Miscellaneous - Dark Music
by Jon Rogers
published: 29 / 4 / 2010
Jon Rogers in his 'Hitting the Right Note' column examines some of the darkest records of time
Since the height of the blues, popular music has warmly embraced the dark side of life – if that phrase isn’t an oxymoron. That classic image of the troubled blues singer bemoaning his or her lot, with that hellhound on their tail or being mistreated by their man has led many singers to describe the less-than-pleasant side of life. Contrary to what the charts might lead to you believe not everyone is a shiny, happy person where everything is alright forever and the only thing to worry about is what to wear on a Saturday night out and will they meet the person of their dreams. But which songs are the real heartbreakers? The dark, depressing songs that have ripped open their souls only to find that its dark and ugly. The musical equivalent to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s bleak novel ‘Voyage au bout de La Nuit’. Not such an easy task as there are a lot of pretenders out there all wanting you to feel their pain as they swan off to yet another meeting with their accountant about the best way to avoid tax on their trust fund from daddy-kins. And there’s not going to be any of that gothic/emo rubbish either. Most is just the whining of emotionally stunted people who should know better and who have a bizarre fetish to dress up like an extra from a particularly bad episode of ‘The Munsters’, whilst going around scaring old ladies on the bus. They’re the sort of people who would cry over spilt milk. If they get a bit teary when that happens, gawd help them when something really bad happens. So completely arbitrarily and in no particular order – yes, no scientific methodology was used whatsoever and I’ve no doubt missed off some classics – here are some worthy of that accolade. The Swans In fact, almost their entire output could be included as Michael Gira isn’t really a jolly soul. It’s a wonder why he bothers actually making music, considering the utterly futile and meaninglessness of existence. He’s straight out of the “we’re all doomed... Doomed I tell you” philosophy of some whiskey priest well versed in the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament. It’s tricky to single out one particular dark gem as pretty much everything they’ve ever released is bathed in gothic industrialism. They even did a cover of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ as a single once and it was the most optimistic track on there. The band’s own compositions detailed pain, suffering, humiliation and torture all set to a painful, slow drone. If I had to pick one then perhaps ‘New Mind’ from the 1987 album ‘Children of God’ with the repeated line: “Save your soul... damn you to hell.” Your gran’s going to appreciate that as a Christmas stocking filler. Joy Division And speaking of those cheery Mancunians who liked nothing more than a good old fashioned knees up... Clearly vocalist Ian Curtis wasn’t a happy chap as events clearly proved. And like the Swans it’s hard to pick one toe-tapper as all their songs were far from being a ray of light. Their most famous song ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ summed it up for them really as it detailed his then crumbling marriage. And there’s plenty on ‘Closer’ to wallow in, especially with the final two songs ‘Eternal’ and ‘Decades’ which have all the pace of a funeral cortege. And the list goes on with ‘Passover’, ’24 Hours’ and ‘Atmosphere’ and many others. But if I had to pick one it would be ‘New Dawn Fades’ from their debut album ‘Unknown Pleasures’ in 1979 which seems to reject the notion that things could get better tomorrow with the line “A loaded gun won’t set you free... so you say” where Curtis seems to be trapped where even suicide doesn’t offer a way out of his problems. Leonard Cohen There’s a reason why the Canadian troubadour is ironically dubbed ‘Laughing Len’, his songs, particularly the early ones in the 1960s, didn’t really contain much to smile about. Songs like ‘So Long, Marianne’ and ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ detailed failed romances, all of which were sung in a rather lugubrious drawl as if the end of the world was imminent. But for sheer bleakness try ‘The Future’ from 1992 where it wants the return of Stalin and the Berlin Wall and each verse ends with some variation on: “I’ve seen the future, baby: It is murder”. The disgust in Cohen’s voice just adds to it all. The Antlers – 'Hospice' It’s tricky to get anything much more harrowing than the Antlers second album ‘Hospice’ which details main man Peter Silberman recount how he watched a loved one die from cancer. Which was never really a song topic covered in the Stock, Aitken and Waterman oeuvre. The 2009 album needs to be listened to as a whole rather than any particular track but it is all conjured up here. The death, the helplessness, the pain – even down to evoking the clinical white walls of a cancer ward. A painful listen that makes Spiritualized’s ‘Songs in A&E’ sound like a routine trip to see your GP. Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’ As a follow up to Reed’s hit album ‘Transformer’, 1973’s ‘Berlin’ wasn’t probably what his fans were expecting. The album, a sort of concept rock opera, that told the tale of a doomed, fucked up couple of Jim and Caroline caught up in downward spiral of drugs, promiscuity and physical abuse. She’s detached and taunts him by sleeping around and gobbles pills. He beats her up and takes speed. So a nice, healthy relationship then. It all ends with her killing herself. The most harrowing though is perhaps ‘The Kids’ where the authorities come and take the children away because of the domestic situation. The song comes complete with the sound of children crying in the background. Drug addiction, suicide, casual sex and violence... Expect the Saturdays to do a cover any day now. Big Star’s ‘Holocaust’ Perhaps better known for their cult power pop that was such a big influence on the likes of REM. But at the time of the 'Sister Lovers'/'Third Album' in 1978 things weren’t really going to plan for Alex Chilton’s band and things were starting to fall apart not only with the group but also in his personal life. The bleak song portrays someone whose life is a mess to say the least. And with the closing lines of: “You’re a wasted face/You’re a sad-eyed lie/ You’re a holocaust” Chilton is more than likely describing himself. Essentially, music to slit your wrists too. Go on Simon Cowell pick that one for your X Factor wannabes to cover. Frank Sinatra You can’t get much better than Ol’ Blue Eyes and no one captures the essence of heartbreak in song better than Sinatra on some of his acclaimed Capitol recordings. Things really got going in 1955 with what is the birth of the concept album with ‘In the Wee Small Hours’. But the heartache continues with albums like ‘Only the Lonely’, ‘No One Cares’ and ‘Where Are You?’ Some songs might sound rather melodramatic nowadays but no one has mapped out the breakdown of an affair in quite so much detail. You’ll need a box of tissues whilst listening. Public Image Ltd – 'Death Disco (aka Swan Lake)' Former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon and the rest of PiL were in a bad way at the time of their slab of post-punk ‘Metal Box’ in 1979. Lydon was reeling from the death of his mother from cancer and the situation wasn’t helped by heavy duty drugs consumption amongst all of the main band members which just compounded matters. The entire album is plastered with pain and anguish with songs like ‘Albatross’ and ‘Chant’. But the band stare right into things with ‘Death Disco’. Over the top of Keith Levene’s spidery guitar riff that steals phrases from ‘Swan Lake’ Lydon wails about watching his mother die: “Watch her slowly die/Saw it in her eyes/Choking on her bed/Flowers rotting dead”. The Triffids – 'The Seabirds' David McComb’s Australian band the Triffids were never really the life and soul of the party but McComb’s superb songwriting skills hit the depths with this opening track from the acclaimed ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ in 1986. McComb tells the tale of a man who tries to kill himself by swimming out to the coral reefs and hopes that the seabirds will effectively peck him to death: “He called out to the seabirds ‘Take me now, I'm no longer afraid to die’”. But the pathos is made even worse as they ignore him and the anti hero is left washed up on the beach. Sophia – 'There are No Goodbyes' Sophia’s main man Robert Proper-Sheppard has always been wracked with a sense of guilt and worthlessness but things came to a head with the 2009 divorce lament album ‘There are No Goodbyes’. The whole album documents the breakdown of his relationship with all the small little details of a Raymond Carver short story that mean so much and have so much significance. The depths of are reached with ‘Heartache’ and the simple lines of: “And I thought I knew heartache/And I thought I knew heartbreak/But I've never known anything like this before”. Nirvana – 'I Hate Myself and Want to Die' Like Ian Curtis, Nirvana’s leader Kurt Cobain was another troubled soul who ultimately decided that life wasn’t worth living. Most of the songs on ‘In Utero’ in 1993 are filled with self-loathing with the likes of ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Serve the Servants’. But if Cobain didn’t get his message across with those then it was made perfectly clear in the feedback and distortion-tortured ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’. Nick Drake – 'Black Eyed Dog' Another troubled mind was English folk singer Nick Drake who seemed out of time and out of place with the world around him and suffered from severe depression. While none of his three albums are a bundle of laughs at the best of times they do get progressively bleaker, culminating with the stark ‘Pink Moon’ in 1972 which was followed by a spell for Drake in a psychiatric hospital. ‘Black Eyed Dog’ – a literary symbol of death, recorded in February 1974, is amongst the final four songs he ever recorded. Even by his standards it was a particularly chilling song. Drake had trouble finishing the songs as he was severely depressed and had trouble completing the lyrics. Discussing the songs with John Wood in the studio and the problems he was having, Drake mumbled: “I can’t think of words. I feel no emotion about anything. I don’t want to laugh or cry. I’m numb – dead inside.” Nine months later he was dead from an overdose of the antidepressants he had been prescribed. Johnny Cash – 'Hurt' The original version