By Alan Bisbort
It’s a measure of the “wide-tent” philosophy of rock ‘n’ roll that even the best of song hits sometimes start out as one-off jokes. Of course, the converse is true, too—that the worst of songs often become hits. (See: “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer or anything by Loggins & Messina, the Eagles, etc.). And some songs just straddle the line between joke and wretchedness.
My Ding a Ling by Chuck Berry
I guess all of us who love Chuck Berry and think of him as a rock ‘n’ roll genius can take some consolation in the fact that he did not write this wretched, annoying novelty song that sadly became his only Number One hit single in 1972. It was written by Dave Bartholomew and first recorded by him in 1952, then re-recorded later as “Little Girl Sing Ting-a-Ling”. Berry first recorded a version of it (“My Tambourine”) in 1968, but the hit single “My Ding-a-Ling” was recorded live at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry, U.K. in February 1972.
“Song 2” by Blur
Blur’s now ubiquitous “Song 2,” from their 1997 album Blur, was originally written as a satire of grunge. However, the “woo hoo” hook caught on in a big way, and now the song will, like “We Are the Champions,” “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Hey, Mickey,” never disappear. “Song 2” is, in fact, regularly sung at pro soccer and football games, Olympiads and pep rallies. The Pentagon even requested to use the song for the unveiling a new stealth bomber, a dubious choice given that one of the lyrics is “I got my head checked by a jumbo jet.” Regardless, the request was rejected by Blur’s Damon Albarn.
“Smells like Nirvana” by Weird Al Yankovic
An obvious parody of Nirvana’s hit “Smells Like Team Spirit” (replete with video featuring a singer/guitarist who looked like Kurt Cobain), the song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 25, 1992. It peaked at number 35 and remained on the chart for two weeks. Nirvana itself was also pleased with the parody. Cobain is claimed to have considered that Nirvana had “made it” with the success of Yankovic’s parody. In his journal, Cobain called Yankovic “America’s modern pop-rock genius.
“The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Ylvis
Ylvis is a Norwegian comedy duo who recorded this as an “anti-hit” for their television show I kveld med YLVIS. Though it was “created to fail,” the song became the top trending video of 2013 on YouTube, with 556 million views (as of November 2015) and was on the Billboard singles charts in the U.S. In true maverick fashion, Ylvis never released the song on an album and don’t seem particularly interested in exploiting their notoriety. Oh, those enigmatic Scandinavians.
“Loser” by Beck
Beck Hansen, America’s favorite Scientologist (now that Tom Cruise is said to be wavering in his devotion to L. Ron Hubbard’s cult), is a musical chameleon. He can adopt just about any style or genre to his enigmatic musical vision. He can even do a passable Nick Drake impersonation (“Round the Bend”). However, it was his first single, “Loser,” that has cemented his (unfair) reputation as the poster boy for slacker culture. The song, with its nerdy white boy rapping and scatter-brained lyrics, was among a group of songs that Beck created on the spot to attract the wavering attention of audiences when he was struggling to make it as a musician in LA’s coffeehouse and club scene. He wrote it and recorded it all in one day at producer Karl Stephenson’s house. Beck has repeatedly denied that the single’s title and chorus (“I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me”) were intended to label an entire generation. Rather, he was referring to his own lack of skill as a rapper.
One Joke Song That Should have been a Hit:
“Party From Outer Space” by Albert Brooks
Written by Albert Brooks and Harry “Spinal Tap” Shearer, “Party From Outer Space” appeared on Brooks’ brilliant, neglected A Star is Bought album. The song, performed by Brooks and Shearer, was comprised of snippets from completely fabricated “hits” that are spliced into the track at various intervals. It’s comedy gold and should have been certified gold as a hit single. The underlying theme of the entire A Star is Bought album, released in 1976, was to record songs in all genres and styles in order to pander to a perceived market for “hits”. On the album, Brooks recorded a parody of a blues song with Albert King (“Englishman-German-Jew Blues”), a classical music track wherein Brooks sings erotic, made-up lyrics to Ravel’s “Bolero,” and an “inspirational” number (“Phone Call to Americans”) targeted to those listeners who might be suffering from Bicentennial fever.
Alan Bisbort is a freelance writer living in CT