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© Jason Moore/ZUMA Press/Corbis
“I’m amazed that I’ve had such success," says Alfred Matthew Yankovic, better known as "Weird Al" Yankovic, who, since 1979, has kept his accordion-playing fingers on the pulse of popular culture via an impressive string of Grammy-winning, multimillion-selling song parodies. "Back when this all started, nobody wanted to hire me. It was like, ‘Oh, he'll be around for six months or so.’”
One of the keys to Yankovic's longevity is the unerring attention to detail he puts into his re-imagining of classic songs. “Beyond the humor of the lyrics, I want the music to be good. My guitar player [Jim Kimo West] will sometimes contact the original producer to find out what kind of pickups or amps were used on a particular song. We really strive for authenticity."
And if that means asking Ray Manzarek to guest on the song Craigslist (from the 2011 album Alpocalypse) to provide just the right Doors sound, as Yankovic sees it, "Hey, who better to go to? You want The Doors? Call up Ray Manzarek."
Since The Knack's Doug Fieger championed Yankovic and his treatment of My Sharona on 1979's My Bologna, Al has won considerable praise within the music community - the late Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain counted themselves as huge fans. “It’s very gratifying when artists like what I do," says Yankovic. "It’s also a nice reflection on my band. We really work hard at this."
To that end, when producing music videos, Yankovic admits that he sometimes spends more time on his own clips than the original artists. "Doing the video for Smells Like Nirvana, I studied the size of the stripes on Kurt Cobain's shirt to get it just right," he says. "Kurt probably just pulled something out of a drawer and said, 'Oh, I'll wear this.'"
Whether or not Yankovic is required to seek permission from the writers and artists of the songs he parodies is a gray area, but he does so as a courtesy. "It's good to maintain healthy relationships," he says. "And I never want to get into a litigious area." When asked to name a marquee performer who has withheld permission, Yankovic answers without hesitation, "Prince. He's said no consistently. I contacted him several times in the ‘80s when he had a string of hits, and once or twice since then. I’ve kind of given up. It’s pretty obvious he’s not into the parody thing."
Luckily, there's plenty of artists who are in on the joke, and on the following pages, "Weird Al" discusses those song parodies he considers his greatest ever. "They're in no particular order," he stresses. "I tried to pick the fan favorites, those tracks that have gotten the best response."