This week we continue our review of famous splatter platters, rigor mortis rhythms, and depressing tearjerkers from down the years, your feedback from Part 1 last week was great, your likes and comments are always appreciated.
Justice and Retribution
In the Old West justice and retribution tended to be swift and not too discriminating, the law of the gun ruled and in America it still does today, Appalachian murder ballads were invented in the US, things haven’t changed much in those parts either.
Tom Dooley – Kingston Trio (1958) –This was a classic Appalachian murder ballad which was factually based on the murder of Laura Wilkes by Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley) in 1866. The Kingston trio took some liberties with the facts by changing the spelling of the murderer’s name, and introducing a person by the name of Grayson, who it is inferred is a vengeful sheriff, who brought Dooley to justice and his ultimate execution – sold millions and the harmonising of Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds set the template for the folkie boom that followed.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance– Gene Pitney (1962) –The theme song from the movie of the same name starring John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin and others, like other western songs of the era its tempo resembles the gait of a horse, and gunshot sound effects were courtesy of the drummer. Pitney was no C&W singer, he had a better voice, but this was a big hit for him, depicting the demise of gunslinger Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), apparently by James Stewart’s character (Rance Stoddard) but it was really John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, who did the deed when he shot the outlaw from a side street.
El Paso – Marty Robbins (1959) – Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins challenged each other to write the great gunfighter ballad, Johnny told the poignant tale of young Billy Joe who failed to heed his mother’ advice in – “Don’t Take You Guns to Town”, but Marty’s El Paso was in another league, twelve verses, no chorus, a terrific narrative, flamenco guitar, the sultry Feleena, and a young cowboy “wild as the west Texas wind” who meets his fate.
Ringo – Lorne Greene (1964) – Better known as Ben Cartwright in the long-running TV western Bonanza, Greene had a #1 hit with his spoken word monologue about the gunfighter Johnny Ringo, historians disputed the accuracy of the lyrics but they all agreed on the ending – Johnny went down with his six guns blazing.
The Needle and the Damage Done
The title of this sub-genre was inspired by the 1972 Neil Young song of the same name, which did not deserve to be pilloried along with the other selections here, which tend to be more of the “I’m jamming a needle in my arm! Lemme tell you all about it!!” -variety of whiney addict tunes.
Captain Jack – Billy Joel (1974)– This depressing little pop-rock epic wears out its welcome early on during its junkie-themed storyline, it’s pretty slick musically though with pipe organ merging with Joel’s trademark pop piano chords, and then a segue to a soaring chorus, but it’s the lyrics that really grate. Joel sings the song in the second person, so that the listener becomes the slack-jawed loser hanging out in Greenwich Village for the dealer, Captain Jack to turn up with a dime bag “Captain Jack will get you high tonight…”, seven minutes and 14 seconds later, you just know that Joel never had the guts to sing it from the heart, like a person who really knew what addiction was like.
Sam Stone – John Prine (1972) – Notable because it was the first song of note to feature a drug-addicted combat veteran as its protagonist, but the lyrical imagery is bleak – rainy trailer parks, rusty swing sets, neglected children, cars up on blocks, sad-eyed girls who married their high school sweethearts before they went to Vietnam and came back crippled and addicted to morphine “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes…”. Underscored by a funereal organ and folksy acoustic guitar, Prine pours on the ignominy, tedium, and squalor of Sam’s life, he’s lost his house to foreclosure, can’t hold down a job, until in desperation he “popped his last balloon”, buried, forgotten, in a flag-draped casket, cannon fodder for the cause.
Sister Morphine– Marianne Faithful (1971)- Faithful was on her way to becoming a junkie by the time she wrote this with Jagger and Richards, and it appeared on the Stones Sticky Fingers album in 1971. She had gone from 60’s swinging London poster girl to a suicidal, heroin-addicted, needle fiend, who had become the very personification of Sister Morphine. By now her trademark wounded soprano was a gutteral alto growl, as she described the harrowing path to recovery from addiction. The song takes place entirely in a hospital bed “Here I lie” she moans, in great pain “I don’t think I can wait”, we are guessing its either death or methadone she’s waiting for, as cymbals crash ominously and guitars intone. The band then kicks into an uneasy but undeniably funky groove, while Faithful recounts the usual addict flashbacks, and invites everyone to “sit around… while my sheets turn red…” as she shuffles off her mortal coil. Depressing lyrics, a gloomy musical accompaniment, and the fractured voice and lost youth of Marianne Faithful, all make for a sobering anti-drugs message.
