And so, it’s time for moody soundtracks and smoke-filled taverns. For film noir and German expressionist cinema. Time to rewatch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse and that Robert Johnson-inspired episode of Supernatural, “Crossroad Blues.” The time for Celtic Frost’s Careless Into Oblivion and Slint’s “Nostferatu Man.” So guard yourself against religious doctrines and get ready for some tales and tunes that will whet your appetite for the outré. Welcome to our nightmare, the darkest manifestations of the American Dream. Below, our founding editor Gauraa and AllMusicBooks.com’s very own Steve J talk about thirteen of their classic Halloween picks:
Gauraa: I don’t know about you, Steve, but I am not strongly rooted in my Halloween traditions. If I recall correctly, I spent the 31st last year consuming a variety of cranberry cocktails at a Lower East Side dive celebrating Rob Zombie night. The year before that, I spent Halloween watching bands dressed as other bands play bloodless covers, dressed as Robert Smith myself. Still, no matter where in the world I am, the fundamentals appear to be roughly the same: lots of candy, bloodless covers, and several reruns of Practical Magic on TV. And just like that, suddenly there’s an evocation of an overwhelming sense of homecoming. This year my plans are quite rudimentary: to sip black vodka as I make my way through the Dr. Mabuse series. But also to hone my calligraphy skills by copying the Nosferatu font several times onto acrylic paper. And, obviously, to listen to this profound, bone-chilling 2007 Good Charlotte track, which captures a Harold and Maude intrigue with death, (“I’ve never been much for weddings/ Or anniversaries/ But I’d go to a funeral if I’m invited/ Any day of the week”), repeatedly.
Steve: As a kid growing up in Florida, we’d go trick or treating for hours and hours, covering A LOT of ground! As a young adult, I wasn’t super crazy about “dressing up,” but the parties were always cool. I always liked the more conceptual costumes (see the Warren Zevon track below for a cool costume hint…). One of the best I ever saw was a poster board with a big square cut out towards one corner, with some official writing on the front. You poked your head through the hole and — voilá — you went as your driver’s license. As a parent, staying home to hand out candy to the neighbors’ kids, and watching their costumes change year to year was also fun. And, of course, after that’s all done, the best part was turning off the lights, “taxing” the candy haul and settling in for some good horror movies, preferably the classics in black and white. But along with all of that, you need a killer soundtrack for getting dressed up, the party, and sorting all of your goodies, don’t you, Gauraa?
Gauraa: Absolutely! Bloodless covers, you have slighted us, beware our wrath!
“Welcome To My Nightmare,” Alice Cooper
Steve: Here’s a true story in the classic Halloween mode. I had an older sister whose boyfriend secretly brought Alice Cooper records into my house. Secretly, because my mother had forbade them due to the famous (and incorrect) story that he killed chickens on stage. You can read about that here. Also, the photograph of Alice onstage with a sword-speared baby doll didn’t help. I had heard “I’m Eighteen” and, of course, that rite of passage “School’s Out” at the end of every school year, but I was fascinated by Alice. My mom, of course, eventually found the records and that was the end of that boyfriend. But, hey, I was intrigued. This song is such a killer and a huge part of the Alice mystique. He and his band singlehandedly brought theater into rock’n’roll. A great opener for any All Hallowed Eve’s party!
Gauraa: It’s really interesting how these mythological rock’n’roll stories spread like wildfire in the pre-internet age, isn’t it? Back when I was in elementary school, the rumor that was rampant was that Marilyn Manson got two of his ribs surgically removed so he could give himself head. Given this was the early 2000s, there was no way of confirming whether this had actually happened. The tweenage jury was out and, as far as we were concerned, Marilyn Manson, now missing two ribs, was pleasuring his own self. In retrospect, it was kind of a genius PR stunt, championing Marilyn as this symbol of terrorizing individualism. I can only presume that’s what they were going for with Alice Cooper? Yet, his character continues to baffle me. Not unlike Lady Gaga, his image, though startling, isn’t necessarily an accurate depiction of his music. One second he’s the “godfather of shock rock,” dripping machismo; the next, he’s covering Eleanor Rigby, taking himself so seriously that he, in a sense, becomes a self-parodying version of himself. I read about Joey Ramone’s manic obsession with him and I found it as strange as Bono’s manic obsession with Joey Ramone. But before I digress any further with my “is ‘shock rock’ a qualifier of music as much as it is of appearance?” musings, let’s get back to the song: “Welcome To My Nightmare” is moody and evocative. It is, as they say, a nocturnal vacation, and an unquestionably unnecessary sedation. Undoubtedly a classic.
