#MusicMonday: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

On this day in 1992 the Los Angeles riots broke out in response to two specific incidents in the city and general mounting racial tensions. Just over a year prior an African American man, Rodney King, was beaten and tasered by police during a traffic stop/chase resulting in the officers involved being charged with excessive force.

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Also around the same time a teenage African American girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in a convenience store when the Korean-American shopkeeper accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper grabbed the girl who hit the woman in order to break free. As the girl walked away the shopkeeper shot her in the back of the head. The girl was holding 2 dollars in one hand when her body was found by investigators. The 51-year-old woman who shot her was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only ordered to pay a $500 fine and served no prison time.

On April 29, 1992 the officers in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of excessive force and assault charges based on blurry footage at the beginning of a tape showing the beating in which King tried to run away toward an officer.

The acquittal of these officers on top of the light sentencing of the shopkeeper in the death of Latasha Harlins caused many in the black community to further increase their distrust of the criminal justice system after years of accusations of excessive force by the LAPD against African Americans.

The racial tension between blacks and Koreans in LA had also long been brewing due to perceived slights on both sides. Many African Americans viewed the migrants as newcomers who were profiting off of the black community while simultaneously mistreating, stereotyping, and disrespecting them. Cultural differences and language barriers exacerbated the problem as well as economic difficulties facing the area.

All of these tensions came to a head when news of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King reached South Central Los Angeles. Riots and looting broke out that lasted for days and resulted in 55 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion of damage. The National Guard was called in and the riots lasted for 6 days. More than 12,000 people were arrested. 65% of looted stores were Korean owned, but black and Latino-owned stores were also looted.

The events leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the aftermath all inspired and prompted responses from musicians of many genres, especially hip hop and rap artists. Here are 5 songs that came out of the Los Angeles riots.

  • “Hellrazor” – Tupac, 1997 (posthumous release)tupac

Lyrics that reference Latasha Harlins’ death: “Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why
Little girl like LaTasha, had to die
She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot
Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped”

Tupac also made mention of Latasha in several of his other songs including “Something 2 Die 4,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” in which he raps, “Tell me what’s a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to Latasha.

  • “Black Korea” – Ice Cube, 1991

Released after Latasha Harlins’ death but before the riots, this song was accused of inciting violence against Asian Americans and encouraging racism against them by African Americans. The song sheds light on the tensions between the two groups in South Central Los Angeles.

“Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take
So they watch every damn move that I make
They hope I don’t pull out a gat and try to rob
They funky little store, but, b****, I got a job.”

  • “Livin’ on the Edge”- Aerosmith, 1993

Aerosmith has said that this song was inspired by the LA riots, but the lyrics do not specifically state anything that directly links back to the riots. Critics of the song argued it was a half-hearted attempt at social commentary.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seein’ things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t his
It sure ain’t no surprise”
  • “Free Your Mind” – En Vogue, 1992freeyourmind
The female group took a more positive approach and encouraged unity and discouraged stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
“Why oh why must it be this way
Before you can read me you gotta learn how to see me, I said
Free your mind and the rest will follow
Be colour blind, don’t be so shallow.”
  • “Black Tie, White Noise” – David Bowie, 1993
In Los Angeles with his new wife, model Iman, Bowie witnessed the riots firsthand. This experience inspired “Black Tie, White Noise.” Bowie said of the riots: “It was awesome and numbing and it was the most apocalyptic experience I’ve been through in my life. It was a feeling of the irreconcilable differences that seem to have been fabricated in America and how hard it will be to reconcile those differences, to heal the wound, which is quite gaping.”
“Getting my facts from a Benneton ad
I’m lookin’ through African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire
I’ve got a face, not just my race.”

#MusicMonday: “Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne? For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

This is the classic song sung on New Year’s Eve after the ball drops in Times Square each year, and all around the world as well, to usher in the new year and mark the ending of the old. Most would recognize it when they hear it, but what does it mean and where did the tradition of singing it at New Year’s celebrations come from?

Let’s start with what the title of the song literally means. “Auld lang syne” is Scots for “old long since” or “long long ago” or “old times.” “For auld lang syne”, as the words appear in the chorus of the song, could be translated as for the sake of old times. The song poses the question of whether old times should be forgotten and then answers that old friendships should be remembered.

