Last week, our newish colleagues at Detroit Metro Times posted a blog entry entitled “13 of The Creepiest Pieces of Music Ever Recorded, Ever.” Author Mike McGonigal listed some worthy contenders among his list, including Cromagnon's Caledonia, the Halloween film soundtrack, and He's Able, the one and only studio album by the Peoples Temple Choir (of Jim Jones/Jonestown infamy).
What struck me, though, was the tone of McGonigal's introduction. He cavalierly disqualified some of the creepiest recordings in history for admittedly subjective reasons. No “Frankie Teardrop?” No Throbbing Gristle? Really? I did agree with his assessment of the Misfits: Those may be great punk songs, but only slightly scarier than Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Now, I've known McGonigal since the Reagan era. I have nothing but respect for his musical knowledge and writing abilities. But as long as he's admitting that his list is “subjective,” I could not resist the opportunity to provide my own list of creepy recordings. Some of them are fairly well-known; others aren't so much “music” as “horrifying field recordings.” Only one of our choices overlaps. Nonetheless, all of them are unsettling, creepy, or flat-out scary to one degree or another.
Keep in mind that you can't unhear any of these recordings. Therefore, I've developed an on-the-fly Fright Factor rating system to help you make informed decisions:
1-3: Mildly unsettling.
4-6: Moderately creepy.
7-8: Avoid listening in dark, remote areas.
9: Creepy enough that I lived in fear for years that I'd hear it on the radio.
10: A living nightmare. An audio document of Hell. You're better off not listening.
Finally, the "subjective" disclaimer applies as much here as in the original piece. Different people scare in different ways, after all. Feel free to add some of your choices in the comments section.
1) Marie Osmond chanting Hugo Ball 's "Karawane"
Fright Factor: 1
This isn't so much “scary” as it is “bizarre and unexpected.” But it unsettled me the first time I heard it, if only for the surprise factor.
2) Dead Kennedys: "Advice from Christmas Past"
Fright factor: 3
Plastic Surgery Disasters was the DKs' weirdest and most psychologically damaged album. It begins and ends with freeform noise jams, while a female voice recites "soothing" passages that quickly turn mocking and sarcastic. This freaked me out so much as a kid that I actually returned Plastic Surgery Disasters to the store, exchanging it for the Human League's Dare. Or something equally non-threatening.
3) The Clash: "Mensforth Hill"
Fright Factor: 3-4
There are all kinds of experiments hidden deep within The Clash's Sandinista! triple album. These include “Lose This Skin,” a surreally sprightly jig, “Career Opportunities” and “The Guns of Brixton” as sung by children in a proto-Kidz Bop style, and a whole lot of ganja-fueled dub. “Mensforth Hill” is the track that used to creep me out the most. It's basically the song “Something About England” played backwards, overlaid with sound effects. Nowadays it doesn't shock me like it used to, but it's still disturbing compared to their better-known hits.
4) Erica Pomerance: "You Used To Think"
Fright Factor: 4
Pomerance was a member of the ESP-Disk label, also home to such rulebreakers as the Fugs, Patty Waters and Albert Aylar. In 1968, she recorded her only album, You Used To Think, supposedly under the influence of LSD and a bad flu. It's hard to think of a more effective combination to evoke a hazy, disassociated state. Not surprisingly, much of the album sounds unhinged. On the title track, an acoustic guitar lays down a basic rhythm while Pomerance freaks out vocally. Her vocals are double-tracked, with the left side carrying the main melody and the right side randomly dropping in loose harmonies and abrupt phrasing. The effect is startling at times.
5) Half Japanese: "I Walk Through Walls”
Fright Factor: 5-6
Bandleader Jad Fair once broke down his oeuvre into two categories: love songs and monster songs. This is one of the monster songs. It includes some of the most piercing screams ever recorded.
6) John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions
Fright Factor: 6-7
John and Yoko released a series of incredibly bizarre albums as the Beatles wound down. But while Two Virgins and Wedding Album at least had some slight levity at times, this one is much grimmer. Side one's “Cambridge 1969” is a live recording: Lennon plays lacerating rhythm guitar, Ono does what Ono does, and eventually a saxophonist joins in. At times, Ono's vocals intertwine with the sax playing. But it's side two that's really gnawing, a series of pieces recorded while Ono was in hospital during a miscarriage. First Ono and Lennon chant exerpts from their own newspaper clippings, then there are five minutes of their unborn child's heartbeat, then two minutes of silence, as if to think about what we just heard, and finally, several minutes of staccato noise bursts while someone – presumably John – mutters on the phone in the background.
Continue to page two for more.