If Halloween is about one thing, it’s about candy. If it’s about two things, it’s about candy and Satan. But if it’s about three things, it’s about candy, Satan, and monsters. So this year, since we’ve already done our Satan mix, and since candy is treading a bit too far into Thanksgiving territory, monsters it is. And why not? With its history of catering to social outcasts, cultural minorities, and freaks of all stripes, rock music in particular has a robust assortment of songs celebrating the monster: that aberrant creature that disrupts the social and natural orders, to frightening but often also exhilarating effect. So, with Halloween rapidly approaching–and with it the conclusion of this year’s Dystopian Halloween Party–let’s take some time and indulge in 16 songs from pop’s monstrous tradition. Rest assured, though: title aside, this playlist is 100% Bobby Pickett-free.
1. Alice Cooper: “Feed My Frankenstein”
(from Hey Stoopid, 1991)
First things first, let me address the elephant in the room: yes, I know that Frankenstein was the doctor who created the monster, not the monster himself. But “Feed My Frankenstein’s Monster” ain’t exactly a catchy title, now is it? Besides, while it’s perhaps best remembered for its appearance in the classic film Wayne’s World, “Feed My Frankenstein” is one of Alice Cooper‘s post-’70s highlights: a ghoulish lust anthem as gloriously dumb as anything on Billion Dollar Babies, going after the low-hanging “Frank = dick” fruit with a brazenness worthy of Rocky Horror. And just get a load of the studio talent: Steve Vai and Joe Satriani on guitar, with bass by Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe. Probably overkill for a song this silly, but hey: when you’re singing arena rock about an oversexed, ravenous monster, excess is kind of the name of the game.
2. Old Time Relijun: “Vampire Victim”
(from Lost Light, 2004)
If you’re looking for a more traditionalist take on monster lore, though, don’t worry: Olympia, Washington’s Old Time Relijun has you covered. The band’s 2004 song “Vampire Victim” is exactly what it sounds like: a description by singer Arrington de Dionyso of what happened after he “got bit on the nape of the neck”: now his “soul is lost,” he’s compelled to “spill blood,” and when he looks in the mirror he “sees no reflection.” All in all, a pretty accurate summary of the classic vampire myth; plus, the song’s shambling, dissonant post-post-punk groove is pretty creepy in and of itself.
3. Whitesnake: “Still of the Night”
(from Whitesnake, 1987)
More so than any other monster (save perhaps for the aforementioned vampire), the modern incarnation of the werewolf is a clear expression of latent sexual anxieties in Western patriarchal culture. Think about it: a seemingly normal man who becomes bestial in the light of a full moon and “devours” mostly female victims? So it’s little wonder that the myth held some special appeal to David Coverdale, the former Deep Purple singer, Robert Plant impersonator, and Tawny Kitaen ex-husband who named his most famous band, Whitesnake, after his dong. Whitesnake’s 1987 hit “Still of the Night” isn’t explicitly about werewolves, per se, but its use of the “wolf howl” as a metaphor for lust means that it’s definitely about the same thing as werewolves. “Sniffing around your door,” indeed.
4. The Cramps: “Human Fly”
(from Gravest Hits, 1979)
Now that we’ve covered the three major Halloween monsters–wolfmen, vampires, and er, Frankensteins–it’s time to start digging into some of the more obscure picks. So here’s an early track from psychobilly progenitors and Halloween-party staples the Cramps: “Human Fly,” a self-explanatory ode to a mutant with “96 tears and 96 eyes.” Though the song’s brittle descending guitar riff by Poison Ivy Rorschach is appropriately sinister, it’s worth noting that her husband/singer Lux Interior seems remarkably chill about his trans-species status; he may have a “garbage brain” that’s “driving him insane,” but mostly he’s just confused rather than filled with existential horror. Maybe if Jeff Goldblum had had a similar attitude, David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly would have ended more happily.
5. Screaming Lord Sutch: “All Black and Hairy”
(from Rock & Horror, 1982)
From the Cramps’ poker-faced chronicle of human/insectoid hybridity, we now move on to the reliably hysterical icon of pre-Beatles British rock, Screaming Lord Sutch, who is only able to describe the beast he encountered while “digging in the cemetery” with the vague (if conveniently rhyming) appellation “all black and hairy.” Though admittedly inferior to the original version featuring Sutch’s classic backing group the Savages, this early ’80s re-recording of “Black and Hairy” demonstrates that his primary musical asset–the blood-curdling shriek that earned him his stage name–was still in great shape 15 years later. And in any case, it’s not like the song’s anti-grave-robbing message was any less relevant in 1982 than it was in 1966. Just don’t do it, kids!
