2016 / Halloween / Music

Soundbytes: Pop Music’s 5 Most Spook-tacular Halloween Songs

Listen To Playlist Celebrating Halloween-Themed Music

Vihh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Vihh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Like an undead zombie, Halloween-themed playlists consistently rise again each October in search of new or more to feast upon.

Thankfully, pop music offers such a wide variety of songs that celebrate all things that go bump in the night. Every genre, from country to rap to folk to metal to rockabilly and beyond, have their own unique spins on all the spooky subjects and horrifying moods.

So, here’s my list — if you’re not too scared to look — in no particular order:

Black Sabbath “Children Of The Grave”

While Black Sabbath is routinely identified as the progenitor of heavy metal, Birmingham, England’s finest should also get credit as the true founders of shock rock.

Before Alice Cooper or modern-day practitioners like Rob Zombie or Marilyn Manson, it was Sabbath who popularized heavy rock’s obsessions with the darker sounds of the fretboard and forged an unholy union of all matter of evil iconography and the rock-star mystique.

For evidence of the group’s ability to transform a traditional rock song into a truly nightmarish soundtrack there is “Children Of The Grave,” the fruit of the band’s 1971 album, “Master Of Reality.” On paper, the track’s lyrics are the kind of mildly poetic anti-war song so common during the Vietnam era. But when it comes to the performance, the galloping, sludge-like music and Ozzy Osbourne’s ghoulish vocals make the song a trek toward certain doom.

This doesn’t sound like a protest song. This is a horror vignette come to life and heading straight into the listeners’ ears.  Guitarist Tony Iommi’s thudding pickwork on slacken strings and drummer Bill Ward’s tribal drumming conjure the image of a gang of marauding highwaymen rampaging and pillaging the English countryside by torchlight. (It’s an image not that different from what real life was probably like for this band of drink-and-drug-obsessed pirates as Sabbath toured the world in the early ’70s.)

“Children Of The Grave” might have had a message about stopping the war, but that was lost amid the thunderous music. All listeners remember is the shock of the vivid night terror and the headbanging that went along with it.

Fantomas “Rosemary’s Baby”

Fantomas are metal’s mad scientists.

As far as heavy metal super groupings come, Fantomas rank as not only the most defiantly experimental, but also one of the most interesting. These guys joined forces not for the lure of international fame or vast riches, but for an entirely more frightening reason to a risk-averse music world: Creating art for art’s sake.

With little regard for sales or general likeability, the band, which consisted of Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne and Patton’s Mr. Bungle bandmate Trevor Dunn on bass, took their love of doom metal, the musical avant-garde and horror/noir movie soundtrack compositions to record “The Director’s Cut,” grand suite of songs that leave listeners in equal parts thrilled, bewildered and pummeled.

For one of the album’s standout selections, “Rosemary’s Baby,” Fantomas reimagine the main theme for Roman Polanski’s unsettling flick starring Mia Farrow into a most frightening bedtime lullaby ever. Patton creepily hums or wordlessly howls as his bandmates glacially transform the eerie ditty into a menacing aria that would leave any metalhead army exhausted from fist pumping.

What’s so captivating is the restraint the players show as tension slowly builds. The musicians’ long pedigree in loud guitars, shrieked vocals and concussive music have educated each with a kind of taste that still escapes many in the metal community. They don’t have to satisfy anyone, but themselves and the creative muse.

This artistic sense offers a freedom to experiment not unlike the kind any garden variety mad scientist craves. Through their fiendish dabbling, they are intoxicated on the experience and return like Dr. Frankenstein to create again and again.

Peter Tosh “Vampire”

A friendly warning: Don’t be deceived by “Vampire.” Although the song begins with a wolf’s howl and is populated by rattling chains, damsel screams and demonic mutterings, this isn’t a Jamaican ghost story set to a reggae rhythm. This is a freedom song with cheap movie effects nailed onto it.

Like so much of Peter Tosh’s work, “Vampire” is a compelling and confusing song that invites more meditation and reflection but without the promise of greater clarity. Instead, the audience should let the swirl of competing and contrasting influences play out without asking too many questions. (maybe like a slasher movie plotline?)

After leaving the Wailers in the early 1970s, Tosh sought to escape a shadowy presence who would loom over his entire solo career: his former partner Bob Marley. To that end, Tosh became more stridently political or more fiercely experimental than Marley to show both his own artistic worth and to establish that the Wailers’ early success was more of a collaborative effort than what is popular mythology.

“Vampire” is fairly traditional in arrangement with elegant female backup singing, electric piano chords and ’80s snap-sounding drums — except for those corny movie sound samples — but he tacks those on to underline how the mighty and their institutions nakedly sap the forces of vitality and creativity.

