In 1984, Frank Zappa released his landmark live album Does Humor Belong In Music? Based on the state of pop music over the past two-and-ahalf decades, the answer has been an overwhelming no. Aside from a few sardonic cracks from clever indie bands like the Hold Steady and Los Campesinos and the witty verbal gymnastics of hip-hop stars like Lil Wayne and Ludacris, recent pop music has taken itself too seriously to even crack a smile.
All the more reason the music world will miss the Asylum Street Spankers, who are calling it quits after pony-tail sporting, beerloving, Hawaiian-shirt-enthusiast Wammo left the band in the summer, leaving sultry singer and musical director Christina Marrs as the sole remaining original Spanker.
“I had envisioned that we would continue to play around Austin and do some festivals,” Marrs says, “but then Wammo just left, and I was the last original member. It just seemed kind of inauthentic to continue playing under the Spanker name.”
The band is going out in style, putting together a massive farewell tour after 17 years of mixing pot jokes with political satire.
“We were definitely a fringe band from the very beginning,” says Marrs. “It’s odd because there has been a shift away from humorous acts in pop music. We try to mix the reverent with the irreverent on the same record, and try to strike a balance between the two.”
Nowhere is this mix more apparent than on the band’s most successful song, the YouTube hit “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV.” It’s gleefully dirty and unabashedly silly, but its brand of anti-war, anti-hypocrisy political protest is also catchier, more relevant and far less annoying than the joyless pontificating of U2 or the shallow insincerity of Bush-era records by Pink or the Black Eyed Peas.
Mostly, however, it is their musical virtuosity and showmanship that set them apart and allow the band to toe the line between the silly and the sublime. Song titles like “The Scrotum Song” and “Funny Cigarette” seem like they could be outtakes from a lost Adam Sandler album, but the band is so adept at pulling from the best of early jazz, ragtime, country-western and Texas swing that no one would ever dream of demeaning them with the dreaded “novelty band” label. Asylum Street Spankers are a rare case of serious musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously.
“My favorite periods of the band was when we could incorporate humor into the show, but still focus on the musicianship,” Marrs recalls. “That’s the key for us.”
That musicianship, combined with their unmistakable humor, has made their live show a can’t-miss act. Rooted in the original line-up’s background in theater and cultivated by performing for their first 10 years with no amplification, it feels much more like a show or a piece of performance art than a concert. Its multiple singers, comedic interludes and tongue-in cheek take on bygone genres and sensibilities are kind of like an R-rated version of A Prairie Home Companion, only without Garrison Keiller around to slow down the proceedings. Marrs says that vaudevillian “let’s put on a show” aesthetic developed organically, almost out of necessity.
“I think in the beginning, the way our show was set up, with no microphones or PA, it required a different kind of show,” she says. “It required a seated audience that is paying more attention, kind of like a show or theatrical performance. Our musical style is really conducive to that, also. If we were a bunch of shoe-gazers, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to do it in a theater style.”
That theatrical approach illustrates that first and foremost, the Spankers are here to entertain. Sure, music needs bands like U2 to document the injustice and alienation in the world, but it’s just as important that we have artists who take a step back and remind us all that music is a form of entertainment, and as such it would be nice if it were fun every once in a while. For 17 years, they filled that much-needed role as the merry jesters of the music world.
“I really think it’s a shame, this aversion to humor in music,” Marrs says. “Humor and laughter are such large parts of human emotion, it’s odd that they are left out of contemporary music, as if you aren’t a serious musician if you have humor in your music.”
While fans will miss the irreverent streak that made the Spankers stand out, Marrs isn’t waxing nostalgic as the band enters its final month, which fits with the group’s rag-tag, happy-go-lucky style.
“You know, I’m not really getting overly emotional,” she says. “I’ve had enough time to get used to the idea by now. I think we’re all just ready for something new at this point.”
On the Bill
Asylum Street Spankers play Oskar Blues in Lyons on Sunday, March 13. Doors at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15. 303 Main St., Lyons, 303-823-6685.