Whew. What a season! I think I did some of my best work on both The Blog and on The Podcast this year, and the Spooktacular was the tacular-est of them all, thanks to everyone who has been following along. Please, check out All Our October Podcasts and All Our October Blog Posts if you’d like to catch up. But don’t worry too much about the past. There’s lots of cool stuff on the horizon, too, so whatever your relative “now” is, it is always a good time to jump on board with our stuff. To close I will ask, one last time, that you take a look and a listen at The Ways Of Ghosts one more time, and if you’re feeling generous, please pick up a copy. It’s a good way to support what we do, and a great piece of Halloween listening if I do say so myself. (End of plugs section.)
As much as I’ve enjoyed Halloween and the music associated with it for a long time, I have never obsessed too much over what I dress up as, or how I should decorate for the holiday. Sure, I would participate if I was going to a party, or had a pumpkin lying around, but it is only recently that I have gotten into collecting cool decorations for the holiday, and if I were to get very specific, it is only since I met my wife, who is also a big fan of vintage holiday ephemera. We have an aesthetic we’re trying to cultivate, and obviously we fudge things here and there for the sake of nostalgia, but try to keep it within reason. We don’t go all-out with crazy decorations, and “tasteful” is something we are constantly weighing when we put things up. But we do like to have fun, an we’re always looking out for something to add to our collection. To close out the season here on the blog, here’s a photo shoot of our decorations, and some highlights discussed below.
First, here’s a video of walking up to our house in the dark. I think it is rather charming.
We try to keep our lights simple, and limited to path lighting with a few accent strings here and there. Among them are a few strings of these flickering lights, that are supposed to replicate the look of candles. I’m quite fond of them, and the best part is that they are appropraite for both Halloween & Christmas. The path lights are only problematic because we have shitty people in the neighborhood who will stomp on them. Otherwise, they are so easy to install and store if you keep the original packaging, and replacement bulbs are easy to find.
I would also mention that many of the “electronic” candles that you can get in most stores have “timer” settings, where the light is on for five hours, and off for 19. (Some have even further settings to fine tune these times.) These can work really well to accent parts of the room, or light the inside of other decorations (like our stack of pumpkins). Lastly, I have all of my lights on one switch in the living room, so I don’t even have to go outside to turn everything off. I recommend this for anyone who wants to set up decorations. I used to just plug things in where ever I could, and really thought I wouldn’t mind going out to unplug things. Being able to shut it down with one switch is quite a luxury.
When we moved into our house last year, it was Spring, and throughout the summer we got to know our neighbors. But we were still very surprised when they offered this wreath to us last October, just before we were about to put our our decorations, as a gift. It was so incredibly thoughtful, and is such a great addition to the porch. I have since made a special box just for the wreath to store it during the off season, we are very proud of it. While we mostly keep to ourselves, that wreath really bonded us as neighbors.
My wife and I are fond of vintage blowmolds, and every time we’ve found one it’s been worth buying, no matter where you find them. Patience has paid off, and we have found four incredible pumpkins at various thrift stores. Each of these are designed to insert a light that plugs in, creating the effect that the entire plastic item is lighting up (you can see them in action in the video). These things are really awesome, and we get excited when we can put them out. As you can see, the biggest one is clearly sun-damaged with age, but the others are pretty fantastic. We’re hoping that we can find more to flesh out our entire porch as the years go on.
Among the other weird thrift scores that my wife has found was this plastic bag that you can fill with leaves. It is much grosser and harder to fill than you would think, and it is easy to damage or ruin the plastic, too. However, it has a bit of charm to it, and we have enjoyed putting it on the porch this year. There are four other versions of this same kind of thing, made by the same company (Kenley Corporation in Mason, Ohio), so it would be cool to complete the set.
Last year I made this mix of “scary” sounds from a variety of sources, and edited it to fit the length of an audio CD. I made a CD, and play it on my porch from a small, portable CD player that I purchased several years ago (you can see it in the video above). I put the CD on infinite repeat, and it works very well as an atmospheric sound for people who walk up to the porch.
While we have picked up a few things in stores (like these pumpkins that fold out), my wife has scored a variety of vintage cardboard and paper wall hangings, and you can tell by the designs that they are most likely the from the early ’80s or late ’70s. However, we have also acquired a folding witch lantern, a Halloween banner, and a stand up cat. While most of our paper crafts – like the Mummy – are fairly newish, this Pumpkin / Owl Fold-Out item is not only one of the oldest items we have, but by far the coolest. I added a spider to it this year for effect, but it does not need one. It is pretty great.
