“We all go a little mad sometimes” — Norman Bates
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “To me, Psycho was a big comedy. Had to be.” However, many people who watched it when it first landed in cinemas back in 1960 were far from laughing. And many more thereafter have been furious with Hitchcock for destroying the once sacred private realm of the shower, a haven where nothing can wrong, by invading it with a knife-wielding looney who takes absolutely no notice of ‘Do Not Enter’ signs.
As the filmmaker Sacha Gervasi once said, “I think everyone who saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho movie, as I did when I was young, was impacted. The shower scene is nuts; it still is. And I think what’s wonderful about it is that it’s universal. People understand the darkness and the violence, and it’s shocking.”
The shocking universality has not only inspired a slew of filmmakers but musicians are also enamoured by its spooky immediacy. The film explored the depths of the human mind and presented the results in a profusely artistic way. That is exactly when musicians are looking for when making music.
Below we’re looking at five tracks that were inspired by Hitchcock’s masterpiece in every which way.
Five songs inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads
‘Psycho Killer’ was the moment when the ensemble chemistry of Talking Heads came to the fore. Tina Weymouth’s bassline is one of the most instantly identifiable in music despite its unapologetic simplicity, and she followed this up with a surging middle eight sung in French in order to convey the schizophrenic personality of the unstable narrator, partly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
As drummer Chris Frantz explains, “This was in the fall of 1973. David came to our studio and he had a sketch of the song. He wrote the first verse and the chorus and told us, ‘I’m writing a song in the spirit of Alice Cooper.’ He was really big at the time. He played us what he had and it was really promising. He said, ‘I’d like the bridge of the song to be in a foreign language.’ Tina speaks French fluently, so I suggested that we should do it in French. David said, ‘Great idea because I asked a Japanese girl, and when she found out it was a song about a murderer she ran the other way.’”
As Tina Weymouth adds, “Well, Hitchcock would say, ‘I’m going to kill you because you’re rude, you’re not polite.’ And [David Byrne] had this very brilliant idea where he wanted to create a sense of schism where he [the narrator] changes personality and the best way to do that was to change language.”
‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is a man of style and taste, that much was patently obviously even from his self-titled debut in 1962 and whilst his stature in this regard may have been on the rocks a bit come the mid-80s, in the ‘60s, he was near-enough reinventing the world cool. ‘Motorpsycho Nightmare’ on Another Side of Bob Dylan in ‘64 solidified his status as a classy customer as he took on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho and even threw in a reference to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita too.
Over the top of his classic early folk stylings, he transposes the plot of Psycho, lending a comic twist to the murderous screenplay by combining it with the classic joke of a travelling salesman taking up lodgings in a farmhouse only to be lured by the farmer’s daughter. Ultimately it wouldn’t be a song from the ‘spokesman of a generation’ if it didn’t work in some sort of political statement as Dylan, unlike Marion in Psycho, is saved by the freedom of speech act and its necessary power to antagonise.
It showed once again Dylan’s strength as a narrative songwriter, but as the record’s title suggests, it also showed a more humorous side to him too.
‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles
The score for Psycho, written by Bernard Herrmann, is one of the most recognisable in cinema history, and it represented an avant-garde moment for 1960s feature films. Herrmann took warm cinematic violin tones and turned it into a screeching violent weapon, capable of putting any person on edge—who can forget the piercing shower scene?
Certainly not Paul McCartney anyway. The scene made such a lasting impression on the songsmith that he took his inspiration to George Martin, the Beatles’ producer extraordinaire, who recalled: “He [Paul] came to me with ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ which cried out for strings.” Martin said the strings shouldn’t be “the smooth, legato stuff of ‘Yesterday,’ but something very biting…[and] very edgy.” McCartney handed over the score for Psycho to Martin as a spark of influence. The rest, as they say, is ancient history.
‘The Psycho Song’ by Elvis Costello (originally written by Leon Payne)
Any song that Elvis Costello was willing to cover during his prolific songwriting heyday must have been something worthy of his time. Leon Payne’s Psychobilly of murder from the killer’s perspective is an eerie account that captures all of the disturbing realism that the film put forward.
Aside from all the suspense that Hitchcock superbly masters in the film, it is the psychological edge that makes it terrifying. Rather than perturb with fanciful tales of the devil incarnate, the director subtly scared people out of their wits by embodying a real-life boy next door nutcase via Norman Bates. That same psychological depravity makes the lyrics to Leon Payne’s country number work.
This lyrical take on the horror masterpiece has remained the gold standard of the psychobilly genre, being cover by Costello and more, and inspiring the likes of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.
‘Egg Man’ by Beastie Boys
While the previous songs may have been inspired by the film in a nebulous sense, the Beastie Boys took inspiration much more directly. The screeching strings of Bernard Herrmann’s score burst their classic 1989 track ‘Egg Man’ into eerie life.
If the rap they were trying to propagate had a mix of punk’s inherent depravity floating around it, then a sample of some of the spookiest music with ties to a knife-wielding maniac was the perfect shortcut. Layered over the punk base, it also helps to do what many of the other songs in this list seize upon: colour the track with the depth of pop culture.
The simple, direct sample is a come-hither look into the creativity that inspired them.