A few years ago, a friend ran up and commandeered my computer.
“You need to hear this,” he said, pulling up a video on YouTube. “Sorry in advance.”
The song was some weirdo, Devo-esque, new-wave song with surreal visuals and band members grimacing and pouting in spandex. At one point, a group of men in creepy dog masks and trench coats turn to the camera to unleash an unbearably chorus:
“Dog Police!” the horrible monsters sing gleefully.
“Where are you coming from?
Nobody knows who you are!
Ruff Ruff Ruff!”
It turned out the song was called “Dog Police,” and it was from the album Dog Police by a band also called Dog Police. Dog Police existed for a short time in the 1980s and were essentially forgotten until their video resurfaced on the internet a few years ago and gave canine earworms to a new audience.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the strangest and most unexpected moments in Dog Police history, and to celebrate, I spoke with the Memphis-based band members about the wacky circumstances of the group’s existence.
“When we made the video, people said, ‘you’ll have to live with this the rest of your life,’” drummer Tom Lonardo says. “And they were right.”
Dog Police started off as a more humble and low-key jazz band. Lonardo, keyboardist Tony Thomas, and bassist Sam Shoup jammed together as the Tony Thomas Trio starting in the late ’70s, a respected jazz group that gigged regularly around Memphis and backed the famous artists that came to town. The Trio was fun and musically challenging but the group also wanted to do something a little less serious.
They were caught up in the energy of the punk and new wave scenes, and started to unwind after jazz gigs by jamming on some B52s and Talking Heads-style songs in their practice space.
The Trio often recorded at a local studio in the middle of the night, and one night one of the engineers was startled awake by the band singing “Dog Police” lyrics to the tune of the old Spiderman theme song. “He was like, ‘wait, what was that?’ That was actually good,” Lonardo said. The studio was impressed enough that its owners offered to record the band’s album for free.
The 11-track self-titled album was released as an LP in 1982. The songs are goofy but well-played, with endless hooks thanks to Shoup and Lonardo’s day jobs as jingle writers and lyrics that satirize our consumption-obsessed society.
The album was accompanied by the surprisingly elaborate and expensive “Dog Police” music video. Shoup said the recording studio paid around $50,000 to make the video, which was filmed by famed Steadicam maven Larry McConkey, who would go on to work on movies like Goodfellas, Free Willy, and Kill Bill. The band played both themselves and the canine cops.
“The video was shot in June or July, and the AC had to be turned off because the fake smoke wouldn’t [flow] right,” Shoup says. “We had to wear those masks and trench coats for, like, 18 hours at a time.”
The video saw some airplay on MTV‘s Basement Tapes, and the band got further exposure from Weird Al, who played the much-lower budget video for “1-800,” on his show Al TV. There was a time when the Dog Police appeared poised for something big, “but that lasted about three weeks,” Lonardo laughed. A major-label deal never materialized, which was somewhat of a blessing in disguise.
“There was a fear we’d have to travel to some weird country and sing with a dog mask on,” he says.
In fact, the band tried to get out of the three or four shows they ever played, going as far as farming one gig out to friends since their identities would be obscured by dog masks anyway.
The Trio left their alter egos behind and went back to playing jazz and were surprised when NBC came calling about making a Dog Police cartoon. “I spit my coffee out and said ‘have at it! Run with it!’” Shoup said, imagining the financial benefits this might entail. The cartoon didn’t go anywhere but a live-action Dog Police TV pilot was filmed in 1990, whose hilarious terribleness is what we’re celebrating thirty years later.
See below for Dog Police pilot alluded to above:
The show appears to be geared toward kids and expands the Dog Police lore: they are from outer space and use ESP and super-speed to catch criminals for the Van Nuys Police Department. Two of the Dog
Police have recently divorced and are co-parenting their son Spooker Looker Lee, who is briefly seen in the show high-fiving local youths. None other than a young Adam Sandler stars as a goofball criminal friendly with the Dog Police, and then Jeremy Piven strolls in as a police officer and makes one of the show’s many horrible dog puns.
The dog masks are of slightly better quality but are still just as creepy as those from the music video, though Spooker Looker Lee’s costume is totally phoned in, as the actor is clearly wearing a mascot mask and his spindly human legs stick out totally un-costumed. The band couldn’t contain their laughter when they saw it, as the pilot is undoubtedly one of the worst in TV history.
“My jaw dropped,” Shoup says. “I can’t follow the plot – are they secret agents? Aliens?”
Things went quiet again until the early 2010s when the music videos and pilot were rediscovered and made their way around the internet. The renewed interest caught the eye of Andy George, head honcho of Toxic Toast Records, who was sucked in by the weirdness of the music video and wanted to hear more. At the time, the album only existed in its initial pressing and was incredibly hard to find. George recalls sitting in a mall on his phone all day trying to win a pressing on eBay. Once a copy was secured,
he was even more impressed when he heard the entire record.
“’Dog Police’ is only an introduction—the rest of the LP is the real Dog Police,” George said. With the band’s permission, he repressed the LP with its original artwork in 2019.
The songs on Dog Police make for an interesting time capsule of the day’s socio-political concerns, George said, with the song “I’m So Butch” particularly impressive as an early LGBTQ shout-out. Those issues weren’t typically talked about in the early 1980s given the antiquated morality of the Reagan era, and it was cool to see a band provide humorous and positive commentary on LGBTQ issues during the height of the AIDS epidemic,” he said.
“They were really saying something—it’s so weird they didn’t get more attention,” George said.
On that note, not everything about the album holds up. The Dog Police name, song, and video all riff on the concept of calling the ‘dog police’ to arrest an unattractive woman. The joke was funny to numbskulls in their early 20s, Shoup says, but acknowledges it is pretty cringe-worthy today. Shoup uses the name as a teachable moment in his capacity as head of the Commercial Music Department at the University of Memphis.
“I tell all my students—be careful about what you joke around about,” he said. “My whole life, I was trying to be a serious musician, and now I’m going to be remembered for this!”
Nevertheless, the members of the groups are all accomplished musicians in their own right, working as in-demand session musicians, and composers of a large-scale Genesis tribute production. They still agree Dog Police has some genuinely good songwriting and a cool variety of sounds and styles. Listening to the record will always remind them of what a fun and creative endeavor it was unleashing this offbeat vision to the world.
“Some people have told me, ‘It changed my life!’ Some people say it’s total shit. And they’re both right,” Lonardo said with a laugh.
Photos provided coutesy of Tom Lonardo.