Crime on a desert island (part five): Music about crime

This Old Guitar
Image cca Alan Levine This Old Guitar

by Dean Biron

Music and crime are most commonly associated through notions of illegal downloading, the lyrics and lifestyles of “gangsta” rappers, or heavy metal musicians supposedly exhorting young people to deviance. In the 1980s, links between certain types of rock music and antisocial or even criminal behaviour were widely feared, to the extent that in the US, the wives of several government officials – most infamously Tipper Gore, partner of Senator Al Gore – founded the Parents Music Resource Centre, in an attempt to deny children access to music they claimed threatened the very foundations of society.

Of course, music and crime have long between intertwined. Countless classical opera scores are drenched in blood. In Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851), for instance, the protagonist enters into a bargain with an assassin, with unforseen deadly consequences. A century on, the Mississippi Delta blues musician Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil: the result was a handful of legendary songs and an early death, allegedly poisoned by a jealous husband.

In the 1960s, The Beatles revelled in their image of four clean-cut and fun-loving young men, whereas the Rolling Stones were considered to best represent the malevolent, dangerous side of rock and roll. The status of the latter seemed only to be confirmed by the 1969 Altamont Speedway concert, where the Hells Angels – hired as “stage security” by the band for $500 worth of beer” – went on a spree of violence which culminated in a fan being stabbed to death in front of the stage (images captured in the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter). Yet the Beatles too were unsuspectingly dragged into the dark regions of sixties counterculture when petty criminal and cult leader Charles Manson used their songs “Helter Skelter” and “Piggies” as incitements to mass murder.

Musicians have also used the song form as social commentary, often in an attempt to right perceived injustices. Bob Dylan wrote several of these, the most famous being “Hurricane,” about boxer Ruben Hurricane Carter’s wrongful conviction for murder.

Here are 10 pieces of music with explicit links to crime:

  1. Send me to the ‘lectric Chair” by Bessie Smith (1927)
  2. “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan (1976)
  3. “Tired Eyes” by Neil Young (1975) – story of drug deal gone wrong.
  4. “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” by De la Soul (1992) – the “daisy” rap band expanded their repertoire in this gripping tale of sexual abuse.
  5. “The Mercy Seat” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1988) – the “mercy seat” refers to the electric chair.
  6. “Rape Me” by Nirvana (1993) – an anti-rape song, though it was subsequently banned from radio because of the title.
  7. “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen (1982) – story of mass killer Charles Starkweather.
  8. “Midnight Rambler” by the Rolling Stones (1969)
  9. “Poptones” by Public Image Ltd (1979)
  10. Kristallnacht by John Zorn (1993) – a musical meditation on the “night of broken glass”, the notorious Nazi crime perpetrated against the Jews in November of 1938.