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.

Samuels, born May 3, 1938, 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!

This ad for the single appeared in the July 30, 1966 issue of Record World

“You thought it was a joke
And so you laughed
You laughed when I said
That losing you would make me flip my lid
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.)

The single peaked at #1 on the Aug. 6, 1966 Record World chart

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.

Jerry Samuels (right) with Weird Al Yankovic

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—died at 84 on March 10, 2023, after decades working as a booking agent in the Delaware Valley area.

Jeff Tamarkin

12 Comments so far

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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.

    Reply this comment
  2. Martin
    #2 Martin 4 February, 2020, 18:50

    Per Wikipedia, “According to Samuels, he was concerned the record could be seen as making fun of the mentally ill, and intentionally added that line so “you realize that the person is talking about a dog having left him, not a human”

    Reply this comment
    • Chessman
      Chessman 6 August, 2021, 13:16

      Cooking your food and cleaning your house? Doesn’t sound like a dog

      Reply this comment
      • Dragyn
        Dragyn 4 May, 2022, 01:28

        My sister in law’s old man used to cook beef heart every night for their bull mastiff. And I would get up in the am, when I lived at home, and tell dad what breakfast was, he’d tell me he and the dog had already eaten, but there were two pair of eyes watching me in the kitchen as I cooked… the dog had breakfast with us.

        Reply this comment
  3. Papa Chris
    #3 Papa Chris 6 August, 2020, 15:37

    I was in my freshman year of high school when this was released. I remember the airplay this disc logged on stations of every type of music, and even on talk shows. Everyone I knew at the time (including parents & DJ’s) all thought that the fact the protagonist in the ‘tune’ went bonkers over a dog not only was funny, it did not besmirch the truly mentally ill. Also, common opinion was that it probably said a lot about certain portions of society at the time. We were amazed when it was yanked. But nothing compared to the fallout you’d receive if you attempted it today…

    Reply this comment
    • mike
      mike 25 December, 2020, 22:52

      About the time of that crazy record, the police cars got a new type of siren, that compared to the old one, sounded from outer space. Add people coming back from a war not liked by their fellow Americans, add LSD to that, and ………

      Reply this comment
    • Lorelei
      Lorelei 7 August, 2021, 00:47

      LOL @ me! All this time I thought he was calling his girlfriend a “Mangy Mutt” because he was mad at her. I never heard it well enough to that it was about his dog!

      Reply this comment
  4. Lorelei
    #4 Lorelei 7 August, 2021, 00:54

    Thank you so much! I can’t even describe how happy it made me feel to hear this again!!! I loved this when I was a kid and would drive my parents nuts by singing it all of the time! Thank you Jerry Samuels – that was so fun, and thank you Best, this was awesome!

    Reply this comment
  5. Dino Saur
    #5 Dino Saur 3 May, 2022, 23:57

    To the P.C..Police –
    As Sergeant Hulka in “Stripes” would say:
    “Lighten Up, Francis”

    Reply this comment
  6. Cradaro
    #6 Cradaro 4 May, 2022, 06:10

    There was a follow up single which I preferred called “I’m in love with my little red tricycle “

    Reply this comment
  7. Jas
    #7 Jas 21 December, 2022, 04:32

    Omg I remember this! I used to love it. Shame they don’t play it on the stations that play 60s music. I remember playing it for my parents!

    Reply this comment
  8. Bob Patrick
    #8 Bob Patrick 18 June, 2024, 08:18

    Wjy couldn’t he cook food for a dog? I had one who was a fanatic about steak, hot off the grill. And maybe a doghouse can use a little straightening once in a while.
    This is not the only song of the era that had a twist ending. Remember “long distance information get me Memphis, Tennessee” and the girl the singer was trying to get in touch with, Marie, was only six years old–perhaps his daughter?

    Reply this comment

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