The only thing weirder than a weird band is a weird loner armed with a guitar, ukulele or thrift store keyboard. This week’s playlist celebrates some of the best, greatest and (to use a clinical term) craziest of those loners, along with a few other slightly more socialized purveyors of what’s come to be known as outsider music.
What is outsider music? Usually (though not always) it’s music created by someone with no formal training and often rudimentary technical abilities. To the untrained ear, it nearly all sounds terrible, but if you listen to enough it, you start to find some diamonds in the rough.
For more on the subject of outsider music, I highly recommend seeking out a copy of Songs in the Key of Z, an authoritative book on the subject by the great Irwin Chusid. That book informed much of this playlist—and, to be honest, much of this entire blog. Chusid’s the guru, we are but his lowly disciples.
Ready to take a walk on the weird side? Fire up your Spotify and make sure your headphones aren’t strapped on too tight.
1. Daniel Johnston, “Walking the Cow.” Maybe the most famous outsider singer/songwriter of his generation, Johnston is a diagnosed schizophrenic from Texas who writes surprisingly beautiful, simple little pop songs and sings them in an achingly childlike voice. Throughout the ’80s, he gained a sizable cult following for his homemade cassette tape albums, all illustrated with his own bizarre cartoon creatures like the one we swiped for this playlist’s artwork. There’s a documentary about him called The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and if you haven’t seen it, you should.
2. B.J. Snowden, “School Teacher.” Maybe the best way to describe this Massachusetts native is that she’s a female, less crazy version of Wesley Willis (see below). She claims to be a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, and works as a music teacher, but her songs mostly feature very rudimentary piano playing and cheesy, pre-programmed keyboard backbeats, a la Willis. Still, her stuff undeniably brings to mind words like “jaunty.” Fred Schneider of the B-52’s is a big fan.
3. Tiny Tim, “People Are Strange.” You’re probably too young to remember this, but this totally untiny performer, with his ukulele and unmistakable warble of a voice, was once one of the most famous musicians in the world. Bizarre, but true. Tiny Tim’s version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” which he performed on Laugh-In in 1968, became a huge hit, making him a regular guest on that SNL precursor as well as The Tonight Show (he even got married on Johnny Carson’s set in late 1969, in what was at the time one of the most watched events in television history). As mind-blowingly ridiculous as his version of “Tulips” is, I thought this Doors cover was more apropos to this week’s theme.
4. Lucia Pamela, “Hap-Hap-Happy Heart.” Like many outsiders, the biographical details of this Missouri native are a bit hazy. She claims to have been crowned Miss St. Louis in 1926, which sounds plausible, and to have performed in the Ziegfeld Follies, which we’ll also buy—but then, she also claims to have been the first person on television, so who knows? What we can confirm is that, in her mid-sixties, she recorded an album in 1969 called Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela and it’s kind of amazing. She’s one of Irwin Chusid’s favorites.
5. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, “Someone Took the Yellow From My Egg.” A little a cappella interlude from Lubbock, Texas’ greatest proto-psychobilly lunatic.
6. Charles Manson, “People Say I’m No Good.” Yes, that Charles Manson. One of the world’s most notorious cult leaders and mass murderers is on Spotify. Yeah, we’re not sure how we feel about it, either.
7. Wesley Willis, “Mojo Nixon.” Chicago’s late, great purveyor of “Harmony Joy Music” (and our playlist’s second schizophrenic), Willis wrote bouncy tribute songs to everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Kurt Cobain. This, as far as I know, is the only song of his about another artist we’d already added to The Weird List.
8. Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, “I’m Gonna Dig Up Howlin’ Wolf.” And here he is, Mr. Mojo himself, singing about digging up famous dead bluesmen and affixing their skulls to his guitar. We’re sure he’s just speaking metaphorically.
9. Bob Log III, “I Want Your Shit on My Leg.” For 20 years, Bob Log III has been persuading sweet young things the world over to put their “shit” (read: ass) on his leg so he can bounce them around while playing kick drum and high-hat with his feet. Yes, he’s a one-man Delta blues wrecking crew. In an Evel Knieval jumpsuit, no less.
10. Roky Erickson, “Don’t Slander Me.” Our playlist’s third schizophrenic, Roky (pronounced “Rocky”) was a psych-rock pioneer with his ’60s band, the 13th Floor Elevators, before a trip to the loony bin sidelined him in 1968. He’s since made something of a comeback and is now a celebrated cult hero of psychedelic rock and outsider music. This track isn’t his nuttiest by a long shot—it kinda sounds like Creedence Clearwater Revival, which make sense given that he worked a lot with former CCR bassist Stu Cook in the late ’70s and early ’80s—but something about the sentiment makes it a perfect outsider anthem.
11. GG Allin, “I Live to Be Hated.” The original rock ‘n’ roll outsider—angry, obscene and unrepentant. This is actually one of his moodier, more introspective numbers.
12. The Mad Daddy, “Record Acid Test.” Just decided to throw in a wacky little transition from Cleveland’s Pete “Mad Daddy” Myers, one of the original lunatics of rock ‘n’ roll radio. Alan Freed may have “invented” rock DJing, but The Mad Daddy made it shake, rattle and roll, one wavy gravy platter at a time. (For more on Myers, this post is pretty excellent.)
13. Mission Man, “Gotta Work Hard.” If Mad Daddy had lived (sadly, he took his own life in 1968) to hear his fellow Ohioan Mission Man doing his stoned-Lou-Reed-rapping routine, we’re sure he would have approved. Or he might have said, “What the hell is this shit?” and put on another Elvis record.
14. Gonken, “Rockin’ Robots.” Another modern outsider for the electronic age, this time from Seattle. He’s making fun of pop music, sort of. But on another level, he’s just making so-bad-it’s-actually-kinda-good pop music.
15. Deerhoof, “My Pal Foot Foot.” One of our favorite current weird bands pays tribute to one of our favorite weird bands of yore, The Shaggs, by covering their immortal song about looking for a lost cat named Foot Foot. Magic ensues.
16. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, “Grown So Ugly.” In many ways, Don Van Vliet doesn’t actually fit the classic mold of the outsider musician. The dude could actually play, as could his band, all of whom had deep roots in blues, jazz and the psychedelic rock scene of the late ’60s. But somehow, they managed to never let those skills or influences get in the way of creating records so original they were sometimes kinda frightening.
17. Arcesia, “Butterfly Mind.” Another discovery courtesy of the bottomless fount of weirdness that is Songs in the Key of Z, Arcesia was actually the work of a veteran big band crooner from Rhode Island named Johnny Arcessi who moved to California and became an acid casualty in the late ’60s. In 1970, at the age of 52, he released his one and only album as Arcesia, Reachin’, and it’s an amazing relic of that strange time in American history, an acid folk freakout delivered by a guy who clearly had lost all interest in phrasing, pitch or lyrical comprehensibility. Needless to say, it’s now a highly prized collector’s item—the fact that it’s on Spotify is almost as mind-blowing as Arcessi’s adenoidal bray.
18. Syd Barrett, “No Good Trying.” No self-respecting mix of outsider music would be complete without an appearance from that most famous acid casualty of all, Uncle Syd. R.I.P., gentle sir.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s mix.
Greetings, weirdlings! Welcome to our second Weirdify playlist, live now on Spotify for your listening delectation. This time around, we got inspired by our Weird Band of the Week, Twink (the Toy Piano Band!), and decided to make a playlist full of songs that evoke childhood in various ways. You’ll hear toy instruments, sampled children’s songs and stories, 8-bit, chiptune and videogame references, and the ravings of a paranoid schizophrenic or two. (What can I say? I had some weird babysitters.)
