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Monday, June 20, 2011

Are you Demented?

Dr. Demento, photo by Mark Takeuchi/Rhino Records.

A year ago last June one of the most unique syndicated radio shows in history ended, at least for radio.  The cult radio institution Dr. Demento took his show online.  Dr. Demento specializes in finding, playing, and promoting some of the strangest songs ever written.

Image courtesy http://dmdb.org.

Twelve-year-old Barret (Barry) Eugene Hansen grew up with an amateur pianist father, but it was finding that the local thrift store sold 78 RPM records for 5¢ each that got him started in a lifelong pursuit of music.  His first job as a dj was at his high school's sock hop in 1957.  When he attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, he became program director, then general manager of KRRC.  He transferred to UCLA where he earned an M.A. in folklore and ethnomusicology, writing his master's thesis on the evolution of R&B in the 1940s and 1950s.

After getting his M.A. he lived for two years in Topanga Canyon in L.A. with members of the rock band Spirit, for whom he was also a roadie; later he was a roadie for Canned Heat.  He was then hired as a talent scout for Specialty Records. His persona was created when he was a dj at KPPC-Fm in Pasadena in 1970. When he played "Transfusion" by Nervous Norvus, someone at the station remarked that Hansen had to be "demented" to play it, and the moniker was born.

Image courtesy AP.

The positive listener response to the crazy, offbeat songs he included in his rock oldies show led to him doing an all-novelty show.  At the end of 1971, he moved to KMET in Los Angeles and did a four-hour live show.  The weekly show was syndicated in 1974.  From 1978 to 1992 his show was syndicated by Westwood One Radio Network.  This marked the height of his national popularity, as the show was carried in most major radio markets, mainly FM rock stations, and usually late on Sunday nights.

Image courtesy dmdb.org.

In 1992 the show was syndicated by On the Radio Broadcast when he left Westwood One.  He eventually took over the handling of the syndication from 2000, until its demise in 2010, under the name Talonian Productions.  But the show fell on tough times, like most everything else.  Part of the reason was because comedy songs lost much of their popularity, and very few were being released.  Also radio has developed into niche audiences, where at one time it was a melting pot of different styles and genres - everyone listened to the same things.

Image courtesy dmdb.org.

Toward the end of its syndication, Hansen had switched to a bartering system, but demanded that the radio stations carrying his show shut down internet streaming while his show played, so listeners would subscribe to his own website.  He lost more stations.  Yet for the show's entire syndicated history he did 52 original weekly shows every year, and very rarely were broadcasts repeated.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Beginning in 2006, the show became available via audio streaming.  There are archives from 1992 to the present, as well as select archives from the early 70s. The syndicated ones from 1978-1992 are still owned by Westwood One.  His site offers a new show every Saturday.  The most recent one - June 18, 2011 - has a theme of fishing, so songs about fishing and fish are featured.  He also debuted a new tribute to "Weird Al" Yankovic, the family tree of Minnie the Moocher, songs with extra special sound effects, and "Demented" farewells to James Arness and Jack Kevorkian.

Image courtesy dmdb.org.

His theme song, more or less, was the 1947 "Pico and Sepulveda", written by Eddie Maxwell and Jule Styne, and recorded by Felix Figueroa & His Orchestra (aka Freddy Martin & His Orchestra).  Basically just a recital of Los Angeles street names, the song became so requested that from May 1973 on he played it once a month, on the first Sunday of every month, at the end of a set of songs about L.A.   In exchange for this listeners understood that it could not be voted on or requested. He has used a version by the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band as his opening theme since July of 1974.

Standing at the intersection of Pico and Sepulveda.
Image courtesy of dmdb.org.
P.S.  This intersection is nothing to write home
about, or even a song!

He is famously credited with bringing "Weird Al" Yankovic to national attention. A homemade tape given to Hansen by the 16-year-old accordion player started it all.  He has also introduced new generations of listeners to artists they may never otherwise have discovered, like Spike Jones, Tom Leher, and Haywire Mac. Hansen made the song "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" by Elmo and Patsy in 1979 popular.  He revived songs like "Alley Oop" by the Hollywood Argyles, "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett, "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" by Allan Sherman, and "They're Coming to Take me Away, Ha-Haaa" by Napoleon XIV.

A frequently featured artist was Frank Zappa, who Hansen has cited as a major influence on the show and who appeared several times as a guest.  When Zappa died in 1993, Hansen did his first two-hour show devoted to a single artist. Another highlight from the show was in the late 80s when Spinal Tap came in for a three-hour visit.

He was inducted into the Comedy Hall of Fame in June 2005, and the National Radio Hall of Fame in November of 2009.  Currently he keeps busy (aside from his Saturday show) doing research projects (often for Rhino Records), personal appearances, and maintaining his archives.  His shows have always been built on his personal music collection, which has hundreds of thousands of songs, and which includes every recording format from wax cylinders to digital downloads.

Image courtesy dmdb.org.

It's a good thing that so many of his shows can be accessed via the internet.  This wacky guy with both street and academic creds is an anomaly.  Remember..."Stay Dement-ed"!

Unless otherwise noted, image courtesy of Dr. Demento's website.
Here's a playlist archive of everything played from 1970 to today,
assembled with Dr. Demento's cooperation and blessing.
Here's Dr. Demento's top 100 Demented Hits from 1974-2010.

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