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.