To hear the full playlist, cruise on over to ShareMyPlaylists.com. Here’s what you’ll get:
1. Twink, “Rocket Pop”
2. The Books, “The Story of Hip Hop”
3. Powerglove, “Inspector Gadget”
4. Gangpol & Mit, “The 1000 People Band (Part 1)”
5. Vegetable Orchestra, “Scoville”
6. Gidropony, “We Are Sex Toys”
7. Quintron & Miss Pussycat, “Swamp Buggy Badass”
8. Wesley Willis, “I Whipped Spiderman’s Ass”
9. Max Tundra, “Will Get Fooled Again”
10. Ponytail, “Flabbermouse”
11. Dead Man’s Bones, “Pa Pa Power”
12. Psapp, “Tricycle”
13. Kid Koala, “Fender Bender”
14. Lemon Jelly, “Nice Weather for Ducks”
If at any point you get bored, feel free to skip to the last track, because it’s truly one of the greatest things you’ll ever hear. Trust us on this one.
Here’s the link again. Enjoy!
Modern music has certainly had its fair share of cult figures with serious psychological issues. You’ve got your Daniel Johnstons, your Syd Barretts, your Roky Ericksons. Even Kanye West sometimes seems like he’s only one megalomaniacal publicity stunt away from jabbering lunacy. You don’t have to be crazy to be a rock star, but it helps.
But of all of music’s loose screws, the loosest and screwiest ever to reach a wider audience was probably Wesley Willis. A Chicago artist and street musician who suffered from schizophrenia, Willis became something of a local folk hero in the early ’90s and, very briefly, a national phenomenon, thanks to an appearance on The Howard Stern Show and a record deal with American Recordings, home to Danzig, Tom Petty and Johnny fucking Cash. He also released records on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, as well as something like 50 albums recorded and released on his own and sold mostly at his shows. He died of leukemia in 2003.
Willis’ songs are nearly all about two-and-a-half minutes long and nearly all feature more or less the same instrumental track, played on a Technics KN series keyboard, using the keyboard’s built-in drum and rhythm tracks. Over this, Willis would sing-speak various rants about modern life (“Cut the Mullet” is a fan favorite), bestiality-themed strings on insults (“Suck a Camel’s Pooty Hole,” “Suck a Cheetah’s Dick,” “Suck a Caribou’s Ass”…you get the idea), cartoon boasts (“I Whipped Spiderman’s Ass,” on which he catches Spidey cheating with his girlfriend and “beat him to a pulp with a rubber hose”), and oddly sweet tributes to various celebrities (“Britney Spears,” “Kurt Cobain,” “Oprah Winfrey,” etc.). He also, for some reason, liked ending his songs with random ad slogans; “Kurt Cobain,” for example, wraps up with “Timex—takes a licking and keeps on ticking!”
And that, honestly, pretty much sums up Willis’ music. It’s tempting to dismiss it all as childish, and to be fair, most of it is. But Willis’ music, which he called “Harmony Joy Music,” was also a kind of therapy for his schizophrenia. Writing and performing his songs was Willis’ way of taking a “Joy Ride” and avoiding what he called the “Hellrides,” schizophrenic episodes in which the voices in his head (which he identified as demons, complete with distinct personalities and names like “Meansucker” and “Nervewrecker”) would take over and cause him to lash out and behave in unpredictable ways. Occasionally he would describe these episodes in sad/funny songs like “My Keyboard Got Damaged,” in which he talks about getting thrown off a plane en route to a gig because he yelled “Fuck you!” at his “mean schizophrenic demon” just before takeoff.
Willis also briefly fronted a punk rock band called the Wesley Willis Fiasco, whose big claim to fame was a cover of Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film.” It’s not Willis’ finest hour, really, but it’s interesting to hear what he sounded like fronting an actual band. He’s not really any more crazy sounding than, say, Biafra on a bad day.
Ultimately, what Willis’ fans—and he still has a lot of them—seem to connect with most isn’t just the puerile novelty value of his music (though there’s plenty of that to go around), but the earnest sincerity with which he delivers it. This is a guy who wrote and sang music like his life depended on it—because, well, it kinda did.
We’ll leave you with a live performance of “Cut the Mullet.” Words to live by, no? We miss you, Wesley!