10 songs for Halloween that are actually about ghosts (and aren’t just metaphors for something else).

October 29, 2015 3:55 pm
Other-worldly references in song have frequently been used to express more corporeal pre-occupations. Whether it’s ruminating on lost or broken relationships, unfulfilled possibilities, broader social malaise or just wistful navel-gazing, the supernatural provides that compelling image that draws the listener in. Typically employing the concept of the ghost, or a realm that transcends our everyday senses, these songs emphasise aspects of our personal, social, or emotional realities.
halloween
Such songs do not make up this list. Metaphors, euphemism and figurative description are not characteristic of these compositions. Here, the supernatural is very real indeed, and an encounter with the unknown cannot be re-assuringly translated to our worldly frame of reference. From the confessional to the tongue-in-cheek, the mythical to the every-day, and indeed the sacred to the profane, these songs believe there is something out there, and they invite you to believe as well. Some of the more immediate choices, thrilling though they are, are not gonna be called to this particular monster mash, so allowing the limelight to be be extended to other ditties of the dark. So, this Halloween, as the shadows lengthen, stoke the remaining embers in the fire ( whether real or symbolic), and take a musical night-flight through these songs of the unexpected, listed in no particular order.. Finally, please bear in mind, that during the proceedings if the ghosts of your life blow wilder than before, they might actually be real ghosts.

“Under your thumb” – Godley and Creme

Kevin Godley and Lol Creme constituted the more experimental, and sonically innovative element of 70’s pop troupe 10cc. When they departed the group in 1976, they were able to bring their joint artistic and production ideas to more tangible fruition, as an act in their own right. Very much ploughers of their own furrow in the new wave milieu, “Under your Thumb”, from their album “Ismism”, became an unlikely Number 3 smash in the autumn of 1981. The duo used their distinctive sensibilities in creating a cinematic soundscape ( falling rain, locomotion engine) as a backdrop to a vivid and eerie tale of a ghostly apparition following a tragic suicide. This is synth-pop meets MR James, that maintains its ability to unsettle. It is easy to discern Kevin and Lol’s descriptive vision that was also realised as producers of such iconic videos for The Police’s “Every breath you take” and Visage’s “Fade to grey.”  A spooky riposte to the Rolling Stones’ similarly titled 1966 hit “Under my thumb”, perhaps? A sense of musical karma might suggest so….

“Home by the sea” – Genesis

Genesis’ progressive, ethereal roots lingered on as a significant backdrop to their subsequent musical direction.This is well illustrated by “Home by the sea” a two part composition, from the eponymous 1983 album that nonetheless moved them further overall, into the MOR, radio (and MTV) friendly pantheon. An 11 minute opus, concluding with an extended instrumental sequence, synthesised wind acoustics, and a chilling narrative of a burglar’s fateful encounter with a group of house-bound spirits. There are no re-assuring get-out’s or second chances in this story, it builds inexorably towards’ it’s uncompromising climax. And all of this sandwiched between “That’s all” and “Illegal alien”, the contrast couldn’t have been clearer. The entire track formed part of the group’s staple live set during this period, Phil Collins( for it was indeed he) acting as a spiritual master of ceremonies enticing the audience to create a mass seance-like atmosphere. And why not? This is a song whose form and sinister content stays with you, and to which you will find yourself repeatedly coming back to. Rather like the unfortunate burglar…..

“This house is haunted” – I am Kloot

Released as one of the B-sides to the band’s 2003 single “Life in a day”, this song arguably could lend itself to different interpretations. The narrator, seemingly from beyond the grave, reflects on romantic turmoil which even death couldn’t resolve.  John Bramwell’s seething, yet also resigned vocal delivery, with bandmate’s Hargreaves and Jobson’s discordant, reverb-heavy instrumental back-drop, merge to create a sense of dread and tragic eeriness. Even the seemingly reassuring piano accompaniment manages to sound an ominous note.  Lyrically, there is a painterly and evocative quality to the images and sensations being expressed. The idea of intense emotional energies transcending mortality, and impressing themselves on to physical locations, is a notion that exists elsewhere in popular folklore. The mutual influence between place and personal experience is one of I am Kloot’s characteristic themes. A nocturnal tone  imbues many of their songs, combined with a reflective often melancholy sensibility, as is the case here. The listener is ultimately left with the vivid realisation that this house is most definitely haunted.

