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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Do the Cthulhu: Monster Mashes and Cannibal Dances

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one knows how to do the Monster Mash, and that the song only describes people doing the dance and not how to dance it.

Yet the Monster Mash can be known. Its own lyrics say as much. The cost—one’s sanity, surely—may just be too great.

For you, the living, this mash was meant too
When you get to my door, tell them Boris sent you

Then you can monster mash
(The monster mash) And do my graveyard smash
(Then you can mash) You’ll catch on in a flash
(Then you can mash) Then you can monster mash

Monster Mash (Bobby Pickett)

The Monster Mash describes a realm in which those who know do and those who do know, a realm in which a “flash” will immediately grant you the terrible knowledge both of the dance and of the creatures who perform it and their realm. Once one sees beyond the veil, once one crosses beyond the threshold of Pickett’s “door” of perception, there is no turning back.

Outside the ordered universe that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

That flash of Lovecraftian gnosis, in less macabre presentations, is central to the history of dance crazes more generally. Despite the Swingers’ egalitarian claim that it ain’t what you dance, it’s the way you dance it, the privileged knowledge of dance moves has been central to the history of musical exhortations to hit the dancefloor. As with so many in-group declarations (Actor’s Equity, say), the only way to become a member is to already be one.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band captured this paradox in their 1969 performance of Monster Mash, in which Viv Stanshall describes a mash that has not yet taken place. As the monsters wake up and begin to dance, the temporal paradox causes the song to self-destruct at the very moment Stanshall begins the countdown to the actual mash:

“The countdown begins now…”

The song becomes its own sequel, in the style of Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation.

The Monster Mash is atypical in not being explicitly prescriptive. It hints at what is behind the veil but only offers a polite invitation and a seductive peek. Most songs about dances do indeed exhort the listener to perform their titular dances, and many go further by shaming those ignorant of the moves, drawing a line between populist inclusiveness (everyone can do this dance!) and elitist exclusion (if you don’t do this dance, you are a loser!).

Now here’s a dance you should know!
When the lights are down low!
Grab your baby, then go!
Do the Hucklebuck, do the Hucklebuck
If you don’t know how to do it
Then you’re out of luck!
Shove your baby in, twist her all around
Then you start a twisting mad and moving all around
Wiggle like a snake, waddle like a duck
That’s what you do when you do the Hucklebuck

The Hucklebuck (Roy Alfred, lyricist)

The song berates the listener for not already knowing the Hucklebuck, as a precursor to the actual instruction. The promise of secret knowledge lures in listeners, and a line is drawn between the elect and the hoi polloi. (The Fall, at the peak of Mark E. Smith’s obsession with H. P. Lovecraft, would ridicule this pretense to exclusive coolness by rewriting it as “Hassle Schmuck”.)

In the classic Honeymooners episode “Young at Heart,” Ralph Kramden hears the song exactly once, after which he somehow has acquired that elect knowledge and can mysteriously dance fluidly and confidently. Ralph has crashed through the barriers separating him from Jackie Gleason and Gleason’s other characters and momentarily partakes of their knowledge. Unusually for the show, Ralph wins over Alice with his new knowledge. He conquers his momentary humiliation when Alice sees him dancing, and she symbolically accepts his pin to join him inside the circle of dance knowledge, so he can continue to revel in his sudden gnosis:

“This is one of those numbers that tells a story.”

Once subject to revelation (to apocalypse, literally “uncovering”), there is no turning back. Not even Alice Kramden can manage it. She too succumbs.

