The episode: “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” ep. 321
The riff: Noted in an impressed sort of way by Tom as the soundtrack suddenly spins out of control with crazy trumpets out of nowhere.
The explanation: Maynard Ferguson was a Canadian jazz trumpet player and bandleader who was noted for his ability to play accurately in extremely high registers. He was an adaptable musician who was able to find roles within popular music from 1940 all the way to the 2000s, changing with the times. Before his death in 2006, he was inducted into multiple halls of fame for musicians.
Novelty factor: Can’t say I’ve ever actually heard of the guy before, but he produced an absolutely ridiculous number of recordings in his career.
The episode: “The Brute Man,” ep. 702
The riff: Sung off-key by Mike as a blind woman plays the piano. Tom is briefly singing “O Holy Night” the same way just before him.
The explanation: This seems to be a reference to the lyrics of the Elvis Costello song “Stranger in the House,” from his debut 1977 album “My Aim is True.” As for the context…I have no idea at all. It’s possible they’re making a very literal reference because the “Brute Man” is hiding in her apartment during this time, so there’s literally a “stranger in her house.”
Novelty factor: No way in hell I knew this. I barely know any Elvis Costello.
The episode: “The Sinister Urge,” ep. 613
The riff: Inserted incredulously by Crow as dialog after a man talking on the phone says “What? A spot?”
The explanation: Dinah Shore was an American pop singer and actress who achieved unprecedented fame as a solo singer in America’s big band era, the 1940s and 1950s. Later in her career she moved to television acting, including hosting the popular “Dinah Shore Chevy Show” from 1956-1963. A musical variety show, the theme “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” lived on for many more years in Chevy advertising.
Novelty factor: I’ve never heard of this woman or her show, but judging from the photos she was one gorgeous lady.
The episode: “Gamera vs. Gaos,” ep. 308
The riff: Said in an oddly stilted tone by Tom after a journalist tailing after a kid calls to him, saying “Boy, boy…”
The explanation: This is a clever reference to Leonard Bernstein’s song “Cool” from “West Side Story.” In the original musical, it is sung by Riff as he gets the Jets ready for their showdown with the Sharks. In the film, the context is changed because the song is sung after Riff has been killed. Now it is repurposed to tell the Jets they need to “be cool” and not do anything rash in their anger. It is often regarded as one of the film’s best choreographed pieces.
Novelty factor: I don’t know “West Side Story” nearly well enough to pick up that small a reference, but I enjoyed reminding myself with the video below.
The episode: “The Screaming Skull,” ep. 912
The riff: Narrated by Servo as an unkempt man with long, greasy hair roots around among the vegetation in a greenhouse.
The explanation: Dave Pirner is a musician best known as the vocalist for alternative rock band Soul Asylum. Founded in Minneapolis (naturally) in 1983, they were only moderately successful until a triple platinum album, “Grave Dancers Union,” in 1992. After that, they put out another platinum album and even played the Bill Clinton inauguration. I’m not at all surprised that they’re another Minneapolis reference for MST3k.
Novelty factor: Definitely never heard of Dave Pirner individually. I can barely say that Soul Asylum sounds familiar–clearly, I was not paying attention to this music in the early 1990s.
The episode: “Crash of the Moons,” ep. 417
The riff: Added by Servo after the main character is instructed to “Bring back the TR-14!”
The explanation: “The Boston Rag” is the name of a song from the second studio album by American rock band Steely Dan, “Countdown to Ecstasy.” As the lyrics say, “Bring back the Boston Rag, Tell all your buddies that it ain’t no drag.” The song wasn’t a particularly big success on its own, just another song on the album, which didn’t produce any big hits.
Novelty factor: I have never been a fan of Steely Dan, and thus did not recognize the reference.
The episode: “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies,” ep. 812
The riff: Scheduled by Mike while a very whiny and annoying folk singer is presented as the hot new thing at a local place of entertainment.
The explanation: Livingston Taylor is a singer-songwriter, the younger brother of the more famous James Taylor. He’s produced 17 albums over the course of his career but never had any big hits, his most prominent being the song “I Will Be in Love With You” in 1979, which reached no. 30 on the Billboard 200. Today he’s a professor of music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Novelty factor: I admit I am surprised, I didn’t even know James Taylor had a brother in music.