When we talk about Weird Al Yankovic, we talk about his amusing lyrics, his goofy videos and clown-like persona, but when you step back from the silliness of it all and really stop to consider Yankovic as a musician, and in particular, as an accordionist, there's a lot to appreciate there beyond the musical spoof.
Beginnings in Music
Weird Al's career in music began with his parents' purchase of an accordion from a traveling salesman a day before Yankovic's sixth birthday. The salesman had been selling guitars and accordions, and his parents went with the latter. This may well be the fork in the road that eventually launched Weird Al's career. Talented guitarists are a dime a dozen, but as just about anyone reading this can tell you, accordions come with a steep learning curve, meaning that truly skilled accordionists are quite few and far between.
Throughout Yankovic's early interest in music and the performing arts, throughout the early stages of his career, he found that using humor was a more effective way to get noticed as an artist than simply following the trends of the day. Combining comedy, polka and contemporary pop music, Yankovic made his debut on the Doctor Demento radio show with a homemade demo of "My Balogna", produced in a public bathroom with his accordion and a pocket sized tape recorder.
The Polka Medleys
The vast majority of Yankovic's fans appreciate his humorous lyrics, his ability to emulate any sound and even, in some cases, surpass the artists he spoofs, as was the case with "Dare to Be Stupid ", which Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh declared "the best Devo song ever written". It takes a real musician, or at least a serious audiophile, however, to really appreciate the sheer masterful playing that goes into Yankovic's "polka medleys".
Nearly every Weird Al album contains, in the midst of flavor-of-the-week pop spoofs, an extended medley of hit songs played at high speed on Weird Al's accordion. These polka medleys are, musically speaking, usually the highlight of any Yankovic disc.
One of the first, and most intense, of these medleys remains "Polka on 45", covering over a dozen songs in over a dozen genres in just under four and a half short minutes. Yankovic plays a masterful rendition of "Hey Jude", segueing seamlessly into The Doors "L.A. Woman ", "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida " and Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe " without missing a beat, and while it's quite easy to fake this sort of mastery in a studio environment, live performances of these medleys should quell any doubts of Yankovic's capabilities as an accordionist with fast fingers, great timing and instinct and a lot of energy.
As difficult as the accordion is to even pick up, let alone master, the challenge of breaking through to mainstream success with the instrument is just as great. Yankovic's ability to not only play the accordion very well, but to play it to sold out arena crowds and on multi-platinum CDs is nothing to laugh at (even as Yankovic asks us to laugh "with" him).