Unless you were an avid fan of the Dr. Demento radio show about 36 years ago, then you have likely never heard a non-bootlegged version of “Weird Al” Yankovic‘s “Pac-Man,” a masterfully goofy parody of the Beatles‘ “Tax Man.” Although this song was recorded in Yankovic’s pre-record-deal era, right around the same time as “My Bologna” and “Another One Rides the Bus,” the reason you have likely not heard it can be summed up by Yankovic’s 2006 song “I’ll Sue Ya”–the Beatles notoriously agile legal representatives sent a cease-and-desist letter into the Dr. Demento show, and that was the end of that.
“I’d like to think that none of the Beatles ever actually heard the song back then,” Yankovic tells Nerdist over the phone. “It was just some office [clerk] whose whole job is to litigate and prosecute people for copyright infringement.”
Clearly, this setback didn’t capsize Yankovic’s career; in a weird twist of fate, Yankovic would even go on to be invited by George Harrison‘s son Dhani to perform in 2014 at GeorgeFest, a tribute concert to the late Beatle in Los Angeles. Sharing the bill with Spoon‘s Britt Daniel, The Flaming Lips‘ Wayne Coyne, The Killers‘ Brandon Flowers, and Brian Wilson, Yankovic delivered one of the highlight performances of the night with his earnest rendition of Harrison’s “What Is Life” from All Things Must Pass. All roads lead back to the Beatles, it seems.
So throughout the parodist’s career, his relationship to the extended Beatles family sublimated from abstract fan appreciation to mutual respect to friendship. “I’ve become friends with Dhani over the years, and he tells me that George Harrison was a fan of my work, which blows my mind,” Yankovic says. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it.” Knowing that Harrison was not only aware of him but even liked him made Yankovic dig up that silly little “Tax Man” parody he recorded all those years ago. When he brought it up to Dhani, the two worked together toward getting the Harrison estate behind an official release of “Pac-Man,” which you can listen to above.
“I should also point out that I was more worried about the Pac-Man people, because we also had to get permission from Namco,” Yankovic says, before succinctly summing up the serendipity of his entire career. “But thankfully they had a good sense of humor about it.”
“Pac-Man” will appear on Yankovic’s forthcoming career-spanning box set, Squeeze Box: The Complete Recordings of “Weird Al” Yankovic, which will be housed in a ridiculous (amazing) replica of his accordion, with each of the 15 vinyl discs in its bellows. If you know your Weird Al history enough to know that those album numbers don’t add up, then you will be pleased to learn that the 15th disc is actually a rarities record called Medium Rarities, which will feature selected non-album tracks from throughout his career. So in addition to “Pac-Man,” you’ll hear an eclectic compilation of tracks from Yankovic’s singular career. The box set, which also includes a 100-page book of rare photos, is slated to come out this fall. For more info on that, be sure to head to Yankovic’s official website or to Pledge Music, where you can see a more in depth video about Squeezebox.
Ahead of the release, we were able to catch up with Yankovic and talk to him about the box set, Pac-Man high scores, and the importance of Dr. Demento to his early career. Check out that conversation below.
Nerdist: The fidelity of the “Pac-Man” recording sounds vastly different than your major label releases. How did you originally record this song?
“Weird Al” Yankovic: I had a fancy piece of equipment thing called the TEAC Cassette Portastudio. It was literally recorded on a cassette tape. It was four tracks, so as thin as cassette tapes are, they divided the tape into like four different tracks. And I would record, maybe, double speed. I don’t remember exactly, but it was a multi-track studio. Well, “studio” is overstating a bit. It’s like a little piece of gear with a mixing board on it, but it would literally record on a cassette tape, and I recorded “Pac-Man” in a friend’s garage. And I then brought in some musicians to play on it and recorded some Pac-Man sounds from an actual Pac-Man arcade game. Very early sampling.
N: And how did people first hear this track?
