Killer Riffs: A Guide to Parody in Popular Music

From the Residents’ freakish Beatles sendups, to Spinal Tap’s meta-metal escapades, to the gastronomic goofs of “Weird Al”, a chronicle of those who have turned pastiche and mimicry into an art form across the last 50 years.

FOR CENTURIES, parody has been a pastime for the clever young. Writing verse, stories, plays, or pieces of music in the style of famous others achieves a double whammy: It takes knowledge and skill to mimic the mannerisms of an individual artist (or a genre) while simultaneously poking insubordinate fun at the renowned and respected. There’s something intrinsically puerile — mocking your elders and betters — about parody, and to pull one off successfully requires a blend of craft and cruelty. But even at its meanest, the parody is a backhanded compliment: You can only be caricatured if you’re distinctive and stylistically striking. That’s why pop stars are nearly always delighted when “Weird Al” Yankovic targets them: It’s a sign you’ve made it.

Outside observers started taking the piss out of rock’n’roll as soon it became a mainstream phenomenon. One example is Fred Astaire’s ‘The Ritz Roll and Rock’, from the 1957 movie Silk Stockings. The full history of comedians parodying popular music performers would take up an essay in its own right: The lineage encompasses National Lampoon’s Lemmings, ‘Saturday Night Live’, Tenacious D, and the Lonely Island, as well as non-U.S. exponents like the Young Ones, Flight of the Conchords, and the Mighty Boosh. In this chronological survey, though, I concentrate on cases where rock mocks itself, and parody is used as an elastic concept covering related practices like pastiche, the creative cover version, and work that relies heavily on quotation or allusion.

Working on my glam history Shock and Awe, I became fascinated by rock’s peculiar compulsion to comment on itself or fold back on its own history self-reflexively, through mixed motives of irreverence and nostalgia, campy irony and sentimental affection. Teeming with homages, invocations, references, and revivals, glam rock was pop culture inventing postmodernism all by itself, years before the concept achieved mainstream currency. That spirit remains a riotous presence in our culture with the explosion of online parody. As much as we feel awestruck fascination for the famous, it seems we’re equally driven to demystify and deride them.

The Detergents: ‘Leader of the Laundromat’ (1964)

Sending up ‘Leader of the Pack’ and the entire genre of teen tragedy songs, ‘Leader of the Laundromat’ flips the girl-group viewpoint to the male adolescent perspective. A couple splits up in the street; the girl grabs his washing, runs distraught into the road, and collides fatally with a passing garbage truck. “I felt so messy standing there/My daddy’s shorts were everywhere.” Mimicking Shangri-Las producer Shadow Morton’s hallmarks, ‘Laundromat’ adds accident sound effects and slathers the vocals with echo. The single made the Billboard Top 20 in early 1965 — and the Detergents were promptly sued by Morton and ‘Pack’ co-writers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich.

The Move: ‘Wave the Flag and Stop the Train’ (1967)

As both the primary songwriter of the Move and the studio wizard behind Wizzard’s glam-era streak of smash hits, UK eccentric Roy Wood was ahead of his time in being behind of his time: His pastiche approach anticipated the record-collector magpie sensibility of figures like Nick Lowe, R. Stevie Moore, Marshall Crenshaw, and Ariel Pink. But perhaps Wood’s most bizarrely ahead-of-schedule achievement was inventing ’60s nostalgia while the ’60s were still in full swing. On the flipside of the Move 1967’s psychedelic hit ‘I Can Hear the Grass Grow’ you can find ‘Wave the Flag and Stop the Train’ — a replica of the Beatles’ sound circa 1965, with the bass riff in particular highly redolent of ‘Day Tripper.’ As pop scholar Philip Auslander observes, while the A-side has the Move following the contemporary lead of the Fab Four in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ mode, the B-side backtracks to an earlier stage of their development. So accelerated was pop time in the ’60s that only two years earlier could seem like a distant age.

The Beatles: ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ (1968)

Parody is a lightweight business on the whole. Yet it has a curious allure for artistic heavyweights, as a sideline activity for innovators like Zappa, Bowie, and the Beatles. ‘Back in the U.S.S.R’ was their first full-blown foray into pastiche: The title nods to Chuck Berry, the chorus and vocal sound recreates classic-era Beach Boys, and there’s a lyric allusion to Ray Charles’ ‘Georgia on My Mind’ (but in this case referencing the then Soviet Republic rather than the Deep South state). ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ was the lead single from The Beatles, a double album sprawl of creativity but also of recreativity, with the Fab Four referencing other musicians like Dylan as well as earlier phases of their own music. As critic Carl Belz pointed out at the time, this was a striking break with the reigning late ’60s ethos of progression: The Beatles were “going back over musical territory which they have already covered, which they already know, and which they have left.” Postmodernism, in other words.

The Mothers of Invention: Cruising with Ruben & the Jets (1968)

A satirical sneer is integral to so much of Frank Zappa’s work. The snark target is often a contemporary pop fad or one of his own peers, whether it’s the Love Generation-mocking We’re Only in It for the Money (artwork that parodied Sgt. Pepper’s cover, the ‘Hey Joe’-ripping and hippie-deriding ‘Flower Punk’) through to the disco spoof ‘Dancin’ Fool.’ Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is a curiosity in the Zappa discography, not just because it’s a whole album based around pastiche, but because it’s genuinely and wistfully affectionate towards the caricatured genre in question, doo-wop.

