(Pictured: noted occultist Jimmy Page summons up demons or something, while Robert Plant looks on approvingly.)
So it’s Halloween time again, the second-biggest holiday of the year next to Christmas. What follows are some Halloween horrors for your delectation. Some of these I wrote about for Halloween in 2005, and some I did not.
“Monster Mash”/Bobby “Boris” Pickett. The happy comic-book version of Halloween, which reached #1 at Halloween of 1962. Parrot Records tried rereleasing it in 1970, and while it made the Hot 100 again, it didn’t stick around long. In 1973, thanks to a radio DJ in Milwaukee, Parrot got another bite at the apple, and this time, a new generation of 13-year-old record-buyers (of which I was one) pushed it back into the Top 10. In the middle of the summer. Which tells you a lot about the 1970s.
“Sympathy for the Devil”/Rolling Stones. What makes “Sympathy” particularly disturbing is the story of the line “I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedys?’” It was written as “who killed John Kennedy,” but the recording session took place the morning after Robert F. Kennedy was shot, so Mick made a change on the fly—before RFK actually died. Like “Monster Mash,” another record I bought the year I turned 13 was the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks 1964-1971. “Sympathy for the Devil” was new to me then. I wondered if I’d be going to Hell just for listening to it. Because I am older and wiser now, I know that the answer is yes.
“Tubular Bells”/Mike Oldfield. As used in The Exorcist, this record is a perfect fit. Somber and hypnotic bells explode into chaotically distorted guitar and bass and then return, sounding somehow far more ominous than before. But the radio single is a three-minute excerpt from a longer work. The entire Tubular Bells album is one you really ought to hear: it’s a kaleidoscope of musical sounds and textures that foreshadows new-age music but is far more interesting.
“Captain Howdy”/Simon Stokes. More Exorcist flavor: Nick Stokes was a musician from Reading, Massachusetts, who recorded a bunch of singles under a bunch of names in the 60s. “Voodoo Woman,” credited to Simon Stokes and the Nighthawks, crept onto the Hot 100 at the end of 1969. In 1974, he cut “Captain Howdy” for the relatively new Casablanca label. Although the reference is obscure now, many more people in the summer of 1974 knew what it meant: Captain Howdy was the name of the demon possessing Regan in the movie. The song got airplay on some big stations, including WCFL in Chicago, WIXY in Cleveland, WAKY in Louisville, and WMYQ in Miami, and it reached #90 on the Hot 100.
“Kashmir”/Led Zeppelin. In what pit of sonic hell did Zeppelin find the edgy, menacing sound of this record? Allmusic.com says it’s the drums stomping in 2/4 time while the musical theme plays against it in 3/4 time. Whatever it is, it’s damn creepy. In college, there were DJs who were reluctant to play it late at night if they were alone in the building.
“The Witch”/Rattles. The Rattles formed in Hamburg, Germany, in 1960, and “The Witch” got some airplay in the States in the summer of 1970. It was a Top-10 hit in Rochester, New York, and Wausau, Wisconsin, along with Memphis and Fargo. Despite its demonic laughter, general psychedelic freakout vibe, and copping a bit of the Twilight Zone theme, it somehow resisted becoming a Halloween perennial.
“Witchy Woman”/Eagles. We’ve largely forgotten now, but the Eagles were slow starters. “Witchy Woman” was their first Top 10 hit at Halloween 1972, and they wouldn’t score another until two albums and two years later. “Witchy Woman” is a great radio record because it sounds great whatever it’s next to. The loud guitar bite and tom-tom-style drums in the introduction make a fabulous transition out of practically anything.
“Thriller”/Michael Jackson. Time was that this song got more airplay at Halloween than all of the other songs on this list combined. (That’s probably not true anymore now that so many stations have dropped Jackson’s music over sexual assault allegations.) But it’s really kind of lame. Jackson’s attempt to capture the feel of a classic horror movie sounds like he’s never actually seen one. Better to just surrender to the groove and not think about it beyond that.