You may have no idea who Alfred Matthew Yankovic is, but you sure know him by his stage name. He’s known to the World as “Weird Al” and he is this week’s “Genius of the Day“. He has been chosen, not because of the musical parodies that he is famous for, but more for the original songs he creates and the amazing mind that creates it.
I grew up listening to Weird Al songs. Even though I didn’t buy my first album of his until “Even Worse“, I had cousins who bought his albums on cassettes. I think I still have Even Worse on one of those. I remember creating dance routines with my cousin to the song “Oh Ricky!” inspired by” I Love Lucy” and a parody of “Oh Mickey” by Toni Basil. (I had the deeper voice and was taller, so I got to sing Al/Ricky’s part.)
I remember looking at pictures of him in magazines and on the cover of his albums and thinking he was one of the more interesting personalities that I’d come across. He was this “geek” that created amazingly funny songs that made you….happy. It boggled my little fragile mind. -He was unique like no one else was. Maybe thats why they called him “weird”. (“Weird” took on a whole new wonderful meaning for me and it became something I strove to be.) As an adult, I still keep an ear out for his new stuff and catch him on tv when I can. I’m still facinated by this genius. (Today I introduced my infant son to Weird Al’s music while working on this article. He immediately started to smile, bounce up and down in rhythm to the songs and laughed before trying to screech along with Al.)
Alfred Matthew Yankovic (AKA Weird Al) was born on October 23, 1959, in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood. He first took up the accordion when a salesman came around to solicit business for a music school. His parents, Nick and Mary Yankovic, decided on the accordion because of polka king Frankie Yankovic (no relation).
As a child and young teen, Al watched a lot of TV, which gave him much inspiration for his later work. He also became a fan of such musician/comedians as Allan Sherman and Spike Jones. He became especially acquainted with these musicians through the radio show of Barry Hansen, aka “Dr. Demento”, which would later become a great source of publicity for his talents. After an extraordinary career at Lynwood High School, where Al graduated as valedictorian, he attended the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo to study architecture, a field he is said to have chosen because it was listed first in the catalog (although he has said that he really chose it on the advice of a guidance counselor).
It was at Cal Poly that Al had a radio show and earned the nickname “Weird Al”. Although he had sent tapes to Dr. Demento in the past, it was at Cal Poly where he recorded his first real published piece, a parody of the popular “My Sharona” by The Knack, called “My Bologna“. After the astounding success of that song, forever to be known as the “bathroom recording” as it was recorded in the acoustically perfect mens’ room, Al began his phenomenal career, which has spanned twelve albums, numerous compilations, a box set, movies, videos and edible underwear. He has also done a great deal to advance the cause of accordion-wielding weirdos, for which we can all be thankful. (Now that’s what I call a genius!)
Most recently he has parodies Lady Gaga’s Born This Way with Perform This Way and is currently on tour with his band promoting his most recent album, Al-pocalypse.
USELESS FACTS ABOUT AL:
As of March, 2000, he has had four gold and four platinum records in the US, five gold, two platinum, and one double platinum record in Canada. He has also won two Grammys and been nominated for eight more.
There was once a bi-monthly Al fanzine called “The Midnight Star.” This title is taken from the second song on Yankovic’s album “…In 3-D.” (The song itself, incidentally, is a satirical homage to supermarket tabloids.)
He directed some of his music videos, such as “Amish Paradise”, “Gump,” “Headline News,” and “Bedrock Anthem.”
Got his first accordion lesson on 22 October 1966, one day before his 7th birthday.
Gives a special thanks to Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen) on each of his albums, since the radio DJ was the first to play his songs on the air.
Graduated valedictorian from Lynwood High School…at the tender age of 16! Moreover, Yankovic was one of the most popular kids in his class. He also claims to have started a club called “The Volcano Worshippers,” so he could get his picture onto even more pages in the school yearbook.
Went to California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, where he majored in Architecture and graduated with honors. The Compleat Al (1985) (V) includes an architectural rendering by Al of a food-oriented city called “Burgeropolis”.
