This week’s bout of depression has created an unusual side effect in a huge wave of nostalgia for Universal Studios and the realisation “of course it’s all on YouTube”, the internet has given us many bounties – most of them involving naked people, yes - but being able to experience old theme park attractions you thought you’d never experience again, exactly how you remember (or close enough) is one of it’s tastiest. I’m returning to Florida this year and I’ll of course be returning to
Harry Potterland featuring The Simpsons Universal
Studios, and I will damn well enjoy it, but the Universal Studios on my
childhood is no more, Kong, Jaws, Mr Stay Puft, Doc & Marty and now
Beetlejuice and the Universal Monsters have been shuffled off for undeniable
cash cows like The Simpsons, Harry Potter and Minions and things that can never
hope to have the longevity of these or the things they’ve replaced like Shrek, The
Mummy remake and the Bayformers, and I say that as a confirmed fan of the Mummy
remake and someone you better believe is going on all of those properties’
rides. But thanks to YouTube and a site for downloading videos from it that I do
not know exists, at all, I am now totally ok with this; because I can experience
the Kong ride any time I want - without the taste of American Tourist Sweat™.
Today’s post is about the best thing I found on my Universal Studios YouTube binge: you see things I like include: rock music, Tim Burton, theme parks and the Universal Monsters, so if only there was an attraction at a theme park that mixed Universal Monsters and rock music that was compared by Tim Burton character…oh wait there is, was, sort of still is. What I am being facetious about is of course (of course, duuuh) Beetlejuice’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Graveyard Review, a former live stage show at Universal Studios parks around that big place near Mexico. I went to Florida with my dad’s side of the family around 1995 (we still argue about when it exactly was, don’t ask) and as that side of the family includes, me, my dad, my uncle and my grandad, a collective of three generations of somewhat sizeable Universal Monster fans we WERE going to see this and dragged the rest of our family – all mildly disinterested female types – in and I was enraptured. And when one considers that I’d already been through Konfrontation, Ghost Busters Spooktacular and Jaws and I was about 9 it’s amazing I had any attention span left and could sit still due the pure adrenaline from real life appearances by King Kong, Jaws and Mr Stay Puft in short succession but I’ve always had extra patience for the classic monsters and I sat enthralled, my strongest memories from childhood are of The Phantom of the Opera playing ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and the awesomeness that is inherent in such a concept and The Bride of Frankenstein’s outfit and the pre-pubescence urges it may or may not have stirred. Nut Youtube means I can tell you all about it in detail, and more importantly tell you about the songs in it, you’re so lucky.
So come back with me to 1992, the comic book boom is in full swing, Barney & Friends is obnoxiously huge and the Mega Drive is the best system on the market, important stuff is also probably happening but who gives a shit when there’s Spawn and Sonic 2, and you are at Universal Studios Florida, you were a little disappointed at first because you could be at The Magic Kingdom but live-action Ghostbusters soon puts paid to that feeling. You wander over from Kongfrontation, or ‘The King Kong Ride’, annoyed that someone has spoilt the magic by announcing ‘there’s two models’ and wanting somewhere to sit down, you decide to check out this new Beetlejuice thing. Inside you find a seat, it’s hot and the seats are lukewarm and you know full well someone has farted on them within the last 20 minutes there is a faint taste of American Tourist Sweat™ but thankfully it’s a lot less pronounced than it was in that boat on the Jaws ride and it’s somewhere to rest without feeling pressured to buy overpriced fizzy pop.
As the last few stragglers – all wearing vest tops and grey t-shirts with off-model Simpsons and Mickey & Friends characters on them – take their seats to the sound sounds of Danny Elfman’s theme from Beetlejuice you take in the ornate stage; a Disneyland version of German Expressionism it looks like Castle Grayskull by way of the Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Wonderfully coloured to be almost black and white, two coffins are propped against the castle ruins and it couldn’t be more obvious they’re going to open – it’s like in old cartoons where you can tell what’s going to move because it’s a different contrast – a spiral walkway (danceway) climbs up seemingly exported straight from James Whale’s Frankenstein and a painted backdrop borrowed from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It is a cool stage.
