For most of its history, MAD magazine has been at the forefront of gleefully juvenile printed humor. Its pop culture spoofs are legendary, its cartoonists among the finest humorists of their generation. But along the way, MAD created some of the most fun (and suitably warped) musical creations of the 20th century.
MAD’s first real foray into recorded sound began in the late 50s with Musically Mad. Conceived, composed and directed by Space Age Pop arranger Bernie Green, a veteran of radio comedy who served as musical director of the anarchic, acerbic Henry Morgan Show (and whose later television work included the excellent Garry Moore Show and Wally Cox’s Mr. Peepers.) Morgan himself makes several contributions, helping Green send up everything from Gunsmoke to The Mikado.
After the inevitably-titled 45 “What, Me Worry?” MAD moved up to the big leagues with a full-length LP (pressed on vinyl, not cardboard!) 1962’s Mad “Twists” Rock ‘N’ Roll was written and produced by Norm Blagman and Sam Bobrick. The prolific Bobrick later wrote for Andy Griffith, Get Smart, The Paul Lynde Show, The Smothers Brothers, and Saved By The Bell (as well as a very MAD-esque comedy album called Folk Songs Of Madison Avenue, credited to “The Flagpole Singers”); Blagman wrote and arranged for Tiny Tim, contributed to the original 1968 soundtrack of The Producers, cowrote “Give Me The Right” and “Put The Blame On Me” for Elvis Presley, and would continue making MAD records into the 1980s. The album featured a time capsule of 1962 pop culture preoccupations spoofing James Bond (“Agnes The Teenage Russian Spy”), teenage car-race death ballads (“All I Have Left Is My Johnny’s Hub Cap), and chiropractically-ill-advised dance crazes (“Let’s Do The Pretzel”).
The success of Mad Twists demanded a follow-up, 1963’s Fink Along With MAD, which featured the same creative team and the same clever spoofs, from the heartfelt “Loving A Siamese Twin” to “She Lets Me Watch Her Mom & Pop Fight”. It also features one of MAD’s most memorable—and most revisited—songs, “It’s A Gas”, which artfully combines percussive belching with a great King Curtis sax solo. It’s one for the ages.
The success of the magazine and its musical efforts led to a stage show in 1966. The Mad Show ran off-Broadway for 871 performances over three years; the original cast included Linda Lavin (who despite her best efforts will go to her grave as “The star of TV’s Alice”) and Jo Anne Worley (ditto, only for Laugh-In). The music was written by Mary Rodgers (who wrote the music for great shows including Once Upon A Mattress); the lyrics were written by Marshall Barer (who wrote the iconic Mighty Mouse theme) and Steven Vinaver (a veteran of That Was the Week That Was) with help from some guy named Stephen Sondheim who has no further credits and was never heard from again. The great Joe Raposo, who composed and directed much of the classic Sesame Street music, was the show’s the oft-murdered onstage piano player.
MAD’s musical output slowed to a trickle after the mid 1960s. While its circulation remained healthy, as the 1960s turned darker and the baby boomers reached young adulthood, MAD lost some favor with its audience. A 1973 spoof of All In The Family, “Gall In The Family Fare” (from MAD Special #11) was the rare exception. But as the 1970s progressed, the children of the boomers embraced its satire and silliness. MAD’s legacy also received a significant boost from Dr. Demento, who regularly featured vintage MAD tracks on his nationally syndicated radio show. The late 70s saw a huge resurgence in the magazine’s audio efforts, beginning with Mad Special #26 (1978). “Makin’ Out” is a catchy disco ditty whose hapless protagonist laments that everybody from Santa to Jacques Cousteau is getting laid, er, “Makin’ Out” except him—no, seriously, including Charlie Brown. I’ll give you a moment to try and get that visual out of your mind. The song’s sentiment was no doubt shared by many of MAD’s prepubescent male fan base at the time; I have one friend in particular who adopted it as his life’s motto.
MAD’s flexis and cardboard records often pushed the limitations of an already technically primitive medium with excellent results. 1979’s “A Super-Spectacular Day” (from Mad Special 31), crammed eight different microgrooves (with eight distinct endings) onto a flexi. The song’s protagonist runs into decidedly un-spectactular trouble from aliens, the Mafia, and what sounds an awful lot like an unchecked case of Ebola Zaire. It’s probably the single most fun MAD giveaway ever.
1980’s rather tardy “MAD Disco Special”, which arrived nearly a year after Chicago loudmouth Steve Dahl’s infamous “Disco Demolition Night” ballpark explosion and fire on July 12, 1979. (Off-topic: I’m not kidding about this, kids. In 1979 a Chicago DJ named Steve Dahl got fired from his station when it changed format to all-disco, and he convinced the White Sox to stage a…um, disco inferno during a game. 90,000 disco-hating louts showed up to a stadium that held maybe 50,000 max. They brought disco records, which were dynamited. And then burned. And then a riot broke out! But that’s another article!) MAD’s take on disco is best viewed through Dahl’s jaded perspective; as in the rather grim “Disco Suicide” (in which the spurned female vocalist plots—and then carries out–her own demise, to the beat of various disco artists (including, somewhat inexplicably, Grace Jones.) “The Disco Clap” equates disco with…well, I think you can do the burnin’ math there. “Barely Alive” takes a swipe at the Bee Gees but ends up sounding a bit more like Herbert from Family Guy. The HeeBeeGeeBees did it better. “This Time, This Is My Night” is actually a pretty good slab of disco soul, with the usual hi-larious overblown slang dialogue. “Sorry, No Words” is the highlight, in which the total lack of lyrical cohesion is explained away due to budget considerations.
1980 also saw the release of the first (and, to date, only) MAD magazine movie, MAD Magazine Presents Up The Academy. The film—directed by Robert Downey Sr., no less—is a blatant attempt to cash in on National Lampoon’s Animal House, and its relationship to the magazine is tangential at best, but it does feature tracks ranging form the delightful (Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner”) to stultifying (Sammy Hagar’s “Bar Reputation”).
1981’s “A MAD Look At Graduation Day” isn’t a song at all, but an audio skit involving a graduation commencement address that involves a lot of sarcastic hooting. It’s probably funnier when you’re high. Or 12. Or 12 and high. Ah, Mr. Sketch, how I loved to snort your fruity center.
Inexplicably, that was it for MAD’s “vinyl” musical giveaways. Issue 350 (1996) contained a CD-ROM with musical tracks (reportedly reissues of earlier songs), but alas, your lovely reviewer does not own a copy and cannot in all fairness comment. That same year, Kid Rhino released MAD Grooves, a rather skimpy 12-track compilation of previously released material from the LP and flexi era. Sadly, the “Deluxe Overpriced CD Box Set” era has come and gone, but here’s hoping MAD’s diverse and often quite good musical creations will see the light of day again.