Find the path to international recording fame using this one weird trick.
Record in the bathroom.
Among the porcelain urinals and sinks, across the hall from radio station, KCPR is the sound environment that launched a recording star.
Alfred M. Yankovic is arguably the second most famous Cal Poly graduate after John Madden. If you don’t play video games or watch football Yankovic may be more recognizable to you. The list of Poly grads include executives for Disneyland, Apple, Yahoo!, Raytheon, founder of the agricultural giant J.G. Boswell, athletes like Chuck Liddel and Ozzie Smith, three astronauts, a lieutenant governor and aircraft design pioneer Burt Rutan among others.
Weird Al is better known than all of them.
I am still kicking myself for losing a cardboard Week of Welcome disc, which had a recording of Weird Al’s greeting to incoming students. When I arrived he had a radio show inspired by the Doctor Demento syndicated comedy show but soon the college deejay would be an invited guest and later a larger star than his mentor.
The Tribune has written an number of stories over the years, this Weird Al story is from April 1, 1989 a decade into a career that is still going strong today.
Getting Weird with Al
Or the story of a Cal Poly grad who grew up and struck April Fool’s gold
Story by “Texas” Dan Parker
Al Yankovic had found the perfect recording spot. A Cal Poly restroom.
“We called it Studio 229 because that was the number above the door,” Al recalled in a recent interview. The restroom “had a nice, warm, reverb sound.
The year was 1979 and Al was a 19-year-old non-famous Cal Poly architecture student and deejay at the university’s radio station, KCPR. He called his comedy show the Weird Al Yankovic Show.”
Al was working on “My Bologna,” his satirical version of The Knack’s hit song, “My Sharona.” He recorded the accordion part in the men’s restroom and the vocals in the KCPR newsroom.
He sent the final version to the “Doctor Demento Radio Show,” a nationally syndicated humor program, and the good doctor played it. And liked it.
One year later, Al performed “Another One Rides the Bus” live on the Doctor Demento show. The take-off on Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” quickly became the most requested song in the program’s 10-year history.
“Nowadays, I work in a 24-track bathroom,” Al said, laughing.
At the ripe old age of 29, Al is a certified star. He has put out six albums, one of which won a Grammy. Just released is “Weird Al Yankovic’s Greatest Hits.”
Al also has put out a host of videos that have gotten heavy play on MTV. All of the works are filled with parodies, skewering the likes of Madonna, Huey Lewis and Michael Jackson.
But despite the fame, Al says he’s not rich, and he isn’t surrounded by glamorous friends.
“Two of my best friends are guys I met at Cal Poly,” he said. “Joel Miller and Joe Early. Some of my first public performances were with them.”
Al met Joel first. Both lived in the Sierra Madre dorm at Cal Poly. Al was a freshman and Joel was a junior.
“The other residents and I didn’t talk to Al at all for probably the first two quarters of school,” Joel said recently.
A National Merit Scholar and valedictorian of his high school, Al entered college at the age of 16.
“He was shy and introverted,” recalled Joel, who now lives in North Hollywood and sells computer systems.
But one morning, after a long night of studying, Joel and some other students decided to get some food at Taco Bell and they asked Al if he wanted anything. Al wanted a burrito.
“One of his four basic food groups,” Joel said.
While delivering the burrito to Al, Joel spotted an accordion on the floor of Al’s room.
“It looked like a crashed 747 or something,” Joel said. “We asked him if he could play it, and he said, ‘Sure!’ We asked him to play Elton John, and he played ‘Love Lies Bleeding in Your Hands,’ from beginning to end, with all the sound effects. We were amazed.”
Joel ran to his room and grabbed his bongo drums.
“We started to jam, and everyone came out of their rooms,” Joel said.
Three months later, Al and Joel performed together at a Cal Poly eatery.
They opened for the Cache Valley Drifters.
Al started the show with an accordion version of “2001.” The overture blended into Joel pounding out “Wipe Out” on the bongos.
The crowd went nuts,” Joel said.
True to his weird nature, Al played a medley of tunes including a beer commercial jingle, the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Happy Birthday.”
“Al was really into it,” Joel said. “When I saw the look in his eyes, I knew that’s what he wanted to do — perform, not study architecture.”
They got a standing ovation.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Joel said. We gave each other fives. Regular fives. It wasn’t high fives back then.”
They added Joe Early to the band about one year later.
Joe was a microbiology student and a deejay at KCPR, played the kazoo and the juice harp, which hurt his lips.
“But when you think something’s funny, you can sacrifice body parts,” Joe said.
Make no mistake about it, they were a comedy band.
“Al used to introduce me as the only white Jewish semi-professional bongo player in San Luis Obispo,” Joel said.
The band changed its name for every performance. Once, it was “The Weird Al Orchestra.” Another time, it was “Weird Al and Yo Mama.”
The band lasted about two years. It never played outside San Luis Obispo County.
“There was never much optimism it would turn out to be anything,” Joe said. “Joel and I just did it for fun. But we knew Al had some sort of dream he could make a living doing music.”
The Weird One was is a hugely underrated musician and an eccentric genius, Joe said.
“Sometimes, in public, he would be embarrassing,” Joe said. “If you didn’t know him you could think something was wrong with him.
“He would be wearing these bizarre striped bell-bottom pants and some weird polyester shirt.
“And all that wild curly hair. He never bought new clothes. He didn’t care how he looked. And he’s pretty much the same way now.
“”I’ve come in contact with a lot of people who most people would say are intelligent,” said Joe, who now is studying law at Arizona State University in Tempe.
“I can say without a doubt in my mind that Al is the smartest person I’ve ever known.”
“Some of my best memories are of Joe and Joel and of San Luis Obispo,” Al said.
Among his favorite local hangouts, he said, is Gum Alley on Higuera Street, where light hearted litterbugs over the years have created murals of bubble gum on the alley walls.
“I also used to hang out at the Madonna Inn men’s bathroom,’ Al joked. “You know those electric eye urinals that would trigger those little waterfalls? Very inspirational.”
Al said he’d love to play Cal Poly on his next tour, probably in summer 1990.
Although his musical career was taking off before he left college, Al did get his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cal Poly.
“But I don’t use it for much other than a drink coaster these days,” he said.
When he’s not scribbling down notes in the halls of San Luis Obispo County courtrooms, Dan Parker enjoys good waves, loud music and a Magic Johnson-led Laker fast break.
Len Filomeo shared this link to archived audio of the 1978 Week of Welcome disc. I recall a flexi disc on cardboard put out for the 1979 class that had a little more wacky humor in it. It was a long time ago but I seem to recall as a new student, thinking it was cool that the University had a sense of humor.