In addition to being the world’s best and most prolific custom song writer, I am also a rabid music connoisseur, and trivia buff. Sometimes I like to post about it!
I proudly consider myself an above average Shocking Blue fan, which is to say that I know their catalog beyond their electrifying 1970 acid-pop-rocker ‘Venus.’ Something I’m less likely to bring up in a bar conversation is my penchant for obscure genres of European disco from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
The prologue to this particular danceable tale is ABBA. They were pretty big in the States, but as far as Europe was concerned, they ruled the planet. They had an impact on non-English speaking nations of the old world that was comparable to what the Beatles had here. Imitators sprung up everywhere, but no single place produced more hopeful statuesque singers of tight harmonies than the Netherlands.
I’m mainly a fan of these bands because of their overblown, glitzy videos, but occasionally some songs transcend the cheese and start to show up on my playlists and I realize that—despite the fact that they were performed by people wearing shiny gold jumpsuits—these are songs that I genuinely like.
An aural epiphany of this kind occurred recently when I fell in love with a song called Neon City by a Dutch band called Mistral. After much googling, I found out that this was a studio project led by Robbie van Leeuwen, formerly of Shocking Blue.
But wait, there’s more.
This particular track features none other than Mariska Veres, Shocking Blues’ iconic lead singer, on vocals.
As a card-carrying music nerd, this is a significant discovery. This project is not mentioned on the Shocking Blue Wikipedia page or that of Mariska Veres. In fact, I had to really dig to find anything about this band or this song that’s written in English.
If you’ve actually read this far, I hope the Gods of Geekdom will send you a miracle (or a post card), but more than that, I hope you like this song. View the videos on the sidebar if you dare!
So, you love Halloween, you’re having a party, and you’re making a playlist. The Monster Mash kicks things off, I Put a Spell on You fades into Thriller, and then it’s time to call Ghostbusters! In other words, you’ve covered the essentials. But, Halloween only comes once a year, and you want this playlist to be legendary! Time to dig in and find more creepy tunes to keep the coffin’ rockin’! Here’s a list of bewitching songs that will leave you spellbound!
Ghosts in the Graveyard-Prairie Ramblers
This gem from the 1930s tells a tale of supernatural revenge, and things really ramp up when a gravely throated ghost takes over on lead vocals! It’s a great song to kick off your playlist, easing everyone into a fun but spooky mood.
The only instrumental on our list is a diabolical mix of eerie sound effects and reverb drenched guitar. Many have attempted to combine surf music and horror themes, but nobody has ever delivered like the Ventures did on this classic scorcher. It’s sure to get the ghoulies grooving!
Are You Ready for Freddy?-Fat Boys
Ready for Freddy by the Fat Boys andNightmare on My Street by D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince both offer opportunities to experience the horrors of Elm Street via old school rap. They feature crisp, vintage drum machine beats, and funky rhymes that’ll have you trying to break dance before you can say “Don’t Fall Asleep”. Either song would make a great playlist addition, but Ready for Freddy is my favorite, because the Fat Boys give Mr. Krueger a little more space to rock the mic!
Playground Twist- Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees‘ songs are up-tempo and melodic, but also hypnotic and dark, making them the perfect band for the witching season. With titles like Spellbound, Staircase Mystery, and even one called Halloween, it’s easy to see why. My Halloween Playlists usually contain about three of their songs, but if I had to choose only one, I’d go with Playground Twist. From the toll of the bell at the beginning, to the creepy kid laughter at the end, this song is a whirlwind tour of your childhood fears that will not disappoint.
Swamp Witch- Jim Stafford
Here’s a fantastic country-rocker with a witch-positive message. Clever lyrics tell a chilling tale, while otherworldy vocals tickle your ears, adding a heaping helping of awesome to your Halloween soundtrack. With songs like this, it’s no wonder that the mysterious Bobbie Gentry was once married to Mr. Stafford.
Creep in the Cellar- Butthole Surfers
If you want your playlist to be genuinely scary, look no further than the Butthole Surfers. Their disjointed, distorted, disturbing, and (some would say) disgusting output is not for the faint of heart. Creep in the Cellar falls on the PG-13 end of their catalog, and is one of their more melodic offerings to boot. But, it contains plenty of the band’s signature mind-warping, horrific qualities.
Salem Witch Trials-Kiriae Crucible
How in the hell did I not hear this song until 2019? Despite being covered by the Fleshtones, this garage rock monster by Kiriae Crucible flew beneath my radar, but I’m glad I’ve finally picked up on it. From the weird (theremin?) intro to the tight backing vocals and killer keyboard solo, this song is a total barn burner. And it’s about witches!
