The 10 Best Novelty Songs of the '50s

The goofiest, craziest, and funniest hits of rock's first decade

Rock n' roll caused an explosion in the world music scene like few others, but it also signaled a taste change in what made America laugh: while the pre-rock novelties of the '50s were occasionally clever, they were also usually staid, the remnants of the Greatest Generation's safe, homespun humor. As with everything else, rock novelty songs tore down barriers with wild abandon, daring in their anarchy to tackle "sick" subjects and even destroy the fourth wall between listener and musician. Here are the best novelty songs of the 1950s.

01
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"Stranded in the Jungle," The Cadets (1956)

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It's easy to see now why the Establishment considered rock 'n roll a form of junk culture: it was mass produced and utilitarian rather than ornate and refined, the sonic equivalent of TV dinners and the Late Late Show. But some of those late shows were pretty thrilling, and they filtered into that suburban den around the same time, leading to a plethora of rock songs about the golden age of b-movies. The Africa in this too-good-to-be-a-novelty, for example, is a cartoon, a Hollywood fiction. But like all good rockers, these doo-woppers threw in lots of drama and mugged it to the hilt. In how many other songs does someone escape cannibals and swim the ocean, all in time to stop his baby back home from cheating on him?

02
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"Beep Beep," The Playmates (1958)

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A steadily accelerating mini-opera of a novelty sung by a trio of collegiate cut-ups, this Number Four hit was torn squarely from the trade headlines of 1958: a Cadillac, the epitome of Cold War class and comfort, being taken over on the road by a Nash Rambler, the first of the lighter, speedier, more fuel-efficient compacts. It's like a metaphor for what Japan would soon start to do to Detroit. And it turns out in the big reveal that the Rambler hasn't even left second gear yet. (It apparently had a tendency to get stuck in overdrive.)

03
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"Transfusion," Nervous Norvus (1956)

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One of the weirder and darker novelty records of the era, "Transfusion" is indeed about replacing someone's blood -- in this case, after a series of hot rod accidents. Seven very noisy crashes, that is, all caused by Norvus' textbook bad driving and all bookended with the kind of ghoulish rhyming lingo only a beatnik could come up with (i.e., "Pass the claret to me, Barrett"). In fact, the man born Jimmy Drake had an ulterior motive that wasn't morbid at all: a former truck driver, he'd experienced every single one of these maniacs on the road personally. Radio banned the song anyway, perhaps simply because of the uncensorable punchline: "Barnyard drivers are found in two classes / Line-crowding hogs and speeding jackasses." Either that or his pronunciation of "corpsuckles."

04
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"Say Man," Bo Diddley (1959)

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If you want to know what it's like to be unrecognized in your time, consider The Originator himself, Bo Diddley, who had exactly one Top 40 hit in his entire life, and it consisted entirely of himself and longtime maraca player Jerome Green playing the dozens over a Latin beat. The groove's still hot, though, even if it doesn't have any of the classic Bo "hambone" rhythm, and while the jokes are a mixed bag, these guys definitely sound like they're having fun. And sometimes they score. "I didn't call you ugly," Bo tells Jerome. "I said you was ruined." "You look like you got whupped with an ugly stick," replies Jerome. Supposedly there was even more dialogue, but it was too, uh, hardcore for Chess to release. 

05
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"The Thing," Phil Harris (1950)

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Phil was an all-around entertainer and garrulous bon vivant who's probably most remembered as the voice of Baloo the Bear in the original Jungle Book. (You remember: "Bare Necessities.") Here, he cleverly gets a lot of comic mileage out of what he isn't saying: the "clomp clomp clomp" of the chorus denotes an object that bothers the hell out of everybody, from his boss to his wife to a random homeless man. Illegal? Immoral? Probably a little of both. St. Peter even damns him to hell in the afterlife for bringing it with him. Good times. Consider this "thing" the Pulp Fiction suitcase of the postwar era, or the MacGuffin of its own.

06
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"The Purple People Eater," Sheb Wooley (1958)

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Silly even for a novelty hit of its era, "Purple People Eater" is one of those cultural hiccups that goes so deliriously and relentlessly over the top it bypasses questions of art and taste entirely. Here we have a alien of some sort, or perhaps one of those irradiated giant mutations that stood in for our apocalyptic fears back then, and what is he here for? To play the horn on his head like a saxophone. (In a rock n' roll band, of course.) His etymology's also suspect: he's not a purple monster who eats people, he's a monster who eats purple people. Missing not one trick, Wooley -- who later went on to parody country hits as Ben Colder -- also mentions The Champs' "Tequila" and the Royal Teens' "Short Shorts."

07
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"Delicious!," Jim Backus and Friend (1958)

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This exceedingly odd record was one of the first in a genre simply called "laughing records" -- the theory being that, like yawning or coughing or barking dogs, when you hear someone do it long enough, you can't help but join in. Helping matters along was none other than Mr. Howell from "Gilligan's Island," Jim Backus (or, if you like, Mr. Magoo), cackling in his inimitable way while he and his New Year's Eve date get absolutely plastered on champagne. Contrary to popular opinion, the party girl "friend" of the label isn't a young Phyllis Diller... yet no one can seem to agree on who it is. One of pop's greatest mysteries, born by a record with a one-word lyric? Yes.

08
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"The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late," The Chipmunks with David Seville

Supposedly, songwriter David Seville (who'd already scored a hit writing Rosemary Clooney's "Come On-A My House" with playwright William Saroyan) was inspired to write this charming/annoying novelty after his son, Adam, kept asking him when Christmas would get here. It's likely that Seville, who'd already hit the charts on his own with "Witch Doctor," wanted to find a way to utilize his tape-speeding routine again the way he did on the follow-up, "The Bird On My Head." This time, he invented three characters to lead in song -- Alvin, Simon, and Theodore (named after his label's record executives). The rest is history.

09
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"John and Marsha," Stan Freberg (1951)

The other songless novelty on this list comes from the undisputed king of '50s recorded parodies, Stan Freberg, who scored lots of minor hits with his brand of gentle satire. Here, he parodies radio soap operas, which, despite having no visuals, were at least as silly and overwrought as the ones lingering on TV today. The real genius is how Stan, playing both sexes, manages to convey every single emotion possible in a relationship merely by having these two repeat each other's names. If you've seen "Mad Men," you know this hit continued to be a comedy touchstone years later -- in fact, John Lennon and Yoko Ono once recorded their own version, recast with their own unique brand of us-against-the-world pathos.

10
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"The Flying Saucer Pt. 1," Buchanan and Goodman (1956)

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Buchanan was a songwriter, Goodman a producer, and together the two were the reconstructionists of their day, using popular hits -- the original recordings, mind you -- to comment on their "War of the Worlds" parody. Breaking into a hit record was not the automatic taboo it later became, and DJs were absolutely manic on AM radio, which gave this duo all the leverage they needed to invade the airwaves their own wacky selves, using the song samples to speak for bystanders and purposefully getting the artist and song names wrong in the process, After a couple of similar, minor hits, the duo parted ways, but Goodman kept going, eventually scoring a comeback in the '70s with a hit "Jaws" parody.