Analysis Hollywood Hegemony

Another 31 essential tracks for your Halloween playlist

What, you thought the 31 essential tracks for your Halloween playlist last year were enough? You gotta pump those numbers up, those are rookie numbers! During the festivities of Samhain, All Souls’ Day and All Hallows Eve, I myself listen to more than 100 songs at least twice-a-day.

There’s always a special spring in my step on the day when the 1st of October finally arrives and I can begin playing my own playlist of classic horror anthems on repeat. To help you get that warm festive glow and do Halloween right – even if the pandemic means you won’t be attending a costume party of more than six, or going trick-or-treating any time soon – here is another selection of horrific hits plucked from my Halloween playlist; one for every day of October.

#1: Mad Jack – The Chameleons

Charismatic psychopaths are a staple of Halloween culture. No matter the horrors certain characters commit to, there is always some mystical power allowing them to charm our defences down once more. Dracula, Hannibal Lecter and many other figures have this hypnotic quality, but stand as a warning for us to carry into the real world, when we encounter people personally, politically or economically who have sinister motives for us lowering our guards, and inviting them into our lives. This anthemic horror-rock song from The Chameleons does the same thing – so even when Mad Jack plays the trusted friend, “Trust him, friend; about as far as you can piss.”

#2: Golimar – Chiranjeevi

Commonly known as Indian Thriller, people might remember this as a viral music video from the early years of YouTube. “Subtitled” by the now-defunct YouTuber Buffalax into absurd English, the piece was presented as a cheap rip-off of the real Thriller, by people who hadn’t understood the original. “Please don’t buy the bald seal…” etc. But there is so much more to enjoy here besides neo-colonialist snickering.

The clip actually comes from a 1985 Indian Telugu-language action film about a man who commits theft to feed the poor, and seeks vengeance for the murder of his father. While I haven’t the time to actually watch all three hours of it, it sounds like the song is just a ‘bit’ that doesn’t really have much to do with the ‘real’ story – so you might more generously term this as a homage – and an exquisitely choreographed, knowingly playful one at that. It’s silly, sure, but it’s clearly being played that way intentionally. And really that’s a significant portion of Halloween – getting dressed up in a rubbish costume, and acting scaaaaaaarrrryyyy

#3: Straight to Hell – The Clash

On a more serious note, Straight to Hell is an intelligent, multi-layered song, discussing the horrific experiences of immigrants on either side of the Atlantic. The song refers to the refusal of the US to offer asylum to refugees in the fallout of the Vietnam war, a racist badgering a musician to play a “British jig” on their fiddle while insisting they speak “King’s English,” and Molotov cocktails used in arson attacks again immigrant communities. Straight to Hell, indeed.

Besides this finely crafted, and truly unnerving, narrative running through the song, it also made its way onto my playlist for a far sillier reason. The song’s riff features in the media-literate, multi-layered farce that is The Last Temptation of Lenny – a horror-comedy about the demonic possession of a devout Christian vlogger by a Satanic sock-puppet. It is by far the daftest film Indy Film Library received this year; but it remains one of my absolute favourites for that reason.

#4: The Yeti – Drew Thomas

Another new addition to my playlist linked to my work with IFL comes from a film on the other end of the spectrum. During a creature-feature special of the Tube Rats podcast, comedian-and-swamp-monster Jason Overman recommended we watch A Bigfoot Fan-Film: The Woods. I have always been fascinated with myths of the missing-link, and how throughout history they have been so similar in seemingly disconnected populations on different sides of the world. Needless to say, Jason’s recommendation was a massive disappointment in that context.

A bizarre mishmash of half-baked ideas and botched payoffs, it was easily one of the worst films I have ever seen. But it was not an entirely pointless endeavour – as the film’s credits also featured 15 seconds of Drew Thomas’ fantastic ballad, recalling a startling encounter with a sasquatch. It does justice to Bigfoot or the Yeti, whatever you call it, but it also has a wry sense of humour. One particularly sly double-entendre sees a tiny saxophone solo chime in when the singer states, “I’ll never forget the size of his feet…”

#5: Skeletons – Stevie Wonder

The bleached bones that people use to decorate their houses at this time of year take on a different meaning here. They are a diversion, or perhaps a signpost toward the fact that everyone has skeletons in their closet.