Scream and Run Away- The Gothic Archies
If you’re not familiar with Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events books, you’ll get to know plenty about the villain Count Olaf through this morose little ditty, served up in waltz-time with gloomy baritone vocals and a side of dry accordion. Songwriter Stephen Merritt is best known for his work with the Magnetic Fields, but he and his cohorts in the Gothic Archies knocked it out of the park with Tragic Treasury:Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events, the collection that Scream and Run Away comes from. If this song doesn’t do it for you, check out the rest of the record, you’re sure to find something to your liking.
My Wife and My Dead Wife-Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
This song’s story line bears more than a slight resemblance to the plot of the play/movie Blithe Spirit. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but what I do know is that My Wife and my Dead Wife showcasesRobyn Hitchcock‘s oddball pop at its finest. It’s witty, weird, catchy, and more than a little macabre. If one Robyn Hitchcock song isn’t enough, check out The Man with the Light bulb Head.
The Evil Wiener Halloween Record
Many years ago, three friends and I embarked on a journey through the a dark rock and roll forest and emerged with six ominous songs. Black cats, poltergeists, devils, she-devils, ogres, and even an ode to the fall season are represented in this theremin heavy Halloween romp. Once you’ve listened to all of the songs, they’re repeated again in an audio drama called “Case of the Haunted Recording Studio.” If you want to know what my musical life outside of Custom Serenade is like, here’s your chance. We’d be grateful if you’d throw us a bone and give this a listen!
About the selection process.
There are lots of songs that kind of/sort of fit in on a Halloween playlist. Many titles contain words like haunted, wolf, vampire, or monster- and there are a blue million songs called Halloween– but many of them lack any eerie qualities and really have no connection to Halloween at all. For example The Ghost in You by the Psychedelic Furs mentions ghosts, and it’s a great song, but it’s more about being in love than being in the graveyard. Other songs are considered Halloweenish by association, for example How Soon is Now by The Smiths was the theme song for a TV show about witches. In reality the song has nothing to do with witches, not even vegetarian ones, so IMO has no business on a Halloween playlist. Last but not least are the frequent flyers-songs like the ones listed at the beginning of this post that everyone already knows about. In curating this list I took great care to make sure that the songs I recommend contain nothing that isn’t 100% certified spooky content. Also I only used songs that don’t show up that often on other Halloween playlists. I hope that you enjoy this list and that you’ll be able to include some of these songs in your seasonal celebration!
I’m a playlist addict. I make playlists for nearly every task that I do. In fact, the making of the playlist often takes longer than whatever task it was meant to accompany. One of my favorite playlist activities is keeping a running tab on new songs I discover. Here is my list for March-April 2019. In most cases these are songs that have been released fairly recently, but the list might also contain an occasional gem from the past!
The idea of a great song with bad lyrics trips a circuit in my brain that makes me want to run in circles chanting “not possible.” When writing custom songs, the lyrics are the most important part of the equation, and I doubt I’d still be in business if I didn’t give them the utmost attention. But what applies to custom songs doesn’t apply to the real world. There have been enormously successful songs that have had horrible lyrics-but successful doesn’t always equal great. Still, there are some amazing songs out there that contain questionable lyrics. They are rare, but I’ve come up with three songs that I would vouch for in a court of music nerds, as being great despite their lyrical shortcomings.
Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated like a Rubber Ball)-Was (Not Was)
My daddy took a look
On the day that I was born
And said he looks like corn
And his feet are made of clay
And then he walked away
And when I began to crawl
He knocked my head against the wall
And said you’re much to small
And you don’t get no ice cream
Not even if you scream
Don’t you know that I was knocked down
Treated like a rubber ball
Goofy. These lyrics are just plain goofy. They don’t fit the vibe of the song at all. I get the part about the rubber ball. Rubber balls get thrown around, it would hurt to be a rubber ball. But you look like corn? That’s just silly, and was probably included because it completed an internal rhyme scheme. Feet of Clay is a little known saying that means there is a defect of character, but it still sounds awkward here, and the part about ice cream is just plain out of place. Were they trying to be funny? Did they just not care? Is there some inside joke or larger concept that I’m not getting?
Was (Not Was) specialize in producing off-kilter but incredibly catchy songs. They’ve done everything from danceable powerhouses like Walk the Dinosaur, to skronky surrealist rants such as Dad I’m in Jail. They cross the line into absurdity with such authority that questioning the result seems more like a fault of the listener than the band. On Knocked Down, vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson delivers the lyrics with absolute conviction, and every other element of the song is spot on. The lyrics to this song are ridiculous, but when you have the talent contained in Was (Not Was), it’s hard to go wrong. This song straight up rocks.
What a Crying Shame-The Mavericks
Wasn’t I good to you
Didn’t I show it
And if I ever hurt you
I didn’t know it
If you think I don’t care
Then you’re mistaken
My love was always there
But now my heart’s breakin’
Oh baby, oh what a crying shame
To let it all slip away
And call it yesterday
Oh baby my life would be so blue
My heart would break in two
Oh what a crying shame
What A Crying Shame is a daisy chain of cookie cutter phrases that look like they were taken from a middle school love note. The phrase crying shame has been used in the titles of at least six other songs, and has been a part of countless choruses and verses. The rest of the lyrics are predictable to say the least. Cliché all the way.