The song was written as a poem by Robert Burns in 1788. The words are set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It has been used to mark the end of the year, but also other sorts of endings including funerals, farewells, and the ends of parties. The song also takes words from an earlier song by James Watson (1711). Used commonly in Scotland for Hogmanay (New Year’s) celebrations, the popularity and use of the song has spread far and wide around the world.

Guy Lombardo is credited with popularizing the use of the song at New Year’s Eve celebrations, at least in the United States. He and his band (His Royal Canadians) played the song live every year on his New York City radio (and later TV) New Year’s Eve concert from 1929 to 1977. This concert was the popular precursor to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve. Originally from a part of Ontario that had a large Scots population, Lombardo and his band were accustomed to bands ending their shows with the Scottish standard. It is Lombardo’s version that is played in Times Square every New Year’s right after the ball drop. But the song has been covered extensively and is considered a musical standard.

Happy New Year everyone! May it bring new adventures, new memories, and joy to you all.

#MusicMonday: Victorian Ghost Story Traditions in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams

A Christmas classic, this 1963 song by Andy Williams describes Christmas traditions, including some we no longer practice.

Have you ever been singing along and gotten to this line and wondered what it was all about?

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow (all familiar to us now)
There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of, Christmases long, long ago (not so much).”

What do scary ghost stories have to do with Christmas? Isn’t that more for Halloween? Not so much during the Victorian era–an era that has inspired many of our modern Christmas traditions.

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“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by Edward Pola and George Wyle in 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams that same year for his first Christmas album. It’s an up tempo celebration of all things Christmas, particularly spending time with family and friends and general merriment of the season. But that one line about scary ghost stories has always made me curious. The answer can be found in the Victorian Era.

It was during the Victorian Era (1837-1901; the reign of Queen Victoria) that Christmas became more widespread and popularly celebrated in England and the United States. Queen Victoria’s marriage to German Prince Albert brought many Germanic Christmas traditions to Britain, which also trickled over to the United States. One of the most noteworthy was that of decorating the Christmas tree.

Other modern Christmas traditions with roots in Victorian England include sending Christmas cards, caroling, and Christmas crackers (cookies/sweets). And the telling of ghost stories on Christmas eve, such as A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is visited by 3 spirits.

It was during the Victorian era that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which also helped to popularize Christmas celebrations as well as notions that the holiday should be associated with family, gathering together, goodwill, and charity.

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A Christmas Carol’s continued popularity is actually one of the few ways our modern society continues to include those “scary ghost stories” of the Victorian era. In Victorian England, families and friends would gather around on Christmas eve and tell each other spooky stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The tradition had roots even older stretching back hundreds of years to folk traditions of telling ghost stories in the winter as a way to pass the evenings. It was thought that winter, being dark and cold, was the best season for ghost stories.

It’s not surprising that Victorians would include the practice of ghost stories in their Christmas celebrations given that era’s fascination with and culture surrounding darker topics such as death, including elaborate mourning etiquette, death photography, and more. (A topic for another day, perhaps, but you can read more here.)

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Why the writers of the 1963 song decided to include the then relatively defunct tradition is uncertain. But the song itself has become a traditional part of Christmas and can be heard throughout the season, both the original and its many cover versions. The song’s original version is regularly included in top 10 lists of the most popular Christmas songs.

Read more about Victorian Christmas traditions below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml

https://listverse.com/2016/12/23/10-strange-christmas-traditions-from-the-victorian-era/

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/

#MusicMonday: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser

By now, you’ve likely heard about the controversy over a radio station’s decision to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” this holiday season. Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for him and his wife to sing together at parties, the song’s lyrics are a call and response between a man and a woman discussing whether or not a woman should stay or leave the man’s house on a cold winter night. While not necessarily Christmas specific, the song is usually played in rotation with Christmas music over the winter holiday season.

For today’s listeners, in an era of the #MeToo movement, high-profile sexual assault cases, and ongoing dialogue about consent and how often women face sexual harassment, some of the song’s lyrics sound a bit alarming, most notably when the female voice asks “What’s in this drink?” or when her clear “the answer is no” is met with the man’s continued encouragement to stay.

Most women can imagine what that feels like or can remember a time when their “no” was ignored by a man–from requests as simple as a drink at a bar, their phone number, or a dance, to situations much more serious and violent.

