We need to take a few steps to get caught up to the present. In 1976, Kiss released Rock and Roll All Over which featured “Calling Dr. Love,” a song about a “doctor” who suggests that he can cure his patients with the magical healing powers of his penis. Fascinated by the absurdity of this (excessively creepy) premise, alternative/temporarily-ska cult heroes They Might Be Giants decided to write a song that was half homage, half parody, and entirely less creepy than “Calling Dr. Love.” That song, “Doctor Worm,” was released in 1998 and isn’t actually about a doctor. The song’s narrator is a drummer and Doctor Worm is just his stage name—although, as he frequently reminds us, he is “an actual worm.” (More on that later.) Then in 2011, Relient K—best known as that Christian band with that one album you never listened to but at least one of your friends really liked—released a series of covers, highlighted by a rendition of “Doctor Worm.” Somewhere in the singularity of 2020, I found myself listening to that version of “Doctor Worm” once and then twice and then enough times that I’m now writing about it here.
I hit the peak of my ska phase in 1999, the year I went as Reel Big Fish trumpet player Scott Klopfenstein for Halloween, and even then I wasn’t a fan of They Might Be Giants. But there’s no denying that “Doctor Worm” is about as catchy a ska song as you’re going to find. The horns bounce, the drums blast and the melody is both catchy and smack in the middle-register of everyone. I won’t pretend that the original isn’t good—it is—but I find that this is one of those few songs where I enjoy the cover more. I’m chalking that up to the benefits of 13 years’ worth of digital recording advancements and because I have a weird affection for the slick, sterile vocal production that Relient K and a few other bands have perfected over the last decade.
And now we have to talk about the fact that this is a song about a drum-playing earthworm. Yes, literally. In less skilled hands, “Doctor Worm” could have followed more closely in the footsteps of “Calling Dr. Love” and been creepy in its own way—the worm/penis parallel has plenty of disturbing potential. Thank God that’s not what happens here. “Doctor Worm” is utterly, endearingly earnest. The song is about a worm that’s learning to play the drums and wants to be in a successful band. That’s it. That’s the whole point of the song. I mean, let’s just read a few lines together quickly, shall we? These are the lyrics for the first verse and chorus:
They call me Doctor Worm / Good morning, how are you? / I’m Doctor Worm / I’m interested in things / I’m not a real doctor / but I am a real worm / I am an actual worm / I live like a worm / I like to play the drums / I think I’m getting good / but I can handle criticism / I’ll show you what I know / and you can tell me if you think I’m getting better on the drums / I’ll leave the front unlocked / ‘cause I can’t hear the doorbell
The good Doctor explains that he hopes to be successful enough that someday someone else will honor his stage name and call him Doctor Worm. He’ll listen to your criticism and he’ll leave the door open because he can’t hear your knocking over the noise of his drum-playing. Our invertebrate drummer also makes reference to his friend and bass player, Rabbi Vole, who is, you guessed it, a bass-playing vole. (And Rabbi.)
This song is just so fucking pure, you guys. And it’s here where I need to circle back to the song’s origin as a riff on a Kiss song about a horny, unethical monster who would have been #MeToo-ed right out of his medical practice in real life. Is it too late for They Might Be Giants to fix The Cosby Show?
This post originally appeared in The Queue: A Songs & Stories Newsletter. It can be read in full, with footnotes, there.