“I’m very fond of close-harmony, group-vocal ‘oo-wah’ rock and roll”, Zappa confessed in 1969. Typically, though, he liked to stress the conceptual element, talking about “the scientific side of Ruben & the Jets” and describing it as “an experiment in cliche collages”, with each song a “careful conglomerate” of “stereotyped motifs.” Yet the album — which saw the Mothers playing the role of a fictitious ’50s vocal group like the Flamingos — doesn’t sound like a cold-blooded dissection/deconstruction. The caricature only works to intensify doo-wop’s appealing traits: the happy-sad basslines, the wobbly emotion of the warbling vocals. Woozy and droopy, the effect is like an ice cream cake left to melt in the sun. Still, Zappa couldn’t resist having some mischief with what he called  doo-wop’s “imbecile words”: ‘Stuff Up the Cracks’ is about suicide as the remedy for heartbreak.

The Turtles: The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (1968)

During that same winter of 1968, the Turtles out-did Zappa’s fictitious-band gambit by a factor of 11. Battle of the Bands’ inner gatefold shows the Turtles garbed as radically different combos with names like the Atomic Enchilada, Fats Mallard and the Bluegrass Fireball, and Nature’s Children. On the record itself, the group expertly simulate a gamut of styles, including surf-pop, steel-guitar-twangy country, and, with the Bigg Brothers’ ‘Food’, psychedelia at its most effete. Some of the targets are hard to pinpoint now, possibly referencing subgenres long lost in the turnover of late ’60s trends. The L.A. Bust ’66’s ‘Oh, Daddy!’, for instance, sounds like the Monkees until mid-song, when a carousing jazz troupe disrupts the vibe, yet the imaginary group’s image, all long hair and headbands, resembles Santana. Something of an over-extended joke, Battle of the Bands served as template for the breakaway duo Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan’s career as Flo & Eddie.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: ‘The Intro and the Outro’ (1967)

Although Spike Jones and his City Slickers took the mickey out of American pop culture of the ’40s and ’50s with the Musical Depreciation Revue, the first rock-era outfit wholly dedicated to parody was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Centered around singer-trumpeter Vivian Stanshall and singer-music-man Neil Innes, the Bonzos came out of the same Anglo-Surrealist comedy sensibility that produced Monty Python; indeed they were the resident band on Do Not Adjust Your Set, a kids TV show that involved future Pythons Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones. As with Python, their absurdist nonsense was a cathartic protest against the repressions of English middle-class life. Stanshall talked disparagingly about “Normals”, suburban drones trapped in inane routine: It’s they who were the “really dreadful freaks”, not bohemian eccentrics like himself.  

Parody, then, was for the Bonzos the aesthetic counterpart to their rejection of common sense reality. Probably their most famous skit is ‘The Intro and the Outro’, a smarmy-voiced “introducing the band” routine with each player allowed a brief flourish in the spotlight: The patter rapidly extends beyond the actual group to public and historical figures like Charles De Gaulle (on Gallic accordion, of course) and Adolf Hitler (“looking very relaxed… on vibes… nice”). Elsewhere in the discography, there’s a spoof on Elvis in country ballad mode (‘Canyons of Your Mind’), a merciless skewering of late ’60s minstrelsy (‘Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?’), a Wilson Pickett take-off (‘Trouser Press’), and a teen-pop parody that tells the unsavory truth about adolescence (‘King of Scurf’). But the Bonzos don’t spare the freaks, either — even though they were considered counter-culture fellow-travelers — sending up psychedelia on ‘We Are Normal.’ As with so many parodists, the Bonzos’ secret shame, or at least fatal weakness, is their deep attachment to the clichés and conventions they mock: They poke and pick away at them, but never quite transcend.

Roxy Music: ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’ (1972)

Roxy’s music is a battle zone in which contradictory impulses fight it out: Proggy-modernism that puts them in the company of King Crimson and Can versus campy retro born of Bryan Ferry’s pop art schooling and love of pre-rock songwriters like Cole Porter. When the latter tendency prevailed, you got cocktail music-meets-doo-wop tunes like ‘Bitters End’ or the deliciously knowing references to psychedelia in ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’. Roxy laid out their proto-pomo sensibility with the mission-statement of their debut album’s opening track, ‘Re-Make/Re-Model’. Possibly in homage to ‘The Intro and the Outro’ (Eno loved the Bonzos), the song ends with each member taking a short solo — and in each case, it’s a famous musical quote, from ‘Day Tripper’ to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, with Andy Mackay rendering Wagner’s fanfare riff in the raucous rock’n’roll sax style of King Curtis.

David Bowie: Pinups (1973)

Forgery was integral to Bowie’s approach from the off. He started out virtually a clone of British musical theatre star Anthony Newley. Intensive studies of mime seemed only to intensify this mimetic streak. On The Man Who Sold the World, ‘Black Country Rock’ apes the goat-like bleat of his friendly rival Marc Bolan; Hunky Dory‘s ‘Queen Bitch’ photocopies the Velvet Underground circa Loaded; ‘The Jean Genie’ takes 1965 Stones as its template, right down to the smoky rasp of harmonica. But Bowie really put the past into pastiche with 1973’s Pinups, a covers album dedicated to mid-’60s Brits like the Who and the Pretty Things. Although the overt intention is fanboy homage to mod and psych tunes that meant so much to the young Davie Jones, the effect is closer to travesty: With only a few exceptions, each version hollows out the insurrectionary energy of the original and leaves just a stylized shell. This is nowhere more apparent than with the mannered rendition of the Easybeats’ ‘Friday on My Mind.’ Bowie saw himself as an actor more than a musician, but ham like this would have seen him howled off any West End stage.

