As with most forms of culture, rock music sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously, with overly somber critics taking time to notice only “serious” musicianship. For decades, Barret Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento, has trampled over such pretensions, sharing pop music’s offbeat novelties to listeners of his highly rated syndicated radio program. After years of airing the wackiness of musicians like Spike Jones as Frank Zappa, Dr. Demento became a cult figure with a devoted following, and the top hat clad disc jockey was invited to make numerous cameo appearances in videos and television programs. However, such inspired silliness often obscures another side of Dr. Demento. “People know him for his goofy stuff,” Rhino Records president Jim Neill told Kathy Gronau in the online Radio Guide Magazine. “But he’s a very serious musical scholar. He knows everything about music. He has a barn some-where just filled with records.”
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1941, Barret Hansen was surrounded by music from the beginning. The son of a talented pianist, the young Hansen was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead he was seduced by his passion for recorded music. Although he had begun raiding thrift shops for dusty phonographs containing all styles of music, a practice he never abandoned, his taste for the bizarre was already evident. “I suppose you could say it started when I was four years old and my dad brought home a record by [outrageous bandleader] Spike Jones,” Demento told Terry DuFoe in Outre magazine. “This would be at the time when Spike was at the peak of his career in the forties, so all the gun shots and all the noise and chaos and the liveliness of it certainly excited me. So that planted the seed of the taste for funny music that has never left.”
While Dr. Demento’s collection of records grew, he was captured by the first wave of rock and roll music that exploded across America in the 1950s. His first job as a disc jockey came in 1957, when he was hired to play rock and R&B records at high school dances but his commitment to the musical form ran much deeper. Soon after, Dr. Demento moved to Reed College in Portland, Oregon where he earned a degree in classical music. During that time had tried his hand at writing essays on rock and blues, which he began playing on Reed’s campus radio station, KRRR. In the late 1960s, Dr. Demento relocated to Los Angeles, California to continue his education at UCLA and here he wrote his master’s thesis on the growth of blues music in the 1940s. As Dr. Demento has suggested, if his career as a disc jockey had not taken off, he would most likely have continued this academic path.
Los Angeles proved to be a fertile environment for Dr. Demento, and has served as his base of operations to this day. After obtaining a spot on the city’s KPFK radio station, Dr. Demento filtered into the bustling scene of music production by becoming a roadie for the groups Canned Heat and Spirit, for whom he engineered a demo tape. This association, along with his scholastic credibility, led to a job with Specialty Records for whom he assembled over thirty compilations of out of print blues artists. Specialty Records, in turn, introduced Dr. Demento to the lively atmosphere of the underground radio station KPPC, where a format of groundbreaking rock and an often irreverent attitude gave Barret Hansen the final push towards becoming Dr. Demento. “We really felt we were doing something revolutionary;” Demento said of the station to Gronau, “We were the main missionaries for Jimmy Hendrix, Elton John, and The Who.”
Falling in step with KPPC’s free-form school of broadcasting, the newly dubbed disc jockey began The Dr. Demento Show in 1970 when the airing of novelty songs such as “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and “Transfusion” by Nervous Norvis received numerous calls of support on the disc jockey’s earliest Los Angeles shows. In 1972, the show moved to KMET FM for Sunday evening broadcasts, where it became the highest rated program among the area’s teenagers, who would often send him absurd petitions requesting
Born Barret Hansen, 1941, in Minneapolis, MN, son of an amateur pianist; wife Sue. Education: Reed University, Portland, OR; UCLA, Los Angeles, CA.
Made Los Angeles radio debut at the blues and country station KPFK in the late 1960s; compiled 35 reissue records of blues and gospel music for Specialty Records, 1968-70; assumed the name Dr. Demento, 1970 after moving to the underground station KPPC FM; moved to KMET, Los Angeles, 1972; The Dr. Demento Show went into syndication, 1974; released first compilation of novelty records as Dr. Demento for Warner Brothers, 1976; appeared with actor Bill Paxton in the video for “Fish Heads” by Barnes and Barnes, 1980; began The Demento Society News, 1986; received tribute special for twenty years of broadcasting by the Comedy Central cable network, 1991; completed book, Heavy, Man: A Cruise Through the World of Blues, 1998.
Addresses: Fan club —The Demento Society, P.O. Box 884, Culver City, CA, 90232; Syndication contact —On The Radio Productions, 3250 Ocean Park Blvd., Suite 206, Santa Monica, CA 90405.
equally absurd music. “They would make up a funny name like ‘Psychotic Pineapples of Pasadena’,” Dr. Demento recalled to Gronau. “The kids would get a charge out of it.” As his fan constituency grew to include many adults as well, demand for his weekly salad of oddities resulted in the syndication of The Doctor Demento Show in 1974.
