[13 January 2011]
How’s this for weird? In 1958, John Zacherle, a 40-year-old World War II veteran and TV horror movie host, went to the Philadelphia studio of Cameo Parkway to record a spoken-word piece of gruesome limericks. Cameo Parkway producer/guitarist Dave Appell laid down a two-chord backing track with the label’s house band. Dan Dailey punctuated the limericks with thick sax solos. At some point Zacherle’s friend Dick Clark stopped by to check on the song’s progress. (He’d later ask Zacherle to tame the song down for American Bandstand.) In the spring, “Dinner With Drac Part 1” hit #6 on the Billboard pop chart, despite lyrics about swimming in blood and eating mummy veins. Why you never hear this song on oldies radio is beyond me.
Four years later, Zacherle released a record called Monster Mash. After kicking off with a cover of Bobby Pickett’s title tune, the album proceeds to pillage much of Cameo Parkway’s catalog. Zacherle parodies the Orlons (“Weird Watusi”), the Dovells (“Pistol Stomp”), Dee Dee Sharp (“Gravy (With Some Cyanide)”), and the label’s superstar, Chubby Checker (“Limb From Limbo Rock”). Though the label let Zacherle record over the original songs’ instrumental tracks, he dropped most of their backing vocals to carve out space for his monologues. Because those backing vocals had supplied most of the songs’ harmonies, their absence gives Zacherle’s parodies a sparse, recorded-in-the-basement vibe. And since Zacherle’s lyrics wallow in body parts and dismemberment, the whole effect is creepier than expected. “Let’s Twist Again (Mummy Time is Here)” starts off sounding chipper and cute, until you realize it’s about twisting body parts off mummies and “producing mummy juice” for some deranged purpose. It’s like hearing someone air his sickest obsessions despite himself. These “songs” anticipate such far-flung acts as Rob Zombie, the Flesh Eaters, and ranting Memphis weirdo Ross Johnson.
Monster Mash comes packaged together with Scary Tales and the short-lived single “Igor”, another limerick song. (Irene dies her hair green “with the juice from [her] spleen!”) Equally delightful, though in very different ways, are recently reissued two-fers from Sharp and the Dovells, who churned out a panoply of dance-pop in the early ‘60s. Indeed, all four of these albums—Sharp’s It’s Mashed Potato Time and Do the Bird, the Dovells’ For Your Hully Gully Party and You Can’t Sit Down—are named after dances or unacceptable substitutes for dancing. Hully Gully is almost a concept album about its titular dance step. Other steps propagandized here include the Jitterbug, the New Continental, and (of course) the Twist. In fact, Checker is the spiritual hero of Mashed Potato: Sharp duets with him on a remade “Slow Twistin’” and commemorates his creation in the blasphemous “A Hundred Pounds of Clay”.
Sharp, who got her start singing gospel, is so good that when she sings “Clay”’s climactic line, “He created Chubby! / And a lots of twistin’ for a man” [sic], you somehow respect her more. (In the entertaining liner notes, she calls “Mashed Potato Time” “the dumbest record I’d ever heard”.) She sounds spirited and unencumbered, with a full-throated voice similar to Checker’s or Jackie Wilson’s. Her 1963 Bird is probably the best of these six albums. She smokes “Let the Sunshine In”, yelps and growls “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Nothin’”, sobs “Why Don’t You Ask Me”, and generally energizes every joyful cover she touches. As with the Dovells, Sharp’s music is exemplary pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll: handclap beats, “those magic” chord changes, and plenty of sax solos.
The Dovells were a Four Seasons-style vocal group led by Len Barry, a feral tenor two tantrums away from turning into Axl Rose. They relied on covers almost as much as Sharp and Zacherle, but they also did some Appell originals: that whole “Hully Gully” saga, the sunny “Stripper” rewrite “Miss Daisy De Lite”, and the even sunnier “Cheat”, a cad’s version of remorse. Barry details his infidelity over a rollicking doo-wop beat, while his boys shout out the refrain, “Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! Cheat! / Lie! Lie! Lie! Lie! Lie! / Why did I cheat on… youuuu?”) The biggest smash here is “You Can’t Sit Down”, swiped from an instrumental by the Chicago jazz guitarist Phil Upchurch. An orgy of handclaps, organ, wild sax, and Barry’s “a-YIP-yeah-yeah”, “You Can’t Sit Down” is nearly self-fulfilling prophecy.
At the very least, it’s hard to sit still while these kids are singing. Amid all the first-draft lyrics and gimcrack covers, there’s a real sense of conversation happening here. You can imagine the Cameo Parkway records as a party. The kids dance, and they drag you onto the floor. They sing the songs they love from the radio, or do impressions of some of the singers, and they make you wanna sing along. They change up familiar lyrics to fit their lives, forcing you to contemplate how these songs work in your own life. And for some reason, there’s a 40-year-old guy in the kitchen, wearing corpsepaint and cackling about poisoning his in-laws. I’m sure it wouldn’t be the strangest party you’ve attended.