I’m Telling a Story You May Not Want to Hear
These are narrative songs usually based on the kind of conversation you have with strangers you meet who are convinced that their life story is fascinating and intriguing, but that you find tedious and self-indulgent.
The Freshmen – Verve Pipe (1997) – Grunge-lite band from Michigan who scored a big hit with this depressing song which recounts the misery of two young men dealing with the suicide of a girl they both dated, slept with, and dumped while in college. It’s lyrical line “I can’t be held responsible…” resonated with teenagers then and still does today. Musically it builds slowly throughout with a snare drum military cadence, surging guitars, and lead singer Brian Van Dar Ark doing his best Kurt Cobain impersonation, the band were capable of better work, but this one consigned them to one-hit wonder status.
People Who Died – The Jim Carroll Band (1981)– Written by New York poet/writer/singer/former junkie Jim Carroll, best known for his memoir Basketball Diaries, which became a film starring Leo DiCaprio. The song wasn’t a hit, but it became a cult favorite among humorless punksters. It was thrash rock with concussive drums and speedball guitars, while Carroll frantically spits out the names and causes of death of various acquaintances from his sordid social circle, and allegedly every word is true. Thirteen people die in the song, three are named Bobby, and the causes of death are similarly prodigious – drug overdose (natch), stepping in front of a subway train, slitting their throat, hanging, swan diving off roofs, being thrown from roofs, terminal cancer, hepatitis, Vietnam, Drano, bikie hit, and all underscored by the zealous chorus “ Those are people who died ! Died…! Five minutes later Carroll completes his shopping list of dead friends, it was depressing and without any cautionary moral tone, did any of his friends die of natural causes?
Billy Don’t Be a Hero – Paper Lace (1974) – UK pop group Paper Lace recorded Billy Don’t Be A Hero at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and it was presumed to be a protest about that war, but it was inspired by the American Civil War, which Paper Lace confirmed when they appeared on UK’s Top of the Pops wearing Union Army uniforms. The song was a hit in UK and Australia but Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods covered it in the US and had the big hit there where it sold 3.5 million copies. As protest songs go it was lyrically insipid, with Billy’s fiancée pleading for him to “keep his pretty head low,” and Billy doing the exact opposite, musically it used all the familiar military tropes – snare drums, flutes and fifes, a marching tempo, and a “gotcha” ending, in an attempt to heighten the drama and poignancy of the story… it didn’t, but it remains a guilty pleasure for many people.
The Curse of Millhaven – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1996) – Composed by Cave for PJ Harvey to record as a track on his Murder Ballads album but she preferred a duet with Cave on the equally homicidal Henry Lee. Fifteen -year-old Loretta is the serial killer of Millhaven, who is equally adept at despatching men, women and children, by arson, drowning, decapitation, knifing, and blunt force trauma, but she draws the line at killing dogs. A depressing song but Cave’s violence is so cartoonish and exaggerated, and his delivery so melodramatic, that we can almost forgive him this excess of gruesomeness.
The Shortest Story – Harry Chapin (1976) – Chapin was a champion of the oppressed and raised millions for charity playing benefit concerts, he enjoyed a loyal following for his narrative songs like Taxi, Cat’s in the Cradle, and WOLD, he died in 1981 in a traffic accident at the age of 38, which was depressing. But he also left behind this horribly depressing song, which closed out his 1976 concert album Greatest Stories Alive. You know you are in for doom and gloom from the opening strains of a 12-string guitar and mournful tubular bell ringing out one note in unison, Chapin then sings “I am born today…I draw a breath and cry…I am glad to be alive…” an ominous string quartet creeps in, it is a week later and the infant can “taste the hunger and I cry…” we now know we are in somewhere like Ethiopia, Uganda, the Congo, Rwanda, Malawi, where two- week-old babies can articulate their physical condition. Twenty days later the child dies of starvation, the tubular bells return with the desolate sound of rushing wind, the song was well-intended but so over the top, that it became 2.26 mins of famine porn.
