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A novelty song is a comical or nonsensical song, performed principally for its comical effect. Humorous songs, or those containing humorous elements, are not necessarily novelty songs. The term arose in Tin Pan Alley to describe one of the major divisions of popular music. The other two divisions were ballads and dance music. Novelty songs achieved great popularity during the 1920s and 1930s. They had a resurgence of interest in the 1950s and 1960s.
|Stylistic origins||Popular music|
|Cultural origins||1910s United States|
Performed by Billy Murray recorded in 1918
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Novelty songs are often a parody or humor song, and may apply to a current event such as a holiday or a fad such as a dance or TV programme. Many use unusual lyrics, subjects, sounds, or instrumentation, and may not even be musical. For example, the 1966 novelty song "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" has little music and is set to a rhythm tapped out on a snare drum and tambourine.
A famous book on achieving an attention-grabbing novelty single is The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), written by The KLF. It is based on their achievement of a UK number-one single with "Doctorin' the Tardis", a 1988 dance remix mashup of the Doctor Who theme song released under the name of 'The Timelords.' It argued that (at the time) achieving a number one single could be achieved less by musical talent than through market research, sampling and gimmicks matched to an underlying danceable groove.
Novelty songs were a major staple of Tin Pan Alley from its start in the late 19th century. They continued to proliferate in the early years of the 20th century, some rising to be among the biggest hits of the era. Varieties included songs with an unusual gimmick, such as the stuttering in "K-K-K-Katy" or the playful boop-a-doops of "I Wanna Be Loved By You" which made a superstar out of Helen Kane and provided the inspiration for the creation of Betty Boop, silly lyrics like "Yes! We Have No Bananas", Playful songs with a bit of double entendre such as "Don't Put A Tax On All The Beautiful Girls" and invocations of foreign lands with emphasis on general feel of exoticism rather than geographic or anthropological accuracy, such as "Oh By Jingo!", "The Sheik Of Araby" "The Yodeling Chinaman", and "Nagasaki". These songs were perfect for the medium of Vaudeville and performers like Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker became well known for these songs. Zez Confrey's 1920s instrumental compositions, which invoked gimmicky approaches (such as "Kitten on the Keys") or maniacally rapid tempos ("Dizzy Fingers"), were popular enough to start a fad of novelty piano pieces that lasted through the decade.
A famous 1940s novelty song was Spike Jones' 1942 "Der Fuehrer's Face", which included raspberries in its chorus. The 1952 #1 single "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" became notable for extensive play and backlash because the song became annoying. Satirists such as Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer used novelty songs to poke fun at contemporary pop culture in the early 1950s.
Even talent such as Frank Sinatra was not immune from contributing to the novelty song. In the early 1950s Sinatra was desperate for a hit, and he was nearing the end of his relationship with Columbia Records. In 1951, he was paired in a CBS television special with TV personality Dagmar. Mitch Miller at Columbia Records became intrigued with the pairing and compelled songwriter Dick Manning to compose a song for the two of them. The result was "Mama Will Bark", a novelty song performed by Sinatra with interspersed spoken statements by Dagmar, saying things like "mama will bark", "mama will spank", and "papa will spank". The recording even includes the sound of a dog yowling. It is regarded by both music scholars and Sinatra enthusiasts to be perhaps the worst song he ever recorded. Sinatra would in fact record a few others before he left Columbia and joined Capitol Records in 1952.
Dickie Goodman, the godfather of the genre, faced a lawsuit for his 1956 novelty song "The Flying Saucer", which sampled snippets of contemporary hits without permission. Goodman released more hit singles in the same vein for the next two decades.
Three songs using a sped-up recording technique became #1 hits in the United States in 1958-59: David Seville's "Witch Doctor", Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater", and Seville's "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)", which used a speeded-up voice technique to simulate three chipmunks' voices.
In 1960, 16-year-old Brian Hyland had a novelty hit with the song "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini", by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, which also topped the Billboard album chart. In 1964, the Grammy for Best Country and Western Album was awarded to Roger Miller's Dang Me/Chug-a-Lug, which had several novelty songs.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s one of the strangest but most popular novelty songs became a Christmas standard (sort of). Randy Brooks wrote a song and it was originally recorded by then husband-wife recording duo Elmo Shropshire and his wife Patsy in 1979, called "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer". It tells the tragic-comic story of a family grandmother who meets her end Christmas Eve. After having drunk too much eggnog and forgetting to take her medicine, she staggers out of her family's house late Christmas Eve. She is mauled over by Santa Claus' entourage, and found dead at the scene the next morning. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" is perhaps the only hit Christmas novelty song which has had continuous popularity since circa 1980.
Novelty songs have been popular in the U.K. as well. In 1991, "The Stonk" novelty song raised over £100,000 for the Comic Relief charity. In 1993, "Mr Blobby" became the second novelty song to reach the coveted Christmas number one slot in the UK, following Benny Hill's 1971 chart-topper "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)". Many popular children's TV characters would try to claim the Christmas number one spot after this. In 1997, the Teletubbies who reached number one the previous week failed to gain it with their single "Say Eh-oh!". They came second in the charts to The Spice Girls second of three consecutive Christmas number ones, with "Too Much". Later on at the turn of the millennium, Bob the Builder was successful in achieving a Christmas number one in 2000, with "Can We Fix It?". This is currently the last novelty song to have been released into the UK Christmas Charts. However, Bob the Builder did have another number one single a year later with a cover of Lou Bega's "Mambo No.5", and also another less successful single in 2008 "Big Fish Little Fish", peaking at 81 in the UK Singles Chart.
