Thursday 31 October 2019

10 great Halloween Novelty Songs

I've had a thing about Halloween novelty songs for a very long time. Last year I even guested on a radio show playing two hours of them, which you can hear here.

Anyhow as it's the glorious 31st I thought I'd give you the skinny on ten of my all time favourites - and they're not the classics, so don't worry, this is a 'Monster Mash' free zone.

#10 - Werewolf Watusi - Don Hinson & The Rigamorticians - a number of rather similar songs  saw the light of day (or should that be the darkness of the dungeon?) following the release and massive success of Bobby 'Boris' Pickett's 'Monster Mash' in 1962. 'Werewolf Watusi' wasn't a single as such - it was in fact a cover of an original song performed by Bobby Pickett and the Rolling Bones in 1964, so this is a cover version of a novelty record that pretty much copies the original. The culprit was actor/stand-up comedian/Las Vegas and Arizona DJ Don Hinson, clearly out to cash in (although WW was produced by Gary Paxton who also twiddled knobs on Bobby's 1962 hit). Hinson collected a whole load of these things together for his '64 LP 'Monster Dance Party' (best title on the album? 'Riboflavin-Flavored, Non-Carbonated, Polyunsaturated Blood'). But Pickett and Hinson's seemed to be a fairly amicable rivalry: Pickett in turn covered 'Monster Swim,' a track from Hinson's album written by Paxton, that same year. So many crummy Karloff impersonations, so little time.

#9 - Graveyard Rock - Tarantula Ghoul - Ms Ghoul's real name was Suzanne Waldron (1931 - 1982) all the way from Portland, Oregon, and this is probably my all time favourite Halloween novelty record. In her TG guise, Ms Waldron was host of the TV show 'House of Horrors' on Portland's KPTV station; the channel's bosses has seen Suzanne as a witch in a production of 'Macbeth' and were looking for their own version of Vampira (the Morticia Addams-alike hostess played by Maila Nurmi on a Los Angeles TV channel). As TG Waldron did her thing for two years, between 1957 and 1959. 'Graveyard Rock' which was actually the B-side to the inferior track 'King Kong', was recorded in 1958 at the height of her fame. Ms Waldron was quietly let go from her role when it was discovered that she was pregnant out of wedlock! She revived the TG persona a few times in the early 1960s, but her gothy flame was brief. Tarantula Ghoul, and Suzanne Waldron, both died at the tragically young age of 50 from cancer.

#8 - Whatever Happened to Eddie - Eddie and the Monsters - a break from all that 1950s and 1960s nonsense for a while. This rather extraordinary (and mercifully brief) two minutes of your life is the product of Butch Patrick aka Eddie Munster all the way from 1983. As well as tearing into the Munsters theme tune as the basis for the song, the lyrics go some way to explaining his, er, state of mind. The thirty year old former child actor had drifted slightly after achieving fame as a 10 year old in the long running series The Munsters, giving up acting in 1975 to work with his father. It was at this point he started to learn bass guitar, and eight years later the self referential 'Whatever Happened to Eddie?' appeared. Sadly this single was Mr Patrick's only vinyl output. In later years the stories of drugs and assault charges became the things he was better known for, but on listening to this, I'm thinking he was already on his way. Great video too.

#7 - The Lurch - Ted Cassidy - years before Butch cashed in on his Eddie Munster glory, Ted Cassidy was doing much the same. The 6' 9" tall actor was perfect for the role of Lurch the butler in the long running TV show The Addams Family, which aired for 64 episodes between 1964 and 1966. Slap bang in the middle of that run, Cassidy was persuaded into the recording studio in 1965 for a song which used as its inspiration an AF episode called 'Lurch Learns to Dance' where he does just that. The music was written by Gary 'Monster Mash' Paxton - clearly the go to guy for these sorts of things at the time - and Cassidy doesn't so much sing as lurk in the background uttering lines like "Satisfaction...jubilation!" in response to the singers who have successfully learned the dance (there is no guide how to do 'The Lurch' in the song, dance craze fans).