Oh England, My Lionheart – Kate Bush (1978) – This strange acoustic piece used harpsichord, recorder and madrigal-style harmonies, and was the last track on Bush’s second album, Lionheart. It wasn’t a big hit for her outside the UK, where the Americans never really warmed to her schoolgirl-siren voice, and she was so very English. This song is uber patriotic and replete with weird metaphors extolling the majesty of the UK countryside, all whilst she is describing the death of an English airman, who may have already crashed to his death “Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge/ Give me one last kiss in apple blossom/ Give me one wish and I’d be wassailing/ In the orchard, my English rose…” she performed the song wearing an airman’s oversized flying jacket and air helmet, on a war-torn set surrounded by her “dying comrades”, Kate crossed over into depressing soap opera with this one.
We all love a good ghost story and unexplained paranormal events, but then there are these songs which tip over into the murky area of exploitation and twilight zone weirdness.
Laurie (Strange Things Happen in This Life) – Dickey Lee (1965) – This song was such a B-grade movie plot that a short film was made about it which is available on YouTube. A guy goes to the high school graduation dance, meets a lonely girl whom he later walks home, she’s cold so he lends her his sweater, but he doesn’t realise how cold she really is! After a goodnight embrace he heads home, but returns to retrieve his sweater, the girl’s father answers the door, abuses the boy for being callous and reminding him that his daughter Laurie died a year ago that day on her birthday. Boy returns home via the cemetery and finds his sweater draped over Laurie’s tombstone, cue mournful guitar and keyboards, Dickey’s reedy vocals, and a Mormon choir swelling at the end, it all just added to the creepiness.
Johnny Remember Me – John Leyton (1961)– Leyton was an actor who starred in the ATV series Harper’s West One, Joe Meek, the Phil Spector of the London Scene, who also appeared in the clip, produced this song about a guy whose true love died a year ago but he can’t forget her, Lissa Gray sang the ghostly soprano backing vocals but doesn’t appear in this clip “ When the mist’s a-rising/ And the rain is falling/ And the wind is blowing cold across the moor/ I hear the voice of my darlin’/ The girl I loved and lost a year ago…/ But I hear her singing in the sighing of the wind/ Blowin’ in the tree tops way above me.” Some would describe this one as atmospheric, even moving, others thought it was creepy and borderline necrophilia.
Death In The Suburbs
This sub-genre will continue to flourish in the future unless and until firearm ownership is properly regulated in the USA. But surprisingly few songs have been inspired by the spate of school and workplace shootings there in recent decades, probably because they have become so tragically commonplace. In the past undisclosed illnesses tended to be the cause of death in songs, until the Boomtown Rats identified the elephant in the room about forty years ago, and yet the NRA there continues to derail the debate about how to stop mass shootings
Rocky- Austin Roberts (1975) – In under four minutes Austin Roberts meets and marries his girl, they graduate from college, decorate their home, have a baby, and then she dies of an undisclosed illness, that’s impressive. It’s another classic teenage death song except the couple have grown up and there are no car wrecks, Dickey Lee also recorded this because he was the Prince of Splatter Platters.
Honey – Bobby Goldsboro (1968) – This is a classic death ballad which involves a guy reminiscing about his deceased wife, it has everything – maudlin lyrics, deadly earnest vocal delivery, a dreary string arrangement, a remembrance tree planted by his late wife “see the tree how big it’s grown…”, who was “kinda dumb, and kinda smart”, a cute puppy also appears, and then in the spring “when flowers bloom and robins sing” the angels came and she goes away. Even if you ignore the greeting card sentimentality and emotional contrivances over which Goldsboro continually trips in this song, you just can’t ignore his reedy tenor and wide-eyed delivery, that cranks up the cloying images to melodramatic plague proportions. But Goldsboro had prior convictions- Molly (’63) was about a soldier who arrives home from the front and only then reveals to his wife that he is blind, See The Funny Little Clown (’64) about a sad sack loser whose girl walks out on him, followed by the saccharine Watching Scotty Grow (’71).
