, March 2006
The reputation of Spike Jones has altered dramatically from the time when an enjoyment of his bizarre achievements was a guilty pleasure. His versions of such standards as Chloe and The Glow Worm, replete with cow bells, gun shots, gurgling noises and belching, in which popular and classical singing styles were mercilessly derided, may have been weirdly amusing in the 1940s, but surely had become curios by the CD era.
At least I thought so until one Jones compilation was released in the early '90s on RCA's very cool sub-label for contemporary composition, Catalyst, sporting lengthy insert notes by reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon. Clearly, something had changed.
Jones once described his music as "too sophisticated for corny people and too corny for sophisticated people" but that is only half of it. The Jones world is not one of gentle satire: all the music he and his group perform becomes a kind of hapless tabula rasa on which wild ideas can be imposed without mercy. As Spiking the Classics reveals, Dance of the Hours becomes the backdrop to a race call for the Indianapolis 500 by the extraordinary 'Doodles' Weaver (Sigourney Weaver's uncle!), 'Vesti la giubba' from Pagliacci becomes a country and western number and The Blue Danube Waltz is transformed into an almost Dadaist fantasy on why the Danube is green, complete with nonsense rhymes, an Irish jig and frog noises. The combination of a deeply iconoclastic approach to the original material and an exuberant simultaneity of incompatible ideas, bordering on the Ivesian, makes Spike Jones a unique figure in the world of popular music. Only he, in creating an incongruous and spooky soundscape to play over the Arab Dance from Tchaikovksy's The Nutcracker could follow a distant dog's howl with a cry of: "I say 'Olmes, what was that?"
His masterpiece, to my way of thinking, is Spike Jones Murders Carmen, in which his love of the absurd, his inventiveness, his abundant vulgarity, and the extraordinary performers he gathered around him, are all on display in an extended assault on operatic convention. The transformation of the Danse bohemienne into a duet for Carmen and a gypsy fortuneteller is worth the price of admission alone.
This collection makes available in one neat - and very inexpensive - package many of Jones' "classical" recordings in sound that could be brighter in the treble frequencies but is otherwise quite respectable. If Spike Jones is new to you, then this is a disc you are going to have strong feelings about - one way or the other.