Looking Back at the Albums of the National Lampoon
Between Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead and Netflix’s upcoming film about the early days of the National Lampoon, anyone who has, like, four hours to kill and wants to dig in deep and get to know the original minds who transformed comedy, influencing generations to come, can do so easily. However, being a visual medium, odds are you’re going to hear a lot of talk about the magazine as you watch. That makes sense! Until Animal House came along, that was the thing that everybody knew. What probably isn’t going to get as much screentime are the comedy albums of the National Lampoon. (I think you know where I’m going with this.)
Today we examine the highlights of National Lampoon’s album output. This will by no means be exhaustive, as there were a lot of albums, and as with the magazine, at a certain point the work continued on long after the creative peak.
We begin in 1972 with National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner, which wades through the politics and popular culture of its time and emerges with twenty satirical tracks that range between sketch, music, and a poem that falls somewhere in between. I’d love to encourage you to buy a copy, but I literally can’t as it has never been issued officially on CD or digitally. (You can listen to selected tracks on YouTube over here, though.) It’s surprising to me that the debut album of such an important comedy institution written by Tony Hendra, Michael O’Donoghue, Bob Tischler ,and performed by Christopher Guest, among others, should be off the shelves since 1977. But, on the other hand, it is incredibly mired in the world of 1972. It’s lead-off track, for example, is parodying an idea that would be absolutely foreign in the world today. Did you know that at one point you could get on the Billboard top 10 by reciting a poem over some light musical accompaniment? Les Crane did it with Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata,” and so Radio Dinner opens with a parody entitled “Deteriorata.”
The most famous track from the album is probably the one entitled “Magical Misery Tour” which is simultaneously a Beatles parody as well as a song written by John Lennon. The music is a reasonable facsimile of post-Sgt. Pepper’s era Beatles, while the lyrics are all taken from a rather testy interview Lennon gave with Rolling Stone. You can give it a listen below, but definitely do not click “play” if you are at work because Lennon had a lot of things to get off his chest about the media, Mick Jagger, and Yoko Ono’s treatment and makes frequent use of both f-words.
Originally Radio Dinner was to be released by RCA Records, but it turns out they had a few requests. According to Michael O’Donoghue in Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny That’s Sick, “The RCA engineers hated our guts. They despised us for this pornography we were polluting the vinyl with.” The last straw was a sketch entitled “David and Julie” about political power couple David Eisenhower and his wife Julie Nixon and their sex life. RCA demanded the sketch be cut. The Lampoon refused. In response, RCA refused to release the album, so Blue Thumb Records stepped in and agreed to release the album… as long as they cut “David and Julie.”
Eventually the album did come out, and was eventually nominated for a Grammy for best comedy record. Their follow-up had a similarly interesting journey to wax, as it began as a live stage show in Greenwich Village in 1973 before becoming a cast recording. Lemmings is a parody of Woodstock and the performers who played there. Like Radio Dinner, it is also rather deeply entrenched in the world of the 1970s, but the reason Lemmings was probably able to live on on CD and Spotify is who was involved in the cast. Lemmings is often cited as the first launchpad for such names as Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and (once again) Christopher Guest. The album begins with a literal explosion of sound, followed by Belushi, speaking in a whiney hippy voice, announcing to the audience that “the Woodshuck Festival… is now a free concert!” and encouraging audience members to combat food shortages at the festival by resorting to cannibalism.
Between announcements, the bulk of the disc is made up of music parodies that target artists of the day, some who were at Woodstock and some who weren’t. Chase does double duty, playing drums the entire show, and singing as John Denver in “Colorado.” Belushi’s famous Joe Cocker impression had it’s debut on this album with “Lonely at the Bottom,” while he playing bass throughout the evening. Guest plays guitar and parodies several eras of Bob Dylan’s career in “Positively Wall Street.” Paul Jacobs performs a parody of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” entitled “Papa Was a Running-Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie” that is less of a Temptations parody and more of a Communism parody. Lemmings at times feels more like a loving tribute to the sounds of the seventies than a satire, but it’s impossible to listen to it and not be impressed with the level of talent that is evident in these performers. This was Chevy Chase’s first onstage experience, but you’d never know it. With Lemmings, National Lampoon was once again nominated for a Grammy.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Missing White House Tapes is similarly entrenched in 1970s culture. This time around it’s strictly political with side A focusing on Nixon and a series of sketches claiming to be exactly what you’d hear on his missing recordings from the Oval Office. Side B features John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Rhonda Coullet, and Tony Scheuten in a number of sketches which I believe led to the creation of The National Lampoon Radio Hour, relating to the former President’s rise and fall and his successor Gerald Ford.
Missing White House Tapes garnered the Lampoon their third Grammy nomination and their third loss of a Grammy. More albums followed, some compilations of sketches from the radio show, and others comprised of new songs and sketches, with the final album coming out in 1982. That is, until a week ago…
National Lampoon has just released a new album Are There Any Triggers Here Tonight? Featuring key Lampoon veteran Tony Hendra and his team of satirists at The Final Edition Radio Hour. The goal of the album is very clearly to attempt to recapture the spirit of those early Lampoon records that Tony and others poured their hearts into, and they hit many of the right notes. Just as its predecessors did during their glory years, this album does not shy away from the hot topics of today, satirizing such diverse topics as abortion, trigger warnings, ISIS, and the NYPD. There’s even a sketch in the same vein as the deleted “David and Julie” that centers upon the discovery of a Bernie Sanders sex tape. (You’ve been warned.)
If you didn’t live through the 1970s, listening back to these albums can sometimes come as a mixed bag, but the fact of the matter is that if the satire is good, it’ll still hold up. You may not get all the details 40 years later, but often times you can still feel how deep those cuts were going, and nobody cut deeper than The National Lampoon.