Luckily, lots of other stars are shining down on this song. It has a soaring melody delivered in vocalist Raul Malo‘s signature, heart-rending croon. The music to the song is simple, repetitive, and full of crisp, familiar, beautiful sounds. As a whole, the song is hypnotic. When I hear it, I can close my eyes and see colors that don’t exist in the real world.
I went alone down to the drugstore
I went in back and took a Coke
I stood in line and ate my Twinkies
I stood in line, I had to wait
The verse in Strange is a lamentation of the mundane that doesn’t even rhyme. It is repeated twice, as is the chorus, and that’s all there is to this song.
If you could psychoanalyze rock and roll, you might be able to find some episode in its childhood that brought it to the point in 1989 when the above lyrics appealed to so many people. Or maybe all of us that love this song should be psychoanalyzed? It would be easy to say that Galaxie 500 were successful because their overall sound was so amazing. But part of their appeal were the oddly simple lyrics. As a guy who is not above name dropping, I will tell you that Dean Wareham, who wrote this song, told me that he didn’t like writing lyrics. I would guess that means that he didn’t put a lot of time into them. So why does it work? Lie down on the couch. Tell me about your mother. In other words, I don’t know. But it does work. Really well.
A word about my criteria
Other people have attempted to identify great songs with bad lyrics, but it often collapses into a collection of songs like Da Doo Ron Ron by the Crystals or De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da by The Police, which contain nonsense syllables. In nearly every case, I find these doos and das completely appropriate and effective. Beyond that, there are a number of great songs that contain one bad line, maybe two. I tried to find songs in which a larger portion of the song was infested with cringeworthy words. It wasn’t that easy. That’s why there are only three.
It was 1981, and Doug Treadway fired the serve that would make him our class badminton champion. He strutted with his fist in the air, then began ferociously strumming his racket like a guitar and bellowing out a string of numbers. Even with his puberty-addled voice crackling amidst squeaking tennis shoes, I knew I was hearing something special. It wasn’t long before the radio worked its magic and I fully experienced 8675309/Jenny. I was singing at full volume by the time it had ended.
Even though the subject is creepy (a guy calling a phone number he sees written on a wall in search of a “good time”), Tommy Tutone’s warbling vocals make it seem more like the plot of a teen hanky-panky movie than a song about a lonely man desperate for companionship. It’s a compelling storyline, but the quirky, endearing lyrics are overshadowed by the melody; the mega earworm that twists and turns through the verse, riding on a chunky guitar pattern, then diving straight into the best part of the song. The chorus!
Equal parts brilliant and simple, the chorus consists of “8675309” repeated as a call and response with the 9 stretched out to accommodate a melodic hook. It commands you to sing along. If you ever find yourself at a party with me and this song comes on, I’ll probably loudly proclaim, “this is the best chorus ever, man.” If you wish to disagree, you’d better have an amazing alternative to suggest because I have razor-sharp music nerd skills and I’m not afraid to use them.
The obvious reasons to love this song are many and varied, but I’m further drawn to it because of its ability to function in two unexpected situations.
Exhibit A: the campfire.
We’ve all found ourselves staring into the flames of a bonfire as the sky darkens and the air turns chilly. Acoustic guitar music is as common here as roasting marshmallows. I used to find myself numbly singing along as Kumbaya morphed into Neil Young, wondering what I could bring to the campfire. Enter 8675309. You may not realize it, but you probably know 60% of the words to this song, and if you don’t, the very learnable chorus is always right around the corner. More than once I’ve been elevated from quiet guy no one noticed to life of the party once I managed to get my mitts on the guitar and busted this one out. Even the fireflies like it.
Exhibit B: the music store
Music stores are unofficial showcases for guitar geeks to flaunt their blues licks. Mine are more lavender in color, so when guitar shopping, I’m a little self-conscious. Enter 8675309. The lead line is unusual, simple, and cool. Even with the eyes of the shredders upon me, I can get my brain and hands to cooperate enough to rock it. I’m often met with cheers—usually from a guitarist’s significant other (or mother)—who is elated to hear anything but another squealing Stevie Ray Vaughn riff. It puts the geeks at ease: they know that the blues throne is not being challenged, but it also lets everybody know that this guy (being me) is looking for a new axe.
When 8675309/Jenny was released in 1981, the decade was still feeling its way towards what would become its signature sound. Synth-heavy Euro-pop would soon dominate the airwaves, and it’s great stuff, but it’s always nice to hear some good old American rock and roll, which is exactly what Mr. Tutone gifted the world with this classic power popper. It gives me something that I can hold on to.