#6 - Screamin' Ball (at Dracula Hall) - The Duponts - the explosion of Halloween novelty songs in the late 1950s referencing the Universal classic monsters was in direct response to the syndication of those great movies to US TV in 1957 by Screen Gems, and shown on the 'Shock Theater' programme. Hosted by people like Vampira and the irrepressible Zacherley, this was the first time that a new generation of kids had been exposed to the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, The Mummy and The Invisible Man. Not only did this glut of classic horror inspire the late Forrest J. Ackerman to start up the influential 'Famous Monsters of Filmland' magazine, but it also sparked a rush of songs which named the creatures. The Jimmy Williams/Johnny Brandon penned 'Screamin' Ball,' the last of three singles from doo wop quartet The Duponts from New York, New York, was one of the first cash in novelty singles of this type: it also scores extra points for the sheer number of character references jammed into their two and a half minute tune. 

#5 - Transylvania Twist - Baron Daemon and the Vampires - another TV horror host cuts some wax! This guy was actually Mike Price, and he was picked up back in 1963 for WNYS, a Syracuse, New York TV station looking to develop their own horror show after purchasing a load of B horror/sci fi movies. Clearly inspired by Bobby 'Boris' Pickett's 'The Monster Mash,' released the previous year, the station felt like it was time for them to have a novelty single of their own. Taking a line from Pickett's song, with words by Hovey Larrison and music by Mike Riposo, and with musicians borrowed from local band Sam and the Twisters, they set to work, although apparently during recording the song morphed somewhat from the original composition to something more resembling The Twisters' recent single 'Fooba, Wooba John' which they'd had a hit with a couple of months previously. And I think it's this rather rough sound, almost an indie garage version of a novelty song, that I really like. And the B side of the single was called 'Ghost Guitars'!

#4 - House on Haunted Hill - Frank De Vol and His Orchestra - this brilliant mamba version of the theme to William Castle's 1959 terror classic House on Haunted Hill is two minutes of moody organ brilliance with a lush twangy guitar/string section. De Vol was actor Frank Denny (the De Vol name was used for his soundtrack credits, of which there are many). In the 1940s he was a musical arranger for stars like Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and Doris Day, and went on to compose scores for many movies including Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). This version of the original score, backed by a track called 'Hades,' is rather different to the original theme by Castle regular composer Von Dexter. Incidentally there was a surf version of the theme in 1963 by 'Kenny & The Fiends' (also in some releases 'Kenny and the Beach Fiends') which is also a DIY gas, but not as much of a gas as their surf adaptation of Poe's poem 'The Raven' (parts 1 and 2) the following year.

#3 - Vampira - Bobby Bare - many people assume Bare's 1959 rock and roll non hit is a tribute to the TV horror hostess. I'm not sure, but it's a very cool song. Bare heralded from Ohio, USA and throughout the 1950s tried to break into the rock and roll scene with songs like this (you could tell he wasn't hardcore - the B side of the single was a soppy ballad called 'Tender Years' with a distinct country and western feel that would herald the genre in which he became most successful). Along with the singer of #8, Bare and Butch are the only ones still with us - indeed Bare bco-wrote Norway's entry in the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest! I love the ad libbed line in this, "done scared me to death." We've all been there Bobby.

#2 - Graveyard - The Phantom Five - in true indie style this was the only record made by this great surf band, all the way from 1964, with a great sax break. The B side was 'Cool it!' so I think the 'Graveyard' reference might be more slang than horror. Anyway this Indiana quintet were Lani Allen, John Bolling, Thomas Davis, Richard Fortin & William Johanson. If anyone knows any more about the group let me know. But this is 2 minutes 37 seconds of cool surf fun, and not a raucous laugh in sight.

#1 - Do The Know It's Halloween? - North American Hallowe'en Prevention Initiative - we're bang up to date with our last entry (well 2005, so positively modern): this was a charity record inspired by 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' put together by an amazing array of artists, including Beck, Feist, Peaches, Russell Mael, Thurston Moore, Karen O and a heap of others. It reached number four on the Canadian pop chart, and all proceeds were donated to UNICEF - it also has an ace video, albeit rather low res (144, really!). According to the official press release, the song stemmed 'from a frustration with other benefit songs' misguided, somewhat patronising attitude, and Western-centric worldview.' Well done to them. And Happy Halloween readers!

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