This is Pop Culture Potpourri. This week, we’re going to talk about a song from the 1950s that unexpectedly found new life and new listeners, long after its chart-topping debut.
In the mid-fifties, 1955 to be exact, a musical group based in Los Angeles called The Coasters was formed. The Coasters was an African-American group whose songs were mainly in the Rock & Roll and Rhythm and Blues genres, the latter specifically being concentrated in the doo-wop sub-genre.
Here is one of their earlier hits, “Searchin.’”
This song rose to number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1957 and musically is reflective of the time period’s quintessential sound and lyrics. Usually it meant listening to distinctively and consistently slow or fast-moving tempos with a few key instruments accompanied by words that seemed to have told a short-form story, given how not so long songs were in that decade. Love songs, and clean ones I will quickly add, were commonplace then as well.
This is the Coaster’s 1956 debut hit single, “Down in Mexico.” A doo-wop song, “Down in Mexico” exhibits one of the band’s earlier trademarks aside from their genre, and that is how vernacular or street-sounding the lyrics to their songs were. This single would be used, decades later in the Quentin Tarantino film “Death Proof.”
Now more hits would soon follow for the group spanning the late 1950s and early 1960s, a reason that can be largely attributed to one single that had changed direction of the kind of song the Coasters mainly needed to bank on for continued success.
The name of that single was called “Yakety Yak.” “Yakety Yak” was a song by the Coasters, like others before, that contained street-like lyrics accompanied by a consistent tempo, though in this case a bit more moderately paced and complete with pauses in between.
And unlike the others before it, “Yakety Yak” was the group’s first novelty song, as in a song that has more of a comedic element in its words and music. Nonsense words may even be thrown in, which case in point, if you were to say the words “Yakety Yak” out loud, and have never heard of the colloquial phrase before, you might think it’s gibberish.
Well a quick Google search tells us that it isn’t gibberish and in fact has a meaning: noisy talk.
Alright. Noisy talk. So how could something as mundane as noisy talk be the basis of a comedic song you might ask? Well, let me say this: if a song plays like it’s not supposed to be taken seriously or is a lighthearted commentary on life itself, where even the instrumentals inspire a whimsical or playful mood rather than seriousness, it succeeds as a comedic or novelty song. In fact, let’s hear a bit of it.
Now the most obvious bit of humor I find in the song is how the melody sounds similar to the Benny Hill theme, a 1963 recording that was later used as the closing theme and chase scenes of the eponymous show.
The Benny Hill show’s theme, which is actually called “Yakety Sax,” this not being too dissimilar to “Yakety Yak,” is a well known composition, and is famous for being played over scenes of slapstick comedy, most recognizably for people chasing one another in a time-lapse effect (or in other words, slow motion, to the point where you can see the full movements happening quickly but not in real time).
The song and its association with comedic scenes were forever engraved in pop culture due to its use on the British sketch comedy show, “The Benny Hill Show.”
Now given the fact that the similar sounding “Yakety Yak” and “Yakety Sax” were released respectively in 1958 and 1963, you might ask yourself if there is even more of a connection between the two songs. And the answer would be yes, actually.
“Yakety Sax” was directly inspired by the saxophone solo used in “Yakety Yak” as American musician Boots Randolph would base musical emphasis on the well, the sax. Furthermore, Randolph’s recording is actually a re-recording, as the original “Yakety Sax” was released in get this: the same exact year that “Yakety Yak” made it debut!
Yes, that’s right —both songs were made in 1958, with Yak being released a mere months before Sax was recorded. However, the 1963 version of Sax became a hit, and not the original which was only slightly different in tempo and energy but otherwise similar in composition.
Either way, it’s clear that “Yakety Yak’s” influence on “Yakety Sax” is due to the former’s musical character evoking humor with its distinctive saxophone (and how it was specifically played) as well as its instrumental repetitiveness. As probably intended in “Yakety Yak,” such instrumental repetitiveness only helped make the song’s lyrics feel more catchy despite the only refrains being “don’t talk back” and “Yakety Yak.”
In fact, it’s quite intriguing that the lyrics when read without the music describe a mundane conversation between a teen or adolescent and their mother assumably given the context of the lyrics.
