The link between music and film is an obvious one as it merges our two most basic and primal senses, seeing and hearing. Music’s influence on film is quite profound as movies have been scored to set the ambience or accentuate the images for roughly a century, hence the term soundtrack. The influence of film on music is a more recent phenomenon, manifested in the recordings of musicians who have no working relationship to a particular movie, and are often separated by decades from the source material, yet still feel compelled to write songs about said movie. During the 1990s, the New York City-based art/noise/metal band White Zombie pushed this concept further than any previous group of recording artists who ever achieved even a modicum of mainstream success.
Here’s an interesting premise, in 1993 a band taking its name from a 1932 Bela Lugosi movie gets a top fifteen hit and a Grammy nomination with “Thunder Kiss ’65”, a song written about Russ Meyer’s 1965 schlock masterpiece Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Just contemplate the sheer ridiculousness of that sentence for a moment, and try to refute the assertion that truth is stranger than fiction.
For a moment, let’s break down “Thunder Kiss ’65”, into its primary musical components.
- Real drums pounding out an organically heavy, yet danceable beat, complete with explosive cymbal crashes and some kick-ass fills
- Metallic guitar riffs alternating between muted rhythmic patterns and anachronistic Hendrix-esque wailing
- Matching bass line holding down the low end
- Gutturally growled rhythmic vocals in the verse, with a chorus punctuated by copious screams of “YEAH!” and “OWW!”
- Lyrics alluding to the aforementioned film, as well as Russ Meyer’s Motor Psycho (1965), strung together like an acid-laced beatnik free verse poem
- Samples from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) interspersed with police sirens
- Just enough subtle bonus tambourine to make all the white girls shake their fertile birthing hips
The American populace was introduced to White Zombie via their music video for “Thunder Kiss ’65”, the first single from their major label debut album La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1. Although it was released in March of 1992, the single didn’t truly catch fire until 1993 when it was aired on MTV’s Beavis and Butthead. Regardless of the fact that it was produced on a shoestring budget, the video was extremely well executed. The visuals alternated between full-color shots of the band performing the song in all their psychedelic-biker-punk patchwork finery, and a black and white montage of a luchador driving a ’57 Chevy through some remote corner of the American Southwestern desert inhabited only by Frankenstein monsters, skull-faced devils and nubile go-go dancers. In hindsight, how could this not be 1993’s Grammy-nominated feel-good hit of the summer?
The video did a fantastic job of evoking the retro feel of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), It Came From Outer Space (1953) and a myriad of other golden age films with their black and white shots of classic cars kicking up dust clouds as they wreak havoc in the desert sun. In the humble opinion of the author, there is just something quintessentially and undeniably American about seeing a classic automobile with fins cruising along a desert highway. The video for “Thunder Kiss ’65” conveyed this admirably, along with heaping sides of adventure, danger, sex and unbridled joy.
Many bands find success with one atypical hit, but to their credit White Zombie not only continued, but expanded upon these themes of retro horror, sci-fi and exploitation movies for the entirety of La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1. Each track, imbued with thunderous percussion, screaming guitars, hyper-focused yet abstract lyrical narratives, and samples from old films, struck the listener like a gargantuan drive-in movie monster coming to life and lumbering off the screen in a drug-fueled haze. Although movie samples were a staple of 1990s rock, no other album incorporated them as frequently and effectively. The first track, a two-part magnum opus titled “Welcome to Planet Motherfucker/Psychoholic Slag”, brilliantly incorporates (at about the 4:00 mark) the flying saucer sound effects from Forbidden Planet (1956), with The Mummy (1932) (“Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?”), and Dawn of The Dead (1978) (“Get up and kill!”) before ending the sludgy romp with the beat poem from High School Confidential! (1958). “Black Sunshine” features Iggy Pop narrating noir fiction before name checking Hammer Films’ To The Devil… A Daughter (1976). “Soul-Crusher” is a psychopathic road trip of a lyrical ode to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). “Cosmic Monsters Inc.” begins with a snippet from the 1966 Batman TV series before flawlessly drawing on Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). “Thrust!” amusingly injects the news report from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) with new, albeit undead, rhythm. “Starface” begins and ends with a sample of space hippies from the “The Way to Eden” episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. This recap is by no means complete, and needless to say La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1 is chock full of all the grindhouse references you can stomach. Add them up, and you’ve got a damned near perfect concept album.