In today’s society where dialogue about consent, the #MeToo movement, and other efforts are helping to give women more of a voice, the lyrics to the song can sound a bit coercive at best and like ignoring lack of consent or date rape at worst.

However, there are several other lines in the song that demonstrate the woman’s actual desire to stay at the man’s house, especially when the lyrics are read in the historical context in which they were written.

The female voice expresses her desire to stay several times–first when she says, “Maybe just a half a drink more” and later when she says “maybe just a cigarette more” as well as the ending of the song where the male and female voices sing in unison that it’s cold outside. While none of these lines are a clear yes, they can be interpreted as deciding to use that “excuse” for her staying.

But why did she need an excuse? For the same reason that none of her indications that she wants to stay are terribly clear or explicit–Because of societal expectations in that time period (1940s-1950s). Women faced much more scrutiny about their relationships and sexual behavior than they do now (when they still face more scrutiny than their male counterparts). Women with “good reputations” were expected to turn down a man’s advances even if they actually wanted to stay the night, meaning men did not expect or try to get clear consent.

The woman’s lines in the song also speak much more to her concern about what her family and neighbors would think about her staying than they do to her not wanting to stay. She names a number of family members that would be concerned or suspicious if she didn’t return home including her mother, brother, father, sister, and aunt and also wondered what the neighbors would think.

“At least I’m going to say that I tried.” This line really speaks to the heart of the issue–“good” girls had to at least say they tried to turn a man down. And she could say that given her many “attempts” to leave.

Today’s conversations about consent are important. Historically, men didn’t wait to get consent since they expected a woman to say no. Women in that time period did not have as much of a voice in their personal relationships because of those societal expectations. This song actually shines a light on why consent is so important–clarity is needed rather than trying to read body language and clues while men and women juggle society’s expectations of them versus their own desires.

I can understand why some are uncomfortable hearing this song in today’s society in which the man’s lines sound coercive and pushy but with the historical context in mind I hear the song as the woman wanting to stay and ultimately deciding to do so–society’s opinion on her decision be damned. Though I also see the problematic societal standards that put the woman in a position in which a real no could have easily been ignored or misinterpreted as the “no” that she was supposed to give even when her answer was yes.

In recent years, some artists have attempted to address issues with the song heard with a modern ear.

The song has been recorded by so many artists and there are so many versions. Some reverse the gender roles in the song such as She & Him’s version (the video for which also addresses the “creepy” factor) or a live version performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do those versions change any of the meaning for you?

Finally, a songwriting duo changed the lyrics to reflect conversations about consent. Take a listen and let me know if you think this song needs such an update.

Do you think the song should be taken out of radio rotation? Does it sound creepy to you? Does knowing the historical context change your take on it?

#MusicMonday: “Born in the USA” and 4 other songs you didn’t know were about the Vietnam War

Ok, so you may know that a few of these are about the Vietnam War (1955-1975), but some are a bit more obscure or surprising. The Vietnam War is one of the least understood, most contested and divisive wars in American history. The war was so hotly opposed by the American public that returning veterans did not receive the hero’s welcome that previous generations of soldiers had. Within the military itself, morale was low owing to the inconclusive end of the war, the draft, and the length and brutality of the war.

The anti-war movement in the U.S. spawned a number of songs. Here are 5 songs about the Vietnam War era, including the protests against it, the heightened political tension of the time period, and the long-term effects.

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  • “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival – 1969

“Some folk are born made to wave the flag, whoo they’re red, white, and blue and when the band plays hail to the chief, they point the cannon at you. Lord, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son.”

“Fortunate Son” addresses class differences when it comes to war. The songwriter himself, John Fogerty, is a veteran, having served in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War. He was inspired to write the song by hearing about wealthy, privileged people’s son’s receiving deferments for military service or given choice positions in the military. While the song doesn’t specifically address the Vietnam War it was inspired by that era with the draft going on and the anger that many felt about being drafted to fight in a war whose cause was ill defined. Many did not know what they were fighting for and felt they were fighting for rich leaders’ interests. Fogerty was also inspired to write the song because of the broader idea that wars were instigated by the wealthy leaders but actually fought by the poor soldiers. The song was released at the height of anti-war sentiment as the Vietnam War continued to escalate after promises that the U.S. would soon pull back. It quickly became an anti-war anthem and hit.

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  • “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young- 1970

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own, This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.”

“Ohio” was a direct reaction to the deaths of four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Students had been gathering to protest the recently announced Cambodian campaign which escalated and expanded the Vietnam War. National Guardsman had been called in prior to the incident because of general campus unrest, riots, and destruction of property in the area. The National Guardsman were dispersing a large group of students and had nearly cleared the area when they shot into a crowd, killing 4 and wounding 9 others. The exact reasoning for why the Guardsman decided to open fire is still unknown. Two of the students killed were not even participants in the protest but had simply been walking between classes. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded the song after seeing images of the incident in Life Magazine. The song was banned on some radio stations because of its challenge to the Nixon administration, but it quickly became a popular song with counterculture anti-war protesters.

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  • “War” by Edwin Starr – 1970

“War, huh, good god, What is it good for, Absolutely nothing, listen to me
Oh, war, I despise, ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes
When their sons go to fight, And lose their lives.”

Originally recorded by the Temptations, “War” was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Motown label. The label ultimately decided to withhold the version recorded by the Temptations because of concerns of upsetting the group’s conservative fans. Instead, it was re-recorded by Edwin Starr. The song became a number one hit and is one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. It was released in 1970, after the My Lai Massacre had been made public and as the Vietnam War escalated into Cambodia, both events causing anti-war sentiment to grow in the U.S. As such it resonated with the growing negative public opinion of the war. The song has gone on to be featured in a number of movies and television shows. Bruce Springsteen added the song to his live sets in the the 1980s. The lyrics speak a broad anti-war message rather than specifically targeting the Vietnam War, giving the song a long life and making it applicable to all wartime peace efforts.

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  • “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye – 1971

“Father, father, We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way, To bring some loving here today

Picket lines and picket signs, Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see, Oh, what’s going on.”

The original version of this song was inspired by Renaldo “Obie” Benson, a member of the Motown group the Four Tops. He witnessed police brutality towards anti-war protesters in Berkeley, California and shared the experience with a songwriter friend of his, Al Cleveland. The result was passed over by the Four Tops who felt it was too risky to record a protest song. Thus, Benson gave it to Marvin Gaye. Gaye, who was and remains more well known for love songs such as “Let’s Get it On,” added his own touches, influenced by his brother, a Vietnam War veteran, and his own take on what he saw going on in the U.S. Gaye explained his inspiration by saying, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” The song captures the dissatisfaction of many with the Vietnam War and the overall political atmosphere of the country at the time.

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  • “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen – 1984
“Got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land, To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A….
Come back home to the refinery, Hiring man said “son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man, He said “son, don’t you understand”
I had a brother at Khe Sahn, Fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone…”

This song, released almost 10 years after the Vietnam War ended, speaks to the aftermath of war and the effects on returning veterans. Commonly used as simply a patriotic song because of its “Born in the U.S.A” refrain, its meaning is a bit more complicated.  Like CCR’s “Fortunate Son” it speaks to the class differences in the experience of war, but more generally it addresses the way Vietnam veterans were treated after the war. The veteran in the song was drafted and sent to war for an unclear cause and then returned and, despite being a veteran, struggles to find work and a place in society, haunted by those he lost in Vietnam. The song uses the chorus to highlight the hypocrisy of the treatment of veterans.

All of the songs on this list, while against the Vietnam War, were not necessarily against the soldiers themselves. They were against the decisions of the government and these songs actually lamented the loss of soldiers’ lives, the unfairness of the draft, and, like Fortunate Son and Born in the USA, lamented the treatment of soldiers, especially poor ones, as pawns and the treatment of veterans after the war. However, the Vietnam War remains an unpopular war and that public opinion has affected veterans, with many returning home to a public that saw them as part of an unsuccessful, unnecessary, and meaningless war. Two of the songs, Ohio and What’s Going On, focus on the treatment of anti-war protesters, arguing against police brutality and defending their right to protest.

The impact the war and the draft had on the military has led the military to be volunteer only since then, owing to large scale disciplinary problems, low morale, and other issues. The impacts of the war also continue to affect Vietnam.