As the music finishes up, someone doing a passable impression of Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice voice comes in over the tannoy to comment on his own theme tune and a surely enough the golder coffin opens to reveal the ghost with the most in the form of The Mummy so he can make a pun about being wrapped up. This is the only appearance of The Mummy in the original version, I have no idea why Imhotep go the shaft, especially as Skate, Haddock & Sole Shake, Rattle & Roll was perfect for him, there’s no way it could have been questions over ownership as ‘a mummy’ cannot be copyrighted so I’m guessing it was either a (un)creative decision or due to run time. BJ has fans chant his name three times, one twat is always way behind everyone else ruining the effect, and in an explosion of pyro out comes the titular star of the show in his classic black and white pinstripe for some audience participation and dated references that actually aren’t that dated thanks to the continuing high profile of Tim Burton and Madonna, in fact Madonna’s even more monstrous these days. I’d like to take a minute to say that I’m not that big a fan of Beetlejuice the character, he’s obnoxious, sleazy and thinks he’s funnier than he is – in short he’s the exact sort of person I spend my days avoiding – I’m well aware that this is the point but it’s so on point that he grates on my nerves, I watch the film fairly regularly but that’s more for Lydia Deez being awesome and Geena Davies being one of the most gorgeous women of the 80’s (I watch Mars Needs Women way more than such a shit film deserves because of that latter fact).
You just about get time to be tired of ‘juice’s shtick before it’s time to bring on his elders, his betters, the Universal Monsters (minus the Mummy)! But before this, BJ warns the audience that it’s going to take a lot of power to turn them into Rock ‘n’ Roll stars and when he gives the signal you’re to chant his name three times. Anyway, Part of the castle rotates to reveal… The Phantom of the Opera! Even though his outfit is taken from the Claude Rains version of the character he removes his mask to reveal make-up inspired by Lon Chaney’s version, a perfect compromise between the easily recognisable and the fan preferred. In a puff of smoke, from somewhere backstage… the Wolf Man! And he looks nothing like the Jack Pierce make-up! This confused me at the time and I still don’t quite get the decision now as the make-up, which is really more bear man than Wolf Man, is what makes the Universal Studios version of a werewolf the Universal Studios version and is what allows them to trademark it, and y’know they’re selling figurines and plushies of that version in the gift shop nearby. There are shades of Henry Hull’s Werewolf of London look (also a Jack Pierce production) but really he looks more an Ape Soldier. I have two theories – the Pierce design was somehow a problem when performing, or the changes were made so the Wolf Man looked good, and recognisable, from the back of auditorium. But ladies, hold onto your necks as the prince of darkness himself glides from the so-far unopened second coffin…Dracula! And this time there is a good reason why he doesn’t look quite like Bela Lugosi, it’s due to likeness rights and Bela Lugosi Jr’s intensity in protecting his father’s image, which I’ve always found a little odd as of all the Universal Monsters stars Lugosi has the worst reputation, if he ums and ahs about lovingly sculpted merchandise I very much doubt junior would be ok with his dad’s image singing and dancing to karaoke favourites. Then in centre stage – where he belongs – wheeled out on the laboratory table… Frankenstein’s Monster! He looks perfect, though thanks to the size required to play him always looks slightly more like Glen Strange’s Franky. Finally running down from the top of the tower…The Bride of Frankenstein! And she is terrified, in fact all the monsters seem to utterly hate each other, theme park setting or no they’re still monsters and still delightfully in character.
