Always on the lookout for a good compilation CD, especially around the Halloween season, I was fortunate to stumble across this comprehensive collection of two decades-worth of "death rock" classics. Once an inexplicably popular subgenre of American pop music (with the occasional British offering thrown in for good measure) the death rock ouvre began as tales of star-crossed young lovers who were parted due to not receiving their parents' blessings, engaging in stock car racing or some other such teen woe before meeting a horrible demise in a flaming car wreck. Not my idea of romantic but that kind of stuff was big back in the days, with "Teen Angel" serving as the template from which the genre would arise, reaching its peak with the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" (a tune conspicuously missing from this disc, but the compilers instead gave us another Shangri-Las downer, the overwraught "Give Us Your Blessings").
Virtually all of the songs here will flat-out crush any life and happiness in the room if you're stupid enough to play it at a party, with the prize for most depressing being a toss-up between Ferlin Husky's "The Drunken Driver,"a song that not only has the nerve to feature a long-absent father mowing down his own kids on the very day he's returning home to them, but also has the mangled and expiring kids give him an extra guilt-trip by demanding an explanation with their dying breath; "Patches" — not to be confused with the equally-uber-depressing 1970's hit by Clarence Carter, this one tells of a rich kid whose parents don't approve of his white trash girlfriend, so he's forbidden to see her and she commits suicide, after which he solves his dilemma by offing himself; and "Mother, Mother (I Feel Sick)," in which a woman's lifelong playing of headgames and emotional manipulation of others catches up with her when she discovers she has a terminal illness.
Don't Worry, Be Happy" this ain't (thank God!), but at times it wallows so shamelessly in its tear-jerking that you can't help but laugh your ass off. The nauseating "Once You Understand" by Think comes off like a "relevant" song you'd hear perfromed as intentional humor on a show like GET A LIFE or something (it would have fit in perfectly with "Zoo Animals on Wheels"), and dredges up memories of the ultra-saccharine "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing." It's just a hippy-dippy chorus of "things get a little easier, once you understand," repeated ad infinitum, as sort of punctuation to scenery-chewing "sketches" of teenagers and their dysfuctional relationships with their stereotypical "establishment" parents (this song has late-1960's/early-1970's written all over it in that trite BILLY JACK way). Mom and dad bitch out their admittedly whiny kids over every conceivable thing, such as not wanting daughter to visit a certain part of town because they "don't like the kind of people living there," son's too-long hair, lack of trust that daughter's not getting laid when she's supposed to be babysitting, the kids wasting their lives on "foolish things," son not having a job in which he works "twelve hours a day, six days a week, to pay for food and board" just like dad did, and so on, culminating in dad berating his son on how "there's more to life tha joining a group or playing your guitar." Son responds with, "Yeah, dad? What is there to life?" Then "life' gets repeated several times with a "spooky" echo effect as that fucking chorus escalates into full-blown tambourine/piano/handclapping idiocy before it all comes to an abrupt halt and we hear a voice ask a "Mr. Cook" if he has "a son named Robin, aged 17." When Mr. Cook replies in the affirmative, he's told that his son has died from an overdose and he'd better come down to the stationhouse. The father's anguished sobs continue through the end of the song as the chorus starts up once more; perhaps this would have had some kind of tragic effect if we were told that Mr. Cook was the gruff dad heard throughout the song, but we have no idea who this guy is, and he sounds completely different from the way the father sounds on the rest of the record, so our ability to care at all just gets whizzed down the song's metaphorical leg. And what happened to mom and the daughter? Who the fuck knows?
But while "Once You Understand" is unintentionally funny, Jimmy Cross' infamous 1964 classic "I Want My Baby Back" is genuinely hilarious and downright gleefully offensive. In what is a contemporary parody of the death rock style in general, Cross relates the tragic death and dismemberment of his girlfriend while they're on their way home from a Beatles concert and they run smack into the Leader of the Pack. Distraught over his loss, Cross wails about how he wants his baby back, how he misses her "oh so much" and "can't live without her touch," as the sounds of earth being dug up with a shovel register in the background. When his tale of heartbreak is finally told, Cross opens his girl's coffin, gets in with her corpse, closes the lid, and finishes by singing "I've got my baby back!" Necrophilia rock is a tough sell some fifty-one years after the song was released, but when it arrived in '64 it was quite controversial, what with it being in generally questionable taste as well as coming less than ten years after the Ed Gein case, an event that still resonates nearly six decades later, so you can imagine that it still hadn't faded from the public consciousness at the time.
Ed Gein: murderer, cannibal, amateur tailor, and possible inspiration for Jimmy Cross' "I Want My Back."
I have no complaints about this compilation other than the omissions of "Leader of the Pack" and some "classics" from the early-1970's, namely "D.O.A." by Bloodrock — a song relating the point of view of a corpse on a morgue slab — Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey" (a strong contender for the title of most maudlin song of all time), "Rocky" by Austin Roberts (a bald-faced ripoff of "Honey" that some consider to be even more maudlin), "Run, Joey, Run" by David Geddes (guy gets girlfriend pregnant, girlfriend's dad chases guy with shotgun, girlfriend's dad accidentally kills his own daughter when she takes a shotgun blast meant for the boyfriend), and of course "Timothy" by the Buoys, the only song about cannibalism ever to crack the Top 20, as well as having been written by Rupert Holmes, the diabolical mastermind behind "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." Come to think of it, there are enough omissions to warrant expanding this into a perfect, kitschy two-disc set, but what the hey? Worth every cent of its cost, DEAD! THE GRIM REAPER'S GREATEST HITS is a lot of fun, provided you're in the mood to be buried beneath an avalanche of Top 40 morbidity. And if you're curious, the full track listing can be seen below.
1. Terry - Twinkle
2. Give Us Your Blessings - The Shangri-Las
3. Endless Sleep - Jody Reynolds & The Storms
4. Death Of An Angel - Donald Woods & The Vel-Aires
5. Condition Red - The Goodees
6. I Want My Baby Back - Jimmy Cross
7. Dead Man’s Curve - Jan & Dean
8. The Drunken Driver - Ferlin Husky
9. Johnny Remember Me - John Leyton
10. Last Kiss - J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers
11. Patches - Dickey Lee
12. Once You Understand - Think
13. The Death Of A Surfer - The Riviares
14. Dead! - Carolyn Sullivan
15. Psycho - Jack Kittel
16. Ebony Eyes - The Everly Brothers
17. Requiem (For A Girl Born Of The Wrong Times) - Betty Barnes
18. A Beginning From An End - Jan & Dean
19. Tell Laura I Love Her - Ray Peterson
20. The Dream - The Fox
21. Teen Angel - Mark Dinning
22. Mother Mother (I Feel Sick) - The Martin Sisters
23. The Bed - Walter Jackson
24. Let's Think About Living - Bob Luman