Exactly 50 years ago this month, Bobby Pickett, an aspiring actor with a pretty good Boris Karloff impersonation, saw his novelty tune, “Monster Mash,” reach the top of the Billboard charts, clearly making it the most famous Halloween rock song ever recorded. Pickett actually managed to imitate two famous horror movie stars in that song, when he posed the immortal question, “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist” in the rhythmic cadence of Bela Lugosi.
According to Wikipedia, Pickett used to sing at night with a local band called the Cordials, and during the group’s cover version of “Little Darlin,’” he would do an extended monologue in Karloff’s voice. The audience loved it, and band members encouraged him to do more with this shtick.
The rest is history.
Halloween songs may not have the same rich tradition as Christmas songs, but the musical canon of creepiness is pretty extensive. Five songs stand out as my personal favorites with a few obscure ones (just click the song titles to listen on YouTube).
Thriller—Of course, the music video is legendary. Michael Jackson turns into a werewolf, dances with zombies, and still ends up with Playboy playmate Ola Ray. He mutters the classic line about not being “like other guys” without trying to be ironic. But most of all, any song featuring a Vincent Price monologue deserves a top spot on my list.
DOA—Bloodrock, a heavy metal band from Fort Worth, Texas, secured its biggest hit in 1971 with this hypnotic, terrifying story sung from the perspective of a dying victim of a plane crash. I dare anyone one to sit in a dark room and listen alone to this creepy, melancholic eight-minute masterpiece, whose riff mimics the solemn wail of an ambulance. Or pretend the subject matter is a car crash and force your teenage drivers to listen. You won’t be the first parent to do so.
They’re Coming to Take Me Away—A record producer, Jerry Samuels, produced this wacky tale of insanity in 1966 under the guise of Napoleon XIV, which dramatically rose up the pop charts and crashed just as suddenly when radio stations pulled the song after receiving numerous complaints that it made fun of mental illness. An oscillating vocal track, persistent snare drumming, and police sirens make for a rather unnerving audio mix. I always thought the singer went crazy when his girl left him, but apparently it’s really about a missing dog.
Timothy—In a radio interview, Rupert Holmes said one of the best ways to write a rock hit is to make it so controversial that it gets banned. Of course, a catchy melody helps, too, which might explain why the Buoys’ surprise 1971 hit, “Timothy,” began getting extensive airplay, until radio stations realized that Holmes’ lyrics document a gruesome tale of cannibalism. The song got banned all right, but it still generated massive sales, and ended up on Casey Kasem’s Top Forty countdown.
Spooky—Dennis Yost and the Classics IV built a reputation for singing haunting songs about the emotional mysteries of love. This sweet and sentimental tune will resonate with anyone who finds romance and relationships to be a bit mystifying and scary. And best of all, the singer asks his "spooky little girl" to marry him on Halloween.
Mike Sockol has been a writer and communications strategist for three decades, developing and implementing editorial, PR and marketing communications initiatives for companies and organizations of all sizes. If you need help to solve your own communications challenges, visit www.msockol.com for more information or contact Mike directly at 732.682.8361.