When not making with the funny business and sweet, sweet music with Axis of Awesome, or otherwise being a musical genius, Benny Davis is a Human Jukebox. Benny the Jukebox, in fact. Send him a request; if he's heard the song, he can play it. With harmonies, chords etc.
Barry Humphries once declared the guitar 'that most loathesome of instruments'; a session musician banjo player with a pager is said to be the very definition of optimistic; being able to hurl a piano accordion into a skip without hitting the sides is the true meaning of 'perfect pitch'; and the melodica isn't the most ridiculous instrument, only because the keytar and the stylophone both still exist. But for most, it's still an ill wind that blows no good. Benny doesn't just make you not want to snap the melodica over the head of the guy playing it for a change - he actually gives it respectability.
âWE SPENT THE BULK of 2011 overseas,â Jordan Raskopoulos says. âIn fact, weâve spent the last 18 months overseas.â
The âweâ to whom Jordan refers are Axis of Awesome, the musical comedy trio he fronts, with Lee Naimo on lead guitar and rock goddery and Benny Davis on keyboards and diminutive stature. They write and perform songs that are both hilarious and clever, the most well-known of which is an impossibly long medley â of far too many songs that share the same chord progression â called â4 Chordsâ. How well known is it? Well known enough, as Jordan tells us on the eve of Axis of Awesomeâs fifth anniversary, for them to have entertained troops in Egypt, lived the rockânâroll dream touring American colleges out of a van for five months, and topping it all off by playing Germany, Sweden and Amsterdam. And although it shouldnât come as much of a surprise, seeing as how well loved they are in Australia, but Europe âreally lovesâ Axis of Awesome
âSweden is crazy for us. So is Germany. It was great playing a room of 500 people in Amsterdam who all knew the words to âBirdplaneâ.â âBirdplaneâ is a parody version of the Five for Fighting song âSupermanâ, and despite English being their second language, Dutch fans were able to sing along. Which made Jordanâs tour, let alone his night.
âIt was the first time, as a musical performer, I stopped singing and pointed the microphone at the audience so they could sing the rest of the song!â
This, he says, is âpretty crazyâ for a comedy act. Fans of musicians get to know a song well. Fans of musical comedians have less opportunity to know parody songs off-by-heart since, once you know the punch line, you stop laughing. Thatâs why novelty songs that were very well loved initially can sometimes end up being loathed so vehemently once the novelty wears off. (Whisper it: âShaddap You Faceâ). Yet fans love âBirdplaneâ. Indeed, fans â from all over the world â love all of Axis of Awesome songs. And not just their songs: also their renditions of other peopleâs songs. In Germany, their second encore was heavy metal band Rammsteinâs âDu Hastâ. âAlthough itâs not our song, we really, really enjoy singing German heavy metal,â Jordan insists. âThatâs my favourite thing that weâve ever done.â
Itâs kind of â letâs face it, âawesomeâ is the best word â that Axis of Awesome have pretty much conquered Germany â a nation at the centre of the last âAxisâ hell-bent on world domination â as well as the rest of the parts of the world that theyâve visited.
How does it feel?
âPretty good. I mean, as any conqueror will tell you, itâs tough-going and there are plenty of sleepless nights on the road, but itâs been great and weâve had plenty of fun.â
Antecedents of Axis
Comedy fans with good memories and/or a decent DVD collection will know Jordan from his time on The Ronnie JohnsHalf Hour â or, to give it itâs full name (because I can), The Ronnie Johns Good Times Campfire Jamboree Half Hour Show (Now On Televison) â where we remember Jordan as Paulie the Consumer Watchclock (of âgnocchi is potatoes, not pastasâ infamy) and the Underground Guy. The more dedicated comedy nerd, however, will know that Ronnie Johns grew out of a couple of live comedy festival shows that compiled the best performers and sketches from various university revues: 2004âs The 3rd Degree: Generation HECS and, the following year, the 3rd Degree show Eskimos with Polaroids. Jordan joined the cast for the second show.
Benny Davis likewise featured in a comedy festival show some years later â alongside Jordanâs brother Steen, as it happens. The show was The Delusionists. However, Jordan, Lee and Benny all knew each other from Sydneyâs improv scene â playing Theatresports and the like.
âLee was looking for a side project for the two of us to do,â Jordan says. When they decided it would be a musical project, they âgot Benny on board because he was always the musical improviser for Theatresports.â
I do find it interesting that Jordanâs Ronnie Johns material was mostly sketch based, rarely dealing directly with musical parody. And yet Jordanâs so naturally âthe front guy in a bandâ. He says that he was âwriting musical stuffâ while doing Ronnie Johns, but, apart from a couple of times, they ânever really fit in the formatâ. Those times were pretty special, though, like âThe Dominant Clawâ song.
Point is, Jordan had a bunch of âhalf-developed song ideasâ so when Lee said âletâs do something musicalâ Jordan was able to bring a heap of stuff to the band. Then, somehow, this âside projectâ âstarted to gain tractionâ after the trio appeared in a couple of satirical election clips.
