Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from David Buck, who last hit us with some chatter on scale models. This time, he dives into one of the most iconic novelty hits ever created. Check it out!
Today in Tedium: We all know the story—some guy was working in a lab, late one night, when he begins to see several movie monsters doing a fancy dance. Sung with a perfect Boris Karloff impression by the one and only Bobby “Boris” Pickett, “The Monster Mash” really did become the hit of the land. Since its debut in 1962, the seriously goofy novelty song has been a perennial hit, scaring its way onto the airwaves and into the hearts of generation after generation. There’s more to the song and its singer than one might expect. Just in time for Halloween, today’s tedium does the MASH; the MONSTER MASH. — David @ Tedium
The year “The Monster Mash” topped the Billboard charts, on Oct. 20 of that year. The song married the popular “dance-style” songs of the day—like Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time (1962)” and Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again (1961)”—with the doo-wop style so prominent in the 1950s. Crafting lyrics based around Pickett’s Boris Karloff impression proved to be a stroke of genius the song needed to be a hit. The song would go on to hit the charts again in 1973—a full decade after its initial release! Today, it’s probably the quintessential Halloween song.
Tell them “Boris” sent you...
The story of “The Monster Mash” begins with an old doo-wop tune. In the early 1960s, Bobby Pickett got home from the Korean war and moved to California to become an actor. While there, he got together with a band called The Cordials and began performing doo-wop tunes and recording several demos for their group. Per the liner notes for The Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection, the group was performing a song called, “Little Darling”—a song which happens to contain a monologue in the middle. Bobby decided to perform the monologue with a Boris Karloff voice and received quite the positive reaction. In an October 2006 interview with Dr. Demento, he tells the story of how he and co-writer Leonard Capizzi came up with the idea and how it almost didn’t happen:
Lenny Capizzi—like myself—was a horror movie freak and love Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. [So], he and I were the perfect team to get this idea kicking...and he had suggested it one night after we had sung “Little Darling” by the Diamonds. You know there’s that monologue in there...and I did at as Boris Karloff...and the audience cracked up. After the set he said, “you know we oughta do a novelty record—they do very well.” And I said “No, I’m a serious actor, I’m off to other places...so I got an agent and after two weeks, the agent died of a heart attack. So, I called up Lenny and I said, “you know that idea you had, like, a few months ago? Let’s get together and do that. So we did.
Per Pickett, the song only took about an hour to write and practically wrote itself, to which Dr. Demento responds, “a lot of the great ones do.” Time has shown us that he isn’t wrong. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering what the background singers are saying in the background of the song, Bobby has the answer from that same interview:
It’s “Ooooh, tennis shoe, wah-oooh.” We don’t know why.
The recording would only take a few hours and featured piano playing by Leon Russell and be produced by Gary Paxton—the guy who did another popular novelty song of the day, “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles.
“With lyrics like ‘it was a graveyard smash,’ the BBC failed to see the funny side and banned the song for being ‘too morbid.’”
— A BBC retrospective article, discussing why the broadcaster decided to ban song from its airwaves. Though the lyrics are fun and silly, the BBC read way more into them than was actually necessary. The quote, “it’s a graveyard smash” was apparently too much for some programmers and, perhaps, listeners at the time. The song wouldn’t be heard on the BBC until 1973, when it hit number three on the UK charts. Not bad for a three minute song that was written in under hour.
There was a whole album of songs just like “Monster Mash,” of course
Following the success of the single, a 1962 full-length LP followed. Released under the group name Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-kickers, The Original Monster Mash is a series of loosely connected follow-ups to the lead, all done in a decidedly surf rock style.
