Available Oct. 30; List Price $49.98
The official musical iconoclasts of the '40s and '50s, Spike Jones and the City Slickers had a bunch of hit 78s "Cocktails for Two," "Laura," "Chloe" that would subject some sonorous ballad to a double-time assault of cowbells, washboards and braying brass. Or they'd ride a novelty number like "Der Feuhrer's Face" or "All I Want for Christmas (My Two Front Teeth)" to million-selling records. Or they'd take the work of semi-classical composers and decompose them. Spike and his comic-kazies stormed the country in the Musical Depreciation Revue, and appeared frequently on radio. But their musical slapstick, as much visual as aural, was made for TV. This four-disc set offers remastered kinescopes of four hour-long variety shows from 1951-52. It's tonic sonic mayhem.
Spike, a skinny gum-chewer with a Dead End Kid's sense of mischief and a suit of plaids that clashed as loud as his cymbals, pretended he and his gang were musical ignoramuses. On one show he's handed a sheaf of sheet music and deadpans, "I often wondered what this stuff looked like." But parody requires precision, not passion, and these guys were expert song-wreckers. As he tells Charles Collingwood on a 1960 Person to Person: "If you could plan musical mistakes possibly sound effects in the place of notes to musical arrangements you might be able to get some laughs out of people." Every goof was minutely calibrated; most of the band's ad libs had been perfected in rehearsal. On live TV, of course, things could go genuinely wrong: a prop doesn't work or, in a Snow Crop commercial, the waffles don't toast and Spike has to eat them frozen. (The announcer for commercials on another show is the young Mike Wallace.)
Spike's orchestrated chaos was a video-ready mix of Olden & Johnson vaudeville and the surreal sort of gags that Ernie Kovacs was perfecting on a local station in Philadelphia. One band member slaps his bass fiddle, spins it around and a dwarf jumps out of the back. As anarchy descends, a lady harpist in an evening gown placidly sits and knits. Spike shoots a cap pistol in the air, and a dozen rubber chickens fall from the flies. The ensemble shows up in drag to sing, "It's tough to be a girl musician, especially if ya happen to be a man." The set (which includes two 1945 radio shows and some reminiscences by surviving band members) is both a document of early TV and the best extant distillation of the band's lovely lunacy.