Music of the monster
The tortured soul of Frankenstein’s creature, an imagined Adam who wakes to find himself a hellish monstrosity instead, is one that appears over and over in songs. Misunderstood, maligned and unloved by his “father”, his story is as tragic as it is filled with terror and it is one that has fascinated a range of musicians from the late Jerry Garcia to Metallica and Alice Cooper.
Metal, rock and punk bands obsessed over Frankenstein’s monster and his splintered soul. He embodied the dualities of life and death, darkness and suffering. Right from his inception in Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece to his onscreen rendition in films, he was a creature born to be part of rock iconography.
In a 1995 interview for the AMC show The Movie That Changed My Life, Garcia recounted how his mother had taken him to see Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 when he was just six years old. He said, “I had never seen a horror movie before and it frightened me and I mostly hid behind the seats. It was sheer panic.” The movie affected him more deeply because he watched it a few months after his father had died. And the idea of a dead thing brought to life as a monster was like a bogeyman for him.
Later, he watched the film many times and mentioned how Frankenstein’s monster evoked something deep in him and became a personal icon of sorts. Garcia mentions studying the make-up done by the legendary Jack Pierce for the 1931 film and drawing pictures of Frankenstein’s monster over and over in different configurations. And it is fitting that film-maker Amir Bar-Lev’s excellent six-part documentary on The Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, which released on Amazon Prime last year, was interspersed with images of Frankenstein’s monster. It was a creature that became a metaphor for how Garcia viewed art, music and even life and death. Similarly, in Metallica’s Some Kind Of Monster, the band refers to a creature akin to Frankenstein’s invention which becomes a larger metaphor on life and their trajectory as artists.
Other musicians have rendered the creature as a sentient being in their songs, with psychological complexity and as a composite of his traumas, guilt and cruel rejections. New York Dolls, in their 1973 song Frankenstein, used the tormented creature as an analogy for teenage angst and alienation. This trope persisted in Alice Cooper’s Teenage Frankenstein from his 1986 album Constrictor. With lines like, I’m a teenage Frankenstein/The local freak with the twisted mind...Got a synthetic face/Got some scars and a brace/ My hands are rough and bloody/I walk into the night/Women faint at the sight/I ain’t no cutie-pie, it seemed as if Frankenstein was indeed the greatest metaphor ever created for a generation of troubled youth.
Rammstein’s despondent track Mutter psychoanalyses the scars left by bad parenting and tells the story of a child much like Frankenstein’s monster born of an experiment and consequently bereft of parental love. He is finally driven to kill himself and his “mother” but survives even though he is permanently disfigured. The soul-searing refrain addressed to the dead mother towards the end of the song is filled with the same anguish that the monster feels when Frankenstein dies.
American hard rockers Blue Öyster Cult’s in The Siege And Investiture Of Baron Von Frankenstein’s Castle At Weisseria move away from the monster to take a look at his maker, Frankenstein. This song is part of the band’s epic rock opera Imaginos, where the doctor is cast as an agent of evil who sends out his terrible inventions into the world.
Yet there are instances when he is also a creature of whimsy and humour who can pull off a song and dance routine with aplomb. In Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, young Frederick, Victor Frankenstein’s grandson (played by Gene Wilder), and Peter Boyle as his newly reanimated monster, put up a fantastic performance parodying Fred Astaire’s Puttin’ On The Ritz. One of the funniest lines in the same film is delivered by Dr Frankenstein’s dim-witted assistant Igor who ushers his new master to his room, repeating the refrain, “Walk this way”. Effortlessly funny, this was the line that prompted Aerosmith to name their 1977 song after it. In 1986, RUN-D.M.C.’s rap-rock mashup of Walk This Way gave it a new popularity as it climbed to No.4 on the Billboard charts that year.
In Mary Shelley’s novel, the monster escapes Frankenstein’s laboratory and arrives at a blind man’s cottage where he hears him playing an instrument. He describes his untutored response as a “mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food....” This is among the book’s most poignant moments where, although monstrous in form, the creature instinctively reacts to the sweetness of the sound and its underlying “mournful air” like little children often do. And it seems quite apt that it is through music again that the monster is given a second life and rendered human.