Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Seventeen Scary Songs

Any hack can dash off some lyrics about purple people eaters and monster mashes, but it takes a real ghoul to create music that is scary in and of itself. The following songs are not just about scary subjects—they are scary. Tracks to shiver your spine and keep you up at nights. Tracks to clear out the obnoxious stragglers at your Halloween party. These seventeen scary songs will scare them right out of the room… scarily!

1. “Blue Moon” by Elvis Presley (1955)

From its very beginning, Rock & Roll shared a kinship with horror. Perhaps it was their mutual trashiness. Perhaps it was their alleged “corrupting” influence on the young. Perhaps it was just because they are both so much damn fun. Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and of course, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins were just a few of the early rockers who shouted about ghosts and demons and sundry beasties. But the first one to actually capture the sensation these creatures stir is Elvis Presley. And he did it with Rodgers’ and Hart’s non-supernaturally romantic standard “Blue Moon”. Clip-clopping percussion echo out a rhythm like the hooves towing a phantom carriage. The King begins crooning the lyric with trademark beauty. Then something strange comes over him. Has he been possessed? Is Elvis’s ghost making an appearance 22 years too early? Has the blue moon transformed him into a fried banana sandwich-devouring werewolf? Whatever the cause may be, he starts howling in a chilling falsetto that has little to do with the lovesick lyric and the effect is quite frightening. For the first time, Rock & Roll was scary, and not in the way parents feared.

2. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” by The Beach Boys (1966)

Legend has it that a major factor in Brian Wilson’s abandonment of SMiLE was “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”. A movement in The Beach Boys’ bizarre project was to be devoted to the four elements. Wilson crafted incredible musical mood pieces to convey the essences of earth, wind, water, and fire. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” is the fire piece, and though the opening flourish of slide whistles and organ sounds like it should accompany the
Three Stooges antics in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, terror quickly ignites. With its squealing strings, freaky fuzz guitars, and punishing tom toms, “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” is the sound of a demonic inferno. Paranoid, over worked, and acid-addled, Brian believed his track was so authentically hot that it actually caused a series of conflagrations throughout L.A. He claimed to have burned the tapes, though countless bootlegs and the upcoming release of The SMiLE Sessions prove this to be untrue. But even for those who aren’t steeped in paranoia and hallucinogens, “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” can be an anxiety-inducing experience.

(Sorry, I could only find Brian Wilson’s solo version)

3. “We Love You” by The Rolling Stones (1967)

1967 was not a happy year for The Rolling Stones. It was an era of trumped-up drug busts, jail time, and psychedelia many rate as mushy and overly indebted to The Beatles. That last point is highly arguable. The majority may still believe The Stones fully achieved greatness when Jimmy Miller came on board to produce, but a discerning cult remains devoted to their exotic mid-‘60s period. The Stones’ take on psychedelia was clearly influenced by The Beatles, but they took it in far darker places than the Fabs dared. Aside from “A Day in the Life”, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band offered a nonstop rainbow of colorful fantasies. The Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request, often written off as a limp Pepper’s knock off, provided wall-to-wall paranoid nightmares. “2000 Light Years from Home”, “Gomper”, “Citadel”, and “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” were some of the scariest things the band ever created. Even when they went the fanciful route on “She’s a Rainbow” and the “Dandelion” single, they couldn’t keep their dark impulses at bay, ending those tracks in creepy cacophony. Perhaps their most frightening track could be found on the other side of “Dandelion”. “We Love You” was the one instance in which The Stones could legitimately be accused of sounding like The Beatles, because Beatle John and Beatle Paul lend their falsettos to the track prominently. Mick and Keith were out on bail when their mates visited them in the studio. The Stones were taking advantage of their window of freedom to cut a sardonic response to the shabby treatment they’d been receiving from the police and the courts. The backing track they’d sculpted was a monster. “We Love You” begins with the sound of dragging chains and the slamming of a cell door. A piano figure enters, rattling like wind chimes of human bones. Bill Wyman’s reptilian bass slides in. Hell unleashes. Charlie Watts’s drums build to a maelstrom. Brian Jones corrupts the dreamy Mellotron with his psychotic hacking. Mick and Keith were at an impasse when it came time to lay down their vocals. Lennon suggested allowing himself and McCartney to join in. The keening, demonic din the four created perfectly compliments the haunted house-gone-mad vibe of “We Love You”.

