While Christmas gets the major love for holiday-related tunes (and beware, the stations that switch to 24-hour Christmas song formats are bound to start up in the next week or two…), Halloween and related spooky themes have been a common source of subject matter for songs since time immemorial.
This year, I shared some of my favorite songs for the spooky season with Madeleine Brand on Press Play.
You can hear that conversation here, but here are further notes on tunes suitable for the holiday:
Supernatural themes run throughout the pre-pop music world, such as in classical music, where pieces such as Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” inevitably evoke shivery reactions in concert-goers. But if you ever envision some creepy guy playing an organ, Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor is the tune that almost certainly pops into your head.
Jazz singers would often make reference to scary things in their lyrics, usually in a punning way, like “your eyes bewitch me” or “I’m haunted by the loss of your love,” but occasionally they would be a little more specific, such as in Kay Starr’s version of “The Headless Horseman” (originally written for Bing Crosby in the Disney animated version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”).
Once rock’n’roll hit its stride in the late 50s, there was an explosion of monster-related songs, partially inspired by the rediscovery of the classic horror films of the 30s being broadcast on television for a new generation to shriek along with.
Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s immortal “Monster Mash” is the best-known example of this musical monster-mania, but plenty of other wacky songs came out of the era, such as Lee Ross’ “The Mummy’s Bracelet”.
At the time there was also an odd sub-genre of “death discs,” which usually involved a love story which ended in one of the partner’s early demise. The Shangri-Las’ “The Leader of the Pack” is one of the classics of the style, but I’m partial to the Downliners Sect’s even more morbid riff off the theme, “I Want My Baby Back”.
In the 70s, as some bands sought to shed the “peace & love” vibe of the hippie generation, some turned to exploring occult or Satanic themes, in an effort to make their music sound more serious, powerful & actually dangerous. Black Sabbath is probably the best example of such a band, but others took it even further, including Black Widow, whose 1970 debut album, “Sacrifice”, features “Come to the Sabbat,” a song that supposedly features lyrics based on actual incantations from a black mass.
Scary or quaint? You be the judge…
Even artists as renowned as Brian Eno & David Byrne dabble with spooky themes, such as on their ground-breaking “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” album of 1981.
One of the first records to use found audio samples as the vocal content, they included a track that features a recording of a supposed actual exorcism, which they call “The Jezebel Spirit”.
In the past several decades, whole genres have spawned out of horror themes in music, such as goth rock, black metal, horror rap, etc.
But music is cyclical, and even some of the 50s-style “monster mash” garage rock with spooky vibe has come back in fashion.
One of my favorite recent bands to work with such imagery is Kid Congo & the Pink Monkeybirds, led by Kid Congo Powers, one-time member of the Cramps & Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds (who both knew a thing or two about spooky songs!). They sing about ghosts, vampires, yeti & other such monsters throughout their discography, but the title track of their 2013 album, Haunted Head, is a good place to put this survey to rest.
ERIC J. LAWRENCE