10cc: ‘Rubber Bullets’ (1973)

Like their contemporaries ELO and Elton John, 10cc combined huge knowledge of rock and pop history with consummate studio craftsmanship. This sheer facility with the arrangement of sound made them susceptible to the lure of pastiche. For every astonishing feat of innovative production like  ‘I’m Not in Love’, there was an exquisitely exact counterfeit. ‘Johnny Don’t Do It’ was praised by Rolling Stone’s Greg Shaw as the best satire of teenage motorcycle death songs since ‘Leader of the Laundromat’; ‘Donna’ did the same trick with the ’50s lovesick ballad; ‘Rubber Bullets’ combined Presley’s ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and the Beach Boys to make a wry comment on the Attica State prison uprising.

Gary Glitter: ‘I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)’ (1973)

One of the biggest pop stars of the British ’70s, now disgraced for sex crimes, Gary Glitter could easily have been called Terry Tinsel: The moniker originated as a jape among showbiz pals trying to think up the most preposterous stage name. The alter-ego flashed back to the British ’50s, when star-making Svengalis like Larry Parnes gave their working class rock’n’roll proteges names like Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, and Duffy Power. Glitter’s lyrics referenced ’50s Americana like jukebox halls and motorbike gangs; his silver-foil costumes were a burlesque amplification of Little Richard crossed with Liberace. But the brutally crunching minimalism of the sound created by his producer Mike Leander was utterly modern: not a replica but a reinvention of rock’n’roll for the grim, socially-fractured UK of the early ’70s.

Alvin Stardust: ‘My Coo Ca Choo’ (1973)

Following swiftly in Glitter’s wake, Alvin Stardust was more straightforwardly revivalist, his black leather, sideburn-and-quiff image based on a single precursor, Gene Vincent. (Originally the first name of his alias was “Elvin”: a composite of Elvis and Vincent.) The Stardust persona was actually invented by A&R/producer Peter Shelley, who sang the first hit ‘My Coo Ca Choo’, then recruited someone else to be the public face and voice of Alvin Stardust: Bernard Jewry, who’d previously had modest success in the ’60s as singer of Shane Fenton and the Fentones. Bizarrely, Jewry had been that group’s roadie originally and then replaced the original Shane Fenton, who died when he was 16 years old.

First Class: ‘Bobby Dazzler’ (1974)

Perhaps inside industry knowledge informed ‘Bobby Dazzler’, First Class’ spoof on the Glitter/Stardust syndrome, which accuses them of being the puppets of Svengalis who “stood you in the ring and painted you like a clown.” But ‘Bobby Dazzler’ failed to make the charts and Gary and Alvin had the last laugh, scoring hits well into the next decade — Stardust as late as 1984’s ‘I Feel Like Buddy Holly.’

Wizzard: ‘See My Baby Jive’ (1973)

Wizzard leader Roy Wood’s records are exercises in wish-fulfilment somewhere between time-travel and cosplay. On huge UK hits ‘See My Baby Jive’ and ‘Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad)’, he out-Spectors Spector with blaring updates of the multi-tracked “symphony for little kids” sound. Solo single ‘Forever’ is a composite of Beach Boys and Neil Sedaka so indebted that Wood inscribed “with special thanks to Brian Wilson and Neil Sedaka for their influence” on the 7″ label. On the second Wizzard album Introducing Eddie and the Falcons, Wood recycles the already-quite-tired fictitious band gambit, although the packaging — which includes a business card declaring that the Falcons are available for weddings and social functions — is a hoot.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Genre-blending horror, comedy, and musical, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is a rock-biz satire swiping at many of the fads of the early ’70s, including glam (in the form of outrageously camp singer Beef) and shock rock (the Alice Cooper-like outfit the Undeads). But another trend that gets mocked is nostalgia and the ’50s revival: Before they are remodeled as the Undeads, that group are the Juicy Fruits, a transparent rip on Sha Na Na. The movie’s central figure, sinister super-producer Swan (played by Paul Williams) declares that “the future of rock’n’roll is its past.” Phantom flopped at the time, but among its unlikely legacy is Daft Punk, who hailed it as “our favorite film, the foundation for a lot of what we’re about artistically”, and invited Williams to sing on Random Access Memories.

The Tubes: Quay Lewd (1974)

As a band, the Tubes flexed prog-level skills, but instead of cosmic concept albums they funneled that virtuosity into eclectic soundtracks for outrageously theatrical stage routines. Mixing parody and satire, they targeted everything from the Saturday Night Fever/Studio 54 moment (‘Slipped My Disco’) to S&M (‘Mondo Bondage’). Probably their most beloved comedy set-piece, though, was frontman Fee Waybill’s parody of inelegantly wasted British rockstars. Originally called Rod Planet and then renamed after the popularly abused sedative drug, Quay Lewd staggered onstage in silver 12-inch platform boots and lamé leggings, thickly made-up eyes and outsize sunglasses even more sequined than Elton’s. Drawling in exaggerated Cockney, Quay would call for “a big round of applause for me back-up combo the Cocaine Piranhas!” and importune the audience for downers. Then he’d puke and pass out and have to be carried offstage by the road crew.