#6: God’s Away on Business – Tom Waits

In a world rapidly unravelling, the economic system is condemning increasing numbers of people to starvation and depravity. The international response to a lethal pandemic has been sabotaged by the cost of vaccines. The sea-levels are rising to drown poor islanders, while the trillionaires responsible for climate change prepare to exit the planet on phallic rockets.

The ship is definitively sinking, while the final moments we could do something are frittered away by the killers, thieves and lawyers left at the wheel. In this context, the idea of offering thoughts and prayers for the next escalated tragedy seems increasingly absurd. If there were an omnipotent being overseeing all this, what could the excuse be? Tom Waits has a theory – and a grizzly song satirising our continued willingness to expect clemency from above; whether from our bosses, governments, or the Almighty Himself.

#7: Hellhound on My Trail – Robert Johnson

One of my earliest experiences with horror was the series of radio plays, Fear on Four. Hosted by the gloriously sinister Edward de Sousa – his voice dripping in sardonic wit as he delivered each pun-packed introduction – perhaps the first I heard was Hellhound on My Trail. Named after Robert Johnson’s iconic blues song, it centred on another musician who allegedly sold his soul to the Devil for success – but it was bookended by snippets of Johnson’s song. The song itself really sounds like something is weighing heavily on Johnson’s mind, and may be that Johnson really believes the lyrics in this song apply to him.

#8: Suspirium – Thom Yorke

I know a lot of people would probably go for Radiohead’s Creep as a more obvious Halloween song. It undeniably has sinister stalker-ish vibes that go well beyond the name. But this solo-effort for the soundtrack to the 2019 Suspira remake is stunning. The eerie melody of the piano and the climactic flute solo owe a lot to the UK folk-horrors of the 1970s, while Yorke’s lyrics are a good deal more subtle, meaning it works better as an actual love song, but also leaves you hanging with an air of unnerving ambiguity as to whether things are as sweet as they seem.

#9: Tarantula – Faithless

That same uncertainty is also present in Tarantula. Maxi Jazz’s laconic delivery gives his initially seductive words a placid feel before he begins to warn the object of his desires that he can also be a toxic influence. The BBC used the central riff as their opening theme for their World Cup coverage in Japan and South Korea, so until very recently, I just associated this song with David Beckham scoring one of the worst penalties imaginable to beat Argentina. Almost 20 years later, however, revisiting this classic has revealed a far creepier side to this tune.

#10: Lotion – Greenskeepers

The debate as to whether you can separate an artist from their art is destined to rumble on long after the conviction of R-Kelly, or the various other predators who have churned out popular culture in the years leading to their fall from grace. Dancing along the line of where it is acceptable to turn a blind eye to this, Lotion plays on our troubling willingness to forgive and forget as long as there is a catchy bassline involved. Sung from the perspective of The Silence of the Lambs serial killer Buffalo Bill, it features grizzly call-backs to the traumatic events of the movie – its ear-worm of a chorus will be doing the rounds in your mind for days, but comes from Jame Gumb’s insistence for his victims to apply lotion to their skin before he flays them.

#11. The Thing: The Musical – Jon Kaplan & Al Kaplan

Another, even more absurd, song from the perspective of a cold-blooded killer comes in the form of Jon and Al Kaplan’s toe-tapping The Thing: The Musical. A swinging retelling of John Carpenter’s spectacular sci-fi horror sees your “average adorable rover” recount the carnage he inflicted on “the poor bastards in the snow” who were consumed by The Thing. The whole thing is gold, but in particular the scat segment made me feel as though my sides were about to split, Norris-style… YouTube commenter Martín L. nailed it when they noted, “What we have here is an organism that imitates Frank Sinatra. And it imitates him perfectly!”

