– Somebody put the fear factor into what was once the classic holiday celebration line-up. Here’s how it used to go…
July 4th was an excuse to play pyromaniac and scare the heck out of our friends by making them dodge small explosives and sparklers for our enjoyment. There’s nothing like setting off a screaming missile during a crowded and fenced-in backyard barbeque for a few yucks.
Next was Labor Day when no one needed a doctor’s note to miss work. Scaring someone isn’t mandatory, but if you’ve got a few mini explosives left over from The 4th — then why not? The element of surprise is always a fun way to scare the heck out of someone.
After Labor Day it was a countdown to see how early the TV networks would start showing Christmas commercials. Usually the ads with Santa frolicking through plastic snow with shapely female elves were in regular rotation by mid-September. These ads would scare the heck out of us procrastinators, since each viewing would serve as a reminder of our bleak future as last-minute shoppers in crowded and fenced-in discount stores.
But those days have passed-away to the other side. Now the holiday celebration is all about scaring the heck out of someone and Halloween has engulfed the entire month of October. Oh the horror…
I’ve seen front yards pimped-out with pumpkins, ghosts, skeletons and ghouls since Labor Day. The Christmas lights our dads used to hang outside while the weather was still warm enough to avoid doing a Clark Griswold on a slippery roof have been relegated to the attic for another month. The only outdoor lights I’ve seen draped over bushes and evergreens so far have been orange and black.
As usual, I blame the explosion of Halloween holiday extravaganzas on rock’n roll. After all, it’s a lot more fun dressing up as Kiss and Lady Gaga, than Santa and Mrs. Claus. But putting the Halloween scare in pop music is old school and didn’t just start when Michael Jackson moon walked with a bunch of Hollywood zombies, or Marilyn Manson watched Nazi Week on The History Channel and decided he had an act.
The influences can be traced back to 1958 when little kids in plastic masks and one size fits all costumes sweated out the image of a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater. The hit song Purple People Eater from part time cowboy actor Sheb Wooley (he was on Rawhide, my little cretins) hit number one on the music charts and inspired everyone from high school cheerleaders to your weird uncle to dress up like Prince and claim to be a people eater.
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Believe me this was scarier for kids of the 1950’s than it was watching Ozzy Osbourne cheer for another one of his kids on Dancing with the Stars.
Then in 1962 Bobby “Boris” Pickett channeled his inner Karloff for Monster Mash. Thanks to Halloween locking this song onto every classic rock radio’s playlist, it’s a lock to say it probably earns more royalties per year than White Christmas.
But these songs were more fun(ny) than scary. They were novelty records and didn’t invoke lasting nightmares that stay with you whether the disk is on a turntable or buried in a shallow grave with your uncle’s Prince Costume in the backyard.
There are three album tracks by classic rockers that still give me the creeps in broad daylight and make a quick look under the bed a mandatory nighttime exercise. They have nothing to do with Halloween, but combine the spirits of Steven King and George Romero into a musical feast of electric guitars and deadly vocals that can cut through the darkness of any night.
When it’s done by the right band, it’s scarier than retro-disco night at the local PTA fundraiser.
So to honor the spirit of Halloween for what its become – a needed delay until my kids hand deliver their Christmas gift lists – here are…
The Top Three Scariest Classic Rock Songs:
#3. Dead Babies – Alice Cooper
I have the entire Killer album loaded into my digital playlist except for this song. That’s how much it creeps me out – big time. In his defense, Alice said it was supposed to be a statement against child abuse, but for teenagers in 1971, the year this album was unleashed, it was a musical play on a series of sick jokes going around junior high lunchrooms:
“How do you make a dead baby walk? 200 dead babies and a sack of cement.”
“How do you make a dead baby float? Root beer, two scoops of ice cream and a dead baby.”
Since I’m no longer eating lunch from a tray in a junior high cafeteria, I’m probably going to hell just for writing that. If nothing else, it creeps me out – big time.
As Alice would say, “Welcome to my nightmare.”
This song was recorded by the Alice Cooper Band and not a solo from Vincent Furnier, who somewhere between releasing this disk and Billion Dollar Babies legally changed his name to Alice Cooper. For the other guys, it was worse than a sick joke. When the band eventually broke up, the lead singer owned their name. That would be like Paul McCartney changing his name to Beatles. For some reason, The Plastic Cooper Band wouldn’t carry the same image.
And image is what the Alice Cooper band was all about. When the group toured behind this album in 1972 we witnessed a makeup smeared transvestite in torn fishnets raging, threatening, and finally slashing away at plastic baby dolls on stage. Combined into a deadly medley with the LP’s final track Killer, he’s put on trial by his robe-wearing band-aides and lead to the gallows. The death dirge accompanying this dead man walking ended with Alice swinging from a noose, and then magically reappearing for an encore in white top hat and tails to sing Under My Wheels.
