Friday, September 18, 2015

Ghoul House Rock: MONSTER RALLY, 1959

There’s a playful hint of menace in MONSTER RALLY, a novelty album released by RCA Victor in 1959. The listener is warned from the start (the title track promises “you’ll be lucky to get out alive”) that the sideshow has become the main event, and that traditional standards of decency are going to be a little ... twisted. Example: murder is perfectly acceptable, but just don't park like an asshole (as the song "Flying Saucer" advises us).

It’s a wonderfully visual album; one that conjures images of a nightmarish stage production that’s equal parts grand guignol and THE MUPPET SHOW. Leading the cast of cretins are Hans Conried and Alice Pearce, two actors who specialized in the ludicrous. One of the busiest (and best) voice actors ever, Conried was born to chew the scenery. When left to his own devices he could have squeezed a few laughs out of “Paradise Lost” without changing a line of the text.

Sadly, Pearce died in 1966 at the age of 48. Despite her relatively short list of credits, she might actually me more recognizable than Conried: Pearce played nosey neighbor “Gladys Kravitz” for several years on BEWITCHED.

Conried and Pearce make a strangely compelling couple on MONSTER RALLY. While Conried is the ringmaster of this fiasco, Pearce brings a rare sense of femininity to the proceedings. There were a lot of “monster kid” novelty albums recorded during the late ‘50s and ‘60s, and almost all of them were dick soup. While Conried’s presence had a way of making anything better, Pearce is the secret weapon on MONSTER RALLY and keeps it from becoming just another novelty record.

The song writing is pretty strong here, as well, but it’s difficult to say exactly who did what on the album. Nine of the songs were written by Joel Herron and Fred Hertz. At the time, Herron was the musical director of The Jimmy Dean Show; while Hertz was a radio and television writer/director. The remaining three songs on MONSTER RALLY are re-workings of popular novelty songs: Phil Harris’ “The Thing,” Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater” and “Close the Door,” originally recorded by The Stargazers. While these covers won’t make you forget the originals, they’re used here to good effect, fitting snugly into the “variety show from hell” aesthetic of MONSTER RALLY.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say who else contributed to the project. The liner notes are deliberately coy, citing three recording dates in 1958 that took place at “Castle Dracula, New York.” The album’s musical director is credited as “Frank N. Stein.” Here’s his bio:

“Frank N. Stein is, as you might guess, a pseudonym. We cannot reveal the name of the musical director, as he is wanted on two other planets for a series of escapades too horrible to mention here.”

The story behind the album’s vocal group, “The Creatures,” is equally fictional. The background performers were almost certainly actors and singers working in New York City at the time, but they’re not identified by name in the credits.

The cover was illustrated by Jack Davis, possibly the most quietly successful artists of the 20th century. Again, he’s not credited explicitly on the album cover, but his style is unmistakable. It’s worth mentioning that MONSTER RALLY was recorded just three years after the demise of EC’s lines of horror, crime and science-fiction comics, to which Davis was a regular contributor. This cancellation was prompted by new regulations foisted on comics industry in the wake of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearing in 1954 — which saw Davis and his colleagues at EC accused of contributing to juvenile delinquency. So it’s nice to see him making monsters mainstream again so soon after.

As with many of its brethren, MONSTER RALLY is best enjoyed in its natural analog format. Unsurprisingly, the album has been out of print for a long, long time, and is not only difficult to find, but also rather expensive. Hallmark has since made it available as an MP3 download on Amazon for you impulsive types. If you want to cherry pick selections from the album, I recommend the title track, “Flying Saucer,” “Mostly Ghostly” and “(I’m in Love with) The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” They're pretty swell.

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