Has jokingly said that he was born in an elevator on the way to the delivery room.
Produced the album “Babalu Music”, a collection of musical numbers from the TV series “I Love Lucy” (1951), and includes a Yankovic-edited medley of Desi Arnaz melodies.
His first song, “My Bologna” (a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona”), was recorded in a college bathroom. After being played on the “Dr. Demento Show” radio program, it caught the attention of Doug Fieger, lead singer of The Knack, and Fieger arranged for his record label to sign Yankovic for a short contract. The resulting single (now a collector’s item) brought him to national attention, and “My Bologna” became Al’s first hit. Yankovic subsequently presented Fieger with a large bologna.
Fell under the disfavor of rap star Coolio, who claimed that Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” (a parody of “Gangsta’s Paradise“) was disrespectful of his song which he felt was too serious to parody. Yankovic said that his record label had been given permission by Coolio to parody the song but the rapper denied giving that sanction (the confusion appears to have been caused by a breakdown in the chain of communication, where a “yes” was given by his record label without Coolio’s knowledge). In response Yankovic wrote Coolio a letter of apology to which he has (to date) not responded. No legal action has been taken. Ironically, “Gangsta’s Paradise” is itself a sampled reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “Pasttime Paradise”.
Main vice: desserts. (WHAT?)
Along with the Hawaiian shirt and canvas shoes, his trademark look used to be glasses and a mustache. In 1997 he shaved off his mustache and underwent LASIK surgery to correct his nearsightedness, but his publicists insisted that he wear costume glasses and a fake mustache. In 1999 he decided that the costume was too annoying, and revealed his “new” look (reasoning that “if Madonna can change her look every time she puts out a new album, I can certainly change my look every ten years or so”). He still wears the costume glasses and mustache during some of his performances when he wants to recreate the “classic” Weird Al look.
Since 2001, his song ‘Christmas at Ground Zero’ has been banned at some radio stations due to content. Although the song is about Nuclear war at Christmas and was recorded in 1986 (from his album “Polka Party”), those stations have feared that “Ground Zero” has recently become synonymous with the World Trade Center buildings collapsing.
Daughter Nina Yankovic born to Al and Suzanne on February 11, 2003.
Yankovic wrote the song “One More Minute” after being dumped by a then-girlfriend. He sought to remake this song as a duet with Frank Sinatra, but Sinatra declined Yankovic’s invitation.
His album “Poodle Hat” won a Grammy for Best Comedy album. Al has also won Grammies for “Eat It” and “Fat”.
Despite sharing a last name and a passion for accordion music, “Weird Al” was no relation to the legendary “Polka King”, Frankie Yankovic. Despite this, both men were good friends. “Weird Al” even appeared as a guest accordionist on a recording of “Who Stole The Kishka” on Frankie’s Grammy-nominated album, “Songs of the Polka King, Volume One”. Shortly after Frankie’s death, Al was figuratively bombarded with sympathy mail from fans.
Parents Nick Yankovic and Mary Yankovic were killed on April 9, 2004, when a closed fireplace-flue caused their home to fill with carbon monoxide.
Was the subject of a 1999 episode of VH-1′s “Behind the Music” (1997) documentary. Unlike other such celebrity documentaries in this series, his did not include any mention of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, gambling, religious cults or sexual escapades. Yankovic agreed to appear because, having created his own mock-biography in The Compleat Al (1985) (V), he decided it would be fun to have someone do a serious biography on him.
Has been a vegetarian ever since 1992. A girlfriend at the time gave him the book “Diet for a New America”, and Yankovic said he felt it made some compelling arguments to be vegetarian. He currently eats no meat and tries also to avoid dairy and egg products.
As a rule, all parody ideas are his, with one exception: “Like a Surgeon” came about from a comment Madonna made asking when he was going to turn “Like a Virgin” into that parody.
Is an only child.
