With Halloween approaching, fans of the yearly observance have claimed Septembers 1st as the earliest day to hang decorations and start the celebration. That is two months before the official holiday. Sure, you can cover your porch with spiderwebs and have a 60-day horror movie marathon counting down the days to October 31st, but you’re also going to need some music to set the mood. And there’s no artist better than Roky Erickson to turn to for a spooky Halloween playlist full of songs about demons, vampires, zombies and gremlins.
Some quick background for those who don’t know: Roky was the guy who spearheaded the psychedelic rock movement in the 1960’s. With his group the 13th Floor Elevators, Roky established a sound likely fueled by the recreational drugs he was taking at the time. After a few short years of success with songs like ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’, Roky was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. It effected him in ways we’ll never know, but also in ways we can forever appreciate through his songwriting.
Roky made a comeback in the 70’s & 80’s with a new hard rock sound. His mental illness had apparently improved, but Roky was forever convinced he was some kind of monster or alien. He was all talk, though. While he sang and spoke of Satan and all things evil, Roky had a harmless almost alluring appeal to him. He continued to perform live music up until his death in 2019. While his full catalog of songs are always worth listening to, these spooky Roky Erickson songs are perfect for getting into the Halloween mood.
‘We Sell Soul’
One of Roky’s oldest songs, ‘We Sell Soul’ was written during his time in the 1960s with a group called the Spades. When he started playing with 13th Floor Elevators, Roky changed the song title/lyrics to ‘Don’t Fall Down’, but kept the same haunting melody. It’s one of the only songs during his psychedelic phase that has evil incantations similar to those found in his later works. Looking back, it may have been the biggest indicator as to what was in store for Roky’s music career.
‘Night of the Vampire’
Maybe the most autobiographical song based off his own delusions, Roky tells the story of a vampire in the night, a story he seems to relate directly to. Roky subtly references his own birthday in the lyrics, reconfirming his belief that he is some form of vampire monster that was on this Earth to not suck blood, but to play rock music.
The best version of this song is on the Gremlins Have Pictures compilation. It’s a live recording from 1982 with Roky’s backing band, The Explosives. This variation is far superior to the studio recording on The Evil One. For a live recording, every instrument comes through crisply and with no audience interference until they burst into cheers and applause at the end of the track. Roky’s voice howls over the music, taking precedence in the song, letting the audience know that the performance would be nothing without him. Light in the Attic Records reissued a number of Roky LPs over the last decade, including Gremlins, though they are sold out online. Local record stores can still be scoured for copies of these collector’s vinyls.
‘Burn the Flames’
Another haunting tale of vampire life, ‘Burn the Flames’ has an alluring appeal to its darkness. It’s hypnotic and hard to resist, like the Chris Sarandon vampire in Fright Night (1985). Roky’s fiendish whispers lure you in, like the seductive devil from Harold Ramis’ Bedazzled (2000), played perfectly by Elizabeth Hurley. These may be some of Roky’s most unique and animated lyrics, like a spooky version of The Night Before Christmas before Tim Burton had a similar idea. Some may recognize the song from being featured on the soundtrack to the zombie classic The Return of the Living Dead (1985).
‘Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)’
A bleeding banshee guitar intro followed by Roky wailing the song’s title is how ‘Two Headed Dog’ starts. One can only assume Roky was alluding in this song that he, like Cerberus, was a gatekeeper to the underworld. Roky was more of a welcoming committee, like a pied piper of the underworld, rather than someone standing guard. He took his fans right up to the gates of hell with his music, letting the listeners decide how far they go from there. With lyrics like “children nailed to the cross” and “did you dry her out, wind her out like jerky?”, Roky surely is not for your friends and neighbors who spend their Sunday mornings at church. Rather, he’s perfect for those who sleep in on the Sabbath because they stayed up all night watching scary movies.
‘Creature with the Atom Brain’
Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) was a sci-fi/horror film which Roky aptly named a song after. His song includes dialogue from the film along with some of Roky’s patented horror lyrics. Penned by Curt Siodmak, writer of The Wolf Man (1941), it’s a truly zany story of a mad scientist and a disgraced mafia goon who create an army of robot zombies who are only capable of wreaking havoc. With all the thoughts Roky openly expressed about being something other than human, it’s no surprise he took a liking to a film about corpse mind control.