My mom used to make these tissue paper ghosts when I was a kid, and they are very much something I remember fondly. They’re incredibly easy to make, too. After you wad up a bit of paper or newspaper to create the “head,” wrap a piece of generic tissue paper around it. Tie a piece of thread around the tissue paper to keep the head in place, and cut off the thread at a reasonable length so you can hang it from somewhere (like, you’re ceiling). I call this part of our living room “Ghost Corner,” and I already have plans for creating little floating styrofoam headstones in the future. But for now these twenty are a good start to my collection. These are an easy craft project for kids, too, and is much less messy than carving a pumpkin.
My wife used to have a number of Blythe Dolls, and to this day is connected to a group that still interacts regularly. (She has two that she still keeps). This year she was invited to a Halloween Doll party, where other collectors brought their dolls dressed up in all sorts of costumes. To that end, she made the helmet using a styrofoam pumpkin she bought at a craft store. She cut the bottom out, and covered the surface of the pumpkin with glue, then glitter. Lastly, she added a coat of hairspray to help “set” the glitter. The overall effect was pretty great, as you can see.
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So, while we don’t cover every inch of our house with decorations, we like to have fun, and we like the stuff we have. We’\ve only been together for a short time, and just got married, so our collection is pretty young. But given a few more years, we could amass some awesome stuff if we keep looking.
As Halloween began to get commodified more and more in the ’70’s and ’80’s, the kinds of music and recording that were hitting the market began to dabble in strange little nooks and crannies. Disney had established that narratives could work, and many people stuck with reading Edgar Allen Poe if they wanted a spooky story. But Caedmon Records expanded the scope of what they were willing to release, and with that they contacted Vincent Price to perform for their Halloween releases.
I’ve written at length about both Vincent Price and his relationship with Caedmon Records, so I won’t bore you too much with that, except to say that to me, he really is a Halloween character, through and through. My perception of him as a kid was very much that of a horror creature, and I would get pretty excited when I would hear his voice, or see him in a film. Having Vincent as a part of Halloween just makes sense, and I’m happy to hear him year-round.
Below are five links, that allow you to hear the five-part series I ran last October as part of our Annual Halloween Spook-tacular! These were delivered into the podcast feed on five consecutive days – Monday through Friday – at 11 AM each day. String all five of these together for a 25 minute tale that is a fantastic way to spend an evening if you’re looking for something seasonally appropriate to do.
There’s something really fun about serial entertainment, as the kinds of people who are prone to binge-watching any TV Show can easily attest to. We like being cut off at the height of the stories’ telling, knowing that we have to wait for the next segment to come a day, week, month or year later.
I’m not sure how many new fans got into the story as it was being doled out in five-minute chunks, but Vincent Price fans loved it, and I had a lot of fun making it, for sure, so much so that I even made a little commercial for the event.
(Originally podcast on 17 October 2014. Expanded for this presentation.)
Once “The Monster Mash” hit the scene in 1962, two things became clear for artists in the 1960’s: the combination of Monsters and Rock Music was perfect for any aspiring artist, and the “Christmas Effect” was now applicable to Halloween as this songs – not even a great song, to be sure – was starting to get guaranteed seasonal airplay. In the same way that cutting a Christmas Tune gave your group some longevity, if only because you would get yearly airplay), then anyone with a guitar and some friends could watch a few horror films late at night and cast around for their own novelty hit that might help launch their careers.
But it wasn’t just people like Bobby Pickett and Don Hinson that were cranking out monster songs, and in the early ’60’s, rock music was changing. Surf had hit the scene pretty hard in the early ’60’s, telegraphing psychedelia by a few years. Surf taught kids that, so long as your guitar player could solo and your rhythm section could play nice with each other, anyone could start one of these bands. Once The Beatles made their epic three week engagement on The Ed Sullivan Show, it seemed as if this version of Rock & Roll was not your parents version from the last decade. Focused on teenagers and their alienation from the rest of modern culture, Rock Music was no longer just about dancing and partying, but had a new range and sound that was electric, and LOUD.
It helped that there was a lot of cheaply made instruments for sale – both new and used – and was thus easy to distribute among the suburbs. Kids everywhere began to create bands with their friends, and by the end of 1964, hundreds of garage bands across the country started, all picking up instruments, picking up cues from the Rock Stars on TV, and picking up on this Monster Vibe that was reverberating through our Culture in Movies and The Late Late Show. Just because these groups were not famous, and were not well known outside of their own home town was irrelevant; if they could get a gig at the local armory, or at a house party, that was fine. And, if one of them had enough savings to sink into pressing up a 45, hey, that was cool, too. Teenagers – distracted by hormones and parties and the War in Vietnam and girls & boys and surfing – had never gotten together and planned to create a music movement. Instead, they were just looking for ways to pass the time.
