The weirder the better

Published Oct. 25, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

The tune starts with a familiar bass drone and violin sweep, equal parts gothic dread and hip-hop breakdown. The snare drum kicks in, cracking like a full-on slap in the face, kickstarting a groove that feels familiar as an old glove _ a loping tune that poured from a thousand jeeps this summer as the best-selling single of the year.

But hold on. Just when you think you're about to endure yet another rendition of Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise, the vocals kick in, and you realize it's a whole other party.

"I'm a man of the land, I'm into discipline

Got a Bible in my hand, and a beard on my chin

But if I finish all my chores, and you finish thine

Then tonight we're gonna party like it's 1699."

The cut in question is Amish Paradise, "Weird Al" Yankovic's side-splitting parody of Coolio's lament to the player's lifestyle.

With his usual flair for jumping on the right bandwagons, Yankovic got his parody of the hit single into stores during the original version's peak of popularity. It didn't hurt that he'd crafted a similarly off-the-wall video, featuring the frizzy-haired accordion king in a long beard and full Amish regalia (and Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson), that got lots of high-profile play on MTV.

The result? A record (the aptly-named Bad Hair Day), that peaked at a career-high No. 14 on Billboard's album sales chart and a first-ever platinum record award, signifying over 1-million copies shipped to stores.

"For years, I thought it would be fun to make fun of the Amish," says Yankovic by telephone, an unusually serious guy away from the microphone and TV cameras. "Since the Amish are the polar opposites of gangstas, I thought the juxtaposition of the two images would be funny."

Looks like he was right. Praise for the album, and Paradise in particular, has poured in from sources as diverse as Entertainment Weekly magazine and the Washington Post.

In fact, there may only be one person around who doesn't dig the joke; Coolio himself.

Reportedly, the rapper expressed his discontent at the spoof backstage at February's Grammy awards _ a discomfort likely heightened by Yankovic's decision to show up in Coolio-style braids weeks earlier during the American Music Awards.

"It's the result of a major miscommunication," the parody master told the Philadelphia Inquirer then, saying he recorded the song believing the rapper had approved the project. "I sent him a humble letter of apology. I think he'll eventually be fine."

Coolio aside, Yankovic assures that he gets approval from every artist before parodying their songs, even though he could probably do his shtick without their okay.

"I think that's good business," he says, quite seriously. "These things aren't done to step on anybody's toes. It's a joke, and I'd like them to be in on it. Besides, I think some people have started to see it as a badge of honor to have a Weird Al parody."

According to him, there's only been "one or two artists" who didn't agree to his ideas for sending up their material. When pressed to name names, Yankovic assures he would, if he could only figure out how.

"There's one guy in particular who's turned me down several times. I can't mention his name . . . because he doesn't have one, anymore," he says.

And the reason why the Artist Formerly Known As Prince might withhold his approval? "He's a humorless little weasel, if you ask me," Yankovic says, revealing that, for him, the work of creating his unique bits of sonic comedy is serious business indeed.

The depth of his craft _ strange as that may sound, referring to a song (Phony Calls) that sets a tale of teenage prank phone calls to the strains of TLC's R&B smash Waterfalls _ is evident minutes into the songs crowding Bad Hair Day.

Besides featuring parody tunes such as Cavity Search (set to U2's Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me) and Syndicated, Inc. (a version of Soul Asylum's Misery), Yankovic has his own, surprisingly well-written, tunes _ from the doo-wop excursion Since You've Been Gone to the Nirvana-inspired alt-rock jam Callin' In Sick (not to be confused with Yankovic's especially-tailored parody, Smells Like Nirvana).

His fondness for Spike Jones surfaces in The Alternative Polka, a polka-ized medley of such alternative music staples as the Smashing Pumpkins' Bullet With Butterfly Wings, Soundgarden's Black Hole Sun and Beck's Loser.

Let's put it this way: You haven't lived until you've heard a whiny, polka guy voice belting out the lyrics to Trent Reznor's Closer, with funny-sounding slapstick boinks and crashes filling in for the f-word.

"Ninety percent of the job is surrounding yourself with people who are talented," says Yankovic of the four-piece band that's been helping him craft unerring parodies like Eat It (based on Michael Jackson's, Beat It, of course) since the mid '80s.

And though he has a few rules, like speeding up every parody at least a little from the original version and a fondness for replacing guitar solos with accordion workouts, Yankovic lets few things impinge on his bizarre vision.

"Smells and Living with a Hernia (a take on James Brown's Living In America) were tough to record . . . just because I had to scream in key," he adds. "When I was doing those songs, I actually had to lie down every 15 minutes or so . . . because I was getting a headache."

It's the kind of effort Yankovic has been making since 1979, when his first parody, My Bologna (a take on The Knack's My Sharona), started getting airplay on the Dr. Demento syndicated radio show. Then an architecture student in college, it still took a few more successes before the accordion master would feel comfortable jumping into a show business career.

"Capitol Records paid me a total $500 for My Bologna, and then charged me $1,000 to re-record it for my album," he says, laughing. "But when they introduced me to all their secretaries as their latest recording artist, that kinda turned my head around."

So did the success of Eat It, which fed into a career lasting 17 years with eight Grammy nominations and two wins. Thanks to his growing abilities as a director _ he's been behind the camera for his own spot-on video parodies since 1986 _ Yankovic has even been asked to direct a clip for modern rock minimalists the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

"It kind of boggles my mind," he says. "My records are a quick burnout, so every one seems like a comeback, anyway. Some of my hardest-core fans weren't even born when I did Bologna . . . which still freaks me out."


"Weird Al" Yankovic appears tonight at the Tampa Theatre, 711 Franklin St. Mall, Tampa. Tickets are $21 for the 8 p.m. show. 274-8981.