The Residents: The Third Reich ‘N Roll (1976)

The Residents started out spoofing Meet the Beatles! with their own debut album Meet the Residents. As the grotesquely defaced cover art indicated, theirs was a love-hate relationship with the Fab Four and their entire era. The Third Reich ‘N Roll was a through-the-looking-glass replay of the previous decade, like some parallel reality where World War II and the ’60s temporally coincided; Wilson Pickett’s ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ and Count Five’s ‘Psychotic Reaction’ compete with the din of diving Stuka bombers and MG15 machine guns.

That same year, the Residents released a cover of the Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ even more mangled than Devo’s. Then, in 1977, they put out The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles. The A-side ‘Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life’ wove together samples of the Beatles and interview soundbites in which Lennon appears to apologize to the fans: “Please everybody if we haven’t done what we could have done, we’ve tried.” After several albums of all-original, gloriously peculiar music, the Residents returned to the perverted cover version concept with The American Composers Series, attempting ambiguous tributes to 20 musical greats. This petered out after just four twisted homages across two albums, to George Gershwin, James Brown, Hank Williams, and John Philip Sousa. By this point in the mid-’80s, the Residents had spawned a mini-genre of vandalistic plagiarism which we’ll encounter later, whose exponents include John Oswald, Negativland, and Culturcide.

Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias: Snuff Rock EP (1977)

Successors to the Bonzos, the Albertos emerged from Manchester’s post-hippie underground with a similar blend of deft musicality and daft mockery. The name came from a sombrero-wearing Latin American troupe called Alberto Del Parana Y Su Trío Los Paraguayos. Nothing was sacred: The Velvets’ ‘Heroin’ became ‘Anadin’ (after a British brand of painkiller) and even the Bonzos got parodied on ‘God Is Mad.’ ‘Heads Down, No Nonsense, Mindless Boogie’, a rip on Status Quo and their denim army, became an unlikely hit single with its moronic-monolithic pummel and rallying refrain “bang your ‘ed on the wall.” Derived from a stage production, the Snuff Rock EP made waves with its storyline about a singer stabbing himself to death onstage — a double spoof on punk and the rumored existence of snuff movies. The contents ranged from the Pistols piss-take ‘Gobbing on Life’ (“Death is the only thing we’ve got to live for”) to the roots reggae replica ‘Snuffin’ in a Babylon.’

Nick Lowe: ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’ (1978)

“Nowadays I just steal the stuff. I don’t try and write in anybody’s style: If I hear a good lick… I’ll just pinch it and use it.” Thus spake Nick Lowe in 1978, remixing the famous maxim “talent borrows, genius steals.” Lowe’s most genius steal ever was ‘I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass’, which duplicates the sound of ‘Sound and Vision’ and purloins the title of ‘Breaking Glass’, another tune from Bowie’s Low. Jester Nick had already released a 1977 EP titled Bowi, in “retaliation” for Low taking his name — minus the “e” — in vain. In another act of larceny, Lowe borrowed the Turtles’ Battle of the Bands concept for the sleeve of Pure Pop for Now People, garbed as five different stereotypes of music performer, from hippie to New Wave, with pal Dave Edmunds providing the sixth species.

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

Running a very close second to This Is Spinal Tap for the prize of all-time funniest movie-length music parody, All You Need Is Cash started as the spin-off of a spin-off. After Monty Python, Eric Idle made the not-quite-as-hilarious British series ‘Rutland Weekend Television’, for which ex-Bonzo Neil Innes contributed musical sketches. One of these was the Rutles’ ‘I Must Be in Love’, filmed in the black-and-white caper style of A Hard Day’s Night. Something was in the mid-’70s air: Fab Four nostalgia erupted with the Broadway smash musical Beatlemania and the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, an all-star calamity. When Idle hosted Saturday Night Live, he dug out the ‘I Must Be In Love’ clip; the huge viewer response persuaded Lorne Michaels to finance a primetime NBC special.

Most likely the very first rock mockumentary, All You Need Is Cash tells the story of  the Pre-Fab Four — Dirk, Nasty, Stig, and Barry — and their manager Leggy Mountbatten (who hated their music but liked their tight trousers, which “left nothing to the imagination”). Embarking on the project, Innes decided not to listen to the original records but rely on his memories, expertly simulating the guitar tones, chordings, and vocal traits of the Beatles at every stage of their career. He also formed a proper group to play the songs so that there was a real “vibe” to the music. All You Need Is Cash works simultaneously as a wistful wallow in nostalgia, a satire of ’60s folly, and a enjoyable showcase of sheer musical craftsmanship. In addition to roles for SNL cast regulars like Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Jim Belushi, there were delicious cameos for real-world rockers like Mick Jagger (“We were the South’s answer to the Rutles”) and Paul Simon. Out of many wonderful scenes, perhaps the best is the New Orleans sequence: The documentary maker goes in search of the black ‘n’ bluesy roots of the British Invasion Sound, only for Blind Lemon Pye to tell him that he learned everything from the Rutles. The ex-Beatles loved it, especially George Harrison, who said that “the Rutles sort of liberated me from the Beatles in a way. It was the only thing I saw of those Beatles television shows… It was actually the best, funniest and most scathing. But at the same time, it was done with the most love.”

