Each Halloween people love to dust off copies of Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett.
However many do not know that the song is much more then a one hit pop record. It is a significant chapter in America’s love of novelty records and an early example of how people in the early 1960s made a record on the cheap and got it to the public beyond the conventional means of the times. In fact “Monster Mash” has more going for it then you may have initially guessed.
Indeed, the monster’s dance caught on “in a flash” and became a hit with the living and the dead alike for Halloweens to come. “Monster Mash,” like many of the pop records of the time (including “The Twist”) is filled with mild sexual innuendo (“to get a jolt from my electrode”) that the adults and preachers completely missed.
[ad#longpost]As a single it has a timeless sound that the kids of today can dig. Rooted in doo-wop and the early sounds of rock and roll it also works because it wraps (raps?) a clever narrative around a sugar-coated catchy melody. The percussion on it is pretty snazzy and the exceptional backing vocals serve as a the perfect framework for the narration. Put it together and it’s a hit!
Told from the narrative of a mad scientist the song is about what happens when the monster on the slab in his laboratory rises from the dead late one night and spontaneously performs a dance called the Monster Mash. What happens next is an altogether ookie three-plus minutes of ghoulish pop insanity. “Monster Mash” is pop record that contains everything you need for a creepy Halloween party: creaking doors, buzzing electrodes, clanging coffin lids, shaking chains and other sinister sounds. Upon listening, it sounds like one hell of a party since Dracula, The Wolf Man, Igor and zombies were all there and throwing down. It’s pretty obvious they were groovin’ until the break of dawn. Who wouldn’t want that for Halloween?
The record came about because of Pickett’s love of classic horror films. He grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts where his father owned the local movie house. It was here were Pickett developed his two greatest passions: rock and roll music and a love for the cinema.
Smitten with the allure of Hollywood fame, Picket moved to Los Angeles hoping to stake his claim as an actor. In Hollywood, Pickett struggled like all aspiring actors do to get work. However his musical passion kept him going and he immersed himself in the budding doo-wop/rock scene. He picked up some gigs as a vocalist for a band called The Cordials for extra scratch.
Sometimes to make the shows livelier he would bust out his infamous spot-on Boris Karloff impression and place it within covers of other contemporary pop hits. It was these adlibs that lead to the early genesis of what would become “Monster Mash.”
Lenny Capizzi was in The Cordials with Pickett and knew that he was onto something with the impression. Lore has it that it was Capizzi’s idea to make a novelty record that utilized Pickett’s impressions.
Capizzi and Picket went to work writing and crafting the song. They needed a dance to make the gimmick work and since the Mash Potato was sweeping America at the time they started there. Thus the idea for the song moved from germination to recording. Who would have expected that mixing a Karloff impression with doo-wop and the Mash Potato would lead to something magical?
They played the song for Gary Paxton, a guitarist and producer (who himself had a novelty hit with “Alley Oop” in 1957), who loved the record and agreed to produce it.
In July of 1962, “The Monster Mash” was recorded in Hollywood with just one take.
In addition to Pickett, the record featured The Cryptkickers (aka the Cryptkicker 5) which included Paxton on guitar, Leon Russell on piano, Terry Berg on drums and Johnny McRae and Rickie Page providing backing vocals. Its official release date was August 23rd, 1962.
There is some mystery around this session as Mel Taylor of The Ventures is also sometimes credited as playing on the record. Taylor, it should be noted, missed the recording session of the single but played on the 7″ B-side, recorded in that same session.
The use of effects during this session is significant for the history of pop music. Two decades before “Thriller,” “Monster Mash” featured the best utilization of sound effects heard on pop record. Every effect on the record was done in-studio. Real chains were dropped on floor, a nail was slowly removed from a piece of wood to get a creaky coffin effect and the lab sounds of gurgling test tubes was created by simply blowing a straw into a glass of water.
Once the record was pressed, Paxton took the initiative and shopped it to his buddies at each of the major record labels without success. Undaunted, Paxton championed the record by pressing copies of it himself on his Garpax Records label. He then went to work on getting the record into the hands of every radio DJ he could.
As he continued to muster airplay the public noticed and the song became a cult hit. His DIY strategy propelled “Monster Mash” to the top of the charts in October of 1962 after just eight weeks.
Paxton’s revolutionary promotional strategy was a remarkable achievement in its time. The record charted and was a massive hit without support from a major record label. With his hands on approach, Paxton also knew how to milk a record for all of its worth.
As a result, “Monster Mash” also was revolutionary in that it was successfully charted on the Billboard charts three more times: in December, 1962, August, 1970 and finally in May of 1973. It remains one of a handful of records to re-chart via radio airplay.
Bizarrely, BBC Radio banned “Monster Mash” in 1962. The Beeb believed the record was “too morbid” for listeners. The ban was lifted and it reached #3 in the UK charts in 1973.
Boris Karloff loved the record and was touched by the appreciation it showed for his work. He even went so far as to perform it himself on a Halloween episode of Shindig in 1965.
The King, Elvis Presley, was not a fan. He regarded “Monster Mash” as “the most ridiculous song” he ever heard.
Nearly five decades later, “Monster Mash” remains both a timeless novelty record and serves as a testament, via its unorthodox recording, promotion and marketing, on how to get an “indie” record heard.
The song lives on today but has been covered by many bands since its release, most notably by the Beach Boys in 1964, Vincent Price in 1977 and in 1997 by The Misfits.
“Monster Mash” has become an iconic Halloween tradition. Simply put, there are no Halloween records like it anymore and it still holds up as a great party record. I mean, consider this: it even replaced “The Transylvania Twist” as the dance of choice for the undead!