Hey, Ernie here. In these extremely screwed up times, I know you guys need a break from thinking about all that for 10 minutes or so. So who better to offer that up than David Buck, our resident novelty music expert? Here he is with a piece on a novelty classic. Just in time, too.
Today in Tedium: Everyone loves a friendly extraterrestrial. Whether they love Reese’s Pieces or like to play music through the horn in their head, you can always enjoy a visit from one of them. While the world around us continues to rapidly change, we thought we’d take another deep dive into one of our favorite novelty songs. In today’s Tedium, we’re heading straight to outer space with a look at the novelty song classic “The Purple People Eater.” Hopefully, reading it will brighten your day as much as writing it did for me. — David @ Tedium
Today’s GIF is a scene of Ned Beatty being Ned Beatty in the 1988 film adaptation of “The Purple People Eater.” Yes, there was one of those.
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“What has one eye, one horn, and eats purple people?”
— Don Robertson, a friend and longtime associate of Sheb Wooley. Per the liner notes of Dr. Demento’s Greatest Novelty Records of All Time, the genesis of the song came from this riddle, originally posed by Robertson’s son. The Billboard Book of #1 Hits maintains the idea actually came from jokes Robertson’s kids heard at school. Regardless of its origin, what followed became the epitome of the novelty song genre, featuring—as Dr. Demento puts it—great “immediacy and universal appeal.”
How a silly, one-time joke became one of the greatest novelty records of all time
Sheb Wooley was no stranger to writing novelty songs. As a kid in Oklahoma, he dreamed of being a singing cowboy, but eventually found work in a series of western films and the television series Rawhide.
He’d already written a few by the time he had that fateful dinner with Robertson. In Who Wrote the Book of Love, author Richard Crouse tells the story of how Wooley was taking a break during the shooting of the Rawhide pilot episodes and decided to have a meal with his old friend, songwriter Don Robertson. Robertson—who wrote a great deal of country and pop songs for the likes of Elvis Presley, among others—told Wooley the now famous riddle. According to Crouse, “The riddle was so stupid, so juvenile, that the pair couldn’t help but laugh at it.”
Per Ace Collins’ Disco Duck and Other Adventures in Novelty Music, Wooley tried to get Robertson to help him write the song to no avail. Despite his friend’s lack of faith in the song, Wooley finished writing it and turned it into “what even he thought was undoubtedly the worst song he had ever written.”
During a break from shooting Rawhide, he met with executives at MGM to audition a few new ballads. The executives were unimpressed. Per The Billboard Book of #1 Hits:
After singing all his ballads, Sheb was asked what else he had. He said he had a song that was ‘the bottom of the barrel’ and proceeded to sing ‘The Purple People Eater.’ Within three weeks of its release, it was the number one song in America.
Wooley was probably as surprised as anyone when it turned out the president of MGM’s record division loved his silly song. Per Collins:
He [the president] thought it was one of the best things he’d ever heard. Other, more sensible heads considered this piece even worse than the ballads Wooley had just sung, but the man in charge liked it, so MGM allowed Sheb to record the demo.
Perhaps it was the juvenile and silly nature of the song that accounted for its success. Maybe it was the fad of sped-up vocals that helped propel the song into America’s collective conscience. Similar to the way Ross Bagdasarian recorded the voices of the Witch Doctor and the Chipmunks, Wooley recorded his own voice at a reduced speed, then played back at normal speed to create the vocal parts of the monster itself. He utilized the same technique for the sped-up saxophone solo at the end of the tune.
The song pays homage to a few other popular novelty numbers of the day as well. In the middle of the song, the chorus state What is the significance of short shorts here? Nothing, really—it’s just a sly reference to 1957’s “Short Shorts” by the Royal Teens. Everything ends with the monster yelling “Tequila!” as the sax solo comes to a conclusion—an obvious dedication to the 1958 Champs classic of the same name.
When the song was finished, the label initially refused to promote it, but they changed their tune pretty quickly when—due to scheduling conflicts while shooting Rawhide—Sheb Wooley was unavailable to promote the song.
Nonetheless, “Purple People Eater” topped the charts for six weeks. The entry for the song in Stephen Odinofski’s The Golden Age of Novelty Song talks about the song inspiring an array of merchandise—like horned hats and t-shirts featuring the monster—and even a type of ice cream. Two popular figurines of the character arrived the same year—the Miller Purple People Eater and the best-selling porcelain purple people eater monster from Hagen Renaker.