There’s doo-wop style background vocals, 1960s surf guitar solos, horns, silly lyrics and plenty of Pickett’s signature Boris Karloff impression. Songs highlights are “Blood Bank Blues” are about a vampire who just can’t seem to catch a break, “Skully Gully,” a catchy, rocking tune about all the different movie monsters and, a parody of “Alley Oop” called “Wolfbane.” There’s even a bit of a ballad in “Me & my Mummy.” “The Transylvania Twist” makes an appearance also, as a rollicking, harmonica and organ driven instrumental with occasional talking bits. No wonder Dracula loves it.
The album is fun, campy and very much a product of the 1960s, existing as a bit of time capsule into the still-strong world of novelty music at the time. The best part? The album contains one of many follow-ups to the original “Monster Mash”—“Monster Holiday,” the exact same tune with Christmas themed lyrics.
“Well, I’ve heard all kinds of stories. I’ve heard people have used it as their wedding song, getting married on Halloween and stuff. People who made love for the first time in the backseat of a Chevrolet when it was playing on the radio. All kinds of stuff.”
— Bobby “Boris” Pickett, on the legacy of the song and what it means to people. From the book Monster Mash: the Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America, 1957-1972 by Mark Voger. The book contains a small interview with Bobby, where he elaborates a bit more on his horror movie fandom outside of the song itself.
The real graveyard smash
In 1964 Bobby released another follow-up single called “The Monster Swim.” Ostensibly another “monsters doing a silly thing” type of song, “The Monster Swim” was released during his time working in Pasadena radio. The song is weird and the lyrics insist that doing the monster swim is great because it’s “bigger than the mash”—but that’s simply not the case, as it didn’t really chart and outside of aficionados and Dr. Demento fans, it’s tough to find someone who remembers the song. Its B-side, “The Werewolf Watusi,” is hilarious.
Later, Bobby got together with Peter Ferrara to release the popular “Stardrek” skit, but he just couldn’t leave “The Monster Mash” behind. Realizing the song had a bit of a narrative—a scientist working in a lab raises the dead, only for them to have a party (I wonder if this is the same dead man’s party Oingo Boingo sang about in 1985?)—Bobby decided to continue the story in the 80s. In 1984, he released “The Monster Rap,” an almost remixed, synth-heavy revision of the song. Bobby introduces the monsters between the repeated refrain of “shock the body.” If we examine this within the narrative, this is probably just before the monsters begin mashing, when Bobby is “working in the lab.” Oh, and the monster does a totally tubular rap in the middle.
Finally, there’s “It’s Alive,” the rock n roll/new wave follow up to the original dance. In this part of the story, our scientist has passed on his work to his progeny. Only this time around, his son created a heavy metal-loving monster! It’s a far cry from the original, but brings the story to a close at least.
Despite these follow-ups, the original still caught the public’s imagination and inspired countless musicians over the years to not only create original music, but to cover the tune itself.
Tedium’s six favorite “Monster Mash” covers
Some songs become better known as cover versions, years after the original versions are lost to the annals of time (or simply forgotten). At other times, cover versions become an entirely new, enriching listening experience. And sometimes, they’re just weird. Of course, there are many more cover versions of the song floating around out there—all of which vary in quality—but these six tend to stand out as unique interpretations of the classic.
1. The Misfits. Punk rock fans may know these purveyors of horror/movie-themed tunes by their iconic skull logo and fantastic hard-rocking albums. Others may know them as the band who juxtaposed crazy horror movie ideas and aesthetics with killer musicianship. Still others may recognize them as recently covering the Rose & the Arrangement tune “The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati” for Dr. Demento Covered in Punk, an album their current manager, the wonderful and hilarious John Cafiero.
2. Zacherle. Legendary horror host John Zacherle—known as “Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul”—released his own version of the song shorty after the original. His version is just as fun as the original and the album Monster Mash contains some other Zacherle gems including “Dinner with Drac.” Later in life, Zacherle and Pickett would attend conventions together around Halloween.
