Today your PopCulteer pays tribute to one of the most influential figures in his life, one Barry Hansen, better known as “Dr. Demento.” He is the epitome of a cult figure in this country.
Since 1974 he’s hosted a weekly radio show devoted to the occasionally-abandoned art of novelty records, and he’s been a starmaker in the worlds of comedic music and audio bizarreness. The Dr. Demento Show holds a place in pop culture’s humor wing alongside Mad Magazine and The National Lampoon. Seriously, folks, this guy is why I do what I do on The AIR and with Radio Free Charleston. He was my inspiration and deserves all the credit…or blame, depending on your point of view.
His biggest discovery was Weird Al Yankovic, who famously slipped him a cassette of one of his original songs when Hansen visited his high school back in the mid-1970s, but he was also responsible for bringing Barnes and Barnes, Richard Cheese, Judy Tenuta, Emo Philips and others into the mainstream.
Hansen not only discovered these artists, but in many cases he nurtured and encouraged them.
Just last week a punk rock tribute to Dr. Demento was released by Demented Punk Records. The project itself was the brainchild of John Cafiero, of Osaka Popstar, a life-long Demento fan who is also a producer and manager. The record consists of punk rock covers of classic novelty tunes that have been played on The Dr. Demento Show. The album includes new recordings by “Weird Al” Yankovic, the Misfits, the B-52’s Fred Schneider, William Shatner, the late Adam West, Los Straitjackets and more
It’s a match made in heaven, as Demento was an early champion of punk rock, playing tracks by The Ramones, The Dickies, The Sex Pistols, Ian Dury and others back before punk entered into the mainstream. Among the songs on Dr. Demento: Covered In Punk are such Dr. Demento Show favorites as “Shaving Cream,” “Surfin’ Bird,” “The Monster Mash,” “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady,” “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” and Yankovic’s “Eat It.”
All but one of the 19 tunes on Dr. Demento: Covered In Punk, were recorded especially for the set. Only a never-released Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ version of “Science Fiction/Double Feature” from The Rocky Horror Show already existed. On the record, Dr. Demento provides newly-recorded commentary between songs, so that it recreates the experience of listening to The Dr. Demento Show.
The coolest part of this news is that Dr. Demento is still at hosting a subscription streaming version of his radio show. As broadcast radio became more and more corporate and sterile, Demento’s show had a harder time keeping affiliates. He ended the broadcast version of the program in 2010, but the show was reborn as a weekly streaming program that is both commercial-free and censorship-free. Hansen is now free to play material unbleeped. His show usually runs more than two hours now, and incorporates many elements of his old locally-broadcast four-hour show that his syndicators made him leave out of the two-hour national broadcast. More details and links can be found a few paragraphs below.
Personally, finding Dr. Demento on the airwaves when I was a kid was a bit of an epiphany. Even though we barely heard him in Charleston (in fact, I don’t know if any Charleston stations ever carried his show at all), I was able to pick up distant radio signals from Parkersburg and other cities. Finding his show was a rare treat back in those days. I was a huge comedy nerd, with little interest in music, but after hearing Frank Zappa on Dr. Demento back in 1975, I bought my first rock album, Zappa’s Apostrophe. This might be why I’ve always had an affinity for weirder music, like Zappa, DEVO, The Aquabats and others.
Listeners of The AIR also hear Dr. Demento’s influence not only on my announcing and presentation of music, but also on The Bat (poop) Crazy Show, which I’ve described as “Dr. Demento on acid, with Tourette’s Syndrome.” You can hear thirty minutes of The BS Crazy Show every weeknight at 6:30 PM, while every Saturday at 7 PM we offer up three new half-hour episodes.
Better than that though, is the fact that you can listen to the genuine Dr. Demento Show at his website, with a new show every Saturday. There are subscription fees that give you unlimited access to his archives, or you can purchase each show the week it airs. You can’t download it because of the intricacies of music licensing (a world of which I am all too aware), so you have to clear two hours or more to listen when you pay your four bucks (or two if you want a lower-res version that sounds like AM radio). There is also a Dr. Demento Store where you can purchase all kinds of recordings and other goodies.
So run out and buy or download Dr. Demento: Covered In Punk. It’s got a cover illustration by Drew Friedman (see it at the top of this post) and you’ll love it…or something’s seriously wrong with you.
Last week in this space I ran a satirical piece in which I took a typical hysterical story about Charleston’s homeless problem, only I replaced the “transient homeless” with the West Virginia State Legislature. A couple of readers took me to task for not going far enough to suggest that Charleston might have to raise the user fee again to deal with the satirical issue.
Satire or not, I didn’t want to give them any ideas.
As always, we wrap up The PopCulteer for Friday, and remind you to check back every day, even on weekends, for all our regular features. We are getting back in the groove, so expect more reviews of toys, comics, books, magazines, DVDs, CDs and all kinds of other pop culture in the coming weeks. Next we’re going to look at some of the early news coming out in advance of next month’s International Toy Fair in New York.
And don’t forget to tune in, turn on and drop out with The AIR, our sister internet radio station. This is where you can hear Radio Free Charleston, The Swing Shift, The BS Crazy Show and all kinds of other great programs. Check out the widget…
…and check out the schedule…