The original song inspired a few answer songs and follow up tunes including the Big Bopper’s “The Purple People Eater meets the Witch Doctor” and Wooley’s own “Santa Claus meets the Purple People Eater.”
Later, the Minnesota Vikings defensive line would adopt the moniker “The Purple People Eaters” in tribute to the song. Not bad for a silly song that began with an even sillier riddle. Not bad at all.
The number of copies of “Purple People Eater” sold around the time of its release in 1958. The record came out in 1958 with the B-Side “I Can’t Believe You’re Mine”—a beautiful song in its own right. The song went on to sell much more and has appeared on numerous compilations including Dr. Demento’s 20th Anniversary Collection, Elvira Presents Haunted Hits, and They Came from Outer Space: the Alien Songbook—all of which also contain a treasure trove of other great novelty songs. The rest is novelty song history.
The Purple People Eater meets the Silver Screen
In 1988, a film adaptation of “The Purple People Eater” came out. Released on Dec. 16, 1988, the 90 minute movie tells the story of a kid who plays his grandfather’s copy of the record and in so doing, summons the song’s titular creature.
A year before he stepped into the role of Doogie Howser M.D.—and a long time prior to taking on the role of the villainous Count Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Neil Patrick Harris starred alongside Thora Birch and Ned Beatty in the film. The movie isn’t exactly a masterpiece of 1980s cinema, but it’s not without its charm.
The plot centers around the alien forming a band with the young characters to stage a benefit concert for the purpose of preventing the eviction of his grandparents at the hands of a greedy landlord.
The coolest part of the film is Sheb Wooley’s role as the antagonist. It’s somehow fitting that the writer of the song plays the villain in the feature film adaptation of his biggest hit.
Nathan Rabin—whose extensive work writing about “Weird Al” Yankovic is well worth checking out (Nathan: if you’re reading this, I have an idea for possible collaboration on the subject)—tackled the film in his hilarious write up at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place. If you don’t feel like watching the movie yourself, Nathan does a fantastic job covering it in great, painful detail.
Perhaps the most apt review, however, came from Los Angeles Times staff writer Kevin Thomas when he wrote:
You’d have to be Scrooge to trash a picture that tries to instill in children the importance of imagination, determination and appreciation of the elderly. At the same time “Purple People Eater” can’t safely be recommended to anyone over the age of 7, but it could conceivably be fun for second-graders or those younger.
Thomas isn’t wrong. The movie is great fun for younger folks, but once you get past a certain age, you’ll find it is purely a film for kids—but there’s nothing wrong with that. Watch it with your family for a truly surreal experience.
Four Unique Cover Versions of “The Purple People Eater”
For whatever reason, “The Purple People Eater” inspires a certain kind of zaniness in the musicians who choose to cover the song. We’re taking a bit of a different tack with this list. Instead of our favorite covers or the best covers of the songs as we’ve done in the past, these are a sample of the most interesting covers we could find. With this particular song, there are far more cover versions than you might expect—including a few that came out the same year the song became a hit. Groups like Sha Na Na produced extremely faithful versions, but that’s not as much fun as making a song your own. Rather than focus on those, these cover versions represent a healthy mix of excellent musicianship, odd style, unique interpretation, and sometimes (in the case of the Chipmunks version) just plain bizarre. The song always follows the structure of the singer meets the alien, the alien speaks, followed by a closing saxophone solo. Here goes:
The Austin Lounge Lizards
Since the 1980s, Texas-based Austin Lounge Lizards have been entertaining audiences with their satirical songs and high quality musicianship. Known for the cutting satire of country music cliches, tight performances, and hilarious lyrics, the Austin Lounge Lizards diverged into cover song territory with their take on the novelty classic. From their delightful 1993 album Paint me on Velvet, this version of “The Purple People Eater” is a veritable bluegrass masterpiece of novelty song interpretation.
Superb banjo picking, cool low harmonies in the chorus and some creative lyrics substitutions do a great job of maintaining the listener’s attention while giving the song more personality than the original. Rather than speeding up the vocal for the part of the titular monster, a different singer (with a higher vocal register) steps in to fill the role. There’s even a mandolin break around halfway through. High energy and a great deal of fun, the Austin Lounge Lizards successfully placed their own indelible stamp on this rock and roll classic.
