Inside the Mind of Jerry Samuels, aka Napoleon XIV
Novelty songs first appeared in the late 19th century and were popular on the radio into the 1980s. One of the most successful—and weirdest—was 1966’s “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV.
Recording engineer Jerry Samuels, then 28, created the politically incorrect hit: a rant by a mental patient who had been dumped by his lover. The track does not include a note of music; a loop of snare drum, tambourine and claps pound out a rhythm that accompanies Samuels’ ravings. To enhance the effect of insanity, Samuels used a Variable Frequency Oscillator, or VFO, to gradually speed up the vocals, which were backed by a siren.
Samuels told Songfacts how, once he was armed with the new VFO technology, he came up with the lyric.
“I was sitting in a nice easy chair one night. What popped into my head was the old Scottish tune, ‘The Campbells Are Coming.’ I didn’t know the title, but I’ll tell you who did — my friend Barry Hansen.
“The Campbells Are Coming” by the California Consolidated Drum Band
“He’s Dr. Demento; we’ve known each other for many, many years. I hummed it to him and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s “The Campbells Are Coming” and I thought, ‘da da dat dat da dat da da da da da… they’re coming to take me away, ha ha.’ There it was, and by understanding what I could do with that piece of equipment, I wrote this thing.”
It took Samuels nine months to complete the track. Samuels knew even in 1966 that a record on the subject of mental illness would bring criticism.
“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV
“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” sold a million records, reaching number three on the Billboard chart. Its B-side was the track played in reverse. Most of the label, including the Warner Brothers logo, was a mirror image of the A-side, making its title “!aaaH, yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er’yehT.”
Samuels’ worry that he would draw criticism was right; radio stations across the country banned the record after receiving complaints from doctors and institutions claiming that the song “hurt their image.” After five weeks, the song dropped from the charts.
“It was a hit before it got banned,” said Samuels. “Once it got banned, it was finished."
Samuels only performed “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” once on stage; believing the audience was laughing at him instead of with him, he then recruited others to play Napoleon XIV.
Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.