The Prehistory of Horror Rock
by Chuck Eddy | October 28, 2014
Alice Cooper gets credit for putting shock-horror into rock, and there's no question he perfected the idea especially as his music got cheesier and more theatrical, starting with Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975. But the truth is, creepy-crawly spooky-ooky stuff had been a part of rock all along, which comes as no surprise given that the exact same teens who loved rock 'n' roll in the '50s had been buying comic books full of ghouls, graveyards and greasy grimy gopher guts (until the Comics Code killed that concept in 1954), and '50s drive-ins were loaded with body-snatcher and mummy exploitation flicks. So it was only natural that somebody like Screamin' Jay Hawkins would come along, once so many radio stations banned his moaned-and-groaned drunk-in-the-studio 1956 recording of "I Put a Spell on You" for alleged cannibal tendencies, and start rising from a coffin in concert while brandishing a skull. Rockabilly crazies, meanwhile, yelped about zombies (Billy Taylor), bones (Ronnie Dawson), vampire women (future country star Bobby Bare) and hanging dates' chopped-off heads on the wall to prevent hot-dog consumption (Hasil Adkins). And then two big hits in 1958, and one in 1962, made horror rock safe for the wee ones.
In March 1958, John Zacherle -- a horror-movie host for WCAU-TV in Philadelphia who called himself "The Cool Ghoul" -- charted with a yackety-saxed Transylvanian proto-rap called "Dinner with Drac Part 1"; it climbed to No. 6 on the pop chart. A couple months later, Western actor and country singer Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater," either about a purple Cyclops that ate regular people or a regular Cyclops that ate purple people, topped the chart for six whole weeks. Then for two weeks in late 1962, all-time perennial Halloween party platter " Monster Mash," by Bobby "Boris" Pickett, went No. 1 as well. Pickett was a Massachusetts cinema manager's son who grew up mimicking Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff; his studio band, the Crypt-Kickers, included Leon Russell among its ranks. All of these smash singles inspired obscure imitations (including a few by Zacherle and Pickett themselves), but probably at least as important in horror-rock's development were two TV shows, both of which ran from 1964 to 1966: ABC's The Addams Family and CBS's The Munsters. The year 1964 also saw one Jumpin' Gene Simmons -- a latter-day Tupelo rockabilly, not the KISS guy -- barely miss the Top 10 with his ghostly novelty "Haunted House." Meanwhile, in England, good old obscene Screamin' Jay was already having his onstage shtick swiped by people like Screamin' Lord Sutch (who dressed up and/or sang about Jack the Ripper and monster men) and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown (aka The God of Hellfire). Heck, Wolfman Jack even made a couple of albums. And up in Detroit and then out West in Phoenix, there's a very good chance that little Vincent Furnier -- the boy who would become Alice Cooper -- was taking notes all along.
Check out our playlist for more than an hour's worth of frighteningly gruesome selections of prehistoric horror rock.