Other songs like “Rock & Roll Lawyer” and :Get a Haircut, Dad”—among many others in their ouvre—are worth their weight in joy and laughter. Unfortunately, we could only seem to access their official site through the Internet Wayback Machine, but they’re still around on social media and continue to play live on occasion.
Alvin & the Chipmunks
As we’ve covered previously (see Dec. 2018’s The Bagdasarian Effect), 1958 was the year of sped-up vocals, and brought us the ever popular Alvin & the Chipmunks. I loved the Chipmunks as a kid. I’d outgrown them by the time the live-action films came out, but there’s always a place in my record collection for Alvin & Co. Chipmunk Punk is still worth a spin from time-to-time (check out Tony Thaxton’s Bizarre Albums podcast for the full story on that one).
So, imagine my surprise when I heard the Chipmunks play their version and received a bit of a dance/pop version of the song. It sounds a bit strange hearing high-pitched vocals for the entire song and makes for a slightly uneven listening experience. It’s certainly an oddity, but makes for an interesting listening experience if you’re a fan of the Chipmunks.
It was also played in the cartoon, featuring Simon on lead vocals rather than Alvin. Despite the strangeness of hearing it performed by the Chipmunks, this cover stays relatively true to the spirit of the original.
Known for his unique songwriting and laid back attitude, Jimmy Buffett dipped his toe into the novelty song pool for feature film Contact.
Jimmy Buffett never strays far from the core concept of the novelty song. While he may be well known for his more serious work and his chill persona, there’s a great sense of humour beneath much of what he does and his delight in performing Wooley’s song shines throughout the track.
Jimmy Buffett’s version of “Purple People Eater” is a bit tame compared to other versions. It lacks the energy typical of Buffett’s work, but ramps up the music with a bit of surf rock guitar. There’s a weird harmony vocal singing along with chorus that doesn’t quite work.
The normal speed sax solo is a nice touch.
It’s no “Volcano” or “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” but it’s nice to see him tackle this novelty classic in his own way.
George Thorogood is no stranger to a bit of levity in his work. Known for songs like “Bad the Bone,” “I Drink Alone,” and his spirited rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” Thorogood spent a successful career performing a mix of his own originals and covering songs by the likes of the amazing Wille Dixon, rock and roll legend Chuck Berry, the seminal blues singer/guitarist John Lee Hooker, and many others. Covering the theme to the old western Maverick on the same album (also titled Maverick) was a nice touch.
Wooley’s original song is a short, high-energy, Rock & Roll. On the other hand, George Thorogood’s version may hold the distinction for being the longest. Clocking out at around 4:18, the song takes a wild detour into Thorogood’s trademark high energy boogie woogie blues.
The sax solo in Thorogood’s cover is played with sped-up scat vocals—despite the use of a saxophone featured in a great deal of his work—followed by an extended, killer slide guitar solo in Thorogood’s signature style. In this manner, the guitar solo makes the song more interesting and provides the type of personal touch a good cover song should have.
The key in which “Purple People Eater” is written and typically performed. Looking at the sheet music available for the song, it appears to be performed as bright rock with a simple chord progression and melody. Want to know how to play your own cover version of the songwriting without the sheet music? We can help! At its most basic, “Purple People Eater” is a straight ahead rock and roll song with a I-V-IV chord progression. The sheet music adds a bit of a blues flavor with the addition of seventh chords at the first change, but you can just play major chords and be fine. Listen to the song for the timing and rhythm, and have fun! Of course, I think it sounds better in the key of D on a Baritone Guitar, so look for our own cover of the song sometime in the future!
Whether you love it, hate it, or simply can’t stand it, “Purple People Eater” is ingrained in our pop cultural history. Today, you can find plenty of hand crafted merchandise inspired by the song on sites like Etsy, the odd non-football T-shirt, and even polygonal dice. The titular monster even made an appearance as a crossword puzzle clue at one point. And if you’re feeling particularly adventurous—or just love vanilla ice cream and grape soda—you can always try one of Imperial Sugars’ Purple People Eater Ice Cream Floats.
And while it may not carry the same legacy of other novelty hits like “The Monster Mash,” or “Surfin’ Bird,” the song is still a blast to hear today. So go fire up your favorite streaming service and listen to this novelty classic today. Trust me; it’ll make you feel better.
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