Killing of Georgie – Rod Stewart (1976) – A great narrative song from Rod the Mod about a young gay man who is spurned by his parents but finds success in New York and lives life to the full until he is accidentally killed during a random mugging in the city. Inspired by actual events of which Stewart was aware and originally produced in two parts, which were ultimately merged and compressed when released as a single, it was a big hit in the UK and was one of the better songs of this genre.
I Don’t Like Mondays – Boomtown Rats (1979)– The song and video were landmark achievements for Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats, inspired by the actions of sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer who on Jan 29 1979 opened fire on children at the Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, killing two adults and wounding eight children and a police officer. When asked to explain her actions, and showing no remorse, she replied “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day”. Geldof first heard of the incident via a telex machine, and the reference to a silicon chip was linked to a concert that the Rats were planning to do for Apple following discussions with Steve Jobs. Geldof initially claimed full credit for writing the song but 40 years later agreed to share royalties with Rats keyboardist Johnnie Fingers. It is a great piano ballad that still dominates this genre, #1 everywhere except the USA, Spencer’s parents unsuccessfully tried to stop the release of the record, and Geldof later regretted making Spencer famous for such a murderous act, at the age of 56 years she remains incarcerated.
Derailed On The Road Of Life
The pursuit of success/independence/love at all costs often has dire consequences, and all provide fertile ground for the creation of depressing music.
Hollywood Seven – Jon English (1976)-This was the first big hit for Jon English, after Terry Jacks had turned it down because of the dark themes of prostitution and murder in Tinsel Town. “She came in one night from Omaha…” another starstruck young girl craving Hollywood stardom, forced to do tricks to survive she “brings the wrong one home…” and goes back to Omaha in a pine box. The song has real suspense and dramatic tension and Jon’s vocals were great, a splatter platter but not without some credit for lyrical imagery and synth-laden riffs. Emma by Hot Chocolate was also a candidate for this sub-genre, a young girl fails to make it on the silver screen and commits suicide, co-written by lead singer Errol Brown, mournful vocals and Errol’s chrome dome bobbing along dutifully to the beat, were hard to forget. A Young Girl – Noel Harrison (1966) – Noel was Rex Harrison’s son from the first of his six marriages, who mastered the style of singing/talking in the same way that Rex did in My Fair Lady. Noel brings his cut glass diction and actorly gravitas to this monologue about thwarted young love, written by Charles Aznavour. Musically they threw in strings, acoustic guitar, and castanets, as the young girl “vanishes into the secret sweetness of their sin” with an older man, who soon proves to be unfaithful – “ he needed fresh new meat to carve,” which leads us inexorably to the “gotcha” ending by the side of the road.
Patches – Dickey Lee (1962)- Roylen Dickey Lipscomb was a Tennessean who ultimately finished up singing C&W songs about cheatin’ women, drunkard husbands, and brave GIs’, but before that he was a serious contender for chart honours with a string of depressing songs, this was one of them. Patches tells the story of a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks in love with a boy from a respectable family. He wants to marry her, but his parents forbid it, and instead of defying them he simply drops the unsuspecting Patches. The heartbroken girl from shanty town drowns herself in the river, and the guilt-stricken boy decides to join her. “Patches I’m coming to you”, he declares, standing on the riverbank with rocks stuffed in his pockets
Moody River – Pat Boone (1961) – Boone was huge in the pre-Beatles 50’s and 60’s doing white cover versions of “race” records by Little Richard, until he spurned rock and roll for a more clean cut image and recorded anodyne ballads like April Love, Love Letters in the Sand, etc. But his career stalled, until he delivered the death ballad Moody River, his last US #1 hit. A typical teenage death song with some strange lyrics – ‘Moody River more deadly than the vainest knife…” how do you link vanity with an inanimate object like a knife, anyway the boy goes to the aforementioned river to rendezvous with his girl, finds a note attached to a glove – this has to be the worst substitute for using the postal service ever – miraculously he finds the glove/note in which she confesses her infidelity, and throws herself in the river, the dumbstruck Romeo is left to stare into the moody waters at her face staring back at him – Pat moved onto Speedy Gonzales, partly voiced by Mel Blanc, for his last top ten hit a year later.