To read more about the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre, and protest music, see the links below:

https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/sixties/essays/vietnam-war-and-my-lai-massacre

https://medium.com/war-is-boring/when-motown-went-to-war-against-war-f8f6471f88e4

https://www.cfr.org/blog/twenty-best-vietnam-protest-songs 

https://www.stripes.com/news/special-reports/vietnam-stories/1966/vietnam-the-first-rock-and-roll-war-1.438304

#MusicMonday- “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

__5af63d3fd1f2dMy husband and I went to see the new Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend. I have long loved the band Queen and found Mercury’s life story interesting so I was excited to see the film, which was very good overall, even though parts of it were historically inaccurate. When the real story is so interesting, I don’t understand why movies still feel the need to heighten the drama by changing timelines or exaggerating conflict…, but I don’t want to spoiler the film, so for now I will just let it inspire today’s music Monday and I will write a more in depth review for later when more people have had a chance to watch it. So, no spoilers below, promise, unless you know absolutely nothing about Freddie Mercury already.

Most people are familiar with the song Bohemian Rhapsody (1975). Written by the band’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, the song is part rock ballad, part mock opera, part gibberish? I wish I could tell you that as a historian I had cracked the code and could tell you exactly what the song is about, but it would be the height of hubris to claim I had a better interpretation than all of those who have been trying to figure it out for 43 years.

I used to think parts of it were references to Mercury’s HIV diagnosis; however, it would be 12 more years after he wrote Bohemian Rhapsody before he received that diagnosis. Many believe the song is a veiled reference to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, as he came to terms with being gay. On the surface the song seemingly tells the story of a “poor boy” on trial for killing someone. Mercury himself never confirmed the meaning of the song, telling listeners to make out what it meant to them.

The song’s operatic section (the part that sounds the most like gibberish) actually uses real words and names taken from real operas and other sources. An article from BBC America offers a glossary of terms for the song which helps to sort it out a bit.

A quick glossary of terms: Scaramouche is a stock character from the Italian clown tradition commedia dell’arte. He’s a fool, but adept at getting himself out of trouble. A fandango is a Spanish flamenco dance. Galileo was a Florentine astronomer, the inclusion of whom may be a nod to noted stargazer Brian May [lead guitarist of Queen, had studied astrophysics]. Figaro is, of course, taken from Rossini’s opera The Barber of SevilleBismillah means “in the name of Allah” and is the first word in The Qu’ran, and “Mamma Mia!” is an Italian exclamation of incredulity or surprise, referring to the Virgin Mary.”

Rather than being inspired by history (though it was a bit through its use of the above allusions), the song itself is a piece of history. At the time it was recorded it was groundbreaking in many ways. It was recorded for the band’s 1975 album, A Night at the Opera and at the time of its release it was considered the most expensive single ever recorded. At 5 minutes and 55 seconds it was an improbable hit. Nonetheless it was wildly popular and a commercial success. It lacked a chorus, another factor that made it an unlikely hit. The song’s promotional video also blazed trails, taking the fledgling practice of video promotions to new heights and pioneering the age of MTV in which music videos became necessary for singles.

The song is considered by many to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Acclaimed for being innovative in its fusing of hard rock with operatic style music, the song has inspired people for decades. Its list of awards and accolades is expansive including being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It topped the charts upon its release and again after Mercury’s death in 1991 when it was rereleased and when it was used in Wayne’s World.

It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them… “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?

—Freddie Mercury

The complete video is below. Take Freddie Mercury’s advice and take a good, hard listen and see what the song means to you.

#MusicMonday: “Monster Mash”

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Monster Mash. It was a graveyard smash.

Monster Mash was released in 1962. Written by Bobby Pickett and Leonard Capizzi and recorded by Pickett and “the Crypt-Kickers.,” the single hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from October 20-27, 1962 and has been a Halloween favorite ever since.

The song features Pickett doing an impression of Boris Karloff, a famed horror movie actor. He also does a Dracula impression for one line in the song.

The song was inspired by and danced to the Mashed Potato dance of the era. Monster Mash was danced like the Mashed Potato except with Frankenstein monster arm and hand movements.

Interestingly the sound effects in the song were very low budget. The coffin sound was created by removing a nail from a piece of wood; the cauldron bubbling was simply a straw bubbling water; and the chains rattling were just chains being dropped on a tile floor.

The song tells a story loosely similar to Frankenstein but with a fun, dance twist. A mad scientist’s monster comes to life and performs a new dance which became very popular and led to a party with other monsters.

Below is the video from Bobby Pickett performing the song on American Bandstand October 13, 1964.