March 13th, 2008
Lawrence Welk was approaching his seventies when radical changes suddenly hit America's music scene. The clash in the late 1960s shook the band leader, America's most famous square, and he confronted the raging turmoil in a series of shocking performances — at least, according to these five videos.
Thirty years before American Idol, parts of America were still uncomfortable with the very idea of rock songs even appearing on television, especially during Welk's squeaky-clean song and dance show. And since The Lawrence Welk Show ran for three decades, these videos suggest the ultimate long, strange trip. They're a window in time, capturing a bizarre never-world where the hour-long show actually surrendered happily to the coming onslaught of rock.
1. Sweet Jesus
Yes, "Dale and Gail" are actually singing about the excessive use of marijuana: the devil's weed, the great satanic corrupter of our youth — and the counterculture's intellectual lubricant. Welk really did trot out a 23-year-old rejected Miss Oklahoma contestant to croon a shockingly wholesome rendition of "One Toke Over the Line." Maybe he was trying to tell us something.
Nearly 40 years later, the clip ignited a new controversy. Tom Shipley, one of the drug-friendly song's original singers, uploaded Welk's version onto YouTube — and nearly immediately, it drew over 160 comments.
"Do these two know what a 'toke' even is?"
"This fails so hard it approaches win from the other side."
"I think I'm about to stab pencils into my eyes and ears."
Welk was famous again, but for all the wrong reasons, as this forgotten moment in time "sparked" a very 21st-century enthusiasm.
"I want to make physical love to this clip."
"Way to go, Light-em-up Larry!"
"a priceless moment in television history"
"Champagne...the gateway drug!"
Though perhaps inevitably, some commenters also searched for a hidden message in the couple's giddy vocal delivery.
"look at their eyes!!, their baked!!"
"oh. my. god. becky, look at her blunt."
"She has to be baked to wear that outfit."
There's no evidence that Dale and Gail actually toked up before singing the song. But when accordionist Myron Floren introduces them — there's obviously something that's making him cough.
2. Sucking on a Ding-dong
Welk's heroin habit eventually caught up with him, and he was swallowed whole by a voracious counterculture. In a shocking turnaround, he brought in Lou Reed to jam with the show's banjo player, organist, drummer, and orchestra, citing a song which was "high" in popularity.
A remarkable video shows the squares in Welk's audience bobbing in a slow waltz as The Velvet Underground rips through "Sister Ray." ("I'm searching for my mainer, I said I couldn't hit it sideways...")
"Wonderful!" Welk declares at the end.
"Mr. Welk... This isn't like you at all," you can imagine his singers saying. Though of course, by now you folks know we were only kidding about that heroin habit...
3. Stop the Music
In a historic telecast, five men in yellow blazers and five women in matching blouses were confronted by "Hippie Welk."
The smiley man who played polkas on his accordion suddenly appeared with long hair and Beatle spectacles, flashing a peace sign and barking "Don't you cats know this polka jazz is strictly from Squares-ville? I can't stand that kind of music."
The audience actually gasps...
Backed by a Day-Glo drum, Welk then launches his singers into Wilson Pickett's "She's Looking Good." (Joking about bands with animal names, Welk says "I just opened the cages, and look what I released... The Babbling Baboons.") It rocks. Even if Welk's cast isn't quite sure how to dance to it.
While the Velvet Underground video was a mashup, this clip really is from an actual broadcast. It's a seismic shift in America's cultural landscape, as the song's driving beat fries the minds of America for exactly forty seconds. But then Welk's two white "soul sisters" are interrupted by some very unconvincing acting, as two female cast-members complain "Mr. Welk... This isn't like you at all."
Returning to their pre-liberated state of near-infantalism, they ask Welk about his trademark champagne music. "Whatever happened to the music that went doodly doodly doodly doodly doot?" They give him a raspberry, the audience applauds loudly, and Welk smilingly says "Of course, by now you folks know we were only kidding."
"We wouldn't do that to you nice people."
4. Meet the Beatles.
Drugs influenced the Beatles too, but when they broke up, it was Lawrence Welk who picked up their countercultural cred, turning "Hey Jude" into one of "ten big songs" on his ground-breaking concept album, Galveston. But where the Beatles released "Hey Jude" together with "Revolution," Welk paired it up with a softer song — Glen Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind."
Its graceful trumpet solo inspired audiences to waltz and vote for Nixon, shortly before a startling full-orchestra crescendo into the chorus, and one brief flourish of funk from an unappreciated bass player.
In a surreal moment, the string section saws away underneath a giant golden sign which says: "Geritol."
It was nobody's Woodstock.
5. Smoke on the Water?
It was almost heroic the way Welk clung to his kitschy schtick in the face of a changing world — his own personal freak flag, flown gloriously high.
Welk was nearly 90 when he died in 1989, but he lived long enough to see another accordion player make the big time, possibly channeling his spirit. In the early '80s, Weird Al Yankovic offered up the ultimate tribute, mixing Welk's "Bubbles in the Wine" into an accordion medley of 14 ridiculously inappropriate songs, from Devo to Jimi Hendrix, the Clash and the Who.
Later footage of Welk's show was even spliced into a video for the hyperactive medley (which also included "Hey Jude"), creating a montage that's oddly reminiscent of the surreal bandleader himself. It ultimately proves that given enough accordions, any song can become soul-crushingly square.
Even "Smoke on the Water."
100 Years After
It's been 105 years since Lawrence Welk was born. (Tuesday would've been his birthday.) But this November saw an interesting coda.
A video was uploaded to YouTube showing an audience of high school students baffled by a vinyl record of Welk's polka band performing "Minnie the Mermaid." Their heads bob as Welk's deep-voiced singer croons about the time he'd spent down in her seaweed bungalow...
But it turns out it was a time capsule within a time capsule, since the video came from a public access TV show they'd recorded for their local cable outlet in the 1980s. (An earlier episode featured a video by GWAR.) The two teenaged mid-80s hipsters are playing a song from 1957, just a pit stop on the song's journey to YouTube 50 years later.
The video has been watched just 87 times, but it drew one comment that puts the whole thing in perspective. "Now your show seems as ancient here as the Lawrence Welk record did..." In the future, maybe everyone will be Lawrence Welk for 15 minutes.
He'd learned to play the accordion before he'd learned to speak English at the age of 21, and rose from a poor immigrant family to become one of the richest men in Hollywood. But it was his earnest commitment to hokey friendliness that made him a kind of legend. Even if Welk never grokked the emergence of rock music, one YouTube comment suggested Welk had earned some respect simply for the role he'd played for the generations that came before.
"He made my grandparents — whom I loved dearly — happy during the final years of their lives. For that, I respect him."