Spike Jones - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
Spike Jones is one of the most successful and influential comedy music recording artists of all time. In an age long before anyone thought of attaching the word “experimental” to an entire genre of music, Jones was a true experimenter – because it was supposed to sound ridiculous, he was free to tamper with every unwritten rule. On some intangible plane where music meets dementia, there is Spike Jones. Where the musicianship of an orchestra meets the frivolity of vaudeville, there’s Spike Jones. Wherever the avant garde gets goofy, Jones is there. In the recorded history of comedy and music, with the possible exception of “Weird Al” Yankovic (whose polka medleys, it should be said, owe far more to Jones than traditional polka), there hasn’t been a single other artist more serious about making silly music.
Lindley Armstrong Jones was born December 14, 1911 in Long Beach, California, an only child to a railroad man and a schoolteacher, both very religious, strict and emotionally cold to the boy. Young Lindley took up the trumpet and drums as an outlet, but before his parents would buy him a proper snare he was taught by a local railroad chef how to use pots and pans for percussion. He frequently walked along the railroad tracks to and from school each day, and so his friends gave him the nickname “Spike.” It stuck for life.
Seeking work in the music industry, Spike found his first work as a trumpeter/drummer in the early 1930s in Victor Young’s orchestra, and spent the decade playing on radio shows behind the likes of Al Jolson, George Burns and Bing Crosby, as well as studio sessions for RCA, Columbia and Decca. It was a good living, especially for such a tumultuous decade, but Jones never felt satisfied following orders. In the late thirties Jones joined The Feather Merchants, a band formed by clarinetist Del Porter, who before long was so enamored with Jones’ considerable talent and ambition that he let Jones lead the band.
“Spike Jones and His City Slickers,” as they were now called, got signed to RCA in 1941. Their first big hit, the following year, was “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” a tongue-in-cheek mockery of Nazi Germany written for a Disney war effort cartoon in which Donald Duck has a nightmare about the horrors of living in Nazi Germany (it was funnier at the time). In Jones’ rendition, the word “Heil!” is followed every time by a rude sound not unlike flatulence, produced by a rubber razzer Jones called the “birdaphone.” The song and cartoon promoted each other, and both became smash successes, morale boosters for a country devastated by war.
But it was in 1944 that Jones recorded his biggest hit of all, and the song that would define his band’s style for the rest of his career, “Cocktails For Two.” Originally written by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow in 1934, and performed by Duke Ellington, “Cocktails” was intended as an intimate ballad to celebrate the repeal of prohibition. But Jones turned it into an incredibly raucous, freewheeling tribute to the joys of drunkenness, as an incongruously melodic vocalist – in this case, as often, the incomparable Carl Grayson – sings the lyrics over fast trumpets and banjos, and the genteel lyrics intermingle with cowbells, police whistles, slide whistles, gun shots, bike horns, corks popping, glass shattering, hillbilly fiddles, birdaphones and boisterous yips and yelps. The song’s piece de resistance comes during the bridge, when three vocalists engage in a veritable three-part harmony of spits, hiccups and “glugs” – a unique sort of rhythmic swallowing that sounds roughly like “guttabagulg, gubuh, guttabagulg, gubuh, gulg.” Ironically, Jones’ irreverent take on the ballad became a much bigger hit than any previous “Cocktails For Two” recording…or perhaps not so ironically, since it expressed the joy of being alive far better than any conventional version could. Still, Coslow detested Jones’ version, even as it made him wealthy with royalties.
Many more recordings followed, and with them new popular songs to skewer, and new noisy sound effects to experiment with, but the basic formula would remain the same – Jones would take a popular song, like “Chloe,” “Laura,” or “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai),” speed it up, add a circus-like atmosphere of intricately placed sound effects and loud instruments, and maybe a silly voice, celebrity impression or corny vaudeville joke or two. Jones even had fun with instrumental pieces, like “Holiday For Strings,” which he infectiously reworked into a bunch of people clucking like chickens and laughing in chorus. All these recordings became monster hits, and Jones sold millions of 78 RPM records in the 1940s.
Jones’ vocalists frequently became as essential as Jones himself. George Rock was a trumpeter for Spike Jones, but he could also do a pitch-perfect vocal imitation of a cute, innocent child, so Jones put him at the forefront of children’s songs like “Ya Wanna Buy A Bunny?” and “All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth).” Doodles Weaver was a comedian and character actor, especially adept at “accidentally” switching syllables for comedic effect – a feat he exploited on Jones’ recording of “The Man On The Flying Trapeze” (“Sunce I was wappy…Hunce I was swappy…Sap I was once…”) – and impersonating commentators on horse and car races, to spice up Jones’ recordings of “The William Tell Overture” and “Dance Of The Hours.” Jones also attracted a great deal of guest talent on his records, such as country-novelty stars Homer & Jethro on the opera spoof “Pal-Yat-Chee” and voice-over giant Mel Blanc on the drunkard anthem “Clink, Clink, Another Drink” (which utilized Blanc’s unique ability to hiccup on cue).