Steve: Ummmm….yeah. I hadn’t heard that Marilyn Manson story. Not sure I needed to either. Ick. Super scary…Listen, parents freaked when the Beatles grew out their hair,. There was a campaign that went “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” But Alice was different. Alice Cooper famously said “It’s absolutely true: we were the group that drove a stake through the heart of the love generation” and he was right! So when these stories popped up — most of them untrue— A LOT of parents and the establishment FREAKED. Alice was first when it comes to introducing theater into rock and roll and his character certainly became a bit of a caricature. This song came out after much of the hoopla and was on perhaps his most “commercial” album. I’ve always wondered it this song wasn’t sort of a new fan invitation. Of course, this album also contains “Only Women Bleed,” which also provided quite a response!
Gauraa: I find that a tad amusing because it’s going to take a lot more than Alice Cooper to freak people, both kids and parents, out today.
Steve: No doubt; I think you can say it takes more of ANY emotion to get a response from people today. Horror movies are bloodier and more graphic, as opposed to the more “psychological” or implied terror of older movies — think Psycho. You NEVER saw the knife actually hit Janet Leigh. I think that’s part of the appeal of people who “got” Alice. He wasn’t as cartoony as, say, KISS (although he would become that); there was definitely an edge, but, like Halloween, it was all in good fun! And check out those horns and keyboards…Alice could swing!
Gauraa: Speaking of KISS being cartoony, they (Stanley and Simmons, duh) released a direct-to-video Scooby Doo film entitled Scooby-Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery just last year. Just in case kids/parents were looking to ruin a perfectly good evening.
Steve: I’m sure it was a…ahem…dog!
“This Is Halloween,” Marilyn Manson
Steve: Never been much of a Marilyn fan, but he is a direct descendant of Alice, and perhaps amped up a bit for the kiddies who, as previously mentioned, scare less easily these days. This song fits in so seamlessly with Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas—easily the greatest interpretation ever of Halloween on film —and a reason for outsiders everywhere to celebrate. This just revels in all things Halloween.
Gauraa: Everything about Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas is perfect, including, obviously, the soundtrack by Danny Elfman. Do note, however, that this particular, rather punchy version of “This Is Halloween” wasn’t released till the Disney Digital 3-D re-release in 2006. For those of us who hadn’t yet learned to Google pictures of Marilyn sans make-up, seeing his name on the special edition OST alongside the likes of Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco and Fiona Apple made him a little less daunting. Like watching Anton LaVey playing his calliope during his roustabout carnival days.
Steve: Of course, that begs the question: Why would you want to see Marilyn Manson without makeup? That thought NEVER occurred to me; of course, I had to google it after you mentioned it. And, of course, it was a disappointment on every level. Some things I don’t need, nor want to know. But this is a classic Halloween track.
Gauraa: Arguably, one could say that Marilyn Manson is scarier without the make-up.
Steve: Truer words you’ve never spoken, Gauraa!
“I Want Candy,” Bow Wow Wow
Steve: This fantastic little piece of pop confection seamlessly blurs the meaning of “candy” in a decidedly 50’s/early 60’s innocent vibe, with the pure sugar buzz of MTV, on which this song was played relentlessly. I defy you not to hum or sing along to this one!
Gauraa: Got to give you some props here, Steve, I didn’t think of this track in association with Halloween! At all!
Steve: Candy as a metaphor for boys and you didn’t consider it, Gauraa? Hard to believe! This is the flipside to the darker elements of Halloween. Pure fun. It’s for when you and your friends are either dressing up beforehand, or dumping your bags of candy out and making those trades!
Gauraa: Speaking of the flipside to the darker elements of Halloween, boy, do I have a song coming up for you!
“Surfin’ Dead,” The Cramps
Gauraa: Ugh The Cramps! They represent everything I love about the late 70s Californian punk scene. This particular song is actually a bonus, studio-cut track off their fantastic live album from ’83, Smell of Female. It’s fun and almost foolishly jaunty, kind of like they’re doing their best Beach Boys impression for kicks. I love that. Also how do you possibly resist a line like “Ooh baby, your asphalt eater hung ten/ The hoedads and gremmies say you reached top end”?
Steve: The Cramps are such a perfect band for anything Halloween. Definitely a “light-hearted” choice for Cramps tunes, compared to those perennial crowd pleasers such as “Zombie Dance,” or “What’s Behind The Mask!” It’s funny…with such a dark, albeit camp image, so much of their music is really rockabilly based. That asphalt line is definitely the standout; jerks your head around the first time you hear it…Wait. Wha…? Never saw the Cramps…wish I had.
