When I was assigned the letter K, inexplicably the first thing that came to my mind was the word “kaput.” Since this is a writing blog, I thought of things that can go kaput in fiction and how that can be used as an inciting action to forward the plot. Say for example in a horror or a thriller a car breaking down in a small town can cause the protagonist(s) to deal with unfamiliar, hostile citizens. In literary fiction it could be the end of a relationship. In a mystery somebody often goes kaput by an unknown assailant. The list goes on. Then my mind leaped to an evil organization with triple Ks in their initials and I knew I didn’t want to cover racists (again) in this blog. Which led me to think of baseball and the K symbol for a strikeout. When a pitcher has three strikeouts, depending on the scoreboard, he may have his Ks lined up together, which is unfortunate because it looks like the above-mentioned organization. But then I thought about how it shouldn’t matter at all. Baseball is baseball and is superior to hate groups. Then I went through a dozen more k-words before I came to the one word that seems most appropriate for the type of genre that I write, crime.
Murder or killing is a common event that happens in crime literature. Sure drugs, theft, cons and hundreds of other crimes can happen without a single corpse. Stories can be compelling without death or even the threat of it – like blackmailing a two-timing politician or threatening jail time to an ex-con with two strikes – yet the stakes and emotional resonance at play when death is involved are tremendous. A cop loses in his partner because he was slow on the draw, a simple robbery turns bloody so now the accidental killers must run for their lives, a ruthless psychopath will stop at nothing to kill the protagonist…. The list can go on forever. Then I remembered somebody posted on Facebook their list of songs with crimes in them or noir themes or something like that. Unfortunately I don’t remember who posted it. (Sorry.)
It got me to thinking about how there are hundreds of thousands of songs (a million?) about love. Perhaps the second biggest theme in music would be the negative effects of love gone bad, heartbreak. I imagine the third would be about having a good time. Whether going out and dancing or hanging out with friends, drinking, fishing or riding ponies into the sunset, these are the feel good songs. Somewhere lower down in the repertoire are songs with murder in them. For the most part, I think it’s hard to sing with emotional abandon about killing without a slight feeling of a heaviness of conscious. One of things that I like about music with murder in the lyrics is that more often than not there is a story involved.
I thought I’d make a quick list of songs in distinct categories from different genres with killing in the lyrics. You should be able to play the songs on the page to get a sample or hear the entire work.
It’s hard not to think of Johnny Cash and hear “the man in black’s” deep bass baritone voice. He could fill his voice with happiness, outrage or sorrow and regret. While I love his early work, the American series he put out towards the end of his life is chilling. Specifically his version of Sting’s “I Hung My Head” is better than the original and dripping with more regret than “Folsom Prison Blues.” This is the story of a young man with a gun who makes a fatal mistake.
Freddie Mercury made an over-the-top rock opera with Queen’s 1975 hit Bohemian Rhapsody in the key of awesome. The first person lyrics details the final hours of a young man awaiting the death penalty.
“Mack the Knife” is an interesting song that seems to be a standard for most jazz vocalists. It has a happy upbeat tempo with very dark, graphic content of a psychopath killing for money and pleasure. So I thought it would be best to have the happiest woman in jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, sing the tune.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” along with Yoko Ono may have been one of the biggest causes of the The Beatles breakup. Paul worked really hard on the song, wearing out Ringo and George. John didn’t even participate. Anyhow, Maxwell kills, kills, and kills with Paul joyfully singing about the skull crushing act.
Catchy Fun Pop Killings
Like the previous category, these songs have fun, catchy choruses. Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run” comes across as a feel good song as listeners may find themselves rooting for the bored pair of lovers to get away with murder… and the money.
Foster The People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” was unofficially deemed song of the summer in 2011. This catchy enigmatic song is lithe and bouncy even though it is about a kid bent on shooting his peers. There is even whistling in it.
Protest and Social Commentary About Killings
“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday is a horrifying song about lynching that was happening in America. Kudos to Billie for pushing to have this song released in spite of the record labels’ concerns about offending Southern customers. Here she is singing the song.
Bob Dylan wrote “Hurricane” about the wrongful imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Dylan details the murder in the bar that happened and the events that led to Hurricane’s arrest.
Aerosmith’s rock ballad “Janie’s Gotta Gun” brought up the uncomfortable topic of incestual rape and had a huge hit in the 90s.
The Dixie Chicks countered domestic violence with good ol’ killing in “Goodbye Earl.” The writing in this song builds the case for taking out an abusive partner.
Like Queen’s Bohemian rhapsody, the folk classic “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio details a murder and subsequent punishment coming to killer, capital style.
The Old West Killer Ballad
“El Paso” is a gunslinger ballad from the old west brought to life with Marty Robbin’s epic voice. Two men fight over the same woman, but being the winner of a duel comes with consequences.
War is hell and Irish Celtic/punk band The Pogues led by frontman Shane MaGowen (when he’s not passed out on the floor) gives a chilling account from an Australian soldier in World War I in “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” I highly recommend listening to this if you are a writer.
Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, known as the “Sorrowful Symphony,” is so moving and sad that even without translated lyrics, the strings and the soprano soloist voice can evoke tears. Then you find out the first movement is about Mary looking up at son, Jesus, dying on the cross, followed by the second movement with words inscribed on a basement wall by a girl imprisoned by the Gestapo, and the final movement is about mothers searching through a battlefield trying to identify the corpses of their fallen sons. Heavy, heart-breaking material. It is an hour long commitment, but I highly recommend it. The first movement builds very slowly, but it’s worth it.
The Boastful Killers
I could be wrong, but I believe hip hop probably surpassed folk music with the amount of lyrical killings sometime in the early nineties. One of the groups that transformed rap/hip hop from (mostly) nonthreatening East Coast acts into the hardcore violent, misogynistic gangsta world is NWA. (You can look up the acronym.) While they weren’t the first hip hop act to feature killing in their songs (I remember the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere”), NWA they took their violent lyrical exploits to a whole new level. In 1988 nobody could have predicted that Dr. Dre would be become a billionaire (Apple bought his company Beats for $3B) or that Ice Cube would be acting in family friendly movies. If Easy E hadn’t had died from AIDS I wonder if he would be the spokesperson for Disneyland. So without further ado, here is the NSFW NWA hit, “Straight Outta Compton.”
Complex Murder Situations
Tom Waits is a fascinating lyricist, although it’s sometimes hard to catch all his words uttered through with his heavy croaky voice. “Murder in the Red Barn” is a creepy, jarring song with a load of atmosphere and a bunch of unusual misfits and suspects. That being said, I still don’t know what’s going on.
Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” is interesting because he feels completely justified in killing the head lawman, but he has no idea who took out the deputy. Within an admitted killing, there is a mystery in this reggae classic.
So I’m going to end this list here, skipping Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal since the victim may have survived her attack as well as The Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer since he tells people to run, but he doesn’t kill anybody in the song. I’m sure I missed a bunch, so let me know if there are any songs that you like or remember that feature a killing.
Travis Richardson is fortunate to have been nominated for both the Anthony and Macavity short story awards for “Incident on the 405,” featured in MALFEASANCE OCCASIONAL: GIRL TROUBLE. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in several online zines and anthologies. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime LA newsletter, reviews Chekhov shorts atwww.chekhovshorts.com and sometimes shoots a short movie. His latest novella is KEEPING THE RECORD. Find out more at: www.tsrichardson.com