The 'N' Word
What the filk is this music?
Captain Phleabag, the Dread Pirate Stagedive, and a cutthroat guitarist by the name of RedBeard walk the wooden planks of porch into Opal Divine's Freehouse. Decked out in buccaneer regalia billowing shirts, eye patches, striped trews, swords, and tricorns the trio strikes an anachronistic pose next to the jukebox, but not the dartboards opposite them. When they gather around a dark corner table, however, they hoist a jam box instead of a treasure chest of doubloons and stolen jewels.
They're better known as Austin's Jolly Garogers, corsair rock for modern times. Onstage, they channel hard Seventies and Eighties rock & roll, and offstage, they claim to have traveled from 1675. They also swear oaths to some centuries-old unresolved business, but that's a big secret involving buried treasure in West Lake Hills and a lot of shushing. They're part show band, part gimmick, part parody, but say the "N" word and it's shiver me timbers.
"We're not dreary and depressing or singing about our pain," growls the Dread Pirate Stagedive, the tall mutineer with a scar over his left eye, "but it's serious music with a 'novel' concept, because we are pirates. We're going to have fun whether it's killing or looting or just being onstage."
Novelty bands. That's the real "N" word in Austin music. Many are called, but few dress up. Not just eyeliner and stage hair, we're talking all-out costuming or dress to reflect a nontraditional, nostalgic, or thematic musical style. For Captain Phleabag, the idea of playing pirates has a universal appeal.
"This is based on being a kid again, the whole Halloween-costume aspect is very important to the band," states the captain, known to skulk around Peter Pan Mini-Golf grumbling about its namesake. "We're not 'novelty.' We're based on Van Halen and KISS. We're trying to give people 45 minutes of absolute escape and fun. Which is what novelty bands do, too, of course."
That trip through the time-space continuum netted the Garogers an appearance on the Carson Daly Show. They're equally at home at the Back Room as at the Alamo Drafthouse playing musical accompaniment to The Goonies. Phleabag is adamant they keep the material clean enough to perform for kids and that nary an oath be uttered onstage. They're currently recording at where else? Arrrrrlyn Studios and increasingly crossing over into the realm of Renaissance fair/science fiction conventions.
Is it possible to take off the clown suit, but not the nose? The Jolly Garogers lost the golden opportunity to tour with the Darkness when management thought them too novelty. RedBeard bristles at that type of characterization.
"It's about pride," he insists. "I've been playing too long to want to be considered a novelty. None of the musicians here just picked up an instrument last year, so to be called novelty implies we're just relying on the image. The music is serious. We're in it for the long haul."
A good style must have an air of novelty, at the same time concealing its art. Aristotle
The Real "N" Word
Jolly Garogers, meet the Uranium Savages. Their long haul in Austin has lasted 30 years, thanks to dozens of musicians. They've lampooned every aspect of music on every level from international to local. They depend heavily on costumes, wigs, and props, and throw in a few originals with the classics they skew. Yet say "novelty" and frontman/poster artist/Esther's Follies star Kerry Awn winces.
"When I think of 'novelty,' I think of the witchdoctor song and 'Purple People Eater,' songs like that," he posits. "I guess it's something like a guilty pleasure. Over the years, other bands have looked down on us because we're not a 'real' band. They had Tuesdays at the One Knite and we got weekends at Soap Creek. Of course, they got all famous, and we got Monday nights at Gino's."
For nearly as long as the Savages have skewered popular music in local clubs, the Austin Lounge Lizards have satirized modern music with four- and five-part harmonies. Cornell Hurd has been writing tongue-twisting titles since he had the Mondo Hotpants Orchestra in the Seventies. And ever since Randy Hansen made a career of aping Jimi Hendrix live, tribute bands have spread locally like kudzu: SSIK smooched KISS, the Tommy Hall Schedule lifts the 13th Floor Elevators, Big Balls swing AC/DC, the Eggmen meet the Beatles, and the Diamond Smugglers steal Neil Diamond.
Around Austin, it's not hard to find Seventies covers (Summer Breeze), sophisticated nostalgia (Asylum Street Spankers), and Vegas show tunes (Mr. Fabulous). Austin's parody history glories in such acts, from Balcones Fault and Kinky Friedman to Not Daniel Johnston, the Wannabes, and Glamourpuss. All of them wore the novelty tag to some degree.
