Scary Songs from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Alice Cooper, TV on the Radio + others: Gimme Five

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October is upon us again, the heart of the season when so much of the natural world preserves life by beginning its annual passage through death — or at least a death-like cycle. It’s probably for this reason that autumn seems to be the time of year when we contemplate matters of the spirit world, the afterlife, and all things fantastical and unknown.

Since rock ‘n’ roll often concerns itself with similar matters, it should be no surprise that there have been more than a few occasions where a rock song pursues a lyrical conceit by stealing a few Gothic stereotypes. Here’s a small selection of such tunes, some profound (and some not so very) to keep the macabre meandering through your brain on some future unsettling and sleepless night.

SCREAMIN’ JAY HAWKINS, “I PUT A SPELL ON YOU” (1956): If casting a spell can be defined as the inexplicable intersection where cause meets effect, this song is by definition magical. The listener can’t help but get a case of the voodoo heebie-jeebies from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ over the top delivery of what should have been a run-of-the-mill R&B song about love and desire. Instead, the song settles between the ears and won’t leave without a musical exorcist, which further defines what it truly is: a song about possession.

NEW YORK DOLLS, “FRANKENSTEIN” (1973): The monster in the original novel was philosophical and talky; the movie presented a different creature unable to articulate its desires. New York Dolls frontman David Johansen presents his own version, which he appropriately “Frankensteins” from the other two. Like other songs in the New York Dolls’ catalogue, this one can be seen as about yet another outsider with a “Personality Crisis” who just wants to be treated like a “Human Being.” In Mary Shelley’s novel, it takes a long time for the final series of events to be put into play when the creature asks the scientist to create a mate for him. Johansen, however, condenses the whole point of the story and maybe even life in general when he asks his audience to ponder the song’s final coda: “Do you think that/You could make it/With Frankenstein?” Exactly the point: Why do you think he wanted a mate, anyway?

ALICE COOPER, “THE BALLAD OF DWIGHT FRY” (1971): I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but when I was a teenager I had to move my bed into the basement rec room for a couple of nights. I thought this was cool, as I was parked right beside the hi-fi stereo system and could listen to records until I fell asleep. Unfortunately, a friend had loaned me Alice Cooper’s Love It to Death album, and the penultimate song on side two, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” scared me wide awake until dawn. I didn’t even need to know that the title referenced the real life actor who played Renfrew in the classic movie version of Dracula. I just knew that Alice Cooper had crawled as deep into crazy as a singer can get. How weird is this song? Even the atonal guitar solo can be described as disturbing. It’s definitely not a song to listen to before bedtime.

TV ON THE RADIO, “WOLF LIKE ME” (2006): It’s hard to make out all the lyrics, but the official studio video indicates it’s something about werewolves. Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t matter. In concert, TV On the Radio beats all the rhythm, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and moonlight curses out of this song and delivers it as the soundtrack to the apocalypse. Interestingly enough, the band has also covered “Ghostbusters.” Maybe taken together, the two songs function as a commentary on the dual nature of the werewolf in everyone.

THE BEAT FARMERS, “DEATH TRAIN” (1985): There’s a long tradition of songs about that special midnight express that offers a one-way ticket to that unknown destination whose stationmaster is always named Beelzybubba. The Beat Farmers’ twist on the often-used theme is that the band sounds like they fully expected to be there eventually anyway. After all, you gotta take the gigs where you can get ‘em.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
JC Mosquito
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