Parody is a fun way to get into song-writing. But what is it exactly? And are there pitfalls when making a mockery of someone else’s work?

My friend Ruth said she’d heard a busker making a decent job of Brand New Key (The Rollerskate Song) by Melanie. I had to google the song to discover that I already knew it – but not as Ruth did. Melanie’s 1971 hit reached number 4 in the UK charts but it was five years later, having been rewritten and released as The Combine Harvester, that it became a number 1 hit for comedy band: The Wurzels.

The Wurzels’ name comes from mangelwurzel (a fodder crop) and they hail from the West Country of England. The group specializes in farming-related drinking songs with a bawdy edge. Typical lines are: “I drove my tractor through your haystack last night” and “I am a cider drinker” (to the tune of Una Paloma Blanca). They coined their genre: Scrumpy and Western. And it’s The Combine Harvester variant that has imprinted itself far more firmly into British minds than the Rollerskating original.

This goes to show that spoof adaptations of well-known songs have the potential to be far more popular than the pieces that they set out to imitate. And, when the style of a literary or musical work is closely imitated for comedic effect or ridicule, it is called a parody.

There is more than one way to make a parody. It can be the act of changing the lyrics to a well-known song, as done by The Wurzels, Weird Al Yankovic and others. But it’s also possible to parody a song by preserving the original lyrics and changing the music: a technique used by Richard Cheese who performs Rock and Rap songs in the style of a Vegas lounge singer.

And then there’s the Spike Jones method of parody which involves keeping both words and music intact while mercilessly attacking the arrangement. His reworking of Cocktails for Two included screams, gunshots, gargling, tempo changes and other sound effects to create a version that completely eclipsed the intent of the original song.

And right there, my friends, is the problem with parodies. Once you’ve heard the parody you never hear the original song in the same way again. That beautiful living castle of music that lives within your heart is exploded to rubble, crumbled to dust and evaporated to the ether, never to be felt again. All by the power of one parody. It really is kind of sad when you think of it. For a great song can live inside you for a lifetime, but it’s so fragile, it takes just one parody to get into your brain and that connection is broken forever. It’s a strange and ephemeral kind of loss.

But don’t get me wrong. Despite saying all that, life must go on and I do like and appreciate a good parody – having written several myself. Before last year’s lockdown came along to give us a break from performances, commitments and income I had a regular monthly gig at my local pub The Huntsman where I’d rashly agreed to deliver an original song every month. Writing songs about the local characters that inhabit the area was a lot of fun, but coming up with regular material was a lot harder than I’d imagined. I solved this problem with parody. It is satisfying and oh-so much easier to create funny parodies that everyone can immediately sing along with than it is to come up with original but unfamiliar material.

One of my favourite concert moments ever was seeing Joel Eckhaus perform his parody of Folsom Prison Blues at the Portland Ukulele Festival. Joel reworked the song to be about a real delicatessen called The Full Belly Deli. His treatment of the song, with a fantastic ad-hoc band, singing about shikshas and matzo balls was a pure delight and, for better or worse, Folsom Prison Blues has never been the same for me since. I wanted to share the lyrics with you but since Joel couldn’t dig them up here’s another of his many classics. (But be warned: If you love the song Girl From Ipanema… Don’t Read the Next Bit!)

Gal from Oklahoma

Big, and brown, and hot, and heady,

The Gal from Oklahoma is ready,

And when she bellers, the barn fellers go mmmoooooo,

Dressed in beouf, and finest leather,

She’s on the hoof, and light as a heifer,

And when she grazes, each guy that gazes goes mmmoooooo,

Oh, her fat content is real fine,

Oh, she chews grass like a combine,

Oh, she is udderly bovine,

And when she swings her tail in the breeze,

The bull, he gets weak in the knees,

Big and brown and finely scented,

The Gal from Oklahoma’s contented,

And when she passes the oxen even go mmmoooooo,

But they wouldn’t do, they haven’t a clue,

And she’s looking at…you.

© Joel Eckhaus

People have parodied for as long as there have been songs to ridicule. During WWI soldiers relieved the monotony of marching by singing their newly invented lyrics to well-known hymns and music-hall songs. Ever since, there has been a growing list of people who have made, or continue to make, a living from parody:

Homer and Jethro, “the thinking man’s hillbillies” (popular from the 1940’s to 1960’s) turned Heartbreak Hotel into a song about a night in a bad motel while in Mr Sandman they ask him to take back his ‘dream’ that has flat feet, pigeon toes and eats crackers in bed. And The Battle of Kookamonga turns the song The Battle of New Orleans into a comedy set in summer camp. Notable about this pair are their virtuosic instrumental breaks on mandolin and guitar.

Summer camp was a well-tapped vein for parody back in the day. Allan Sherman’s most famous song: Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp) was set to the tune of Dance of the Hours from the Opera “La Giaconda” by Amilcare Ponchielli. And it’s a rare intellectual that can listen to that music without laughing along, as Sherman’s words play inside their head.

The Barron Knights (one of the few bands to tour with The Beatles AND Rolling Stones) had their biggest hit in 1978 with A Taste of Aggro, which parodied a medley of Rivers of Babylon, The Smurf Song and Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs. I remember when it came out and the joy we kids had singing the new lyrics’. It’s a wonderful feature about the UK song charts that novelty songs have historically performed very well and this has lent a light-hearted richness to British culture.  

 Victor Borge was brilliant. Sometimes he performed verbal gymnastics at the microphone and sometimes made musical mayhem at a grand piano. His one-man act hilariously spoofed classical music. A typical piece had him playing Happy Birthday in the styles of Mozart, Brahms, Wagner and Beethoven.

In the age of MTV Weird Al Yankovic came along to rewrite the hits of Dire Straits, Nirvana, Michael Jackson, Madonna and others. While doing so he also went the extra mile and parodied their videos to boot.

 Here, in my local area of South Yorkshire, we have no less than two working parody acts namely: Barnsley’s, The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican. They turned Chris de Burgh’s The Lady in Red into: “The Lady in Gregg’s (makes pasties for me)

And Sheffield ukesters The Everly Pregnant Brothers rewrote Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry as: “No Oven, No Pie”.

 It seems that parodies about pasties and pies, rather than summer camp, are more the mode (or à la mode?) for this part of the world – probably for good reason.

So, there’s a lot of it about… “But!” I hear you shout, “Is it legal?”

After all, we’re familiar with the court cases that pop-up from time to time where some well-known artist ‘inadvertently’ writes a tune that has already been written, and what a hoo-haa that all causes. So…

…next time we’ll be looking at how parody writers sometimes do, and sometimes don’t, get away with it. After that I’ll be giving you some tips on parody writing.

Keep Strumming and Smiling