3. The Kids of Widney High. The Kids of Widney High are an amazing group of high schoolers from California who perform a range of delightful music. Led by teacher Michael Monagan, they took on the song for the recent Dr. Demento Covered in Punk album. The song is covered in the style of a punk-rock concert and seems more like a monster mosh than a monster mash—a fitting and wonderful interpretation that provides a fresh take I’ll be listening to for years to come.
4. Vincent Price. In 1977, horror icon Vincent Price joined the fun with his own version of the seminal Halloween tune. After a lengthy preamble against those evil humans, Price jumps into the song with aplomb. “To celebrate the entrance of a new member,” Price says, “may we hear our song?” (Maybe he was practicing for “Thriller”?)
5. The Beach Boys. That’s right, folks! The pioneers of surf rock themselves covered this song during their early years. This 1964 performance on the ABC network is dripping with camp and sees lead singer practically devouring the scenery—as any monster might. It’s fun and silly, just the way the song should be heard at least once in your life.
6. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. No list of “Monster Mash” covers (are there any beyond this one?) would be complete without a mention of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Vivian Stanshell does one heck of a Bobby “Boris” Pickett-doing-Boris Korloff impression, bringing this 1969 version of the song to life on their Tadpoles album. The use of horns is unique to say the least, but matches with the Bonzo’s sound.
“Oh please. A Halloween song? Who’s gonna do a song about Halloween?”
— Darlene Love, one of the backup singers on the original recording. In an interview with Billboard, she discussed the difficulty of singing backup on the song because of how ridiculous it was and was just as shocked as everyone else when it became a hit.
While “The Monster Mash” isn’t the only—or the best, really—Halloween song, it is the tune most folks associate with the holiday, and that’s a positive thing. It’s still inspiring parodies and tributes, decades after its initial popularity. In 1996, reggae band The Toyes smoked some “Monster Hash” and in 2014—only four years ago—Youtuber The Key of Awesome released an amazing, spot-on parody called “The Modern Monster Mash”:
The strangest aspect of the song’s legacy, however, is just how few Halloween-specific songs have been released since. We had The Shaggs’ “It’s Halloween (1969),” but that could hardly be called a hit outside of outsider music circles. There are certainly songs with horror or scary elements, but they’re few and far between. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark got close with a few of her songs from Elvira’s Haunted Hits and there were definitely few here and there in the indy circles...but no new “Monster Mash.”
Halloween was a big deal for bands like Oingo Boingo, where fans could dress up and enjoy their concerts, but they didn’t really have any Halloween songs. Ditto Frank Zappa who put on superb Halloween shows, but didn’t really have much thematic material relating to the holiday. In the mid-90s, early-00s, we began seeing more Halloween-specific music with faire like Heywood Banks’ “Halloween Song” and Stephen Lynch’s “Halloween.” Perhaps the most overlooked—and certainly interesting—Halloween song came in 2005 with the North American Halloween Prevention Initiative’s “Do they know it’s Hallow’een,” the charity song aimed at stamping out Halloween by raising money for UNICEF. Elvira, Beck and David Cross, among others were involved.
Halloween songs are probably never going to be as ubiquitous as Christmas carols, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining or relevant. Dr. Demento does two full shows each year focusing on Halloween music and sites like Roger Barr’s i-Mockery once celebrated Halloween online for two months straight with Halloween songs. They’re slowly becoming part of the musical background of our culture and may one day enter the collective consciousness as folk songs. Who knows?
Bobby “Boris” Pickett passed from this mortal coil in 2007, but his legacy lives on. His old website, TheMonsterMash.com still exists in a primitive form and he wrote a book shortly before he died, Monster Mash: Half Dead in Hollywood, that is well worth a read for anyone wishing to know more about this amazing entertainer.
Bobby loved the song and it stayed with him throughout his life—he updated it as “The Climate Mash” before he died—and the song is sure to delight audiences for years to come. So, this Halloween be sure to do the mash for Bobby and will someone please tell Drac that we already found out what happened to the Transylvania Twist a few paragraphs ago?