Dr. Demento, comedic song hero and unsung punk rock legend, gets his due on new album
As the zany-but-brainy on-air alter ego of music historian Barret Hansen, veteran radio show host Dr. Demento has championed the career of “Weird Al” Yankovic, the wacky music of humorists Spike Jones, Allen Sherman, Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer, and obscure recordings that push the limits of propriety.
Less known is that he also was an early advocate of punk rock. No surprise, considering this is a man with a distinctive raspy and squeaky voice who continues to greet listeners as “Dementoids and Dementites.”
The punk connection takes center stage with “Dr. Demento Covered in Punk,” an exceedingly ambitious and densely packed double album — triple in the vinyl edition — being released Jan. 12.
The album comprises 64 tracks spread over a pair of CDs, pulling together new recordings of “mad music and crazy comedy” songs long associated with the quirky radio emcee. Participants include Yankovic, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, William Shatner, Adam West, the Vandals, Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, the Misfits, Japan’s Shonen Knife, Los Straitjackets, Missing Persons, the Dead Milkmen and at least a dozen more.
“I was always a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, and some of the early punk music of the ‘60s with groups like the Music Machine,” Hansen, 76, said in the cozy living room of his home in Lakewood, where he also records his shows that now reach listeners through subscriptions by way of his official website.
“So when the new punk rock showed up around 1976 and 1977, I played a few samples on my show,” he said. Hansen graduated as a classical music major from Reed College in Portland, Ore., and subsequently earned his master’s degree in folk music studies from UCLA.
“I got the Ramones’ first album and played several of those songs, including ‘Beat on the Brat,’ the song Weird Al did for this album,” said Hansen, who has been inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, the Comedy Hall of Fame and the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
And the response from his listeners to first-wave punk rock?
“There was a little bit of ‘What the … is that?’” he said. “But mostly people took it in stride. They were used to hearing me drop in odd things that might have been unexpected. In fact, I’m sure that was part of the appeal of the show for many people. My audience was quite young in those days — lots of high school kids. That’s how the show became popular: Monday morning conversations about songs I’d played the night before, some of which were scandalous for various reasons.”
As it turns out, many of those groups were already, or soon-to-be, fans of Demento’s twisted sense of humor.
“We are children of the Demento legacy,” said Joe Escalante, bassist of long-running Southland punk band the Vandals, which contributes its version of Lehrer’s sardonic “National Brotherhood Week.” “We are hugely grateful to him.”
The new recordings were made at the behest of John Cafiero, a musician and producer who has worked with the Misfits, the Ramones and fronts the pop-punk band Osaka Popstar. For his band’s track, Cafiero chose to update the goofy “Pico and Sepulveda” song recorded in 1947 by Felix Figueroa and his Orchestra, and which Hansen adopted as his show’s theme song.
“I can’t say how old I was — probably 6 or 7 — when a friend of mine who lived downstairs, played me the original version of Benny Bell’s ‘Shaving Cream,’ which he had taped off of Dr. Demento’s show. That was mind-blowing for me.
“His show was hard to follow for me because I was on the East Coast, and it was always changing stations,” he said. “I came to think of it as this elusive UFO that would appear and then disappear, but I was religiously following it as much as I could.”
Cafiero’s goal with the album is “to introduce a new generation of listeners to Dr. Demento, those who maybe have never heard his show, so they can experience some of the same thrill and sense of discovery I got from it.”
About four years ago he came up with the idea of creating a tribute album with new versions of many of the songs Demento played over the decades, highlighting the anti-authority spirit they shared with the punk community.
Besides shepherding new versions of vintage songs, Cafiero also talked Hansen into providing intros and outros as he’s long done on the radio — including historical tidbits such as the revelation that the Muppets’ catchy “Ma Na Ma Na” song, covered on the album by the Kipper Kids, originated in the soundtrack for a soft-core porn film in the early 1970s.
“From the beginning I envisioned it as a full-length tribute album to Dr. Demento, structured like one of his radio shows,” Cafiero said. “I didn’t plan on it being a double album, but the more I got into it, the more I got into the groove.”
Actually, those who listened to Demento in the ‘70s and ‘80s probably remember the days when he commanded a full four hours each Sunday night.
When his show began being syndicated nationally in 1974, the time slot was scaled down to half that, and his weekly top 10 list of most-requested songs slimmed down to a Funny Five. These days he’s back to creating a new 10 each month for his Internet audience.
Among the coups Cafiero scored for “Dr. Demento Covered in Punk” are tracks from the stars of two of the biggest cult-classic TV series of the 1960s: “Star Trek’s” Shatner, who recorded the song “Garbageman” and “Batman’s” West, heard in one of his final performances before his death in June at 88. He sings “The Thing,” a vaguely suggestive song recorded in 1950 by Phil Harris.
“It was an absolute honor to work with both of them,” Cafiero said. “Both did amazing jobs with their performances. They’re both great actors with incredible senses of humor.”
The biggest success story out of Hansen’s nearly 50 years on the air — his first radio gig using the Dr. Demento persona came in 1970 at Pasadena-based underground station KPPC-FM (106.7) — was no doubt “Weird Al” Yankovic. His appearance here with “Beat on the Brat” is his first studio recording that’s not a parody nor one of his original songs.
Operating these days in the realm of internet radio, Hansen recognizes the advantages and disadvantages over his many years in broadcast radio.
“People have to subscribe now and pay for it, which means they can’t just tune in for free like they used to,” he said. “On the plus side, there are no commercials. And people can listen to it anywhere in the world.”
He also no longer has to think twice if he wants to cue up Monty Python’s “Sit on My Face,” Ruth Wallis’ “The Dinghy Song” or any of the more suggestive tunes from his collection of more than 100,000 LPs, 45s, 78s, CDs, reel and cassette tapes — songs that often made his broadcast world bosses nervous.
“I don’t have to answer to the FCC,” he said with a smile. “There’s a lot more freedom.”
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