Friday, July 06, 2007

Boots Randolph Dies, "Yakety Sax" Lives On

When American country and jazz legend Boots Randolph passed away Tuesday a week after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, the Fark headline declared, "Funeral procession will take place at a comically rapid pace with scantily clad women and an English bobby." Randolph was a longtime Nashville headliner and session man, and he had played sax behind Elvis Presley on "Return to Sender," Roy Orbison on "Oh, Pretty Woman," and Brenda Lee on "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." But it was clear long before his death that the 1961 instrumental "Yakety Sax" would be his legacy.

"Yakety Sax" charted in 1963 on a Monument Records rerelease, but it wasn't until The Benny Hill Show started airing in 1969 that the song truly took off. During the BBC sketch comedy's closing credits, star Hill would typically get into some kind of trouble and be chased by sexy birds and a policeman in an "undercranked," or fast-motion, video sequence. All the action was, of course, set to "Yakety Sax." In this 1988 edition, Hill spends much of the sequence alone on camera, but the near-stop-motion shots with a pursuing mob are representative.

It's a successful formula: cyclical, jaunty instrumental + slapstick humor + fast-motion video. It's been around in one form or another since the Keystone Kops, which is to say since basically the dawn of film. Benny Hill's use of "Yakety Sax" tweaked this recipe and made it iconic, yielding a sort of shorthand: set something to "Yakety Sax" and you're telling the audience that the action is comical in a slapstick kind of way and maybe even, on another level, winking and nodding to British comedy for those in the know.

The proliferation of YouTube has lead to countless imitations—some better than others. "Yakety Sax" is a fairly effective soundtrack for videos of fast-moving animals, especially ones that would be otherwise a little bit funny on their own, like these battling pets and this treadmill-running shrimp. It also works rather well reedited into classic movie scenes like the Darth Maul sword fight, the Shining climax, or any part of Jurassic Park. Clips importing "Yakety Sax" into sports, perhaps because they are stripped of their drama, or perhaps because blooper-reel comedy stands best on its own, are somewhat less successful. It might be that directors who attempt to bennyhillify sports don't quite have a grasp on the undercranking technique.

By far the most controversial use of "Yakety Sax" for attempted comic effect is as a soundtrack to real-life tragic events. Testing the theory that the song, properly deployed, can make anything funny, more than one YouTube user has set news footage from 9/11 to the tune. Woody Allen famously wrote that comedy is tragedy plus time. I'm not convinced that speeding up the tape makes up for that last element.

Boots Randolph was right when he called "Yakety Sax" "my trademark." For better or worse, it's what he'll be remembered for. That's what makes YouTube user JasonEdge's stripped-down tribute so moving. Have you ever seen "Yakety Sax" set to less action?

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