Christmas Music gets all the attention, but I think that Halloween really has the best soundtrack. Off-kilter waltzes played by on a dusty accordion, rusty trombones blown in a graveyard of fog, and an upright bass thump thump thumping off beat amongst clashes of metal on metal. These are Halloween sounds. Oboes, baritone saxophones, and minor cords on a piano with a couple of dead keys finally rise past jingling guitars and peppy finger snaps. It’s a license to be weird and get past the upbeat pop that dominates the musical landscape. Some artists like Tom Waits and Nick Cave have made entire albums and careers by leaning on the darker side of the night. We thank them for that. Here is a playlist for all you ghosts and ghouls out there in Milwaukee on All Hallows Eve.
Dead Man’s Bones- My Body’s a Zombie for You
Dead Man’s Bones is Ryan Gosling’s outfit. Yes, that Ryan Gosling. Some guys just get all the breaks. Dead Man’s Bones released this album in 2009 after Gosling and collaborator Zach Shields discovered a kindred fascination with ghosts songs. They set out some rules: #1: No Guitars #2 No more than three takes on a song in the studio. #3 No metronome. Combined with the Silverlake Conservatory Children’s Choir, Dead Man’s Bones self titled album came out haunting, distant, beautiful, weird, and imperfectly perfect. The song here is My Body’s A Zombie for You, but I encourage you to check out the full beauty of the entire album.
The Monster Mash- Boris Picket and the Crypt-Kickers (and Misfits)
The Monster Mash really is the quintessential Halloween song. The song was originally penned by Boris Picket and the Crypt-Kickers in 1962. The story goes that Bobby “Boris” Picket was pretty good at impersonating Boris Karloff, the star of classic horror flicks like Frankenstein and The Mummy (1930’s Mummy, not the 1999 version with the Rock). Picket’s impersonation lead to a novelty recording called The Monster Mash. It has been a favorite every Halloween since. You can’t help but swaying your hips to the 1960 background singers with their “wah-oOOs.” Since 1962 it has been covered a number of times, but none so appropriate as punk band The Misfits cover.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins- I Put a Spell On You
The voodoo shaman himself, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins seems like the personification of Halloween itself. Onstage he dressed in full voodoo garb, with his sidekick Henry, who was a skull at the end of a cane with a craving for cigarettes. Screamin’ Jay’s power come from that beautiful instrument that he has in his vocal cords. He huffs and grunts, gurgles and warbles through the 5 minute incantation, using his throat as an effects petal itself. Get under his spell.
Tracy Morgan- Werewolf Bar Mitzvah
Ultimately, Halloween is about having fun. No one has more fun with it than comedian Tracy Morgan and Donald Glover in season 2 of NBC comedy 30 Rock. If you have ever seen any B-movie horror films like The Re-Animator, Cabin in the Woods, Troll II, Frankenhooker, or many many others, you know that the intersection of horror and comedy is a beautiful thing. Have a laugh with Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds- Stagger Lee
Stagger Lee, or Stagolee is a murder ballad that has been engrained in the songscape of America for the over 100 years. Word has it that the story of Stagger Lee started with a real event that occurred in 1895 between two gambling men. Stagger Lee is a man with a bad reputation. He is called Stag because he is so fearsome that he walks everywhere alone. In the events of the song he gambles and loses. On top of that, his opponent steals his hat. That is too much for old Stag, and he shoots him dead. Versions of the song have been done by Mississippi John Hurt, Lloyd Price, and Ike and Tina, among others. The most gruesome comes from Nick Cave. Listen if you dare.
Tom Waits has been an outsider since day one. He started in bars, at closing time, singing in seedy joints to blown over souls on skid row. As his career progressed he skidded even closer to the fringe. In the mid 80’s he broke from producer Bones Howe and created the Frank’s Wild Years trilogy of albums. After which he immersed himself in a darker sound. During this time he replaces his piano with his voice. Like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he uses his vocal cords as his most impactful instrument, shaking his entire body to give vibrato to the timbre of his growl. There is no way that I could choose just Tom Waits song for Halloween, so here are three.
These are some of other favorites. Many of you nailed them on the Facebook page, which was really great to see. Happy Halloween.
Justin Barney, signing off.
Shannon and the Clams – The Woodsman
Harlem – Friendly Ghost
Sam The Sham and the Pharoahs – Lil' Red Riding Hood
Man Man – Werewolf (on the hood of your heartbreak)