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Dr. Demento to Make San Diego House Call

March 01, 1988|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — Are you sick of Madonna's coquettish ditties about teen-age lust?

Does Prince's piercing falsetto give you a headache?

Do you feel nauseated whenever one of Bruce Springsteen's melodramatic odes to Cadillacs or working at the car wash comes on the radio?

If so, you're probably suffering from a bad case of the Top 40 blues, a common malady resulting from too much exposure to the predictable drivel flooding the nation's airwaves.

To get help, see the doctor--Dr. Demento, the self-proclaimed "purveyor of bad music and crazy comedy."

For nearly 20 years, the Los Angeles deejay has been scouring the vinyl archives for such sure-fire antidotes as "Dead Puppies" by Ogden Edsl, "Masochism Tango" by Tom Lehrer and 'They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!' by Napoleon XIV.

Each week, upward of a million disenchanted Top 40 listeners around the country receive two-hour doses of outlandish alternatives to the current hit parade on "The Dr. Demento Show," syndicated to 185 radio stations nationwide.

First-aid kits for the home are available in the form of a seven-album compilation series, "Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Records of All Time," on the Rhino Records label.

If you're in need of immediate medical attention, the good doctor will be at San Diego State University's Aztec Center this afternoon for a two-hour house call. The live broadcast, which will begin at 4:30 p.m. on campus radio station KCR-AM/FM (550/98.9, cable only).

He will also emcee the Bird and MacDonald adult comedy show tonight at the Bacchanal nightclub on Kearny Mesa.

"I play anything that's different and funny," said Dr. Demento, whose real name is Barry Hansen. "When I started my show in 1970, on a small station in Pasadena, it was because I felt a vacuum had been created.

"Rock 'n' roll was becoming more and more serious, and there came a point when songs like 'The Purple People Eater' and 'They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!' weren't getting air play anymore. And since nature abhors a vacuum, I stepped into it.

"I discovered that even if novelty tunes were no longer being played regularly on Top 40 radio, there were still people out there who wanted to hear them, who enjoyed laughing at them."

The musical nostrums Dr. Demento routinely dispenses date from the 1940s right up to the present. They range from the hilarious to the ridiculous, from the witty to the wretched.

There are political satires such as "Der Fuehrer's Face," Big Band leader Spike Jones' World War II stab at Adolf Hitler, and salacious party anthems like 1961's "Bounce Your Boobies" by Rusty Warren.

There are morbid death-rockers such as Jimmy Cross' necropolis "I Want My Baby Back" from 1964 and song parodies by Allan Sherman, Ray Stevens and "Weird Al" Yankovic.

There are even some novelty tunes by San Diego artists: "Lakeside Trailer Park" by Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, and talkin' bluesman Mojo Nixon's "Elvis is Everywhere" and "I'm Gonna Dig Up Howlin' Wolf."

A native of Minneapolis, Hansen--who refuses to divulge his age, other than to say he is over 40--moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and graduated from UCLA in 1967 with a master's degree in folk music studies.

By then, he had already established himself as a "roots of rock" historian. He was regularly writing articles about vintage folk, blues, rhythm-and-blues and rockabilly artists in such magazines as Hit Parader and Rolling Stone.

After a brief spell at Specialty Records, a small independent label that in the mid-1950s had launched the career of Little Richard, Hansen began playing host to a weekly oldies show in 1970 on progressive radio station KPPC-FM in Pasadena. Within a few months, he was specializing in novelty records and, with the station's blessing, calling himself "Dr. Demento, purveyor of bad music and crazy comedy."

As the popularity of "The Dr. Demento Show" grew, offers from bigger radio stations started to pour in, and in 1972 he moved to KMET-FM in Los Angeles, the city's leading album-rock station.

Two years later, he began syndicating his show through Westwood One, and by the end of the 1970s he had signed up more than 200 major radio stations across the country. About the same time, Hansen/Demento began plying the network television talk show circuit, regularly guesting on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" and "Late Night with David Letterman."

In 1984, "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Eat It," a parody of Michael Jackson's mega-hit "Beat It," rose to the top of the national pop charts--the first novelty song to do so in years.

Hansen unabashedly takes much of the credit.

"I was the guy who discovered Weird Al," he said proudly. "Years before, as a 16-year-old kid, he had started sending me tapes of songs. And I was the only deejay in the country with the temerity to play them."

Today, however, "The Dr. Demento Show" isn't nearly as popular as it once was. Over the past few years, several dozen big radio stations--including KGB-FM in San Diego--have stopped carrying the show.

But in most markets, the doctor is still in. Hansen has managed to find smaller stations willing to take his show. That's how he ended up on SDSU's KCR, which now broadcasts "The Dr. Demento Show" each Sunday from 7 to 9 p.m.

"My show has a long history of great ratings, but it's so different from what program directors of major commercial radio stations are used to that they sometimes don't quite believe it," he said. "I guess the concept of Spike Jones on a station that normally plays Madonna and Prince is a little hard to swallow."

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