast and dark and angry and weird. That was one of my early favorites. It showcases a bit of my dark side, I guess. Plus, I felt like we needed another happy birthday song, because the radio would always play the Beatles birthday song and there weren’t many other options. So I thought we needed to saturate the market with more birthday songs.”
“Eat It” (1984)
“It was pretty obvious back then that Michael Jackson was the biggest star in the universe. Everything revolved around him. ‘Eat It’ is not that clever a variation on ‘Beat It.’ It’s probably the most obvious pun. If YouTube had existed in 1984, there would have been a million ‘Eat It’ parodies. I just gravitated toward the most obvious parody, and it seemed to work. This really was a bona fide hit. That was number one in Australia, number 12 in the States.
If it hadn’t been for Michael Jackson, I don’t know that I would have a career to this day, because getting permission from him in 1984 opened a whole lot of doors for me. Prior to that, we were getting a lot of resistance and reluctance from people who were like, ‘I don’t know about this Weird Al guy and if I should let him do a parody.’ But after we were able to tell them, ‘Well, Michael Jackson didn’t seem to have a problem with it,’ they were like, ‘Well, sure! If it’s OK with Michael, it certainly should be OK with me.’ That logic seems to work.
Up until ‘White & Nerdy,’ that was my biggest hit, and it really put me on the map and made me a recognizable figure after the ‘Eat It’ video went into heavy rotation on MTV, to the point where I was continually stopped on the street and pointed at as the ‘Eat It’ guy. I had two videos on prior to ‘Eat It.’ I had the video for ‘Ricky’ and the video for ‘I Love Rocky Road.’ Both of them got rotation, mostly because MTV needed videos.
Those videos weren’t anything terribly special or funny, but MTV had a bit of a problem in that they decided in 1981 to start a 24-hour music video channel, and there weren’t a lot of music videos around.They were kind of going, ‘Gee, I wish somebody would make some videos!’ So anybody who submitted videos to them, they were happy to put them in the pipeline. So I got a lot of early airplay even though I maybe didn’t deserve to back then.”
“Polkas on 45” (1984)
“I had been doing some polka medley stuff in concert prior to that, but In 3D had the first one I recorded. That was ‘Polkas on 45,’ which had a lot of classic rock stuff like Hendrix and the Who and the Beatles. It was really fun. People liked it so much that it became a staple—in fact, on the one or two albums where we haven’t had a polka medley, there has been rioting in the street. People just won’t stand for that. So now I know you have to have a polka medley on every album. We do not want the people to rise up, unless I’m in charge. I grew up playing the accordion, and when you play the accordion every song you play ends up sounding kind of like a polka. That was the running joke when I was a teenager and none of my friends wanted me to join their rock bands because I played the accordion.”
“Buy Me a Condo” (1984)
“People were talking about yuppies a lot, especially in the early ‘80s, and that was really taking over the zeitgeist. So that’s why I wrote songs like ‘Buy Me a Condo.’ I like things that are diametrically opposed, so I thought I’d equate the yuppie culture with a Jamaican vibe. Two things that didn’t seem to quite go together so well. So that was my early reggae song.”
“One More Minute” (1985)
“It was inspired by real life incidents. It certainly wasn’t an accurate description in the song. I had started writing the album shortly after a painful break-up, and I wasn’t feeling funny, I wasn’t in a funny mood, and thought maybe I should take this bitterness and angst and write a funny, bitter love song about it. That wound up being the song.
Once I wrote it, it was a cathartic experience for me, and I was able to write the rest of the album. It has become a cathartic experience for other people now. More than a few people have told me whenever they’re going through a painful break-up, they just crank ‘One More Minute’ and it makes them feel a little better. However, ‘She Never Told Me She Was a Mime’ had no basis in reality. That was just a very random love song. I had never written a song about a mime and had to have it in my oeuvre somewhere.”
“Dog Eat Dog” (1986)
“That came from me working in my last day job. I was working for a radio syndication company called Westwood One. I worked originally in the mail room, and then I worked in the traffic department, where my whole job was to call up radio stations to make sure they played all their Trident spots during the show. It was a little bit, I don’t want to say humiliating, but it was odd for me because at that point I had built up kind of a reputation through the Dr. Demento show, so a lot of these radio stations knew who I was. So they were like, ‘Al Yankovic, the ‘Another One Rides the Bus’ guy? What do you want?’ And I’d be calling to make sure they played all their commercial spots during the show. It was always awkward.
That was my exposure to office life and the banality of it and just how oppressively boring it was. So I mixed that up with a Talking Heads vibe, and that was one of my favorite songs from the album. We did that song on many of the concert tours after that with me wearing the big David Byrne suit.”
“I would say I was friendly with Michael, but I wouldn’t say we were close or anything like that. I had met him maybe two times. I had never gone bowling with him or anything like that. He was always very sweet and supportive. He allowed me to do both ‘Eat It’ and ‘Fat,’ and he allowed me to use his subway set when we shot the ‘Fat’ video.
That video was a lot of effort for the special effects people. It was old-school special effects. This was 1988, and the shot where my face literally expands—these days that would be an easy CGI job. But back then, they had to glue these latex bladders onto my cheeks with tubes running down my back and through my pant legs, and there were two special effects artists literally blowing through tubes by my feet to inflate my face. It worked and it was effective.
