Jaimie Vernon: The Top 10 Ghoulest Songs of All Time

We interrupt our regularly scheduled “Life’s A Canadian Rock” segment to bring you a seasonal music discussion. No, it’s not Christmas songs [we’ll be covering that later in the year]. And it’s not surf tunes wafting on a summer breeze. No, dear readers, it’s time to celebrate the spooky, the haunting, the unnerving, the fun and yet, chilling topic of Halloween tuneage.  And let’s be clear, we’re not talking about those late ‘50’s kitschy novelty songs created exclusively to grab airplay during Halloween Week like Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” or David Seville’s “Witch Doctor” or even the child-like “Flying Purple People Eater”. And  we certainly don’t mean artistically horrifying tracks like “Feelings” by Morris Alpert or “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim.

I’m talking about the lost art of mood music that evokes fear, dread, and a need to frequently rotate one’s soiled underwear. Western music tends to be pop-oriented and filled with major chord progressions that elicit a sense of happiness – usually accompanied by lyrics relating to birds, snow, love, cruising, surfing or, at the very least, dancing. To truly set the tone for chills and thrills it requires a lot of dissonant, tribal attention to Gregorian melody and pacing. Or a guitar line involving the elusive E# Demolished chord.

Mood setting music has been around since the classical masters were bombarding us with Valkyries and Norse Gods in all manner of minor chord configurations. Progressive rock bands adopted this grandiosity (and nauseatingly self-indulgent wanking) but none truly rose to the occasion of scaring the crap out of us – not even Elmer, Fudd & Palmer with their cool-titled, but limp wristed, “Karn Evil 9”. The key to a truly goose-bump raising song is whether it brings a visceral response in the mind’s eye. If a song can raise the hair on the back of your neck and make you afraid of the dark then it’s perfect for a Halloween soundtrack. Without further ado here are some of the ghoulest Halloween musical haunts:

10) “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
Some of the best horror music comes from horror film. Little did Bach know that 100 years after knocking this little ditty out in 4 days to pay the bills, it would be used for the first time to great effect in Hammer Film’s 1962 adaptation of Gaston Leroux‘s novel The Phantom of the Opera featuring unknown actors Herbert Lom and Heather Sears. The scene in which Erik (The Phantom) plays the organ and his unrequited love, Christine, sneaks up behind him to rip his mask off has become an iconic film moment – created by Lon Chaney Jr. and Mary Philbin in the 1925 Universal Studios black and white silent classic. But it was the addition of Bach’s mood setting piece in the colour version that made the scene horrifically memorable [at least for chastened eyes in the pre-Summer of Love 1960s]. The music would also be re-used in the James Caan Sci-Fi kitsch film Rollerball to similar effect in punctuating the film’s commentary on ultra-violence. http://youtu.be/ipzR9bhei_o

9) “Timothy” by The Buoys
Rupert Holmes might very well be pop music’s Stephen King of lyrics; not for the horror that is his insidious 1979 Wrath of Khan-styled earworm we all love to hate called “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” but for the 1971 song “Timothy by one-hit wonders The Bouys. Imagine turning on your radio shortly after the implosion of all thing Beatle and hearing this song about three guys trapped in a collapsed mine:

Hungry as hell no food to eat
And Joe said that he would sell his soul
For just a piece of meat
Water enough to drink for two
And Joe said to me, “I’ll have a swig
And then there’s some for you.”

Timothy, Timothy, Joe was looking at you
Timothy, Timothy, God what did we do?

I must have blacked out just around then
‘Cause the very next thing that I could see
Was the light of the day again
My stomach was full as it could be
And nobody ever got around
To finding Timothy

In the United States the song managed to reach #17 on the Billboard Magazine Hot 100 singles chart – most probably due to America’s pre-Reality TV morbid curiosity. Meanwhile in the Black Mining Hills of Dakota Rocky Raccoon said, “Meh, happens all the time here.” http://youtu.be/DGNdvKvbxYQ