As more stations added Dr. Demento’s show to their schedules throughout the 1970s, the disc jockey’s own role in the world of bizarre music became more involved. Along with requests, some fans of the program were inspired to send their own creations, and the Dr. Demento Show became a way-station for those out to amuse, shock, or simply perplex. In 1978, for instance, Robert Haimer and ex-child actor Bill Mumy, once famous for his work on television’s Lost In Space, sent Dr. Demento a cassette containing the potentially offensive “Vomit Song,” under the name Barnes and Barnes. As Demento later remembered to DuFoe, “I wrote back to them and said, It’s brilliant, but I can’t use it on the air. Do you have any other material?’ A month later they sent me ‘Fish Heads’.” That song, a comically nightmarish tune sung by a chorus of chipmunk-pitched voices, became one of Demento’s signature cuts, as well as one of the most popular novelty songs of all time.
In the early 1980s, Dr. Demento made what may have been his biggest discovery, “Weird Al” Yankovic. Later to become a million-selling artist, Yankovic started sending Dr. Demento his parodies of popular pop songs, sometimes accompanied with an accordion, when he was only sixteen. Demento saw potential in Yankovic’s offerings, giving the young comedian much needed exposure on his radio show. “He was not an overnight discovery,” Dr. Demento told DuFoe. “I mean fisrt there was the one song I played on my show, then there was a better song I played on my show, then there was something that a record company noticed and put out on a record, then there was something that was good enough to get him a major label record deal.” Yankovic’s fame eventually eclipsed that of Dr. Demento himself, but the latter’s role as mentor was not forgotten, as Yankovic asked Dr. Demento to appear in almost half of his videos, as well as in his weekly television series.
Dr. Demento’s cult status only continued to grow throughout the decade, as did his personal archive of records, which at one point caused the floor of his apartment to collapse. In 1986, a fan club started the Demento Society News, a newsletter that offered readers release updates, lyrics, and other miscellaneous tidbits concerned with novelty music or Dr. Demento himself. While not a star in the strictest sense, Dr. Demento obviously had gained clout with many American pop culture fanatics, and consequently he was contacted to endorse or annotate a number of new collections of bizarre music. As one of the few on-air champions of gimmicky pop songs, Dr. Demento began a fruitful association with Rhino Records, a company at the time known almost exclusively for unusual re-releases.
Over the years, The Dr. Demento Show added new features to its format, such as the satirical “Demented News,” a four-minute segment in which “Whimsical” Will Simpson peppered accounts of current events with ironic sound samples. Expectedly, the program also inducted timely songs of the day into its vaults, such as “Sensitive New Age Guy” and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s send-ups of contemporary hits. However, while Dr. Demento’s show had never been wholesome family fare, he chose not to capitalize on the trend of on-air obscenity for its own sake popularized by shock DJs’like New York’s Howard Stern. “I do not find Howard Stern funny often,” Demento admitted to Gronau. “[But] I have to hand it to him: Anyone who can just blab on the radio about whatever crosses his mind for five hours a day and get millions of listeners to slavishly listen to him has to be smart.”
In the 1990s, Dr. Demento’s show was picked up by the On The Radio network, which continued its syndication in an increased number of locales. As he continued to do his own research and tribute records to artists of the past, he was given his own commemoration when in October of 1991, the Comedy Central cable network aired a one hour special in honor of The Dr. Demento Show’s twentieth anniversary, which featured appearances by novelty favorites like Bobby “Boris” Pickett as well as Dr. Demento himself. While not intending to return to a life of scholarship, Dr. Demento completed his first full length book in 1998, entitled Heavy, Man: A Cruise Through the World of Blues. Published under his real name, the book demonstrated that after almost thirty years of embracing lunacy, Dr. Demento was still cultivating a love of all music.
Dr. Demento’s Delights, Warner Brothers, 1975.
Dr. Demento’s Dementia Royale, Rhino, 1980.
Demento’s Mementos, Eccentric, 1982.
Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Records of All Time, Rhino, 1985. (Six-CD box set)
Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Christmas Novelty Records of All Time, Rhino, 1989.
Dr. Demento’s 20thAnniversary Collection, Rhino, 1991.
Spooky Tunes and Scary Melodies, Rhino, 1994.
Dr. Demento’s 25thAnniversary Collection, Rhino, 1995.
Country Corn, Rhino, 1995.
Holidays In Dementia, 1995.
Hansen, Barret, Heavy Man: A Cruise Through the World of Blues, 1998.
Rolling Stone, October 14, 1993.
Dr. Demento, The Doctor Speaks, http://www.rhino.com/Albums/721, (6/22/98)
Radio Guide Magazine, http://amp.electriciti.com/benj, (6/22/98).
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