In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There was an actual monster mash. It was a real dance. From what I understand, you’d do the mashed potato, except you’d leave your arms dangling out in front of you, like you were a zombie. If time machines existed, I would run the risk of forever altering the space-time continuum just so that I could go back and see someone do that for real.
Almost every song that hits #1 is deeply silly in one way or another; you don’t go looking for profundity at the top of the Hot 100. But it’s likely that no #1 has ever been sillier than “Monster Mash,” a song about dancing monsters sung entirely in a Boris Karloff impression. Best line: “The scene was rockin’, all were digging the sounds / Igor on chains, backed by his baying hounds.” It’s a gloriously ridiculous image, one that the song somehow manages to sustain for three whole minutes.
Bobby Pickett, a Korean War veteran and aspiring actor, was spending his evenings as a nightclub entertainer, singing with a band called the Cordials. One night, the story goes, he tried out his Karloff impression and used it to sing a song, and the crowd went nuts. Pretty soon, he and a friend had written “Monster Mash.” He took a demo of it to “Alley Oop” mastermind Gary S. Paxton, who, thanks to those songs, is probably the most successful non-“Weird Al” Yankovic maker of novelty songs in history.
Paxton produced a recording of it, making sound effects by clanking chains around and blowing bubbles into water with a straw. Leon Russell played piano on it, and Darlene Love may have been one of the backing singers. Paxton, who had released the song on his own label, took it around to California radio stations, and it was an immediate graveyard smash.
Is it even possible to review this song? It’s stupid and fun, and it remains stupid and fun even the bazillionth time you’ve heard it, which is some kind of achievement. Pickett’s Bela Lugosi impression, which he only uses for one line of the song (“Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”), might be even more impressive than his Karloff one. The song isn’t some sonic masterpiece or emotional tour de force, but within its chosen lane, it’s impossible to imagine a song hitting its mark harder.
GRADE: 7/10 (unless you’re drunk at a Halloween party, in which case 10/10)
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the real Boris Karloff, who apparently loved the song, performing (or really lip-syncing) it during the 1965 Halloween episode of Shindig!:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Pickett’s self-explanatory 1985 single “Monster Rap”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the classic Mr. Show sketch on the mysteries behind monster-party records: