Nearly 40 years ago “Weird Al” Yankovic began building his fan base the old-fashioned way: radio.
Yankovic would send tapes to disc jockey and comedy song expert Dr. Demento, who gave air time to Yankovic’s early parodies of the Knack’s then-chart-topping new wave hit “My Sharona” (recast as “My Bologna”) and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” (as “Another One Rides the Bus”).
Times have changed.
On-demand services have arguably supplanted radio, and Dr. Demento, whose real name is Barret Hansen, jokes that the reaction today to Yankovic is a little different than it was back in the day.
“Now, the response is ‘My God, is he still around?’”
Not only is Yankovic still going strong — his most recent album, 2014’s “Mandatory Fun,” debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. pop chart — but he’s out to experiment. As the music industry transitions from album sales to streaming, Yankovic, now free of his record deal, is questioning what it means to be a veteran independent artist in 2017.
“My record contract is over, and I’m not anticipating signing a new one,” he said.
He’s at work on a major career retrospective, one that will be released under a crowd-sourcing-like model, and he says he envisions the future Yankovic to become a primarily singles-based artist.
“I’m not saying the album is a dying format or that it’s not a valid medium,” he said. “But for me it always held me back a little bit. I know that sounds a little ironic after coming off a No. 1 album. But I have to stay true to what I think is the best way for me to get my material out.”
Chief among his concerns: the shelf life for a comedy song in the age of YouTube.
“It’s been frustrating in the past to have an idea for a song, then to write it and record it, and then have it sit in the can for a year until I have 12 songs to release all at once,” he said. “In today’s culture, where people have a short attention span and there are 10 million people on YouTube doing song parodies and funny material, things age pretty badly, and very quickly.
“For me to be competitive at all,” he continued, “I think it behooves me to think more of myself as a singles artist going forward.”
First, though, Yankovic, who lives comfortably with his wife — photographer Suzanne Yankovic — and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, in the Hollywood Hills, is hard at work again, this time helping Sony Legacy compile a career-spanning box set, titled — what else? — “Squeeze Box.”
It will be housed in a replica of one of his signature accordions.
The 16-disc collection will gather all his original studio albums, from 1983’s “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic” through “Mandatory Fun,” plus a bonus disc of rarities, a 100-page book of photos and other “Weird Al” ephemera.
Those albums have sold more than 9.2 million copies in the U.S. since Nielsen Music began monitoring retail sales in 1991.
The way “Squeeze Box” is being rolled out is reflective of a new era in the music business.
Sony Legacy is assembling it via its PledgeMusic.com direct-to-consumer wing, which functions like a crowd-sourcing site. PledgeMusic has begun taking orders for the set with a target release date of this fall. This ensures that production will be able to keep a close pace with consumer demand.
Yankovic said the project was Legacy’s idea.
He quickly disperses any suspicions on the part of his visitor that all this looking back meant he was ready to slow down.
“I’m not retiring — at least I hope I’m not,” he said with the easy laugh that punctuates many of his comments. “I like to think I’m going to continue to be active. But this seemed like a good demarcation, it seemed like the end of an era.”
KID WITH TALENT
It’s now been a bit more than 40 years since the four-time Grammy Award winner from Lynwood started seeping into the public consciousness, all thanks to an original song, “Belvedere Cruising,” which he wrote about his family’s Plymouth Belvedere, and mailed in 1976 to L.A.-based radio-show host Dr. Demento.
So what was it about “Belvedere Cruising” that caught Hansen’s ear?
“There was a line in that song, ‘There’s something about a Comet/That makes me want to vomit,’” said Hansen, who still assembles a weekly show spotlighting “funny music” for Internet radio on his website. “He was referencing all these different car models and why they can’t compare to the Belvedere. That line woke me up. I thought, ‘This kid has some talent.’ He sent me another song, and then another, and they just kept getting better and better.”
It led to a 1982 record deal with the Columbia-associated Scotti Brothers label.
Over the ensuing decades Yankovic would amass an authoritative body of seriously silly work. Many of his songs have tweaked the overarching seriousness of the entertainment world while also demonstrating a canny grasp of what is au courant in the pop music world at any given time.
The Doors’ drummer John Densmore praised Yankovic’s pastiche of the iconic L.A. rock group’s sound and look as “very amusing” in his song “Craigslist,” which is taken from his 2011 album “Alpocalypse.”
More recently he even pulled off the unlikely feat of bringing grammar and sentence structure into the forefront of pop music with “Word Crimes,” his sendup of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ ubiquitous “Blurred Lines.”
Yankovic’s catalog, though it relies on skewed takes of popular hits, also offers essentially a snapshot of pop trends. Don McLean, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift are among the many acts who fell in Yankovic’s crosshairs.
He’s usually received the greatest attention for his individual song parodies, but he also has crafted smart pastiches in the styles of specific artists such as Brian Wilson (“Pancreas”), Bob Dylan (“Bob,” a song consisting completely of palindromes) and L.A. art-pop duo Sparks (“Virus Alert”).
Sparks founding member Ron Mael said this week, “He makes me laugh and who can explain his immense popularity not only within our shores, but in non-English-speaking countries like Japan? Freaky.”
His brand of parody is generally considered legally safe under the 1st Amendment’s free speech protections and “fair use” interpretations of U.S. copyright law, but Yankovic still prefers to work with the permission of the artists whose songs he tweaks. That’s meant he has skipped Paul McCartney, Prince and Eminem, all of whom declined to give permission when he approached them with parody ideas.
On the other hand, some artists are more than willing. He credits Madonna for suggesting the idea of turning her 1984 hit “Like a Virgin” into “Like a Surgeon.”
Today, Yankovic has outlasted many of the acts he lampooned — lovingly, for the most part — including Survivor, Men Without Hats and the Police. Not bad for a novelty act; except maybe don’t use that word around him.
“It is novelty, but that’s sort of a derisive term, or at least it’s used that way a lot,” he said. “(It’s) generally considered the domain of one-hit wonders, which is something I’ve been fighting since I signed a record deal.”
As far as Yankovic is concerned, musicians who incorporate humor into their work in a big way are often marginalized.
“Humor is such an important part of the human experience,” he said. “I just don’t know why showcasing it makes people think, ‘You’re not a real artist.’ Artists who inject humor into their music run the risk of being labeled a ‘joke’ band.
“I wear that label proudly, of course, but it’s sad to me that other artists will hide the lighter side of their personality, or their sense of humor, because they’re afraid that it’s going to get points marked off their grade.”
Novelty or not, Yankovic is genuinely excited about moving into a new phase of his career, one that embraces the technological changes that have flummoxed many in the music business.
“For the first 15 years of my career,” Yankovic said, “everybody was looking at me and going, ‘When is he going away? He was supposed to last like 15 minutes.’
“It took me up until, gosh, probably the beginning of this century to get to the point where people decided ‘Oh, I guess he’s going to stick around for a while.’”