‘I Walked with a Zombie’
I Walked with a Zombie (1943) was another film written by Curt Siodmak which Roky took enough of a liking with to turn the title into a creation of his own. ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ is a mesmerizing hit that sounds like a hidden song from the soundtrack to Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983). It’s a truly simple recording with the same fifteen seconds or so practically on loop for the track’s entirety. While it may seem repetitious, it never gets old listening to Roky’s tortured vocals.
‘Don’t Shake Me Lucifer’
One of the many demonic tales from The Evil One (1981), ‘Don’t Shake Me Lucifer’ is another classic entry in Roky’s catalogue of devilish tunes. It’s an anthem for his mental illness and a perfect parallel to his inner struggles. It could be seen as a plea for help in trying to fight off his demons. It could also be perceived as Roky’s full embrace of his mindset, welcoming his psychological monsters with open arms and sharing his love of evil with the rest of the world. Roky never seemed ashamed of his lifelong neurosis and was truly an inspiration to his fanbase, fighting through his struggles over the decades and continuing to play live music up until his death. For more on Roky’s life and his struggles with mental illness, be sure to check out the documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me (2005) from Academy Award-nominated director Keven McAlester.
‘If You Have Ghosts’
This could be one of Roky’s more popular songs, due to it being covered by the Swedish heavy metal group Ghost back in 2013. That cover album was also produced by Dave Grohl, a legend in rock music that has been vocal about his adoration of Roky over the years. The repeated howling of “If you have ghosts, you have everything” is Roky doubling down on his evil embrace. He’s conscious of his demons. He’s letting his audience know how he feels and he’s not afraid to maybe even take pride in his uniqueness.
There’s not much to this punk Roky tune. ‘Bumblebee Zombie’ is a strange albeit memorable title, chanted throughout with very few other lyrics amongst what sounds like a jam session from the garage of a haunted house. It’s a rare track found on two of Roky’s harder to find LPs: Love To See You Bleed (1992) and Don’t Knock the Rok! (2004). Most of the horror images Roky would conjure up in his songs were based off of monsters of old. It’s hard to say what he was going for here, but it will definitely infect your mind once you hear it.
‘I Think of Demons’ & ‘Stand for the Fire Demon’
Roky admitted to using horror to shock people. He may claim intention behind his choices but he seems more like a man possessed. A man born with a purpose, unable to control his own destiny. No matter how deep his inner demons went, Roky was never afraid to talk about them in his music. In ’I Think of Demons’, he sings an oddly uplifting song of how evil is not always threatening and maybe more innocent than what has always been perceived as good. If Buddy Holly had been re-animated after his fatal plane crash, this is what he would have sounded like.
Another fiendish title from Roky, ‘Stand for the Fire Demon’ is Roky’s pledge of allegiance to Satan. It’s a powerhouse song with an almost cinematic feel to it, like a fire alarm people don’t want to turn off. Some spoken word moments help provide an extra eerie tone that Roky was able to accomplish in previous songs by using excerpts of old monster movie dialogue.
‘The Wind and More’
“It’s times like these Lucifer” Roky croons as if he’s old friends with the Devil and they are sitting on Hell’s back porch enjoying an iced tea. ‘The Wind and More’ is rambling Roky at his most frantic and finest. It’s like therapy through songwriting, where Roky kind of gets everything out all in one song. There’s even a catchy vocable coda that will undoubtedly have you singing along at the end.
‘The Beast’ & ‘I’m a Demon’
Specifically the recordings on the compilation Gremlins Have Pictures, these two songs are a showcase of what Roky can do with only an acoustic guitar and the voice of a demon angel. In ‘The Beast’, Roky screams out a Son House-style warning to anyone listening. One could argue that he sings the blues better than any artist born outside of the Mississippi Delta. With ‘I’m a Demon’, Roky’s full range is realized as a blues artist. This track is one of Roky’s more danceable tunes, and a true celebration of Roky: a rock ‘n’ roll demon.
Too busy to look these songs up yourself? Not to worry! A YouTube playlist of all songs mentioned can be found here.