8) “More Human Than Human” by White Zombie

It’s just a short scratch below the surface to find all manner of evil sounding music in our Interweb World – especially with this generation’s penchant for rebelling without applause in sub-genres ranging from Psychobilly to Viking Death Metal. What usually makes that material truly forgettable is it’s yawn-inducing and/or ear splitting presentation (i.e. lack of melody, buried vocals, inaccessible production techniques, volume for volume’s sake). But then along came Rob Zombie – originally a suburban Massachussetts loner/nerd folk guitarist who maintained a frighteningly unhealthy obsession with B-horror films…particularly of the Night of the Living Dead variety. El Robbo found a musical shtick and thus was born Rock and Roll zombie porn. “More Human than Human” is actually a great dance tune for your annual Halloween  Sadie Hawkins Shindig as it’s got the requisite -400db back beat that will illicit sexual tension and get your girlfriend in the mood to suck your…brain. http://youtu.be/E0E0ynyIUsg

7) “Werewolf” by Five Man Electrical Band
One thing that stands eternal about Universal Pictures’ immortal horror movie classics is that they also helped define how Halloween costumes originally evolved. Long before the pre-packaged ‘Costume In a Box’ (did anyone’s elastic band mask fastener ever survive even one annual Trick or Treating?), kids were attempting to recreate, from scratch, their own versions of The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein. Rare were the days you’d see anyone attempting Lon Chaney Jr.’s brilliantly rendered 1941 The Wolf Man persona. Mainly because kids didn’t have access to $50,000 in prosthetics – though I’m sure there must have been a few bald sheepdogs running around after kids Elmer Glued their fur to their own faces and hands. And so, The Wolf Man/Werewolf faded as an iconic pop culture horror figure until John Landis’ visually groundbreaking 1981 horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London. But that’s not to say someone hadn’t tried.

Five Man Electrical Band’s 1974 Canadian hit “Werewolf” (written by Les Emmerson) is a Brother’s Grimm play-by-play of a farmer whose son fails to return home one night after a full moon…only to be greeted by the lycanthropic visage of the kid chowing down on cattle in a nearby field.  Mama’s creeped out and the younger brother (who narrates) is worried about the ‘boy’. Needless to say, Dad has a silver bullet solution for his son’s blood lust problem – and it isn’t a Coors Light.  http://youtu.be/FcwHQfIuCnU

6) “The Twilight Zone Theme” by Marius Constant

Doo dee doo doo, doo dee doo doo
Doo dee doo doo, doo dee doo doo

What took the X-Files theme song composer Mark Snow eight notes to accomplish in 1993, Marius Constant did in 1959 in only four – a haunting, goose-bump inducing instrumental mantra. And he did it with a truly unconventional instrument for its time…a guitar.

Constant was a French avant-garde composer who was commissioned to create several short ‘cues’ for CBS Television as re-useable library music for the series which lasted six seasons. The iconic opening used from Season Two onwards was an edit of two of these library cues entitled “Etrange 3 (Strange No. 3)” and “Milieu 2 (Middle No. 2)”. But the piece-de-resistance came on the back of writer/producer Rod Serling’s monotonic deadpan delivery of surreal monologues that were changed ever season: You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination — Next stop, the Twilight Zone.

“Welcome to My Nightmare” by Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper IS horror personified so choosing a track to represent his greatest work is no easy task.  He’s dabbled in infanticide (“Dead Babies”), necrophilia (“Refrigerator Heaven” and its cold, dead, sequel “Cold Ethyl”), and hell itself (“Goes To Hell”). But Cooper’s defining moment was his first solo release without his former band mates in the Alice Cooper Band. The album is a concept about the descent of Cooper into the depths of neurosis, self-doubt and personal demonic possession. The title track sets up the concept and Canadian producer Bob Ezrin plumbs the depths of Cooper’s psyche to evoke the perfect balance between unsettling vocal incantation and skin crawling musical purgatory. Stick around through the remainder of the album and catch legendary horror personality Vincent Price run a poetic dress rehearsal for his speech a decade later on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.

4) “Addams Family Theme” by Vic Mizzy
Dah-dah dah dum (snap snap),
Dah-dah dah dum, Dah-dah dah dum,
Dah-dah dah dum (snap snap)

Black comedy characters created by the long suffering cartoonist Charles Addams (his wife took everything in a divorce including the cartoon and TV copyrights and his personal fortune); a maudlin black and white Halloween setting; a cast of brilliant television actors (John Astin, Ted Cassidy, Carolyn Jones, Jackie Coogan) and the catchiest theme song since “Howdy Doody Time”. Now a brilliantly cast Broadway musical with Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia Addams.
“They’re altogether ookie….The Addams Family”.

