Dr. Demento - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
Barrett Eugene Hansen was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 2, 1941. His teenage years coincided with the rise of rock & roll, and he shared his generation’s love of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but the young record collector found equal fascination in the more obscure would-be hits of the era and before. He attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and soon became a DJ on their ten-watt radio station, hosting a weekly half-hour show called The Musical Museum that specialized in exploring the origins of rock & roll. He also wrote for a folk music fanzine called The Little Sandy Review, which among other things was the first publication anywhere to mention Bob Dylan.
Hansen attended graduate school at UCLA, and eventually got a job compiling reissue albums for Specialty Records. In his spare time he frequented flea markets, record store backrooms, radio station dumpsters, any place where one might find recorded odds and ends in those pre-eBay days. As a musical archivist, Hansen always valued finding diamonds in the rough, that hidden gem of a B-side or “disposable” filler track that is often more interesting than the fluff you’re told to listen to. This penchant for the obscure attracted the attention of “The Obscene Steven Clean,” a DJ on KPPC-FM in Pasadena, California who, in the fall of 1970, invited Hansen to bring a few of the oddities in his collection to spin on the air. One of these records was “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvus (Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection: The Greatest Novelty Records Of All Time, 1991, Rhino), a 1956 single about an abrasive driver who gets into an accident every verse (thanks to some novel sound effects) and swears he’s “never never never gonna speed again.” Halfway through it, the station receptionist commented, “You got to be demented to play that shit on the radio!” The next week, Steven introduced Barry Hansen as “Dr. Demento” (without prior warning) and the name has stuck ever since.
The “Dr. Demento” segments received such tremendous listener response that KPPC management gave Hansen his own Sunday evening show in January 1971. Hansen played all sorts of musical genres, often devoting entire segments to, say, early blues songs that Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones had covered. But the songs that got the most listener response were the bizarre comedy recordings by Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer, along with novelty hits from the fifties and sixties like “Purple People Eater” and “Monster Mash.” Back in the fifties and sixties of course, comical novelty songs were more commonplace – record companies wanted to make money, and their policy tended to be “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.” But then with the rise of late-sixties counterculture and albums like Sgt. Pepper, rock & roll started taking itself more seriously. Albums replaced singles and novelty tunes became scarce on radio playlists everywhere, until Dr. Demento came along. KPPC went bankrupt less than a year later, but 94.7 KMET in Los Angeles acquired “The Dr. Demento Show” in early 1972, again for Sunday nights, a slot he would keep for fifteen years.
In his first year on the air, Hansen established many of the traditions he still continues to this day. The most-requested song that year was “Pico and Sepulveda,” a rhumba-based ode to the streets and locales of Los Angeles performed in 1947 by Freddy Martin & His Orchestra under the pseudonym “Felix Figueroa.” That song received so many requests in 1972 that Hansen decided it would save time to make it his theme music. From then on, Dr. Demento started each show with a group of voices yelling, “The Doctor Is In!” and the first few bars of “Pico and Sepulveda” before bursting in with a hearty “Wind up your radios, dementites and dementoids!” Two hours later, he closes each show with an instrumental of the bittersweet Gordon Wallace 78 RPM “Cheerio, Cherry Lips, Cheerio” and signs off by reminding his audience, “Don’t forget to stay deeeeeeeemented!” He also started a weekly “Top Ten” countdown (soon shortened to the “Funny Five”) of the most-requested songs of the week. Every year since, he’s parlayed those countdowns into a year-end “Funny 25.”
For the first couple of years, “The Dr. Demento Show” exclusively played released records, however obscure they might be – LPs, ten-inches, 45s, 78s, even the occasional Edison cylinder, but nothing on the relatively new format of the cassette. That all changed when a septet of horn players calling themselves The Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band sent Dr. Demento a tape of them covering the Laurel & Hardy theme music, “March Of The Cukoos” (Retro Rooter, 2000, label N/A) in 1973. At the time, few of the greatest music fans had anything resembling professional recording equipment, but by sheer example more and more unsolicited listener tapes began arriving in Hansen’s mailbox. Unwilling to discriminate released from unreleased, Hansen made regular the practice of putting on the air any listener tapes that he, personally, deemed worthy of exposure, whether or not the record labels agreed. To any amateur seeking attention on Barry’s show, hitting #1 on the Funny Five became the more-democratic equivalent of a #1 single in Billboard, and within ten years or so, his year-end countdowns typically included more unreleased songs than released ones.
