What is Novelty Music?

A basic guide at classic novelty music -- what it is, and what it sounds like

"Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen, 1963. dynamo-hum.blogspot.com

Novelty songs -- that is, songs whose first goal was to make the listener laugh rather than entertain him or her musically -- have been around since the wax cylinders of the 1890s, but advances in recording technology made the genre come alive in the postwar years. Spike Jones is largely regarded as the first great novelty song artist; before his ascent to fame in the 1940s, novelties were mainly songs with witty lyrics, but Jones specialized in taking popular tunes of the day and satirizing them by destroying the serious mood with wacky sound effects.

The classic novelty song of the 50s, 60s, and 70s came in one of three forms: 1) a parody of a popular song, with new words written to replace the original ones; 2) an original song about a funny subject, or satiric lyrics about a popular subject; and 3) comedy sketches with some music that were recorded on vinyl. Typically, these songs were aimed at younger audiences in the postwar era (with the more witty, satirical adult comedy reserved for LPs), but the advent of rock and roll brought the novelty into its own. The song in question would often center around a popular fad (Martians in the '50s, for example, or disco in the '70s) and might lampoon popular figures.

Truth be told, novelties are defined by their aesthetic and not their sound. Yet their status as outsider music extends to Billboard often marking them as a separate entity on their charts. And while the very nature of the novelty makes it a vehicle for a "one-hit wonder," a few artists -- Allan Sherman, Stan Freberg, Ray Stevens, Jim Stafford, and later, "Weird" Al Yankovic -- have managed to make decades-long careers out of their musical comedy. Popular radio host Barry Hansen, a/k/a "Dr. Demento," is considered the world's leading expert on such songs, having spotlighted them on his show since the early Seventies.

Also Known As: Comedy, Parody

Examples of Novelty Music and Songs:

"Surfin' Bird," The Trashmen

Before it earwormed Family Guy's Peter Griffin, it was just a manic take on the Rivingtons' doo-wop classic "Papa Oom Mow Mow."

"Purple People Eater," Sheb Wooley

Cute stuff: The title monster seems horrifying until you learn he only eats "purple people." He's not purple. He does play a mean version of "Tequila," though.

"Witch Doctor," David Seville

The first person to exploit the tech that made it possible to speed up voices used this silly song as a template, then created three characters named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore.

"The Streak," Ray Stevens

A textbook example of a novelty song as meme: when streaking became a college fad, radio just had to comment on it.

"Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter From Camp)," Allan Sherman

Sherman was sort of the "Weird" Al Yankovic of his day, yet more erudite and reworking classical melodies instead of pop hits.

"They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" Napoleon XIV

Arguably the craziest thing to ever make it to American radio, a tuneless chant that evolves into a manic rant.

"Monster Mash," Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt Kickers

Before "Thriller," this was the national anthem of Halloween, except the dances were simpler and the world's greatest Boris Karloff impersonation stood in for Vincent Price's rap.

"The Flying Saucer (Pt. 1)," Buchanan & Goodman

An ingenious forerunner to the mash-up: a fake news flash in which all the characters speak in song samples.

"King Tut," Steve Martin

Every comedian once had his own hit novelty song, and Steve's is typically ironic, hilariously smarmy, and gleeful in its history rewrite.

"Beep Beep," The Playmates

The classic story-song, but this one starts at a crawl and gradually speeds up to an epic Dad joke of a climax.