Morgan Fisher/Hybrid Kids: ‘D’Ya Think I’m Sexy’ (1979)

After a bizarrely varied career that involved teen pop stardom in the Love Affair and a stint in glam-era Mott the Hoople, Morgan Fisher caught the DIY post-punk bug. His Cherry Red debut Hybrid Kids: A Collection of Mutants cost the equivalent of just $40 to make (the price of the tape it was recorded on). The concept was a spoof on the post-punk era’s serial buzzes about cities like Cleveland, Akron, and Leeds: Hybrid Kids posed as a compilation of bands from a real city, Peabody, Kansas, each of whom covered a famous song. All were Fisher, of course, making strenuous efforts to pervert and invert the originals. Standout subversion was British Standard Unit’s robotic defunking of Rod Stewart’s disco hit ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’, which in turn became a favorite of BBC Radio DJ John Peel and his listeners. An admirer of the Residents, Fisher says his intent was not iconoclastic so much as wanting “to bring the songs into the modern world.” That does seem to be one of the motives behind the postpunk penchant for cover versions; drastically updating a classic song serves to make the break between old wave and new wave even starker.

The Flying Lizards: ‘Money’ (1979)

In a similar new wave strategy, Lizard leader David Cunningham took the Berry Gordy Jr. tune — originally a Barrett Strong hit, iconic in its feral Beatles version — and added prepared-piano clangor, achieved by throwing rubber toys and a telephone directory onto the instrument’s strings. The raw hunger of Lennon’s vocal was replaced by Deborah Evans-Stickland’s finishing school frostiness. ‘Money’ was an unexpected UK Top 5 novelty hit. Although they had some minor success with the original composition ‘TV’, the Lizards kept coming back to the warped cover version approach — ‘Sex Machine’, ‘Move on Up’, ‘Then He Kissed Me’, ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzie’, etc. — but without success. The assault on formulaic pop became its own formula — and not a winning one, either.

Todd Rundgren/Utopia: Deface the Music (1980)

Innovators get weary sometimes. All that pushing into the unknown tires them out and often they’ll take a vacation in, well, the known. It’s as though the craft aspects of reproducing an antique sound serves as therapy. Todd Rundgren’s 1976 album Faithful includes eerily exact reenactments of classics of ’60s studio wizardry that had clearly been formative influences for him, among them ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Rain.’ (Rundgren also spent some time working as musical advisor on the Beatlemania stage set.) When the Knack hit #1 in 1979 with the Beatles-y ‘My Sharona’,  Rundgren was spurred to knock out a Fab Four facsimile with his band Utopia and offered it for the soundtrack to the 1980 goof Roadie, starring Meatloaf. But ‘I Just Want to Touch You’ was rejected on account of concerns that its similarity to ‘I Want to Hold You Hand’/’Love Me Do’-era Beatles might prompt a lawsuit.

Undeterred, Rundgren embarked on an entire album of Beatles Xeroxes, running through the band’s chronology just like the Rutles had. But, intriguingly, Rundgren stops with psychedelia-era pastiches like ‘Hoi Poloi’ and the ‘Walrus’-like ‘Everybody Else Is Wrong.’ He doesn’t follow through to the raw ‘n’ rootsy end-of-’60s Beatles; since Todd’s thing is all about studio artifice, it makes sense he’d reject the Beatles own rejection of studio artifice and instead try to freeze-frame their trajectory in 1967. Shame that the results are so lame, but if nothing else Rundgren could claim to have anticipated moves by future production client XTC (under the alias Dukes of Stratosphear) and ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ by Tears for Fears.

Redd Kross: ‘St. Lita Ford Blues’ (1982)/’Love Is You’ (1987)

While ’60s-ransacking went into overdrive on the ’80s alternative scene, the sharper kind were already making moves on the ’70s. Redd Kross’ 1982 debut Born Innocent featured a cover of a song performed by the fictitious all-girl group the Carrie Nations in Russ Meyer’s campy fantasia Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), a tune named after Linda Blair from The Exorcist (1973), and an homage to the Runaways lead guitarist Lita Ford (circa 1976). Teen Babes from Monsanto, from 1984, included covers of Kiss’ ‘Deuce’ and Bowie’s ‘Saviour Machine.’ Parody, as strictly defined, didn’t happen often: One exception is ‘Love Is You’ from the band 1987 album Neurotica, which impersonates George Harrison at his wimpiest. But then Redd Kross’s whole shtick was a parody of an era. As such they paved the way for ’70s-mining groups of the ’90s like Cheap Trick wannabes Urge Overkill, and for movies like 1990’s The Spirit of ’76, in which Redd Kross made a cameo alongside David Cassidy.

Shockabilly: ‘Purple Haze’ (1983)

Abiding by the 20 Year Rule of nostalgia cycles, the ’80s was when ’60s retro took off. Shockabilly were an avant-comedy power trio who specialized in obliterative cover versions. Earth vs. Shockabilly mauled classics by the Stones, Hendrix, Beatles, and the Doors. The trio’s skill set — especially Eugene Chadbourne’s Jimi-like virtuoso violence and David Licht’s freeform Mitch Mitchell drumming — suggested that their secret wish was to have actually been operative in the late ’60s. Born in 1954, Chadbourne was old enough to have been conscious during that time but too young to fully partake (although he did dodge the draft and exile himself to Canada in 1972). Shockabilly’s solution to the born-too-late blues: reactivate the freak-out sonic principles of that era, while maintaining Gen X style ironic distance from all the other counter-culture stuff.

