It’s no great secret that I’m fascinated by murder. My bookcases are filled with True Crime books. My DVD collection is riddled with thrillers and biopics about infamous killers. I’ve written plenty of stories involving nasty people doing nasty things to people nastily.
One little sideline that escapes notice is the number of songs in my playlist that are devoted to murderers. Serial killers in particular. The truth is, serial killers may represent the basest and most disturbed corridors of the human psyche, but there is no denying that they are a fascinating sort of maelstrom for an artist to gaze into.
So here are five of my favourite songs about serial killers from the depths of my playlist.
Five for Friday: Serial Killer Songs
Jack the Ripper– Screaming Lord Sutch.
Ah, what to say about Screaming Lord Sutch? True English eccentric. Founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. Artist behind the album widely considered the worst album of all time. And the man who turned this obscure Clarence Stacy song into the beginning of his descent into National Treasure status. It’s 2 minutes and 50 seconds of horror-psychedelia insanity, as out of tune with the early 1960’s England that spawned it as Sutch would remain. But if you love Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, early Genesis, Marilyn Manson…… this is the Big Bang, the dawn of the Universe. It remains delightfully loopy, a schlock-horror masterpiece to be treasured in exactly the way we love 1950s monster movies.
John Wayne Gacy Jr– Sufjan Stevens
He’s the modern-day Donovan for the Bible Belt: a dipsy waif with a voice that trembles somewhere between Tori Amos and Emo Phillips and a catalogue of beautifully orchestrated ballads about the weirdnesses hidden like pearls inside the mundane. And then there’s this. Part of Come On, Feel The Illinoise, the second (and final) stop-over in his ill-fated 50 States project– an ambitious intent to record 50 albums over 50 years, detailing the cultural histories of each American state– Stevens’ gentle delivery and heart-rending intonations almost… almost… do the unthinkable and get you starting to feel…… is that sympathy?…… for this tortured, torturing beast. It is an emotional tour-de-force of bewildering bedevilment.
Night Shift– Siouxsie and the Banshees
From their insanely good 1981 Juju album, this is the Banshees at their brooding, post-punk best. And at their most confronting– it’s a first-person point of view reference to the Yorkshire Ripper released less than a year after the man himself was finally caught. The music swirls and fractures in time with lyrics that get progressively darker and shattered, all underpinned by one of the most chillingly deadpan refrains in popular music: that robotic repetition of fuck the mothers, kill the others; fuck the others, kill the mothers just gets creepier and creepier every time you listen to it. It’s brilliant stuff.
Suffer Little Children– The Smiths
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum– a song from the most emo band of all time, direct from Manchester, expressing the despair and heartbreak left by the crimes that swallowed Manchester, at a time when the killers had yet to fully admit their guilt and provide some release. There’s no dancing around the subject here: this is the Smiths directly addressing the Moors Murders. They name names. They remind their audience of the children who were taken. The refuse to dress anything in analogy or innuendo. There’s always the risk in a Smiths song that Morrissey’s internal drama queen will override the message. Not here. It’s direct, it’s tragic, and he keeps his vocal performance just the right side of Johnny Ray. Listening now, knowing that the song was released when– and names– only 3 of the 5 Moors murder victims were known, gives it that extra tinge of tragedy. It’s not for the easily upset.
The Ballad of Charles Whitman– Kinky Friedman
Okay, so Whitman was a spree killer, rather than a serial killer. But after all the doom and gloom, I think we need to lighten the mood a wee bit, don’t you?
Kinky Friedman is an acquired taste. Think of him as a particularly puckish, bad-taste evil twin of Tom Lehrer, and you’re in roughly the right territory. Along with his band, the Texas Jewboys, he’s made a career of poking fun at the pomposity and bigotry of the flag-wrapped American Gold Old Boy, usually using his own pompous, flag-wrapped stage persona as the easiest target. And, if you get the joke, he can be fucking hilarious. None so more than here: a darkly black humorous ode to the man who popularised shooting up schools an all-American pastime. The fact that Friedman was a student at the University at the time of the shooting only adds another layer of black to the humour.