Saturday, 15 August 2020

The Wacky World Of Novelty Records: An Interview With The Wonderful Dr. Demento!

Originally published in Teenage Kicks #3 (Spring 1999)
Interview by Devorah Ostrov

Dr. Demento
(publicity photo)
Teenage Kicks: As a kid, were you always the DJ at parties?

Dr. Demento: I started doing that in high school. I started playing records for the sock hops at my high school, in the gym after the basketball games.

Teenage Kicks: How did your interest in novelty records come about?

Dr. Demento: That started when I was four, and my dad brought home a Spike Jones' record. That was one of many different things that I was interested in.

Teenage Kicks: What else did you like?

Dr. Demento: Anything on a phonograph record, any kind of music. My dad had a large collection of records which was probably 85% classical. In fact, as late as when I did my undergraduate work at college, I was majoring in classical music. Not playing it, although I took piano lessons for many years. I was into the history and theory side of it.

Teenage Kicks: Where did you get your start in radio?

Dr. Demento: At the college I went to, Reed College in Portland, Oregon. There was a campus radio station and all the students were welcome to put on programs. I quickly rose to the position of student manager of the radio station. That was by far my main extracurricular activity.

Dr. Demento's "Certificate of Dementia" dated April 1, 1982
Teenage Kicks: Did you start working in commercial radio directly after college?

Dr. Demento: When I graduated from Reed, I made a couple of attempts to get work in commercial radio. But commercial radio and I were not ready for each other yet.

Teenage Kicks: When was that?

Dr. Demento: 1963 — that was when AM radio still ruled. And most radio personalities had these big, booming, well-schooled voices. Which I didn't have. So, with considerable urging from my mother, I went on to graduate school at UCLA. That brought me to Los Angeles, where there was a tremendous amount of activity going on in the music business, and I eagerly got involved in any way I could.

Dr. Demento's 20th Anniversary Collection
Rhino Records 2-CD set (1991)
Teenage Kicks: What did you do?

Dr. Demento: I decided that I wanted to be a record producer, like Lou Adler or Phil Spector or George Martin. I couldn't play worth a damn, but I thought I knew something about records. So, I'd be the one that guided these records into reality. And I did produce some records. The only one that's of any significance was a demo for a group called Spirit.

Teenage Kicks: Randy California!

Dr. Demento: That's the group. I produced a demo for them, which was released on a CD called The Spirit Chronicles. Eventually, I realized what I could do better than most people was put together "roots of rock" reissue albums. So, I got a job with Specialty Records, and I wound up compiling 35 different albums for them between 1968-1971.

Teenage Kicks: Did you already have a large record collection yourself?

Dr. Demento: It was pretty big by that time. It wasn't up to the quarter-million or so that it is today, but it was pretty substantial.

Teenage Kicks: How did you finally get involved with commercial radio?

"Stay Demented!"
Dr. Demento sticker
Dr. Demento: While I was working for Specialty, the so-called "underground" FM-radio scene came into being at KMPX up here, and KPPC in Los Angeles. And I became attracted to it. I was invited to bring some of my rare, early rock records to a couple of shows on KPPC — and I'd always mix in a few novelty records along with the other rock rarities.
   It was at one of those appearances that I played the song "Transfusion" by Nervous Norvus: "Transfusion transfusion/I'm just a solid mess of contusions/ Never, never, never gonna speed again/Slip the blood to me, Bud..." It's a rock 'n' roll novelty song with a slight hipster/beatnik overtone. It was a hit in 1956!
   The station manager's secretary heard it and said, "You've got to be demented to play that shit on the radio!" That was the exact quote. The disc jockey who had invited me to guest on his show overheard the remark and started calling me Dr. Demento. So, that's where the name came from.

Teenage Kicks: What's your real name?

Dr. Demento: Barret Hansen.

Teenage Kicks: I used to listen to your show on KSAN in the late '70s. It was the best thing on the radio! Were you being syndicated by that time?

Artwork from Dementia 2000 - Dr. Demento's 30th Anniversary Collection
Courtesy of Hugh Brown
Dr. Demento: My show had started getting real nice ratings on KMET [Southern California's equivalent to KSAN] as early as 1973, which led to syndicators thinking, "If it's that popular in LA, they might like it in Peoria, too." I was eventually syndicated to over 100 stations!

Teenage Kicks: If I remember correctly, your show on KSAN sounded as if it was just for us. Did you record different versions of your show for different markets?

Dr. Demento: From 1979-'80, the last year that KSAN was on the air as a rock station, they carried a show that I recorded especially for the Bay Area. I had the local show in LA, the network show, and then I recorded a separate show for KSAN only. They had someone manning the phone lines up here, taking requests, so I would be playing a song for "Joey, in Pleasanton." And I would sneak in a few San Francisco-specific records, like "The Cable Car Concerto" — it was made back in the '40s, and it's in the voice of the cable car motorman: "Ring the bell/There's the Fairmont Hotel..."

Advert for The Dr. Demento Show
Produced by Zack Wolk
Directed by Thomas Hurley III
Teenage Kicks: Is there one decade that produced more novelty records than any other?

Dr. Demento: In terms of them being on the charts, it would be the decade from 1955-'65. In the first ten years of the rock 'n' roll era, there were lots of novelty 45s that hit the charts. In terms of them being produced overall... Heck, there are still a lot of them being made! Although most of them have trouble getting played — except on my show!

Teenage Kicks: Has anyone been offended because you played their record and they didn't think it was a funny song?

Dr. Demento: There was one band called the Fools that objected, but then they changed their mind and put out a whole album of novelty songs. They were trying to be this straight-ahead rock band, but they did a song called "Psycho Chicken," which was a parody of "Psycho Killer" by the Talking Heads. I wanted to put it on an album I was putting together, but they said, "No! We're not a novelty band." But a couple of years later, having not had much success as a straight-ahead rock band, they put out two whole albums of funny songs.

Teenage Kicks: If you were stranded on a desert island, what records would you take?

Dr. Demento: I'd take a couple of my Rhino Records compilations; the 20th Anniversary Collection is kind of my "Greatest Hits," so I'd take that. And I'd take a Robert Johnson album, some classical music, and some early jazz.

Find out more about Dr. Demento here:

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