Al has said he knew he’d made it as a famous musician when he went to a party, saw Paul McCartney and before he could introduce himself to the former Beatle, McCartney recognized him and said, “Hey! It’s Weird Al!”
One of the few artists to consistently turn down Yankovic’s requests to do parodies has been Prince. Originally, Yankovic envisioned the centerpiece “Beverly Hillbillies” song in the movie UHF (1989) to be a parody of “Let’s Go Crazy” and reportedly also wanted to do parodies of “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain.” After years of asking, Yankovic tried a different tactic: he requested permission to parody one of Prince’s videos (but not the song itself); to his surprise, approval was granted. Thus, the video for the Weird Al original song “UHF” includes a segment parodying Prince’s bathtub sequence in the video for “When Doves Cry”. Incidentally, Weird Al’s song “Amish Paradise” contains the lyric “So tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699″, a reference to Prince’s hit “1999″.
Another artist to have denied parody permission is Paul McCartney. Yankovic wrote a parody of “Live and Let Die” called “Chicken Pot Pie”, but McCartney (a staunch vegetarian) denied permission. As a result, Yankovic has never released the song, but has performed it in concert.
Has directed music videos by other artists, notably “Only A Fool” by The Black Crowes, and “The River” by the boy-band Hanson (which was itself a parody of Titanic (1997).
Says his most frequent question by reporters is “Do you write any original songs?” The irony is that roughly half of his material (since his very first album) is original–sometimes parodying the *style* of an artist, but not based on any existing melody or lyrics.
Along with his trademark song parodies, most of his albums include a track in which Al and his band perform polka-style (but lyrically faithful) renditions of popular hits (he is an accordionist, after all). Most of these have been eclectic medleys of recent hits, although the “Hot Rocks Polka” (from the UHF (1989) soundtrack) was a collection of The Rolling Stones hits, and the “Alapalooza” album featured a complete polka version of Queen’s classic “Bohemian Rhapsody”, called “Bohemian Polka”.
His offical website, WeirdAl.com, is maintained by his long-time drummer, Jon Schwartz (a.k.a. “Bermuda” Schwartz).
When he asked Nirvana for permission to parody “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, their first question was, “Will it be about food?”. When Yankovic explained that “Smells Like Nirvana” would be about how nobody could understand their singing, they agreed that it sounded funny and granted permission.
His album covers are frequently parodies as well: Michael Jackson’s “Bad” album was spoofed as “Even Worse” (Yankovic even hired the same photo, artwork, and wardrobe team to replicate the cover precisely); Nirvana’s “Nevermind” became “Off The Deep End” (with Al replicating the naked baby in the pool photo himself); and the Jurassic Park (1993) soundtrack was turned into “Alapalooza”.
His video for “Fat” was filmed in the same parking garage as Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, and included several of the same actors and dancers. The “fat suit” he wore (which weighed 40 pounds) caused him to lose weight, not only because it made him sweat profusely, but the sight of himself as being grotesquely obese made him want to eat less.
He used the money he earned from “My Bologna” to found his own short-lived record label, Placebo Records, which released his second record (an “EP” record with only 4 songs). Copies of the record are hot collector’s items.
The contract that allows his records to be released by record companies outside the US also grants permission for those companies to use other cover artwork. As a result, some truly bizarre covers have been produced, particularly in Japan and other non-English-speaking areas.
During the height of his “Eat It” fame, he spoofed Michael Jackson’s Pepsi sponsorship by appearing briefly in a Diet Coke commercial. The spot showed a figure from the back, in a “Thriller”-style jacket, who then turned to reveal it was Al.
Was offered the opening spot for the European leg of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour. However, he was involved in the production of his movie UHF (1989) at the time, and respectfully declined.
Has released his own version of “Peter and the Wolf”; this is a collaboration with electronic-music-pioneer Wendy Carlos.
The Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) movies have inspired two of Yankovic’s best-known and best-loved parodies: “Yoda,” taken from “Lola” and Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980); and “The Saga Begins,” taken from Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).
