One of the advantages to starting your own website is you can write about whoever you want, so I’m going to take the opportunity here to talk about Barnes and Barnes, a couple of sick weirdos who are basically unheard of outside of their one novelty hit “Fish Heads” (which still remains the most requested song on the Dr. Demento Show). They are Bill Mumy and Robert Haimer, childhood friends who wrote a bunch of screwy songs, bought a drum machine, gave themselves fake names (Art Barnes and Artie Barnes), and albums with titles like Voobaha and Spazchow. If this all sounds a wee bit familiar to you I will point out that they did it all about a decade before Ween basically did the exact same thing. Not to imply that Ween were influenced by them, for all I know they have no clue who Barnes and Barnes are, but they are kindred spirits of sorts.
With Ween you can see the appeal, as Dean Ween and Gene Ween were both genuine talents who could drink more booze and eat more pills than 99% of their audience. Meanwhile Art and Artie were a couple of weird-ass dudes who wrote songs that made even “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)” look tame in comparison. The band’s first two albums contained some seriously disturbed stuff and it’s all made stranger by the fact that both guys sing like cartoon characters (though Haimer just sounds like that naturally, it seems). They also liked to associate with those even more out there than they were – they wrote a bunch of tunes for Wild Man Fischer and did most of the music on the infamous Crispin “Hellion” Glover album THE BIG PROBLEM ≠ the solution. The Solution = LET IT BE. I mean this is pure outsider music, the kind of thing that say Mrs. Miller falls in to, the type of music that implores that familiar “you actually like this stuff?” reaction.
Thanks to Dr. Demento and “Fish Heads”, the first album Voobaha did alright, especially as like Devo the band was putting out videos (cheekily called “Art Films”) that MTV aired partly because they loved left-field stuff back then, and partly because “music television” didn’t have a whole lot to show in 1979. This would sustain them for a bit, but getting that dreaded novelty tag turned them into a marketing nightmare. They wound up getting dropped by Boulevard and their 3rd album Kodovoner was rejected outright; it wasn’t a “serious” album per se but it was a lot more straightfaced than the stuff they’d cut their teeth on and I guess they figured nobody wanted to hear the duo behind “Fish Heads” and “Party in my Pants” do serious stuff.
Which brings us to their next, Amazing Adult Fantasy. Released on Rhino, I believe this was their one shot at being viewed as a little more than just some dumb novelty act, and as a result it’s their lowest-selling album ever. I mean it is hard to describe this album without sounding like it’s “Barnes and Barnes minus everything you probably like about Barnes and Barnes” and I’ll be honest, some of the material on here is a bit of a stretch. “Don’t You Wanna Go To The Moon” was the single, and featured Steve Perry of Journey, I kid you not. There’s “I Don’t Remember Tomorrow”, a song that sounds like it was written for the Monkees. Meanwhile the actual B&B sound was edging close to Devo, but it was the later, “going through the motions” Devo and not the punky wonkfest of the early band (one song on the Soak it Up EP borrowed some of the music for “I Desire” wholesale). Okay, so this all sounds quite unappealing, but it’s still the sort of album that I find fascinating, because despite some rather blatant attempts at grabbing a hit single it really is about as weird as their more famous material. Like, Barnes and Barnes doing a song with Steve Perry weird.
The thing that strikes me right away about Amazing Adult Fantasy is that it has no idea what kind of album it wants to be. The first six tracks are fairly normal – it is here that you get the Steve Perry guest spot and several mechanical, sub-Devo tunes (“Learn to Kiss the Enemy”, “Blithering”). Granted “normal” is maybe a relative term here; they’re still full of blonky synth noises and horror movie samples. The high point is “Modern Romantic Point of View”, a legitimately gorgeous and upbeat song filled with hooks and harmonization, a glimpse into the radio-friendly Barnes & Barnes that maybe could have been, but songs like this don’t exactly grow on trees. But after “I Don’t Remember Tomorrow” things go off the deep end. “Life is So Much Safer When You’re Sleeping” may have been intended to be completely straight-faced, but there’s something unmistakably sinister about the whole thing; it’s sung like a lullaby, so why the hollowed-out drum machine and creepy echo effects?
Well, that’s just Barnes & Barnes, who can’t really do anything without sounding a little creepy. The middle section of the album opens up the guys’ answering machines; some of which is hilarious (the lady complaining about how “that was the most terrible thing to put in someone’s fucking ears” certainly makes you wonder what was there in the first place), some of which shows off exactly where these guys’ heads were at this point. I mean, the Art Barnes and Artie Barnes of Voobaha were clearly characters, but Amazing Adult Fantasy is at least somewhat about Billy and Bobby, a couple of guys who seem pretty damn aware that nobody’s really interested in a band marked with “the stigma of comedy”, especially given that their prior LP was rejected. They were always teetering on the edge of obscurity, despite their novelty hit, despite all the tenuous connections they had (“Weird Al” Yankovic always seemed to travel in the same circle) and the fact that Bill Mumy turned out to be the kid who played Will Robinson on Lost in Space. Even today, most Barnes & Barnes songs that aren’t on Voobaha will have about 500 views on YouTube, if anyone even bothered to upload them in the first place.
Really though, isn’t that as it should be? I realize that a lot of the posts up here on Critter Jams are just me whining about why XYZ isn’t more popular or whatever but Barnes & Barnes don’t exactly fall into that group. They’re funny, but not like, laugh out loud funny; a lot of their most humorous bits are really more grotesque than funny. I don’t really know what song I’d play for someone to sell them on the band; they either appeal to you or they (most likely) don’t. Amazing Adult Fantasy makes a good case for them as songwriters, though a lot of the better songs (“Life is a Harsh Reality”, “Walk My Dog”, “The Ballad of Jim Joy”) didn’t make the original album; instead there are awkward novelty songs like “ZZ Top Beard” that make little sense to me. So make sure you get the version with bonus tracks, especially as there’s an excellent version of “The Inevitable Song” in there to boot. Alas, Barnes & Barnes didn’t get much recognition for those kinds of songs – I believe “Blithering” and “Don’t You Want To Go To the Moon” were the ones intended to be hits, but they’re two of the least interesting tunes here.
Oh well. So they’re flawed, and unlike contemporaries like Ween and They Might be Giants, they never made a great album, but I love ’em anyway. Hell, the fact that I have to compare them to Ween and TMBG illustrates how unique this band were, because on second thought they don’t really sound like either, but those are the only two reference points that make sense to me right now. Thankfully, Rhino stuck with them for a few albums after this, but the two went sort of under the radar after ’91, though according to this massive discography, they never stopped making music. I believe their record company wanted something a little more jokey out of them next and they responded with Sicks, advertised as “the sickest songs ever collected on one record”. After listening to it, I certainly can’t think of one sicker, but that’s a story for another day. The group resurfaced in 2009 for Opbopachop, an album I haven’t heard in full, but I’ve heard pieces, and it seems like middle-age hasn’t softened them a bit, though they have gotten a lot more morbid. Yeah.