Top 9 Songs That Will Knock You Dead

As we approach Halloween 2015, River of Rock examines a list of songs with lyrical themes and musical moods that focus on death, dying, killing, and/or murder.

9. “Midnight Rambler” by The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones in 1969

The violent lyrics of this song from the (aptly titled) 1969 album Let It Bleed speak of a shadowy figure who arrives unexpectedly in the night, does his damage, and then disappears without ever being confronted or identified. Whether the subject here is human, supernatural, or death itself is unclear, and the rollicking, bluesy nature in which the song is delivered serves to further mask its overall mystery.

Listen to “Midnight Rambler”:

Review of Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones

8. “Cocaine Blues” by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash performing at Folsum Prison

We could have picked several songs from Johnny Cash’s legendary 1968 live album, At Folsum Prison, including the famous title track and the haunting countdown to execution, “25 Minutes to Go”. However, “Cocaine Blues” captures the violent frenzy of a drug-fueled, matter-of-fact murder and the subsequent evasion, capture, trial, imprisonment, and regret all presented by a masterful live performer in front of an audience that can truly relate to such situations.

Listen to “Cocaine Blues”:

Album review of At Folsum Prison by Johnny Cash

7. “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads

Talking Heads

“Psycho Killer” was developed as an acoustic ballad by members of Talking Heads, years before they adopted that group name (they were The Artistic in 1974, when the song was written). This later became the group’s signature debut hit when it was released in 1977 as a funky, quasi-punk song which givers the perspective of a serial killer, who many incorrectly assumed was the “Son of Sam” because of the time and location of the track’s release.

Listen to “Psycho Killer”:

6. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by The Beatles

The Beatles in 1969

From a distance, this whimsical and bouncy McCartney-penned track seems cartoonish and light. It even comes complete with a Looney Tunes-style anvil sound effect. But to dig into the lyrics, one finds a much darker story about a popular medical student who charms his way into gaining trust before suddenly bludgeoning his victim’s with the weapon in the songs’ title.

Listen to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”:

Album review of Abbey Road by The Beatles

5. “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” by Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd in 1970

Like many Pink Floyd tracks of the era, “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” relies on building musical tension more than the prolific use of lyrics to get across the desired mood, which is decidedly spooky here. In fact, there is one and only one lyric (the title itself, whispered) during the entirety of this five minute song, followed by a few maniacal screams from Roger Waters, with the simple bass, keyboards and psychedelic guitars carrying the bulk of the workload.

Listen to “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”:

4. “Excitable Boy” by Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon in 1976

Many may consider “Werewolves of London” to be the perfect Warren Zevon song in a Halloween-related countdown, but it is another track from the same album, “Excitable Boy”, which is truly horrifying. In fact, each subsequent lyric in this song is more horrible and tragic than the last, all delivered by Zevon with an emotionless, matter-of-fact brevity. In contrast, the music is upbeat, bouncy and catchy, making for a great ironic contrast.

Listen to “Excitable Boy”:

Album review of Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon

3. “I Don’t Like Mondays” by Boomtown Rats

Boomtown Rats in 1979

“I Don’t Like Mondays” is a timely, chart-topping classic, written just a month after the real-life shooting spree which it is based upon. 16-year-old Brenda Spencer suddenly opened fire on an elementary school playground across from her home one morning, killing two adults and injuring several children. When asked about her motivation, she simply replied, “I Don’t Like Mondays”. While adopting this as the song’s title, composer Bob Geldof, had a more poetic interpretation of the incident;

“The silicon chip inside her head gets switched to overload, and nobody’s gonna go to school today, she’s going to make them stay at home…”

Listen to “I Don’t Like Mondays”:

Album review of The Fine Art of Surfacing by The Boomtown Rats

2. “Killers Eyes” by The Kinks

Ray Davies, early 1980s

Although far from reaching mainstream popularity, “Killer’s Eyes” is a haunting yet beautiful masterpiece by Ray Davies and The Kinks. Set to a chorus of slow, garage band rock instrumentation, the song’s exquisite melodies speak of a fallen person beyond hope and the effect that his actions have on those closest to him (reportedly inspired by Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II shortly before the song was composed). Davies’ moody and melancholy lyrics are most tragic when they take the point of view of a child;

“We’ve seen your picture in the paper, you’re little sister pinned it on the wall / she thinks your in some kind of movie, imagine her surprise when she saw you on the news and reporters came around to ask for interviews…”

Listen to “Killers Eyes”:

Album review of Give the People What They Want by The Kinks

1. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult

Blue Oyster Cult

Blue Öyster Cult’s biggest hit and most indelible track has been widely interpreted as either a philosophical muse on mortality or a cynical advertisement for suicide. Composed by lead guitarist Donald Roeser (aka “Buck Dharma), the song was intended to explore the possibility of being reunited with loved ones in an afterlife. Dharma concluded this was something  not to be feared  (as opposed to actively making it happen) and put the words to an infectious guitar riff, which starts and stops through many distinct musical sections, including an impressive middle jam. Ultimately, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper is the most definitive rock song on the subject of death, which was the main factor in its topping of our list.

Listen to “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”:

Honorable Mentions

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2
“Bloody Hammer” by Roky Erickson & the Aliens
“Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin
“I Used to Love Her” by Guns n’ Roses
“Janie’s Got a Gun” by Aerosmith

With this subjective list we’ve doubtlessly left out scores of artists who may have deserved consideration for this list. Please give us your comments below and tell us where you agree and disagree.


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