Dracula's Deuce: Revving Through Gary Usher's Horror-Themed Hot Rod Record
BY GREGORY ADAMS
While I love hearing a 60’s-era monster party song any time of year, cemetery rockers and blood-sucking bops make up a substantial part of my diet come October. I’ve been reviewing a mix of gleefully ghastly and truly god-awful genre pieces through my Instagram stories all month long, but for Halloween-proper I wanted to dig a little deeper into a record that’s fascinated me for decades: The Ghouls’ Dracula’s Deuce, from 1964.
The Ghouls weren’t exactly a real band, but rather a studio project concocted by Gary Usher, a California producer/musician who carved out a career making music with various fictional ensembles. I got put onto Gary when I was a teenager, after inheriting a copy of his Kickstands’ Black Boots and Bikes, which he also released in 1964. It’s a surf-styled stunner — one of my favourite albums of all time — where a series of songs about daredevil cross-country riders (“Death Valley Run”) and motorcycle toughs (“Mean Streak”) coalesce with fun-and fuel-injected instrumentals. “Hill Climb,” in particular, works a gnarly little 12-bar curio on what must be an early Fender Bass VI model, but I’m also quite partial to the saxophonic, Bo Diddley-beating “Side Car”. Great stuff!
Dracula’s Deuce is a weirder beast. Like Black Boots and Bikes, it pretty well trades off song-for-song between instrumental and vocal pieces. But it’s also a novelty record to the max, and painfully punny to the core. Considering Gary also had a dozen co-writes with Brian Wilson (most famously “In My Room”), it’s not surprising to see the Ghouls' macabre goofs on iconic tracks from Jan and Dean (“The Little Old Lady from Transylvania”) and the Beach Boys (“Be True To Your Ghoul”).
While borrowing quite liberally from the surf and hot rod music scenes, it’s hard to miss that Dracula’s Deuce also owes an eternal debt to “Monster Mash”. Vocalist Richie Burns — who also handled a ton of vocals on Black Boots and Bikes — often works a similar Boris Karloff lilt as the Crypt-Kickers’ Bobby “Boris” Pickett; the Ghouls’ “The Graveyard Shift” is musically a beat-for-beat Mash, though it moves the monsters from the party to a back-breaking night of ditchdigging.
The simmering, sax-loaded “Monsterbilly Heaven,” the album’s best vocal track, is an accidentally profound piece about monsters crossing over into a second afterlife, with Drac and Vampira having one last bash before ascending to that big black cloud in the sky. That’s kind of how the Ghouls avoid being mere “Monster Mash” retreads, putting them a rung ahead above more pitiful Pickett bites like Mann Drake’s “Vampire’s Ball”.
That’s not to say the record is without faults. Burns loves dropping these pained cries throughout the vocal pieces that are a struggle to listen to. It’s as if he’s constantly being staked through the heart. For this reason alone, the instrumentals steal the show. Take “Dracula’s Theme,” a cool-but-creepy bit of whammy-undulated guitar exotica.
While they haven’t repressed The Ghouls’ lone record since the ‘60s, it is streaming through Apple and Spotify. It’s doubly niche, between the hot rod talk and the horror aesthetic, but when it comes to songs about vampires racing custom-plated hearses through a graveyard, you can’t get much better than Dracula’s Deuce.
As a Halloween bonus, do behold my unearthed tribute to Bobby “Boris” Pickett, which was first published through The Tyee in 2010.
Graveyard smash or not, “Monster Mash” ruined Bobby Pickett’s life. As we celebrate the spooky novelty song’s creepy crawl to the top of the Billboard charts 48-years-ago, it’s important to recognize that while the dance craze caught on in a flash, the tune also signaled Pickett’s slow descent into obsession. Granted, the cut is still great. Delivering every line as an ooky, Boris Karloff-inspired mad scientist, the singer — who fittingly branded himself Bobby “Boris” Pickett — led his Crypt-Kickers through a bubblegum rave-up that found monsters of all shapes and sizes getting together to cut a rug. Everyone was there: Frankenstein’s monster, Igor, the Mummy. Even Count Dracula showed up! His son, too, for that matter. It was cute, catchy, and instantly engrained itself into rock’s history book.
Unfortunately, the single’s success overshadowed the rest of Pickett’s career. Pretty well everything he did after his debut referenced the cut. In 1962 Pickett also released the rush-job “Monster Holiday,” a note-for-note remake that swapped in lyrics about creatures trying to steal Santa’s sleigh. He does a pretty good werewolf snarl near the end, but besides that it seemed like Pickett had already worn the idea thin.
A 1984 re-vamp titled “Monster Rap” found him freestyling about how you need to “shock the body, body” to a decidedly old school hip hop beat. It, uh, wasn’t exactly what the kids back then would’ve called “fresh.” 2005′s eco-conscious “Climate Mash,” the final addition to his canon, played out the tune’s familiar melody while the musician warned us of the dangers of global warming. It’s a little weird, to say the least.
Pickett spent his whole career — including a 1995 movie musical named, you guessed it, Monster Mash: The Movie — trying to recreate his magic moment. Unfortunately, lightning doesn’t always strike the electrodes in your neck twice. Tragically, Pickett died in 2007 due to complications from leukemia.
So this Halloween, let us of course dance the Monster Mash in between bobbing for apples and chomping on a handful of bite-sized Snickers, but might we suggest a couple more crypt-kicking classics. However undead your guests might be, your party will be even more lifeless if you just stick to the same old songs.