Lenny Kaye was one of these teenagers, and started his own band in 1964 – The Vandals. As a fanzine writer and music enthusiast, this made sense, and as he got to know other bands and began traveling, he collected records by other garage groups – music that Kaye labeled “punk rock” – and found that many of these songs were in danger of getting lost in the cracks if action was not taken. In 1972 he assembled the original Nuggets compilation, which showcased music by groups that, while not representative of the entire movement, captured those with some pretty big regional hits: The Blues Project, The 13th Floor Elevators, The Amboy Dukes, and Nazz. As some would say, the rest in history: Nuggets has become a sort of cottage industry for Rhino Records, who released 14 sequels to Kaye’s original record in the late ’80’s, and assembled three 4-disc sets of other material, along with other 4-disc localized collections like the LA and San Francisco sets.
It is impossible to say if Kaye knew what was happening when he made that first collection in 1972, but before long he set off not only the modern Rock Record collector market, but a whole genre of compilation albums. The Pebbles series followed in 1978 (which seems to have stopped after 28 collected LPs of tunes), each collecting the lesser-known groups of the Garage Era. Crypt Records‘ very own Tim Warren started Back From The Grave in 1983, as series of comps that focused on some of the wilder, rawer, and crazier records from this same era. (Up to 10 volumes, at this point.)
But more importantly, these (and other) compilations that came out in the years since began to document an era that was beginning to be lost. Classic Rock Radio was the dominant format in America by the ’80’s, and it seemed as if the history of rock and roll was going from Elvis to Led Zeppelin, with little focus on the ’60’s outside of the psychedelic movement (that seemed to map over the political ideology of the counterculture). However, not everyone was into psyche rock. Most people in the ’60’s had grown up on Rock & Roll, and want to make something closer to The Troggs than to Jefferson Airplane. These compilations reclaimed the story of Rock Music from the one that was being heard on the radio, and helped document scenes that had otherwise disappeared once everyone went off to college.
It is ironic that a more complete picture of the ’60’s didn’t come together until the ’80’s, and even then seemed only appreciated by collectors and nerds who enjoyed doing the research. But people who had worked to assemble these kinds of comps also established an entire market for LPs that were not collections of Hit Songs. The idea that you could make a record that documents a time and and a place – wherever and whenever that might be – created the Punk Rock that Kaye had identified in Garage Music. Not only has the Killed By Death series done for punk what these other comps did for the ’60’s, but the larger idea of documenting these fragile (and quickly disintegrating music movements) gave the DIY movement the much needed juice to keep going when things seemed darkest, a tradition that has persisted into the 2010s.
In the early 2000s, S’more Entertainment was just another small record company looking for an angle, and noticed that the reissue market was one place that record sales were not dropping off. They began with re-issues of Black Oak Arkansas and Nazareth records, and hit gold with Dick Dale’s back catalog. They quickly assembled a collection – Surf-Age Nuggets – under the name RockBeat Records, hoping that if it bombed, they could quickly shed the name and keep going. However, Surf was still big money, and this collection (available on both CD and LP) but this new subsidiary on the map. Very quickly RockBeat, and the work they were doing in that office, subsumed the parent company.
RockBeat had hit on a formula, and went on to release collections of The Moving Sidewalks, Little Feat, The Blasters, Albert King, Django Reinhardt, and the very impressive Los Nuggetz Volume Uno, which assembled the previously-uncharted territory of Mexican Rock Music from the ’60’s and ’70’s. Armed with this success, they began casting around for something else they could put in the stores, and hit upon the idea of collecting old ’60’s Monster songs. Plenty of garage bands had recorded stuff like that, and with access to a number of artist’s catalogs, it appeared that they could even release a proper boxed set, music like the comps they were using as their inspiration.
Taking cues from the Wavy Gravy model, RockBeat inserted horror movie trailers into their three-disc set, in-between songs about partying in graveyards and hanging out with vampires. The the concentration (and quality) of the tunes here is what really sets this apart from the stuff you usually find in stores when September rolls around. Foregoing anything close to “The Monster Mash,” they really dug into the Nuggets of the past, and assembled almost 100 tracks of incredibly rockin’ songs, many of which had not been comped elsewhere. (There is some overlap with other sources, but not much.)
As a relatively new compilation – 2014, no less – it remains to be seen if this collection will gain the same kind of notoriety of the Nuggets predecessors that paved the way for this label. And, to be completely fair, RockBeat might not have a long-term future, either. (Having only been around for 10 years, and the increasingly declining state of the Record Industry, might make it hard to build a career on re-issues.) However, in our house, this collection is already a classic, and is absolutely essential listening this time of year. If you want to class up any party you’re throwing – and you still want to be on-point with seasonal treats – Halloween Nuggets is the only way to go.