- “Welcome to Planet Motherfucker/Psychoholic Slag”
- “Knuckle Duster (Radio 1-A)”
- “Thunder Kiss ’65”
- “Black Sunshine”
- “Cosmic Monsters Inc.”
- “Spiderbaby (Yeah-Yeah-Yeah)”
- “I Am Legend”
- “Knuckle Duster (Radio 2-B)”
- “One Big Crunch”
- “Grindhouse (A Go-Go)”
- “Warp Asylum”
It’s important to place this album in its proper context. The years 1992 and 1993 were musically owned by grunge and alternative rock. Nirvana had dethroned Michael Jackson atop the pop charts, The Red Hot Chili Peppers were headlining Lollapalooza, Pearl Jam was taking on Ticketmaster, Smashing Pumpkins were officially sanctioned as the next big thing, and even third-tier lightweight alt-rock bands like Toad The Wet Sprocket were selling records. Hair metal was dead and buried, thrash metal had been stripped of its essence by Metallica’s Black Album, and the subsequent genre-wide identity crisis. The unforeseen popularity of the second wave of punk rock was still a year or two away. Moreover, while their contemporaries were busy whining about their feelings, yarling, writing albums worth of depressing songs, omitting guitar solos, marrying marginally-talented man-jawed riot grrrls, and shooting heroin/themselves, White Zombie were reintroducing the youth of America to the following:
- Bela Lugosi
- The films of Russ Meyer
- Forbidden Planet (1956)
- Cosmic Monsters (1958) and/or Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster (1974)
- Missile to the Moon (1958)
- Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
- Spider Baby (1968)
- George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978)
- Mid-Century science fiction and horror author Richard Matheson
- And the long lost American rock n’ roll tradition of writing songs about cars
I simply cannot overstate how unlikely it was for this band to become successful. While White Zombie were more likely to share a fan base with Pantera than Southern Culture On The Skids, one simply cannot deny their retro overtones. Unlike most of the other bands I’ll be covering in future posts, White Zombie wrote songs about retro subject matter in a decidedly non-retro way. Thus, they were clearly the conceptual heirs to horror punk pioneers The Misfits, and they had the exact same effect on a significant portion of Generation X. “I want to know where that B-movie reference comes from, and I want to see that movie.” And we all know that once one opens the door of that retro gateway, it simply cannot be closed. On a more personal note, there are few moments more thrilling in that “DUDE! GET IN HERE! YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!” way than accidentally stumbling upon a White Zombie sample while watching an old movie.
In conclusion, if you find yourself headed to the drive-in on a hot summer evening, cue up La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol 1 and give it a listen. I defy you to find a more perfect soundtrack.
After The Fact
- Upon reflection, J. Yuenger is probably the most criminally underappreciated guitarist of the 1990s. While at the time it was quite fashionable for every longhaired white boy and his brother to claim to be influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Yuenger was one of the few who actually manifested said influence in his playing.
- For further reading, pick up a copy of I’m In the Band: Backstage Notes from the Chick in White Zombie by Sean Yseult. This is a fantastic coffee table book chronicling the unlikely rise of White Zombie, and it’s absolutely loaded with old pictures, set lists, road diaries, epic riffs transcribed on the back of napkins, etc. It’s a great read, and there are some absolutely hilarious stories about touring with Pantera, Danzig, and Kyuss. If you liked White Zombie at all, or ever get nostalgic for a time when being a successful independent band meant riding across the region in a broken down van whilst living off of a $2-a-day per diem, I very highly recommend this book.