Best, and Worst, Songs About Death

With The Killers, Elton John, Nick Cave...
Ten of the best, and worst, songs about Death
Welcome to Polls Apart, the Clash barometer of the best and worst facets in music.
At ten, the antithesis of cool – the worst perpetrators of musical crimes. At one, the most influential and heroic saviours. Let count down commence!

This month: DEATH!

10. Elton John - ‘Candle In The Wind 1997’



AA Gill recently wrote that “grief is the last gift we give to the dead: the expression and proof of love”. Back in 1997 the British public took this to the next level; dispensing with any vestige of dignity and succumbing to an ugly strain of mass hysteria which was less about grieving a woman none of them knew and more about publicly airing an aggregate of suppressed emotion. Oblivious to the gross contradiction in their tear-smeared pleas that Diana, Princess of Wales just wanted to be left alone whilst simultaneously jostling for prime position so they could lob flowers at her passing funeral cortege, further ignominy was then heaped upon the royal family through Elton John’s reworking of his 1973 hit ‘Candle In The Wind’. Originally penned as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, ‘Candle In the Wind’ was reappropriated by a media desperate to try and further sensationalise a story which shared more with big sporting events than it did a personal tragedy. Opening with the trite “Goodbye England’s rose / May you ever grow in our hearts”, what follows is equal parts Lion King, William Blake and Boudicca, insulting the intelligence of everyone present - no small feat when you consider density of titled cunts cluttering up Westminster Abbey that day.

9. My Chemical Romance - ‘Dead!’



The young have no concept of death. Graced with the vitality of youth, they choose to spend their time sucking on cigarettes, chewing amphetamines and polluting their pliant frames with all manner of wanky tattoos and flesh tunnels. It might seem a good idea now, but as you’re carting around a smudged version of the Thundercats logo emblazoned upon your forearm for the next seventy years you may begin to crave a blank mesodermal canvas. When the yoof demographic do dabble in some coil shuffling, it tends to consist of either slow-motion Hollyoaks sobfests (invariably soundtracked by Gary fucking Lightbody) or angsty A-Level poetry set to anaemic rock. My Chemical Romance bloody well own the latter. Comparable to necking a bottle of Benylin then being forced to sit through a lecture on Quantative easing, My Chemical Romance’s soporific output is little more than The Smashing Pumpkins for the emotionally stunted - flirting with death purely to attract wan teenagers who think their privileged Western lifestyle is a some appalling endurance test that only a cliché in eyeliner can fully articulate.

8. Puff Daddy - ‘I’ll Be Missing You’



Tupac is dead. Biggie is dead. Puffy is alive. Conclusion? There is clearly no God. Having essentially treated North America as a primary school playground for the best part of a decade (‘our side is the best and your mum charges five quid for a hand job’), the Coastal hip-hop rivalries finally escalated beyond the lexical in 1996 and proved that sticks and stones do an awful lot more than break bones. Genuinely shocked that petty name calling had evolved into the kind of thuggery which hip-hop had always glamorised rather than indulged, The Notorious B.I.G.’s thoroughly untalented mate Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs set about collating the pain felt by his legions of fans. Taking The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ and somehow crafting an even worse song than the original, Puffy and Biggie’s widow Faith Evans gracelessly eulogise a deceased misogynistic bully in terms which suggest the Papal State has grossly overlooked a canonisation.

7. Eric Clapton - ‘Tears In Heaven’



Losing a child must surely rank as the worst tragedy that can befall a parent. As creatures we are simply not equipped to deal with the emotional fall out and pervading sense of guilt such an event confers on those involved; erasing the focus of your being and bleaching all vivacity from the tumbling snowfall of years that follow. It therefore seems churlish to even contemplate getting gobby about Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’ - a song written about his four-year-old son who fell to his death from the 53rd window of a New York apartment block in 1991. Yet art is art and by placing it in the public domain you implicitly consent to dissemination, interpretation and evaluation regardless of the personal worth bestowed upon it by the creator. Accordingly I can legitimately state that ‘Tears In Heaven’ is less a song and more a mawkish treatise into a self flagellation, wherein Clapton smears his grief all over a cynically pious melody that is designed expressly to transform menopausal women into merchandise consuming machines.

6. Art Garfunkel - ‘Bright Eyes’



Why do people keep rabbits as pets? That’s not a fucking pet - it’s a furry panic machine that appeals to the kind of individual who finds the aloof scrutiny of cats unnerving whilst regarding dogs as remedial toddlers wrapped in malting hair. Back in the Seventies, though, bunnies were proper cool, primarily down to the success of Watership Down - a reassuringly grim British animation based on the novel by Richard Adams wherein a group of lagomorphs partake in an unsubtle capitalist allegory. Whilst these subtexts are all well and good, the real reason people remember Watership Down is twofold; animated blood and Art Garfunkel. A shrill accompaniment to the death of a rabbit named Hazel, Garfunkel’s ‘Bright Eyes’ is the kind of record that you’re made to perform by rote in school assemblies and is best described as sentimental gash.

5. Queen - ‘The Show Must Go On’



Whilst it may be difficult to comprehend, show business is actually not that important. The next time you’re watching the Oscars and some twat is excreting saline whilst gasping out narcissistic platitudes about how much they suffer for their art, try and refrain from embarking on a killing spree down the local nursery and instead repeat in your head that ‘all they do is make-believe for a living’. Nothing more. Nothing less. In short they are paid to speak other people’s words in a way which gives the impression they aren’t reciting something from memory. La-de-fucking-da! As such the tawdry mantra that ‘the show must go on’ is just another facile attempt to invest their transitory profession with an undeserved element of profundity and import. If the show doesn’t go on people will be a bit grumpy, get a refund then go home and Twitter about it. It’s not like you’ve missed a prostate examination that would have revealed the early onset of a malignant growth, thereby allowing a swift removal of any cancerous cells. Queen’s interpretation of this adage was a predictably pompous affair that projected the sentiment onto Freddie Mercury’s terminal battle with HIV. Cloyingly unsubtle, ‘The Show Must Go On’ was nonetheless affecting as it allowed the juxtaposition of Mercury at his prime with the diminished figure smiling through the pain.

4. Paul McCartney - ‘Here Today’



For a relationship that is consistently portrayed as terminating in a fog of bitter acrimony, Paul McCartney’s paean to John Lennon is a sweet and pithy distillation on the passing of time and the loss of close friends. When you’re submerged in the ongoing tribulations of daily life, breakdowns in communication and petty rivalries soon become monolithic structures that scuttle friendships and erode once happy times. However (as Edward Thomas concluded) “the past is the only dead thing which smells sweet” and regardless of any historical animosity that sloshed around in life, when that person is gone forever the bad elements fade and the good ones bloom. “What about the night we cried,” sings McCartney. “Because there wasn’t any reason left to keep it all inside / Never understood a word / But you were always there with a smile”. Pretty, heartbreaking and refreshingly free of schmaltz, ‘Here Today’ didactically proves that popular music can confront the subject of loss with both poise and dignity intact.

3. Nick Cave (feat. Kylie Minogue) - ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’



The courtship ritual of Nick Cave runs thus; fancy a bird, admire from afar, follow to river-bank, bludgeon to death with rock, lament. They tend to gloss over those bits on the Match.com adverts... Very much concerned with the squelchy aspects of sudden death, Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’ spawned an unlikely hit through this duet with fellow Antipodean Kylie Minogue chronicling the demise of one Elisa Day; a character who draws overt parallels with Millais’ Ophelia. “He showed me the roses and we kissed / And the last thing I heard was a muttered word / As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist”. Taking the notion of obsessive coveting to its lethal conclusion, Cave and Minogue brought gothic splendour to a track that could so easily have sunk into the realm of novelty.

2. The Killers - ‘Goodnight, Travel Well’



The Killers shouldn’t really work. Peacocking around the stage in a glitter-bomb of camp theatrics and crowd pleasing sing-songs, the nagging sense that they’re little more than an indie version of the Scissor Sisters is never far from the surface. However, should you ever begin to equate Brandon et al with the Sisters’ breed of disco genocide, then a dose of ‘Goodnight, Travel Well’ should act as aural smelling salts. Penned shortly after the death of guitarist Dave Keuning’s mother, the song is sublime, moving and almost unfathomably raw. Resonating deeply with the inevitability of loss, Flowers’ assertion amongst Badalamenti winds that “Every word you’ve spoken / Everything you said / Everything you left me / Rambles in my head” is potent enough - but followed by the anguished plea to “Stay, don’t leave me / The stars can wait for your sign / Don’t signal now”, it becomes genuinely unbearable. Accompanied by a ruptured peak of instrumentation that is grandstanding yet achingly discrete, ‘Goodnight, Travel Well’ evokes the utter confusion and desperate internal plea-bargaining that accompanies a loved one’s death.

1. Pink Floyd - ‘Great Gig In The Sky’



“And I am not frightened of dying. Any time will do; I don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it - you’ve gotta go sometime”. So opens Pink Floyd’s ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ with a spoken word sample that is abruptly enveloped by swirling velvet instrumentation and Clare Torry’s inky vocal. Flitting effortlessly between unmitigated anguish and orgasmic joy, Torry’s voice provides a glowing thread of definition for the listener to follow amongst Pink Floyd’s labyrinthine composition. Given a working title of ‘The Mortality Sequence’, ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ is an actual factual masterpiece; defying my brittle fingers lest I debase its glorious accumulative effect and sunder it lessened in even the smallest way. Bringing a widescreen aesthetic to our communal final chapter, Pink Floyd understand that death is not something which is easily catalogued and instead seek to capture that spark of optimism which blossoms even at the very darkest hour of human existence. Blessed with the gift of foresight, mankind have been forced to grapple with their own mortality in a way unique throughout the animal kingdom, and whilst this marbles our daily routine with an inevitable melancholy it has also driven us to express our fears and apprehension through music, art and culture. It might be the great unknown, but if this is playing on the celestial iPod as we slip into the eternal sleep we’re going to have some fucking bonza dreams...

Words by Adam Park

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