Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Halloween Special: Great Scary Songs for Samhain!

It's that time of year again! I love Autumn, and the pagan holiday that best defines the death of the year in both a figurative and literal sense, Halloween (or All Hallows' Eve, the night before All Saints Day in the Catholic calendar of feast days that no one has paid attention to since the Counter-Reformation). For this excursion into the macabre I considered the attributes of a well written scary song, the kind that causes the hair on your neck to stand up as you squirm uncomfortably in your seat: the suspenseful, the unexpected, the unnerving, the intense.

That being said, I have chosen to ignore death growls and death metal altogether. And I've decided to disqualify rock that sets out to mimic the camp theatrics of a Jaycees or Kiwanis Halloween haunted house, filled with such stale novelties as a fat guy holding a chain saw with the guard still on it, a bucket or two of pigs blood, and plastic skeletons with blinking L.E.D. lights in the eye sockets; therefore, no Slipknot, Cannibal Corpse, Rob Zombie, Slayer or Gwar. Sorry, much of it is as downright silly as the 14th sequel to a slasher movie (take your pick of titles) - much of it tries, almost desperately, to gross people out rather than truly terrify them. In that regard, I've kept Alice Cooper on the list because he was the progenitor of rock dementia and bloody stage theatrics.

No, I've picked out genuinely riveting and disturbing songs that do not require a music video for shock value (like Marilyn Manson, for instance). The songs should be able to creep you out in the dark without the added emphasis of troubling or disgusting visuals. So, here is 37 satanic tunes, followed by 13 Halloween rock standards of somewhat lighter seasonal fare, for an even fifty songs - plus seven scary symphonies for the classical crowd. All in all, a superb Halloween mix. Trick or treat! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Oh, by the way, in a most appropriate nod to the spirit of All Hallow's revelry, the images lining either side of the selections are of Lon Chaney Sr., "Man of a Thousand Faces", the greatest make-up artist and silent film actor of his generation (aside from Charlie Chaplin). As an aside, the picture further down the page of Mr. Chaney with no legs is no camera trick or special effect. His legs are actually bound by straps behind his back and hidden beneath his overcoat. It was a very painful process, and he could only walk about for short periods on the stumps (actually his knees!).

The Tell-Tale Heart
Driven by the manic vocals of Arthur Brown (from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown), Edgar Allen Poe's tale of horror is given a musical reworking by APP.

Second Coming/Ballad of Dwight Fry
Perhaps the greatest rendition of musical madness in rock history, a display of insanity that would have made Edgar Allan Poe proud. This is well before Alice devolved into "Welcome to My Nightmare" schlock.

Black Juju
Another song from the eerie and atmospheric classic Love It to Death album.

Dead Babies/Killer
Parents and teachers lost their minds over "Dead Babies" in 1971. They still do. 

Them Bones
Jerry Cantrell's reverie on mortality and death, and how we all end up as "just a pile of bones". Unless you are a Jehovah's Witness, of course, in which case you hope to god you are one of the lucky 144,000. Considering there are approximately 19 million Witnesses alive currently, I don't care for their odds.

Revolution 9
The most debated and reviled composition of The Beatles. It is also one of the most unnerving pastiches in rock history. Forwards or backwards. And yes, the repeated words "Number nine"  played backwards are indeed "Turn me on dead man". I experimented back when I still used a turntable.

Black Sabbath
No one had heard such a hell storm prior to Sabbath's debut album in 1969. The eponymous song with its demonic wah-wah finale is a legendary creeper.

Into the Void
This song has the most evil chord progression in existence.

Ozzy's most ferocious performance, particularly when the song really kicks in at about 3:20. Love the back-tracked vocals.

We are the Dead
A ballad interweaving George Orwell's 1984 with allegorical asides to a "real world" Big Brother. The album Diamond Dogs is Bowie's most underrated.

Waking the Witch
Use this as your alarm song in the morning. I guarantee you will get up. Genuinely disturbing, and coming from Kate Bush, that is really saying something.

Drip, Drip
The weird vocals are unsettling throughout the Comus album First Utterance. The acoustic guitars are remarkable, the lyrics are disturbing, but it's the damn vocals that can irritate you to violence.

The Shankhill Butchers
A true story of a gang of Protestant terrorists who murdered scores of Catholics in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, given a superb and eerie folk song/nursery rhyme approach by Colin Meloy.

The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing
Shara Worden is the malevolent queen intent on parting two lovers in the rock opera The Hazards of Love. One bitch of a mother played to the hilt by the superb Worden.

Riders on the Storm
"There's a killer on the road/his brain is swirling like a toad" - the imagery and the gloomy atmospherics of the song build a vision of a desolate road in the rain, and death waiting around the next bend.

Not to Touch the Earth
A fevered delivery reaches the realms of madness by the time the words "dead president's corpse in the driver's car" are uttered.
Horse Latitudes
One of the most disturbing spoken-word recordings in rock history.

The Spy
One of the eeriest takes on stalking - before stalking was a media phenomenon. Jim Morrison provides the vocal maleficence, and his delivery of the words "I know your deepest, secret fear" is altogether evil.

Hallowed Be Thy Name
The scariest thing about this song is that Greg Lake is singing like he's serious about what he's saying. Okay, maybe that's funny.

A fair maid meets a were-fox (precursor to later werewolf tales). The insinuation in Sandy Denny's beautiful voice when she sings "his teeth did brightly shine" leads us up the mountainside and the fate of all comely maidens entrapped by vile rakes.

Green Manalishi
The blues on an occult level, dragged from Robert Johnson's grave in the gory maw of the hellhound that chased Peter Green in his troubled dreams. One of the last songs Green recorded with Fleetwood Mac before schizophrenia, hastened by overuse of LSD, caused him to drop out of music for several years.

An altogether disturbing take on home invasion. Robbery is not the motive of the intruder; rather, Gabriel reveals the delight in the criminal's mind for entering a home undetected, the thrill of stealing up to the sleeping victim unaware, and then the sheer terror of the victim waking and realizing the intruder is hovering over them.

Moribund the Burgermeister
How often does a rock star sing about a medieval town afflicted with a plague of St. Vitus' Dance (Sydenham's Chorea)? Only from the warped mind of Gabriel.

White Rabbit
Lewis Carroll is thrown on his ear in this metaphor that juxtaposes Alice in Wonderland with 60s psychedelia. And really, who from that era hasn't seen a hookah-smoking caterpillar at one time or another? Grace Slick at her lugubrious best.

Loop Garoo
The Cajun legend of a bayou were-wolf (Loup Garou) is given some New Orleans bite by the growling Dr. John.

21st Century Schizoid Man
Satan on saxophone joins Robert Fripp on guitar for a demonic duel.

No Quarter
One of the proggiest of Zeppelin tunes, and it is bassist/ keyboardist John Paul Jones' magnum opus. The song itself is about, oddly enough, the term "no quarter", the military practice of taking no prisoners in battle.

Oh Comely
A campfire acoustic song for a reunion of serial murderers. Hey, who wants a Smore?

A harrowing ride through the vengeful minds of once sedentary sheep, who turn the tables on their canine oppressors. Using kung fu, of all things. Hey, it was the 70s.

Careful With that Axe, Eugene
One of the greatest demented song titles of all time. Love Roger Waters' screeches, and the visuals of Pompeii definitely add to the warped ambiance of the song.

The Turkish Song of the Damned
I picked out a YouTube video with the lyrics. A chilling story of a drowned sailor returning from hell to wreak vengeance on the mate who left him to die.

Repent Walpurgis
Okay, the animation here is really stylish and I like it. But the day exactly six months prior to Halloween is Walpurgis Nacht or Night, and appears in Goethe's Faust, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. So let the witches dance!

Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs in Florence, Italy was purported to be the span that condemned prisoners crossed on their way to be executed.

A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers
An epic nautically-themed allegory of isolation and despair. VDGG's greatest song and truly a progressive masterpiece.

What's He Building in There?
Tom Waits is the only man who can make the word "Indonesia" sound evil.

Little Drop of Poison
You might remember a snippet of this played by Capt. Hook in Shrek II.

Cemetery Polka
What's Halloween without a completely demented polka? Betcha Jimmy Sturr couldn't play this!


Boris the Spider - The Who
John Entwistle makes this song a demonic delight!

Don't Fear the Reaper - Blue Oyster Cult
Yes, I am afraid it's now obligatory.

The Black Widow - Alice Cooper
Vincent Price's campy introduction is priceless, and far better than Michael Jackson's later retake of Price on "Thriller".

Aint Superstitious - Howlin' Wolf
No, it aint rock and roll, but it's Howlin' Wolf, dammit!

Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield
Association is everything regarding this composition by Oldfield. If you ever were freaked out by the original "Exorcist", you'll know exactly what I mean.

Bad Moon Rising - Creedence Clearwater Revival
There's a baboon on your eyes! Wait, that's not the lyrics. Ummm...never mind.

War Pigs - Black Sabbath
A hundred years later, and this is still a creepy tune. Okay, I exaggerate. Forty years later. Ozzy only looks a hundred.

