As Halloween approaches once again, it’s time to revisit a near-extinct art – the holiday novelty song. Second only to Christmas, Halloween was made for accompanying musical madness. So why do fright and folly go so well together? Sociologists have analyzed and over-analyzed our instinctive attraction to fear – why we watch scary movies or ride roller coasters – but it essentially boils down to this: we love to be scared, but we prefer to be in on the joke. So here are a few favorite Halloween novelty songs to get you in the trick-or-treating mood.
1. Buck Owens – (It’s A) Monsters’ Holiday
Not to be confused with Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Christmas-themed song of the same name, this 1974 country rocker is pure Buck Owens. The infectious, bouncy groove and playful lyrics are made complete with the requisite spooky sound effects and voice-over. And no monster is left out of this party. Fee-fee-fi-fi-fo-fo-fum…
2. Bo Diddley – Bo Meets the Monster
Long before The Beatles or The Ramones successfully created cartoon caricature alter egos of themselves, Bo Diddley was inventing a sort of third-person comic book superhero persona; placing himself in all sorts of absurd scenarios backed by a gritty, low-down, sweaty groove. From gun-slinging at the O.K. Corral to lumberjacking in the woods to facing down that ghastliest of monsters – the Purple People Eater. Almost a decade before Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page would popularize the pick slide, Bo Diddley brilliantly used this Foley device to mimic the sound of a creeping door opening slowly.
3. Bob McFadden and Rod McKuen – The Mummy
Mummies, vampires, werewolves and…beatniks? Perhaps the scariest of all monsters in 1959, poet Rod McKuen shows no fear when crossing paths with the rather effete Mummy, played here by veteran cartoon voice-over actor Bob McFadden (who was the voice of cereal monster Franken Berry, among many others) all set to a gonzo groove. Dig?
4. Eddie Noack – Psycho
Ok, this one isn’t exactly a novelty or comedy song. But if Hitchcock can claim his 1960 film of the same name as comedy, then why not this country oddity? In fact, it’s unclear if legendary songwriter Leon Payne penned this disturbingly catchy tale of a serial killer’s odd, emotionless confession to his soon-to-be prematurely deceased mother as serious, satiric or some sort of in-between Dostoyevskian rumination on an amoral society. Or maybe the joke’s on us each time we catch ourselves (in the shower perhaps?) singing the irresistible refrain, “you think I’m psycho, don’t you, mama?”
5. Roy Clark – Spooky Movies
The singer leaves his baby cold when he tries to kiss her, but those spooky movies really turn her on. Clark was a well-established session guitar player by 1963, when his first charting single, “Tips of My Fingers” was released with this funky B-side. The string section and background vocal riff blend well with the faux screams and sinister ghoulish laughs. Look out Roy, Frankenstein’s moving in on your baby.
6. Grim Grinning Ghosts
Originally composed as the theme music for the ghoulish-kitsch Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, this spirited chiller was composed by Buddy Baker and features the voice-over work of Thurl Ravenscroft who, despite his perfectly macabre name, was better known as the voice of Tony the Tiger in addition to several other well known attractions and cartoons. The opening organ theme shifts between an eerie legato and manic waltz time creating a nice tension until the main dance theme adds some levity, complete with an otherworldly chorus sing-along. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis:
‘Hard-favour’d tyrant, ugly, meagre, lean,
Hateful divorce of love,’–thus chides she Death,–
‘Grim-grinning ghost, earth’s worm, what dost thou mean
To stifle beauty and to steal his breath
7. Bobby “Boris” Pickett – Monster Mash
And that brings us to the mother of all Halloween songs – the “Monster Mash.” The idea was conceived one night at a gig when Bobby Pickett launched into a Boris Karloff impression in the middle of the monologue breakdown during a cover of “Little Darlin’” by The Diamonds. The crowd loved it and Pickett quickly wrote “Monster Mash” with band mate Lenny Capizzi, capitalizing on the novelty dance-song craze of the era, such as Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time.” The record features several notable LA session musicians, billed as “The Crypt-Kickers,” and was produced by Gary S. Paxton, who found novelty success two years earlier producing the number one “Alley Oop” with collaborator Kim Fowley under the name The Hollywood Argyles (named after the intersection where the studio was located). Banned by the BBC upon initial release for being too macabre, no Halloween mix is complete without this unqualified graveyard smash: