I’ve always been both inspired and spooked by music. In general, it’s the quieter moments that have the most potential to spook me. Put on something intended to be loud and scary – say, Big Black’s “Kerosene” – and I’m generally unmoved. Put on something that sounds like a radio stuck between two stations, or a TV station going off the air, and I’ll concoct some sort of doomsday scenario around it and generally get unnerved. Here are five examples. Despite the numbering, these are in no particular order.
1) Stevie Wonder, “Fingertips Part 2″ as heard on AM radio. Growing up in the 1970s, you still heard ’50s and ’60s hits on AM radio. AM is, of course, scratchier and fuzzier than its FM counterpart. The static and noise acted almost as an additional instrument or production layer. In the case of “Fingerprints Part 2,” it made Little Stevie Wonder sound like an apocalyptic child preacher in a Deep South shack/church. Sudden drop-outs, stark harmonica solos, audience screams and Wonder’s high voice made this an unspeakably spooky listening experience. The fact that he sneaks in “Mary Had A Little Lamb” just adds to the tension; it sounds almost mocking. Just when you think it’s over, there’s about 30 seconds of chaos, and then – terrifyingly – there goes the harmonica, and the whole thing starts again. You don’t get the same effect listening on FM or iTunes; there, in high fidelity, it sounds more like the soulful shouter it was meant to be.
2) The Beatles, “Can You Take Me Back” / “Revolution 9″ / “Good Night.” 1968′s The Beatles double-LP is a deeply, deeply unsettling set in general, but it doesn’t get truly unhinged until the end. You probably already know at least the backstory of “Revolution 9.” I’ve written about it here. It almost always tops polls of Worst Beatles Song by virtue of being such an amusical departure, but I never thought of it as the “worst.” Its sheer power to cause terror made it singularly unique. Less appreciated, however, are how its bookends amplify the effect. Just after “Cry Baby Cry” we have “Can You Take Me Back,” a short, plaintive Paul snippet which sounds disoriented and confused. It works as notice of an imminent descent into hell. Then 8 minutes of “R9.” An uneasy silence, and then the lush “Good Night,” which comes across like a post-apocalyptic Busby Berkeley soundtrack. It’s as if “R9″ was the world ending,” and “Good Night” the lullaby for the dead planet Earth. At the very end, Ringo whispers. “Good night everybody…everybody, everywhere.” It’s really incredibly chilling.
3) Richard H. Kirk, “False Erotic Love.” Apparently spoken tape-loops by blase Brits scare the crap out of me. I bought the Disposable Half-Truths cassette having fallen for Cabaret Voltaire’s “Nag Nag Nag,” not knowing what to expect. Turns out Kirk’s solo album was Cab Volt reduced to its essence – out-of-context tape loops, primitive electronics and distorted vocals. Minus the structure of “Nag” or “Silent Command,” the result was eerie. “False Erotic Love” featured a bored-sounding woman repeating two or three phrases – “no fucking chance at all,”"…felt the need to use the body sexually,” etc. against a staticky backdrop. Easily as creepy as anything their friends Throbbing Gristle recorded. (Can’t find it online, but here’s “Information Therapy,” which is actually the closest in sound and structure to classic Cab.)
4) Young Marble Giants, “Wind In The Rigging” as used by WPRB-FM as signoff music. Signoffs in general have always scared me. When I was a kid, TV stations used to go off the air at night. Usually they’d conclude with a short statement of FCC compliance, followed by “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then, abruptly, a test pattern and an eerie electronic tone. Radio signoffs, however, are even scarier, because there’s not even a test pattern to assure continuity. They just go poof! into white noise. WPRB‘s 1980s airstaff was apparently aware of this feeling. For their signoff, they used the closing track from Colossal Youth with some official language overdubbed. “Wind In The Rigging” is the closing track, the latter of two instrumentals, and it features mournful organ tones against a somber drum-machine beat, punctuated by what sounds like rising and falling radio static in the background. Then it cuts off completely. And so, in WPRB’s hands, does the station signal itself. (Ironically, the YMG song about nuclear winter, “Final Day,” does not have nearly the same effect on me.)
5) John Lennon and Yoko Ono, side 2, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions. Again with the Beatles. They may have been the most popular band of all time, but as Scott Miller suggested in his recent book Music: What Happened?, it was truly scary as a kid to delve into the weirdness of their latter days. “Revolution 9,” of course, but also “I Am The Walrus,” “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” and all the crazy and sinister-sounding solo projects by John and Yoko. The Two Virgins cover, the weird films, the incomprehensible art sensibility…it was all rather heavy stuff if you were 12 years old and used to the “red” and “blue” greatest hits. As an adult, I finally summoned the courage to listen to the two Unfinished Music records. (I still haven’t heard the Wedding Album.) Two Virgins was just boring, neither scary enough nor intriguing enough to make for captivating listening. I think I made it through the whole thing once. Life With The Lions, on the other hand, was something else entirely. Even as an adult who’s made peace with “Revolution 9″ and heard all kinds of challenging music, this one was frightening.
The cover: Yoko on a hospital bed, John on the floor, both wearing blank expressions. The back cover: the couple herded into a police car, John seemingly oblivious to the whole thing, Yoko clutching him for support. Side 1, “Cambridge 1969,” was a 26-minute free jazz piece and unsettling enough. Side 2, however, was where the horror really began. It was recorded at Yoko’s bedside at the hospital after her first miscarriage, seemingly with a primitive tape recorder. First track: “No Bed for Beatle John,” in which the two chant newspaper articles about themselves like a couple of cantors or monks. Yoko is heard in the forefront, John in the distance, and there’s something about the cool, dispassionate tone in their voices that gives chills. Next we hear some chatter, and an ultrasound heartbeat. It is the heartbeat of the child Yoko miscarried. This goes on for about 5 minutes, and then comes the Cageian “Two Minutes Silence.” It’s as if you’re hearing the child die in the womb. Finally comes “Radio Play,” 12 minutes of a radio being turned on and off as the dial is turned and Lennon is on the phone in the background. Staccato, harsh and violent, “Radio Play” is hard to listen to all the way through. When it’s over, you’re left with a woozy silence. What do I do with this?