In the late seventies Dr. Demento premiered two listener-submitted songs, both on unassuming demo cassettes from unknown amateurs, that would go on to become the two most requested songs in the history of the show bar none. Both, by what can only be assumed is coincidence, are about dead animals. “Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes (The Very Best of Dr. Demento, 2001, Rhino) is a demented nursery rhyme that explains how fish heads can’t talk, don’t play baseball, and don’t require an extra ticket when you take them to the movies, highlighted by a refrain of chipmunk voices singing, “Fish heads fish heads, rolly-polly fish heads, fish heads fish heads, eat them up yum!” Meanwhile, “Dead Puppies” by Ogden Edsl (The Very Best of Dr. Demento, 2001, Rhino) offers a darker take on animal mortality as the singer, presumably a small child, sings mournfully about how the rotting corpse of his puppy won’t chase squirrels or come when he calls. Ultimately, the singer concedes that “dead puppies aren’t much fun,” which he repeats over and over again with guitar, organ, and sing-along choir accompaniment. Both songs were written in about ten minutes on complete whims, and Dr. Demento listeners ate them up, yum.
This period also saw the slow beginnings of the soon-to-be meteoric rise of the show’s #1 most requested artist (by about a two-to-one margin over anyone else) “Weird Al” Yankovic. Yankovic discovered the show as a young teen, and began sending accordion-fueled ditties to the good doctor in 1976. By 1979 he had scored his first Funny Five hit with the Knack parody “My Bologna,” and went on to record the most requested songs of 1980 and 1981, the Queen parody “Another One Rides The Bus” (recorded live on The Dr. Demento Show on September 14, 1980) and the Kinks parody “Yoda,” respectively. These accolades made the young architecture student realize he could probably market his silly songs to the masses, and the rest is pop culture history.
After three successful years on KMET (his was often the #1 rated Sunday night show), Gordon/Casady Inc. picked it up for national syndication in 1974. To promote the national show, Hansen compiled and released the first Dr. Demento LP, Dr. Demento’s Delights (1975, Warner Bros.), a compilation of eleven favorites, most of which were unavailable or long out-of-print, ranging from Jef Jaisun’s topical “Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agent” to Doodles Weaver’s take on “Eleanor Rigby.” Gordon/Casady dropped the show in 1977, but a year later the aggressive Westwood One Radio Network picked it up, and for fourteen years they kept it on the air in all the major markets (and since 1992, Hansen has continued syndicating the show through smaller companies). Under Westwood One, “The Dr. Demento Show” achieved its peak of success. Before long “Fish Heads,” “Dead Puppies” and “Another One Rides The Bus” were cult hits nationwide.
To commemorate fifteen years on the air, in October 1985 Hansen collaborated with Rhino Records on Dr. Demento Presents The Greatest Novelty Records Of All Time, a six-record vinyl boxed set collecting over 75 novelty and comedy songs spanning over sixty years, from pre-vinyl hits like “Minnie The Moocher” and “Inka Dinka Doo” to forgotten rock & roll novelty singles like “Alley-Oop” and “The Flying Saucer” to MTV irregularities like “Eat It” and “Rappin’ Rodney.” Rhino would of course go on to have a ubiquitous association with box sets in general, but the Dr. Demento box set was their most ambitious project up to that point. As CDs replaced LPs, most of those songs and many more recent ones got packed onto three 2-CD sets which, taken together, represent crucial listening to any comedy music fan: Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection: The Greatest Novelty Records Of All Time (1991, Rhino); Dr. Demento’s 25th Anniversary Collection: More Of The Greatest Novelty Records Of All Time (1995, Rhino) and Dr. Demento’s 30th Anniversary Collection: Dementia 2000! (2000, Rhino).
As time rolled on, very few of Dr. Demento’s most-requested songs have had any other form of mass exposure. His most requested song of the 1990s, for example, was a half-sketch, half-song by Montreal-based sketch trio The Vestibules called “Bulbous Bouffant” (The Very Best of Dr. Demento, 2001, Rhino). In it, three people waiting for a bus explore some of the English language’s most unique verbal creations. In the last half they simply repeat words like “gazebo,” “blubber” and “macadamia” in a hypnotic round. The sketch was obtuse and dada-ish to the point of incomprehensibility, and it was relegated to track 21 of 24 on a CD The Vestibules only produced to sell at their gigs. Still, something intangible about “Bulbous Bouffant” clicked with Dr. Demento listeners, who voted it the #1 song of 1996, beating out Weird Al’s MTV-supported “Amish Paradise.”