Some novelty music draws its appeal from its unintentional novelty; so-called "outsider musicians" with little or no formal musical training often will produce comical results (see for instance, Florence Foster Jenkins, Mrs. Miller, the Portsmouth Sinfonia, The Shaggs, and William Hung), leading record companies to release their works as novelty pieces.
After the fictitious composer P.D.Q. Bach repeatedly won the "Best Comedy Album" Grammy from 1990 to 1993, the category was changed to "Best Spoken Comedy Album"; when "Best Comedy Album" was reinstated in 2004, "Weird Al" Yankovic won for Poodle Hat.
Novelty songs were popular on U.S. radio through the 1970s and 1980s, to the point where it was not uncommon for novelty songs to break into the top 40. For instance, Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-Ling" reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, and Ray Stevens, known for such novelty hits as "Ahab the Arab", "Gitarzan", and "Mississippi Squirrel Revival", had a #1 hit with "The Streak" in 1974. Freeform and album-oriented rock stations made use of novelty songs; some of the best-known work from Frank Zappa, for instance, is his extensive body of novelty music. Beginning in 1970, Dr. Demento's nationally syndicated radio show gave novelty songs an outlet for much of the country; this lasted through the mid-2000s, when the show (mirroring trends in the genre) faded in popularity until its terrestrial cancellation in June 2010. Novelty songs and parodies are fixtures on morning radio.
One of the longest selling novelty songs of the Rock and Roll era is Zane Ashton's whimsical "He Was A Mean Dragon," recorded in 1961 on Lan-Cet Records and still being sold on the internet today. Members of the band on the record include The Wrecking Crew members Ray Pohlman, Earl Palmer, and Al Casey, With the 2007 re-issue of the record by Ace Records in England and entitled "The Dragon", this record is well on the way to actually becoming "The Longest Selling Novelty Record." The record was recently picked up to be sold on iTunes and other sites, which will further enhance its longevity. The recording by Zane Ashton (aka Bill Aken) is enjoying a resurgence by an entire new generation of fans and was featured in 2014 as part of the score in the film Lost River directed by Academy Award nominated actor Ryan Gosling and starring Christina Hendricks.
In the 21st century, novelty songs have found a new audience online: the hit song "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)" by Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis was featured on the kids' compilation album So Fresh Pop Party 13 in 2014.
- Hamm, Irving Berlin Early Songs, p. xxxiv: "The text of a novelty song sketches a vignette or a brief story of an amusing or provocative nature. ... noted for portraying characters of specific ethnicity or those finding themselves in certain comic or melodramatic situations, ..."
- Axford, Song Sheets to Software, p. 20: "As sentimental songs were the mainstay of Tin Pan Alley, novelty and comical songs helped to break the monotony, developing in the twenties and thirties as signs of the times."
- Tawa, Supremely American, p. 55: "... in the 1920s, novelty songs offset the intensely serious and lachrymose ballads. nonsensical novelty songs, reproducing the irrational and meaningless side of the twenties, made frequent appearances."
- "Words and Music: Our 60 Favorite Music Books". Pitchfork Music. Retrieved October 21, 2015.
- The KLF (1988). The Manual (how to have a number one the easy way). [Great Britain]: KLF. ISBN 0-86359-616-9.
- "New Case for Old `Napster'; Dickie Goodman's Son Reveals Father's Legacy in Book and Fights for It in Lawsuit". PR Newswire. Retrieved November 25, 2014.
- The first Best Comedy Recording Grammy was awarded to David Seville's Hoffman, Dr Frank. "Novelty Songs". Jeff O's Retro Music. Jeff O'Corbett. Retrieved 2008-02-23.
- Bromley, Tom We Could Have Been the Wombles: The Weird and Wonderful World of One-Hit Wonders p.51. Penguin books ltd, 2006
- Donnelly, Tim (July 12, 2014). "Why Weird Al is still the king of spoof". New York Post.
- "Chuck Berry: Charts & Awards – Billboard Singles". AllMusic. United States: Rovi Corporation. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
- Aquila, Richard, That Old-time Rock & Roll: A Chronicle of an Era, 1954-1963. University of Illinois Press, 2000. ISBN 0-252-06919-6
- Axford, Elizabeth C. Song Sheets to Software: A Guide to Print Music, Software, and Web Sites for Musicians. Scarecrow Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8108-5027-3
- Hamm, Charles (ed.). Irving Berlin Early Songs. Marcel Dekker, 1995. ISBN 0-89579-305-9
- Tawa, Nicholas E. Supremely American: Popular Song in the 20th Century . Scarecrow Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8108-5295-0
- Otfonoski, Steve, The Golden Age of Novelty Songs. Billboard Books, 2000 ISBN 0-8230-7694-6