The monsters then turn on the ghoul with the cool and you’re a little bit frightened, suspension of disbelief has kicked in despite ‘juice’s bad puns and you realise that the monsters that could never get you because they were only images left over from 70 years past, burned onto that most harmless of thing – a VHS, are real and only a few feet in front of you, even if the Wolf Man does look like one of the Groovy Ghoulies. You try as hard as you can to cover this up but secretly you’re happy you couldn’t get a front row seat. But it’s ok, just as he’s about to be overpowered Beetlejuice gives the command for the audience to scream his name thrice, and with each shout the monsters are driven back to a pre-designated area on the steps of the castle where a whoosh of smoke lasts just long enough for a costume change and when it clears, the Monsters no longer want to rip and tear, instead they want to sign and dance, they’ve been turned into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Graveyard Reviews! The Phantom has become Chuck Berry! The Monster has become Bruce Springsteen! The Wolf Man has become Kurt Cobain! Dracula has become the lead singer of every Goth Rock band since the mid-80’s! and the Bride, well, you always knew that the Bride was secretly hot because she was played by cutie Elsa Lanchester and you could see very well when she was Mary Shelly how pretty she was but she was still covered up by a bedsheet and bandages as the Bride, now she is wearing a sparkly blue ragged dress with a low neckline and high skirt line with tights and boots – welcome to the start of a sexual obsession that will last the rest of your life. In years to come they give the Bride a corset and net mini skirt, effectively turning her into the lead singer of a Symphonic Metal band, which undoubtedly raises the sexy factor but in the process takes her completely away from the look of the Bride of Frankenstein, eventually going to sacrilegious levels and cutting her iconic fingers-in-a-plug-socket hairdo, for my money the original blue outfit was the perfect mix of stage show and the film’s costume. Anyway I love it when the classic monsters are reinvented to fit a theme, be it a counter-culture, a time frame, a genre, Ninja Turtles, whatever, it somehow appeals to my type of fandom for the properties and it dtes back to before I first saw the ‘Revue so this turn of events makes me very happy, but more importantly for you, they’re no longer scary at all – the Monster cannot be frightening when sporting a headband and mullet.
To celebrate their new outlook and wardrobe, the group perform and exposition song based around Wild Thing by the Troggs and the show momentarily takes on the feel of a high school production as the Wild Thing chorus feels really forced next to the stadium rock verses with lyrics seemingly written by someone who writes the theme tunes for cartoons, actually as this is Universal Studios, that might actually have been their day job. Oh well at least you can stare are the Bride until it’s over. Wild Thing, the song they’re butchering while you perv, was a song originally performed by The Wild Ones and was written by Chip Taylor, a prolific songwriter who also came up Angel of the Morning and Try (Just a Little Bit Harder), and was first released in 1965 before becoming a hit the following year for The Troggs, going to number 1 in the Billboard Top 100 in America, the song was also famously performed by Jimi Hendrix when he set his guitar on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, it’s also been covered by acts as diverse as The Creatures and The Meteors (good), the Dinvinyls and the Goodies (um…interesting) and Westlife and Bruce Springsteen (dire). In none of these versions do monsters refer to having a brand new style and a brand new attitude, nor does Frankenstein’s Monster play a bitchin’ solo.
First up to strut his funky stuff for you is the Wolf Man with The Wolf Man Rap which is as fantastic as it sounds and completely restores your faith in the producers of this show after Wild Things because it’s a werewolf rapping about how he’s now comfortable with his self, if Tumblr was around it would adopt this as a coming out anthem. The rap then fades into a modified version of Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), also known as ‘the single before Family Affair’, which was a Billboard Number 1 hit for Sly and the Family Stone in December 1969, a standalone single and double A-side with Everybody Is a Star, intended for an album that was never completed and one of the many reasons Sly & The Family Stone are awesome. As its 1992 you’ve never heard of this song but it’s a funky tune about being yourself and how awesome Beetlejuice is so you are completely into it.
After some attempts at stage stealing from Dracula (and some more horrible Beetlejuice puns that you begrudgingly admit are pretty funny) it’s the Phantom of the Opera’s turn to rock the audiences socks, but for a ‘gag’ he plays some of his standard gothic organ which upsets the Bride so much she falls to her knees in pain, you can think of ways to comfort her.
Now The Phantom’s finished wanking Franky goes off on one, only to be calmed by the Bride, seems she’s into him now, bastard, she’s also developed into a strong female character, easily resisting Dracula’s hypnotising come on with a cringe-worthy Wayne’s World reference. To celebrate she sings easily the best choice of song in the whole revue: (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman; sadly this dovetails into a fight over the Bride and a medley (I hate medleys) with Hot Blooded by The Monster and In the Midnight Hour by Dracula, which is the second best choice of song in the revue. Medleys suck for the simple reason that they don’t allow you to hear the whole song, in the case of Foreigner this is a blessing but cutting of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett should be made illegal, it also means this paragraph is going to be pretty big. Written by Carole King and former husband Gerry Goffin, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman was a hit for Aretha Franklin in 1967 and performed expertly by its co-writer on her debut album Tapestry before being utterly destroyed by Canadian sonic assault weapon Celine Dion (YouTube Linda Carter’s version, yes that Linda Carter, it’s not good but seeing Wonder Woman sing Aretha Franklin is just something you should experience). Hot Blooded was a single by Foreigner, it’s the most recent song to be adjusted for the revue having been put out in 1978 but sadly it’s not the worst selling, charting five positions higher than Natural Woman at #3 on the Billboard, Foreigner suck, I’m not typing any more about them. In the Midnight Hour blew into the charts in 1965 and elbowed its way to number 1 in the US, co-written by its performer Wilson Pickett at the same place Martin Luther King would be shot at, it’s been covered by far too many people to list but you should give The Jam’s version a go.