While there were a couple more Fairfax Media clips â âwe did one about APEC, and I think we did one about the Olympicsâ â it was the success of the election clips that led the Axis on the road to Awesome. They applied to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for a Brian McCarthy Memorial Moosehead Award (âMooseheadâ for short) â a grant issued to comics seeking to present new work at the Festival. Their application proved successful. âWe figured the best way to do our first show was to do it as a âcomebackâ show,â Jordan explains, with The Axis of Awesome Comeback Spectacular featuring at the 2008 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. âThen we got an offer to do Edinburgh. We did Edinburgh and just kept going and going.â
4 Chords, How Many Songs?
In much the same way as Axis of Awesome have kept going and going, â4 Chordsâ just keeps going and going. Literally (each song in the medley gives way to the next; âbeginningâ and âendâ points are decided by the band) and figuratively (fans continue to discover Axis of Awesome via â4 Chordsâ).
The first time the song and the band âwent viralâ was when it was played on BBC Radio 1 in 2009. âWe woke up the next day and had a whole heap of MySpace friend requests â we had no idea where it came from. That got us maybe a million hits on YouTube.â
âWe had a booking but it fell through,â Jordan says. âWeâre still holding out for China; weâve not done it yet. But weâre still talking; hopefully some time this year weâll be visiting China.â
Iâd love to see the list of the songs that have made it to â4 Chordsâ. According to Jordan, the list â compiled by Benny â includes âwell over 200 songsâ. But itâs not like theyâve ever featured in a single, mega-mix performance. In fact, thereâs no âdefinitiveâ rendition of â4 Chordsâ, seeing as Axis of Awesome have recorded three different studio versions and the basic core itself changes from territory to territory when they play it live. âIn the UK there are Australian songs that donât necessarily hit the mark; same with the US. We try to tailor the songs to the market that weâre playing in.â
In fact, it often changes from one night to the next irrespective of where they are. âBenny will go, âI heard something on the radio, letâs throw it inâ and in a panic weâll re-order the song and make sure we donât forget it.â Often the changes are short-lived, the new inclusions proving âa bit obscure, or flash-in-the-pan things that were on the radio for a couple of weeks and then disappearedâ. The cutest ones are the songs nobody knows, that were never contenders â songs from new bands wanting to fast-track their rise to fame by sending letters to the Axis of Awesome saying, âHey, weâve just written a four-chord song, can you please add it to your âFour Chord Songâ so that we can be more popular?â
Finger Lickinâ Hoods
A little while ago some photos did the rounds depicting Lee, Jordan and Benny in the âSouthern Gentlemanâ clobber unmistakable as the uniform of a certain Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Friend Chicken. Turns out itâs for the clip to an excellent song, âOde to KFCâ. Unveiling it â as far as their home crowd was concerned â as the encore to triumphant homecoming gigs at the Sydney Opera House, this hip hop paean to fast food saw them literally singing the praises of the so-called âdirty birdâ, AKA âKentucky Frizzle Chizzleâ.
The back story to the song is familiar territory to anyone who has spent some time not just at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but has been at the late-night HiFi Bar until chucking-out time. Itâs the âwee hours of the morningâ, as Jordan explains, when thereâs âusually a desire for some greasy foodâ. And there arenât many options in Melbourneâs CBD at that time. Thereâs the 24-hour âGolden Towersâ (known fondly to comics as âGolden Showersâ), the finest kebabs you will ever have at Stalactytes, or KFC. Frequently finding himself at KFC with his bandmates and sundry comics, Jordan would yell all sorts of faux-hip hop nonsense in âdrunken revelryâ, such as âgotta Zinger Burger Meal get your hands up!â. But the song wasnât as inevitable as you might expect:
âWe have, in our office, a great big whiteboard with all our song ideas and I wrote âThe KFC Songâ up there. Lee and Benny thought it was stupid. It was on the board for a year before we actually developed it for the show.â
Itâs proven popular enough to warrant a video clip â which, fittingly, was directed by Dan Ilic. âWe got dressed up as Colonel Sanders and travelled around the city.â
My Life, Take A Look At Old Man
Another song that always stands out is âSong for the Elderlyâ, about finding an old man in your house. It demonstrates a particular talent for which Aussie comics â and Aussie musical comics in particular â are so adept: pathos. Humour tinged with sadness.
âTo be honest,â Jordan says of the ballad that punctuates live shows somewhere towards the end, âI was really down and just wanted to write a really depressing songâ¦ and also something that was funny. The concept of coming home and finding an old, lost man in your loungeroom was something that sprung to mind. Itâs not something thatâs ever happened to me â the story would be much more interesting if it had.â
Most experienced comics will tell you: when youâre doing an hour show, somewhere around the 40-minute mark is where you need to give the audience some kind of break before bringing it home with the big, all-guns-blazing show-stopping ending. âYou need a song thatâs not really joke-heavy thatâs still funny but a bit slower. Itâs just that change-of-pace-song that fits really well for us.â
And thatâs the other thing about Axis of Awesome doing a show: it is a show â itâs not just a bunch of funny songs by a band that can do âfunnyâ as well as they do âsongsâ. Jordan explains it better:
âRather than âconcertsâ, what we do, essentially, is a comedy play about a concert. Weâre trying to put a show and weâre bickering. Itâs a little bit âMuppet Showâ: people get an idea of the relationship between us and the backstage antics and how the show has come together and arguments on stage. âVery much The Muppetsâ is a good analogy.â
Which suggest to me that, given the sketch work and the cool clips that have accompanied every stage of Axis of Awesomeâs career, a television show canât be far off.
