Songs about death, dying and killing

Last updated 10:11 03/09/2010

Well, as you know, I often like to make it a light and breezy - fun - Friday topic. So here we go then: what are your favourite songs about death; about dying?  Songs where someone is doing the killing, or talking about those being killed...maybe there are songs about suicide you like? (I'd recommend Soaky in the Pooper by Lambchop).

There are some pretty cool songs about death. Motorhead's Killed by Death has a great video. Rod Stewart's The Killing of Georgie Part 1 & 2 is catchy - and carries a message. Jack Kittel's Psycho is, well, psycho! And hints at themes also covered in Warren Zevon's Excitable Boy. And if we are mentioning songs about psycho killers, well, there's this one by Talking Heads.

These songs are a blast!So what makes people sing about death? And what makes us choose songs relating to death that we like? Is it because death is the only thing we can be sure of in life? (Well, that and the law of diminishing returns with Black Seeds albums). Is it because the story-songs hook us in? Is it because of the lyrics?

Sometimes songs about death are not always so obvious. Or the grim message is hidden in a happy-sounding tune. Warren Zevon's psycho tale of the excitable boy that I mentioned above is housed in a Jerry Lee Lewis/Bruce Springsteen-styled ditty; and J Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers' Last Kiss (yes, many of you will know the Pearl Jam cover) also bops along happily or at least in an upbeat way, tune-wise, but tells a rather sad wee tale.

Even Johnny Cash singing about how Delia's Gone is told with a wry chuckle - even though he's saying that he shot her; Cash loved a chance to twist his own mythology though. His Folsom Prison Blues has that famous line about how "I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die". Cash wrote in his autobiography that he tried to think of the coldest reason a person could have for killing - and that it would be just to watch someone die. He then adds, with deft comic timing, that "admittedly, it didn't take me too long to think of it".

Nick Cave had similar fun with his Murder Ballads album - a postmodern take on old folk and blues songs, some rewritten, some newly crafted but adhering to the tradition.

So - why the fascination with death songs? Well, I reckon we all have it - to a degree. Whether we know it or not...certainly a lot of the heroes in songs die: there are car accidents, murders, spooky happenings. And there is the mythology of violence, the grim storytelling that runs through so many genres of music, most obviously country, blues and hip-hop. Are we attracted to the grim stories?

Snoop Dogg's Murder Was the Case could sit next to Ralph Stanley singing O Death; one song issuing death on someone else, one pleading for it to stay away from the narrator of the song. Some songs about death see a hero standing stoic, proud. Others see a coward gloating. There is boasting and braggadocio - and there are sad, sad ballads. There is gratuitous fiction and there are songs inspired by true events. Bob Geldof liked that line "I don't like Mondays" - he saw something in it. And created his own back-story for that line with this song.

I always liked Blood Sweat & Tears' And When I Die. And then I found out that it was a cover of a Laura Nyro song - and that's cool. (I like both versions.)

So what are your favourite songs about dying and death; about people doing the killing or being killed?

I reckon there are some great songs, some happy songs and some very funny songs about death - and to (hopefully) prove it the next Blog on the Tracks Live Listening Session - #3 - will be Songs About Death. It was going to just be murder ballads - working from field hollers and traditional blues up through Nick Cave to hip-hop and back. But I think some of the best songs about death come from the doo-wop and rock'n'roll genres/eras. And I think the fun will be in mixing together a strange (but hopefully brilliant) batch of songs.

Flute of deathFrom Killing of Georgie to Killing an Arab to Killing in the Name - to, more metaphorically, I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight - there'll be a mix of weird and wonderful, of cheesy and cool, of happy and sad.

For a reminder of how the Live Listening Session works you can click here to read the preview of the first one. And here for the second one.

The third one will take place: Tuesday, September 14, 7.30pm; Pit Bar (BATS Theatre), 1 Kent Terrace. Entry is free. (See here for the Pit Bar details.)

So, what songs about death do you like?

And yes, if you want a song about death to contain more cowbell then this is one!

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102 comments
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samm   #1   10:29 am Sep 03 2010

Pearl Jam's version of 'Last Kiss' always has me changing the station to get away from it. Hate it, even as a lifelong PJ fan.

"The Ocean Breathes Salty" by Modest Mouse is one of my favourite songs explicitly about death, especially since the lyrics are about being angry with someone who died rather than eulogising them ("you wasted life, why wouldn't you waste the afterlife?" etc).

