They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!

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“Remember when you ran away…”

His real name was Jerry Samuels and he was a recording engineer in New York City. He came up with an idea: a song about a poor guy who’s so distraught over his girlfriend leaving him that he’s driven to madness. Been done before, right?

Never like this.

He took on the name Napoleon XIV, credited his composition to N. Bonaparte and somehow got Warner Bros. Records to agree to release it in July 1966. With only a snare drum and a tambourine as accompaniment, Samuels recites—never sings—his tale of woe.

“Remember when you ran away
And I got on my knees
And begged you not to leave
Because I’d go berserk
Well, you left me anyhow
And then the days got worse and worse
And now you see I’ve gone
Completely out of my mind”

So far, just a little bit out there but nothing too outrageous. Then, with a tension in his voice that suggests he’s about to snap, he gets to the chorus:

“And they’re coming to take me away ha-haaa
They’re coming to take me away ho-ho hee-hee ha-haaa
To the funny farm
Where life is beautiful all the time
And I’ll be happy to see those nice young men
In their clean white coats
And they’re coming to take me away ha-haaa!”

Related: What were the other big hits of July 1966?

What just happened there? As the words unfolded, Samuels, using a piece of technology called a variable-frequency oscillator, was able to alter the pitch of his voice to become progressively higher, a la the Chipmunks, while his vocal delivery became increasingly deranged. This guy isn’t just upset, he’s totally lost it! And what’s worse—as the next stanza lays out for us—is that the person responsible for his mental state thinks it’s funny!

“You thought it was a joke
And so you laughed
You laughed when I said
That losing you would make me flip my lid
Right?
You know you laughed
I heard you laugh, you laughed
You laughed and laughed and then you left
But now you know I’m utterly mad”

It continues, Napoleon patiently waiting till his ex gets what’s coming to her.

“I cooked your food
I cleaned your house
And this is how you pay me back
For all my kind unselfish, loving deeds
Ha! Well you just wait
They’ll find you yet and when they do
They’ll put you in the A.S.P.C.A.
You mangy mutt”

(That last stanza, incidentally, caused some listeners to wonder if, in fact, it was his dog that ran away. We may never know.)

An older Jerry Samuels (right) with Weird Al Yankovic

Whatever it was about, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” was, by any measure, one of the most bizarre records to come out in 1966 (or any year). But it took off like, well, like crazy. Samuels, born in Brooklyn in 1938, soon found himself with the #3 hit in the United States and the #4 best-seller in the U.K.

All was not well in radio-land though. It seems not everyone thought it was funny. Some complained: Mental illness, they said, was not a joke. A song like this, they said, ridicules those with real mental health issues and should not be fodder for a hit record.

The B-side!

Radio stations had no choice: The loud backlash killed “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Haaa!”—the B-side of which, by the way, was “!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT ot gnimoC er’yehT,” the same recording played backwards—almost as quickly as it had zoomed up the charts. In only its sixth week on the Billboard chart, the single fell precipitously from #5 to #37, then disappeared into music history, one of the most bizarre stories in the annals of the record industry.

Some teens in New York were so angry with local radio station WMCA for dropping the record that they picketed. Reportedly, a plane flew by trailing a banner that begged WMCA to keep playing it.

Napoleon XIV never had another hit, although his one claim to fame did sneak back into the chart in 1973 for four weeks, and has lived on largely via airplay from novelty record aficionado Dr. Demento, who also included it on no less than four different compilation albums. There was actually a Napoleon XIV album, which did not chart (it included an answer song, “I’m Happy They Took You Away, Ha-Haaa!” by “Josephine XV”), numerous cover versions and, in 1988, a sequel by Samuels, “They’re Coming To Get Me Again, Ha Haaa!” Not surprisingly, given how the times had changed, it did not fare very well.

In 2015, someone even released a Latin version.

Samuels—who also wrote songs recorded by Sammy Davis Jr. and others before he became Napoleon XIV—just turned 79 years old, and works as a booking agent in the Delaware Valley area.

His mental state is unknown.

The video…

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been one of the most respected and prolific music journalists in the country for some four decades. He was editor of Goldmine for 15 years, the first editor of CMJ and Grateful Dead Comix, and an editor of Relix magazine. He has written for dozens of publications including Billboard, Newsweek, Playbill, Creem, Mojo, Newsday, New York Daily News JazzTimes and others, and has contributed to the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music and All-Music Guide. He has written the liner notes for more than 80 CDs, including most of the Jefferson Airplane catalog as well as the Beach Boys, Merle Haggard, Tom Jones, Chubby Checker, Al Kooper and the J. Geils Band.

Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Fatboy
    #1 Fatboy 28 July, 2017, 02:08

    I wondered what happened to “They’re Coming To Take Me Away.” It was a big hit in Los Angeles on KHJ and all of a sudden it disappeared. I thought people just got tired of it and stopped buying the record or requesting it.

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