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Spike Jones

Biography by Cub Koda

My father saw them at the Michigan Theater in Detroit back in 1943. "They were crazy, he started off the show with his regular big band, you know, just playing straight stuff. Then, after intermission, the stage went black and all these sirens and gun shots started going off. Then the stage lit up and it was Spike Jones and his City Slickers, the same band only dressed up crazy. They had a guy playing a toilet seat with strings on it, people on stage wearing wigs and crazy outfits, oh geez, they were nuts. Nobody was doing anything like that back in those days."

I remember seeing them on television back in the early '50s, on my grandmother's 8" round screen Zenith. The noise and visual mayhem spilling out of that dinky speaker and tiny screen seemed barely containable as I sat on the floor, absolutely mesmerized. Guns being fired, bicycle horns honking like crazy, midgets and people with no heads running all over the place, while the bandleader nonchalantly chewed gum seemingly quite content with all this dementia going on around him. They were the loudest band I had ever heard up to that time, and they were playing in such a fast and reckless manner, I could barely keep up with what they were doing. I had always been fascinated by music and show business, but this was a different ballgame altogether. This was my introduction to a world of insanity and noise in the name of entertainment and when rock & roll came along a few years later, it made perfect sense to me. But even Presley's gyrations and Little Richard's screams seemed like pretty tame stuff compared to these kind of monkey shines.

Lindley Armstrong Jones was a musical genius. In the wild and woolly days before MTV, digital tape and multi-track recording, Spike Jones put together a top-flight musical organization that the world has not seen the likes of since. Known as the City Slickers, the emphasis was on comedy, primarily doing dead-on satires of popular songs on the hit parade and taking the air out of pompous classical selections as well. Not merely content to do cornball renderings of standard material or trite novelty tunes for comedic effect, Jones' musical vision encompassed utilizing whistles, bells, gargling, broken glass, and gunshots perfectly timed and wedded to the most musical and unmusical of source points. His stage show was no less mind boggling, needing a full railroad car just to carry the props alone, all presented without electronic gimmickry of any kind, with visuals that would make your eyes pop out of your head. Though he often downplayed his musical achievements (all part of the master plan of selling the idea to the general public), the fact remains that Spike was a strict bandleader and taskmaker, making sure his musicians were precision tight, adept in a variety of musical styles from dixieland to classical, with a caliber of musicianship several notches higher than most big bands of the day who played so-called 'straight' music.

In other words, Spike was no dummy, he knew what he was doing when he put the whole concept together, checkerboard suits and all. It gave him top 10 hits on phonograph records (it became a badge of honor with pop musicians that you really hadn't tasted true success until Spike Jones & The City Slickers destroyed your song) and proved immensely popular as a stage show, in movies, and on television. A definite precursor to the video age, Jones didn't merely play the songs funny, he illustrated them as well, a total audio and visual assault to the senses.

Spike (the son of a railroad man, hence the nickname) had started as a jazz drummer and radio session player working with top-drawer stars like Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, among others. One of the more interesting bits of Spike trivia is that if you listen hard enough, that's him gently working his wire brushes in the background on Bing's "White Christmas." But in demand as he might have been, musician union restrictions only allowed so many radio dates to be worked by one drummer. To this end (and to distinguish himself from the pack), Spike added a full set of tuned cowbells, guns, whistles, sirens to his already existing drum set, thus insuring steady work as a both a drummer and small scale sound effects man. Although these additions made him unique in a field loaded with anonymous sidemen, Spike had bigger and crazier ideas. After putting together various after hours small groups that played 'corny just for fun' (including early recordings with the Penny-Funnies and Cinema-Fritzers bands for the short-lived Cinematone company), he formed the City Slickers in the early 40s. By 1942, his sixth record under the new band's name, "Der Fuehrer's Face," became not only a national hit but a national mania, and Spike's self-named 'musical depreciation revue' was off and running.

The bands assembled over the years under the City Slickers banner would feature everything from singers, midgets, acrobats, vaudeville comics to musicians who could just plain blow their brains out, all hand picked by Spike. From George Rock's braying, high register trumpet and kiddie voices to Freddie Morgan's incredible, rubber-faced pantomime banjo shenanigans, from Sir Frederick Gas' insane 'twig' bowing to Billy Barty's Liberace impressions, here was a band that truly defied description. Musicians who could play multiple instruments in a wide variety of styles were commonplace, making the City Slickers the crackerjack unit they were. But certain members of the troupe (like Gas or Barty) were hired because they did one thing extremely well, and would proceed to do it on a nightly basis, key players all. For years, the rumor persisted that Spike had a guy on the payroll who did nothing but gargle, I swear. Though bands that played 'corny' had been successful before he leapt to national fame (most notably Freddie Fisher & The Schnickelfritzers and The Hoosier Hot Shots), Spike's musical vision also encompassed a total assault against the conventions of general show business pomposity. Whatever the newest fad (current singing stars, radio, television and movie personalities), if Spike could figure a way to ridicule it for the 'this-month's-flavor' shallowness of it all, the City Slicker torch was duly applied. And once you heard Spike's version of the tune, you could never go back and take any of those idols of the moment quite as seriously as you might have before. This worldview of show biz elephant trash lives on today in the music video parodies on TV's In Living Color, and assorted like-minded skits on Saturday Night Live. Had Spike survived into the MTV age, true believers are sure he would have had a field day with Milli Vanilli and the gang on Entertainment Tonight. Although parodies of pop music continue to proliferate (Weird Al Yankovic is probably the closest modern day equivalent, although he's closer in style to an Allan Sherman; he sings funny lyrics to normal songs, he doesn't play them funny), the simple fact remains that Spike Jones & The City Slickers did it better than anyone before or since.
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