âWeâve been pitching a show,â Jordan confirms. âWhen we were in the States we pitched some show ideas to different networks and weâre still crossing fingers and waiting to hear back from them. As the act has developed over the years, the characters are very much a part of it. Thatâs one of the things the online audience misses out on: when they just watch the clips, they donât see the âband of brothersâ who are always fighting, always picking on each other, but still need each other to get over the line.â
Thereâs a reason why itâs a âSowâ and not a âShowâ: back when they were celebrating their First Anniversary with a First Anniversary Show, Lee mistyped the title on the emails he sent out, inviting Axis of Awesome friends and fans to âcome to our Anniversary Sowâ. Itâs become a running gag as each year they perform an Anniversary Sow advertised with pictures of pigs.
The 2 Year Anniversary Sow poster from Jan 09
The 5 year Anniversary Sow launches Axis of Awesomeâs 2012 Festival Season with gigs following at Adelaide Fringe, Sydney, Melbourne, New Zealand and â well, pretty much everywhere (check upcoming dates). It also marks the release of their brand-spanking new album, Animal Vehicle. Yeah, I know itâs been available since July â but did you? Consider this a launch as well as the triumphant return home of Axis of Awesome. Get the album. And get to a show. Fingers crossed for a second encore of Rammsteinâs âDu Hastâ!
Jordan Raskopoulos, one third of very funny and very successful musical comedy trio Axis of Awesome, posted, and adopted as his profile pic, the second coolest photo of Ian McKellen Iâve ever seen, earlier this Sunday morning:
Now, I gotta be honest.
I canât help noticing the guy behind him wearing a similar shirt. Same colour. Writing in the same bold, san serif style. Saying something about âgayâ. I know Sir Ianâs of that lifestyle choice â and heâs wearing a similar shirt. So either heâs chosen to take the mickey out of whatever hands-across-the-water âlet's all march in the same t-shirtâ proclamation the guy behind him was making â which is feasible; if Iâd been both Gandalf and Magneto, Iâd be proud of it too â or someoneâs been having fun with photoshop.
Turns out to be the latter; hereâs the original photo (Note the âMâ and the âOâ in âMAGNETOâ and the âGâ in âGANDALFâ, above, compared to the âMâ and the âOâ in âSOMEâ and the âGâ in âGAYâ, below: wrong font!):
And it is part of a big campaign, as, Dannii Minogueâs âsome people are making a career out of jumping on bandwagonsâ photo opportunity would attest.
(Or maybe she means âgayâ in that other sense: âcrapâ. But Iâm not allowed to crack that joke anymore, am I! What an interesting world we live in, that people getting all het up that âgayâ no longer meant âhappyâ, has given way to people getting all het up that âgayâ no longer means âgayâ. And itâs clearly too difficult for some people to explain that words change their meanings, and even when they donât, can still mean the opposite depending on vocal inflection. Why else would it be easier to change the lyrics to âKookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Treeâ than to explain âgay your life must beâ means itâs a âhappyâ life, cos the kookaburraâs laughing, rather than âcrapâ cos the kookaburras arenât getting all of Men At Workâs royalties for âDown Underâ, or âhomosexualâ, cos societyâs politically correct and uptight about having to be so.)
Anyway, back to Sir Ian McKellen being proud about Gandalf and Magneto on his t-shirt:
âAwww, itâs a fakeâ¦â someone wrote on Facebook, under Jordanâs posting â sad that McKellen didnât have a rampant ego, that he wasnât undermining the campaign by being a camp pain. Although, a lot of us, including me, thought the t-shirt was cool, and weâd still resepct Sir Ian if it were real and he were wearing it. Not even ironically. The debunker also linked to the BBC story that ran the original photo. Turns out McKellen was attending a protest against the Pope â on the other side of Hyde Park from the where the pilgrims were flocking to see His Papal Holiness.
My favourite Papal protest is still Tim Minchinâs. Don't listen if you donât like swearing, particularly if you think swearing about the religious is a bigger sin than standing by while the religious ignore mass kiddie fiddlerage among their ranks.
Let me put it another way: people are gonna get satirical with the visual arts online. Get over it.
Before finishing, Iâd just like to add:the coolest photo of Sir Ian McKellen I have seen is the one my buddy got with him, outside the Sydney Opera House, when he was appearing in Waiting For Godot.
And, to bring everything full circle: Tim Minchin jammed with Benny Davis of Axis of Awesome during their Edinburgh Fringe run. Guess which song they played.