#12. The Eve of the War – Jeff Wayne

Revisiting Jeff Wayne’s classic concept album, The War of the Worlds, parts of it have inescapably aged. I remember even when I was a child, I would be bored in the lengthy interims between Richard Burton’s rich narration, as seemingly endless synth meandered away any of the tension it had built up. Probably the best track from the album manages to strike a decent balance between the two ideas of an audio-book and rock-song, picking out some of the most disturbingly familiar snippets of H.G. Wells’s opening paragraphs. The Eve of the War comes after humanity has witnessed plumes of fire shooting away from Mars in their direction.

Despite this inexplicable and probably cataclysmic event heading for their homes, the eerie phrase rings out from Burton, “It seems totally incredible to me now that everyone spent that evening as though it were just like any other. From the railway station came the sound of shunting trains ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance. It all seemed so safe and tranquil.”

Anyone who remembers the pre-lockdown weeks in the Western world surely remembers a similar, sinister tranquillity.

#13: Hieronymous Bosch Butt Music – An Dro

I have spoken about my ghostly heritage from East Anglia before, but I think it’s time I adopted something from my new home.

Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch is famous for his intricate and macabre visions of hell. One famous vision of his is The Garden of Earthly Delights – a three-part painting showing the Garden of Eden on the left and a vision of hell on the right. One detail, which suddenly became a fixation for historians and music lovers alike last year, was that there was music painted on one poor sinner’s bare arse in the hell segment.

After the notes were transcribed, the most impactful adaptation of Hieronymous Bosch’s so-called “Butt Music” came from An Dro and James Spalink. While a friend of mine described the hurdy gurdy as “like a cat being crushed,” it is hell – and I think that might be kind of fitting. Mostly though, I love how eerie it is, not just for the way it sounds, but that this is a little-known melody many of us are hearing for the first time, centuries after its composer died!

#14: Heartbeat – Freddie Wadling

Another song which found its way to me from beyond the grave is Heartbeat, by the late Swedish folk singer Freddie Wadling. Of all the suitably creepy, blues-inspired tunes Wadling yowled his way through, the first I encountered was 2019’s screaming, lurching Heartbeat, and it remains my favourite. Wadling died three years earlier, something which prompted designer Joakim Thedin, who had worked as a producer in the 80s, to look through some old boxes he had stored away decades earlier. He found and remastered them, and the effects are truly chilling – in all the right ways.

#15: Oogie Boogie’s Song – Ed Ivory & Ken Page

As noted last year, one of Wadling’s other great musical moments assured us “you just can’t kill the Boogeyman.” The Nightmare Before Christmas enjoyed the same piece of wordplay, to ensure that even in a Disney musical where all of the songs are pretty strong, the villain still has the best tune.

The song is performed by Ken Page, an American actor and cabaret singer best known as the voices of King Gator in All Dogs Go to Heaven and this role of Oogie Boogie. With live performances of him singing the song as recently as 2019, it’s clear that 30 years on, Page still gets the same kick out of the song – and his ominous toying with Santa Claus – as much as we do.

#16: Haunted Heart – Christina Aguilera

For all of its supposed horrors, there’s always been a certain romance about Halloween. It isn’t just about revelling in your own dark side – the beauty of communal festivities is that they give you a chance to find someone to share that darkness with. That may be why in every new revival of The Addams Family, the central relationship of Morticia and Gomez still inspires such genuine affection from audiences. This movie-tie-in song is a beautiful, jazzy, spooky song that manages to capture that emotional draw perfectly. I might not generally be a fan of her music, but Christina Aguilera gives an immaculate delivery, too.