M. T. Anderson, author of Symphony for the City of the Dead and The Pox Party, has traced this rhetorical apocalypse back to very early in the recorded era (as well as to the envoys of Dante’s Vita Nuova):

Let’s examine the question of the division between dance and song (and lyric). Take the Charleston, for example:

Caroline, Caroline, At last they’ve got you on the map
With a new tune, a funny blue tune, with a peculiar snap!
You many not be able to buck and wing
Fox-trot, two-step, or even swing
If you ain’t got religion in your feet
You can do this prance and do it neat… Charleston! Charleston! …

Like “The Monster Mash,” it slurs the difference between the dance and the song (i.e. itself) which elicits the dance. They both posit somehow an imaginary song and moment, anterior to themselves, when the dance becomes wildly popular — as if the dance proceeded the song, and the song merely announces, like John the Baptist at the river, the glory of another mover and shaker. But in fact, in each of these cases, the song is the appropriate vehicle for the dance. The song exists in a loop of self-promotion, declaring a past triumph that cannot have come before itself, the express vehicle of the dance — because you dance the Charleston to the “Charleston,” the monster mash to “The Monster Mash.” It is fundamentally unlike, say, the waltz, which can be danced to any one of a thousand waltzes, or indeed anything in 3/4 time.

This circularity, I think, is an excellent example of the Kardashian effect, a phenomenological moebius bootstrapping in which your fame comes only from announcing your fame. It is a fame simulacrum with an empty core, pointing back at an event which was not an event, deixis without a referent; an ouroboros conga line.

M. T. Anderson

Yet as the Swingers suggested, there’s always been an egalitarian, anti-gnostic tendency, taken to an extreme by the much-covered Land of 1000 Dances (Cannibal & The Headhunters, Wilson Pickett, and many others), which casually rattles off dance names in its lyrics, making it simultaneously parasitic on the other dances it cites (as there is no actual Land of 1000 Dances dance) and utilitarian.

Children, go where I send you
(Where will you send me?)
I’m gonna send you to that land
The land of a thousand dances

Got to know how to Pony
Like “Bony Maronie”
You got to know how to Twist
Goes like this

Mashed Potato
Do the Alligator
Twist, twister
Like your sister

Then you get your Yo-Yo
Say, hey, let’s go-go
Get out on your knees
Do the Sweet Peas

Roll over on your back
Say, “I Like It Like That”
Do the Watusi
Do the Watusi

Then you do the Fly
With the Hand Jive
Then you do the Slop
The Chicken and the Bop

Then you do the Fish
Slow, slow Twist
Then you do the Flow
Got to move solo
Then you do the Tango
Takes two to Tango

Land of 1000 Dances (Chris Kenner)

Here is a song to which you can do every dance! You must dance the waltz to any waltz, where no other 3/4 dances are available, but you can dance any dance to Land of 1000 Dances (save the waltz). Ignorance is not a problem: do whatever dance you want, and you’re in luck no matter what. Kenner is thorough, but Cannibal and the Headhunders dropped over half of the dance names for that nagging “Na na-na na na” vocal hook, illustrating just how irrelevant the specific dance moves were. It ain’t what you dance, it’s the way you dance it.

Na na-na na naaaaaaa

Yet from flattening nondifferentiation inevitably arises the urge to differentiate, and this populist trend did not last. It took the arch-romantic Bryan Ferry to fight back against the democratizing power of the Land of 1000 Dances. He posited a dance so simultaneously ubiquitous and inaccessible that knowledge and performance were reserved for those touched by the demiurge of creativity and genius: the Strand. Ferry goes further: the Strand is not a dance, but “a danceable solution,” a Platonic meta-dance that subsumes all (and exclusively) cool content, not merely dances.

Not Terry Wogan

In the end, Ferry proclaims that all concreta, whether dances, flowers, or paintings, fall away before the abstractum of the Strand:

There’s a new sensation
A fabulous creation
A danceable solution
To teenage revolution
Do the Strand love
When you feel love
It’s the new way
That’s why we say
Do the Strand!

Do it on the tables
Quaglino’s place or Mabel’s
Slow and gentle
Sentimental
All styles served here
Louis Seize he prefer
Laissez-faire Le Strand
Tired of the tango
Fed up with fandango
Dance on moonbeams
Slide on rainbows
In furs or blue jeans
You know what I mean
Do the Strand!…Oooh

Had your fill of Quadrilles
The Madison and cheap thrills
Bored with the Beguine
The samba isn’t your scene
They’re playing our tune
By the pale moon
We’re incognito
Down the Lido
And we like the Strand.