Gauraa: Me, too, Steve. Me. Too.
“You Should Never Have Opened That Door,” The Ramones
Gauraa: The Ramones! Again, one of my favorites. I was almost expecting you to pick “Pet Semetary” but this works just as well. Definitely one of the better songs off Leave Home. “Mama, where’s your little daughter?/ She’s here, right here on the altar/ You should never have opened that door/ Now you’re never gonna see her no more.” Creepy. Very Creepy. “Are you there Mr. Gein?” creepy.
Steve: You just elucidated exactly why I chose this one over “Pet Semetary,” which is a hugely fun song and would fit nicely on any Halloween soundtrack. The Ramones were THE band (along with The Clash) that turned my musical life around. Went and saw them 3 nights in a row — same set every night, of course, but who cares? I didn’t! This was when you could walk right up to the front of the stage. So early Ramones are definitely my sweet spot. There’s a bunch of fun songs like “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” and, of course, “Chain Saw,” namechecking the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie in the lyrics. We’ll see those on another playlist, for sure. This one IS just a touch creepier though and that title just screams the best parts of Halloween movies!
Gauraa: Wholeheartedly concur. Now I’m beginning to feel like we should host a Ramones firechat chat sometime soon!
Steve: Anytime, Gauraa, anytime! But the “fireside” needs to be a fire in one of those oil barrels. In NYC. In the streets of the Bowery.
Gauraa: Count me in!
“Bloodletting,” Concrete Blonde
Gauraa: Bloodletting is one of my favorite records of all time, possibly because it’s so quintessentially 80s goth/rock. Johnette Napolitano lost her voice shortly after she recorded “Joey,” a fantastic song (also their only Hot 100 single, I believe) but her vocals on this track are nothing shy of amazing. A little past the three minute mark, you can hear the supposed Living Dead slurping off the blood and it’s honestly the sonic equivalent of low-budget vérité style horror film. And I mean that in the best way possible. Like, that is truly the highest form of compliment I can pay any 80s band.
Steve: I’m really only familiar with Concrete Blonde peripherally and mostly with Johnette Napolitano’s work with others. This is a really cool song, with an amazing chorus. I love that stacked, multi-tracked vocal there. And, of course, New Orleans always does and always will figure into cool stories!
“Zombie,” The Cranberries
Steve: Not a huge Cranberries fan, but this is probably my favorite tune of theirs. Probably the only one of theirs that could turn up on this playlist. Great vocals.
Gauraa: I have to be completely honest with you, Steve: this is the only song by The Cranberries that I know. That said, it is, without a doubt, incredibly catchy. I also have seen this music video play at nostalgia-inducing themed bar nights one too many times, so, like, I have every frame burned into memory.
Steve: Admission: “probably my favorite tune” = “the only one I know too!” And, also, I’ve never seen the video. But we had to get some kind of a zombie in here and this is one of the best.
Gauraa: Beats Ozzy Osbourne’s “Zombie Stomp” for sure, but we should definitely give Slayer’s “Live Undead” an honorary mention here. Hard to forget a line like, “Severe anguish as my body evolves/ The pain of life after death it resolves.”
Steve: How Shakespearean! Speaking of Shakespeare, see Blue Oyster Cult below.
“Don’t Fear The Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult
Steve: Perhaps the truly darkest selection here. This one is pure evil but you wouldn’t really expect it, all wrapped up in those soft vocals and “la la la la la’s.” But this is either a double suicide or a murder/suicide, isn’t it?
Gauraa: When I think of Blue Oyster Cult, my mind immediately jumps to images of graffitied parking lots. There’s something inherently, comically, evil about them. A little less Romeo and Juliet, a little more Sid and Nancy, perhaps.
Steve: But it’s also got the tragic “Romeo and Juliet” thing. Because the *other* thing you think of when you think of Blue Oyster Cult is, of course, Shakespeare. Right?
“Ghost Town,” The Specials
Gauraa: Well, had to include this. No Halloween playlist is complete without “Ghost Town.”
Steve: I love The Specials so much — a very “important” band, in my opinion —and this is one of my very favorite songs of theirs. Great organ riff, great horns and that little reggae (yes, Gauraa…reggae!) guitar underneath, with everyone in the band seemingly taking turns on the vocals. Moodyy and fun, this is a perfect choice for any party, but particularly those in late October!