#17: Spooky – Dusty Springfield

Having said all that, I couldn’t ignore the most recognised version of Spooky, by Dusty Springfield. If becoming the fodder of endless numbers of beer and car commercials, or the wallpaper for a Guy Ritchie film, couldn’t kill the coolness of this song, it must be immortal. While not immediately a “horror” song, beyond its title, the lyrics arguably touch on something more terrifying than ghosts or ghouls: falling in love with someone you can’t be entirely sure of. And if there is one thing you can be certain of, it is that you can never be entirely sure of anyone. In that knowledge, free-falling into emotional engagement can be heart-stopping – but if it pays off, it can also be exhilarating, like a ghost story.

#18: Magic Dance – David Bowie

Someone of David Bowie’s stature might be reluctant to take on the role of Jareth, the king of the goblins, these days. Playing a supernatural child-abductor might be seen as a risk to their reputation, but even more so, people are just petrified of being seen as ‘cringe’ now. Everything has to be Marvel Universe puree, smoothed out by being the kind of aloof ‘cool’ that never cares enough to take any risks. Bowie was a very different kind of cool though – the kind to take risks and see what paid off; able to bounce back and reinvent even if something fell flat. In this case, the box office might not have been kind, but history has seen Labyrinth become a cult hit – thanks in large part to Bowie’s iconic performance, as well as the amazing songs he wrote and recorded as part of the deal.

#19: Deeper Underground – Jamiroquai

Far, far, far (there isn’t enough ‘far’ in the world to stress this) less cool is Jamiroquai. But much like fashion that tries to compile as many hideous items as possible to make something so ugly it is cool, this tie-in to the monstrous flop Godzilla has so many layers of crapness it never fails to get a smile from me. Roland Emmerich’s 1998 turkey has enough comedic flaws to merit its own article – but on top of them, Jay Kay gives us a quintessentially 90s music video. Complete with plastic CGI and jarring greenscreen work, the lead-singer prances about with some kind of woolly-condom on his head, busting ‘moves’ that come across as some kind of degenerative illness.

#20: Deepest Bluest – LL Cool J

All this brings me, inescapably, to one of the greatest music videos of all time. ALL TIME. I have noticed LL Cool J’s rap tie-in for the infamous stinker Deep Blue Sea is having something of a resurgence at present. Let me just stress, I have been onboard from the very beginning. For decades, it was impossible to convince people that there was a music video where LL Cool J revealed he had a fetish for sinking ships – let alone one where he LITERALLY ANIMORPHS INTO A GREAT WHITE AT THE END. Bellowing that “YOUR LIFE VEST IS OFF, AND THAT TURNS ME ON,” LL confessing that he “ate your ancestors,” while repeatedly reminding us that his “hat is like a shark’s fin.” His hat, and head, are completely round, so it would have to be the sea’s least dynamic shark – but I digress. There are so many layers here, that really this needs its own standalone analysis.  

#21: Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head – Gorillaz

Damon Albarn’s post-Blur project Gorillaz has a long history of producing creepy music. Clint Eastwood and its B-side Dracula set the tone for a band which weren’t afraid to move away from the Teflon Brit-Pop veneer of his earlier work. One of the strangest departures from his earlier work surely came in Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head. Appearing on the seminal Demon Days album, the track features a monologue from actor Dennis Hopper – fresh from the set of Land of the Dead – who recounts a story of greed and destruction. Imperialists who covet gems over-exploit the lands of a peaceful tribe, and leave them to deal with the fiery consequences. It is a story which continues to resonate, as the earliest victims of climate change are so often those who have done least to cause it.

#22: Stuck in the Middle with You – Stealers Wheel

As I keep trying to stress, not everything at Halloween has to be overtly horrific to have its place here. If you want to highlight one particular flavour in a dish, it’s a bad idea to pair it with something that tastes similar. Playing Stuck in the Middle with You during a certain scene in Reservoir Dogs was an inspired way to enhance tension, on the part of Quentin Tarantino.

Contrasting a particularly gruesome moment of a story with something upbeat and pleasant can create a wonderfully creepy juxtaposition – one which is the essence of the contradictory, violent world we inhabit. While people try to lull themselves into a state of calm, a few blocks away, some Michael Madsen type is probably severing someone’s ear to extract information from them.

