My first draft of this post was started on October 26, in hopes of rushing through the next 5 entries in time for Halloween. Obviously, I missed that deadline. But the reason I wanted to write about “Monster Mash” on or by Halloween wasn’t just so I’d have a cute tie-in. There’s an inherent difference in how you hear a holiday song during its corresponding holiday versus the rest of the year. No matter how much I love A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, I’m not about to listen to it in any month not called “December.” (Well, maybe Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans’ take on “The Bells of St. Mary’s” – it’s not explicitly Christmas-themed, and it is all kinds of soulful.) Listening to Christmas music, even good Christmas music, when it’s not Christmas just feels wrong. Maybe the excitement and festivity surrounding the holiday make the music sound better. I can certainly tolerate some not so great songs during that time of year, either because of tradition or nostalgia. So it felt like it would only be fair to write about “Monster Mash” in its own milieu. To examine the song apart from Halloween – much less, during the winter holiday season, which already has more than its fair share of novelty tracks – would be judging it against a harsher standard than perhaps it deserves. Then again, the entire M.O. behind this blog is to judge these songs outside of their historical context to determine whether (I think) they’re actually any good by modern standards.
Unfortunately, the “Monster Mash” does take a bit of a hit apart from Halloween. It does have a few points to recommend it: a convincing pop arrangement (i.e., it actually works as a pop song, not just a parody of a pop song); Pickett’s spot-on imitations of Karloff and Lugosi; and the fact that it’s the only Halloween song to be successful in any commercial sense. This last point is perhaps the most important. Otherwise, how to explain the annual persistence of a Halloween record that is a) dated in its cultural references (have you ever danced the mashed potato? I haven’t, at least not intentionally) and b) not all scary? In fact, it’s anti-scary. It turns monsters into Peppermint Loungers. Then again, this genial, all-ages version of Halloween is exactly what has made “Monster Mash” an enduring tradition – and a song that’s difficult to hate. We only hear it a few days out of the year, in situations where we’re probably already having fun. Frankly, given the depths that Christmas pop regularly plumbs, we should be grateful to have our universal tune for Halloween be something that’s listenable, or at least not actively obnoxious. 5
Hit #1 on October 20, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
79 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.09% through the Hot 100
Novelty records have a mostly deserved reputation for being one-joke “wonders” that age poorly. “Alley Oop,” based on an old caveman comic strip I’ve never read, doesn’t seem at first blush to be a likely candidate to break this pattern. Written in 1957 as a country tune by Dallas Frazier (whose “Elvira,” as performed by The Oak Ridge Boys, was a staple of my elementary and middle school P.E. line dancing classes), it features such lines as “He’s got a chauffeur that’s a genuine dinosaur/And he can knuckle your head before you count to four.” So while the recording could still be easily mucked up in the wrong hands, you’re already starting with superior material for a novelty song (i.e., it’s actually kind of amusing). Fortunately, “Alley Oop” couldn’t have been recorded by folks more suitable for crafting an oddball hit. In one corner, it’s legendary producer, svengali and raconteur Kim Fowley, who had a hand in such future novelty hits as “Nut Rocker” and “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa,” produced straighter material for artists ranging from The Byrds to The Modern Lovers and manufactured teenage girl rock band The Runaways. In the other corner is Fowley’s roommate Gary S. Paxton, who had already sung a couple of hits as half of Skip & Flip and would go on to become a prolific producer, Jesus freak singer and all-around eccentric. (He’ll also make a repeat appearance on this blog in the near future.) Paxton was The Hollywood Argyles, and it’s his singing that makes the record so fascinating, sounding like a cross between Shorty Long on “Devil With a Blue Dress” and one of the more psychedelic offerings on Nuggets, but predating both. Take the lines quoted above, which Paxton drawls as “He’s got uh sho-fur that’s a genuwine dy-no-so-wah/ And he can knuckle yo head befoh you count to fo-wah.” Even for a novelty song, this was weird. And next to the spit-polished sounds of Guy Mitchell or Frankie Avalon (or even Elvis), this had to be a revelation. Under the guise of a throwaway novelty single, “Alley Oop” prepared record buyers for the sound of psychedelic rock that would define the latter part of the decade – and, perhaps, presaged ’60s drug culture. 7
Apologies for the lapse in posts – I’m out of town right now. Posting should be back to normal on Monday.
Hit #1 on July 11, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
31 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.22% through the Hot 100
A rundown of every #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, starting from the top (1958) and progressing in order. Ratings on a highly subjective 1-10 scale. Comments perpetually open. Supposedly published weekly.