Oh My Aching Ear! the (bang!) Music of Spike (splat!) Jones Is Revived by a New (tweet!) Band of Merrymakers
updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Thus begins 75 minutes of musical mayhem in tribute to the late Spike Jones, the bandleader who once described his work as "dinner music for people who aren't very hungry." From the '40s into the '60s, Spike Jones and His City Slickers built a successful career with ear-wrecking parodies of the most beloved—and sappiest—ballads of the time. Using some of Jones's own arrangements, which often replaced musical notes with off-the-wall sound effects, the New York band is proving once again that, with true dedication, even the most melodious tunes can be royally loused up. A partial list of the instruments used by the group—which still hasn't figured out a name for itself—includes Klaxon horn, fire bell, brake drum, six starter pistols, birdcalls (nightingale, cuckoo, duck) and a crazy quilt of yawps, among them chicken clucks, coughs, sneezes, horse whinnies, sniffles and howls. Jones's scores, says bandleader Eddy Davis, also called for "an octave of blacksmith anvils," but he drew the line there. "It would take two trucks and four boys to lug those around."
Well, artistry has its frustrations, but what Davis and friends have wrought on their odd instruments is remarkable. The seven-member band gleefully zaps Cocktails for Two with gunshots, slide whistles, a Model-T horn and a chorus of hiccups. The William Tell Overture, already massacred with a succession of birdcalls and screams, is polished off by a finale done in gargles. Just when you think they're going straight with a lushly orchestrated ballad, Cynthia Sayer, who doubles on tuned cowbells and crashphone (a tin washtub full of broken glass), gingerly steps forward to belt out Serenade to a Jerk: "Sometimes he's stupid and hazy/Sometimes his brain doesn't perk/ But when he's near me my heart sings/ A serenade to a jerk."
It takes a lot of talent to create what one critic admiringly called the band's "music depreciation hour." Eddy Davis, the 46-year-old leader who launched the enterprise, plays every Monday at Michael's Pub with Woody Allen's New Orleans jazz band. Cynthia Sayer has played the banjo at the White House and the ukulele on the sound track of The Purple Rose of Cairo, while clarinetist Joe Muranyi toured with Louis Armstrong for five years. Their main trouble wasn't so much learning the notes as finding the instruments. Davis scoured his mother's Indiana barn and even less likely spots in his quest for anything that would bang or clang in the desired key—usually the key of off. "I found an auto supply place that had 50 or 60 brake drums," he says, "so I took my little hammer and found this Chrysler drum with just the right ring." Todd Robbins, ragtime-pianist-turned-washboard-maestro, unearthed some prized instruments at Manhattan's Continental Arms gun shop, including the starter pistols and birdcalls.
Another challenge was posed by Spike's stage directions, which sometimes read like the jottings of an asylum inmate. " You try keeping a straight face while reading a score that says 'Idiot babble goes after the last three beats,' " says Davis.
The band's six-week gig at Michael's Pub ending in February was such a success that the nightclub's owner, Gil Weist, offered to manage the act. Since then, says Sayer: "We've had four recording contract offers, and engagement requests are pouring in." Is the world really ready for another round of Spike Jones's musical delinquency? Apparently: Videocassettes of his TV appearances, recently released, are moving briskly, and listeners are increasingly requesting the madcap musician's records on deejay Dr. Demento's syndicated radio show on 180 stations. "Everybody has a silly streak," says Davis. "Everybody likes to act like a kid from time to time. When people watch us they feel part of the fun because they think, 'I could be silly like that.' " If their lunacy grows popular enough, they may even be able to afford those anvils.