“Johnny remember me ” – John Leyton

Right from this song’s first conception, a number 1 smash in 1961, the supernatural loomed large indeed. Composer Geoff Goddard, and producer, the legendary Joe Meek, shared a predilection for all things other-worldly, and reportedly carried out joint seances, attempting to contact the spirits, of amongst others, recently deceased Buddy Holly. Meek, from his rented flat in Holloway Road, North London, revolutionised studio recording techniques, as well as pioneering the use of the “home-studio.” He also visited graveyards, hoping to record the spirits of the dead, perhaps indicating an increasing and untreated mental instability, culminating in tragedy, killing his landlady, before killing himself  in 1967.  The song relating to the lingering of a dead sweetheart ‘s ghostly presence, was performed by actor-singer John Leyton, one of Meek’s many collaborators. Meek’s sonic innovations of, amongst others, echoing, compression, and reverb, Lissa Grey’s banshee-like backing vocal, and Leyton’s plaintive delivery, all create a mournful, eerie, proto-Goth pop gem. You can still still hear the singing in the sighing of the wind all these years on.

Camoflage – Stan Ridgeway

In many ways,it’s unfortunate that this 1986 hit single is all that many people may know about Ridgeway’s output. He has long been a celebrated troubadour of the contemporary American experience, compared to Johnny Cash, Randy Newman and Tom Waits. This might lend a welcome perspective to this Twilight Zone-esque tale of an embattled American soldier in the Vietnam war, being aided by a mysterious ally, known only as “Camoflage.” Camoflage’s real nature is revealed at the song’s climax, but definite clues are provided beforehand. Camoflage swats bullets away like flies, and uses an uprooted palm-tree against the “Charlies.” An immediate response may be to dismiss all of this as tired gung-ho jingoism, but there is much more going on here. Firstly, there is a long folklore tradition of paranormal benefactors in wartime, in addition to the “vanishing hitch-hiker” type urban myths and similar songs like Tommy Faile’s “Phantom 309” that Camoflage draws inspiration from. Also, the laconic,knowing tone of Ridgeway’s rendition suggests a conscious playfullness at work, that still acknowledges these popular archetypes. As the song says, “Things are never quite the way they seem…”

A nightmare on my street – Dj Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

Freddy Kreuger has become one of the all-time fictional horror icons, since his appearance in 1984’s “A nightmare on Elm Street”, and it’s subsequent sequels. The ghost of a child-murderer who has acquired the ability to invade people’s dreams made an instant impact on popular culture.  Jeff Townes(DJ Jazzy Jeff) and Will Smith( The Fresh Prince) Freddie-inspired crossover hit was initially considered for inclusion in the fourth  “Nightmare” outing. This didn’t eventually occur, following a copyright tussle between film studio and record label, but the song remains in it’s own right as an entertaining, even affectionate tribute to the sadistic, claw-gloved phantom killer. Recounting an invented encounter with Freddy, replete with familiar scenarios from the film-cycle, Smith’s infectious, affable narration is supplemented by Towne’s turntable dexterity to create a memorable blend of the mischievous and the macabre. It has also been linked with the  development of the “horrorcore” sub-genre of hip hop. However, it seems equally related to musical supernatural parodies, from the “Monster Mash” to “Amytyville ( House on the Hill)” as well as Jimmy Spicer’s old-school rap favourite “Adverntures of Super Rhyme” which includes an imagined encounter with Dracula. Don’t go to sleep…