Fire - The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Hey, the guy's head is on fire. What more can you ask from a video?

Season of the Witch - Donovan
You've got to pick up every stitch? Check. Beatniks are out to make it rich? Sure thing. The rabbit's running in the ditch? Well, obviously, it must be the season of the witch.

Werewolves of London - Warren Zevon
The line "I'd like to meet his tailor" still cracks me up.

Frankenstein - The Edgar Winter Group
Why is it called "Frankenstein"? Rick Derringer suggested to Winter that a 20 minute-long jam they called simply "Instrumental" could be made into something. So, they got stoned in the studio and spliced and cut until tape was covering the floor. At that point, drummer Chuck Ruff sighed, "Wow, man, it’s like Frankenstein!" The rest, as they say, is history.

The End - The Doors
From the the first few guitar trills, there is perhaps no song with the fundamental creepiness and ill-intent underlying Jim Morrison and The Door's oedipal epic, particularly when he repeats the word "Kill" several times at about the 10 minute mark. Altogether unnerving in a dark room.


In the Hall of the Mountain King - Grieg
From the fabulous Peer Gynt Suite. Imagine, if you will, the Old Man of the Mountain and his court, full of goblins, trolls and gnomish courtiers all shrieking that the Christian hero, Peer Gynt, must be slain for bewitching the Mountain King's daughter.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor - Bach
Johann Sebastian was a rock god a few centuries too early. I always imagine this profound organ composition played when Lon Chaney's hideous face is unmasked in the silent movie classic "The Phantom of the Opera".

A Night on Bald Mountain - Mussorgsky
Mussorgsky drank himself to death by age 42. One can well equate this demonic composition to one hell of a violent hangover.

Dance of the Pagan Monster - Prokofiev
From Prokofiev's Scythian Suite. Emerson, Lake & Palmer did a violent arrangement entitled 
The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits on their Works Volume 1 album.

Danse Macabre - Saint-Saëns
Full of rattling bones and ghostly moans as Death (a fiddler, it seems) makes its annual visit at midnight on Halloween to call the corpses from their graves to dance their dance of death, or as they sang in 14th and 15th century France, "Je fis de Macabré la danse" ("I did the dance of Death"). A cock's crow (an oboe in this piece) signals the coming dawn and the end of the dance.

Ride of the Valkyries - Wagner
From Act III of Die Walküre from Wagner's mammoth  Der Ring Des Nibelungen. The Valkyries were a host of Odin's shieldmaidens who gather up fallen heroes slain in battle and carry them to Valhalla.

The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 - Rachmaninoff
This symphonic poem was inspired by "Isle of the Dead", a painting by Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin. The beginning of the piece insinuates the rowing of oars as Charon's boat traverses the River Styx on the way to Hades.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Saddest Rock Songs of All Time, Part I

The greatest ability of a musical performer (musician, singer, composer, etc.) is to make you feel something even when you feel nothing at all. A song will capture you at unawares and unexpectedly steal your senses - sometimes even your heart and soul - and change your whole perspective. You may consider yourself a hard person, as tough as nails, but even so, at one time or another your eyes have watered or perhaps you've even shed a tear when a certain song is playing. That is when music is at its most powerful, and it takes a special gift to render sadness into a musical statement.

Loss, regret, remorse - the things you can't take back but wish you could, even for a moment - are what touch us the most. Sorrow can make you stronger or drag you down to the bitter dregs, but there is a beauty in sorrow, particularly when a musician composes a song about his or her own inner demons - their vulnerabilities, their fears, their loss - and shares it with the world. Sure, some songs are simply manipulative, intended to twist your emotions, but at the heart of most great sad songs is a personal experience, a mournful message that needs to be made to gain closure for the individual.

Oh, for crying out loud! Would you listen to me? I've spent far too long listening to these damn songs and now I am talking like I am a patient for Robert Burton's 1621 classic book The Anatomy of Melancholy, or the full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up (and no,I am not making this up!). In any case, before I start blubbering and get my keyboard wet, here are, in my estimation, fifty of the saddest songs in rock history (with another fifty coming in a future installement - I can only take so many sad songs at once).

The interesting thing about sad rock songs is that they may not have been originally composed to generate tears, but they become sad by association, by melancholy memories or by ironic twists of fate, as is the case of John Lennon's "Imagine" or Nick Drake's "Fruit Tree". Although some of these songs may reflect a personal troubling period in my past, I believe there are enough folks who have been miserable at one time or another that can identify with the songs I've listed.

