Mystery Solved: The Villains Theme

In this blog’s introductory post, I pondered where the “daht daht dee DAAAA yat-dat-dat-dat-da.” tune came from. You know, that ditty you hear in old haunted house movies, or in cartoons when someone is sneaking around with ill intent.

The sample I cited then was this snippet from “Existential Blues” by T-Bone Stankus:

(I’m also fascinated that this tiny clip also includes references to The Wizard of Oz and Man of La Mancha. But I digress.)

This particular snip of music has haunted me for years. I’ve never been able to track it down, because you can’t really Google “daht daht dee DAAAA yat-dat-dat-dat-da.”

And yet, within a couple of hours of the post going live, two fine people each provided a history of “Mysterioso Pizzicato”, which is also known as “Here Come the Villains” or the “Villains Theme”.

THE TIPS

Tim Lehrner from the B-Movie Message Board first pointed me to this conversation on the board, where Supersonic Man solved the mystery:

title: Mysterioso Pizzicato

The first known appearance of this music is in the ‘Remick Folio of Moving Picture Music,’ vol. I, published March 24, 1914, by Jerome H. Remick & Co., New York and Detroit.

The music was played as a background to scary scenes in the old silent movies.

The book was compiled and edited by J. Bodewalt Lampe, who may or may not have written the tune.

Also known as “Here comes the villain”.

Information from Fuld’s “The Book of World-Famous Music”

Separately, musician Scott Keever pointed me at this page from Topless Robot.

While this became ubiquitous in cartoons, TV shows and even videogames, the exact origin of the piece is unknown. Some of the possibilities include “Mysterioso – Burglar Music 1,” a 1913 piece by silent film composer J.S. Zamecnik, or simply the undated and anonymous “Villain’s Theme” which was used for many silent films. In all likelihood, it was a piece first composed for silent films and became associated with someone (usually a villain) sneaking around.

Its current, “canonical” form probably came about either because someone took Zamecnik’s piece, or a similar piece, and reworked it a little to avoid getting sued; or it may simply have coalesced into its current form through constant use over the years, with each use reinforcing the previous one, until it became the familiar form we all know.

So, we have a lot of uncertainty and some conflicting information. However, both items target a piece of music around 1913-1914 with a similar name. It’s entirely possible the tune dates back even further, but this at least gets us into the silent era of film.

ABOUT J. S. ZAMECNIK

ZamecnikJohn Stepan Zamecnik (1872-1953) was indeed a silent film composer. He studied under Anton Dvorak at the Prague Conservatory of Music before settling in the United States of America in 1899. According to Wikipedia, “In 1907, Zamecnik became music director of the newly constructed Hippodrome Theater in Cleveland, Ohio. When the Hippodrome commenced with the screening of silent films, Zamecnik began to compose music scores for them. They were published by Samuel Fox, whose company was the first to publish original film scores in the United States.”

The recent restoration of William Wellman’s Wings (1927), the very first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award, features Zamecnik’s original musical cues. He also worked on Cavalcade (1933), which also picked up the Best Picture Academy Award. Zamecnik’s IMDB page includes a very detailed list of where his work has been used — even today — and specifically which piece is being referenced. I spied “Mysterioso No. 1″ among those cues, which may or may not be the same piece of music.

Here’s another one of Zamecnik’s works, the “Neapolitan Nights Waltz”. Also, have a listen to a snippet of some of his other silent film music here.

According to Wikipedia, Zamecnik also worked under many pseudonyms, including Dorothy Lee, Lionel Baxter, R.L. (Robert) Creighton, Arturo de Castro, “Josh and Ted”, J. (Jane) Hathaway, Kathryn Hawthorne, Roberta Hudson, Ioane Kawelo, J. Edgar Lowell, Jules Reynard, F. (Frederick) Van Norman, Hal Vinton and Grant Wellesley. (Sadly, none of those names were J. Bodewalt Lampe, the name from the B-Movie Message Board post. Otherwise, that would have been cool, no?)