In the studio, Jones was a relentless perfectionist to rival the likes of Frank Zappa, and in the days before any sort of multi-track technology that meant EVERYTHING HAD TO BE PERFECT IN ONE TAKE. Not necessarily the first take; often the fiftieth or hundredth take, until it sounded exactly the way Jones wanted it to, down to the last wacky sound effect. Jones never left anything to chance, always arranging the sound effects for maximum comic and musical effect, as delicately and precisely as any great composer would arrange their instruments. And of course, every single sound effect had to be created live in the studio. As archaic as this seems today, in the ‘40s they had no other option, so endless repetition in hot pursuit of perfection was the only option for Jones. But because the end result was so light and goofy, too many critics wrote him off as a mere “gimmick,” and it was perhaps through disdain for these critics that he made his version of the jazz classic “My Old Flame” a classic bait-and-switch. The first third is a completely straight, almost angelic, rendition of the song. Then a fire engine siren emanates out of nowhere, and the song becomes a rowdy Spike Jones recording, no doubt confusing radio listeners everywhere. And to make it even more bizarre, the last third is given over to a psychotic recitation of the lyrics by Paul Frees imitating Peter Lorre, who finally yells at the top of his lungs “I CAN’T STAND IT I TELL YOU! THIS IS DRIVING ME SANE!”
But on-stage, microphone and camera, Jones was always delightfully self-deprecating and unpretentious, often the first to say that he’s done more to hurt music than to help it. In the introduction to a TV special, he reviewed the history of musical evolution, from cavemen to classical to jazz to swing – “And then in 1941, Spike Jones!” Cut back to the cavemen. He often called his live shows, “Spike Jones’ Musical Depreciation Revue.” In retrospect, this sounds like the origins of profound punk-music philosophy like that of Devo, but at the time it was taken as merely a joke.
In concert, and later on television, Jones was just as intricate and off-the wall as he had been on record. Just after a dual banjo solo, Jones and a fellow drummer would approach from behind, reach around and use the banjos as drums. Special playable “prop” instruments would be timed to explode or fall apart mid-song. In one show twelve different guys, each holding an old-fashioned insect-repellent sprayer set up to play a certain note when squeezed, squeezed them in proper time to play a single tune. For Jones, the more audacious, the better. So many people and unwieldy elaborate props were involved with a live Spike Jones show that Spike would rent several railroad cars to carry them all, not unlike a traveling circus.
By the mid-fifties, Jones was starting to lose touch with the teenage audience who, as children ten years earlier, had accounted for a fair share of his business. Jones had tremendous difficulty mocking rock & roll, for instance, because he found songs like “Splish Splash” and “Papa Oom Mow Mow” hilarious already – “if it weren’t for good music,” he said during an interview with Person To Person, “what would I have to wreck?”
Still, Jones persevered into the early sixties, experimenting with new developments in stereo techniques and multi-tracking, and dreaming up more and more elaborate ideas that, alas, never came to fruition – Jones, a lifelong heavy smoker, eventually got afflicted with emphysema and passed away on May 1, 1965, at the age of only 53. A tragedy in and of itself, certainly, but made far worse by the inability to enjoy his own residual fame, as generation after generation of youngsters (and young-at-heart-sters) rediscovered Jones’ muse via “The Dr. Demento Show” and innumerable CD retrospectives.
Jones always strove to be entertaining first (and arguably only), but it’s hard to deny his influence beyond comedy. In his own way he encouraged free thought and expression among listeners more than any bandleader had, showing the audience a myriad ways of looking at something – be it a piece of music or the instrument used to play it – beyond its original intention. Small wonder that when aspiring young director Adam Spiegel wanted a more interesting screen name, he looked back nearly fifty years to a bandleader who did for “Cocktails For Two” what Spiegel, under the name “Spike Jonze,” would do visually for the Beastie Boys and Björk. Ironically, in his own way Jones might have even created the ethos that helped spawn rock & roll in the first place: in an age when most popular music strived to be staid, pleasant and conservative, Spike Jones opened an enormous can of worms all over American radio, and introduced untold millions of innocent, conservative ears to the concept of chaos as entertainment.