Friday 20 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Let's revive the Creepy Classics

Don McLean
Don McLean
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

I've been spearheading a revival of classic easy listening from the 1960s and 1970s, even a few from the 1950s. Or as my wife likes to call it, "creepy songs from our childhood". I should say this revival is largely confined to my car. I generally wait until I have the whole family trapped in the car and then I'll subject them to some obscure golden oldies.

This all started a few years back with my family's bizarre adoption of Mary Hopkin's Those Were The Days. I started listening to it a bit and then one day, the younger one cocked her head up, and said: "What's this song called?" In her earlier years this was a child who would freak out every time you tried to introduce her to new music. "Play the songs I like!" she'd protest. As much as I tried to explain to her that in order to find songs she liked she would have to listen to them for the first time on at least one occasion, she refused to accept it. I usually knew when she'd like a particular song and I'd force it on her three times, by which time it would either take or not. But when she asked what the name of a song was, that meant she liked a new song despite her determination not to. So somehow, Those Were The Days, aided by the fact that it was sung by a fellow Mary, became a big favourite. My kids can sing every word of its crazy lyrics.

It was only natural then that Peter Sarstedt's 1969 Creepy Classic Where Do You Go To My Lovely? would come into the frame, and then I just took it from there. You might think of Where Do you Go To My Lovely? as a weird novelty song, and yes, it is totally weird, but equally, there is the stalkery but devastating emotional blow of the pay-off:

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I remember the back streets of Naples/ Two children begging in rags/ Both touched with a burning ambition/ To shake off their lowly-born tags, they tried/ So look into my face, Marie-Claire/ And remember just who you are/ Then go and forget me forever/ But I know you still bear the scar, deep inside/ I know where you go to my lovely/ When you're alone in your bed/ I know the thoughts that surround you/ Cause I can look inside your head.

Once you get into the seam, there's a whole host of spooky and creepy classics. These crazy songs are not bad songs per se. They work on many levels. The production on some of them will often be exquisite, and will possibly involve great musicians like the Wrecking Crew or the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

There are no rules on what fits the bill but you know them when you hear them. There are certain attributes that help. A weird storyline helps, perhaps ending in death. A general sense of mental illness is often involved. A weird Beatles cover by a female singer will always be considered, and a bit of baroque/chamber harpsichord helps too (I'm looking at you Marianne Faithfull, and your creepy version of As Tears Go By). It helps if a song conjures the melancholy vibe of a 1950s housewife who is being held hostage in an empty house on the outskirts of Reno who has drunk half a bottle of gin, taken a few Ambien and smoked a joint. Like Judy Collins's take on Both Sides Now.

Or maybe the feel of a tragic suburban English girl with big dreams. The jackpot here is when someone who already has the right vibe takes on a creepy song. Like Dusty taking on Noel Harrison's The Windmills of Your Mind. And then there are the kinds of songs that you imagine a serial killer who is living in a house with his dead mother propped up in the bed might play in the background while he does taxidermy on his latest victim. Like Connie Francis's Who's Sorry Now? Or The End of the World by Julie London.

Equally, you can find songs that are regarded as mainstream classics but that take on a creepy vibe when put in the right context. Though we have tended to traditionally ignore its glorification of suicide, Vincent by Don McLean is in fact a very unsettling song. I have loads more where these come from. We may return to this subject.

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