“Weird Al” Yankovic: ‘Eat It’ (1984)

The Mel Brooks of music, “Weird Al” is far and away the most successful pop parodist of our time, and in recent years has benefited from accumulated cross-generational affection, resulting in late-in-life surprise triumphs like 2014’s Mandatory Fun going in at #1. One of his trademark moves is the food-substitution trick: ‘My Bologna’ (based on ‘My Sharona’), ‘I Love Rocky Road’ (‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’) and above all ‘Eat It’, his parody of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It.’ Complete with a video that matched the Jackson promo shot for shot, ‘Eat It’ was Al’s  biggest hit right up until 2006’s ‘White & Nerdy.’ There seems to be something about food that makes it intrinsically un-rock’n’roll (think about it: it only ever figures in songs as a metaphor for something else, usually sex). Even on Mandatory Fun, Al falls back on the food-as-bathos ploy: ‘Royals’ spoof ‘Foil’ celebrates the silver stuff’s superiority over baggies and Tupperware when it comes food storage.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Although the mockumentary follows a 1982 tour, This Is Spinal Tap is really a spoof on ’70s rock excess in all its insanity and inanity. This aging Brit band are old wavers who’ve lingered too long into the new wave era. Unlike some of their more adaptable peers, Tap have lost the ability to adjust to the changing times they once had: One of the film’s myriad delights are the clips of the band off old TV shows, when they appear as perfect stereotypes of the British beat group and the flower power psychedelic band. But at some point their development arrested and, in 1982, the sexism is as unreconstructed as their crotches are padded. So uncanny is this movie’s combo of fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude and just-over-the-edge absurdity that Spinal Tap is famous for weirding out real-life bands of similar vintage or mentality: Incidents like getting lost somewhere between the dressing room and the stage or tantrums thrown over the rider’s deficiencies are things these rockers have lived first-hand. A few thought it was a real doc about a real band. In a sense, they are: Spinal Tap built up a substantial live following for their music. And why not — the musical parody is as flawless as the American actors’ English accents.

The Dukes of Stratosphear: 25 O’Clock (1985)

Starting out as one of the more original postpunk bands, explosive with neurotic and nerdy invention, XTC succumbed to the pull of the ’60s and grew increasingly English and whimsical. Safely vented through the alias Dukes of Stratosphear, this tendency blossomed with the full-blown psychedelic pastiche of 25 O’Clock. Assuming alter-egos like Lord Cornelius Plum and the Red Curtain, the group lovingly recreated all their favorite 1967 sounds. And visuals too: The promo for ‘The Mole From the Ministry’ alternates between black-and-white (think Pink Floyd’s promo film for ‘Arnold Layne’) and lurid color (think the Beatles’ made-for-TV folly Magical Mystery  Tour). Shot in the grounds of a stately home, ‘Mole’ employs every pseudo-surreal cliché of the lysergic ’60s, from animal masks and a mannequin that comes alive to a brightly-painted piano and sequences where the film runs backwards. Being Dukes for a spell seemed to work for XTC as a break from the pressurized path of their primary career, over which loomed the financial necessity of breaking America. Perhaps that’s why — after the fraught making of Skylarking with Todd Rundgren as tough task-master producer — XTC sought refuge in the Dukes identity again for 1987’s full-length Psonic Psunspot.

Culturcide: Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America (1986)

A time-honored time-kill for bored adolescents is defacing your old children’s books: augmenting the illustrations with obscene additions, superimposing crudities over keywords in the text. Houston-based experimental outfit Culturcide applied this puerile technique to the Billboard Top 40 of the ’80s on Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America. Adding insult to the injury of copyright infringement, they overdubbed sarcastic lyrics on top of hits like Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and Huey Lewis and the News’ ‘The Heart of Rock & Roll’, along with blurts of ugly noise. But the funniest track targets their own scene: Grand Funk’s ‘We’re an American Band’ becomes ‘We’re an Industrial Band.’  Instead of touring the USA bringing party-all-night vibes wherever they play, Culturcide promise that “We’re coming to your town/We’re going to bring you down.” Looking for sex, groupies get bored comatose by endless talk “about child abuse and Hitler’s SS.”

Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction: ‘Prime Mover’ (1987)

As new wave ideas grew stale in the late ’80s, the idea of rock in all its ’70s scale and swagger started to appeal. Beastie Boys sampled Led Zep;  Butthole Surfers took riffs from Sabbath. Usually these nouveau rock moves came couched in irony. And the wink was definitely discernible with Zodiac Mindwarp, the macho-strutting persona invented by graphic artist Mark Manning. ‘Prime Mover’ and the album Tattooed Beat Messiah were UK hits, while in America the group passed close enough to the real thing to tour with Guns N’ Roses and appear on MTV’s ‘Headbangers Ball.’  But Mindwarp really had more in common with alternative groups that emerged a few years later in America, like Monster Magnet, Raging Slab, and White Zombie. They came from the same mindset: raised postpunk, aware that ’70s rock was retrograde, but attracted to its bombast and egomania all the same. The patina of parody that these groups retained was a form of equivocation, signaling to the audience that they were in on the joke.

