I’ve always found it to be strange that if an artist makes you laugh, then they are automatically put in some kind of critically-disrespected box. It’s okay to make make you cry and snot up with assorted dramatics, but a chuckle? Forget about it. Perhaps that’s why Barnes & Barnes have yet to get the full respect they deserve. Best known for their Dr. Demento chestnut, “Fish Heads,” they were much more than a musical one trick pony, with the long out-of-print Rhino Records VHS release, Zabagabee being prime evidence.
Opening with super 8mm footage of our duo, Art (actor/musician Bill Mumy, best known for his work on sci-fi television shows like Lost in Space and Babylon 5) and Artie (mad genius Robert Haimer) Barnes in their early teen years. Eerie music with a somber voice over intones, “Have they always been with us? Have they never been with us?” Off screen screaming ensues and then it cuts to the first of many strange celebrity endorsements, with Oscar winner Jose Ferrer and Superman creator Jerry Seigel popping up. They are cutely quaint until the incomparable Larry “Wild Man” Fischer shows up in his first of many appearances on this tape. Hanging out in a sunny park, Larry talks about initially running away from Barnes & Barnes thinking they were trying to kill him but then adds, “They basically wouldn’t hurt a fly.” (Anyone who has seen the excellent but no fun documentary about Fischer, Derailroaded, will probably feel a tad uncomfortable with this segment.)
On to the music. The first video is the best known, with the Bill Paxton (yes, THAT Bill Paxton) directed “Fish Heads.” Paxton not only helmed this bad boy but also stars in it as the stylish young man with a hankering for the company of decapitated, fly encrusted fishes. (My personal favorite is the one wearing the fez and playing the bongos, because everything is better with bongos and a fez.) There’s a Dr. Demento cameo as a enthused wino and our boys wearing trash bags and eyeball goggles. It’s music video Dada and bless all involved for creating it. Where else are you going to see Bill Paxton having a tea party with a bunch of stinky yet festive fish heads? Exactly.
Speaking of Dr. Demento, he shows up in the next testimonial and plays what sounds like a rough demo version of “Boogie Woogie Amputee,” smiling big and proclaiming “And those were the days before the accident!.” Back on the inexplicable famous artists train, noted jazz clarinetist Woody Herman pops up, right before the next video, “Love Tap.” Directed by seasoned music video director Rocky Schenk, Bill Paxton makes a return appearance, this time as the ketchup-suited man in an abusive relationship with one beautiful and ghoulishly volatile woman, played by Annerose Bucklers. (Bucklers was also in Devo’s video for “Satisfaction.”) The absolute highlight here is Barnes & Barnes, still sporting the strange goggles but now wearing wedding dresses while flanked by dangling mannequin parts.
Shirley Jones comes in afterwards with the best line ever, “I’ve known Barnes & Barnes since I was a little girl. They used to shave my uncle!” People should be building shrines to her for that line alone. Shaun Cassidy follows her, talking about how he used to keep the band locked in his closet for years. It’s alright but anything will pale in comparison to the Shirley Jones uncle-shaving-incident.
The next video is the visually incredible “Soak it Up.” This is one of the best looking videos to have emerged out of the 80’s. Forget the pap that MTV nostalgia-heads try to foist on you. This is the real deal. “Soak it Up” is ripe with great visual devices like force perspective and superimposition, all of which is exquisitely executed. Paxton and Bucklers pop back up as young lovers minus the physical abuse and plus surrealist eye candy. The band is typically great with Haimer making some especially awesome faces and dancing in front of creepy castle that I like to pretend is his stately home. Hey, a girl can dream. There’s even a nod to the Dali created sequence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
After that brilliance, we get Mark Hamill talking about the boys’ novel She Squealed and Ran Away and how they “reek” of greatness. Wild Man Larry laughs incomprehensibly about Frank Zappa and then Rae Down Chong reveals that she’s going to have their baby. Perfect and a great segue for “Ah A.” The song that is composed of strange child noises and the intro, “Do you think we will ever truly understand love?” “Perhaps.” The visuals are comprised of women ranging from a beautiful “Gibson” type girl to Ms. Chong pulling a coy Josephine Baker manouever. There’s even a highly disturbing cameo from Bill Paxton at the very end.
Boojie Boy (Mark Mothersbaugh) pops up in a spartan kitchen and talks about how Barnes & Barnes literally taught him how to wax his carrot. (Note the lack of sarcastic quotation marks.) Weird Al shows up, with only Elvira missing from my triumvirate of childhood heroes. The next video, “Party in my Pants” warrants the title card, “let’s go places and eat things…” Barnes & Barnes follow a duo of lovelies, including a young and pre-fame Terri Hatcher, around in the countryside. Meanwhile, some stop motion dolls, all looking like they hail from the $.50 bin of misfit toys at your local garage sale, hang out in a pair of pants and drink beer. It’s as great as it sounds.
Jonathan Harris, is his finest “Dr. Smith” inflected voice, comes in and mentions Barnes & Barnes a dozen times before half of the band America, whom Mumy was a member of at one point, show up. They perform a tepid version of “Fish Heads.” But then we have Wild Man, who does his own bizarro version of “Fish Heads” and all is right in the world again. Then it’s time for the grand daddy. Sure, when you see the title “Pizza Face,” your brain enters into an awkward, hormone laced Atari fever. But nix that. This video is like a punch in your face while simultaneously giving you a kiss. Example? Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” painting begins the proceedings, with a marinara sauce mustache being drawn on her face. It gets even better. Barnes and Barnes, in a spooky fog-laced forest, dress like weird mimes and play instruments that are nowhere heard in the soundtrack. A skull with muscle and skin melting off of its face appears right before we see the requisite Bill Paxton cameo., this time as grinning waiter. Miguel Ferrer has the worst pizza date ever and inflatable Godzilla makes a cameo! Flea shows up, fulfilling his quota that month of inexplicable appearances in clips made in the 80’s. Then? The meat baby. That is all I’m going to say about that. Percy Shelley himself could not adequately describe the beauty and splendor of meat baby, so I will not even dare.
On the weird celebrity trip, Stephen Stills and then Rosemary Clooney (!!!) show up, waxing poetic about the band. Wild Man recites his duet with Ms. Clooney, which did indeed happen in real life, called “It’s a hard business.” “You can’t escape your destiny” prologs the next and last clip, “When You Die.” Ethereal girls in white togas dance around gravestones while the band digs graves and display masks and dolls.
Zabagabee is a perfect sample of both the wondrously weird and well crafted sides of Barnes & Barnes. For a band that is best known for singing about severed fish parts, it’s easy to forget that they could craft a good love song, like “Soak it Up” all the while without losing their unique edge. Perhaps the best thing about Barnes & Barnes is that unlike so many bands, they never became boring. Whether it was the juvenile humor from hell of “Sicks” or the more serious “Amazing Adult Fantasy,” which includes a manic cover of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood classic, “Bang Bang,” Barnes & Barnes were a wonderful band. Yeah.