Are monster parties real? As the 90s comedy revue Mr. Show asked, in a parody sketch investigating the truth of Halloween songs: would Draculas, wolfmen, and mummies ever really get together in a mansion or a crypt for a bash or a mash? Skeptics claim it's impossible; but novelty song lyrics suggest otherwise…
Buried in the graveyard of the Freegal music archive, forgotten gems of Halloween music lie in slumber, waiting to arise from their tombs when October rolls around to serenade you on a full moon night. It’s time to shiver and shake to the spooky sounds of our seasonal streaming playlist: Haunted Library Tunes!
We begin with a sprightly Hammond organ frolic from the one and only Anton LaVey. Sure, he founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco in the 1960s, but he got his start as a calliope player with a traveling circus and enjoyed local renown playing lounge music at cocktail bars like the Lost Weekend. Behind the shaved head, goatee, and black robes, he was a nostalgic hepcat at heart who loved nothing more than tickling the ivories in the dungeon of his Victorian pad in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. "Satan Takes a Holiday" is a jaunty number composed in 1937 by bandleader Larry Clinton, originally used as background music for magic acts and 'midnight spook shows, according to the liner notes of LaVey's eponymous compilation. Gets the soirée swingin’!
The Bollock Brothers, a band of new wave pranksters led by Jock McDonald, pay tribute to the golden age of drive-in fright films over a moody synth-rock beat on their cult classic "Horror Movies." Though panned as blasphemous dreck at the time, their 1983 all-electro cover of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks album has aged enjoyably (Johnny Rotten’s brother Jimmy Lydon was an original Bollock Brother).
On an interesting side note, the Bollock Brothers' version of "God Save the Queen" is sung by Michael Fagan, the unemployed oddball who broke into Buckingham Palace twice in 1982. The first time, in early June, he shimmied up a drainpipe and entered through an unlocked window on the roof, startling a housemaid who ran off to alert security. They apparently did not believe her, and Fagan was able to wander around snacking on cheese and crackers, sitting on a throne, and contemplating royal portraits before exiting the same way. Amazingly, he did it again a few weeks later on July 9th, drunkenly scaling the barbed wire-topped perimeter wall and setting off an alarm as he entered the Palace. The guards assumed it was a faulty sensor and ignored it. He roamed around the royal apartments, somehow breaking a glass ashtray and cutting himself, and made his way to Queen Elizabeth II's bedchamber, where he sat at the foot of her bed nursing his bleeding hand. With typical aplomb, she phoned the switchboard for security and rang her bedside alarm bell, to no avail, finally flagging down a housemaid who helped her lure him away with the promise of a cigarette. Her footman arrived and further distracted him with a glass of Scotch while the police arrived. An episode of Netflix's The Crown portrays Fagan and the queen having a pithy conversation in which she is confronted once again with the reality of the working poor, but Fagan denies this took place. Needless to say, palace security was seriously beefed up thereafter. Trespassing being a civil rather than a criminal wrong at the time, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for a few months and released in time to sing with the Bollocks. Fagan's mumbled version of "God Save the Queen" is rough but heartfelt, conveying his real if misguided esteem for the queen in rewritten lyrics ("a lovely human being")—a sweet riposte to Johnny Rotten's sneering sarcasm.
The Halloween dance-off continues with Whodini’s supernaturally slammin’ "Haunted House of Rock", from their 1983 debut on Jive Records. First-generation Brooklyn rap crew Jalil, Ecstasy, and Grandmaster Dee give you just what you wanted, something funky and haunted, sung entirely through a squelchy vocoder. They would return to rock the Halloween party the following year with the equally fun "Freaks Come Out at Night."