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

A seminal ( if not the seminal) milestone in the emergence of heavy metal as a distinctive genre, and a very scary milestone it is as well. Songs that allude to the demonic and the diabolical warrant their own list, but it is the uncompromising form as well as content of “Black Sabbath” that justifies inclusion in these choice cuts of creepiness.  Changing their name from Earth to Black Sabbath, after the 1963 classic Italiian horror film, represented the groups turn to the dark side, as it were. The title track of their eponymous debut album, was reportedly inspired by bassist Geezer Butler’s frightening experience of waking up to see a black silhouetted figure at the foot of his bed. Whether real or imagined, Butler’s malevolent epiphany, together with guitarist’s Tony Iommi’s employment of the tritone musical interval  created a landmark heavy metal moment, a heavier and darker fusion of rock and blues. Fittingly, the tritone was also called “diabolus in musica” or the devil’s music, due to it’s dissonant quality. “Black Sabbath”  plays it’s cards squarely on the table., Ozzie Osbourne and company invite you to feel the fear laden with the “soon to be ubiquitous” heavy metal combination of the visceral and the bombastic.

Kesha – Supernatural

Although the lyrics may not be specific, Kesha has been unequivocal during interviews that it is the lover, and not just the love that is supernatural.  Taken from her 2012 album “Warrior”, having an overall tone as strident and affirmative as it’s title suggested. She described the  album’s central theme as being magic, and that she had embarked on a spiritual journey, involving natural encounters with animals, as well as a supernatural past life experience. Which all sets the scene for the ghost-sex or “spectrophilia” ( yes, it seems to have an official name). Kesha didn’t quite catch the name of the paranormal paramour, but the earth evidently moved sufficiently to inspire this dubstep-infused slice of dance-pop. OF course, this may have been just skillfully- constructed promotion for the album by an artist who is both self-aware and a shrewd image-creator. It certainly filled more than a few entertainment column inches. The ensuing debate amongst media psychic experts included speculations on whether Kesha merely dreamed this “rumpy-pumpy” in the night, and whether soul-stealing malevolent entities were at work. Even so, considering Keshas’ previously expressed appetities ( “Cannibal”), one feels the malevolent entities have their work cut out.

Concrete Blonde – Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man

The Driskill Hotel, in downtown Austin, Texas has acquired quite a ghostly reputation, since it’s opening in 1886. At least seven regular, identified phantom’s, as well as numerous disembodied voices, footsteps, apparitions’ and other spooky phenomena have been reported by guests and staff., Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, following a stay at the hotel, helped to popularise it’s spectral status further with this, a 1992 single release for the group. She experienced the light going on and off, the closet door opening on it’s own, as well as the sensation of being watched. Macabre stuff indeed, but Napolitano, a believer in the existence of the paranormal, assumed the presence to be that of Col. Driskill, the hotel’s founder  whose spirit retain’s his “eye for the ladies.”  The lyrics contain more than a hint of the afore mentioned “spectrophilia”, there is as much of the erotic as of the eerie here.’ There is an affinity in mood and tone with the seminal western supernatural ballad “Ghost riders in the sky”, illuminated by the group’s southern gothic sensibility. However, there’s still a definite “worldly” edge to the charms of this other-worldly cowboy casanova in the song’s portrayal.

Turkish song of the damned – The Pogues

Shane McGowan, the Pogues pre-eminent front-man doesn’t do things by half, whether in his song-writing, performances, or personal excesses. So when he deals with the unearthly, the result is, well, unearthly. ( He has previously stated that ghosts have literally inspired his song-writing, and not just spirits of the alcoholic variety.) Nonetheless, inspiration for this song’s title was quite prosaic in origin, McGowan mishearing a German fan’s asking if he liked “The turkey song by the Damned.” From this innocuous enquiry, The Pogues constructed ah ominous, near-mythical mini-fable cum rip-roaring sea shanty concerning a ship-wreck survivor, visited by his ghostly ship-mate, who places a curse for being abandoned to his fate. The band’s instrumental versatility incorporated a Middle-Eastern vibe to their Irish folk-punk foundations. This, along with background screaming, McGowan’s near-demented vocal’s ( with an opening wail that would wake the dead) and uncompromising, expressionistic lyrical imagery, provide a contemporary variation on the Flying Dutchman narrative, Turkish ceilidh style, laden with dread and foreboding.
Happy Halloween!
  • David Dent

    Good collection – have been looking for some new songs to feature in my annual Hallowe’en Badvent Calendar on my Facebook page. I love the John Leyton song.

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