Monday, October 27, 2014

Track by Track: 'Spook Along with Zacherley'

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

Like most American families, mine spent Christmas with the usual choir of vinyl carolers: Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole, and since my dad loved Rock & Roll as much as I do, Phil Spector’s stable of stars. Most American homes, however, had no annual carols for my favorite holiday. Mine did though. As soon as my mom had affixed the final cardboard jack-o-lantern to the living room windows, I was begging my dad to take his yearly trip down to the basement and brush the cobwebs off an old record called Spook Along with Zacherley.

This was the late seventies, so I only knew Zacherley from this record and what my dad told me about him. I wouldn’t quite call my dad an original monster kid (as far as I know, he never touched an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland or an Aurora model kit), but he did have a lot of affection for Dracula and The Wolf Man and King Kong. He was an original viewer of “Shock! Theatre”, the show on which a stage actor named John Zacherle donned a dusty frock coat and frosty makeup to host a package of classic monster movies, crack wise about the undead, and occasionally appear superimposed in the movies to “personally interact” with Dracula and the Wolf Man.

John Zacherle started his career as the most famous male horror host of his era (Vampira and Elvira remain the biggest household names for obvious reasons) in his hometown of Philadelphia. There he hosted “Shock! Theatre” on WCAU-TV in the guise of Roland. Appearing as a guest on “American Bandstand” in 1958, Dick Clark supposedly dubbed him “The Cool Ghoul”. A gaggle of teenagers seemed quick to agree, and his massive appeal with kids who liked watching vampires suck as much as they dug hearing Little Richard screech led him to cut his own record under his own name for Cameo Parkway Records. With rocking backing from the label’s house band The Applejacks— not to be confused with the British group that later had a minor hit with Lennon and McCartney’s “Like Dreamers Do”— “Dinner with Drac” by John Zacherle “The Cool Ghoul” became a surprise national hit. Like all overnight pop sensations, an LP was not far in the future.

That same year, CBS bought up WCAU and John Zacherle fled to fry bigger fish in NYC. When he landed at ABC-TV, he was not allowed to use the Roland character he created at his old station. Big whoop. After all, Roland didn’t have a hit song…John Zacherle did. So he adopted his real name (with an extra “y” mistakenly added by ABC) and continued terrorizing TV as Zacherley on “Shock! Theatre” (and briefly “Zacherley at Large”) in 1959.

In October Zacherley jumped ghost ships once again to WOR-TV. Although the station’s production values were chintzier than those of WCAU or WABC, his popularity continued to soar. Naturally, a run for the presidency was not far behind, nor was that long-awaited LP finally released in the summer of ’60 not on mom-and-pop Cameo but on Elektra Records, then a successful label specializing in folk. Burying Mitch Miller, the record was titled Spook Along with Zacherley, and spilled over with lurid odes to monstrous parent/teacher associations, outrageous orangutans, Frank, Drac, and Zach’s own bid to snatch votes from Nixon and JFK.

Co-producing was Stan Rhodes, who’d co-written the standard “A Sunday Kind of Love” (covered by everyone from Etta James to Jan and Dean), and Gerald Alters, who’d later take an infinitely less cool position as Barry Manilow’s arranger. Lee Pockriss, most famous for composing “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”, “My Little Corner of the World”, and “Johnny Angel”, supplied the songs. These writers, arrangers, and producers offered most of the necessary elements: MOR schmaltz and teen novelty appeal. Zacherley delivered the essential horrificness and the lowest bass this side of Will “Dub” Jones.

The results are not a great album, but they are a great snapshot of that nether-period between the original Rock & Roller’s reign of the late fifties and the coming British Invasion, an age of novelty records, when late-night horror movies had to fill the delinquency gap Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis left vacant and well-scrubbed chumps like Frankie Avalon and Fabian couldn’t hope to fill. So dim the lights, my little ghoulies. Snuggle up to your spider baby and set the picture on Black & White. It’s time to sing along with the Cool Ghoul…

Spook Along with Zacherley by Zacherley

Originally released Summer of 1960

Produced by Stan Rhodes and Gerald Alters

All songs by Lee Pockriss

Track 1: Coolest Little Monster

“Dinner with Drac” wasn’t exactly Bo Diddley, but with The Applejack’s raunchy sax solos and blues guitar licks, it was three-minutes of fairly credible Rock & Roll. Helping matters was Zach’s decision to rap about a vampiress getting internally pickled, another swimming in a literal pool of blood, and the joys of munching on a plate of mummy veins and ketchup instead of singing. By 1960, bluesy R&R had fallen out of favor as the leaders of the old guard—Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, Jerry Lee, Little, etc.—fell off the scene for various unfortunate reasons. Consequently, Spook Along with Zacherley is not nearly as rocking as his debut single. The closest he comes to shaking, rattling, or rolling is the opening cut, though “Coolest Little Monster” is a fairly benign twist number compared to “Dinner with Drac”. Zach does indeed sing it in his stiff, very un-Rock & Roll bass croon. His nasty valentine messages aren’t quite as graphically gruesome either, though his promise he’ll “send a small box of small pox” would surely get him put on the DHS’s terrorist watchlist today. Still “Coolest Little Monster” gets the monster mash off to a rousing enough start…Zacherley’s spoken intro (“You’re horrid, you’re ghastly, and I love you true”) busts into a pretty slamming kick off before settling into Bobby Rydell territory.

Track 2: A Wicked Thought

Zacherley sounds more at home on the second track, which has no pretentions of rocking or rolling. Rather, “A Wicked Thought” is a legitimately funny spoof of the Vera Lynn standard “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and those wailing female vocals that introduce the track and punctuate the chorus are actually quite chilling. Gerald Alters’s arrangement of guitar, celesta, and percussion is subtly eerie and Lee Pockriss’s message of unpositive thinking sounds like a Goth self-help text. Plus Zach sings what may be the record’s best track really well. That guy may have made his bread trashing classic monster flicks, but he had some pipes!

Track 3: Ghoul View Commercial

Six years before Ray Davies spearheaded the Music Hall revival, Zacherley tossed on a straw boater to do a soft shoe with banjo backing called “Ghoul View Commercial”. It’s a real estate advert for corpses looking to “relocate, relocate, relocate” to a roomy new crypt. There’s a touch of suburban ribbing in this number, though nothing as upfront as “Little Boxes” or “Pleasant Valley Sunday”. “Ghoul View” is the first track on Spook Along to be overly comedic in lyric and tune, and it’s as cheesy as a wheel of Gouda. Swap “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” off Abbey Road and swap in “Ghoul View Commercial”. You’ll never know the difference!

Track 4: Sure Sign of Spring

“Sure Sign of Spring” is a way weirder track than “Ghoul View Commercial”. First of all, who associates springtime with cemeteries, witches, zombies, and spooks? Apparently, Zach does, because he informs us that this is the time wolfmen shed their fur and vampires gussy up their fangs and capes. Pockriss cribs the tune from Wizard of Oz’s “If I Only Had a Heart/a Brain/the Noive”, though only after a creepy introduction that gives no hint of the show tune jauntiness to come.

Track 5: Transylvania P.T.A.

You’ve got to hand it to Lee Pockriss… he rarely settles for the usual monster mashing on Spook Along with Zacherley. “Transylvania P.T.A.” sports another wacko topic, the title being total truth in advertising. Monster teachers, moms, and dads gather at a meeting that increasingly gets out of hand… or claw, as the case may be. The tune see-saws between a variation on “The Hearse Song” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out”…) with an arrangement based on the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” version of “Funeral March of a Marionette” and a big sing-along-with-Mitch chorus complete with cheese-doodle organ (“A good time was had by all…YES!...a good time was had by all!”). With “Ghoul View Commercial” and “Transylvania P.T.A.”, Lee and Zach showed they sure knew their suburban kid audience’s concerns… even if they didn’t really get the kind of music kids actually liked to listen to.

