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Music

The story behind the theme tune of 'What We Do In The Shadows'

@TylerGolsen

FX’s What We Do In The Shadows returned this week for its fourth season of undead hilarity and ghoulish humour. The series that follows a group of historically old vampires as they attempt to parse through the modern jungle of Staten Island, New York, is one of the funniest shows on television right now, and every time the series drops into its opening credits, a familiar folky jam sets the mood.

That would be ‘You’re Dead’ by American folk troubadour Norma Tanega. Fans of the original What We Do In The Shadows film from 2014 will recognise the song as being the same one that played during the movie’s opening credits, creating a nice bit of symmetry between the two productions. The song creates the perfect atmosphere for the ridiculousness that follows, but where did it come from?

Tanega led a fascinating life: a piano prodigy at age nine, she later took up painting and eventually made her way to Greenwich Village just as the folk explosion of the early 1960s was occurring. After performing at a Catskills summer camp, Tanega was introduced to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons songwriter Bob Crewe, who signed her to New Voice Records in 1966.

‘Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog’ was Tanega’s only hit single during her career, landing in the top 40 in the US and UK in 1966. Cover versions of the novelty track have been recorded by everyone from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to They Might Be Giants, and the single’s success allowed Tanega to record a full album of material. One of the songs included on her debut LP was ‘You’re Dead’, a stinging and sarcastic indictment of the competition and consumerism that had engulfed the New York folk scene.

Shortly after the release of ‘You’re Dead’, Tanega met British soul singer Dusty Springfield and entered into a relationship with her that lasted five years. During that time, Springfield recorded songs that Tanega contributed lyrics and music to, including ‘Come for a Dream’, ‘No Stranger Am I’, and ‘The Colour of Your Eyes’. Tanega barely recorded her own material during her time with Springfield and later took teaching jobs after her own singing career failed to regain momentum. For a number of years, Tanega was an obscure former folkie without much pop culture caché.

When Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement were introduced to ‘You’re Dead’, it inspired the pair to incorporate the sardonic macabre imagery into their own work. The duo tracked down Tanega, who had mostly resumed her previous career of painting, in order to get permission to use ‘You’re Dead’ in the film version of What We Do In The Shadows. Tanega eventually died in 2019, but not before getting to see ‘You’re Dead’ once again score the undead hijinks of vampires with the What We Do In The Shadows television show.

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