Here’s 13 Halloween songs for listening outside the box
Compiling a list of the top Halloween songs is a service for which many a writer has been tasked, probably since music fans were listening to the latest hits on a Gramophone.
But this list isn’t that list.
This list is for those unconcerned with what pleases the masses. It’s for the outsiders. Think of this menu as a primer for those that may not be aware of Halloween music past “Thriller” or “Ghostbusters,” both of which are good songs, but not the kind we’re talking about here.
Bela Lugosi’s Dead
Check it out: https://youtu.be/OKRJfIPiJGY
This is perhaps the “Stairway to Heaven” of creepy songs. Bauhaus’ 1979 debut single has it all going on, so to speak: dark subject matter; spare, malevolent, reverb-laden production and best of all a Peter Murphy vocal take that begins with a croak, careens into a spooky wail before winding back down, seemingly into a cold, dark grave. “The bats have left the bell tower, the victims have been bled, red velvet lines the black box, Bela Lugosi’s dead.” Yikes!
I Put a Spell on You
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Check it out: https://youtu.be/PwXai-sgM-s?list=PL92D44DE9FE135056
The unique theatricality of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ signature tune was quite a shock upon its 1956 release. Up until then a straight ahead blues singer, Mr. Hawkins happened upon the crazy vocal of “I Put a Spell on You” after over-imbibing in the studio and just letting it rip. After DJ Alan Freed suggested he come up with a visual gimmick to go with the unhinged vocal, Mr. Hawkins began to wear a long cape and appear onstage by rising out of a coffin amidst smoke and fog. He later added tusks in his nose, live snakes, fireworks, and a cigarette-smoking skull named “Henry.”
Check it out: https://youtu.be/0lVdMbUx1_k
Metal at its most sinister and sludgy, this is 6:16 of straight-up evil, with the guitars tuned down a whole step to accentuate the darkness. Considered by most the first heavy metal band, Black Sabbath released “Black Sabbath” in 1970 and it sounds every bit as odd and terrifying today as it did then.
Release the Bats
The Birthday Party
Check it out: https://youtu.be/8J8Ygt_t69A
The Australian goth rock pioneers fronted by the great Nick Cave released this gem in 1981 on London’s 4AD label. The reverb-drenched, down under rockabilly by way of hell sound of “Release the Bats” was an immediate hit in the underground, reaching number 3 on the UK Indie Chart. But perhaps more importantly, “Bats” provided a jumping off point for innumerable black clad kids into the abyss of what would become goth.
Goo Goo Muck
Check it out: https://youtu.be/n3Io_5CEMiI
This greasy, ghoulish prize emerged from the unlikely locale of Bakersfield, California in 1962. Ed James’ lyric “When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, I turn into a teenage goo-goo muck, I cruise through the city and I roam the streets, looking for something that is nice to eat” is creepy enough to jump to the top of any Halloween playlist, and this one has a soulful baritone saxophone hook in it that makes it deliciously sinister. It’s hard to decide if this or the Cramps’ version is the definitive, but this one gets the nod for being there first.
I Was a Teenage Werewolf
Check it out: https://youtu.be/u3hisYcaL1E
The Cramps have in their canon maybe a dozen songs that could make this list. But “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” off the group’s 1980 debut LP “Songs the Lord Taught Us,” is perhaps the most fitting. Poison Ivy’s minimalist tremolo guitar, Bryan Gregory’s over-the-top fuzz aggression and Nick Knox’s rock steady tribal beat provide the music and the late, great Lux Interior provides the deranged hillbilly rock ’n’ roll vocal. “Teenage Werewolf” may be the most perfect Halloween song ever recorded. Check out this one and also YouTube clips of the band’s euphorically chaotic live shows, including the legendary “Live at Napa State Mental Hospital” from 1978. Lux and Ivy were married as well as being bandmates. They were the Johnny and June for us punk kids. Sniff.
Down By the Water
Check it out: https://youtu.be/lbq4G1TjKYg
This monumentally creepy offering from the UK’s queen of darkness is off her towering 1998 breakthrough record, “To Bring You My Love.” It tells the tale of what sounds at first like a bereaved mother pining for a lost child, but one realizes as the song unfolds that mom is a murderer. Chilling whispered choruses of “Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water, come back here man and give me my daughter” are gloriously nightmare inducing. “Down By the Water” will scare the bejeezus out of the kids. It did mine!
Check it out: https://youtu.be/YXtuKsbORVY
A garage rock stomper with an impossibly catchy hook, “Strychnine” is a 1965 blast of proto-punk that scores of bands emulate to this day (The Hives owe the Sonics just about everything.) Middle America wasn’t quite ready for the lyric “Some folks like water, some folks like wine, but I like the taste of straight strychnine” in ’65, but the band is still playing club and festival dates today to audiences around the world that revere them as the true pioneers they are.
Check it out: https://youtu.be/8_dXp0eF8s0
Suicide is a New York City band usually associated with the first wave of punk, but they actually pre-date that movement by a few years, having gotten their start in 1968. The band’s influence on what would become electronic music is immeasurable. The 10-minute “Frankie Teardrop” is a macabre, tension-filled epic about a father pushed to the edge, off the group’s 1977 eponymous debut record. The band’s hypnotic frontman and lyricist, Alan Vega, died last year at the age of 78.
Check it out: https://youtu.be/Fz5e0y7SUlQ
This song certainly lives up to its name! Formed in 1979, 45 Grave was made up of four members of established punk LA punk bands The Germs, the Consumers, Castration Squad, the Bags and others. The band’s lyrical horror imagery, dark melodies and singer Dinah Cancer’s aggressively sinister vocal style would influence scores of like-minded gore hounds for years to come. “Evil” was most prominently released on the 1981 compilation album “Hell Comes to Your House.”
Welcome to My Nightmare
Check it out: https://youtu.be/TyMpn08BJ9U
My sentimental favorite on this list, the Phoenix rocker turned golfing grandfather was at the top of his theatrical game when he released this in 1975. To the world back then, Mr. Cooper was known primarily as a horror shock-rocker, but the truth is he had a great deal of Broadway showbiz in him. His stage-show antics with guillotines, dismembered dolls and snakes were all part of the SHOW. This song holds up despite its over-the-top arrangement and ensuing TV special and extravagant live show it inspired. Mr. Cooper’s vocal is delivered with an ominous, biting confidence that makes it a perfect wild-card Halloween party selection.
Check it out: https://youtu.be/RZ2oXzrnti4
Not all songs on this list need feature macabre subject matter, or in fact, about be about Halloween, and not all need be obscure. The Specials’ classic 1981 number one hit “Ghost Town” is none of these things. Released at a time when riots were happening in the UK, this prescient slice of 2 Tone groove was named single of the year by all three British music magazines (NME, Melody Maker and Sounds) in 1981. The song’s spare instrumentation and spooky vibe give it a decidedly All Hallows Eve feel, and besides that, it is guaranteed to pack your Halloween party dance floor.
Dead Skin Mask
Check it out: https://youtu.be/VNFglDcW7dQ
Slayer, one of the “big four” of thrash metal—with Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax—have perhaps the largest selection of Halloween-worthy tunes out of the artists on this list. But over its 16 studio records, live albums and EPs, “Dead Skin Mask” is my hands down winner by virtue of its subject matter being the infamous serial killer Ed Gein. “Dance with the dead in my dreams, listen to their hallowed screams, the dead have taken my soul, temptation’s lost all control.” It ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s indisputably horrific, and that’s what Halloween’s all about, right?