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SciFi SongFest, Songs 310-312


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818; rev. ed 1823) is often referred to as the first science-fiction novel. I don’t think it is that; there are, for example, the earlier stories of voyages to the moon by Francis Godwin in 1638 and Cyrano de Bergerac in 1657 (no less an authority than Arthur C. Clarke credited Cyrano’s book with anticipating the ramjet), to say nothing of Lucian’s similar tales fifteen centuries before those. But Frankenstein certainly represents a major pioneering work in science fiction, and the next three songs all have some connection to it.

310. Irving Berlin and Harry Richman, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1930):

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” began life as a racist and classist song making fun of working-class blacks trying to put on airs and dress fashionably; the original lyrics referred to “Lenox Avenue” (in Harlem), “every Thursday evening” (the traditional maids’ night off) instead of “Park Avenue,” and “fifteen dollars” (and “see them spend their last two bits”) instead of “lots of dollars,” and included such charming lines as:

spangled gowns
upon the bevy
of high browns
from down the levy
all misfits
puttin’ on the Ritz

Here’s Fred Astaire singing the same original-lyrics version, also in 1930; you can hear the lyrics a bit better in this one:

In 1946, Berlin rewrote the lyrics, likewise for Fred Astaire, to make it a song about upper-class (and presumptively white) people instead of lower-class black people, and this version of the lyrics became the standard one:

But then, in 1974, the performance of the song by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein forever cemented its connection to the Frankenstein legend:

311. H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, “To Life” (from Shoggoth on the Roof, 2005)

H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West – Reanimator” is a modern updating of the Frankenstein story. It’s far from being his best story, and Lovecraft was never happy with it; but its mad-scientist protagonist is nonetheless one of the many Lovecraft characters to appear in the Lovecraft-inspired parody musical Shoggoth on the Roof, in which various songs from Fiddler on the Roof are rewritten with humourous lyrics reflecting the Lovecraft mythos. (Alas, the musical’s actual stage performance is illegal, because IP.) Here, for example, “To life, to life, l’chaim!” becomes “To life, to life, I’ll bring them!” – which is arguably the cleverest change in the lot.

Here’s the original song (from the 1971 movie):

And here’s the Re-Animated version:

312. Bobby Pickett, “Monster Mash” (1962):

Finally, this next song is especially appropriate to Hallowe’en, which is nearly upon us.

While “Monster Mash,” sung in imitation of Boris Karloff’s voice (except for Dracula’s line about the Transylvania Twist, where Pickett imitates Bela Lugosi instead), invokes various popular movie monsters, the centerpiece of the song is the Frankenstein legend. Indeed, Lugosi-Dracula’s “Transylvania Twist” line is a complaint about his own dance being displaced in popularity by the Frankenstein-inspired “Monster Mash” dance. (Pickett did indeed release a “Transylvania Twist” number, but it’s poor competition for the Mash.) Here, by contrast with the movie version, the Karloff voice seems to be the doctor’s rather than the monster’s (“I was working in the lab late one night”), although at some point the perspective may shift to that of the monster (if, as I suspect, “get a jolt from my electrodes” refers to the electrodes embedded in the monster’s neck in the Karloff movies – and Pickett’s Karloffian facial expressions in the video also suggest the monster more than the scientist).

The song was initially banned by the BBC for being “too morbid.”

SciFi SongFest, Songs 305-309

And now we begin the …


Okay, most of these next songs are fantasy rather than science fiction, and I have no real excuse for including them, except that it’s almost Hallowe’en and two of the songs involve ghosts; plus these songs take me back to my western days of yore; plus this is a goddamn anarchist blog and I’ll do whatever seemeth right in my own eyes, dagnabit:

305. Stan Jones, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” (1948):

Here’s the original version:

But today this song is usually best known either through Johnny Cash’s version (1979):

– or through Cash’s duet with Willie Nelson (1997):

Here’s a somewhat more unusual cover:

I’m not sure what version I originally heard (it’s been covered many times), but I’m pretty sure I knew it when I was still living out west, in which case it’d be a pre-Cash version (since we relocated to New England in 1977).

306. C. W. McCall, “Convoy” (1975):

When I was living in southeast Idaho in the mid-70s, trucker songs were big on the radio; and the king of them all, of course, was the immortal C. W. McCall. This trucker anthem, with its shocking disrespect for the gangsters in blue our heroic first responders, counts as science fiction by my generous definition, since it’s about a fictional nationwide trucker rebellion (for more specific details as to what it’s about, and some translations of the CB slang, see the song’s Wikipedia page). (McCall has featured previously in this SongFest, though not with a trucker song.)

307. C. W. McCall, “’Round the World With the Rubber Duck” (1976):

This is the (deservedly) lesser-known sequel to “Convoy,” a weak (and somewhat racist) follow-up that I don’t recall even hearing at the time; it’s surely one of McCall’s less-inspired songs. The previous song’s Friends of Jesus turn out to come in handy for crossing the Atlantic, though:

308. C. W. McCall, “Silver Iodide Blues” (1976):

To redeem McCall’s reputation, here’s another of his good songs. Is it science fiction? Not really. It’s about science, though:

309. Red Sovine, “Phantom 309” (1967):

Yes, I managed to work it out so that “Phantom 309” would also be song #309. The stars have aligned!

While McCall was the king of the trucker songs in my Idaho days, the following song by Red Sovine was in frequent rotation on the radio as well:

Sovine and McCall, perhaps along with someone’s version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” as well, jointly inspired me to write my own supernatural trucker song (I was around 12), of which I remember only the chorus (though I probably still have the rest of it in a box somewhere). There’s a melody too, but I’ll spare you, for I am compassionate and merciful, like this driver:

God drives an eighteen-wheeler
across this land of ours
his wheels shake the whole land round about
and the noise shakes the stars
the sound of his engine fills the hills
and the smoke from his smokestack curls
he’s the guy who said “Let there be light!”
and his headlights light the world

SciFi SongFest, Songs 303-304

One song about possible future salvation for the human race in space, and another, from a future perspective, wondering whether that’s what happened.

303. Leslie Fish and Julia Ecklar, “Hope Eyrie” (1982):

Judging from Aurora, I’m guessing Stan Robinson’s not a big fan of this song:

304. Genesis, “Watcher of the Skies” (1972):

Asking, about a deserted Earth, “has life again destroyed life” or “do they play elsewhere?” reminds me of the situation in Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime:

SciFi SongFest, Songs 299-302

Four songs about the wonders of science:

299. Thomas Dolby, “She Blinded Me with Science” (1982):

300. Richard O’Brien, “Shock Treatment” (1981):

Note this song’s reference to being blinded by science, a year before Dolby:

301. Laurie Anderson, “Big Science” (1982):

Note the passing reference to the lyrics of “Secret Agent Man.”

302. Rush, “Natural Science” (1980):

SciFi SongFest, Songs 297-298

What these songs have in common is … um … space? I can’t provide a unifying theme every time.

297. John Grant, “Outer Space” (2010):

298. Janelle Monae, “Sally Ride” (2013):

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