Basically, what we have here is a mom continuously commanding their son to do their chores or else, forget about spending time doing something fun, as referenced in not being able to go out on Friday night, among other things as punishment in not doing. The son in response to this and probably through angst sasses back uttering “Yakety Yak,” as if to playfully if not rudely undermine and ignore what was told to be done. Very normal stuff.
The song can be best described as slice of life in that the lyrics represent a facet of an everyday life, in this case a life of a youth in the 1950s. It’s not a love song, nor is it a song about a place. But rather, it’s a song about a lifestyle presented in a mini-story and clocking in at 1:52 at that. With some trimming, the song would make for a great TV theme.
Alright. So Yakety Yak was a hit for the Coasters and it began a slew of further hits for the band thanks to the continued emphasis on humorous lyrics, commentary on life, and shift to more genre crossover-style songs while retaining elements of doo-wop and rock and roll, exhibited by later singles such as “Charlie Brown” and “Along Came Jones,” among others.
“Yakety Yak” and many of the hits that the Coasters had produced over time spawned covers by other artists, ensuring that their legacy through newer listeners would live on even after the group’s decline and demise reportedly in the seventies.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another influence that group’s only Billboard number 1 single in “Yakety Yak” had besides the already mentioned “Yakety Sax.”
That is to say, if “Yakety Yak’s” music provided inspiration for “Yakety Sax,” then its lyrics would serve to very, very loosely inspire an unlikely work of media, 44 years after the song’s debut. Let’s have a listen.
Now because this is radio, you might be wondering what difference there really is between this 2002 recording of “Yakety Yak” vs. the original 1958 version?
Well, the difference is the medium and that this medium is obviously using a cover version. The medium in question is a children’s cartoon called “Yakkity Yak.” And no, this is not the same spelling as the song for which the show’s namesake makes use as a pun.
The pun being in this case a yak — as in the wild animal with horns (or in the show’s case, antlers) resembling a buffalo — whose name Yakkity (here being spelled differently than the word it inspires) is name that fits his character as a talkative anthropomorphic funny animal who has aspirations of being a comedian.
Yes, you heard right: a talkative animal (an actual Yak) who wants to be a comedian. That’s imaginative. Okay, but the premise of the Yakkity Yak cartoon can be best described as downright weird. In fact, very weird.
For starters, the cartoon is set in a world where a talking Yak and his grandmother live and interact with mostly human characters save a few, where most of the stories are set in a school or the surrounding town of Onion Falls. Yakkity Yak himself has 2 friends, a human girl and a pineapple boy. Yes, that’s what I said: a male Yak who walks on 2 feet, a human girl and a male pineapple.
And to add more weirdness into the mix, other characters on the show include a female robot student, a mad scientist whose hair constantly changes colors like a lava lamp, a trilobite who serves as Yakkity’s talent agent and an elephant comedian who serves as Yakkity’s role model. Yeah…did I mention that this was a cartoon for children? And quick aside, the reason why I bring up this cartoon is because I myself had watched it when I was 9.
Anyway, if overlooking the bizarre collection of characters I had mentioned, the show’s plots themselves are not as weird if evidenced by episodes like “The Yak and the Hat” where Yakkity gets help *ahem* cheats on a quiz show by his intelligent pineapple friend. Why you may ask? Because Yakkity’s friend would rather not compete on TV himself due to stage fright and shyness and agrees to give Yakkity (a personalty who is made for TV) the answers while hiding under a hat he wears.
Hiding under a comedically oversized hat? Giving answers without anyone noticing? Yakkity spending all his winnings on cheese? Ok, all of these things count as weird, right? Sitcom-story like yes, but weird.
Or how about another episode called “I Want My Yak TV,” where Yakkity gets braces on his antlers (which realistically should be his horns), one of which gets slanted due to being crashed into by a football player in a game he’s cheerleading in as a mascot. Getting braces, even if not for teeth in his case? Sounds almost normal until we find out that Yakkity’s oversized and metallic braces over his head serve as a powerful antenna, which picks up TV channels that no-one else in Onion Falls has access to.
Okay, starting to get weirder…but wait, there’s more: Yakkity’s antenna head rather than the Yak himself draws unusual presence within his town (not that he minds the attention) and becomes sought after as “talent” by get this: taking center stage at a theatre just for audience to watch several TVs piled up behind him and his towering antenna head brace rather than watching a comedic act… because you know because Yakkity is an aspiring comedian….Did I lose you there audience?