6. Pharoahe Monch: “Simon Says”
(from Internal Affairs, 1999)
Yeah, yeah, this isn’t really a song about monsters–although former Organized Konfusion member Pharoahe Monch is known for being a monster on the mic. But I can’t resist putting it on the mix, because its use of Ifukube Akira’s iconic, ominous theme from the 1964 film Mosura tai Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Mothra…just listen, you’ll recognize it) is too perfect to ignore. Besides, imagine Godzilla (or Mothra!) telling a club full of girls to “grab on [their] titties”–you can’t tell me that isn’t some scary shit.
7. Led Zeppelin: “The Wanton Song”
(from Physical Graffiti, 1975)
Probably my personal favorite monster is the succubus: a female demon that seduces men in their sleep to steal their semen, making for history’s grimmest and most fanciful explanation of nocturnal emissions. As you might imagine, though, there aren’t a whole lot of songs out there about succubi (and we won’t even get into what pop music did to their male counterpart, the incubus). One possible exception is Led Zeppelin‘s “The Wanton Song,” in which Robert Plant describes a “silent woman” who comes “in the night” to take his “seed” from his “shakin’ frame,” leaving him “barely holdin’ on.” Is it actually about a succubus? I can’t seem to find any concrete confirmation of this; Wikipedia, for example, simply claims it’s about sex with a “wanton woman.” But come on. “Took my seed?” “Kiss my nightmare?” Doesn’t sound like a regular ol’ wanton woman to me.
8. Kanye West featuring Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and Bon Iver: “Monster”
(from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010)
There’s a great post floating around Tumblr that jokingly purports to tell the story behind Kanye West‘s modern-classic 2010 posse cut “Monster.” “Yeah, man, the song is called ‘Monster,'” the post imagines Kanye saying to Jay-Z, who then interrupts by announcing “I know soo many monsters, I got this” and launching directly into his verse: “Sasquatch, Godzilla, King Kong, Loch Ness, goblin, ghoul, a zombie with no conscience…” And yes, Jay-Z’s verse basically is just a list of famous monsters, with a few obligatory jibes at his haters and biters thrown in for good measure. But the song as a whole is remarkable in its thematic richness. Kanye, of course, is the “monster” of his own story: a sexually voracious tyrant whose appearance in the film’s music video alongside seemingly-dead models remains controversial among people who mistake its unflinching depiction of misogyny for an endorsement. And then there’s Nicki Minaj, whose song-stealing verse includes rapid-fire Jekyll & Hyde personality switches and references to “rockin’ gold teeth and fangs.” Somewhat less impressively, Rick Ross can’t seem to come up with a better monster line than “fat motherfucker, now look who’s in trouble.” But that’s okay, because the song’s aggressive beat, with vocals by Justin Vernon of indie-folkies Bon Iver, is a monster in and of itself.
9. Dr. Octagon: “Halfsharkalligatorhalfman”
(from Dr. Octagonecologyst, 1996)
So far, our monster songs have pretty much run the full gamut of possibilities, if we do say so ourselves; but leave it to Keith Thornton, better known as Kool Keith, to invent a monster all his own. One of the, believe it or not, less bizarre tracks on Keith’s warped 1996 quasi-concept album Dr. Octagonecologyst, “halfsharkalligatorhalfman” introduces an alter-ego within an alter-ego: “Mr. Gerbik,” “the dangerous 208-year-old uncle of Dr. Octagon,” “half-shark, half-man” with “skin like alligator” and “carrying a dead walrus.” If that sounds like it makes absolutely no sense, you’re not wrong: the whole album basically sounds like a transcription of Tracy Morgan’s character from 30 Rock while high on bath salts. But Keith’s dexterous flow and a typically clever beat by Dan “The Automator” Nakamura help to ensure you’re bobbing your head anyway.
10. David Bowie: “Diamond Dogs”
(from Diamond Dogs, 1974)
Like many things about David Bowie‘s underrated 1974 opus Diamond Dogs, it’s ambiguous whether the title track actually refers to dogs or doglike creatures; some sources interpret the titular “poachers” who “hide behind trees” as a Clockwork Orange-style dystopian street gang, not as literal mutants. Personally, though, I think there’s a case to be made for the latter. First, let’s not forget that the fictional setting Bowie invented for his song, “Hunger City,” was previously described as a place where “fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats,” which certainly doesn’t preclude there also being, as Callie puts it, “hermaphroditic anthropomorphic dogs stealing people’s minks.” Second, Bowie appears on Guy Peellaert‘s Diamond Dogs album cover as a kind of human-dog hybrid, so maybe that’s what he had in mind. And third, even if the “Diamond Dogs” themselves were meant as men and not as monsters, let’s not forget that Bowie was basically a vampire during this period of his life, albeit one that subsisted on milk, red peppers, and cocaine rather than human blood. So really, no matter what, “Diamond Dogs” is a monster song at heart.
11. Warren Zevon: “Werewolves of London”
(from Excitable Boy, 1978)
Back to more conventional fare, this wry track by singer-songwriter Warren Zevon marries fever-dream lyrics about urbane lycanthropes to a bouncy soft-rock arrangement played in part by Mick Fleetwood and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac. Its opening line (“Saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking through the streets of Soho in the rain”) was voted in 2004 as the “Greatest Opening Line” by listeners of BBC Radio 2; personally, however, I’m most partial to this pithy couplet: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s / His hair was perfect!”