The tag has been applied to Brave Combo and Asleep at the Wheel, both of which have an entertainment gimmick outweighed by their musical proficiency. High standards of musicianship in novelty bands has been evident for the better part of a century; in the 1920s, acts such as Mme. Riviere's Hawaiians, featuring Rose and Tau Moe, toured vaudeville circuits internationally with exquisitely rendered Hawaiian guitar and hula songs. Cab Calloway lives in those amazing Fleischer cartoons, astonishing eight decades after their creation.
Kerry Awn identifies more with that entertainment aspect of performance than the novelty factor. He, the Savages, and the Eddy Sisters smoked as they sang, literally, at a recent Jovita's gig, "Gotta hole in my lung/Gotta hole in my lung/Gotta hole in my lung" to the tune of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." It's part of what he calls their "Sun City" set, which includes "Sun City" ("Surf City"), "With a Little Help From Depends" ("With a Little Help From My Friends"), and "After Midlife" ("After Midnight").
"To me, a novelty act is Lonnie Donegan doing 'Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (on the Bedpost Overnight?)'" points out Awn. "I've always felt the Savages were entertainers, more interested in having fun than looking at our shoes. We don't sing all serious stuff. We're too old and fat to jump around a lot. We're just trying to have a good time, and I'll never apologize for what we do, because what we do is entertain. At least I hope we do.
"And it's still fun to be in a band, dress up, and act like you're a rock star. I guess we are a novelty band."
Novelty has charms that our mind can hardly withstand.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah
William Makepeace Thackeray
Hunter Darby didn't plan on being a serial novelty-band member. He got his start playing with a Madonna cover band called the Wannabes in Fort Worth circa 1985. That was just before moving to Austin as the New Sincerity movement flourished with bands like the True Believers and Reivers (née Zeitgeist).
At the height of the Reivers' popularity, in 1987, Darby purloined a copy of Saturday just before its release. He and the Wannabes, no longer playing Madonna, rewrote John Croslin's lyrics when they couldn't understand them and learned the whole album. The Wannabes debuted Saturday at the Cannibal Club the week before its official release.
By the late Nineties, Darby branched out with the Diamond Smugglers, who filk around with Neil Diamond's catalog. At the turn of the millennium, he joined with another concept band, the Dung Beatles. He's made a career out of novelty bands, but "never planned on flying to Vale and Los Angeles to do Diamond Smuggler shows.
"We're proud to be a novelty band," he beams. "I got out of art school because I didn't buy that artists are one step below God and one step above man. Jasper Johns and Wayne Newton are the same level to me."
Darby isn't kidding. The Dung Beatles avoid stepping on the Eggmen's traditional turf by parodying the Fab Four with scatological takes of songs like "Hard Day's Night" ("Hard Day's Shite"), "P.S. I Love You" ("P.S. I Love Poo"), and "Can't Buy Me Love" ("Can't Wipe Me Bung"). Their recent release (pardon the pun) is Ass Masters Volume I, and their fans include Jack Black. Sometimes, there's pressure to take off the clown nose.
"We've had people say, 'Why don't you do the Dung Beatles straight and I'll get you more gigs.' I don't wanna do that," scoffs Darby. "I gotta be able to put that wig on and say really ugly things."
Novelty is the great parent of pleasure.
Dressed to Kilt
As the Brobdingnagian Bards, Andrew McKee and Marc Gunn began attracting attention with their performances on UT's South Mall in 1999. The Renaissance-ballad-singing, kilt-wearing duo won fans harmonizing on elbow-in-the-ribbers like "Do Virgins Taste Better Than Those Who Are Not?" Five years later, gigs hither and yon, Renaissance fairs, Celtic festivals, weddings, and private parties keep their calendar full. The jocks that once snickered at the Bards on the South Mall weren't invited to see them play the Lord of the Rings Oscar party this year.
"The entertainment factor is when I'm up there dancing around and my kilt is flying up," the handsome, goateed Gunn chuckles, but wearing the family tartan is no joke.
"Wearing the kilt puts us in a Celtic mindset. People who enjoy the Celtic culture want to celebrate it. They love that it's part of their heritage. And something as simple as wearing a kilt says I'm part of that culture. It's like Elvis Presley said, if I just stood there and sang without moving a muscle, people would say, 'My goodness, I'll just go home and listen to the record.'"
Gunn might well have earned the title of the Hardest Working Man in Austin Celtic Music. He works full time at UT and just completed a two-year stint on the ACA board of directors. He still maintains the ACA Web site, which he designed and built. As one-half of the Bards, whose song "Tolkien (The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings)" racked up more than 2 million downloads on MP3.com, he takes his Best of Austin award-winning act on the road regularly during the fall fair season. Gunn's recent solo album, Soul of a Harper, was his third, and he's recorded nearly a dozen CDs in the previous five years.
