This Date in Music History: March 14

The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's' shoot and where have all the novelty songs gone?

Mar 14, 2012 at 1:54 pm

On this day in 2001, British Pop Art legend Sir Peter Blake sued EMI for more money for his work on a 1967 album cover. That cover is not only his most well-known piece of art — it's also one of the most well-known album covers in history. Blake and wife Jann Haworth created the collaged crowd scene on the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And they were paid about $350 for their trouble, according to Blake's suit.

The cover included cultural icons from Stan Laurel, Mae West, Lenny Bruce and Tony Curtis to Aldous Huxley, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Carl Jung and Shirley Temple. The use of their likenesses reportedly so scared the label (which feared major lawsuits from the "celebrities"), they had to try and seek permission (whenever possible) for use.

Lennon's (possibly joking) suggestion of having Hitler, Gandhi and Jesus represented on the cover also didn't go over well with the label. Gandhi was featured on the original cover, but was removed because it wouldn't be carried in India. Jesus didn't make the cut at all, coming so soon after Lennon's infamous claims of The Beatles being more famous than Him. Hitler was believed to have been edited out, though Blake recently revealed that if you look carefully, Adolf is obscured behind the Fab Four and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller. Actor Leo Gorcey (one of the Bowery Boys) reportedly wanted $400 for his appearance on the cover — $50 more than what the artists' received for making it — so he was promptly axed from the pic. And Mexican actor/comedian Tin-Tan respectfully declined and asked that a "Tree of Life" be included in his place (it was, featured in the lower right corner).

Here's a good run down of the others that did make the cut. And check out this video montage of outtakes from the famous photo shoot:

Click on for Born This Day featuring Rick Dees and the death of the American novelty tune.
Born This Day: Musical movers and shakers sharing a March 14 birthday include singer and songwriter ("Sea of Love") Phil Phillips (1931); legendary producer/composer Quincy Jones (1933); drummer for bands like Scratch Acid, Rapeman and Ministry, Rey Washam (1961); that pretty young lady young man from Pop hitmakers Hanson, Taylor Hanson (1983); and radio personality and onetime charting novelty song-maker Rick Dees (1950).

Dees had a smash hit single in 1976 with the bizarre and soon-to-be annoying-as-a-morning-DJ-duo "Disco Duck," which was based on another novelty song about a dance called "The Duck" and featured a Donald Duck-like vocalist (Ken Pruitt, a pal of Dees'). The song — credited to "Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots" — actually made it to No. 1 and stayed in the Top 10 for a baffling 10 weeks. (Keep in mind, people were doing a lot of cocaine back then.)

It was a travesty for duck-related culture, topped only by the release of the Howard the Duck movie in 1986. Fortunately, Dees' follow-up, "Dis-Gorilla" (from the cash-in The Original Disco Duck album, featuring such comedic gems as "He Ate Too Many Jelly Donuts" and "Doctor Disco" — oh, Disco humor, how we miss you so) was only a minor hit.

Whatever happened to Top 40 novelty songs? Outside of the Mozart of the genre, "Weird Al" Yankovic, I can't remember the last time a genuine ("Who Let the Dogs Out" and "I'm Too Sexy" don't count) novelty song penetrated America's Pop music zeitgeist. In other countries, a singing computer-generated "artist"/amphibian called Crazy Frog had a No. 1 hit in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, France, Belgium and elsewhere with the equally obnoxious single "Axel F," essentially a glorified ringtone. (France and Australia gave the Frog a whopping THREE No. 1 hits.)

In America, Crazy Frog's only charting single was "Axel F," but it only reached No. 50. Proud of you, America!

But I vividly remember while growing up that novelty songs were regular pop cultural phenomenons. From Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-Ling" and Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue," to Frank and Moon Unit Zappa's "Valley Girl" and (a personal favorite) Dickie Goodman's "mash-up" piece "Mr. Jaws," comedy tunes have long had at least some presence on the charts.

Today, not so much. Where is this generation's "Pac-Man Fever" or "Rappin' Ronnie" or "The Streak"?

Does LMFAO count? Or are they like "Barbie Girl" and "Don't Worry, Be Happy" — just crappy, silly songs that somehow become popular, only for us to look back upon them later and declare them "novelties" (out of embarrassment for making them popular in the first place).

Below are a few legit contemporary novelty tunes (a mixed bag in terms of quality and popularity, to be sure). Add your favorites in the comments.

Dan Deacon's "Ohio"

King Missile's "Detachable Penis"

Bloodhound Gang's "Bad Touch"

Afroman's "Because I Got High"

The Offspring's "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)"