Song of the Day: “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV

Novelty, parody, and sketch songs have never been a major interest of mine. And most of my reviews would sound the same. So this week, instead of writing about the song, I’m going to pick one of its intriguing quirks or a related topic to spotlight.

Spotlight: Variable-Frequency Oscillator

In 1966, Jerry Samuels worked as a recording engineer for Associated Recording Studios. Inspired by a traditional Scottish tune, he wrote and recorded a simple, half-sung ditty about a man going mad when his lover leaves him. It was backed by a simple snare-and-tambourine beat.

It’s doubtful anyone would have paid it any attention, except for one twist: The experienced sound technician used a device called a “variable-frequency oscillator” to make his voice go higher and higher pitched as he described going insane in each chorus.

Back before digital technology made such manipulations trivial, this was a unique and jarring effect. The simple, ringing background beat paired with the increasingly distorted voice made for a sound that was almost terrifying. Samuels — by stage name “Napoleon XIV” — quickly notched himself a top-5 hit.

I’m no expert in sound technology, but I recently read a little bit about the VFO, and its use during the analog era. It’s a tool for oscillating (i.e. making sounds higher- or lower-pitched) that uses a then-cutting edge technique called “heterodyning.” VFO was not the most common tool for oscillating frequency of signals , but it had some unique advantages. Some of them were purely technical and not worth describing here, but the big one for Samuels was that the VFO allowed you to easily adjust the range of the oscillation (hence its name!) precisely and simply.

After the unexpected success of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” Samuels released a full LP (of the same name) that made use of some other studio trickery. These songs also centered around mental illness:  for example, “I Live in a Split-Level Head” depicted “hearing voices” by having distinct, chipmunky vocal tracks on each stereo channel that gradually fall out of sync.The B-side of the “They’re Coming…” is titled “!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er’yehT” and is the original track played backwards.

All in all, a pretty cool gimmick for a pretty annoying song.

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