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Napoleon XIV - Thumb

Many songs have been written about the loss of a loved one especially in the early 60s when there was a spate of ‘death discs’. Other less subtle ones include Emma (Hot Chocolate), Honey (Bobby Goldsboro), Tears In Heaven (Eric Clapton) and Seasons In The Sun (Terry Jacks). Less have been written about the loss of a pet, Old Shep being an obvious one and the lesser known Shannon by Henry Gross in 1976, but even country artists, who regularly sang about loss, didn’t turn mad after losing a pet, but once Napoleon XIV’s dog had gone, so did his mind. Or did it?

Although the writing credit on the single says Napoleon Bonepart, it’s not the political leader from the days of the French Revolution, but one Jerry Samuels who was a recording engineer from New York who worked at the elite Associated Recording Studios. He had a one-off novelty hit in 1966 with the unforgettable They’re Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaa! Jerry explained how it all begun, “I wrote one verse and the chorus, and immediately I realised I was writing a sick joke. So I said, ‘This is no good, I’ll put it away.’ Three months later it was still running through my head; I pulled it out again and wrote the second verse and it was an even sicker joke. Finally about 6 months after that I decided I was going to finish it, and I was going to do something in that last verse that would throw things off a little bit, so I referred to the object – ‘They’re coming to take me away because of what YOU did – I referred to YOU as a dog. The dog ran away. By doing that I felt I was lightening the sickness of the joke, and I probably was and it probably did some good for me, but that was the reason I went for that afterthought, but it took a total of nine months to finish”

So, with the song finally written the recording process has to begin. Something you’d think was quite straight forward seeing that only a drum and tambourine were used, but not so. Jerry continued, “I was working at one of the hottest demo studios in town and I’d worked for them for quite a few years and we had started to do creative things together before that. We opened our own publishing company which I owned in conjunction with the owners of the studio and I’d written a hit song for Sammy Davis Jnr called The Shelter of Your Arms and we published it. We were doing some work for some advertising agencies and we began using a device called a VFO (Variable Frequency Oscillator). It connected directly to the hysteresis motor of the machine. That is the motor that controls the speed of the capstan. We’re talking about a 15 IPS (inches per second) analog tape. They had the VFO rigged only to the mono machines, but I saw something. I realised that if you hooked it up to the multi-track machine – (we only had 4 tracks at the time) you could do things that weren’t done before. I would be able to raise or lower the pitch of a voice without changing the tempo by hooking it up to that machine. Based on that, I came up with the idea of They’re Coming To Take Me Away. I was sitting in a nice easy-chair one night and what popped into my head was the old Scottish tune, The Campbell’s Are Coming. I hummed it and I thought, ‘da da dat dat da dat da da da da da… they’re coming to take me away, ha ha (sic).’ There it was, and by understanding what I could do with that piece of equipment, I wrote this thing. I asked the owner of the studio, who was my partner in my publishing company, to adapt the VFO to connect to the Scully 4-track. He said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘I can’t explain it, all I can tell you is we’re going to make a record called They’re Coming To Take Me Away Ha Haa, and that’s the only way to do it.’ He had enough trust in me to say, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ so he built the necessary adapters and connected it, and he was in the control room when I dubbed the voice in.”

So he laid down the drum and tambourine track, what happened next? Jerry: “I brought a friend of mine in and we had to record a seven second loop, so we recorded it and then we copied it. That’s why this thing is so perfect in rhythm, because what you’re hearing is a drum loop. We didn’t have the machines that we have these days that sound so real. We had to use a drummer. I also needed hand clappers, and I wanted a whole bunch of hand clappers, so I invited a load of my friends down to the studio at 2 o’clock in the morning, but only 3 showed up. I said, ‘Look there’s only 3 of us, that’s not enough hand clappers. What I want us to do, instead of clapping our hands, I want us to sit in a semi-circle and I’ll drop my Neumann microphone down in front of us, and we’ll slap our thighs. If we slap our thighs, we’ll have the sound of 2 claps rather than 1. However, you cannot slap your clothes because the clothes muffle it – you have to slap your skin. So we sat in a semi-circle and drop our pants and do it.’ They wouldn’t do it, so what we had to do was overdub. We bounced from track to track 3 times, so we wound up with 9 hand clappers, but we also wound up with some noise because we were copying the noise level. There is an inherent noise level when you record analog, and the signal to noise ratio decreases as you overdub, but that’s what we lived with. The next thing was the siren, and that had to be overdubbed also because we rented a hand-crank siren for $5. When you first hear it, you only hear 1 siren, then you hear 3, then you hear 6 – it’s all overdubbed. Finally, what we wound up with was a total drum track, a total hand clap track and a total siren track. Next we have the fourth and final track. The other tracks are in perfect rhythm at 15 IPS. I go into the studio, my partner is in the control room, and I record the vocal. The only track recording is the vocal track; the other tracks are just playing back in my earphones. As we get to the chorus, he begins to take that VFO one notch at a time, and turn it down, so I’m hearing ‘Chunka, Chunka, Chuunka, Chuuunka, Chuuuuuunka, Chuuuuuuuuuunka…’ and I’m going, ‘They’re coming to take me away, ha ha. They’re coming to take me away, ho ho, hee hee, ha ha to the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time.’ And right there I run out of breath. We rewind the tape and punch in just before ‘time,’ and I continue and finish the line. When you play that back at 15 ips, the only thing that happens is the voice raises in pitch. It’s in perfect rhythm because I’m listening to the track. That’s how we did it.”

The song hit the US chart on 23 July 1966 and rapidly climbed up to number three, but just five weeks later the song was gone. How come? It got banned. There were complaints suggesting it was insulting to mentally ill people, but funnily enough not from anyone who was actually mentally ill. There was even a 20-track album called The Second Coming featuring many novelty ditties including Photogenic Schizophrenic, Let’s Cuddle Up Under My Security Blanket, Dr Psyche The Cut-Rate Head Shrinker and The Place Where the Nuts Hunt The Squirrels which has the same drum loop as the hit. In the good old days of vinyl, many music fans would often play the B side of the singles they bought and often good value for money, in Napoleon’s case I’m not so sure – the track was Aah, Aah Yawa Em Ekat Ot Gnimoc Re’yeht which is the A side backwards – the first of its kind.

Last week on my front page I wrote about answer songs and believe it or not, this one has not one, but two answer versions. A group called Josephine XV retaliated with I’m Happy They Took You Away, Ha-Haaa whilst Teddy and Daniel exclaimed They took you away, I’m glad, I’m glad, Neither of them attracted buyers.  Jerry is still in the entertainment industry, he now runs a successful talent agency, where he has worked for over 20 years. You can check it out at