I bet you’ll be singing this the rest of the day.

3) “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield
It doesn’t get more self-indulgent than Mike Oldfield’s mind-numbingly pedantic “song” which runs the entire two sides of a single album. It was recorded between August 1972 and Spring 1973 partially at Virgin Records mogul Richard Branson’s ‘The Manor’ studio near Snot-Nosed-Upon-Trollop, England while Canadian band Fludd was trying to record their sophomore release for Warner Music. Legend has it that while partaking in all manner of humanly distractions Fludd’s Greg Godovitz almost used Oldfield’s orchestral score sheet music for kindling while trying to stoke the fireplace in an effort to heat up the dank castle. This, and other conflagrations, got Fludd kicked out of the facility so that Oldfield could finish his debut album. The record, however, did not gain its notoriety on the pop charts (yes, there was a 4 minute edit sent to radio), but as part of director William Friedkin’s hand-picked soundtrack to, arguably, the greatest horror film of all time – The Exorcist. Less than two minutes of the ‘song’ appears in the movie but is so memorable it has become indelibly attached to the film forever. But don’t bother looking for it on the movie’s original soundtrack album. Oldfield had it excised so as to send listeners back to his original, full-length version. http://youtu.be/O5YQmUIIjvs

2) “The Jaws Theme” by John Williams

The impact Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie Jaws had on the cultural psyche cannot be overstated. The story of an Amityville Sheriff (Roy Schieder) battling a two ton predator with the aid of an Oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss) and a modern-day Ahab (Robert Shaw)  is an age-old story about man’s struggle to control nature. The Great White Shark in the film represents not just nature, but the ultimate evil in the world as it chews up the scenery (literally). Due to mechanical failures of the real stunt shark, the antagonist makes few on screen appearances – and indirectly gives Spielberg the greatest, most suspenseful movie action sequences of all time. The affect was achieved in no small part by just two tuba notes – E and F – performed by Tommy Johnson as slow, grinding taunts. These ‘danger’ cues gave the film its teeth (as it were) and jump started soundtrack producer John Williams’ career (he would later create the Superman, Indiana Jones and Star Wars theme songs). The movie spawned Jaws-mania which included a Dickie Goodman musical homage called “Mr. Jaws”, a Christmas single by Canada’s own Homemade Theatre called “Santa Jaws” and three sad non-Spielberg movie sequels. Spielberg would get the last laugh by remaking the film as Jurassic Park. But I dare you to walk into an ocean without the killer theme song playing in your head. http://youtu.be/ZvCI-gNK_y4

1) “Theme from ‘Psycho’” by Bernard Hermann
Long before Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock achieved Jaws level global fear in the public’s eye on two separate occasions in the ‘60s – with Tippi Hedren’s pecking hair accoutrements in The Birds and with the film that inspired every Slasher flick ever: Psycho. Twilight Zone’s TV soundtrack producer Bernard Hermann was tapped by Hitchcock to create audio cues for the movie’s cross-dressing psychopath Norman Bates (which, sadly, typecast actor Anthony Perkins for the rest of his life). The climactic ‘shower scene’ – where Bates’s “mother” Ginsu’s Janet Leigh into a poodle of oozing chocolate syrup – was never supposed to have music in it. But, when Herrmann played the shower scene cue for Hitchcock – a mere one-note screeching staccato violin stroke repeated in quick succession – the director approved its use in the film. When Herrmann reminded Hitchcock of his “no music” directive Hitchcock replied, “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.” To this day there is a generation of people who check behind the shower curtain and lock the bathroom door before stepping into the tub. http://youtu.be/8VP5jEAP3K4

We now have an email address where all of us here at Don’t Believe a Word I Say can be contacted: dbawis@rogers.com Please use it toaskquestions, tell us what you’d like to read about, links you’d like to share, and let us hear what you have to say.

– Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and is the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia. He keeps a copy of Lightfoot’s “Sundown” under his pillow at night.



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