4. “Writing Wrongs” by The Monkees (1968)

When The Monkees dismissed producer Chip Douglas after making their fourth and best album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, LTD., they’d gained greater control over their recordings than ever before. But with four very dissimilar artists each helming their own productions, their next album turned out to be a jarring hodgepodge. Side A of The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees is particularly unsettling. Three cutesy Davy Jones numbers are interspersed with three of Mike Nesmith’s weirdest. The bubblegummy hit “Daydream Believer” cowers between the sound of Nesmith apparently falling to his death and slowly dying at the end of “Tapioca Tundra” and the even scarier “Writing Wrongs”. How disturbed The Monkees’ young fans must have been when that track followed the wholesome adventures of Sleepy Jean. A funereal organ sets the pace as Nesmith wails images of yellowing water, stainless steel people, and a guy plummeting to his death (perhaps the one from “Tapioca Tundra”!). All of that would be creepy enough, but then the dirge comes to a halt and a double time instrumental passage storms in. Drums beat out a pulse-quickening death march. A roiling organ churns out a syncopated riff. Discordant piano stabs invade the din. The sound conjures images of a Walpurgis Night frenzy. Then it all stops dead save a pair of clockwork maracas, and the opening dirge resumes. A final snatch of organ dances the track to its conclusion like a tiny demon left behind after the previous night’s unholy rituals. Nesmith’s likely inspiration for “Writing Wrongs” was The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (he was an attendee at the orchestral overdub sessions for the track). The two songs share slow, spacious verses that spill into psychedelic cacophony. Both are sung as strange reportage. Nesmith’s track certainly isn’t as masterful as The Beatles’, but with its ghostly wailing and nightmarish noodling, it’s a hell of a lot scarier.

5. “Lather” by Jefferson Airplane (1968)

Grace Slick had one weird sense of humor. She composed “Lather” as a sort of light-hearted jab at boyfriend and drummer Spencer Dryden, who had just celebrated his dreaded 30th birthday. In the song she depicts him as a deranged man-child playing with toys and skipping along in simple-minded bliss while his former playmates “grow up” to join the workforce and the military. She delicately intones her poetic lyric over a slightly medieval, minor key tune. With its creepy whispers of “Chiiiild”, strange sound effects, and nose solo resembling a devil baby throwing a temper tantrum, the jokey “Lather” ends up sounding like the theme song to a psychedelic horror movie.

6. “Revolution 9” by The Beatles (1968)

Paul McCartney’s flirtation with Stockhausen a year or two earlier notwithstanding, he was heartily against including John and Yoko’s avant garde “Revolution 9” on The Beatles. So were Ringo and Georges Harrison and Martin. Of course, Lennon got his way, and the eight-minute sound collage joined the eclectic array of Beatlesongs that made up the record. Fans tend to reserve little love for “Revolution 9”, which may not really qualify as a song, anyway. “The White Album” certainly has its moments of weirdness prior to its penultimate track, but no one ever expected to hear anything like this on a Beatles record. Long and completely devoid of melody, “Revolution 9” is a compilation of apocalyptic sounds: gun fire, spooky orchestral and choir loops, Lennon’s psychotic moaning of “It’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be alright”, death rattles, wavering screams of “Riot!”, an incongruously reserved voice repeating “Number Nine, Number Nine”. And to top off the horror, some crazy fan discovered that by playing the track in reverse, those “Number nines” become a chant of “Turn me on dead man.” Yikes.

7. “Embryo” by Pink Floyd (1968)

Pink Floyd were apparently unhappy with the studio version of “Embryo”. The relatively brief studio version of their lengthy concert staple didn’t see official release until it was dumped at the end of the 1983 compilation Works and it hasn’t been reborn since. Perhaps they were dissatisfied with its restraint compared to the jammy live version. Perhaps the band that recorded such creepifying stuff as “Interstellar Overdrive” and “Be Careful with That Axe, Eugene” figured “Embryo” took the terror too far. Roger Waters sings the sparse lyric from the perspective of an embryo in a delicate child’s voice. The spooky keyboard-centric backing flows like amniotic fluid. Just as the little hairs on your arms begin to rise, the track really gets inside you when Waters starts his vari-speed gibbering. Surely this is what Rosemary’s baby sounded like before it crowned.

(The less scary BBC version)

8. “The Murder Mystery” by The Velvet Underground (1969)

The Velvet Underground took assaultive noise as far as they could on their second album, White Light/White Heat. After John Cale departed, the band recruited sweet-voiced Doug Yule and radically shifted into softer territory. Their eponymous third album is hymn-like, though not necessarily less unsettling than their first two. Case in point: the epic “Murder Mystery”. The track consists of dissimilar movements stitched together like the Frankenstein Monster. Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison recite syncopated spoken word nonsense over a rolling, incessantly rising rhythm. Yule and Moe Tucker simultaneously coo a dizzy psychedelic duet over Doors-esque organ swirls. Then everything breaks down, and double-tracked Reed chants opposing lyrics robotically over dueling mechanic pianos. This too turns ugly. The dead-eyed focus of Reed and Morrison’s parts coupled with the vampiric listlessness of Tucker and Yule’s makes for a most disturbing nine minutes.

9. “Evening of Light” by Nico (1969)

Everything on this list is rendered as innocuous as a nursery rhyme when played against The Marble Index. Nico’s second album is terrifying from beginning to end, her icy voice howling imagery worthy of Poe in concert with her own windy harmonium and John Cale’s screeching strings and crashes of electronic noise. The Marble Index climaxes with the incongruously titled “Evening of Light”. There is nothing light about this evening. Cale’s harpsichord does its demon dance. His fuzz bass booms thunder. His viola shrieks and shreds. Nico hovers above it all, an impassive sorceress evoking terrible things with the few phrases she spins out: “Midnight winds are landing at the end of time. The children are jumping in the evening of light. A thousand sins are heavy in the evening of light.” If you can listen to this thing in a darkened room all the way through you’re braver than I.

10. “We Will Fall” by The Stooges (1969)

Reclining amidst punk attacks such as “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun” on the first Stooges album is ten minutes of dynamic-devoid chanting called “We Will Fall”. Suddenly we’re yanked out of a dingy Michigan toilet and into a black mass. Iggy may actually be singing about fucking in a hotel room, but the music implies something far more sinister. Close your eyes. See the Stooges hover clad in hooded black robes. “Oh gi ran ja ran ja ja ran” they moan over and over. Between them, Iggy lays stripped on a slab about to take a sacrificial dagger in his rib-ripped torso. Rather than screaming protestations, he is serene and accepting. It’s all about as erotic as the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut and twice as disturbing.

11. “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath (1970)

“We Will Fall” is reminiscent of a black mass. “Black Sabbath” from the album Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath specifically aims to create the sound of a black mass. Most likely a black mass occurring on the Black Sabbath. Church bells toll. Rain pounds down. Ozzy voices a man coming to the queasy realization that he has been selected for ritual sacrifice. His wrenching howl of “Oh no, no, please God, help me!” is either a reaction to being sliced up for Satan or hearing this song.

12. “The Dead Man’s Dream” by Procol Harum (1970)

Procol Harum were Goth decades before black-clad teens plastered on the pancake makeup and teased their tangled hair to the heavens. Their first and best-known hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, was nothing short of a funeral march. The album that followed abounded in images of death and climaxed with an instrumental titled “Repent Walpurgis”. On their fourth album, Home, the Harum summoned a veritable concept album about death. Keith Reid’s lyrics examined serial killers and crucifixion and apocalypse and slow-death by alcohol. The band’s sometimes jaunty music created an ironic counterpoint to such grim themes, but they spared not an iota of horror for “The Dead Man’s Dream”. Procol Harum churns out a slow, organ-led dirge as Gary Brooker’s moans about disturbed graves and rotten yet living corpses with maggots crawling in their eyes. Hammer Horror movies were never this terrifying.

13. “My Mummy’s Dead” by John Lennon (1970)

Freed of The Beatles at the head of the ‘70s, John Lennon used his first solo album as an opportunity to rake through all the territory he couldn’t touch while in the biggest band of all time. He takes toxic swipes at England’s class system, conservatives, religion, Paul McCartney, himself, and his own parents throughout John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Although Wagnerian producer Phil Spector was behind the board during the sessions, the record is skeletally arranged. Most of the record consists of nothing more than Lennon’s ratty guitar (and occasional spooky piano), Klaus Voormann’s bass, and Ringo Starr’s drums. The final track is the sparest. For 49 seconds, Lennon picks at his guitar and sings his own words to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”. The trajectory of Lennon’s life—his hunger for success and his notorious bitterness—was largely fueled by his mother’s untimely death. John’s troubled, intermittent relationship with vivacious Julia Lennon came to an end when a drunk-driving cop killed her in 1958. The psychic wounds haunted him the rest of his life, and he never sounded more haunted than he did on “My Mummy’s Dead”. Even at the end of all the painfully honest revelations he primal screams across Plastic Ono Band, the track is an expression of repression. “My mummy’s dead, I can’t get it through my head… I can’t explain so much pain, I can never show it.” He sings in a pained, child’s voice, the sound of a grown man longing to crawl back into the womb. The cheap microphone that captures the performance makes it sound like a scratchy old 78. “My Mummy’s Dead” is eons away from the joy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the lush density of “Be My Baby”. The effect is deeply disquieting.

