No static at all: On FM radio, Dr. Demento connected the link between silly andserious
“I miss FM radio!”
— Graffiti inside KTRU studio
— More graffiti inside KTRU studio
I’m always going to remember my adolescence as a period where I was forever changed by FM radio. When MTV dropped in 1981, my family didn’t have cable television. Yes, you read that correctly, no cable television. I’ll wait if you need a moment to recover.
So in my teens instead of “music television,” FM radio was my primary resource for an education in creative music.
My perception of what music even “was” was broadened considerably during those teenage years, thanks in part to a “perfectly normal” yet nearly hermetic lifestyle I embraced, armed only with a pair of headphones clamped tightly to my skull. I spent a lot of time alone listening to truly smart DJs like Dr. Demento, whose so-called novelty music radio show, “The Dr. Demento Show,” broadcast weekly on Sunday nights via QFM 96 (“WE ROCK COLUMBUS!”).
Dr. Demento instilled in me the belief that “silly” is good. The medium of radio broadcasting presented “silly” as a transcendent experience, while cluing me in to some tricks and techniques that eventually found their way into my own musical output.
Yes, that’s right. The two-hour Dr. Demento Show came on at 9 p.m. on a school night, and I tuned in religiously and, thanks to the aforementioned headphones, surreptitiously. Needless to say, I spent most of my daylight hours in junior high school trying hard not to fall asleep.
As I’m typing, Microsoft Word’s “spell check” is dutifully flagging — with a red squiggly underline — the word “Demento," which just goes to show you how sick our society truly is. What is “wrong,” such as a “wrong” note or a “wrong” use of grammar, is also quite often deemed “silly.” And silly is suspect; a waste of time. Or at best, a “novelty” that provides only temporary amusement before one grows up and learns to take life seriously.
Dr. Demento instilled in me the belief that “silly” is good. The medium of radio broadcasting presented “silly” as a transcendent experience, while cluing me in to some tricks and techniques that eventually found their way into my own musical output. Especially when it came to creative recording and mixing.
As a budding electronic / experimental / avant-garde composer, was I digging Stockhausen, Varese and Boulez? Nope. I was taping and analyzing “Fish Heads,” “Pencil Neck Geek,” and “They’re Coming To Take Me Away – Ha Haaa!” songs I would not have heard otherwise if it weren’t for Dr. Demento, one of our country’s great ethnomusicologists.
"Fish Heads," by the duo of Art and Artie Barnes (a.k.a. Robert Haimer and Bill Mumy). Bill Paxton directed and co-starred in the video. Please note, the music doesn't begin for several minutes...
In each of the good doctor’s broadcasts, there were so many profound cultural signifiers running through what on the surface sounded like two hours of lunatics raving on the radio. Great Jewish comedians connected to instrumental virtuosos leading inevitably into polkas only to be transformed into garage and punk rock (“Punk Polka” by The Toons is a great example of what I’m describing).
But honestly, as a (sleepy) teenager, all of this heady subtext went over my head. It would be years later, after I’d become a fan of great musicologists like Alan Lomax, Ned Sublette, Robert Palmer, and Amiri Baraka before I would understand the profundity of what I had listened to alone in my bedroom.
As opposed to our current “on demand” age where most people are now conditioned to expect anything and everything as a high-speed download, there was a whole ritual that surrounded radio broadcasts and the time and space one had to create to listen. You had to tune in at a specific time in order to hear all of this weird music. Put on a set of headphones in a darkened room, and the experience is intensely transcendent. If you closed your eyes, you forgot you were in your bedroom or on planet Earth.
Along with artists like Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer, Allen Sherman and Spike Jones, Dr. Demento played lo-fi to completely homemade cassette recordings by his loyal “dementions and dementites,” including the first ever parody songs by one “Weird Al” Yankovic whose accordion fueled send up of The Knack’s hit “My Sharona,” retitled “My Bologna,” was first aired on the show. (By the way, have you visited the Texas Polka Museum?)
The leap from “silly” to so-called “serious” music, be it electronic composition, musique concrète or whatever you call music that didn’t extol the virtues of fish heads or dead puppies, isn’t a big one. And in fact, Dr. Demento made this explicit by dedicating an entire show to the music of American composer Frank Zappa shortly after his passing. And once in a while, the doctor would even drop some of the then new avant-pop music like “Pocket Calculator” by the ground breaking German band Kraftwerk. That’s how I first heard of them.
Come to think of it, I also first heard avant-garde composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” on the Dr. Demento show. Years later, at my audition for the composition program at Capital University’s Conservatory of Music, the man who would become my composition professor told me after I’d mentioned I liked Laurie Anderson, that he considered “O Superman” to be one of the great art songs of the 20th century.
Ding! I knew I had found my people. Or at least a composition professor who would have some patience for my unorthodox pre-collegiate music education.
So what’s Dr. Demento up to now? Check out his lively website. He’s still demented.
Here’s a track from my CD Saints & Devils that was created as a sort of homage to the ritual and magic of radio listening. The voice you hear is the mysterious Sister Leisha, “God’s healer and messenger,” who ran her business out of a brown mobile home behind a correctional facility.
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