Chicago swing band The Moon Rays have recorded the title track for the B-movie, “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X” directed by Paul Bunnell and are set to write and record the movie score for “The Giant Gila Monster”, a B-movie classic being re-made by director Jim Wynorski.
Moon Rays founder Scott Mensching recounts how he and his band found their way into movie music writing. “I’m a movie buff. I love movies, I like old movies especially … all sorts, gangster movies, horror films … if they’re in black and white, I usually like ‘em, no matter how bad they are.
The Moon Rays entry into music for film began appropriately enough with a remake of WGN’s Creature Features theme. “I had it on a reel to reel, from when I was a kid. It caught on. We got quite a bit of airplay in Chicago … right at Halloween,” Scott recalls.
Scott quickly transformed his band back then into The Moon Rays and produced the album, “Thrills and Chills”. The song “1313 Mockingbird Lane” off that album was used for a Hollywood B-movie and won a JPF award for best song along with a best surf album award. Two songs off their second album, “Ghouls Go West” made it into movies as well and then three more Moon Rays songs were included in films.
Out this year is “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X”, the title track written and recorded by The Moon Rays. “We wrote the song for the movie, that was a work for hire. Right on the heels of that, we threw a song into “Monster Cruise” that’s coming out in May. We’ve got a little 30 second tune we wrote for that which is like a family movie.
“So now we’ll be working on the soundtrack for “The Giant Kila Monster” which is cool, because I loved that as a kid.
How did you meet director Jim Wynorski?
“We played at the B-movie marathon, in Franklin Indiana. He sent us a fan letter after our first album. He remembered us. He’s doing it (Gila Monster) as a period piece. It’s set in the fifties. He wants that 1950’s teenage hot rod sound. We don’t know what we’re writing because we don’t have the cues, the movie isn’t done. We’re writing all the music and recording all the music for the movie and we’re going to be in the movie as the band at the sock hop … we get eaten hopefully! (laughter) I want to be the first one eaten by the lizard!
Scott got his love of swing music from his dad who once played with Glenn Miller in Liage Belgium during World War II.
“I took trombone first. My old man wanted me to stay on the trombone. I think I saw The Gene Krupa story on television, with Sal Mineo? You know? And that was it, I wanted to play drums.” His dad said he could take drum lessons if he kept up with the trombone and piano as well and kept him on the trombone into high school. “I had to stay on trombone. I found it miserable at that point.”
As fate would have it, Scott met his idol in 1972 at a high school music competition at the Sherman House in Chicago. Gene Krupa was there representing Slingerland Drums. He was sitting by himself and Scott approached with his parents. His parent’s camera wasn’t working, but by chance a Chicago Tribune reporter walked by and took a picture. Scott and Gene’s picture made it into the Chicago Tribune.
“So I cut it out and I sent it to him that year and that year he sent me a Christmas card, which was really cool … he was like God to me!”
The Moon Rays most recent album, “Swingin’ at the Séance”, is something of a tribute to his father. “I really wanted to do that one for my dad, because he never got to see any of this stuff that we did. I really wanted to do that one for him. Do the old tunes, stick with the Halloween theme but do a lot of these old tunes.”
“We used to go up to Long Grove (Illinois) to the Village Tavern. On Saturdays, years ago, Saturday night was Dixieland night, which was cool, my old man loved that so we used to go in there on Saturdays and Ube Blake was in there. He was like 95 at the time and he was just sitting in the audience and he got up and played some of the songs he wrote.” And the Ube explained why ragtime was always in flats and sharps. Ube said, “When I was a kid, being raised and playin’ in the ho houses, when I was about ten years old, none of the white keys on the piano worked, so we just played on the black keys.” Scott laughs as he recounts the story. “Yeah, so they wrote all this stuff for five sharps because the white keys were all busted on his old piano.”
Scott and his band are now ready to get to work on “The Giant Gila Monster”.
“We have to get the cue sheets from the director, he’ll tell us how much music he’s looking for, how many full songs and he’ll mark on the script, between here and here there’s monster music, or love scene, love music … or, kids are dancing at the hop … then we’ll have a road map for what we’re doing.
Coming from the Baby Boom generation, did you ever listen to rock?
“Oh yeah, but they used to tease me in high school. I knew every big band song ever written.”
What kind of jazz do you like best?
“[I like] more swing than just any kind of jazz. I’m more impressed with good melody writing … good hooks and melody, something that’s catchy.”