In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: For Horrors Week, we’re once again talking about songs with the word “ghost” in the title.
A fuzzed-out guitar line descends like a series of heavy steps down a staircase, seen in a slow-motion loop. “There’s a ghost in my house,” says the singer as the bassist taps a root note. “The ghost of your memory—the ghost of the love you took from me.” The rhythm section is impatient. It ticks like the second hand of a grandfather clock, counting down to the witching hour of the first verse, when the full brunt of the Holland-Dozier-Holland producing and songwriting team begins to hit, bringing with it handclaps, stomps, ghostly backing vocalists, and the famed Hammond organ of Motown’s Studio A. The sound is raw and dark, as pent-up and ready as proto-punk, but with the majesty of classic Motown.
The song is “There’s A Ghost In My House,” co-written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and singer R. Dean Taylor, and laid down on a summer day in 1966 by Motown’s session band, The Funk Brothers, with the vocals recorded that fall. Released the next spring, it didn’t prove to be a hit, or even a blip. It’s been said that Motown just never managed to figure out how to market a white male soul act. Taylor worked as a songwriter for the label throughout the decade, penning “Love Child” for Diana Ross & The Supremes, among other things, but he didn’t find success as a performer until Motown opened a rock subsidiary label, Rare Earth.
There, he switched to country- and border-tinged soft rock, and scored a Top 10 hit with “Indiana Wants Me.” (One of the songs he recorded during this period, “Shadow,” is even creepier than “There’s A Ghost In My House,” though in a very different way.) At the same time, a subculture was coming into its own on the other side of the Atlantic: northern soul, one of the first true dance music scenes, which grew out of nightclubs in the English Midlands and North. Northern soul was a subculture of records and DJ residencies, founded on the persistent beat of Motown, and like all of the dance music scenes that followed in its steps, it prized the obscure and the undiscovered. Tastemakers made rare singles into popular favorites, though few songs experienced a bigger uptick in popularity than “There’s A Ghost In My House,” which became one of northern soul’s most reliable “floor-fillers.”
Motown took notice, of course, re-issuing the song as a Rare Earth single in 1974; that year, it hit No. 3 on the British charts, and has remained popular there ever since, despite being almost completely unknown in America. (The Fall scored its first Top 50 single with a cover, though, out of all the many versions recorded by British acts, this writer prefers the one by Yachts.) There’s good reason for its staying power. That incantatory opening begs for a dance floor, where the classic soul theme of regretfully lost love is injected with a tension that seems to look toward the horror movies of ’70s. The second vocal track—repeating “ghost in my house” like a chant—makes it sound like Taylor is looking over his shoulder at the end of every line. By the minute mark, the build-up of layered vocal tracks, drums, and claps begins to sound like a chase—the song pursued by its own persistent guitar riff, which by this point has begun to sound like a jag of lighting reflecting off the dusty mirrors of a haunted house.