Ten Feel-Good Songs About MurderPosted: October 6, 2009
Maybe its the recent release of Dethklok’s “Dethalbum II,” but for whatever reason, music and murder (“Murmaider?”) have been on the brain recently. I have kind of a sick fascination with songs with violent lyrics that come from unexpected sources. If Cannibal Corpse pens a song about a shotgun to the face, we’d have to categorize it among their least imaginative in-song deaths. But if Elton John sang similarly gruesome lyrics set to the same sort of chords, rhythms, and melodies as “Crocodile Rock,” then color me intrigued.
Speaking of Elton John, and to get some sense of the type of dissonance I’m looking for in this list, take a listen to “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself.” It was an early contender, but I had to disqualify songs about suicide, since wow there are a lot of upbeat songs about suicide. No, for this list, it’s 100% “I-shot-a-man-in-Reno-just-to-watch-him-die” murder.
Keep in mind that the following list is in no particular order.
The Beatles — Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
The individual personalities of the Beatles’ are usually summed up in one or two words, i.e., Paul was the “nice” one. But to McCartney’s credit, he knew how to subvert this label. Take “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which must be some kind of sick joke. If you don’t understand English, all you’d hear is a bouncing beat, an anvil used for percussion, and high-pitched background vocals echoing certain lines. If you do understand English, and I”m assuming you do otherwise you probably wouldn’t have made it this far, you hear a song about murder-happy Maxwell breaking the skulls of his girlfriend, teacher, and judge. In the case of the judge, it seems like the bailiff really dropped the ball in letting Maxwell carry his weapon of choice into the courtroom.
Warren Zevon — Excitable Boy
This late 70’s rock song is catchier than it has an right to be, especially since the lyrics sound straight out of the pages of “American Psycho.” The titular character lives in a world where no one pays any mind to the various terrible things he does.
He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom
Excitable boy, they all said
And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home
And that’s it. No third act redemption arc in this song. The last thing the excitable boy does is dig up Suzie and build a cage with her bones. Guitar solo!
Bob Marley & The Wailers — I Shot the Sheriff
Just to prove that sometimes our cold-blooded killers can take responsibility for their actions, the narrator of this song insists that if he is to be punished, that it only be for the crimes he actually committed. Not exactly an innocent victim either, since the sheriff drew his pistol first and apparently just had terrible aim. Reggae is such feel-good music that I had to include it on the list. Obviously there is a social justice theme underneath the main story, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that when listening to one of the many, many lesser cover versions. (Not knocking your take on it, Clapton.)
The Clash — Wrong ‘Em Boyo
Like reggae, ska can effectively mask some brutal lyrics with a few joyful upstrokes on guitar and a horn section. In “Wrong ‘Em Boyo,” a disagreement over a dice game between Billy Boy and Stagger Lee ends with Billy shot to death. Stagger Lee was a real-life murderer who’s become an urban legend with quite a few songs detailing his mostly fictional exploits. The funny thing about the Clash version, a cover of a reggae song by a little-known group called the Rulers, is how little focus the murder gets. The song’s hook is “Don’t you know it is wrong/To cheat a trying man.” Shooting a man dead is one thing, but to “lie, steal, cheat, and deceit/In such a small, small game” is unforgivable.
The Misfits — Last Caress
The Misfits are pretty much synonymous with tongue-in-cheek carnage, so I couldn’t leave them off the list. Equal parts Ramones-like song structure and casual depictions of nightmarish imagery. “Last Caress” is especially murderiffic though, as this song’s narrator happily confesses that he both killed your baby and raped your mother, delivered in the same spirit as the Ramones singing “Hi-Ho! Let’s go!”
Johnny Cash — Delia’s Gone
Johnny Cash, one the other hand, is one of the last artists you’d think of when you think “upbeat.” And true, “Delia’s Gone” is slow and acoustic, a far cry from the pop-like sound of most of the above songs. But “Delia’s Gone” is also pretty far removed from the raw pain and bleak nihilism of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
First time I shot her I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone
All appearances aside, the song ends up being bleakly funny, mostly from Cash’s dry delivery, but also from the little details of overkill (“grab my sub-machine”) and the narrator’s admission that his only options were murder or marriage. (“If I hadn’t shot poor Delia/I’d have her for my wife”) It’s the classic trope of love and hate being only a half-step apart, which leads us right to…
Guns N’ Roses — Used to Love Her
One of the most upbeat songs Gn’R ever wrote, “Used to Love Her” is a short and simple ballad with a rhythm you can clap along to and a killer (sorry) lyrical hook. What’s the hook? “I used to love her, but I had to kill her.” Repeat with slight variations, which reveal that she’s buried out back, since the narrator knew he’d miss her. It would have been a great blues song if it wasn’t played so happily.
Scissor Sisters — I Can’t Decide
The Scissor Sisters are one of the only bands today that are willing to look at 70’s disco as a source of musical inspiration. They’re also a band that has no objections to the total dissonance of violent lyrics and cheery instrumentation. “I Can’t Decide” is even more dance/Euro-pop than most of the Sisters’ songs. The lyrics on the other hand… well, the titular decision is “whether you should live or die.” The narrator considers drowning and poisoning, but rules out burying alive because “you might crawl out with a knife/and kill me when I’m sleeping.”
For super dissonance power, during the chorus, over the lines “no wonder my heart feels dead inside/it’s cold and hard and petrified” we get a slide whistle!
Beck — Girl
I know, I know, I’m an idiot for even trying to pin down a meaning to a Beck song. But this song is so upbeat and everything from the midi intro to the slide guitar throughout makes this song just plain fun. Fun with lines like “I know I’m gonna make her die/Take her where her soul belongs.” That seems straight forward enough, but how about “Got a ticket for a midnight hanging/Throw a bullet from a freight train leaving”? Is the narrator shooting the girl and trying to run, but knows he’ll be caught and executed for his crime? Hell, I don’t know, this is Beck, I’m just taking a shot in the dark.
Jonathan Coulton — Still Alive
The song over the end credits of the brilliant video game Portal can certainly be enjoyed on its own, but it’s also tied to the plot, so I’ll try to be as spoiler free as possible. The song is a pleasant little pop tune about science and all the great things science can do… “for the people who are still alive.” While the murders aren’t mentioned explicitly, it’s made clear that testing on human subjects is how “the science gets done.” Over the course of the song, “the people who are still alive” go from being the benefactors of “science” to the subjects of future “research.” Sunrise, sunset.