Letter from a Rutle: The Novelty Song

Letter from a Rutle: The Novelty Song“Novelty” is defined in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “a new or unusual thing.” So, for now, let us agree that a “novelty song” is something to sing about that is out of the ordinary. Given that the mainstream of popular music has always been in the business of grinding sentimentality into a fast food of love, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, anything that stands aside from this unapologetic marketing has to be worthwhile.

Some of the best novelty songs have come from periods of true hardship like the World Wars or the Great Depression. Take Haywire McClintock’s wonderfully bittersweet “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (he also penned “Red River Valley”) and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” for example. I would argue that these qualify as novelty songs simply because they are out of the ordinary and about something worth singing about. But I also like Spinal Tap and Spike Jones (great musicianship again!) and who can resist the Chipmunks—apart from me?

In my youth, all my bandmates in the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and I spent many an hour in junk shops rummaging through boxes of old 78s, examining the labels for songs with silly titles. This is how we found such “novelty foxtrots” as “Ali Baba’s Camel,” “My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies” and “I’m Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight.” Then we wrote some of our own.

Nowadays we live in strange times, changing times, where the reality check is no longer in the mail. Long live the unusual—we need it—it really is something to sing about. Neil Innes

One of the foremost artists of novelty and comedy music for four decades, Neil Innes has worked with the Rutles, Monty Python, GRIMMS and, currently, the Idiot Bastard Band.

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