Songs about death, dying and killing

22:11, Sep 02 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.

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.

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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.

From 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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