Academy of the Underrated #2:
Spike Jones

Out of the same impulse that drove many great artists (Howard Hawks, Louis Armstrong, Jackie Gleason, Preston Sturges, Louis Prima . . . the list goes beyond the horizon), Lindley "Spike" Jones forged a musical identity which, despite an embrace and assimilation of styles more vast than any bandleader in history, virtually precluded the possibility that anyone would take him seriously in his time. I mean, not only did he commit the Original Sin of American Culture by wishing to be seen as an entertainer first, he made absolutely no differentiation between being an entertainer and a serious artist. With his band The City Slickers, he gave recording, radio and live audiences a dense, bewildering, chaotic music that, like the compositions of Raymond Scott, was outwardly comic (and quite successfully so) but nevertheless born of musicians possessing extreme technique in virtually any idiom in the universe of musical expression. A musician had to be capable of playing just about anything in order to be a City Slicker. You had to stay on your toes, keep your skills and your instincts razor-sharp.

Like all bandleaders of his day, Spike Jones could be something of a martinet with his musicians, but unlike so many of them his dictatorial tendencies were always in the service of the music and the act (the two were interchangeable for him) and not to overcompensate for God only knows what kind of childhood trauma. But for public consumption he cheerfully elected to be a consummate showman, and the public went right along with it, in a sense keeping his immense artistry a secret safe from all formal respectability (which any artist worthy of the term knows is just a code word for cultural inertia).

Consequently, people who thought Spike Jones and His City Slickers were little more than a pack of rather amusing clowns never realized that the greatest joke of his career was on them the entire time.


Sam said...

I saw Spike Jones, Jr. perform on Donny and Marie when I was a kid and found out about Spike, Sr. from there. If it wern't for the Osmonds, I'd have never found out about Ish Kabibble. If that makes any sense...

mike said...

Spike Jones' music was and remains a thing of wonder. i remember hearing 'cocktails for two' many years ago and my jaw just hitting the floor.

(cue sound of bone clattering on wood)

i see many similarities in a sense between him and what Zappa did with the Mothers in the 60's - the marriage of popular culture and a prankster sensibility, the frenetic musical pastiches, except of course Jones' kaleidoscopic soundscapes were all done in real time without any sound editing (as far as i know).

His place is secure enough in the pantheon i think but he definitely is due for rediscovery.

Daniel Poeira said...

Spike Jones is the extreme oposite of contemporary popular music.