His music video collection, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic: The Ultimate Video Collection (2003) (V) went Platinum. [October 2005]
Wrote “Yoda” (a parody of The Kinks’ “Lola”) as far back as 1980, but couldn’t release it until 1985 with his 3rd album, “Dare to Be Stupid”, because Ray Davies considered the song too personal for parody. However, after the massive success of “Eat It”, Davies was convinced that Yankovic could successfully perform the parody while respecting the original.
After graduating college, he applied to work at McDonald’s, but was rejected for being overqualified.
Contrary to popular belief, Yankovic is not under any explicit obligation to obtain permission from the composers of the songs he parodies — courts in the U.S. and other countries have consistently given great latitude to parody, almost always ruling that it is protected under the tenets of free expression and social critique (the exceptions are generally cases where the resulting work violates principles of good taste). Out of respect for his peers in the entertainment industry, however, he has always asked permission, and (the Coolio controversy notwithstanding) has consistently abided by the artists’ wishes. While permission isn’t mandatory, he *is* obligated to pay royalties for any direct parodies.
When he requested permission to parody Dire Straits’ song “Money For Nothing”, authorization was granted — with the stipulation that Mark Knopfler (a fan of Weird Al) be allowed to play lead guitar on the song. Thus, “Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies” (featured on the UHF (1989) soundtrack) is one of the few Yankovic songs in which Jim West *doesn’t* play lead guitar.
Wrote a parody of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” called “You’re Pitiful”. After Blunt’s record company, Atlantic Records, granted permission, Al recorded the song, but then permission was revoked. Although he abided by the decision (the song isn’t on his new album), Al responded by putting the song on his MySpace page for free download, and there’s a not-so-subtle snipe at Atlantic Records in the new “White And Nerdy” video.
He is of Yugoslavian and Italian/English descent.
Bill Mumy was a mutual friend of Al and his wife, and introduced them.
Another person who turned down Weird Al’s request for a parody was Yoko Ono. Al approached Paul McCartney about parodying The Beatles song “Free as a Bird” with “Gee I’m A Nerd”. McCartney turned the decision over to Ono, who told Al she didn’t feel comfortable with his parodying the song. “Gee I’m a Nerd” has since become a concert-only song (as have many Weird Al songs that never received a full blessing), and Al has said that if he knows beforehand that Ono will be in the audience, then, out of respect for her, they won’t play it.
Shortly after the release of the “Straight Outta Lynwood” album, it was noted that Al’s trademark number 27 could be seen in the license plate on the car on the cover. Al revealed that the number 27 is actually a homage to his mother, who was born on Feburary 7, 1923 (or 2/7/23).
After doing a short polka parody of “Jocko Homo”, members of DEVO ran into Al at a party and asked why they weren’t worthy of a full song parody. Al responded with the pastiche piece, “Dare To Be Stupid”. Reportedly the members of Devo were not impressed.
Penned a parody of George Harrison’s “Taxman”, titled “PacMan”, with Barnes & Barnes, but it was never commercially released.
Is a longtime and devoted friend of the late George Harrison, whom he respected as a singer and songwriter. Yankovic wrote a parody of “Got My Mind Set On You,” called “This Song’s Just Six Words Long.” Harrison even accepted his permission, therefore, it was released as a song off his “Even Worse,” album.
Recorded his first album at Cherokee Recording Studios in 1982. The album sold over 500,000 copies.
While he uses the original music in his parodies, it is not the original master track. He and his band take the original and transpose it by ear into a new key.
After the incident with Coolio and “Amish Paradise”, Al acquires permission for his parodies directly from the artists, and not through intermediaries.
“Eat It” was his highest charting U.S. single on the Billboard Hot 100 for more than twenty years, until “White & Nerdy” broke into the Top 10.
Favorite Personal Quote: [on a 1999 episode of "Behind the Music" (1997), answering a question about (then) being unmarried. He is now married and has a daughter] [My parents] are like, ‘Well, he’s almost 40, lives in Los Angeles, and he’s unmarried. You know what THAT means!”. LOL…