Some songs exist to do nothing but make you happy, and it’s hard to conjure another tune more likely to turn a roomful of adults into grinning kids quicker than “Monster Mash.” It’s silly. It’s contagious. It’s fun. So much fun that, nearly six decades later, it feels offensive if we don’t hear it on Halloween.
But what made it last? There are plenty of novelty tunes out there. Some were huge hits. But not many can match the longevity of “Monster Mash.” I think there are three reasons for that.
The most obvious is that it’s campy fun. The lyrics are amusing, the conceit is clever (a big monster party), and the whole vibe is a good time. You listen to it and you smile.
The second reason is that it centers itself squarely on a holiday theme, and therefore fits right in with a specific time of year. We’re used to Christmas tunes, but when one zeroes in on a holiday that doesn’t get a ton of musical attention (Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” comes to mind) it gives that song a chance to be remembered at the same time every year.
But I think the most powerful reason for the longevity of “Monster Mash” is the least obvious: It’s a damn good song. Catchy, danceable, well-constructed. You don’t just smile when you hear “Monster Mash,” you want to dance, too.
The song is a classic, and it deserves to be, which is a lot to say about a song that was constructed in just a few hours.
Bobby Pickett on stage with the Beach Boys.
Despite his efforts, “Monster Mash” is the one reason we will all remember Bobby Pickett. A Massachusetts born kid with dreams of becoming an actor, he moved west to Los Angeles and hustled around doing stand-up and trying to land auditions. Shortly after his old friend Lenny Capizzi moved to town, Pickett joined his musical group, The Cordials.
The turning point came out of a joke. One night as the group was performing The Diamonds’ hit “Little Darlin,” Pickett took over, reading the lines with a dead-on Boris Karloff impression. The audience went nuts, and Pickett and Capizzi had an idea. What if they did a song that used the Karloff voice and centered it on one of the current dance crazes? After rejecting a version that focused on the Twist, Pickett wrote out a version that ran with the idea of the Mashed Potato.
A demo of the song was finished in less than three hours. That included both the writing and recording. Capizzi took the song to a producer Gary S. Paxton, who agreed to cut the record, and got a surprisingly solid backing band to record with Pickett. Leon Russell played the piano, and a girl group called The Blossoms provided backup vocals. Some low-grade sound effects were added (chains rattling, bubbles, a door creaking) and the song was recorded in a single take.
Pickett later estimated that the total time to complete the song, including writing, cutting the demo, and studio time, was less than six hours.
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In October of 1962, “Monster Mash,” a goofy song created by a non-musician who was just horsing around, spent two weeks at the top of the Billboard 100 charts. It charted again in 1970, 1973, and 2012.
That a guy with no musical training could get together with his buddies and do something on a lark, and in the process create something that’s still alive and kicking almost six decades later, absolutely delights me. I’m a huge fan of the expansive, sweeping compositions that require months of songwriting and weeks of studio time to accomplish. But the great thing about music is that you don’t need that, not if you hit things just right. Maybe it’s beginner’s luck, but it’s more likely that the punks had it right all along: You want to learn to be a musician, then just go out and play.
But while I love that part of the narrative, it’s easy to forget that Bobby Pickett got lucky. Not just that he found the right producer, or a label to take a chance on the record, but that he got in the studio with the right mix of musicians.
Most notably, Darlene Love and The Blossoms.
The Blossoms are one of the great forgotten groups in American music. Looking down the list of tracks they performed on is a shock inducing exercise. From the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” to Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” to Sam Cooke’s “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha.” Their voices, and particularly with the range of leader (and future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer) Darlene Love, blended perfectly into the Wall of Sound style of Phil Spector—so much so that the Blossoms’ one hit, “He’s a Rebel,” was erroneously credited to another group (The Crystals).
On “Monster Mash,” the Blossoms provide the musical glue that holds the track together. Listen to the song. It gets off to a fun start with the silly sound effects and Pickett’s delightful impression. But the moment you know it’s a real song is 29 seconds in, when the Blossoms chime in:
I was working in the lab late one night
When my eyes beheld an eerie sight
For my monster from his slab began to rise
And suddenly, to my surprise…
He did the Mash!
This is the moment it all kicks in for me. You see the laboratory, the mad scientist speaking to you, the monster standing up, and then suddenly there’s this girl group singing. That’s when it’s a party.
It’s worth noting that the Blossoms are the only ones who do any real singing in the song. Pickett does some creative recitation with his Karloff impression (and his brief Bela Lugosi impression—“Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”), but it’s the Blossoms who carry the song. Their backing is a perfect counterpoint to what Pickett is doing, from their clipped phrasing on the chorus to maintain the momentum to their sweet “Ah-woooooo” during the verses. There’s also Russell providing just the right atmosphere on the piano, and some surprisingly ripping drum fills provided by The Ventures’ Mel Taylor.
This isn’t a criticism of Pickett, whose instincts and timing are excellent. But it’s hard to imagine that “Monster Mash” could have sounded better with another backing group. Sometimes you get lucky. Pickett got the right producer and the right group. Even the release was fortuitous. Debuting in September, it had just enough time to build up listeners before Halloween. By late October, the “Monster Mash” was “the hit of the land.”
Pickett, unsurprisingly, never scored another big hit, though he would return to his monster theme again and again (including a 1985 rap version). He landed a decent amount of commercial work and some TV appearances over the years, but he eventually came to accept his fate as the “Monster Mash guy,” telling his daughter that his fame was ideal, since everyone remembered something he’d done, but nobody recognized him on the street.
That’s probably the best way to look at it. Yes, Pickett got lucky on a number of fronts, but none of the machinery that made “Monster Mash” a lasting hit ever gets put into motion if he doesn’t set pen to paper and write the song in the first place. For all the help he had, it was still his song. Nobody else could have written it. Nobody else could have performed it just that way. I doubt Pickett knew that at the time, and so much the better. If he’d known more about the music business, it might have kept him from charging ahead. Instead, he played around, played to his talents, had fun, and made something timeless.
As someone who hesitates far too often on what I want to try, there’s a lesson for me here. There’s no point in trying to talk yourself out of creating what you’re creating. You never know how it’ll turn out. Sometimes you get the ingredients just right. Sometimes the experiment succeeds beyond your wildest dreams..