Louis Armstrong performed the toe-tappin' "Skeleton in the Cupboard" in the 1936 musical comedy Pennies From Heaven, his first appearance on the big screen. This good-natured film stars Bing Crosby as a hapless troubadour who winds up taking care of a friend's orphaned daughter and having misadventures along the way, one of which takes him to a jazz club where Armstrong serves up this number accompanied by costumed dancers and Halloween decor. From the hip opening stanza, you know it's going to be monster party fun—
There's an old deserted mansion on an old forgotten road
Where the better ghosts and goblins always hang out
One night they threw a party in a manner a la mode
And they cordially invited all the gang out…
Crosby insisted on Armstrong's casting and his top-billing credit, a rarity at the time for an African American appearing in a major studio film.
Titan of Texas underground rock Roky Erickson was obsessed with science fiction and monster movies, recording many tunes like "I Walked With a Zombie", which chants the title of Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 classic of Caribbean atmospheric horror. Roger Kynard Erickson started off as a Beatles-loving teen in Austin, dropping out of high school to join the local garage band scene. His group, the 13th Floor Elevators never hit it big outside the Lone Star State, but their three albums are now considered landmarks of '60s punk, with indelible songs like "You're Gonna Miss Me" led by Roky's scarifying howl. By the late 60s, Erickson was showing signs of schizophrenia and was confined to a Houston mental hospital for several years of electroshock and Thorazine. He emerged with a shaggy beard, a trenchcoat, and a head full of aliens and demons—and continued to blast out fearsome, sturdy rock through the mid-80s. In the 90s he finally started getting some decent psychiatric care, along with adulation from a new generation of alternative rockers and support from longtime Texas friends like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Roky continued to rock stages far and wide, including an appearance at Coachella, up until his recent passing in 2019.
Summoning all goths to the dance floor… Ministry's 1984 synth stomp "(Every Day Is) Halloween" is the unofficial anthem of the holiday for eyeliner-wearing kids of a certain age. Bandleader Al Jourgensen now disavows his band's danceable early efforts in favor of the buzzsaw industrial metal sound they would later descend into, claiming that they sold out before they really got started. But even beyond one's teenage years, the ominous melody, weird percussion breaks, and lyrics about a misunderstood gothic loner still hit the spot. Those opening beats forever proclaim: Halloween is here!
A mystical cowboy song about a phantom herd galloping through the evening clouds, "Ghost Riders in the Sky" is not really Halloween-specific, but definitely eerie. Stan Jones was working as a park ranger in Death Valley in the mid-1940s when he wrote and recorded it, basing it on a story he heard from an old Indian when he was a boy in Arizona about the spirits of the departed living on in the skies. He turned it into something like the Norse legend of the Wild Hunt—the souls of sinful cowboys damned eternally to wrangle the devil's herd of red-eyed, steel-hooved cattle, rolling along like flaming clouds in the sunset, and set it to a mournful shuffle. Johnny Cash recorded the definitive baritone version in 1979.
Rosemary Clooney flips the script with her deliciously purring 1959 version of Sinatra's hit "Witchcraft," featuring a woozy organist and percussion section that sound like they're under the spell of a couple martinis. In “Dracula’s Wedding” from OutKast’s landmark double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Andre 3000 raps as a vampire who searches for his true love but finds her even more terrifying than himself when he meets her at last. Screamin' Jay Hawkins' iconic swamp blues "I Put a Spell on You" showcases his many moods, including gibbering, howling, seducing, screeching, and roaring, all the way back into his stage coffin. UK ska pioneers The Specials' last single was the awesomely spooky "Ghost Town," which could be about the economic decline of their hometown of Coventry, the impending breakup of the band, or a city full of wailing phantasms, depending on how you hear it. Jacksonville, Florida's delightfully named Classics IV recorded several top-notch AM radio mood pieces with soulful singer Dennis Yost, foremost among them "Spooky," about a bewitching cutie: "Just like a ghost, you've been a-hauntin' my dreams / so I'll propose—on Halloween / Love is kinda crazy with a spooky little girl like you…"
The cadaverous Zacherle was one of the original 1950s TV horror hosts, interspersing B-movie telecasts on a local station in Philadelphia with morbid comedy bits and bad puns ("just a little something we dug up for tonight's viewing pleasure… I'll be shoveling off now…"). It proved to be a popular formula, and was replicated in many regional markets—Vampira here in Los Angeles, Morgus the Magnificent in New Orleans, Svengoolie in Chicago, Sir Graves Ghastly in Detroit, all the way through the 1980s with Elvira and the Cryptkeeper. John Zacherle played a hollow-voiced undertaker, who would begin each program by descending a long spiral staircase into the crypt, where he would tell jokes and sing songs like "My Funny Valentine" to his spouse, My Dear, apparently lying in one of the coffins but never seen on camera. His friend and fellow Philadelphia broadcaster Dick Clark dubbed him "the Cool Ghoul," and in 1958 got him into a recording studio to sing the twistin' horror novelty "Dinner With Drac," which wound up being a top ten hit:
A dinner was served for three
At Dracula's house by the sea
The hors d'oeurves were fine
But I choked on my wine
When I learned that the main course was me!
Zacherle continued on as a horror host and Halloween go-to for decades. He even provided the voice of the wormy alien parasite Aylmer in Frank Henenlotter's 1988 horror comedy Brain Damage, which you can stream on Kanopy. Make it a Kanopy double feature with Henenlotter’s magnum opus, one of the wildest underground horror films: Basket Case!
Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" is one of the great death-fixation songs of classic rock, although nowadays it is better known from Will Ferrell's SNL parody, in which he plays a background percussionist at the 1976 recording session who is exhorted by producer Christopher Walken to step forth and play "more cowbell!" until his clanking dominates the mix. The song offers a pleasant amount of cowbell, a skirling guitar riff, and the eerily serene vocals of Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser, who, from the sound of things, is urging his lover to join him in a suicide pact and, thereafter, eternity. Perhaps back-pedaling against denunciation by angry parents who thought rock should not be encouraging teens to morbidity, Roeser claimed his lyrics were merely a meditation on the transience of this life and the possibility of being reunited with his loved ones in the next, topics upon which he was inspired to compose after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. This unconvincing protestation aside, it remains a great gloomy anthem that certainly seems to be suggesting that death is the ultimate high, thereby perfectly capturing a certain aspect of '70s counterculture – for example, the rise of a certain Blue Oyster Cult fan named Stephen King—and becoming one of their biggest hits.
Few songs epitomize the autumnal, occult 60s like Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”, even though he wrote it way back in relatively innocent 1966. Glasgow-born Donovan Leitch got his start in the UK folk scene, fingerpicking with the likes of Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. A series of jangly protest songs brought unfortunate comparisons to Bob Dylan—much of D.A. Pennebaker’s tour documentary Dont Look Back shows Dylan fatally dissing his lower-octane UK counterpart. Many of Donovan's sparse early acoustic recordings were re-recorded for the rock market with a full band of session players, among them a pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, who would later jam on "Season of the Witch" regularly at Zeppelin sound checks. Though he was quickly written off as a lightweight for whimsical tunes like "Mellow Yellow," Donovan's catalog has aged gracefully, with songs like "Hurdy Gurdy Man" prefiguring an era of heavier rock to come, as well as the Manson mood that would soon sour the euphoria of the flower-power movement. Lana Del Rey recorded a serviceable cover of “Season of the Witch” for the soundtrack of the 2019 movie version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, based on Alvin Schwartz’s ever-popular collection of horror folktales. As far as I know, Donovan lives in Los Angeles and still occasionally gigs around town—a recent release, "I Am the Shaman," featured production and an accompanying video by his transcendental meditation pal, David Lynch.
But wait, there's more! Uncanny Latin lounge with Esquivel ("That Old Black Magic"), perky horror-hop from DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince ("Nightmare on My Street"), ghastly blues by Howlin’ Wolf (“Moanin’ at Midnight”) ghoulish garage from Screaming Lord Sutch ("Murder in the Graveyard")... happy haunted listening, and don’t forget to turn out the light!