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You can purchase the album at Amazon.com.
You can stream the entire thing at Spotify. (I think you need to be logged in for that link to work.)
It is also available in a number of other places, too.
Watusi Zombi * Jan Davis * Halloween Nuggets
Graveyard * The Phantom Five * Halloween Nuggets
Scream * Ralph Neilsen & The Chancellors * Halloween Nuggets
Mother Box 034
Frankie Stein And His Ghouls!
(Originally podcast on 14 October 2014. Expanded as a blog post for this presentation.)
Before The Cramps & The Misfits there was another Monster Themed rock band, made up of real monsters, that was blowing the socks off all the cool kids in mid-’60’s: Frankie Stein & His Ghouls! But the story of how these monsters came to be was so secretive that, for many years, it was completely unknown to most. The mystery behind Frankie Stein & His Ghouls is, for some, most of the charm, and in the summer of 1964 when their first record slipped out into stores, unannounced, it was pretty clear that the Synthetic Plastics Company (under the Power Records imprint) had a hit on their hands.
For those of you who don’t want the mystery of these recordings ruined for you, I completely understand. You might want to skip most of the rest of this essay. There is something amazing about the complete package you see in the album above. This was absolutely marketed to kids in every way, but also: to HIP kids. Kids who liked to dance, who understood how cool ghouls really were, and knew that having monsters at your party was the only way to be “cool.” If you grew up like this, you probably don’t want to know the truth about Frankie Stein. Who would? The band is better off as a group of unknowns. In a way, I like to think that these records really were made by the monsters you see on the covers.
It’s sort of lame, in this modern age of instant-information, to think that you have to know everything about everything. It’s the same problem when Jandek went from a genuine mystery to this guy who releases eccentric records that a fair number of people have now met. This group of monsters cutting rock and roll LPs is just as reasonable to any boring truth that would probably ruin the charm of these amazing recordings. So, please, feel free to skip the story below. I won’t be offended.
In 1950 the Synthetic Plastics company went from the premiere manufacturer of plastics that were used by the garment industry to the premiere manufacturer of children’s music entertainment, basically overnight. It was not a glamorous or financially solvent field to enter into, but from the perspective of the company, Children’s Entertainment could be produced in the same way that their assembly lines had produced plastic products for clothing. Turn your limitations into strengths, and hire good workers to produce quality materials. Then, find the right store to stock your product, and roll out the advertising. The ideas were basic business practices for decades now, and Synthetic Plastics went about creating a number of subsidiary companies throughout the ’50’s and ’60’s to release one kind or another of children’s LPs as a way to stay competitive.
While the idea that each of these different “labels” all had a traditional staff of record industry analogs is to even give the practice a Synthetic Plastics that much credit or planning. Each staff member at Synthetic Plastics headed “a label,” and they were each in charge of the releases that label put out. The company had a studio, and everyone learned how to run the gear on their own. Once a recording was finished and the covers were designed (again, by the one in-house self-taught design team), the company would ship these off to be pressed, after which the records were sent to their warehouse, where they shipped out their product to every store that carried their stock. Everyone was urged to get as many releases out as possible. Quantity was going to win this battle.
Story albums and collections of children’s rhymes and songs were instant hot sellers, but as the ’60’s began to start rocking, it was clear that the kiddie dance crazes were another market that Synthetic Plastics to fill. Kids were really enjoying these LPs of dance songs, each song catering to a dance that was popular. This wasn’t Rock and Roll per se, just a very watered down and “whitened” form that was popular everywhere now that groups like The Beatles and The Stones were starting to get going. These dance LPs (instrumental, of course) were safe ways that parents could let their children enjoy Rock music, and built in a guaranteed fan base for rock music as the kids got older. Synthetic Plastics began searching for some musicians that “got” this new sound, to produce records for them to release.
The found the perfect Duo in the pair Joel Herron & Fred Hertz. Joel had came out of radio, conducted his own band in the ’50’s, and had made a name for himself as a bit of a songwriter. Joel met Fred working on The Jimmy Dean Show, and they bonded over having grown up on jazz and swing, but having a love of the new R&B and Rock music that came with girls, dancing and drugs. Joel was approached by Synthetic Plastics to assemble an in-house band to record for some of these dance records they were planning, and the money was just good enough that he brought Fred Hertz (and some of his regular players) along with him. Joel and Fred bonded over pop culture, and loved talking about different creature features they had recently taken in, always making obtuse and crude references to bad horror tropes when the got together. Very quickly they developed a sense of humor that made them a perfect working partnership.