This thing’s turning out ok, the song choices are good, the Bride is sexy and Dracula is a douche, you couldn’t really hope for more frankly, then they let Frankenstein’s Monster serenade his significant other with… When A Man Loves a Woman which is both hilarious and slightly touching, as I think was the intention. You get to see Dracula, The Phantom and the Wolf-Man do backing harmonies as the Bride melts to the sounds of Percy Sledge and are vaguely aware of what a fucking weird experience that is. The Bride returns Franky’s affection with…Higher and Higher, you are slightly disappointed that The Statue of Liberty does not appear walking around and controlled by one on of the Blues Brothers with a Nintendo Entertainment System peripheral but are distracted by the Bride desperately trying to get sweaty footsore tourists to join in a group performance of said Jackie Wilson song because apparently Wilson didn’t say “I’m in heaven when you smile” he said “clap your hands and stamp your feet – come on!”, you feel a little bad for your new object of
lust affection. Written by the team of Calvin Lewis and Andrew
Wright, When a Man Loves A Woman was
a number one hit in 1966 for Percy Sledge, who had a voice that could ring out
laundry, a position also achieved by a version by Michael Bolton, who has a
voice that makes me want to punch Michael Bolton, Bette Middler also had a hit
with it in the 70s and it sounds exactly like you’d expect. (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and
Higher was also a number 1 billboard smash, this time for Jackie Wilson, a
man so good even notorious miserable bastard Kevin Rowland liked him, it was
actually written by Chess Records’ in-house team of Carl Smith & Raynard Miner for the Dells
but their version wasn’t released and instead Wilson got the hit. Rita Coolidge
ruined it one time but who cares because the Wilson version was used in
Ghostbusters 2 as the song they use to please the mood slime and make a toaster
dance and then make the Statue of Liberty bust into a New York Museum. Also,
little titbit, I listened to it in a toilet a little while ago.
What could possibly the finale you wonder? You don’t have to wait too long for the answer as the Bride is suddenly possessed by Harry Belafonte; yep they’re remaking the ‘Dayo’ scene from Beetlejuice with the Universal Monsters and Beetlejuice wearing one of these:
I have no idea what these are called. ‘Juice takes his puppets back to the bowls of hell as the monsters finish the references to the film by shaking to Jump in the Line, neither of these songs have amended lyrics. Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) is a traditional Jamaican work song while Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora) was a song written by calypso legend Lord Kitchener but both are far better known for their Harry Belafonte versions (and advertising Trios), Jump in the Line wasn’t a single to my knowledge and was included on the 1961 album Jump Up Calypso but Banana Boat (Day-O) (as the song was titled on Belafonte’s version) was and reached number 5 in the US and number 2 in the UK. Of course both songs are included here because of their use in the Tim Burton film Beetlejuice, one during a dinner party and the other at the film’s end and end credits and even at this early date the Day-O dinner party possession scene had entered pop culture and become the film’s signature scene.
The monsters take a bow and you clap enthusiastically, after posing for a picture they disappear backstage and people begin to leave immediately because tourists have no fucking patience and can’t even wait until the performers are off-screen. Your feet rested and your loins confused by undead stage performers you shuffle off out into the Floridian humidity and to the Back the Future ride. Making sure to thank the blog author who has wasted your time with nearly 4,000 words about something you could watch on YouTube for yourself, but at least you learnt who originally sung Hot Blooded and the Wolf Man’s song, it takes a good few steps before you stop and realise “hold on, the Creature From the Black Lagoon wasn’t in that!”