Yeah, this cartoon just didn’t make sense most of the time and the plots were silly and strange, even for usual cartoon standards. It’s no wonder why Yakkity Yak only lasted 1 season of just 26 half-hour episodes.
Indeed, it was not a critical or commercial success by any means and in a way, it would be hard to believe that a popular fifties song inspired a short-runner of an animated show, which was uniquely an Australian-Canadian production that had briefly aired on Nickelodeon before going into 3 years of reruns prior to disappearing into relative obscurity.
For the few people who do remember watching the show or have vaguely heard of it, the theme song is almost always more fondly remembered than the show itself probably because of its use of a recognizable song — a cover of the Coaster’s 1958 hit.
Plus, as a bonus, the theme song doubles as an animated music video of the titular Yak despite the song’s lyrics having almost nothing to do with what Yakkity Yak is animated to be doing as the theme plays, aside from taking garbage out before tripping on some stairs when the intro starts.
The show itself literally has nothing to do with fifties culture, does not use fifties music aside from the theme and isn’t even animated in a retro fifties style. This brings me to ask this:
Did the Coaster’s hit song just inspire an animator to create a show centered around a Yak whose name plays on the slang term for noisy if not foolish talk, which given his profession as a comic and an eccentric character, makes sense that he is both? I think so. I like the idea behind this. Were these people fans of the original song? Perhaps.
However, it’s very clear that Yakety Yak the song was all what was needed to inspire the funny animal cartoon character that a show can be created around. And unfortunately, the show itself and ideas behind what made it in its offbeat characters and stories just didn’t make much of an impact with children viewers.
I can’t imagine any reason why an adult such as myself would even dare to watch it either, not that adults shouldn’t watch cartoons — cartoons can and should be enjoyed by anyone.
I myself remember watching Yakkity Yak knowing to an extent that the cartoon was not really that good. I didn’t hate it and don’t hate it today, but I understand why it had little appeal. If anything, the reason I bring up Yakkity Yak the cartoon is because of its theme song. And had it not been for the theme song, I wouldn’t have discovered the actual song it was based on, even as a kid. This segment wouldn’t exist had I knot known. I just thought the song sounded catchy as a kid but didn’t realize the history behind it.
I don’t think most kids knew that either unless they had a parent sitting next to them who could point that out if they were a fan of older music. Or one could go online like myself, even in my youth and connect the dots.
This brings me to a point I often bring up in terms of old and new media habits. I always love when a newer work of media re-uses or re-imagines an older work, even as a source of inspiration for further ideas that the original work either implies or outright never addresses.
In the case of “Yakkity Yak” the cartoon, its creators dusted off a hit single from over 40 years before that presumably a large chunk of the main demographic in children would have never before listened to in the Coaster’s song “Yakety Yak.”
The cartoon may have been short-lived but it didn’t matter; the show and it’s opening can be seen today on YouTube, where kids and older folks can view and quickly learn (through the comments section) that the theme music originates by a doo-wop group singing about the simple exchange of chores getting in the way of someone having fun.
And that’s what I love about occurrences such as these; the fact that kids can discover older music through its use in a cartoon (and through other media like movies and TV shows).
Plus, to it’s credit, the Coaster’s single is a well-written, yet simplistic song. It’s timeless, aside from the minimal jargon that evokes the era it was written in but the song’s meaning, which still holds today makes it still relevant and is a reason I assume for why it was resurrected as a cartoon theme song, which is a very rare thing.
And much like what the intention was with the songwriters behind the Coaster’s hit single, an element shared between it and the cartoon “Yakkity Yak” was humor.
We’ve come full circle here as I have previously mentioned that humor of a song can be expressed in its music and lyrics as well as how it is sung; well the humor of a cartoon likewise can be expressed through its visuals and dialogue, inclusive of all cartoons besides Yakkity Yak.
Thematically, it’s the storytelling of situation comedy that makes this connection (between the Yakkity Yaks) all the more apparent despite the very different premises of the song and the cartoon. So in a way, (while the song’s premise doesn’t exactly line up with the show’s premise), the song itself was written and performed as a comedic and catchy exchange, which loosely works as a theme for a talking Yak who performs standup while dealing with life’s eccentricities that play to his silly personality in everyday life.
Plus, the show’s title and character is word-play after all, with wordplay being a device that was often employed by the Coaster’s songwriters as featured in their hit music. Coincidence? Well, you tell me.