ABOUT J. BODEWALT LAMPE

JensBodewaltLampeSo, let’s look at Jens Bodewalt Lampe (1869-1929). Lampe was a ragtime composer, band leader, and performer. He was born in Denmark, but settled in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1873, where he was a member of the Minneapolis Symphony. He eventually moved to Chicago and then Buffalo, where he settled with his wife, had kids, and started composing.

Lampe’s claim to fame is “Creole Belles”, a ragtime piece that sold a million copies of sheet music and was recorded by Sousa’s Band in 1902. The “Creole Belles” piece was the second big hit in the world of ragtime, after Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”. (Here’s the Great Northern Jazz Band playing “Creole Belles”.)

SO, WHO MADE THE MUSIC?

We still don’t really know.

My guess (and I stress that this is a guess) is that Zamecnik is more closely related to the “Villains Theme” than Lampe. It looks like Zamecnik piece (dated 1913) predates Lampe’s book (1914), and Lampe’s role as composer of the piece is never directly stated. It’s possible that there is an even older piece being referenced by Zamecnik’s music, but it nobody has stumbled across anything like that yet.

Plus, given the “Villains Theme” history of being used in early movies and films galore, it seems more plausible that it would have originated with an early film composer.

EXAMPLES

While researching this piece, I found some more examples of the theme turning up in pop culture.

Here is a straight-up rendition of the theme as played by Al Weber, on the album Silent Film Music:

Remember Wizards and Warriors on the Nintendo Entertainment System? Check out the boss music:

This clip comes from the beginning “Strychnine” by The Sonics:

And here’s the start of “Night of the Vampire” by The Moontrekkers:

And here’s the beginning of “This Is Radio Clash” by The Clash:

Where else have you heard this tune?

12 comments

  1. chebutykin says:

    …and for some reason, WordPress has turned comments off on this article. I am investigating.

    EDIT: Fixed now!

  2. Gerry Masi says:

    Hello, Frank Zappa used it in his song Zomby Woof (sic)
    it comes after the guitar solo in all the live versions of the song (complete with villain laugh). Thanks for your investigations, we have been wracking our brains trying to find any info on this.
    Hear it at 4:22 on this clip:

  3. The Gneech says:

    The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy used it in a tune called “Old Snakey.”

    -The Gneech

  4. JDH-N-NY says:

    Wow. I was just going through this very search with the same how do you google “da da da da DAHHHHH dat dat dat da”? (how I would have spelled it)- I presented the problem at work. Of course everyone has heard it. Lot’s of men on the job and we came up with this. Thank you. For me it started listening to an Earl Hines recording of the Duke Ellington song “The Shepherd” on the subway. It’s about 10 minutes long but at about 7 1/2 minutes he plays that figure – which started the whole “WTF is that and where does it come from?” thing. So anyway it’s in that song.
    I knew about the Sonics. It’s also used as the main theme of the Ventures song “Scrooge” from their Christmas album.
    I know I’ve heard it in a Warner Bros cartoon somewhere. That search continues…

  5. Mel says:

    Oddly, my husband just asked this question this morning and i took up the challenge. And yes, the google search proved entertaining.. I finally got you using “music played when a villain comes in” Villain was the key. Thank you so much!!

  6. JohnnyLurg says:

    Sublime uses it in “Chica Me Tipo” from 40 Oz. to Freedom.

  7. Baikinange says:

    Even though this blog post is a few years old, here’s a link to a Spotify playlist I put together from songs using this theme. The suggestions in this post and comments were very helpful to go along with the songs I had already found. Very interesting post! http://open.spotify.com/user/baikinange/playlist/0WlTOFJafX0oTc4P1nxjk5

  8. Ted Foster says:

    Robert E. Foster used it in the beginning and end of his arrangement “Creepy Classics for Band”; your post was very helpful in compiling my program notes for our upcoming concert- thank you!

    http://www.jwpepper.com/Creepy-Classics-for-Band/10071115.item#.VESIYMkXuUx

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