For today’s featured song, we have a very fun, high energy song that will put a smile on your face and make you want to get up from your seat and move. This song is a one hit wonder called Hell from the group called Squirrel Nut Zippers.
You might think that this is a pretty morbid subject for a Friday, but not really. The song is not promoting hell at all. It is just saying that we have to watch how we live our lives because there might be eternal consequesnces to our actions here on earth. They just present this important message to a real live and kicking soundtrack.
You always hear about one hit wonders, but at the time you never realize that they will only have one big hit. I can remember hearing about all kinds of them from before my time, but this group and this song was the first one that I experienced head on. It was the mid-nineties and I was in my early years of college. There was a sudden movement of music that brought back big band swing with a mix of jazz and southern. It hit the scene like a ton of bricks. We didn’t see it coming. At the time it was everywhere around the scene and this song was our anthem and this group brought us to our feet. It was hot, it was fun and we loved it. I mean everyone loved it.
Then as quickly as it hit the scene, it was gone. I mean it just left the whole scene. It was very strange. Everyone moved on to the next new thing and everyone who was there at that time was left with fond memories of that moment in time that eventually faded with age.
Earlier this week I was listening to a Halloween music station I created on Pandora and this song came on. I had not heard this song in over 10 years, but hearing it again hit me like a ton of bricks. It brought me right back to that special place and time. I wanted to share it with you today. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did in our youth!
Music Video of Hell.
Live performance on the David Letterman Show.
Live performance on the Hard Rock Live Show.
Movie clip from Silly Symphony-The Skeleton Dance cira 1929. Hell is the backing soundtrack on this clip. Pretty cool mix of the new and old.
Cover version of this song. Great energy! I really like it.
Another fun, energy-packed cover version of the song.
Great cover version of the song by 4 very young street musicians. Just amazing musical talent.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers are a band formed in 1993 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by James “Jimbo” Mathus (vocals and guitar), Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo, and ukulele), Chris Phillips on drums, Don Raleigh on bass and sideman Ken Mosher.
While the band’s eclectic fusion of Delta blues, gypsy jazz, 1930s-era swing, klezmer, and other styles makes them hard to categorize, their unique music found a niche in the late 1990s, when the band met with national recognition and commercial success, sometimes associated with the Swing Revival of the same period. They found their greatest success with the 1996 single “Hell”, penned by Tom Maxwell.
They played the last night of The Voodoo Experience held at City Park in New Orleans, Louisiana over Halloween weekend 2009.
The band was founded by James “Jimbo” Mathus, formerly of Metalflake Mother and Johnny Vomit & The Dry Heaves, and his then-wife Katharine Whalen in Carrboro, North Carolina along with Tom Maxwell, Chris Phillips, Don Raleigh and Ken Mosher. The group made its debut in Chapel Hill a few months later. Stacy Guess (formerly of Pressure Boys) joined shortly after.
“Nut Zippers,” is a southern term for a variety of old bootleg moonshine, and the band’s name comes from a newspaper account which related the story of a highly intoxicated man who climbed a tree one night, refusing to come down even after authorities arrived. The article’s headline read: “Squirrel Nut Zipper.” It is also the name of a candy dating back to 1890.
The band was initially lumped into the “lounge” movement, along with Combustible Edison, and credited as part of the brief swing music revival of the 1990s. The Zippers’ sound incorporates a broad range of music, ranging in influence from Harlem Hot Music, Cab Calloway, Johnny Ace, Delta Blues, Raymond Scott, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, Tom Waits, and Klezmer. The band’s break-through single, “Hell”, was distinguished by calypso rhythms, and helped push the band into further association with the “Neo Swing” movement.
Songs from the band’s first album, The Inevitable (1995) were played on National Public Radio in the US. Their second album, Hot (1996) was certified platinum. (The Hot album was also one of the first ECDs – an “enhanced” audio CD containing an interactive presentation created by filmmaker Clay Walker.) In 1997, the band toured with Neil Young.
The band’s next studio album, Perennial Favorites (1998) also received critical acclaim. Also released in 1998 was Christmas Caravan, a Christmas themed album. The band then recorded Bedlam Ballroom in 1999, after touring extensively.
The band performed at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, on Prairie Home Companion, President Clinton’s second inaugural ball, Comedy Central‘s Viva Variety, and major television shows: The Tonight Show, Late Show with David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 1998.
The band had recorded a version of “Under The Sea” which was going to be included on the DVD release of The Little Mermaid, but Disney decided against it. Disney had purchased Mammoth just months prior to this recording. The song was eventually released on the band’s greatest hits album.