Before his own tragic murder in the ’80s, Tosh ultimately failed to eclipse Marley as reggae’s most popular figure nor earned the worldwide renown that he felt his talents warranted. He just died too young.

Despite this, “Vampire” is one of many songs that showcase Tosh’s unique vision, and that has earned him a renown that lives beyond the grave.

Jay-Z “Lucifer”

Epic battling with the Devil never sounded so funky.

On “Lucifer,” Jay-Z deftly duels with a hook-worthy sample snatched from a ’70s reggae hit by Max Romeo and the Upsetters. It’s a mic battle that Jay is cocksure that he can get the upper hand on death and sweet talk his way out of any Biblical consequences. (The song also features one of Jay’s most stinging couplets: “I’m from the murder capital/Where we murder for capital.”)

As for the beat, a quick listen will reveal the track’s thumping bassline and syncopated rhythm are classic Kanye West. Only months before striking out on his own and prior to thinking himself as a societal visionary, West seemed happy in his role as a behind-the-scenes player and peerless beatmaker.  Although he couldn’t conjure a true chorus for his pal, West does make sure that there’s a propulsive foundation for Jay’s wittiness.

It’s unlikely that Jay-Z sold his soul for any otherworldly musical talent. (But maybe he did to get Beyonce?) Jay didn’t need to as he had Kanye in his corner.

The Misfits “Ghouls Night Out”

On this early ’80s single, the Misfits decided they wanted to masquerade as the Ramones and recorded a song perfect to suit the task.

“Ghouls Night Out” is a locomotive pop-punk smash that shows everything that was amazing about the Misfits’ original lineup. Singer Glenn Danzig sounds more like a barroom shouter than the fat Elvis crooner that he later evolved into. Meanwhile, guitarist Doyle and bassist Jerry Only (who expertly plays the role of Dee Dee Ramone with thumping bass and howling background vocals) are the powerhouse rhythm that drives this bullet train through all the cobwebs in listeners’ ears.

That the Misfits’ key band members recently buried their mutual acrimony and allowed the Misfits to rise from the grave once again raises the possibility perhaps of more Halloween classics to come.

As for right now, here’s the band’s spooky anthem.

Bonus Tracks: Ryan Adams “Halloween”

“Halloween” isn’t what one would expect from Ryan Adam, especially considering his penchant for surrendering his discography over to suit temporary stylistic obsessions or to hear a full-fledged rock star pretend to be someone else’s fan-boy.

Instead of creating a song suited to his heavy-metal posturing or crafting an autumnal masterwork to suit the season, “Halloween” is an intriguing sketch of a love song set to a bone-jangling, bluegrass-pop rhythm, that might have grown into a real heartbreaker one day.

That the track was first released as a bonus track from Adams’ “Love Is Hell” album — which was originally broken up and released as EPs because of his record label’s commercial concerns — makes sense. All those songs were stripped back musically and less tuneful, making the project a disappointing follow up to Adams’ record-sales breakthrough.

Like Adams’ other songs from those years, “Halloween” has an incompleteness, a casual attitude to form that mark it as flawed, but there are aspects — a poetic description here and there, the melody’s playful turns — that set it apart.

If Adams had spent more time on the song and focused in, one could easily see “Halloween” growing into another documentary of a romantic wrestling with the dramas of young love that he pulled off on “Heartbreaker” or “Gold.” Instead, the audience gets to see only the promise of what could have been and a candy-sized peek into his songwriting process.

The cut also offers a special Halloween treat: the Strokes’ Fabrizio Moretti plays the country shuffle pattern on drums.

Ghoulish Honorable Mentions:

  • Oingo Boingo “Dead Man’s Party”
  • MC Hammer “Addams Groove”
  • The Ramones “Pet Cemetery”
  • David Bowie “Scary Monsters”
  • Steve Miller Band “Abracadabra”
  • Duran Duran “Hungry Like The Wolf”
  • Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”
  • Lou Reed “Halloween Parade”
  • The Cramps “Zombie Dance”
  • Guided By Voices “Hot Freaks”
  • King Diamond “Halloween”
  • The Louvin Brothers “Satan’s Jeweled Crown”
  • Antemasque “Ride Like The Devil’s Son”
  • Kanye West & Jay-Z “Monster”
  • Sonic Youth “Hallowe’en”
  • The Frantic “Werewolf”
  • Daniel Johnston “Casper The Friendly Ghost”
  • Fela Kuti “Zombie”
  • Iron & Wine “The Devil Never Sleeps”
  • Whodini “Freaks Come Out At Night”
  • Metallica “All Nightmare Long”
  • The Fall “Wolf Kidult Man”
  • Arthur Brown “Fire”

Note: David’s music column, Soundbytes, appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio’s website. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2016 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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