In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
See, this is how you make a novelty song. “Alley Oop” is a song that did not even remotely need to exist. It’s a song about a caveman. More specifically, it’s a song about a time-traveling caveman who was the subject of a newspaper comic strip. In the song, singer Gary S. Paxton crows madly about how cool this caveman is: “He’s the toughest man there is alive / Wears clothes from a wildcat’s hive / He’s the king of the jungle jive / Look at that caveman goooooo!”
It’s a defiantly, overwhelmingly silly song, and that’s one of the key reasons why it works. Another key reason: Unlike something like “The Chipmunk Song,” it’s a perfectly functional piece of music, one that’s actually fun to hear even if you’re over five years old. Musically, it’s a simple, almost bloodthirsty piano boogie. And Paxton stretches his degenerate drawl to cartoonish extremes: “He got a chauffeur that’s a gen-you-wine dino-sowwwah / And he can knuckle your head before you count to fowwwah!” (I have questions. Why did Alley Oop make the dinosaur a chauffeur? Why didn’t he just ride the dinosaur? And assuming it’s a large dinosaur, isn’t it cruel to force the dinosaur into a driver’s seat? Maybe the comic strip answers all these.)
“Alley Oop” songwriter Dallas Frazier originally recorded “Alley Oop” as a no-less-schticky country song, and his version is plenty fun. But the version that hit #1, full of Paxton’s fake-beatnik ad-libs, is one of those classic happy-accident pop music stories. Paxton, then a member of a group called Skip & Flip, wasn’t contractually allowed to record anything under his own name, since he made “Alley Oop” for another label. So he named his new “band” after the intersection of Hollywood and Argyle Boulevards, near where he was recording. Everyone in the session was apparently drunk, and Paxton (who would go on to produce “Monster Mash,” another novelty-song #1) co-produced it with Kim Fowley, who would later become a punk scenester, Runaways manager, and accused rapist.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone involved thought anything much would happen with this song, so maybe that’s why they played with such nasty force. Musically, “Alley Oop” is punk-level rudimentary, and Paxton’s stretched-out, exaggerated voice was doing Mick Jagger things two years before the Rolling Stones even formed. Maybe “Alley Oop” wasn’t a serious exercise, but it holds up a lot better today than most of the era’s #1s that actively seemed to be trying to hit #1.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s David Bowie referencing “Alley Oop” — “Oh man, look at those cavemen go” — on “Life On Mars?”: