by Eric Kendall
13 songs that go "bump" in the night
It’s the best time of year again: the time when the shadows are darker, creepy hallways seem longer, and any odd noise demands a second guess. It’s also a great time to explore the darker side of music, to revisit those songs that just don’t seem right to listen to at the beach or while opening Christmas presents.
While it’s easy to dismiss typical Halloween music as schmaltzy and goofy “monster mash” fare, try to imagine Dario Argento’s cult classic Suspiria without the head spinning score provided by Goblin. Better yet, would The Exorcist have been half as terrifying if not for Mike Oldfield’s panic inducing “Tubular Bells” driving each scene to the brink of insanity? Doubtful.
So before you dig around for your “Graveyard Boogie” compilation, give this play list a spin…just leave the lights on.
Zu Zu Mamou
Before Dr. John became the standard-heavy bluesman we know him to be today, he was something like the Captain Beefheart of New Orleans, combining Mardi Gras-style R&B with psychedelic mysticism. “Zu Zu Mamou” is a slow burning example of that fusion. Dr. John’s vocals are barely discernible and act as another instrument, densely layered along with swing-low bass, sparse horns, jazzy drums, and bongo rhythms. This drugged-out and sultry backdrop calms down at one point as he sings, “You say somebody stole a strand of your hair/You know its missing but you don’t know where/If you feel somebody’s trying to rip off your mind/Zu Zu Mamou.” Truly a lyrical voodoo doll of a song. Best not to get on Dr. John’s bad side.
The Curse of Midnight Mary
Spooky not only in concept but also execution. Loren Connors recorded these avante/blues improvs to a tape recorder in 1981 in the Evergreen Cemetary in New Haven, Connecticut, where the legendary Midnight Mary is supposedly buried. Quite a brave feat considering the curse: Anyone who spends the night in Mary’s graveyard will die the next day. Well, fortunately for us Connors made it out alive with this haunting tape of improvisational folk excursions complete with the sound of wind, crickets, and trance-like moaning. It’s as if Connors was willingly trying to conjure Mary’s ghost. And as scarce and tenuous as these recordings are, he doesn’t quite sound like he’s alone in that graveyard…
The unsettling nature of this mind-bender stems not only from how plainly terrifying it is musically, but also from the story it tells. “Clara” is about Mussolini’s mistress Claretta Pettaci, who apparently insisted on being executed with him even after being offered leniency. The rest is history. They were then hung upside-down at a petrol station so that passers by could punch and hit their bodies with sticks. This brutal scene is reenacted in song by the punching of slabs of pork by the percussionist until Walker sings; “A man came up towards the body/And poked it with a stick/It rocked swiftly/And twisted around at the end of the rope/Finer than a hair from every side.”
Truly the stuff of nightmares, “My Wall” is a 25-minute, epic exercise in dirge and doom. Fans of Sunn O))) are well used to that by now, but what makes this song different? What throws this song over the edge from being creepy to absolutely terrifying? The occultist poetry recited by none other than Julian Cope. Through this seemingly unlikely meeting of minds, they dramatically recount themes of druids, Vikings, Saxons, bloodlust, and axe-wielding maniacs, amongst other unmentionable topics. It’s a long, dark road that’s not easy to go down, but once you do it’ll be even harder to go back. Halloween is as good a time as any to make the trip.
What’s He Building in There?
We’ve all been that guy. (Well, either the nosey neighbor or the local psychotic shut-in.) Tom Waits gives us a listen to the inner monologue of someone trying desperately to wrap his head around what his creepy neighbor is up to, set to a series of creaking noises, radio static, echoing thumps, and whistling, which all corresponds perfectly with the story being told. The sentiments range from understandable suspicion (“He’s pounding nails into a hardwood floor/I swear to god I heard someone moaning low”) to paranoid hearsay (“He has no friends, but he gets a lot of mail”). The most unsettling thing about this song is that by the end you find yourself wondering who is more psychotic, the suspicious recluse or the concerned/obsessive neighbor.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Up Jumped the Devil
Nick Cave is no stranger to the dark and dreary. This song has a little bit of everything he is known for: swagger, biting wit, and brooding evil. Mick Harvey’s ominous bass riff sets the tone for the crystal-clear, calypso-like piano and sea-shanty rhythms setting the perfect mood for Nick Cave’s tale of murder, hell, and the devil himself told in his trademark “charming bastard” persona. If there were any doubt to just how bad he is, Cave sings: “I was the baddest Johnny in the apple cart/My blood was blacker than the chambers of a dead nun’s heart.” Shirking thoughts of redemption, he later adds, “The righteous path is straight as and arrow/Take a walk and you’ll find it too narrow/Too narrow for the likes of me.”
You would have trouble finding a Coil song that didn’t give you goosebumps, and their cover of “Tainted Love” is no exception. Absolutely haunting in every way, they strip the song down to subtle bells, the occasional synth swells, and reoccurring double orchestral strikes that make you jump every time, regardless if you expect them or not. John Balance’s vocal delivery is slowed down to a crawl as the words ache their way through your speakers, proving that a simple song about heartbreak can still scare the living daylights out of you.
Hell Hound on My Trail
Sure, it’s not out of the ordinary to hear blues songs that figuratively speak of Satan and the like, but with Robert Johnson there was nothing figurative about it. Tormented by the dealing of his soul to the devil at the train tracks, he sang about a hell hound on his trail and meant it. This paranoia is worn on his sleeve and at points Johnson’s voice trembles as he sings: “Blues falling down like hail/And the day keeps on reminding me/There’s a hellhound on my trail.” This is a case of Johnson’s fear rubbing off on the listener. You’re scared because he’s scared.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins
I Put a Spell on You
Admittedly, this track has seen many a cheesy Halloween compilation, but there’s a lot of disturbing stuff going on just under the surface. Looking through the campiness, you soon realize that this is pretty much a paean to stalking and not taking no for an answer: “I love you anyhow/And I don’t care if you don’t want me/I’m yours right now.” The creepy level goes up every time Hawkins screams maniacally: “Because you’re mine!”
In a word: tense. The throbbing machine noise kept in time by the unwavering kick of the drum machine provide an uneasily neutral backdrop for Alan Vega to tell the dismal tale of a down-and-out factory worker who snaps, kills his family, then himself, and goes to hell. No happy ending here. Vega takes on the abject pain and suffering of the proverbial Frankie in a series of scathing and tortured yelps and screams that catch you off guard every time: “Frankie put the gun to his head [screams]/Frankie’s Dead [screams]/Frankie’s lying in Hell [screams]/We’re all Frankies/We’re all lying in hell.”
These Are Our Children
This lesser-known trip-hop act had a real creeper on their hands with this one. Mixed with creepy music box melodies, bubbly static-hissing synths, and a bouncing, dream-like bass line, not many things are scarier than a ghostly choir of children singing about wanting to play hide and seek with you: “Hide and seek is a game/We’ll teach you how to play/Close your eyes/Really tight/ Make it dark/Like the night.” Hmm…not too bad, right? “Climb the stairs to the top/ Rooms are dark but don’t stop/Getting close/Really warm/Now you’re cold/On the floor.” Ah…there it is. Have fun getting to sleep tonight.
The Tragic Seance
Bob Drake recorded an entire concept album of songs about ghosts and ghouls. As a whole, it comes off as an eerie, darkly humorous, folk-tinged masterpiece. Think Edward Gorey on a lot of drugs and you’ll be getting close. “The Tragic Seance” is an off-kilter campfire song complete with lazy guitar strums and unsettlingly out-of-tune fiddles. The lyrics describe a fraudulent medium getting what they deserve from an unruly spirit: “Something unexpected and equally uninvited materialized itself amongst them/ with unspeakable appetites/And unfortunately for them all/It was very hungry.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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