Arabs at oasis
Eskimos and Chinese
If you feel blue
Look through Who’s Who
See La Goulue
And Nijinsky
Do the Strandsky.

Weary of the Waltz
And mashed potato schmaltz
Rhododendron
Is a nice flower
Evergreen
It lasts forever
But it can’t beat Strand power
The sphinx and Mona Lisa
Lolita and Guernica
Did the Strand

Do the Strand (Bryan Ferry)

The Strand’s form can inhabit a wide variety of content, but only content meeting forever-unspecified conditions of total coolness. There’s no teaching the Strand; those who can partake of it do so through some unconditioned gnostic revelation. Some will never and can never know the Strand.

But perhaps they are better off. Cthulhu knew the Strand too.


The punk era atomized the tension between elitism and populism, often by just ignoring it, but occasionally subverting it. Aside from the singular Fall example above, Cabaret Voltaire’s “Do the Mussolini (Headkick)” turns the exhortation into a vague incitement to actual violence, playing on the ambiguity of that most general verb “to do.” Similarly, A Certain Ratio’s “Do the Du” takes an excellent, funky groove and puts lyrics of intimate agony on top of it which seem to have nothing to do with dancing.

The way I read it, doing the “Du” (“you”) is indeed a gnosis, but one of mutual annihilation between two partners locked into each other and away from the world. Dancing to it is running the risk of entering that nightmare. It’s the Monster Mash all over again, except the monsters are two ordinary lovers.

The ultimate riposte to the whole song-and-dance dilemma, though, is The Table’s “Do the Standing Still (Classics Illustrated),” a dance that is not a dance, one performed by corpses over a lyrical bed of quotes from Silver Age Marvel comics, a tribute to all those misfits who stay home from discos in their rooms at night reading Jack Kirby.

It’s the real monster mash.


APPENDIX:

Songs for further reference:

  • The Terminals, “Do the Void”
  • The Method Actors, “Do the Method”
  • The Homosexuals, “Do the Total Drop”
  • Electric Six, “Newark Airport Boogie”
  • Kontakt Mikrofon Orkestra, “Do the Residue”
  • XTC, “Traffic Light Rock”

A special honorable mention goes to Electric Six’s “The Number of the Beast,” which enthusiastically describes the secret knowledge to summon an otherworldly beast, but the knowledge is not dance moves but mathematics. Plato would approve.

When I look out my window
I’m amazed by the curses I see
I’m bound by what I don’t know
And what I don’t know is looking back at me

So make your counting count
Get the precise amount
It’s beyond rudimentary
I need an abacus
’cause I’m bad at this!
Ain’t been to university

Now clear the decks and solve for X!
Slide to the right and solve for Y!
Square root of eight–Triangulate!
From West to East: the Number of the Beast!

When I crunch up your numbers
I’m afraid of the outcome I see
I’m tired of supernumery [sic]
And I know he getting tired of me

Now clear a path!
Do basic math
And feel my wrath
Feel my wrath

Electric six, “The Number of the Beast”

2 Comments

  1. Three other milestones on the dance floor:

    1. “The Ostrich” by the Primitives, an impossible dance from an improbable band.
    2. “Stupidity” – this request goes out to Bobby Musil and all the boys at Vic’s.
    3. “Do the Funky Somethin'” by Rufus Thomas.

  2. The post reminds me of “Tacit knowledge … is difficult to express or extract, and thus more difficult to transfer to others by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. This can include personal wisdom, experience, insight, and intuition.” And obviously dances. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacit_knowledge
    Tacit knowledge is always “elitist” knowledge that cannot be easily disseminated over the Internet, although Youtube is now the place to go if you want to learn somthing which cannot be described just with words. Video helps … but still, after all it’s embodied knowledge.

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