Today In History (February 28, 1984)

On February 28, 1984, “Weird Al” Yankovic released “Eat It,” his parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” as a single. Written by Yankovic and produced by Rick Derringer, it would reach #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song met with international success as well, becoming a #1 single in Australia (besting its inspiration’s chart position) and reaching #6 in New Zealand. “Eat It” won the Grammy for best comedy recording in 1984, and was certified gold by the RIAA in 1989.

Why does “Eat It” endure while countless parodies (and parodists) have not? Part of it has to do with the care Yankovic took in its craftsmanship. Funny lyrics aside, the song sacrifices none of its inspiration’s sonic heaviness. Producer Derringer’s credentials include guitar work on Alice Cooper’s Killer album, and he was enlisted to play the guitar solo on Yankovic’s recording. (Some people still are convinced that it was Eddie Van Halen, who played the solo on Michael Jackson’s recording, proving Yankovic’s painstaking attention to detail.) The exactitude is especially obvious when you watch the “Eat It” video (which deservedly became an MTV staple) alongside “Beat It”:

(Interestingly enough, Yankovic has gone on to direct videos by artists as diverse as Hanson and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. But I digress.)

“Weird Al” Yankovic deeply influenced my youth. I got the “Eat It” single (I even played the B-side, “That Boy Could Dance,” repeatedly), followed by Yankovic’s In 3-D. I lipsynched that album’s reggae spoof, “Buy Me A Condo,” for a grade-school talent show (where I brought the house down, if I do say so myself). Eventually, I wrote a fan letter. I distinctly remember addressing him as “Weird” Al Yankovic instead of “Weird Al” Yankovic, even then realizing the implication that I didn’t think of him as weird. (I didn’t! I still don’t.) He replied promptly and sent three autographed photo postcards: one for me, and one each for my mom and grandma. Cool, no?

Naturally, when Yankovic went on tour in 1985 to support his Dare To Be Stupid album, I had to see him play. I begged my mom to buy tickets for his show at the now-defunct Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, and we forced my older brother to drive us there. (Since my dad had to go to work the next day, he didn’t join us.) Yankovic’s showmanship was impressive, and his crackerjack band (featuring drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz) could go from Devo-esque New Wave to full-on James Brown soul on a dime. (Yes, sticklers, I am aware that this show predated “Living With A Hernia”: Schwartz would lead the band in a clever vamp during Al’s lengthiest costume change.) I maintain that Yankovic is the ideal first concert experience, because watching him is like seeing many bands at once.

San Francisco Sketchfest presented a tribute to Yankovic last month at the Castro Theatre. During Chris Hardwick’s interview and the audience Q&A afterward, I was struck by two things. The house was packed with fans of all ages, which I expected. I was surprised, however, that most attendees mentioned something other than “Eat It” as their first “Weird Al” exposure. (Hardwick, who is a few years older than I am and lived in the “Eat It” era, discovered him through the 1999 Running With Scissors album.) Yankovic’s 14 studio albums embrace a wide array of styles and subjects, and have given the artist at least one Top 40 hit in every decade since he began recording. (The only other two artists to do that are Madonna and Michael Jackson.)

Comedy is hard, but Alfred Yankovic still makes it look easy, a full 31 years after “Eat It.” May his legend continue to grow.

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