14. “The Jeweller” by John Cale (1975)

Velvet Underground fans continue to be shocked when discovering John Cale’s solo albums. The man responsible for The Velvet’s horror squalls of viola and the weird recitations on “The Gift” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation” secretly yearned to write songs for Frank Sinatra. Despite its title and creepy cover photo of Cale in a transparent serial-killer mask, Vintage Violence is a rustic rock album influenced by The Band and The Byrds. His next solo album, Paris 1919, was even poppier, steeped in The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Then gradually, Cale’s records began backsliding into Velveteen chaos. Fear is accessible and lovely for the most part, although the magnificent opening track, “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”, resolves in scraping bass and primal screams. His next album, Slow Dazzle, begins with a pretty homage to Brian Wilson then starts to go awry on side two with a version of “Heartbreak Hotel” that locates the psychosis in Mae Axton’s lyric. “Guts” is a murderer’s fantasy in which Cale urges, “Kill all you want or more.” All of those are church hymns compared to the album’s final track. “The Jeweller” consists of a series of synthesizer swells and belches. Cale reverts to his White Light/White Heat work, reciting a tale considerably freakier than any Lou Reed wrote for him. A jeweler either succumbs to an LSD trip or literally passes into a black hole. He returns from his astral journey to meet a waiter who speaks in Lewis Carroll riddles. His eye begins to fail him, shutting of its own volition. He covers it with a patch, returns home, and goes to sleep. When he wakes in the middle of the night, he removes the patch to find a “perfectly formed vagina and vulva.” If that isn’t disturbing enough, he then explains that the eye remains “in the deep dark recesses of that sticky occlusion…lunging forward and hungry for the cold light of day.” Not even Cale’s next L.P., the full-on meltdown Helen of Troy, contains anything this unrelentingly horrific.

15. “Pure” by Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978)

Siouxsie and the Banshees’ debut album The Scream brims with horror imagery, but the track that most incites sensations of horror is the wordless opener. Steve Severin’s descending bass slides and John McKay’s guitar whines arrive direct from a haunted house movie soundtrack. Either the ghost or the victim, Siouxsie expels wails that lope and echo in the distant background. The remainder of The Scream is aggressive and noisy and hardly easy listening, but that quiet opening track is an unbeatably spooky mood piece that perfectly sets the stage for all the scary menace The Banshees would whip up throughout the rest of their career.

16. “Waking the Witch” by Kate Bush (1985)

Kate Bush’s music always had a supernatural quality. She allowed her fondness for the creepiest genre to flood out of her third single, “Hammer Horror”, though its melodramatic goofiness is hardly frightening. The same cannot be said of “Waking the Witch” from the conceptual second side of her masterpiece, Hounds of Love. The “Ninth Wave” suite is an impressionistic document of a woman swept overboard, careening down river where she dreams he is trapped under ice. There’s a jolly rescue sequence at the end, but the rest of “The Ninth Wave” is intensely foreboding. The scariest moment is “Waking the Witch”, which begins with the woman’s haunting hallucination of her family (voiced by Bush own kin) urging her to “Wake up” as her situation grows increasingly dire. When she wakes and finds herself hallucinating a witch trial, the track explodes with a disorienting, syncopated drum beat and Bush’s mechanical chant of “Red, red roses, Pinks and posies.” Her already unsettling vocal fragments. A demonic inquisitor growls. The verse goes through a number of bizarre variations, intensifying even as the rhythm remains unrelentingly metronomic. In his book on Hounds of Love, Ron Moy calls “Waking the Witch” “one of the scariest (songs) in the whole popular music canon.” No arguments here.

17. “Something Against You” by The Pixies (1988)

The Pixies could gust up evil sounds as well as any other group on this list. Yet their violent imagery and Black Francis’s banshee shrieks were often offset by puckish humor that makes their music unexpectedly accessible. Surfer Rosa offers no shortage of dementia. The jauntiness of “Broken Face” and the beauty of “Break My Body” transform them into pop hits for psycho killers. But even Leatherface would get spooked by “Something Against You”. One would not be overreacting to assume this number was composed and performed by a family of cannibals. The opening guitar riff bends in and out of tune like misfiring brainwaves. David Lovering’s drums pummel the cartoonish riff. The band rises from the debris, a hulking, uncontrollable monster. Black Francis screams, “I’ve got something against you!” an animal caught in a trap or a psychopath with murder on the brain. It’s the only phrase he’s capable of uttering until the punch line— “I’m one happy prick”— the incongruity of which only makes him sound crazier and this scary song scarier.

So what songs send shivers up your spine?
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