Laibach: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (1988)/Volk (2006)

These poker-faced Slovenes have kept up the world’s longest-running rock satire, the gist of which is that there’s something potentially totalitarian about arena concerts and anthems like Queen’s ‘One Vision.’ Laibach’s greatest parody of all is the fake sovereign state they created, NSK, which comes complete with passports, military uniforms, flags, postage stamps, and even consulates in certain countries of the former Yugoslavia. But Laibach have also doggedly specialized in portentous cover versions of rock classics like ‘Across the Universe’ and ‘Maggie Mae’, as well as Euro-rock anthems like ‘Life Is Life’ and ‘Final Countdown.’ Their take on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ came in six versions that replaced the Stones’ seething percussive groove with stilted march rhythms and kitsch orchestrations (in one mix, the famous “woo woos” are sung by a massed choir).

Probably their most conceptually perfect release is Volk, a collection of covers of national anthems, ranging from famous ones like America and Great Britain to obscurer offerings like the Vatican. Unfortunately, as a non-conceptual listen Volk is impossibly dreary — with the exception of the closing NSK anthem. Ponderous and ceremonial, it sounds literally stately, while the recording’s faded-to-grey ambience evokes a scratchy Pathé news reel of the 1930s.

John Oswald: Plunderphonic (1989)/Plexure (1993)/Grayfolded: Transitive Axis (1994)

Canadian composer John Oswald’s plunderphonic techniques actually correspond to the practice of parody used in classical music, referring to pieces that rework or extensively quote from earlier works. On the Plunderphonic album, Oswald sourced each of the pieces in a single song, weaving its entirety out of micro-edited and processed “electroquotes” (his term for samples). Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ became the disorienting ‘Dab.’  This act of copyright transgression ultimately led to the record being withdrawn following legal threats (although Jackson is said to have been more annoyed by the cover, which superimposed his head on a woman’s naked body).

With 1993’s Plexure, Oswald took the entire radioscape of the era as his source material, compositing hundreds of sampled snippets into an 18-minute frenzy of crescendos, shrieks, squealing guitar solos, stutter-beats. Having exhausted his anti-pop polemic, Oswald’s next step was homage:  Grayfolded took scores of live versions of Grateful Dead’s ‘Dark Star’ and wove together a time-travelling ultra-trip involving multiple Garcias jamming together. As technological advances made the incredibly tricky stitch-work he’d done so much easier, Oswald’s progeny emerged in the 21st century: mash up artists, Daniel Lopatin’s “eccojams”, and internet genres like vaporwave.

Bongwater: ‘Folk Song’ (1990)

Shockabilly bassist Kramer eventually founded Shimmy Disc, a label whose entire aesthetic was bound up with emotionally ambivalent ’60s recreations. Hence the label compilation The 20th Anniversary of the Summer of Love 1987-1967. Degrees of parody ran through most of the roster: B.A.L.L., GWAR, When People Were Shorter and Lived By the Water, Ween. Above all, there was Bongwater, a collaboration between Kramer and performance artist Ann Magnuson. Their high-point album The Power of Pussy ends with ‘Folk Song’ which stylistically parodied ’60s female troubadours like Judy Collins and Melanie while lyrically satirizing East Village radicals and bohemians of the late ’80s.

The Darkness: ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love’ (2003)

One of the main things metal has got going for it is deadly seriousness, absolute commitment. But with irony reaching toxic levels in the musical ecosystem by the end of the ’90s, it could only be a matter of time before meta-metal became a thing. Andrew W.K.’s ‘Party Hard’ and I Get Wet was one manifestation; another was the Darkness’ ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love’ and Permission to Land. Supportive critics celebrated the way the British band had “a healthy sense of metal’s ridiculousness.” What they meant was that their music and presentation came with a kind of in-built Spinal Tap element, a self-inoculating dose of  irony. Modeled largely on Queen (the group’s original name was Empire), the Darkness whipped up a creamy, gateau-layered sound of histrionic overstatement. Frontman Justin Hawkins had not just Freddie Mercury’s soprano but his horsey teeth too. Although they reigned in the metal mags, the Darkness’ true contemporary was pop idol Robbie Williams. Just as Robbie might roll his eyes mid-song as if to distance himself from the emotion he was meant to be emoting, the Darkness suffered from an uncontrollable urge to wink at their audience. In ‘Thing Called Love’ that manifested in Hawkins’ falsetto-squawked “guitar!” just before the Big Solo (which takes place against the backdrop of a hundred Marshall amps in the video). There was also the group’s trademark thumbs-up sign, deflating the music’s majesty with its dweeb-y bathos. Like Robbie, Hawkins and co were huge in the early 2000s (Permission went quadruple platinum in the UK) but they quickly evacuated themselves from popular memory. Perhaps the public realized they were just a bunch of winkers.

Zomby: Where Were U in ’92? (2008)

“A craftsman knows what he’s going to make; an artist doesn’t know what he’s going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like.” So said ceramics sculptor Ken Price, a man who turned a craft — pottery — into an art form. But what would make someone capable of art settle for mere craft? Zomby has made some of the most disorientingly original post-dubstep tracks of the last decade — tunes like ‘Aquafresh’, ‘Kaliko’, ‘Gloop’, ‘Mercury’s Rainbow’ — and he’s on fine form with his latest and most fully-realised album yet, Ultra. Yet he has a strange  susceptibility to pastiche. In fact, Zomby originally made his name with the retro-rave album Where Were U in ’92?, on which he masterfully imitated the period mannerisms of breakbeat hardcore. Precise tonalities of processed diva-sample or reverby piano were achieved, things that scholars of the genre recognized as references to specific anthems.