Track 6: Frank and Drac Are Back

Another sinister introduction misleads us into a very un-sinister song. Frank and Drac are exactly who you think they are, but instead of pulling off arms and sinking their teeth into jugulars, they’re doing an old-fashioned two-man comedy act. They even take breaks to tell monstrous versions of “My first book of jokes” jokes (“Say Drac, do you know why ghouls always cross the cemetery? Because they dig the attractive plantings!”). If it weren’t for the lines about the guys’ illegal nocturnal activities, “Frank and Drac are Back” could be a fitting duet for Fozzi Bear and Kermit the Frog. I fully applaud Pockriss for understanding that Frank is the doctor and not the monster. That there is an attention to detail, cool ghouls. When I was a kid, this was my favorite track on Spook Along because… well… it had Frank and it had Drac, the twin kings of the monsters. After all these years they’re still the dynamic duo of demonism.

Track 7: Come with Me to Transylvania

The intro sounds like incidental music from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride, but the waltzing melody and ice-rink organ that follow will make you want to strap on your skates and wrap a scarf around your neck. Better make it a lead scarf since this valentine is sung from one vamp to another. Zacherley really belts out this corn! Good thing he has his vampire union card because I’m considering going on strike.

Track 8: Spiderman Lullaby

If you haven’t already sussed as much already, Spook Along with Zacherley is lousy with creepy teasers that blossom into sunny melodies. “Spiderman Lullaby” is a real exception. This tune is creepy through and through, right from the harmonica quote of “Rock-a-bye Baby” that starts it through the father’s promise to his baby that “the spiderman will make your dreams come true.” He ain’t talking about Peter Parker. The twist is that dad’s not torturing his kiddie with terror tales before bedtime… in the end we learn the babe’s a beast too with the legitimately great line, “Close both eyes, that’s it son, now just close the other one.” Actually, “Spiderman Lullaby” is weirdly touching. And is it just a coincidence that Robert Smith wrote his own song about a spiderman called “Lullaby”, or was The Cure’s dour lead singer drawing inspiration from a really unlikely source?

Track 9: Ring-A-Ding Orangutan

We’re back in Bobby Rydell country with the only other Spook Along track to pay lip service to Rock & Roll. An ape goes ape at the hop, which is something any Transylvanian kid can relate to. That “ring-a-ding” business, however, belongs on one of dad’s Frank Sinatra records: strictly nowheresville. The Spook Along crew really couldn’t be bothered with Rock & Roll. “Ring-a-Ding Orangutan” is the shortest thing on the record, not even reaching two minutes. Plus, can we all finally acknowledge that despite Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Monster and the Girl, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, apes are not monsters? They’re apes. The scariest thing they do is fling their poop around.

Track 10: Baying at the Moon

This rather sweeping “Bali Ha’i”-esque tango is one of the best pieces on Spook Along. Pockriss finally goes for an obvious analogy—falling madly in love is like turning into a werewolf—and it works. A real, live, howling werewolf supplies the horror sound effects strangely missing from the rest of the record. It is pop’s greatest tragedy that Roy Orbison never covered this song.

Track 11: Zacherley for President

Everyone was caught up in election fever in 1960. Would voters select young, vivacious, liberal, horny John Fitzgerald Kennedy or sweaty man-troll Richard Milhouse Nixon? Monster kids knew there was a third option, and he was bent on giving spirits the right to vote, repealing inheritance tax since it’s “taxation without representation,” and “expanding the federal reserve system to include all blood banks,” as he announces on the epic, mostly spoken, slightly orchestrated campaign song that climaxes Spook Along with Zacherley. Alas, JFK would rob the presidency from Zacherley, but Zach ran a good, clean campaign aided and abetted by the Ted Bates, Inc., ad firm, the mad men responsible for informing us that M&Ms “melt in your mouth, not in your hands.” The agency’s “Zacherley for President” campaign became a merchandising bonanza that included a book, a poster, and a lapel badge, all of which ended up wasting literally tens of campaign contribution dollars. Spook Along with Zacherley, however, remains priceless.

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