by Nine Inch Nails is far from being a party anthem but this 2002 version by the country idol is far bleaker as its stripped down to its basics – a guitar, a piano and a world-weary voice reflecting on a life of drug addiction and the ensuing “empire of dirt” and self-loathing. And for added pain, just take a look at the video featuring an ailing Cash as he tells his tale. Suicide – 'Frankie Teardrop' Bruce Springsteen might be famed for documenting blue collar life in the USA but his characters were never quite as desperate as factory worker Frankie Teardrop. This 10-minute story by the influential punk synth duo from 1977 tells how after not being able to make ends meet and support his wife and six-month old child he ends up shooting them before turning the gun on himself. Matters are compounded by the relentless, monotonous and brutal synth pulse that just pulverises the listener. Then throw in some ear-piercing screams every so often. Then there’s the final kiss off lines at the end: “We are all Frankie’s/We’re all lyin’ in hell.” Pink Floyd – 'Jugband Blues' By the time Pink Floyd got round to releasing their second album ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ the band’s lynchpin Syd Barrett had been thrown out yet his presence is virtually all over it and the remaining members used some of the songs he’d already composed before Barrett’s behaviour had become too much to handle with his mental collapse and breakdown. The final track, ‘Jugband Blues’, effectively sees Barrett sum up his own mental deterioration. Not only does he see himself in the third person as if he’s detached from himself it has the line: “And I’m wondering who could be writing this song”. The Smiths – 'Asleep' There’s plenty in the Mancunian quartet’s output that dwelt on the darker aspects of life, but all too often, as with ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ this was often undercut with a dry, northern wit which helped lighten the load. But there’s none of that on the suicidal ‘Asleep’ as bedsit poet Morrissey asks don’t bother to wake him in the morning because he won’t be there in the morning and he reflects that there must be a better world than this one. The Cure – 'Prayers for Rain' Like The Smiths and Joy Division, the Cure’s entire output could just about qualify with Robert Smith’s lyrics detailing an existential ennui and alienation, especially when it came to the gothic miserablism of albums like 1982's ‘Pornography’. It’s a close call but perhaps 1989's ‘Disintegration’ has the darker hues running all the way through. And with lyrics like: “infectious sense of hopelessness and prayers for rain,/I suffocate I breathe in dirt and nowhere shines but desolate and drab the hours all spent on killing time again/All waiting for the rain”. Smith’s not describing a nice family picnic down on the beach on a summer’s day. And the rhythm just drags itself along and a mournful way. Rocket From the Tombs – 'Ain’t It Fun' With songs like ‘Life Stinks’ and ‘Final Solution’ Cleveland pre-punk nihilists Rocket From The Tombs were never really the band to get that party started. But initial band leader Peter Laughner excelled himself with the depressingly sarcastic ‘Ain’t It Fun’ where he details the mess he’s made of his life: “Ain’t it fun when your friends despise what you’ve become?”. Laughner makes it all the more painful by effectively being resigned to his fate – “Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re going to die young?” He died from pancreatitis in 1977 caused by excessive drug and alcohol abuse. Billie Holiday – 'Strange Fruit' A lot of the songs here tell of a personal pain – albeit mental collapse, the breakdown of a relationship or when the Grim Reaper has come to call on a loved one. But ‘Strange Fruit’ has a social conscience and vents its ire at the racist practice of lynching black Americans. Billie Holiday’s world weary voice was ideally suited to express the sorrow and anger in Abel Meeropol’s 1936 poem and it’s worth quoting in full: “Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, Then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
|291 Posted By: Jon Rogers, London, UK on 19 May 2010|
Thanks for your kind words and glad you liked the article. Call me a miserable old git if you like but I do find that depressing sons resonate far more with me than upbeat, chirpy, everything's alright with the world little ditties, like Supergrass' 'Feel Alright'. Feel free to nominate your own suggestions I'm sure there are plenty out there that I will have missed off.
As for 'Strange Fruit' here's what Wikipedia says: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_Fruit Assuming that the website is correct. Not sure if the great Lester Young had an input but the song's authorship is rather like 'Chinese Rocks' where perhaps the songwriting credit has rather been lost in the mists of time. Still, an utterly fantastic song though and one that Billie nails superbly.
|290 Posted By: Mickey, Chicago on 19 May 2010|
I think Billie may have written or co-written (with Lester Young) 'Strange Fruit', too.
I would google it but you've got me too depressed.
I don't mind this bittersweet frame of mind, however.
(Billie also sang 'Don't Explain.'
Thanks for your great observations!
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