But Zomby’s history-of-hardcore remakes weren’t limited to the early ’90s: After Where Were U he’s bashed out dozens of pastiches in once futuristic but now outmoded genres like drum & bass, UK garage, and grime instrumentals in the “Eski” mode invented by Wiley. Some pop up on his albums; some make it to YouTube; still others that he’s talked about in interviews appear to have been done purely for private amusement. Recreativity seems to be recreation for Zomby. Maybe it’s a way of keeping his programming muscles trim during less inspired periods, of staying productive without the headache of producing something truly new. Instead of risking repeating himself, he can repeat somebody else.

James Ferraro: On Air/Night Dolls With Hairspray (2010)

Jostling with Ariel Pink for the ambivalent title of godfather of chillwave…  sharing co-parentage of vaporwave with Dan Lopatin… Ferraro’s work is so dependent on sonic ready-mades that it’s hard to point to anything that stands out as more parodic than the rest. I particularly enjoyed the brace of L.A. ’80s cheese-inspired albums On Air (released as Jim Ferraro) and Night Dolls With Hairspray that came out in 2010. Both frothed with clinically overloaded and artificial guitar textures that suggested some Satriani-wannabe overdoing the guitar pedals. Another much-discussed Ferraro album, Far Side Virtual, worked with the background sounds of our digital everyday — start-up jingles and audio-logos — with conceptually provocative, if somewhat anodyne, results. Then there was the mixtape Inhale C-4 $$$$$ issued as Bebetune$ and drawing on the hyper-glossy tropes of radio rap and R&B. Unreadable in intent, Ferraro’s simulations seem to involve a slightly askew reflection of the mainstream. Not unlike Jeff Koons, then (apart from the massive remuneration). Ferraro gets paid in the currency of think-pieces and blog commentary. Vaporwave — another simulation genre whose critical edge has to be supplied by the sympathetic listener or critic — followed in Ferraro’s wake. And then came the parody-genres like seapunk, a spoof on the teeming, transitory micro-cultures of online music that reached as far as the pages of The New York Times.

Little Pain: ‘High Cry’ (2013)

Parody is a frequent occurrence all through the checkered history of the rap skit, but mostly the target is something outside hip-hop (a game show, say) or on the edge of it (a radio station). There’s no shortage of outsiders lampooning the genre, from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Coolio-cheeking ‘Amish Paradise’ to the Lonely Island’s ‘I’m on a Boat’, a parody of bling rap’s already self-parodic wealth-flaunting. And then there’s rappers satirizing their own genre, like Tyler, the Creator with his Young Nigga alter-ego. The one that tickled me was Little Pain, pioneer of Sad Rap, a satire on the post-808s and Heartbreak/Drake trend for hollow-inside ennui. ‘High Cry’, off the mixtape When Thugz Cry, features sniffles and coughing sounds amid forlorn synth-washes: Pain raps about “smoking while I’m cryin’…  if I had a whip I’d be cryin’ while I’m drivin'” and describes himself as a member of “Too Sad Crew.” Playing it totally straight during his 15 minutes of micro-fame, Pain and his pseudo-genre received a smattering of coverage from online music sites who one hopes were complicit in the jape.

Hannah Diamond: ‘Pink and Blue’ (2013)/QT: ‘Hey QT’ (2014)

Given that K-pop and J-pop already offer a mirror-image of Western tween-pop even more ultra-brite and NutraSweet than the (un)real thing, what — you might wonder — is the point of adding another layer of concoction and confection? UK collective PC Music deny that terms like parody or satire apply to what they do. Instead they appear to be aiming for simulation with just the very slightest hint of a smirk, a tiny tinge of irony. Hannah Diamond and QT — personae performed by women who are clearly no longer the teenagers they’re play-acting — recall the cutesy DIY aesthetic of ’80s indie girl groups like Dolly Mixture, Strawberry Switchblade, and Talulah Gosh, updated for the age of texting and selfies. But if there’s a feminist subtext to the ultra-femme imagery, it’s well concealed. Only the very English vowel sounds and intonation break with the digi-glam sheen of anime perfection. Perhaps it’s not a meta-pop commentary, but simple wish fulfilment? “Let’s pretend we’re Taylor Swift/2NE1”? To believe there’s such a thing as the genuine article in this hyperreal realm is the height of folly, of course. But I can’t help drawing some kind of conclusion from the fact that while there are plenty of  male thirtysomethings and fortysomethings who dig PC Music, my 10-year-old daughter — who loves Taylor and Selena — instinctively turned up her nose at QT and Diamond after just 20 seconds.

Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime

Anticipated by karaoke, by Rocky Horror Picture Show cultists with their callbacks and shadow casts, by drag balls and fan-fiction, YouTube is the riotous flowering of paraculture: videos that parrot back and poke fun at the mainstream with a tsunami of covers, remixes, parodies, meme-collages, songs stretched to 20 times their natural length just to see what happens, and a myriad more modes of mischief and misappropriation.

It’s useless to pick any particular example as exemplary: The point is not just that anyone can do it (because people have always lampooned for the amusement of themselves and a few friends) but that now anyone has the potential to find an audience if their DIY-parody goes viral. The “para” in paraculture means “beside”: All this stuff thrown out there forms a parallel stream of unruly commentary on the mainstream. The “para” also means parasitic: It’s dependent on the mainstream to generate the content that’s messed with or mocked. Depending on your perspective, paraculture is a democratic consumer revolution or it’s the pop equivalent of the North Pacific gyre, a roiling mass of trash and trivia.

© Simon ReynoldsPitchfork, 19 October 2016

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