Y: I put it together and sent it to Dr. Demento, and he played it for a few weeks. It got some good fan reaction, and very shortly, after a few plays, he got a cease and desist letter from some attorneys representing the Beatles. Dr. Demento couldn’t play it anymore. I know it’s existed on the internet in the interim, but it’s taken until 2017 for us to be able to legally put out the song as an official release.
N: When you recorded the song, what was your understanding of where your career was going at that point?
Y: At the time I had no idea. I certainly wouldn’t have anticipated that I would have the career I wound up having. That would have been beyond my wildest dreams. I was just hoping that maybe I would get a record deal, or maybe be allowed to do a full album, or maybe just to have a legitimate recording. The next year, in 1982, I did sign my deal with Scotti Brothers, but this was in that short window where I kind of really didn’t know what was going to be going on with me.
N: Tell me about Dr. Demento’s role in shaping your career.
Y: Well, gosh, I wouldn’t have had any career whatsoever if it hadn’t been for Dr. Demento. There wasn’t any YouTube back then. There wasn’t any channel for me to get myself out there. I can’t imagine anybody else in the universe that would’ve given airtime to some kid with an accordion playing goofy songs. There’s just no chance. I am 100% certain that I would have a real job if it hadn’t been for Dr. Demento, because he was the guy. There’s nobody else that would’ve given me a shot, certainly, and Dr. Demento changed the trajectory of my life in a very tangible way.
N: You mentioned getting to know Dhani personally, so how did you officially get clearance for “Pac-Man,” which is a parody of George Harrison’s “Tax Man”?
Y: I knew we were putting this boxed set together and I thought, “Oh gosh, the ‘Pac-Man’ song was kind of a nice little rarity and I wonder if I can actually get that approved after all these years.” So I contacted Dhani directly, and then my manager followed up on it with the legal people and we made it happen. We finally got direct permission from the Harrisons.
N: Is it still fair to say that you’re pleasantly surprised when people say yes?
Y: I’m always a little pleasantly surprised, yeah, but I’m always generally optimistic. When I first started out, I didn’t have a track record, so I was more used to rejection back in the early ‘80s, but I’ve had a pretty good record in recent years. Most people view it as an homage, and the turndowns are actually pretty rare at this point, but I’m still very thankful and even a bit pleasantly surprised when people say yes.
N: Were you ever a high-score holder on a cabinet Pac-Man game?
Y: Probably not. I learned the patterns, so I definitely got to run up some pretty high scores, but I don’t know if I ever was the one in the actual high score. Unless a machine had been recently unplugged, then probably so.
N: Did you have a game of choice aside from that then?
Y: In the early ‘80s: Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, and of course all the old school games. Asteroids, and going way back, Pong, of course. When my daughter was about eight or nine years old she got really into ’80s video games, which I now have on my computer. It was fun to watch her get all obsessed with all the games that I was obsessed with when they first came out in the early ’80s.
N: It’s crazy how well they still hold up.
Y: I thought a lot of it would be wrapped up in nostalgia, but like I said, my daughter, who has no nostalgia factor, got really into the games, but there’s something about those games. I don’t know what it is.
N: What can we expect from the rarities record?
Y: It’s a release of tracks that don’t appear on any of my 14 official studio albums: a few actual rarities like “Pac-Man,” a couple things that haven’t been released anywhere, a few alternate tracks. There’s an instrumental version of something and a karaoke version of something. So, it’s just like odds and ends, basically, but stuff that we thought that fans would be interested in, and stuff that certainly should be included on any kind of comprehensive box set. It goes from 1978 to this year, and we have the tracks chronologically ordered.
N: Are you nervous about fans hearing the earlier tracks from your career or are you excited?
Y: It’s sort of like old baby photos. I can’t say that I’m proud of them, but it’s part of history and I think that it’s important for people to know that I wasn’t always a polished artist. Things back then were pretty crude and amateurish, and I’d like to think that I’ve improved a lot over the years. I think you can see a lot of improvement between the first track and the last few tracks on the rarities album.
Images: Nerdist, Seth Olenick, Robert Trachtenberg
Matt Grosinger is the music editor for Nerdist and can’t wait to get his hands on that replica accordion.