Novelty Songs that Changed America

A few weeks ago, Robin Roberts hosted a television program about the 15 songs that changed country music. Though I am not a country music fan, I left the program on while I perused some magazines. At some point during this hour-long show I made the comment to Barb that I could never take the list of songs seriously if it didn’t include C.W. McCall’s epic “Convoy.”

I was, of course, being facetious but the next day at the Pulse office I mentioned my chagrin that “Convoy” was not included among the 15 songs that changed country music. No sooner had the words left my mouth than intrepid editor Jim emerged from his office and noted, “That is because ‘Convoy’ is a novelty song.”

Well guess what, folks … Jim was/is right: “Convoy” is classified as a novelty song, so it never had any chance to be included in Robin Roberts’ program. But this started me thinking about novelty songs and this thinking led me to create my list of the Novelty Songs That Changed America.

Before I begin, here are a few notes about how I compiled this list. First, I dismissed all of Al Yankovic’s songs. While I actually think that re-writing song lyrics is a lot of fun, the songs on my list need to be completely original.

Second, I dismissed all the songs that were holiday themed. In my mind, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” is actually a novelty song within the novelty song category – a subset, as it were – so I dismissed these as well.

And lastly, my list is in no particular order. It seems ridiculous to weight one meaningless song as more meaningless than another, so I simply put them down in the order they flowed from my fingertips.

So with the busy work out of the way, here is my list of the novelty songs that belong in every music library (full disclosure – I actually only have two of these in my music collection, even though they are all permanently burned into my brain).

“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha – Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV

This one dates from 1966 and was recorded by Jerry Samuels under the pseudonym of Napoleon XIV. It is noteworthy that Samuels used a variable frequency oscillator to make his voice go higher and lower and that the song is based on an old Scottish tune called “The Campbells Are Coming.” If you are lucky enough to own one of the original 45s of this classic, you know that the B-side is actually just the A-side played in reverse.

“Troglodyte (Cave Man)” by The Jimmy Castor Bunch

Like many novelty songs (including some on this list) this one, from 1972, will never be accused of being politically correct. On the other hand, there aren’t any troglodytes around to offend so we probably don’t need to care. Unfortunately, Castor couldn’t leave well enough alone and he recorded a variety of troglodyte follow-ups to this successful record, none of which were worth the vinyl they were pressed on. Nonetheless, this one makes the list because it introduced the word “troglodyte” to the general population and because it has the memorable, falsetto lyric “I’ll sock it to you, Daddy!”

“Basketball Jones, featuring Tyrone Shoelaces” by Cheech and Chong

Without this song (from 1973’s Los Cochinos album before being released as a single) most of us never knew that “jones” was slang for obsession. Among the trivia facts associated with this tune is that “Tyrone” is a pun, as in “tie your own,” and while the tune started out as just Cheech singing and Chong playing piano, it ended with George Harrison, Billy Preston, Michelle Phillips, Carole King and Tom Scott (among others) all contributing to the final version.

“The Streak” by Ray Stevens

Nowadays, most of us are simply annoyed by those individuals who run naked across sports fields delaying the games we came to see (or watch on television). There was a time, however, when running naked through public gatherings (not necessarily sporting events) was all the rage and Stevens’ song, from 1974, added to the mania.

“Convoy” by C.W. McCall

You knew this one, from 1975, was going to be on the list the moment you began reading this column. McCall is actually a pseudonym for Bill Fries and this song hit number one on both the pop and country (see Jim, I wasn’t completely off base!) charts. Several generations now have no understanding of the CB Radio craze that swept America in the mid-70s, where a song lyric like, “Ah, breaker one-nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck. You gotta copy on me, Pig Pen, c’mon?” actually made sense.

“Think Pink” by the Fabulous Poodles

Okay, this one is more obscure than the rest on this list but when you stop to think that the British band the Fabulous Poodles released an album titled Think Pink back in 1979, that featured a song titled “Pink City Twist” (with lyrics that consist exclusively of a sporadic exaltation to “Think Pink”) and then look around today at “think pink” boutiques, bows, bumper stickers, etc., you can’t help but think (pardon the pun) that this all originated with the Poodles.

So that’s my list. Of course, there are many more songs that could be included – “Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” comes readily to mind – but I have to stop somewhere.

All of these songs did get me thinking about the absolute worst song lyrics ever written, which – of course – would be topped by “Yeah, I know I’m gonna miss her/’cause a tomato just ate my sister,” from the soundtrack of the movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. But that might be a column for another day.