12. Motörhead: “Orgasmatron”
(from Orgasmatron, 1986)
An “Orgasmatron,” if the cover of Motörhead‘s 1986 album of the same title is to be believed, appears to be a sentient locomotive with the face of the speed-metal forefathers’ enduring mascot, Snaggletooth. But frontman Lemmy‘s lyrics paint a different picture: he describes the creature as an “outstretched grasping hand,” with a “crown…called deceit” and a “banner drenched in blood.” Orgasmatron, in other words, is us: or, more specifically, it’s a symbol for the evils and hypocrisies wrought by religion, politics, and war in our society. This notion of the monster as a manifestation of internal sins, rather than an external or alien threat, is a common theme in many monster stories–not to mention an especially amenable one to the pitch-black sensibilities of metal bands like Motörhead.
13. OutKast featuring Kelis: “Dracula’s Wedding”
(from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, 2003)
What with his love of high collars and capes, does it surprise anyone that André 3000 would identify with Dracula? On this quirky cut from The Love Below, his half of OutKast‘s 2003 solo diptych, 3 Stacks imagines Bram Stoker’s Count as a soon-to-be-bridegroom dreading the prospect of eternal matrimony: “Baby, I do this from the ceiling,” he says to his betrothed, presumably describing his batlike sleeping habits, “But I’m terrified of you.” In his defense, André’s partner on the track is R&B iconoclast Kelis, whose vampire-bride character is more than creepy-sexy enough to convincingly give Nosferatu the jitters. But on the other hand, she says herself that she makes “great peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” Come on, 3000, lock that shit down!
14. Daniel Johnston: “King Kong”
(from Yip/Jump Music, 1983)
The 1933 film King Kong was especially Freudian, even by monster-movie standards: a weirdly transparent meditation on colonialism and miscegenation anxieties that climaxes with a giant ape grabbing a blonde woman and scaling the massive phallic symbol that is the Empire State Building, only to be brutally subdued by the American military. The pathos at the heart of this image was not lost on well-known outsider songwriter Daniel Johnston, whose eerie a capella “King Kong” serves as both a kind of Cliffs’ Notes for and an analysis of the film’s plot, with the repeated, mournful refrain of “They thought he was a monster / But he was the king.” Basically, Johnston nailed a sympathetic portrayal of Kong 22 years before Peter Jackson–and as a bonus, his version is about 182 minutes shorter.
15. New York Dolls: “Frankenstein (Orig.)”
(from New York Dolls, 1973)
Well, here we are: back to Frankenstein. I agonized over whether to choose this song or the classic Edgar Winter Group instrumental–also from 1973, hence the “Orig.” qualifier on this version–but ultimately I had to give the Dolls the nod: one of the hardest rockers from their self-titled debut, their “Frankenstein” casts the monster as an existentially-tormented street rat in love with his creator and raging over how his “shoes are too big” and his “jacket’s too small.” Or at least, I think that’s what it’s about; frontman David Johansen’s lyrics are more cryptic than usual, though he would later explain that the song is about “how kids come to Manhattan from all over, they’re kind of like whipped dogs, they’re very repressed. Their bodies and brains are disoriented from each other… it’s a love song.” In any case, with its apocalyptic twin guitars by Johnny Thunders and co-writer Sylvain Sylvain, plus ominous Moog synthesizer drone courtesy of producer Todd Rundgren, “Frankenstein” has atmosphere to spare. And when Johansen ends the song by screaming “you’re gonna get it when Frankenstein gets home,” it’s perhaps the most terrifyingly/hilariously unhinged threat in popular music history.
16. Fela and Afrika 70: “Zombie”
(from Zombie, 1976)
In George Romero’s genre-defining Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, the sluggish, mindless reanimated corpses known as zombies are often thinly-veiled stand-ins for American society’s worst tendencies of conformity, intolerance, and greedy consumption. Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti takes a similar tack with his own 1976 song, “Zombie,” a scathing critique of the Nigerian military comparing its tactics to those of the living dead: “Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go / Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop / Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn / Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think.” At the song’s bridge, Fela barks out military commands–“Attention! / Quick march! / Slow march!”–while his backing singers mockingly chant “Zombie” in response. It’s a brutally effective bit of satire–and, as you might imagine, did not go over well with the Nigerian authorities at the time. Soon after the song was released, a thousand soldiers invaded Fela’s commune the Kalakata Republic: beating the singer, burning the facilities (including his studio, instruments, and master tapes), and throwing his elderly mother from a window, killing her. Which, I realize, is an awfully heavy note on which to end a Halloween playlist. But it’s something important to keep in mind during this of all seasons: while we take our annual opportunity to delight in fictional monstrosities, we should never forget that the real monsters are almost always in human form.