Every great holiday has a great anthem, and for better or worse Halloween has "Monster Mash," a catchy little novelty item that made Bobby "Boris" Pickett a one-hit wonder when it reached No. 1 in 1962. As novelties go, Pickett's hit ain't bad: In a plot borrowed from countless Halloween records before it, "Monster Mash" finds the cast from numerous horror flicks over the years gathering in the graveyard to do the latest dance and rock themselves mad, with Pickett doing his best Boris Karloff croon. It worked so well that the song made it into the Top 10 a second time in 1973, and remains a perennial platter for anyone's Halloween hoedown. (Pickett, meanwhile, drifted into the ozone of rock obscurity.)
If "Monster Mash" is the most popular Hallow's Eve hit, it's sure not the best. The proof is listed below -- thirteen bone-chilling, goofy, or plumb loco cuts culled from the vast archive of rock and roll history, some of 'em corny, some of 'em campy, all of 'em worth seeking out. There's no room to list all the great Halloween songs; there's a coffin full of must-haves out there for completists and fanatics, from Carlos Casal's "Don't Meet Mr. Frankenstein" to the Duponts' "Screamin' Ball (at Dracula Hall)."
1. Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put a Spell On You." Not a Halloween song per se, but without doubt one of the wildest, most intense songs of love and possession you'll ever hear. Hawkins, who used to emerge on-stage from a smoke-filled coffin waving a skull-topped scepter, screams and shouts and wails and roars over a menacing sax-and-piano dirge, dragging syllables around the graveyard and drenching his wayward lover in a hoodoo melange of remorse, regret, and revenge. Funnier than it is scary, but scary nonetheless. (See also "Little Demon," "Feast of the Mau Mau.")
2. Johnny Fuller, "Haunted House." Jumpin' Gene Simmons had the hit on this perennial Halloween rocker, but Fuller's original -- released in 1959 -- is the one to hear, since bopping R&B is always preferred over spic-and-span white rock and roll. Beyond that, you know the story: Guy moves into haunted house, ghosts warn him to vacate by morning, guy refuses. Not so scary, really, but nevertheless an essential holiday entry.
3. Ronnie Dawson, "Rockin' Bones." The Cramps made this one a punk classic when they covered it back in '81 on their Psychedelic Jungle album, but Dawson's late-Fifties original still cuts it. Fort Worth-based Dawson was known as the Blond Bomber for his glowing, perfectly manicured flat-top, and landed a sorta-hit in 1958 with "Action Packed." He was just a teenager when he cut "Rockin' Bones," a hyperactive piece of necrophilia bop highlighted by the Bomber's piercing vocal and archetypal rockabilly lines like "There's still a lot of rhythm in these rockin' bones." The bah-bah-dahs of the backing chorus are creepy in a cornball kind of way -- the clickety-clack percussion is just corny -- but Dawson best nails the essence of his afterlife obsession with the song's final words: "When I die don'cha bury me at all/Just hang my bones up on the wall/Beneath these bones let these words be seen/The running gears of a boppin' machine."
4. Tony Carr, "Monster Hop." "Won't you step into my laboratory?" goes the introduction to this rollicking piece of guitar-boogie wobble, in which the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, and a "girl with skin like a grizzly bear" gather for this slice of pre-"Monster Mash" hokum. As holiday camp, this obscurity is wonderful, but guitar aficionados of all stripes should check out the outer-space solo here, which gets lost in a, well, monstrous wave of reverb and tremolo.
5. Joe Wallace, "Leopard Man." What does Elvis wanna-be Joe Wallace do when he encounters the subject of this lost Fifties-era gem? "I run, 'cause I'm a coward, you see." Makes sense, though, because amid the thump of jungle drums and the taut rockabilly, a "dirty Mau Mau" is about to throw Wallace into a cauldron in preparation of a fine cannibal stew. Wallace was never heard from again.
6. Round Robin, "I'm a Wolfman." If Creedence Clearwater Revival had done a Halloween song (and no, their endless, aimless cover of "I Put a Spell On You" doesn't count), it would've sounded like this garage rock/swamp boogie fusion, with a psych-out ultra-grunge guitar riff and stomping tribal drums. Who was Round Robin? Who knows. He sounds pretty convincing as he roars over the intro and administers the warning "If you see me on the prowl/Watch it when you hear me growl."
7. Jack and Jim, "Midnight Monster Hop." Yet another monster party record, but this time the wingding's being thrown at the county morgue, with a guest list that features ghosts, ghouls, Dracula (sipping blood from an old fruit jar), and a guitar player who apparently quit taking lessons once he mastered the "Peter Gunn" riff. As teen-beat pop, Jack and Jim rock pretty hard; as monster parties go, this one might be the best. Inspirational couplet: "Hey ghoul/You're cool."
8. Jackie Morningstar, "Rockin' in the Graveyard." After name-checking the Halloween hits by David Seville ("Witch Doctor") and Sheb Wooley ("The Purple People Eater"), Jackie Morningstar pronounces that his creepy number is "going to sell a million copies." Actually, this forgotten nugget -- cut who knows when for the Orange Record Company of Mobile, Alabama -- probably sold fewer than a hundred copies, but it's a gem nonetheless, another variation on the monster-party theme.
9. Terry Teene, "Curse of the Hearse." If you're looking for the quintessential anthem of Halloween gross-out, welcome to "Curse of the Hearse," Terry Teene's Fifties ode to rotting corpses. Over the minimalist accompaniment of a guitar-drums duo working a simple four-chord groove, Teene sets a scene in which worms play pinochle on your snout and ooze comes out of your body like whipping cream ("And me without a spoon," laments the vocalist). And what better way to close his charming number than with an out-of-nowhere piece of social observation: "If life were a thing money could buy/The rich would live and the poor would die." Who needs Phil Ochs?
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
10. Larry and the Blue Notes, "The Night of the Sadist." When this garage-rock swinger was cut in 1965, the band's producer thought sadist was a bit much for America's record-buying youth, so he made them change it to "Night of the Phantom." Either way it's a haunting, driving piece of punked-up trash about a lover's lane couple that meets with an untimely, decidedly unromantic demise. America's record-buying youth ignored it in droves.
11. Porter Wagoner, "The Rubber Room." Porter Wagoner is best remembered as the pompadoured dork who used to sing -- and hawk Duz detergent! -- with Dolly Parton, but really he deserves better. His best stuff from the late Sixties -- "The Cold Hard Facts of Life" especially -- emerged deep from the heart of lost love and shattered romance, full of pathos, longing, and regret. "The Rubber Room," though, is something else; it's arguably the most warped country song since Leon Payne's "Psycho" (see Elvis Costello, below) and an homage to mental imbalance that's as weird as it is funny. You're right there with Porter in the padded cell as he tries to shake hallucinations, listening all the while to the screams of the patients down the hall as well as the voices in his head that he just can't control. Listen as the studio engineer cranks the echo on Porter's voice while he intones the song's chorus, lost in a swirl of tugging strings and a haunting vocal choir, muttering to himself as sanity slips under the door. Then laugh yourself silly.
12. The Cramps, "I Was a Teenage Werewolf." Before they turned their eye to more, um, carnal concerns (e.g., "Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?"), the Cramps were the creators of a trash-rock hybrid usually referred to as punkabilly. The band's sound was built on the bones of wildcat rockabilly, garage rock, and reverb-splattered surf instrumentals. Besides being a Halloween song for the ages, "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" is definitive Cramps: the fuzz guitar of Bryan Gregory oozing from one channel, Poison Ivy Rorschach's echoey twang coming from the other, Nick Knox beating the daylights out of a floor tom, and Lux Interior wailing and sobbing a tale of adenoidal wolf-teen woe. Inspirational couplet: "I was a teenage werewolf/Braces on my fangs." (See also "Human Fly.")
13. Elvis Costello, "Psycho." This piece of serial-killer kitsch was tossed away on an obscure single by its writer, country great Leon Payne, but it took Elvis Costello, the premiere songwriter of the mid-Seventies new wave, to render the song's definitive version. Throughout the song -- cut in 1979 during the singer's honky-tonk phase -- Costello plays it straight, deadpanning the killer's one-sided conversation with his momma as he reels off the body count. "You think I'm psycho, don'cha momma?" asks the killer at the end of every chorus, the answer obvious but never offered. In the end, everyone gets theirs: the psycho's ex, her new boyfriend, his brother, his brother's puppy, a girlfriend from his past. Not the kind of thing you'd play to liven up a Halloween party, and certainly not a first-date ice-breaker. But if you're looking for a song that defines the holiday's dark, creepy underbelly, "Psycho" is damn near perfect.