A great many other recent contributors have created Funny Five hits out of obscure (yet brilliant) tracks that might have been major radio hits if only the world was better prepared. The #1 song of 1999 was “The Chainsaw Juggler” by Los Angeles folk-rock quintet The Four Postmen (Hit Record, 2001, label N/A), a tale of a chainsaw juggler that somehow keeps digressing from chainsaws and juggling into nihilistically philosophical bits involving incest, bestiality, wise men being kicked to death and religious leaders going down in a hot air balloon (“it proves that God hates us all!”). The #1 song of 2000 was “Viagra In The Waters” by Camille West (Beyond Bitchin’, 2000, Shanachie), an epic six-minute, Harry Chapin-esque tale of biological gender warfare containing all the best (and worst) phallic jokes you’ve ever heard set to music. The #1 song of 2004 was “Great Idea For A Song” by Worm Quartet (Faster Than A Speeding Mullet, 2004, Flaming Mayo), an angry, eviscerating synth-punk rant against every horrible girlfriend or boyfriend who’s ever made anyone’s life miserable, with a cathartic chorus of “If only your name rhymed with ‘twisted psychotic slut’ I’d have a great idea for a song!”
Through it all, Hansen has continued to host a two-hour radio show every week with very few exceptions, in addition to writing the blues history paperback Rhino’s Cruise Through The Blues and countless liner notes, including his Grammy-nominated notes for the Tom Lehrer box set The Remains Of Tom Lehrer (2000, Rhino). His syndicated show has run every week for thirty years, but he hasn’t had a live show on Los Angeles radio since 1999. Today Hansen records and distributes “The Dr. Demento Show” out of his own home, not unlike his regular contributors.
Recently the show has faced hard times. Advertisers have been dropping like flies, growing increasingly reluctant to support a show that targets anything besides one specific age/gender demographic. This forced Hansen to replace the usual barter system with stations in favor of a rights fee in January 2007. This caused over thirty stations across the country to drop the show, and today less than a dozen still carry it (its largest remaining market is Chicago, its second-largest Columbus, Ohio). Simply to make ends meet, Hansen was forced to sell streams of his shows at his website, drdemento.com, at two bucks a pop. Many of his fans remained endlessly nostalgic for the ability to listen to “The Dr. Demento Show” on the RADIO, and saw this as the beginning of the end.
In some ways, such sacrifice is inevitable. Dr. Demento, on a national level at least, was perhaps the last surviving thread of the bygone era of early FM radio, when it was still a new concept and DJs could literally play anything they wanted. Nowadays, of course, that power has shifted to the consumer, and technology has enabled everyone to walk around with a personal radio station. The best of us fill our iPods with diverse assortments of musical styles and genres, but corporate radio continues to treat music like a water purification plant treats bacteria, weeding it out so it doesn’t “offend” a buying public that they think just wants to hear minor variations of the same song they’ve heard a million times before, a million times more. Nobody seems to remember that this is the same country that made “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV (The Very Best of Dr. Demento, 2001, Rhino) a top ten Billboard hit forty years ago. Surely the times haven’t changed THAT much, have they? We like movies that make us think and affect our emotions, so why not music too? Why NOT break the ice a little, and let a music history expert with a taste for the whimsical and obscure plug his “D-Pod” into our radios for two stinking hours once a week?
Unfortunately, entire generations know Dr. Demento, if at all, only as the guy who discovered Weird Al. Only a scant percentage of those people bother to delve further into some of the amazing music only Hansen plays, which is a true shame. “The Dr. Demento Show” isn’t perfect; sometimes to get to the good stuff you have to wallow through interminable half-baked ideas and lazily written parodies (letting ANYONE on the air is indeed a double-edged sword), which makes it all the more unfortunate that it’s the only one of its kind on the air at all. If shows like his were more commonplace, radio listeners just might learn that there’s more to music than that one niche you won’t stop shoving down your own throat, and that it’s a lot more fun and interesting sometimes when experimentation isn’t merely tolerated, but encouraged.