Gauraa: Fine, fine. I don’t loathe reggae, at least in its fringes. But in my defense, I’d construe this as, like, dingy-crimecore-film-noir-ska.
Steve: Ha! Leave it to you to, like, literally invent a new musical genre on the spot! “Dingy-crimecore-film-noir-ska” Which features ONLY ONE band! I love it and I do love this track. It’s a bit different from everything else on here, but fits in perfectly (hopefully, that makes more sense than it reads!). AND it works as a nice little musical U-turn for the upcoming styles on the rest of this playlist!
Gauraa: Agreed. But before we proceed any further, let’s go back to the organ riff for just a second–why is it that organs bring such morbidity to life? What is it about them? I’ve been reading a lot about Anton LaVey recently (for the uninitiated, LaVey is the unholy founder of Satanism) and it turns out that he, too, made his living as an organ player before he became “The Doctor.” I understand that the earthy tonal colors of the organ mesh well with a darker mood, but it just seems a whole 180 degrees from the organ’s foundation, strongly rooted in Baroque basilica, doesn’t it?
Steve: It’s such an essential color element for so many styles of music. Soul, funk, a little something called reggae, and, of course, rock. Seems to be a dying trend sadly.
“Psycho Killer,” Talking Heads
Gauraa: Funny. In my mind, “Psycho Killer” has become synonymous with Mary Harron’s American Psycho.
Steve: Another super catchy, super creepy tune. Byrne’s deadpan (no pun intended) delivery of some seriously cold-ass, disturbing lyrics are so perfect. Tack on his fashion and sartorial sense and this is NOT the geeky student you want coming at you in a dark hallway. Oh yeah..and he can creep you out in French as well. Because of course.
Gauraa: Because of course.
“Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon
Steve: A slab of silly fun from one of LA’s greatest songwriters ever. He could go deep, romantic or silly and one of Zevon’s coolest lyrical tricks is the opening verse here; I don’t know about you, Gauraa, but I truly, truly NEED to see a werewolf ordering Chinese food. Bucket list! Great costume idea too, by the way! You read it here first!
Gauraa: I think you should really go through with that costume this year! Do it for the readers, Steve!
“Spooky,” Dusty Springfield
Gauraa: Dusty…Definitely. See what I did there?
Steve: You’re a very clever girl, Gauraa; kids, did you all get what she did there? One of my all-time favorite tunes. Throughout some of these selections, there’s a preponderance of organ and an almost spoken-word type of singing and it just works so well here. I’ve written before (with Norah Jones and Bruce Springsteen) how effective those kind of vocals are, and this one is super sexy. “Just like a ghost you’ve been a-haunting my dreams/ But now I know you’re not what you seem” sums this one all. Haunted is a good word; this one has that ethereal, other-worldly feel. I love Dusty.
Gauraa: When I first heard “Spooky,” it left me with a similar frustration that followed my first listen to Carly Simon’s “The Carter Family”: “someone smooth, presentable, to blend with the decor.” —why didn’t I think of that? Boys are spooky, sometimes spookier than all the Dr. Mabuse films combined, and we should applaud Dusty for the aptness of her term. It goes very well with the songwriting tradition of finding someone “smooth, presentable, to blend with the decor.”
Steve: Now we’re furniture?
Gauraa: We’re all movable articles at the end of the day, Steve.
“Superstition,” Stevie Wonder
Steve: Mid-70s Stevie was just so good. He did EVERYTHING and did it well; writing, producing, arranging, singing. “When you believe in things that you don’t understand” is Stevie at his bes and spot on for the tru Halloween believers. And by the way, whatever happened to the Hohner Clavinet? What a killer keyboard sound! Can someone please bring this back?
Gauraa: It’s true, Stevie loved his Hohner D6. I mean, sure, so did everyone else at the time, or, at least those who could afford to, but Stevie was particularly inseparable from his Clavinet (refer to: “I Wanna Make Her Love Me,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”). And while the clavinet is amazing on this track, it’s just one of the many magical components on “Superstition.” The drums and that insane moog bass just snap it all into perfection. This song was released in anticipation of Halloween on October 24, 1972. 44 years later, here it is, still making rounds on our Halloween playlists. Still very much in circulation. No one, no generation, is impervious to the charm of Stevie Wonder.
Looking for more festive music banter? You can find Steve and Gauraa discussing twenty of their classic summer jams here. Stay tuned for our upcoming Goth Thanksgiving playlist which, may or may not be featuring Alien Sex Fiend’s “Stuff The Turkey.”