I could have ventured further and given you Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor, or a song or two from Frank Sinatra or Billie Holliday, maybe Johnny Cash (whose version of Trent Reznor's "Hurt" is phenomenal) or other country stars boozily wallowing in their pick-up trucks, but the task at hand then becomes too convoluted and the list far too extensive for my patience. Because, as I have mentioned previously, patience is not one of my virtues. In fact, I am not even sure I have any patience. So let's just stick with rock songs. Sad ones. Listed below for your listening edification. Better get yourselves a box or two of Kleenex. And maybe a couple of beers. And call your mom.

Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
Written in separate rooms by Gilmour and Waters, the lyrics deal with alienation, the death of Water's grandmother and the loss to drugs and mental disorder of band member Syd Barrett. Perhaps the best song Floyd ever composed.

Time - Alan Parsons Project
The album The Turn of a Friendly Card tells the story of a middle-aged gambler who loses it all. The wistful and whispery ballad of time lost, "Time", marks the first single Eric Woolfson, Alan Parson Project co-founder, sang lead on (and this was their fifth album!).

Eleanor Rigby - The Beatles
A technical and compositional triumph for The Beatles. This McCartney song was shocking at the time of its release due to its unflinching look at loneliness and despair. It also has no semblance of a traditional rock tune, foregoing drums, keyboards and guitar for a double string quartet.

Without You - Harry Nilsson
Originally recorded by the band Badfinger for their album No Dice, Harry Nilsson took the song and brought it to another dimension. The heart-wrenching vocals by Nilsson are a high point in pop-rock balladry.

The Needle and the Damage Done - Neil Young
A song about the evils of heroin addiction that took two of Young's close friends, guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Young recalled, "I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men."

Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton
This about the death of Clapton's four year-old son. It doesn't get anymore poignant than this.

Cats in the Cradle - Harry Chapin
A tale of parental neglect in song form, relating a father's need to succeed in business to the detriment of his growing son. The tragedy comes home when the father realizes his now adult son has turned out to be just like him.

Layla - Derek and the Dominos
The celebrated song of the anguish of unrequited love. "Layla" is in fact Patty Harrison, Beatle George Harrison's wife (George being Clapton's best friend). Patty and George eventually divorced, and Patty married Eric. They also eventually divorced. Such are the strange ways of love.

Time in a Bottle - Jim Croce
"Time in a Bottle" was written by Croce for his infant son, A.J.; unfortunately, Jim Croce died in a plane crash within a year of writing this beautiful tune, making it all the more sad. It did not become a hit until after his death.

Vincent - Don McLean
I don't think any song better encapsulates the artistic triumphs, personal tragedies and tortured mind of an artist better than McLean's ode to Vincent Van Gogh. The lyrics are a beautifully rendered aural painting reflecting Vincent's work.

Landslide - Fleetwood Mac
Stevie Nicks anguished plaint to lost love recorded during her breakup with bandmate Lindsey Buckingham.

Don't Give Up - Peter Gabriel
A great duet between Gabriel and Kate Bush about a despairing man and the attempts of loved ones to save him.

Dust in the Wind - Kansas
One of the most depressing top ten hit songs ever written. The title says it all.

Can't You See - Marshall Tucker Band
One of the greatest country blues tunes ever written.

Me and Bobby McGee - Janis Joplin
There are so many songs sung by Joplin that mirrored the insecurity and sadness of her own life. When she sang, you knew the sentiment was real and window to her personal plight.

Fire and Rain - James Taylor
Taylor fights personal demons and tragedies, the suicide of a childhood friend, drug addiction, the breakup of his band "Flying Machines" and the shock therapy he received while in a mental istitution.

Castles Made of Sand - Jimi Hendrix
A series of sad and ironic stories intertwined in a stream-of-consciousness style with Hendrix's fluid and unmistakable guitar work.

Imagine - John Lennon
I cannot help but getting misty-eyed every time I hear this. That such beautiful and timely sentiment should be silenced by the actions of a crazed fan is the height of irony.

Yesterday - The Beatles
It's hard to imagine Paul being sad about anything at that time in his life. But even from a cynical standpoint, McCartney's ability to pull at our heartstrings is amazing.

I’m Not in Love - 10CC
A song about a man who is pretending not to be miserable. He is not very convincing in that regard.

Mother - John Lennon
Lennon's anguish over the loss of his mother and the abandonment by his father are palpable. The screaming at the end is part of Lennon's "primal therapy" that he underwent previous to recording this song.

Ticking - Elton John
One of the greatest studies of a troubled mind ever recorded. The subject matter is intense but still moving and brilliant.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps - The Beatles
The Love album acoustic version of this George Harrison song is given greater pathos with strings added by George Martin and an extra stanza of verse by Harrison that didn't make it onto the original White Album recording.

