With summer moving towards fall, and the greatest and creepiest holiday of the year now less than two months away, I thought I’d take a break from flogging the careers of bastards, and move onto another subject near and dear to my heart: Songs that unintentionally give one the creeps.

I’m sure if you’re like me, you have at least one childhood memory of sitting in a dark room listening to the radio. Suddenly, a song comes on that’s so weird, so dark, so strange, that you rush to turn the lights on and the radio off at the same time, for fear of losing your mind — or to ward off the beasts of hell that surely lurk within the song.

Of course, the song in question might be something by Gordon Lightfoot — but dammit, back then it was freakin’ scary, so lay off, man!

Anyway, these next few weeks, leading up to Halloween, I’m going to be giving you some of the most unintentionally creepy compositions that have burned themselves into my brain. I’d love you to use the comments sections to tell me about some of your own that you think I should cover.

So, let’s start things off with a bang — or a crash, if you’re talking about this group’s most popular song. The Shangri-Las might pack the most per-capita creepiness into their career than any other pop group (or at least girl group). Riding the early-’60s wave of both girl groups and teenager tragedy songs, the Shangri-Las’ first hit, “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, provided a template for the rest of their career, using all the elements that would make them memorable: spoken lyrics, sound effects, and melodrama so rich it bordered on camp. These were mixed together with echo-drenched vocals that varied between emotive belts one second and almost zombie-like monotones the next, and all of it was produced via a dime-store recreation of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound courtesy of Brill Building oddball George “Shadow” Morton (so nicknamed because he had the habit of often disappearing for days without telling anyone where he was going).

The group’s biggest hit, “Leader of the Pack,” upped the ante on the teen tragedy, and has become perhaps the most renowned archetype (along with Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve”) of the “death disc.” Again, the sound effects are intercut with the tune; motorcycle revs, screeching tires and breaking glass push the song from melancholy pop to bombastic, frightening soap tragedy in a split second. In fact, the king of pop bombast, Jim Steinman, said that “Leader of the Pack” was a direct influence on Bat Out of Hell.

The song of theirs that really did it for me, though — the creepiest of the creepiest — was their final A-side for their original label Red Bird Records, 1966’s “Past Present and Future.” Based almost entirely on the main theme to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” the song starts out with a solo piano line. Then, the background singers almost whisper “Past,” and lead singer Mary Weiss starts reciting the lyrics. That’s right: reciting. Nothing in this song is actually going to be sung. And what she’s saying is…well, it’s creepy. She’s talking about a prior relationship, and something happened. Something bad. But she’s not saying what it is. And it’s not just what Mary’s saying, but how she’s saying it — she knows she’s got a secret, and the only power she’s got left in her life is to keep it from you. To keep you guessing — on edge. She’s saying it right to you. You’re asking her out; and she replies:

Go out with you? Why not
Do I like to dance? Of Course,
Take a walk along the beach tonight? I’d love to,
But don’t try to touch me, don’t try to touch me
‘Cause that will never happen again….

What? What the hell is going on here? But you’re not going to find out, because then the strings sweep you up and away from this, and take you to…”The Future”:

The future, Tomorrow? well tomorrow’s a long way off
Maybe someday I’ll have somebody’s hand
But at the moment it doesn’t look good
At the moment it will never happen again…..

And then she slowly repeats a version of the final line, and the strings hit a last, trembling, vibrato, and then a shock goes up my spine and I feel there’s a ghost in room with me or something. God damn! I still have trouble listening to this song. I don’t think it’s intentionally meant to be creepy. Weepy, yes, but not creepy. And yet, to me, this is in the pantheon of spooky pop songs.

About the Author

Matthew Bolin

Matthew Bolin discovered popular music could be a good thing at age 13. During a field trip to a local college library, he found Rolling Stone's "100 Best Albums, 1967-1987" issue, and a great and glorious world opened up. In the years since, Rolling Stone has shrunk, but Matthew has moved up in the world, and will eventually claim his title as "America's Librarian" sometime in the next decade.

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