The idea was to lay down some tracks that Synthetic Plastic could use as “bed music.” With a set rhythm section recorded, the label could go back and have different “lead” musicians do different solos and bespoke licks over the same bed music. This gave Synthetic Plastics the opportunity to creating a number of “songs” without having to record the whole band every time. The more unique lead parts they could lay over the tracks, the better, and soon one session with a full band was paying off rather fruitfully for the label. Using different themes and cover designs, Synthetic Plastics managed to do very well for themselves with this idea, and by 1963 a number of these Dance Records has been making the rounds in stores, and sold fairly well.
It is hard to say who had the idea first, but after a night of getting loaded and goofing around in the studio, Joel & Fred took the sound effects from the studio archives and laid them over the dance tunes they had recorded, and made a tape for themselves that they would play around for friends. They knew they could outdo “The Monster Mash” in terms of performing, and the way they mixed the tracks, it sounded like real monsters were playing the tunes. Both Joel & Fred were well aware of the Shock Theater! monster book happening around them, and while the tape was started as a joke, once they got a cover mocked up and had made a few copies for friends in the radio industry (pressed under the amusing moniker “Power Records,”) it seemed as if the idea was crazy enough to actually work. In 1964, Synthetic Plastic tested “Introducing Frankie Stein and His Ghouls: Monster Sounds And Dance Music” (The Ideal Party Record!) to an unsuspecting America. It sold out in every store, and thus the “Power Records” label – which had not existed before – was handed over to Joel & Fred.
The next year was busy for Joel & Fred, and in the summer of 1965 they released four new Frankie Stein LPs, and re-issued the one from the previous year, all of which sold very well everywhere they were available. These were easily produced in the studio, again recycling other tracks they had cut for other dance records, then remixing them with the “Frankie Stein Sound,” and it seemed as if Joel & Fred had set up a cottage industry. But they also had other interests in Hollywood, and making kids fare all day, every day didn’t really appeal to them, especially given how cheaply Synthetic Plastics was producing them (skimping on things like studio time, and pay). Fred went on to be relatively unknown afterward, and Joel went back to radio and television, popping up here and there for the remainder of his life. Frankie Stein & His Ghouls would be a nice footnote to a small paycheck they had received from Synthetic Plastics, and wasn’t really thought about by either of them again.
As time went on, these records began to become quite collectable. The original print runs were the only time Synthetic Plastics put any money into the project, and when Fred & Joel left, both Frankie Stein (and Power Records) essentially stopped production, and the company moved on. Until some of these songs were reissued (incompletely) on a two-CD set in 2005, the primary way anyone heard this music was from a friend who had made a cassette transfer, and to this day LP rips float around online. Fans had no way of finding (or confirming) information about these records for decades, and while the value of the original LPs (like much of the Synthetic Plastics releases from their early days) skyrocketed in value on the resale market among people in the know, they were completely unheard of by most everyone else. For a long time, these albums seemed mythical.
This, in many ways, ushered in the modern era of Halloween Novelty records. Frankie Stein took the ideas of scary sounds LPs and “The Monster Mash,” and combined them in a way that punk bands have been doing every year since. And there is immense charm and genuine strangeness to these albums that qualifies as experimental at times, too. And, let’s not forget, they rock and roll was pretty good for 1964, when you get down to the playing. Frankie Stein did not invent the Monster Rock And Roll song, but in five albums over less than two years, he certainly perfected it, codified the sense of humor, and insisted on a good backbeat.
These days, these albums are virtually forgotten by the mainstream, and are rarely dusted off outside of record nerds like me. But the idea of music by monsters is so compelling that these albums deserve a second listen. These are albums made during the golden age of children’s albums, and in many ways, the perfect synthesis of a studio system creating the Casablanca of monster records, almost completely by accident, like some creature born in a lab.
It isn’t required that you know how these kinds of records get made. But it is important that you get to know them, anyway.
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Stoned (Monkey, Watusi) [Excerpt] * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Shock! Terror! Fear! (1964)
Mummy’s Little Boy (Monkey, Twist) * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Ghoul Music (1965)
Dance Of Doom (Monkey, Watusi) * Frankie Stein And His Ghouls * Monster Sounds And Dance Music (1965)
Their page on discogs.com
Roger’sBasement.com. (A fan site from the ’90’s / early ’00’s that details every scrap of information anyone can find / has / knows about Frankie Stein. This site is now defunct in the last year, but there are archived versions of the site at archive.org.
Amazon.com sometimes has a remastered CD containing most (but not all) of the Frankie Stein songs.