JAIMIE VERNON – The Top 10 Ghoulest Songs of All Time
Well, it’s that time of year again, folks. Leaves fall from the trees, skies turn grey and the Toronto Maple Leafs pretend they’re going to play hockey. But amongst the fall classics comes Halloween where we celebrate the spooky, the haunting, the unnerving, the fun, and yet chilling Halloween tuneage.
I ran this column in 2011 – in fact, it’s one of the first I wrote for DBAWIS and ended up in my book “Life’s A Canadian Blog” – and so I figured that one good 360˚ head turn deserves another.
The music of Halloween rarely gets old…but let’s be clear, we’re not talking about those late ‘50’s kitschy novelty songs created exclusively to grab airplay during Halloween Week such as 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 “My Heart Will. Go. On!” by Celine Dion.
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, dirty dancing. To truly set the tone for chills and thrills it requires a lot of dissonant, tribal, and/or 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 matter 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 of all time:
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 gothic horror 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 its commentary on ultra-violence.
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 things 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
The lyrics are a stark and morbid juxtaposition against what is otherwise an innocuous garage band ditty. 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 addiction of morbid curiosity. After all, there was one an entire genre dedicated to teen-death songs. Meanwhile in the Black Mining Hills of Dakota Rocky Raccoon said, “Meh, happens all the time here.”
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 its yawn-inducing and/or ear splitting presentation (i.e. lack of melody, buried vocals, inaccessible production techniques, volume for volume’s sake, et al). But then along came Rob Zombie – originally a suburban Massachusetts 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 bass droning on below the level of human comprehension that will illicit sexual tension and get your girlfriend in the mood to suck your…brain.
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 Fido’s 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. Stephen King would recreate the song into a bone chilling novel called Silver Bullet many years later.
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 Twilight Zone series during its six season run. 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.”
5) “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 album release without his former band mates. 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. Follow the album to its logical conclusion and you’ll catch legendary horror personality Vincent Price do a poetic dress rehearsal on the track “Black Widow” which no doubt inspired Michael Jackson to plumb the actor’s evocations nearly a decade later for 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”. It would most recently be launched as a Broadway musical with Bebe Neuwirth as Morticia Addams. With 2016 being the 25th anniversary of the theatrical remake starring Anjelica Huston, Raol Julia, Christopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci, expect some Halloween inspired homages like this shot of the adult Christina Ricci stepping into Mama Morticia’s guise.
The minute-long theme song to the show was written by long-time Hollywood composer Vic Mizzy (Perils of Pauline, Shakiest Gun In the West, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken) using nothing but a harpsichord, a lilting gang vocal and finger-popping all punctuated by the show’s Ted Cassidy saying the words “neat”, “sweat” and “petite” in his trademark Lurch voice.
“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 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 album version.
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 with dinosaurs instead of sharks as Jurassic Park. But I dare you to walk into an ocean without the killer theme song playing in your head. The movie was recently remastered for Blu-Ray by Spielberg personally. You’re going to need a bigger sound system.
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 during the 1960s – with Tippi Hedren’s pecking hair accoutrements in The Birds and with the film that inspired every Slasher flick ever after: Psycho. Hitchcock tapped Twilight Zone’s TV soundtrack producer Bernard Hermann 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’ “mother” Ginsu’s Janet Leigh into a puddle 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. Which begs the question…what would you do if you did find someone lurking behind the shower curtain?
I’m a hard guy to scare. Having grown up with a mother who regularly took my sister and I to the Drive-In to see age inappropriate films like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, Now The Screaming Starts, Tales From The Crypt and Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, I’ve become a bit jaded. There isn’t a vampire or zombie film that makes me do anything but reach for the remote control – and that includes the absolutely laughable soap opera-cum-George Romero homage TV show The Walking Dead (yawn). But the visceral psychic scarring from 40 years of horror has left a few piss-shivers in my skeleton closet. Below is my Top 15 list of memorable films that gave me at least one, if not two, jump scares over the years. Your mileage may vary.
2) Alien (1979)
3) A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
4) Poltergeist (1982)
5) Hellraiser (1987)
6) Saw (2004)
7) The Ring (2002)
8) The Grudge (2004)
9) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
10) The Descent (2005)
11) Black Christmas (1974)
12) Hostel (2005)
13) The Thing (1982)
14) 28 Days Later (2002)
15) 1408 (2007)
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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 recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.comhttp://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon