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9 Great Songs About Death
Death is a topic many people are uncomfortable with and like to avoid. But there are many great songs on the subject.
- Some are about the inevitably of death and are promoting acceptance
- Some deal with real life violence
- Some imagine the consequences of killing someone
For this list, I chose diverse songs that deal with death. They cover multiple genres like rock, punk, pop and country. The songs cover diverse time periods ranging from 1947 to 2012. I've picked my favorite three songs from each of the above types.
Songs About the Inevitability of Death
In these three songs, death is inevitable but we shouldn't see that as a terrible thing. We should appreciate life while we live it.
Do You Realize?? by The Flaming Lips
Writers: Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins, Dave Fridmann / Album: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
The Flaming Lips are an alternative rock band from Oklahoma. The Guardian once said about their lead singer Wayne Coyne:
He has been depressed only a handful of times (the first time, amazingly, was in his 30s) yet constantly thinks about death.
This was likely due to a traumatizing incident when he was 16. A restaurant he worked at was held up at gunpoint with the employees forced to lie on the floor:
This was the first time I realised I was going to die and when that gets into your mind that's a motherf**ker.
...this is really how you die...one minute you're just cooking up someone's order of french fries and the next minute you're laying on the floor and they blow your brains out. There's no music, there's no significance, it's just random.
This experience explains Coyne's focus on themes like loneliness, fear and death. This comes up in serious songs like Suddenly Everything Has Changed (Death Anxiety Caused By Moments Of Boredom) and imaginary tracks like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots about evil robots out to destroy mankind.
Do You Realize?? is probably the band's most direct and accessible song with these kinds of themes. It was partly influenced by the death of Coyne's father. The song is about appreciating life and the people around you because someday all will die. While the theme of the song is depressing, musically it's upbeat. It's a strange mix of happy/upbeat and sad/depressing.
Do You Realize - that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes - let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
Do You Realize?? was the state song of Oklahoma between 2009 and 2013. The new Republican governor refused to renew it, likely due to the band's liberal leaning beliefs.
Don't Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult
Writer: Buck Dharma / Album: Agents of Fortune (1976)
Blue Oyster Cult are a rock band from Long Island, New York. Not surprisingly, as the title suggests, their song Don't Fear the Reaper is about the inevitability of death and not fearing it. For all it's cheerfulness about death, it's actually the song that depresses me the most. Don't Fear the Reaper is a love song about love extending beyond death. Due to this line, some people thought the song was encouraging suicide:
Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity
Writer Buck Dharma responded to this accusation:
I was actually kind of appalled when I first realized that some people were seeing it as an advertisement for suicide or something that was not my intention at all. It is, like, not to be afraid of it [death] (as opposed to actively bring it about). It's basically a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners.
The scariest part of the song for me describes the coming of the reaper despite the fact that there is no fear involved. Death is treated as a positive thing.
Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear she couldn't go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew and then disappeared
The curtains flew and then he appeared (Saying, "Don't be afraid")
Come on baby (And she had no fear)
And she ran to him (Then they started to fly)
They looked backward and said goodbye (She had become like they are)
She had taken his hand (She had become like they are)
Come on baby (Don't fear the reaper)
Out Alive by Ke$ha
Writers: Kesha Sebert, Pebe Sebert, Joshua Coleman, Mathieu Jomphe / Album: Warrior (2012)
Ke$ha is a pop artist from Nashville, Tennessee. Anyone who's familiar with her vast discography will know that she uses the word "die" or refers to death in several of her songs. Like in Honky Tonk Song:
Living on the bridge of your Honky Tonk Song
Anyone that loved you is dead and gone
Without me, you're nothing,
You must be blind if you can't see,
You'll miss me 'til the day you die
And in a new song she's writing:
Hold your knife, I'm not afraid to die
In her song Dancing With Tears in my Eyes she uses death as a metaphor for her feelings of loneliness and loss at the end of a years long relationship with a guy who had proposed to her.
Here we go, welcome to my funeral
Without you I don't even have a pulse
All alone, it's dark and cold
With every move I die
In The Harold Song, she accuses him of "murdering" the relationship and says "The life is fading from me while you watch my heart bleed."
She also has an unreleased song called Meet Me In Space that her label refused to let her put on her Warrior album that has these lines:
When we, were young and out of tune
We screamed, the battle cry of youth
And I'm sick, I'm so sick of trying
To live forever, when we're all dying
She shows a strong awareness of the brevity of life in her songwriting. In Out Alive, she directly addresses the topic by saying we're all going to die, so we might as well enjoy our lives. This song is like the dark version of her poetic song Animal, which celebrates being alive.
I’m standing on my own two feet
Somewhere hanging in between
My life and the death of me
Fate doesn’t leave us time to waste
Weaving through the human race
‘Till we run out of air to breathe
But no one’s getting out alive
All the gold on earth, it won’t buy time
So we might as well give up the fight
Live it up tonight
No one’s getting out alive!
Songs About Violent Death
These three songs deal with murder and war.
I Don't Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats
Writers: Bob Geldof / Album: The Fine Art of Surfacing (1979)
The Boomtown Rats are a new wave and punk band from Ireland. Lead singer Bob Geldof wrote I Don't Like Mondays after hearing news of a school shooting at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California. The incident occurred in 1979. The principal and a custodian were killed in the attack and 8 children were injured. A bullet barely missed the heart of one child.
Geldof explained why he wrote the song:
I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta with Fingers and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out. Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said 'Silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload'. I wrote that down. And the journalists interviewing her said, 'Tell me why?' It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it.
The 16-year-old shooter, Brenda Ann Spencer said she carried out the attack because "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." She went on to make further troubling comments like "There was no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun." She lived across the street from the school and fired at the kids from her home. She's still serving her prison term at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California.
All the playing's stopped in the playground now
She wants to play with her toys a while.
And school's out early and soon we'll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die.
And then the bullhorn crackles,
And the captain tackles,
With the problems and the how's and why's.
And he can see no reasons
'Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die?
Wild Frontier by Gary Moore
Writers: Gary Moore / Album: Wild Frontier (1987)
The late Gary Moore was a rock and blues singer and musician from Northern Ireland. He was a member of the Irish group Thin Lizzy for a while. He left Northern Ireland around the time The Troubles were beginning, with fighting between the province's Catholic and Protestant populations. But the violence impacted his music.
Out In the Fields is one of the songs influenced by the fighting:
Out in the fields
The fighting has begun
Out on the streets
They're falling one by one Out from the skies
A thousand more will die each day
Death is just a heartbeat away
Irish rocker Phil Lynott appeared on Moore's Run for Cover album singing the song Military Man. The song uses parents and kids to highlight the senselessness of violence and war. The soldier is portrayed as a son and a father, a cold killing machine and a frightened child begging for his mother.
Mama take a look at your boy
Obey the order Mama take a look at your boy
Like a lamb to the slaughter
They have trained your boy to kill
And kill someday he will
They have trained your boy to die And ask no questions why
Wild Frontier is a song that directly addresses the Troubles and the lives lost as a result of hatred and violence. Moore wrote the songs for his Wild Frontier album after visiting his native Belfast. Forty Shades Of Green refers to a song Johnny Cash wrote about Ireland. Phil Lynott was originally supposed to sing this song but he died before the album was recorded.
I remember the old country
They call the emerald land.
And I remember my hometown
Before the wars began.
Now we're riding on a sea of rage,
The victims you have seen.
You'll never hear them sing again
The Forty Shades Of Green.
Country Death Song by Violent Femmes
Writers: Gordon Gano / Album: Hallowed Ground (1984)
The Violent Femmes are an alternative rock and punk band from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Punk, of course, often deals with the grim, angst-ridden and unhappier sides of life. You see this in the lyrics of some Violent Femmes songs like Gimme the Car and Add It Up where the protagonist seems to be getting angrier and more capable of violence:
What's wrong, what's right,
you know, people don't care when they hate their life
But how can I explain personal pain,
how can I explain personal pain
Day after day, I get angry and I will say
That the day is in my sight
When I'll take a bow and say goodnight
Country Death Song is probably their creepiest song both lyrically and musically. The song, which has an acoustic folk accompaniment, slows down and speeds up dramatically at times. It's very disconcerting and heightens the feeling of fear in the song. Add in Gordon Gano's snarling punk vocals and the song is truly frightening.
Country Death Song is based on the true story of a farmer who killed his daughter by throwing her into a well. He then hanged himself in a barn. The incident occurred in 1862.
I led her to a hole, a deep black well
I said, "Make a wish, make sure and not tell and
Close your eyes dear, and count to seven"
You know your papa loves you, good children go to Heaven
You know your papa loves you, good children go to Heaven
I gave her a push, I gave her a shove
I pushed with all my might, I pushed with all my love
I through my child into a bottomless pit
She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit
She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit
The Consequences for Taking a Life
These three songs are stories about the consequences of killing someone else. Each song takes a slightly different approach.
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
Writer: Johnny Cash / Album: With His Hot and Blue Guitar (1955)
In Folsom Prison Blues, Arkansas native and country artist Johnny Cash sings about what he is missing as he serves time in prison because he "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." Cash said about that line:
I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that's what came to mind.
Cash sings about all the things he's missing because of his crime. From his prison cell, he can hear a train:
I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
But those people keep a movin'
And that's what tortures me
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
Writer: Freddie Mercury / Album: A Night at the Opera (1975)
In Bohemian Rhapsody by London based band Queen, Freddie Mercury sounds genuinely frightened because he "just killed a man" and has thrown his life away. The 6 minute song is divided up into sections with ballad portions, rock portions and an operatic part.
Mama, just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead
Mama, life had just begun
But now I've gone and thrown it all away
Didn't mean to make you cry
If I'm not back again this time tomorrow
Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters
Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body's aching all the time
Goodbye everybody - I've got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooo - (anyway the wind blows)
I don't want to die
I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all
Mercury refused to say exactly what Bohemian Rhapsody was about or his inspiration for writing it.
Cocaine Blues by Red Arnall
Writer: Red Arnall (1947)
Cocaine Blues was originally by T. J. "Red" Arnall and has been covered by other artists like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. The song tells the story of Willy Lee, who kills a woman while he's under the influence of whiskey and cocaine.
Early one mornin' while makin' the rounds
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
I went right home and I went to bed
I stuck that lovin' 44 beneath my head
The protagonist in this song doesn't seem guilty about what he has done.
The judge he smiled as he picked up his pen
99 years in the Folsom pen
99 years underneath that ground
I can't forget the day I shot that bad bitch down
However, the song does end with a message and a warning:
Come on you gotta' listen to unto me
Lay off that whiskey, let that cocaine be