"Andy" by The Front Lawn is another good one, even if it is fictional.

Also partial to "Edie (Ciao Baby)" by The Cult, "The Twilite Kid" by The Twilight Singers, "Tomorrow Wendy" by Concrete Blonde, "Say hello 2 heaven" by Temple of the Dog, "Porcelain" by Better than Ezra, "Envy" by Shihad, "Burden in my Hand" by Soundgarden and that "minutes to go" song that Johnny Cash did.

Luke   #2   10:30 am Sep 03 2010

Down by the River - N.Y, Via Chicargo - Wilco... Heaps more but those two rule!

Don 1   #3   10:34 am Sep 03 2010

Caleb Myer – Gillian Welch. Attempted rape followed by murder with a whiskey bottle. Ah you’ve got to love a romantic song…

Jimmy Newman – Tom Paxton. Tom’s lying on his stretcher. Ready to be shipped home form the war and his buddy Jimmy is lying next to him, but he won’t wake up:

“Get up, Jimmy Newman! They won't take my word. I said you sleep hard, but they're shaking their heads. Get up, Jimmy Newman, and show them you heard; Ah, Jimmy just show them you're sleeping…”

Dearg Doom – Horslips. One man against an army, so he takes them on one by one.

“I'm a boy who was born blind to pain And, like a hawk, I'll swoop and swoop again. I am the flash of Hawkeye in the sun. When you see me coming you had better Run, run, run…”

Killer on the Loose – Thin Lizzy. Only Lizzy would have the balls to release a song featuring the lines “some people call me Jack, some people call me insane” during the Yorkshire Ripper panic.

Hey Joe – Jimi Hendrix. Yes, she WAS messing round all over town, but she isn’t now…

Kill the King – Rainbow. The ultimate republican song.

And rap might think it does best in songs about killing folk, but you really can’t beat the old Trad Arr for death in all it’s gory glory.

Follow Me Up To Carlow – Traditional (ish). One of the more bloodthirsty Irish rebel songs.

“From Tassagart to Clonmore there flows a stream of Saxon gore And great is Rory Og O More at sending loons to Hades. White is sick and Grey is fled, now for Lord Fitzwilliam’s head We’ll send it over dripping red to Queen Liza and her ladies.”

kebabette   #4   10:35 am Sep 03 2010

Glad that bloodfest Murder Ballads got a check. How about the classic Ode to Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZt5Q-u4crc

+ but I would highly recommend Black River Killer by Blitzen Trapper. It puts goosebumps on my goosebumps http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WruodIBlfs

Wilbur   #5   10:41 am Sep 03 2010

Murder Ballads is one of my favourite albums of all time!

Rammstein have a few songs about death.

But for something a little different what about Momma's gunna die tonight by Bodycount.

Ryan Maiden   #6   10:43 am Sep 03 2010

Being a bit of an 80's Metal fan, obviously there's plenty of material there, but One by Metallica is always a good'un. The dude isn't quite dead, but he really wants to be. Quite touching, really.

Kirsty   #7   10:45 am Sep 03 2010

There are many different interpretations to Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, but as someone who did a fair bit of research into capital punishment during my undergrad days, I can't help but go with the death row/execution/through the gates of hell interpretation. The death that caused the conviction, the death of the physical body, then finally the death of the soul. Pretty grim.

What a fun Friday this has been :)

hosef   #8   10:45 am Sep 03 2010

metellica -one

(not regular posting) Don   #9   10:56 am Sep 03 2010

When I was just a little lad my favorite song was 'Seasons in the Sun' by Terry Jacks (death by cancer) and I've loved death songs ever since. 'Diane' by Husker Du comes automatically to mind, also 'Teen Angel' (the pre-Beatles high school genre was fixated by violent death and underage sex) and all the other great tunes people have mentioned above. Death is cool in songs because it can either be baroque (as in high school), or throwaway callous, devil-may-care, like when the Clean sing "why don't you do yourself in..."

Bobble   #10   10:57 am Sep 03 2010

'Switching Off' - Elbow. The last thoughts of a dying man and possibly the most ridiculously moving and perfect piece of music ever written. On the opposite extreme it's hard to go past Slayer's 'Angel Of Death' for uncomfortable subject matter...


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