In fact, and this isn’t available anywhere as a deleted scene, but on the take that we used, I had them blow up my face until my face literally exploded. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your face explode, but it’s quite a feeling.”
“Smells Like Nirvana” (1992)
“I was a big fan of Nirvana’s and it was one of those acts where I watched their videos on MTV and thought, ‘I would love to do these guys, but they’ll never be popular enough to parody.’ I never thought in a million years they’d be the defining act of the decade. I was thrilled when they hit number one because that meant I could do a Nirvana parody. That was a thrill for me and it’s still one of my favorite songs to do live. That’s the kind of music I love, I loved the whole grunge and indie movement of the ‘90s. I kind of wish we’d go back in that direction.”
“Amish Paradise” (1996)
“That was one of my favorite videos and still is to this day. I got to include most of my relatives in that video playing Amish people. My mom and my dad are in it, and some uncles and aunts. They’re cheaper than extras. Gotta keep the budget down!
Coolio was annoyed in the late ‘90s, and to this day I still don’t know where the miscommunication came from. He contends he never gave permission, my record label contends that he did. But I’ve seen him do interviews where he said he made much too big a deal about it and felt bad about it, and I ran into Coolio a couple of years ago at a trade show and we hugged it out. Everything’s fine now.
It’s unfortunate because it’s the one piece of drama in my whole career, and they made such a big deal about it in my Behind the Music special a couple of years ago because there’s not a whole lot else to talk about. There’s not a lot of conflict in my life. I think I was a disappointment for them, because they had this arc where 35 minutes in that had this thing where they went ‘And then things went horribly wrong.’ That just never happened. So we made a joke about it—I think my joke in the thing was my fourth album didn’t sell as well as my third album, so I had to buy the medium sized Jacuzzi.”
“When I did ‘Albuquerque,’ it was this sprawling, 11-minute song, and I thought people would only maybe listen to it once, so I put it at the end to give them a break. And it turns out that’s a huge fan favorite—a lot of people say that’s their favorite song. So I guess you never know what people are going to respond to.”
“The Saga Begins” (1999)
“Stand-up comic Brian Posehn has a whole bit in his act where he talks about playing my stuff for his kids, and he won’t play them Michael Jackson. So years later they’ll be in college and hear Michael Jackson and think, ‘This guy’s totally ripping off Weird Al!’
A lot of people who aren’t maybe that tapped into pop culture, they learn about pop music from my albums in a reverse way. My albums are sort of like time capsules of all the biggest hits from the last couple of years. So people will learn about pop music through my songs. I did my Star Wars song ‘The Saga Begins’ in 1999, which was a parody of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie.’ Most kids of the Radio Disney age aren’t familiar with a hit from 1971. They just think, ‘Oh, Al’s got this song about Star Wars.’
What happened was the next year after my song came out, Madonna did like a disco cover version of ‘American Pie,’ and all these kids were going, ‘How come Madonna is doing an unfunny version of a Weird Al song? That’s bizarre!'”
“Genius In France” (2003)
“I put that at the end of an album because it’s a long song, but that was a real labor of love. That was obviously meant to sound like Frank Zappa. That was quite a challenge. I don’t like easy challenges. To do a pastiche of Zappa is quite an undertaking, and it’s meant to sound mostly like early to mid ‘70s Zappa. I listened to his catalog and made notes about his idiosyncrasies and his musical stylings and I tried to put on a skin and tried to do a song in his style, which is very difficult to achieve.
I think having [his son] Dweezil Zappa play the opening guitar lick adds a little more authenticity to it, but we gave it our best shot, and that’s one of the songs I’m most proud of. I think we recorded it in 17 separate sections and then spliced them all together. If you add up all the time I spent on that one song, it’s probably two or three months out of my life. Zappa is one of my all-time heroes, so there was this extra pressure. You don’t want to mess up. You want to do justice to the song. I was definitely feeling the pressure.
My Mt. Rushmore of inspirations would probably be Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer and Allan Sherman, but Zappa is way up there too. I heard the Apostrophe album when it came out in the early ‘70s, and that was a huge inspiration to me.”
“Trapped In the Drive Thru” (2006)
“It’s tough sometimes to parody something that’s already way out there. ‘Trapped in the Closet’ was one example of ‘Where do I go with this?’ It was already so far out in left field that a parody seems redundant. So in that case, I made it as banal as possible. I took this wild story and made it about a couple trying to figure out where to go to dinner and ended up at the drive thru. It was this highly dramatic 10 minute song basically about nothing.
I haven’t gotten any direct feedback from R. Kelly, but I know that he obviously approved it. In fact, he was nice enough to lower his rate on it so I could add another song to my album. I found out that because the parody was so long, he was entitled to an additional payment. But he was nice enough to wave that so I could include another song on my album. So he was very nice to me and very supportive.”
“Skipper Dan” (2009)
“It’s a very bittersweet song. The skippers at Disneyland seem to really like it, and the people in the acting profession, especially those who are struggling, don’t seem to like it so much. It really brings them down.
It was based on a real life experience.I went with my family to Disneyland and we went on the Jungle Cruise, and the skipper just made some offhand comment about his failed acting career, and a lightbulb just went off and I thought, ‘There’s a whole song there.’ I don’t think the skipper’s name was actually Dan, but it just seemed to work.”