And it wasn’t even Halloween. If that ain’t creepy, I don’t know what is.
I’ll tell’ya what else is creepy – the video of Dead Babies from a 1971 live performance by Alice Cooper.
#2. Dazed and Confused – Led Zeppelin
I already know there’s gonna be some flack over this choice, but I’m going for feeling with this one. I actually did a crowd survey… okay, as much as I could standing in line at a convenience store behind some scary looking dudes who represent the new breed of metal rockers. I previewed two of my choices and here’s how they polled:
Dead Babies… uh, don’t know it.
Dazed and Confused… Are you high? What about Sabbath? Marilyn? Megadeath? Metallica…
And you know what? Yeah, they’re all pretty scary, but they ain’t Jimmy Page. So shut the hello up and figure out who gave those guys the incentive to bring a dose of Black Magic and Goth into the realm of rock in the first place.
Maybe this is a selfish choice because of how I got introduced to the song. This is from Led Zeppelin… well, we call it “I” now, but it was their first album and back then nobody knew if there would be a “II.” My best friend had the disk and told me it was the scariest song he’d ever heard. It was night, we’re sitting in a dark room and he put the needle down (this was vinyl, you gremlins) on this last song from side one.
We sat there in silence and listened.
“I’ve been dazed and confused for so long it’s not true…”
Name a teenager who can’t relate to that and I’ll show you a Rhodes Scholar. And the deal is, once we figured out who these guys were, it just got scarier. The sound waves coming out of the speakers were blacker than the circles under Keith Richards‘ eyes at the crack of noon. It wasn’t the kind of rock where you jumped out of your seat and danced. Instead you sat there wondering if anyone was gonna get out of there alive.
The meaning of the song has been interpreted as either a girl stringing along a guy making him dazed and confused, or describing an acid trip that makes a guy dazed and confused. Either way it doesn’t matter. It’s the music and the emotion. Jimmy Page conjuring up Aleister Crowley by slashing a violin bow against his electric guitar is scarier than me calling the metal dudes at the convenience store punks without getting a ten minute head start.
Turn out the lights, slap on a videotape of the original Night of the Living Dead and put the needle down on Dazed and Confused. Trick or treat – punks.
For a pre-punk 1968 black & white rock’n roll video of Led Zeppelin conjuring up Dazed and Confused, check this out…
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#1. Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
If Paint It Black was… well, black– then this one is as red as Keith Richard’s eyes at the crack of noon. The Satanic Majesties of rock had ditched the flower power facade they threw out in rainbow colors a full six months after Sgt. Pepper had already dosed everyone for a Summer of Love and traded in their flowers for a walk on the dark side.
The transition started with the 1968 video for Jumpin’ Jack Flash when the Stones wore enough rouge and eyeliner to make Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley sit up straight and think about a career move. But that was only a warning for the devilish dance Mick Jagger and his clan of deviants conjured up later that year for the opening track on Beggars Banquet.
This song launched a new era of bad behavior that even Flip Wilson couldn’t excuse with, “The devil made me do it.”
The Stones were already on the Children’s Services black list for sex, drugs, drug busts and more sex by giving Mars Candy Bars a bad image. But when it was hinted they were into devil worship, the earth opened up and all hell broke loose.
Parents were horrified. Kids were mesmerized. The Stones were revitalized.
Sympathy for the Devil started as an acoustic folk song with Mick playing the part of Lucifer. Then Keith, the bluesman voted most likely to make a crossroads pact with the devil, added a tribal rhythm infectious enough to cause everyone in the recording studio to howl “Woo Woo!” at the moon.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t really the moon and only a microphone hanging from a boom stand. But if you’ve seen the movie One Plus One by Jean-Luc Godard who interspersed clips of the Stones developing this song with scenes of zombied-out models searching for something – anything – to rebel against, the microphone hanging over the group of stoned Stones and friends imitating a street corner doo-wop group could be a spaced-out metaphor for the moon.
Within a year Brian Jones, the once upon a time leader of this cult of musical personalities, was found at the bottom of his swimming pool. Five months later, after performing this song at Altamont, Jagger was quoted as saying, “We’re always having something very funny happen when we start that number.” In that case it was the stabbing death of a fan that got too close to a Hell’s Angels’ bike.
In a six minute percussion groove with piercing shrieks of electric guitar, Lucifer… ah, I mean Jagger, covers enough evil history to earn a Masters in the subject. Since Ed Sullivan had him change the lyrics to Let’s Spend The Night Together only a year earlier, Sympathy For The Devil would’ve put him over the edge and left him spinning in his prime time crypt.
For a visual trip to the other side, check out this video from a 1968 David Frost Show appearance by The Rolling Stones singing Sympathy For The Devil– with Brian Jones on the piano. It’s in glorious black & white, like the glorious original Night of the Living Dead… BOO!!!
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