In 1966, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, and the artists at Motown were all competing for top spots on the charts. But despite all this formidable competition, an odd little record called "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" climbed to the number 3 spot on Billboard's Hot 100 charts.
Performed by Napoleon XIV (aka Jerry Samuels), the song was also a hit in the U.K., reaching #4 on the U.K. singles charts. Here's a look back at this weird chapter in music history.
1. The Composer
Jerry Samuels, a recording engineer in New York, was also a part-time songwriter, having previously written a hit song for Sammy Davis Jr. called "The Shelter of Your Arms." Far and away his biggest and most famous hit, "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" took him 9 months to complete.
2. The Music
"They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" was not actually sung; it was "recited" in rhythm, while background "music" was tapped out on a snare drum and a tambourine. (There is also what sounds to be rhythmic hand-clapping all through the song.)
3. The Story
The song deals with a man apparently going insane because of the loss of his wife? Girlfriend? Or, more probably, his dog. The "loss of dog" theory is clearly supported by the record cover art, which features a fire hydrant and "Napoleon" holding an "invisible dog" leash. Additionally, the singer calls his lost love "you mangy mutt" at one point in the rendition, although men have certainly called their lost women this -- and worse!
Samuels himself confirmed the "loss of dog" theory, saying that he knew he was dealing with "serious subject matter," but he felt a man going insane from losing his dog was somehow "less serious" than a guy cracking up after losing his girl.
4. The Radio Bans
The song proved so popular it may have even reached the #1 spot; however, it lost out because many radio programmers omitted the it from their playlists because they were worried about adverse reactions from people who felt the song ridiculed mentally ill people. This occurred most notably in the New York market, where the two N.Y. Top 40 radio stations of the time, WABC and WMCA, both banned broadcasting of the song (though WABC would continue to play it on its local Top 20 list).
Prior to the ban, WABC had played the song back-to-back several times in one afternoon. Disc jockey Dan Ingram played the song a number of times in succession, but each time announced a different song. The offbeat stunt resulted in several complaints registered by one listener (perhaps a mental hospital employee, it was thought).
5. The Loss of Certification
The song is the answer to the trivia question: "What is the only song whose certification license (ASCAP) was withdrawn while it was on the charts?" Without a valid performance license from ASCAP (or another valid licensing organization), a song cannot be legally aired.
6. The B-Side
The B-side of "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" is as bizarre as the song itself. Titled "Aaah-Ah Yawa Em Ekat Ot Gnimoc Er-Yeht," it's simply a version of the song played backwards. The B-side is credited to "VIX Noelopan." (That's right: "Napoleon XIV" spelled backwards.)
7. The Fall Off the Charts
"They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" is the song with the fastest "decrease speed" in chart history. During week 3 on the Billboard "Hot 100" chart, the song hit its peak spot: #3. The following week, it was #5, but by week 5, it had plummeted to #37. (Obviously, the bans and deliberate omissions by so many stations caused this quickly accelerated drop in popularity and sales.)
8. The Live Performances
As if not strange enough already, one other oddity regarding "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!": When the song was a hit, the record company sent other people to perform it at live performances, instead of Jerry Samuels, its actual composer and performer.
9. "The Most Obnoxious Song"
Critic Dave Marsh calls the song "the most obnoxious song ever to appear in a jukebox" in his book, The Book of Rock Lists. Marsh claims the song once "cleared a diner of 40 patrons in 3 minutes flat."
10. The Places to Hear It
"They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" is regularly played on "The Dr. Demento Radio Show," a show devoted to odd records, and can also be enjoyed on YouTube.
Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy. Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.