Tempted - Squeeze
Infidelity is infectious with the Motown groove of this Squeeze song. One of the best songs recorded in the misbegotten 80s.

Operator - Jim Croce
Some of you younger folks may not have ever used a pay telephone, but you may have seen a phone booth or two in the movies. The line "you can keep the dime" refers to the cost of a phone call back in the dark ages.

Candle in the Wind - Elton John
A poignant homage to Marilyn Monroe which Sir Elton eventually rewrote to cover Princess Diana's death as well. Who knows how many deaths Elton can cover with this song.

The Sounds of Silence - Simon & Garfunkel
Here's the original version without the electric guitar. Great song of societal upheaval and the silent howl of the voiceless masses.

Behind Blue Eyes - The Who
A song of anger and unfulfilled hopes. And no, Limp Bizkit didn't write this goddamned song! They couldn't even sing it.

Time - Pink Floyd
A great song of regret over time wasted and youth frittered away. Of work never done and objectives never accomplished.

Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
I used this version of this song rather than the original Leonard Cohen recording because Buckley's beautiful rendition is poignant and moreso since he died so young.

With or Without You - U2
The paradox of love gone bad, where you can't stand to be with a person, but can't stand to be apart. What a crappy feeling.

Thorn Tree in the Garden - Derek and the Dominos
While Eric Clapton and Duane Allman got most of the adulation for their contributions to Derek and the Dominos, Bobby Whitlock's rueful song and plaintive vocals are one of the highlights of the album.

How Can I Tell You - Cat Stevens
Unrequited love, or love unspoken: one of the most endearing subjects for lovelorn poets. Like Cat, for instance.

Leaving on a Jet Plane - Peter, Paul & Mary
Leaving is the hardest part, isn't it?

The River - Bruce Springsteen
More powerful than the trite "Born in the USA". Bruce's populist appeal goes beyond simple patriotic sentiment to real dreams and hopes crushed by life in this song.

America - Simon & Garfunkel
A wistful and remorseful visit to the disillusionment that filled many of the generation that grew to adulthood during the Vietnam War.

Alone Again, Naturally - Gilbert O. Sullivan
A pure piece of pop that reaches beyond pretense for actual heart-rending reflection.

To The Last Whale (Critical Mass and Wind on the Water) - Crosby & Nash
A powerful song of Man's inhumanity and the senseless waste of beautiful and intelligent creatures for our petty pleasures. That's James Taylor singing background at the end of the song.

Jeremy - Pearl Jam
One of the few MTV videos that actually affected me when I first saw it (I didn't include the video here, just the lyrics). A reflection of many of the lost teens who kill themselves or others and appear with alarming regularity on the evening news.

IrisGoo Goo Dolls
I like the guitar, 5 of 6 strings tuned to D. Oh yeah, the song is certainly sad as well.

Who Wants to Live Forever - Queen
A very moving song from Queen that I recall fondly from the great cult classic The Highlander, and a reminder that many Queen songs may be immortal, but not so Freddie Mercury.

My Immortal - Evanescence
An infinitely sad song Amy Lee wrote to her dead sister. That's all I have to say about that.

One and Only - The Young Dubliners
One of the greatest songs you never heard. This troubling song deals with incest and the dysfunction of parents that refuse to listen or help a daughter in anguish.

Don't Let It Bring You Down - Neil Young
Okay, I can offer up whole albums of sad Neil Young songs, but this one is a particular favorite. I love the stark lyrics.

Crash-Barrier Waltzer - Jethro Tull
A regretful man tries to aid an old drunk to ease his own conscience, but harsh reality in the form of a cynical policeman gets in the way.

Daylight Again/Find the Cost of Freedom - Crosby, Stills & Nash
A stunning anti-war protest from CS&N that deals more with the dead than the living.

Fruit Tree - Nick Drake
Death hung from Nick like the moss on old oak. And he was old when he was very young, and he was too soon gone and his fame came just as this song predicted.

There's Always Something There to Remind Me - Naked Eyes
Yes, this song is hopelessly lost in the 80s with its drum machines and synths, but millions mourned their loves lost over this tune by a band no one remembers.

4 + 20 - Stephen Stills
A song of utter desperation found on CSN&Y's Déjà Vu album, but which is completely a Stephen Stills production and composition.

Irene Wilde - Ian Hunter
A true story according to Ian Hunter, documenting the bittersweet teenage angst and unrequited love that we all go through. Well, at least I did. Thanks for that one, Ian.