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- April 16, 1984
- Vol. 21
- No. 15
A Playful Poke at Beat It Has Made Weird Al Yankovic the Pooh-Bah of Put-Ons
In some uncharted corner of the globe there may indeed exist another rock 'n' roll accordion player. But for now the known world will have to make do with 24-year-old "Weird Al" Yankovic, a parodist par excellence who has taken on rock's reigning king and, quite possibly, won.
Eat It, Yankovic's send-up of Michael Jackson's smash single Beat It, is storming up the charts: No. 13 after only five weeks, higher than Beat It was after the same period. The equally hilarious Eat It video, starring Yankovic, has made the bushy-haired, bespectacled specimen a TV star and prompted critics to sit up and take notice of his second album of song and satire, In 3-D.
"For a parody," Al explains, "a song's got to be very popular, instantly recognizable. When Michael Jackson gave us permission to do Eat It I was completely knocked out because of who he is—the single most popular person in the universe today." Jackson must be pleased as well: He gets a cut of the profits.
Shooting a video to accompany the song was "a natural thing to do," Al allows, "because of the close physical resemblance between Michael and myself." The 3½-minute clip features Al in Jacksonian jeans and jacket, dancing in a mock Michael moonwalk. Exact replicas of all the Beat It scenery were constructed, and a cast of some 30 people assembled, including a few of the same dancers who had appeared in the Jackson original. In the Yankovic version, however, pudgy gang members get stuck emerging from manholes, and the weapon of choice is not the blade but the fork.
The Eat It parody quickly went into heavy rotation on cable's MTV, providing Yankovic with his second video triumph. A year earlier he had debuted with the video of his top-100 hit Ricky, a take-off on TV's Ricardo family done to Toni Basil's Mickey. It quickly became the channel's hottest novelty act and Yankovic's ticket out of the mail-room of an L.A. syndication company. "I've only been Weird Al full-time for about a year now," he explains. "I quit my day job when Ricky hit the Billboard charts. I figured 'now's the time.' So this is what I do for a living."
It's probably not what his nice middle class parents in Lynwood, Calif. planned for their only child. When Al was 7 they made the "life-altering" decision that he should learn to play the accordion. After all, two aunts already played the instrument, and there was that link—in name only—to accordion maestro Frank "Polka King" Yankovic. "I like to think it wasn't to torture me but more because of the relationship with the name," Yankovic sighs. "They had a pile of his records in the garage and thought, 'Wouldn't this be cute?' or something." The boy obliged but eventually found that his professional playing would be limited to "the occasional wedding. It was very difficult to call up booking agents and say, 'Hey, I play the accordion. Got any rock bands I can play with?' "
Yankovic retreated to the sanctity of his bedroom, where he began cranking out cassettes of homegrown parodies and mailing them to radio's original Mr. Weird, Dr. Demento. "He started playing the tapes and I thought it was great. I was just a high school kid and getting all this airplay," says Al happily. "I guess you could call him my De-mentor. I really owe it all to him."
After graduating from high school at 16 as valedictorian, Yankovic enrolled at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to begin studying architecture. There he continued recording rock parodies (including one done in a college men's room) to his own squeeze-box accompaniment. By 1981 his Another One Rides the Bus (à la Queen's Another One Bites the Dust) was on its way to becoming Demento's most requested song ever, and Yankovic, despite a new degree, was on his way to high camp.
In the years that followed, his not-always-profitable parodies have included I Love Rocky Road (to Joan Jett's I Love Rock TV' Roll) and Stop Drag-gin' My Car Around (in the fashion of Tom Petty's Stop Draggin' My Heart Around). Together with originals like I'll Be Mellow When I'm Dead and Mr. Popeil, a poke at the late-night king of the Veg-O-Matic and Pocket Fisherman, they have made Yankovic a musical farce to be reckoned with.
"I'm having a blast right now," he acknowledges. "There was a time when I just wanted to be in a recording studio, just hang out with rock 'n' roll people and all that. Now I'm part of the whole thing. Hard to comprehend."
So too, perhaps, are the stars who submit to Weird Al's send-ups. Legal permission is required before he can mangle anyone's music, so Yankovic sends the performers "a verse or two of the song to see if they have a sense of humor about themselves. If not, we drop the project." Though some thin-skinned artists like the Kinks' Ray Davies and ex-Beatle George Harrison have declined the honor, Yankovic notes that "since Michael said yes, it's gotten a lot easier."
Despite his success, Yankovic seems loath to leave the shabby Hollywood apartment he's had for the past three years. He admits he may soon buy a copy of Thriller, which, amazingly, he doesn't yet own. But a Cuisinart? "No, I don't think so. I wouldn't go that far. I'm very happy. I lead a very simple, very humble life in Hollywood with my Murphy bed and 13-inch color TV."
Nonetheless, he concedes that his growing popularity is starting to seem "kind of unreal." Fans have sent hundreds of suggestions for new parodies ("It's hard enough to get permission for my own stuff," he says), and others ask for autographs on Weird Al 12-inch singles that even he hasn't yet seen. "My ultimate goal," says Yankovic dreamily, "is to be bigger than the Partridge Family. That probably isn't true now, but someday..."
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