John Cafiero, Dr. Demento talk about being ‘Covered In Punk’

featured / Interviews / News / Special Features / January 29, 2018

For nerds of a certain age, the strains of Felix Figueroa and His Orchestra’s “Pico & Sepulveda” will always be followed by what sounds like a madman shrieking: “Wind up your radio!” The Dr. Demento show was a syndicated radio program, coming from under the smogberry trees of Los Angeles, which played “mad music and crazy comedy from out of the vaults and off the wall, [plus] rare records and outrageous tapes from yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

It’s all novelty music, essentially, but it allowed a young “Weird Al” Yankovic to get his start by sending tapes to the good Doctor, and many a strange song has been given life through his program. Perennial favorites like Ogden Edsel’s “Dead Puppies,” Barnes and Barnes’ “Fish Heads,” and Benny Bell’s “Shaving Cream,” — to name but a few — became as well-known to a geeky subset as any radio hit of the era.

Additionally, your author first heard the likes of Tuff Darts, Killer Pussy, Dead Milkmen, and assorted other new wave and punk acts while curled up next to a radio late on Sunday nights. That’s why the announcement of a massive two-CD, three-LP compilation from Demented Punk Records, titled Dr. Demento Covered In Punk, seemed like such an amazing concept. Produced and curated by John Cafiero of Osaka Popstar, the compilation runs like an actual Dr. Demento program, complete with commentary and interviews with Dr. D himself, released earlier this month.

It seems like it was a project which took some time to come together, and the Doctor himself confirmed that when I spoke with him and Cafiero via phone.

“Oh, yes, you are correct — a little over three years,” said Dr. Demento. “And the roots go back further than that, to when John first contacted me about another project.”

“I had first sent Dr. Demento some material in, I think, 2012,” Cafiero said, picking up the story. “I’d sent him a new remix of an Osaka Popstar track that we had done, called ‘Where’s the Cap’n?’ and it had sampled a bunch of Daws Butler Captain Crunch TV commercials from the ’60s.”

Additionally, some of Osaka Popstar’s music was covered by German outsider artist Klaus Beyer — famous for his German covers of Beatles material — and the resulting EP, titled Die Shaolin Affen, along with the remix, got sent to Dr. Demento. He emailed Cafiero back to let him know that the music would be on that weekend’s show, and so a friendship was born.

“I completely rediscovered the show, and loved it,” enthused Cafiero. “I was really pleasantly surprised that the show was just as potent as ever, and there was still a multitude of good, demented music out there.”

The pair kept in touch, and after a year or so, Cafiero pitched the Doctor on the idea of Dr. Demento Covered In Punk, and the resulting project is now available for eager ears, four years later. It was a bit of a long-distance project, with Cafiero in New York City and Dr. D in Los Angeles.

“John produced the album,” explained Dr. Demento. Cafiero picked the artists, and then — along with the artists — picked the songs, as well as producing the sessions. “But, he kept in touch with me the whole time, and made sure it was something I would be happy to have on the album, so it was a good, long-distance collaboration.”

Cafiero concurs completely, saying that he had a vision of what he wanted to do, but at the same time, wanted to make sure that anything that he did would be something that Dr. Demento felt comfortable with and met his standards.

“Thankfully, we were totally on the same page,” said the producer. “There was nothing that I proposed or pitched that the Doc didn’t like or didn’t feel was part of the world of Dementia.”

The album is a veritable who’s-who of oddball punk rockers. The Dead Milkmen cover the Marx Brothers’ “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” and are themselves covered by John Wurster as Philly Boy Roy. Brak does “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies. The Cramps’ “Garbageman” gets covered by William Shatner, and Adam West does “The Thing,” originally by Phil Harris. That’s barely the tip of the iceberg, with further madness occurring as more novelty artists do punk songs, and punk rockers do more novelty songs.