"The Bards do a lot of novelty songs," admits Gunn freely. "Ask someone about our Celtic songs and they'll mention 'Do Virgins Taste Better?' as soon as 'Whiskey in the Jar.' As far as dress and whatnot, it's largely novelty based. We don't consider ourselves a traditional act in that we're not afraid to take a traditional song and turn it into something different, that is, a novelty song. Which is what filk is all about."
"Do Virgins Taste Better?" is a classic filk song. That's right, filk, not folk. "Virgins" was written by Randy Farren to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman." It's a jaunty little jig, pondering the age-old question every village must face of just why dragons eat virgins, and is sung at ren fairs, science-fiction conventions, and anywhere cult and cultural fans gather. It sounds like Geek Central, but these events are a steady source of loyal, product-purchasing fans who don't require their idols to be hip to be cool, just funny.
"Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh ..."
Dressed to Filk
Filk is not new. Most of us have been singing filk all our lives. If, as a child, you ever joined in on "The Ants Go Marching One by One" to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," you've sung filk. If you know "Camp Granada," you can identify one of the original and most successful filk songs ever. Allan Sherman's letter from camp still draws hilarity more than 40 years after its release.
Filklore master Jed Hartman followed filk at Swarthmore College. He defines filk songs as, "Folk songs by or about science fiction fans or writers. Or, more loosely, any song which is either to the tune of another song or in any way even vaguely related to SF [sci-fi], fantasy, or fandom." Attention Dung Beatles, Savages, and Jolly Garogers note the operative phrase: "any song [sung] to the tune of another song."
The origin of the word "filk" is found in the 1950s. SF fan Lee Jacobs wrote an article titled "The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Folk Music" for the Spectator Amateur Press Society, only "Folk" was typo-ed as "Filk." The 'zine was censored by the publisher, but the ensuing publicity subsequently put the term "filk" into popular fan use, and the name stuck in the genre.
After science fiction conventions, MAD magazine was the prime source of Sixties and Seventies filk. For them, the secret was using tunes that were popular enough for the masses to be familiar with, often Broadway soundtracks and TV or film themes. Lyrics reflected the concerns of its readership: homework, teachers, parents, the rapidly changing pop culture, and, increasingly in the Sixties, politics. Not everyone laughed along: In 1964, Irving Berlin sued MAD for turning "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" into "Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady," and lost.
Two decades later, MTV held the door open for "Weird Al" Yankovic in the Eighties. Unquestionably the most successful filk artist, Yankovic is not well thought of by the trad filkies, but he does personify the geek image associated with filk. That geek factor was at work when the Brobdingnagian Bards revamped Barenaked Ladies' "If I Had a Million Dollars" as "If I Had a Million Ducats," and turned jeerers into cheerers.
"I had no clue what filk was until 2001," Marc Gunn explains, "when someone complimenting us said he loved our filk. I was like, 'filk?' He said, 'Yeah, like the Barenaked Ladies parody. Filk.' So I looked it up online and found the entire subculture of filk music.
"If we're going to play an Irish pub, we'll mostly do Irish pub songs. If we're going to a Renaissance festival, we do traditional Irish songs, but combine more filk. If we go to a sci-fi convention, we just go straight out and do filk to fun songs. It's a subculture that loves to parody itself."
"I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Bob Dylan
The Big Bang
Ah, the universal appeal of novelty bands. Austin provides fertile breeding ground for just about every genre of music, and when good playing is combined with a sense of humor, the effect is not just infectious, it's almost epidemic.
Even more so than the chance to play music for laughs, novelty bands are about getting in touch with the inner Peter Pan. The beauty is that the trip to never-never land is as big a kick for the audience as the players. The fans know they're getting a bigger bang for their hard-earned buck. For just a few hours, it's a chance to forget the day and be Lost Boys and Girls with laughter as pixie dust.
That's the common thread in novelty bands. They pay tribute to a band's repertoire, carry on a past tradition, or tickle an audience's funny bone, but they all seek to take the experience of listening to music one step further. They all have a desire to entertain above and beyond simply performing the music.
And the fun of doing just that, according to Captain Phleabag of the Jolly Garogers, is that you never have to grow up.
"We can get as old as Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, but if I lose my hair, I have this hat. We can be pirates a lot longer than we can be 21."