#23: Face of the Screaming Werewolf – The Fleshtones

The long-running faces of the American garage-rock revival scene, The Fleshtones were perfectly positioned to serve up this slice of US horror nostalgia. Emulating The Cramps’ Teenage Werewolf, and also bringing to mind American Werewolf in London, the story of a love-sick teenager sees the main character get more than he bargained for on a date during a full moon.

#24: Ave Satani – Jerry Goldsmith

When you hit your 30s, you have to be prepared for the fact people you went to school with are about to start spamming social media with photographs of their sprogs. Make that chapter in your life more tolerable by having Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for The Omen close at hand, whenever you have to scroll through your newsfeed.

#25: RE: Your Brains – Jonathan Coulton

We are all limping on through the protracted collapse of our ecological and social environment, with the behaviour that things are normal becoming increasingly part of the cannibalistic process that is causing said downfall. Casting a zombie as a jargon-spewing businessman, negotiating the flesh away from your bones, is a brilliant piece of initiative. At the same time, RE: Your Brains appears in Left 4 Dead 2, so clearly it tapped into something of the broader zombie sub-genre that resonated with a lot of people.

#26: The 2nd Law – Isolated System

Probably the best thing about World War Z was its use of Muse’s The 2nd Law – Isolated System. The arrangement is a hypnotic encapsulating of the previously mentioned march to the mass-grave. Amid the rhythmic, repeated harmonies of the piano, layers of news coverage unfurl a series of unfolding crises – and carry us along with them, sweeping toward some unseen and ominous crescendo. It works really well as the opening for a film about a world sleep-walking its way into a lethal pandemic – unfortunately beyond its opening sequence, that is not a potential the film lives up to, though.

#27: Sinister – Christopher Young

Sinister is probably one of my favourite recent soundtracks for any film. While the film itself treads this line less successfully, its score references and builds upon previous tunes – probably most obviously that of The Exorcist ­– without becoming derivative. At the same time, like The 2nd Law – Isolated System, it has a rhythmic yet driven quality. In this case, it carries us along in the moment, before suddenly bursting into a different beat that almost works as its own jump-scare.

#28: Vlad the Impaler – Kasabian

Noel Fielding is a strange, adaptive force. It is hard to imagine now, in his current environment of the Bake Off tent, that he was once edgy enough to front what is essentially a short horror film for a Kasabian single. Knowingly kitsch, the video follows the murderous Vlad as he sharpens a pike before going on one last, ill-fated hunt.

#29: Fire – Arthur Brown

Concept music back in the day was wild. I can’t imagine many people would so seriously declare themselves “THE GOD OF HELLFIRE” in mainstream culture anymore. I find it even less likely that they would then dance around draped in a bed-sheet, with a flaming wreath on their head, on national television, no less. But if you are going to sing a song about being the living embodiment of Hell, you might as well go the whole hog. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown was nothing if not fully committed – and it led to at least one performance which has stood the test of time, along with its bizarre song.

#30: Shadow on the Wall – Mike Oldfield

While it was written by the same artist who gave us the famous Tubular Bells, this song is not tied to a horror film. It isn’t overtly about a monster or spirit either. But it is intense, it is a little creepy. Singer Roger Chapman looks like he is on the verge of a stroke throughout in the music video, a sweat-drenched loner in a shadowy room, screaming passionately at the top of his lungs. He gurns and pants, while begging some nameless entity to essentially beat and humiliate him. At the same time, he’s made peace with it. Maybe this is a form of the struggle we all face in our lives, and why Halloween captivates so many of us; as we try to come to terms with the dark and strange impulses we have in a healthy way. It makes for a song and music video which are bizarre and unnerving – but also strangely engrossing.

#31: Ghost Busters – Ray Parker Jr.

Don’t be coy, we all know why this one is at the climax of the list… “Bustin’ makes me feel good.

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