For those super-nerds out there, it’s worth noting that Dr. Demento Covered In Punk is not the first release to feature the Doctor himself introducing songs. The first Rhino Records collection of demented music, Dr. Demento’s Dementia Royale, from 1981, also featured intros and outros from the man himself — although on a much-smaller scale than this project, as he points out to me.

“That was one of my favorite albums as a kid,” Cafiero adds. “It was definitely influential, but I wanted to take it a step further and make it, literally, a full-blown episode. I think it’s great to hear a song and be entertained by that, but then to be entertained by the history behind it or the history of the artist behind it [is even better].”

In addition to getting a full-blown, exclusive episode that’s full of new music, and themed in a way which you might not normally hear on a regular episode of the Dr. Demento show, there is a plethora of information contained within the package itself. You’ll get artists discussing their song choices and the history behind both the musicians and music, while graced with custom art for several of the musical selections, as done by the likes of Stephen Blickenstaff, the man behind the original cover of the Cramps’ Bad Music For Bad People; James Kochalka, of American Elf; Garbage Pail Kids’ Neil Camera; and the House of Fun themselves, Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer (Milk & Cheese).

“I’m a huge art junkie: I collect art, I surround myself with art, and I’m friends with a lot of artists,” Cafiero says. “I’m just a huge fan of art, generally, and any chance I get to indulge myself with that, I jump at it. Any records I’m involved with, I typically art-direct and hire the artist for, so I thought that it would be really important to have a whole other component or another layer to the project so that, in addition to listening to the show itself, there would be a really cool booklet that you could kind of follow along with.”

In the liner notes for the album, artist Dorkin describes the illustration he and Dyer did for the project — for Uncle Floyd & Oogie’s cover of Benny Bell’s “Shaving Cream” — as “a perfect nostalgia geek-storm for me, having been a fan of both Uncle Floyd and Dr. Demento in the ’80s.”

I asked in an email how he and Dyer in particular came to be involved, and it jibes with Cafiero’s “art junkie” statement.

“I think what happened was that John Cafiero’s wife bought a Milk & Cheese pin-up from us as a gift for John, and that was close to or during the time he started putting the project together — or something like that,” Dorkin writes. “His initial email laid out what he was doing and who was involved, and I don’t think he knew what a nerd I was for all this stuff. I grew up on Dr. Demento and Uncle Floyd, and Sarah and I are fans of a lot of the bands involved so everything about the project spoke to me. Mostly, as a nerd.”

Dyer didn’t have the show where she lived growing up, so she never heard it, but was readily familiar with the tune she and Dorkin illustrated.

“I did know a ton of novelty songs as a kid, mainly through the kid network (how did we all know “Shaving Cream” in elementary school?),” she writes in an email. Novelty music is something that she and Dorkin have passed on to their own daughter, as well.

“We actually would put loads of it on our playlists when she was little because it’s all hysterical when you’re a kid,” Dyer said. “Ben Bernie’s ‘What? No Mickey Mouse?’ and Red Buttons’ ‘Strange Things’ were two of her all-time faves. She kind of eye-rolls at it now because it’s ‘Dad music,’ but I highly recommend novelty records for the little ones!”

Hopefully, with Dr. Demento Covered In Punk, many more kids (and kids at heart) will get turned onto this classic music once again. Cafiero concluded the interview by once again stating how happy he is to get this record into the hands of fans.

“I thought, having been a fan or Dr. Demento and the genre of music that I feel he helped to create over the years, I thought that it would be great to get a bunch of punk bands to do cool punk cover versions of songs you’d hear on the Dr. Demento show,” Cafiero concluded. “And when you see it all in the vinyl packaging, it’s almost overwhelming.”

Dr. Demento Covered In Punk is available on vinyl from Demented Punk Merch.

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Nick Spacek
Nick Spacek was once a punk, but realized you can’t be hardcore and use the word “adorable” as often as he does. Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with four cats and usually goes to bed by 9. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online.

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