The early 2000s rendered the band largely inactive, with members pursuing other projects, but also because of Mathus and Whalen’s divorce.
Contact was a musical dance play made up of three separate dance pieces set to pre-recorded music. The show used Zippers’ music along with the music of other artists. Although many criticized the show for its lack of original music, it was also widely acclaimed and won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical. Movies that have licensed Zippers’ songs include Monkeybone, Dead Man on Campus, Flirting with Disaster, Fido, Blast from the Past and the animated feature film Happily N’Ever After. The band performed in a segment on Sesame Street in 2001. The single “Hell” was also featured on the pilot of MGM Television’s Dead Like Me.
During this period, Katharine Whalen released two solo albums, Jazz Squad and Dirty Little Secret. Jim Mathus toured with Buddy Guy before forming his band, Knockdown Society. Je Widenhouse and Reese Gray are recording and touring with Firecracker Jazz Band. Chris Phillips spent two years playing with the Dickies, as well as William Reid from the Jesus and Mary Chain. His current side band The Lamps included members of the Bangles and The Connells. He also was the composer for the Comedy Central television show Lil’ Bush and some contemporary films. Jimbo Mathus owns and operates a recording studio outside of Memphis, TN, where he has worked on albums with artists ranging from Elvis Costello to the Hives.
In early 2007, the band’s official website and MySpace blog announced new tour dates, with a lineup consisting of founding members Jimbo Mathus (guitar, vocals), Katharine Whalen (vocals, banjo, percussion, ukulele), Chris Phillips (drums), Je Widenhouse (trumpet), Stuart Cole (bass), and Will Dawson (piano/guitar/saxophone). With the proclamation “Ladies and Gentlemen… They’re Back,” the band performed concert dates throughout the United States and Canada in spring and summer of 2007 and through 2008.
In late February 2009, Chris Phillips sent out an e-mail announcing a forthcoming live album called You Are My Radio, recorded in Brooklyn in December 2008. The e-mail included a link to a free download of “Memphis Exorcism” from the album. The album title was later changed to Lost At Sea and was released on October 27 through Southern Broadcasting/MRI. They also announced their plans for a new studio album in 2010. The band taped a new performance for NPR’s Mountain Stage, which aired in mid-November.
As of 2011, plans for a new album from the band appear to be on hold for the time being.
- James “Jimbo” Mathus — vocals, guitar, slide guitar, tenor banjo, trombone, piano
- Katharine Whalen — vocals, banjo, ukulele
- Stuart Cole — bass
- Chris Phillips — percussion, contraption kit, drums
- Je Widenhouse — trumpet, cornet
- Henry Westmoreland — baritone saxophone
- Robert “Griffanzo” Griffin – piano, keyboards
- Ken Mosher — guitar, saxophone, vocals
- Tom Maxwell — vocals, guitar, saxophone, gong
- Don Raleigh — bass, gong
- Stacy Guess — trumpet
- David Wright — trombone
- Reese Grey — piano
- Tim Smith — alto saxophone
- Andrew Bird — violin (honorary member)
- Edward Clark — canjo
- Carl Luparella — original saw player
Guess left two weeks prior to the recording of Hot, in September 1995. He died of a heroin overdose on March 11, 1998. Je Widenhouse (formerly of the Sex Police) joined the band in 1995.
Raleigh departed in the middle of the Perennial Favorites sessions in November 1996. He was replaced by Stuart Cole. In July 1999, Maxwell left the band. In October 1999, Mosher also quit. In 1999, Reese Gray, Tim Smith and David Wright joined the band.
Eugene Cottrell played trumpet in “Hell.”
- The Inevitable (1995)
- Hot (1996)
- Sold Out (1997)
- Roasted Right (EP, 1997)
- Perennial Favorites (1998)
- Christmas Caravan (1998)
- Bedlam Ballroom (2000)
- The Best of Squirrel Nut Zippers as Chronicled by Shorty Brown (2002)
- Lost at Sea (live album, 2009)
by Thomas Maxwell
In the afterlife
You could be headed for the serious strife
Now you make the scene all day
But tomorrow there’ll be hell to pay
People listen attentively
I mean about future calamity
I used to think the idea was obsolete
Until I heard the old man stamping his feet.
This is a place where eternally
Fire is applied to the body
Teeth are extruded and bones are ground
Then baked into cakes which are passed around.
Beauty, talent, fame, money, refinement
Top skill and brain
But all the things you try to hide
Will be revealed on the other side.
Now the d and the a and the m
And the n and the a
And the t and the i-o-n
Lose your face, lose your name
Then get fitted for a suit of flame