Welcome once again to Five Songs About, our new weekly (maybe) feature in which we pick a topic and then dig through music history to find relevant songs by some of our favourite artists. It's sort of like a musical parlour game, but mostly it's designed to keep us from finally going insane in this batshit era in which we live. In this edition, we bring you five songs about true crimes and the true criminals who truly commit them. Which, admittedly, might not offer much in the way of escape from this cold, cruel world, but at least the music is good.
1. Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, "Bonnie and Clyde" (1968)
Of all the true-crime songs on this list, "Bonnie and Clyde" is the closest to being a firsthand account, given that its lyrics were based on a poem written by American gangster Bonnie Parker herself. "The Trail's End", in which Parker foretells her own death and that of her lover and partner in crime, Clyde Barrow, isn't exactly a confession, nor is it a plea of innocence. Its message to the world seems to be that Bonnie and Clyde—whose armed-robbery spree in the 1930s led to the deaths of at least nine police officers, several civilians, and ultimately Parker and Barrow themselves—were bad, but not as bad as everyone seemed to think. Incidentally, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot were also lovers. They never killed anyone, but they certainly slaughtered their share of melodies.
SAMPLE LYRIC: (translated from the French) Oh what they wrote about her and I/They say we're cold-blooded killers/It ain't much fun but we got no choice/But to shut them up when they start shouting.
2. Neko Case, "Deep Red Bells" (2002)
A lot of serial killers have left a bloody trail through the American psyche, but Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, is considered the most "prolific"—which is a horribly ironic way of putting it when you consider what "prolific" actually means. Suffice to say that he murdered a lot of people, all of them young women, which lent an undercurrent of fear to the experience of growing up as a girl in the Pacific Northwest during his reign of terror in the 1980s and '90s. This was what inspired former Tacoma resident Neko Case to write "Deep Red Bells". In an interview with the AV Club, Case said "I grew up while he was killing women, and on the news, they never talked about them like they were women. They just called them 'prostitutes'. Myself and other little girls in my neighborhood didn't make that distinction; we thought the Green River Killer was going to kill us. We were scared of him. We'd go to school with steak knives in our pockets and stuff."
SAMPLE LYRIC: Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag/Past empty lots and early graves?/All those like you who lost their way/Murdered on the interstate/While the red bells rang like thunder.
3. Marty Robbins, "Billy the Kid" (1959)
"I'll sing you a true song of Billy the Kid," begins Marty Robbins on this track from his classic LP of western tunes, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The thing is, though, the song—a traditional folk number not written by Robbins himself—gets almost everything wrong. The legend of Billy the Kid looms large in American mythology, with the man born Henry McCarty (who later dubbed himself William H. Bonney) the subject of countless other songs, stories, and films. In truth, Billy was a fairly minor figure, with his legend built up during his own lifetime thanks to exaggerated newspaper accounts of his exploits. He led a brief life of crime, fought in the Lincoln County War, and was gunned down, at the age of 21, by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Robbins recorded a fine version of "Billy the Kid", but don't believe a word of it: Billy didn't shoot a man at the age of 12, he didn't kill 21 people (more like eight), and he and Garrett were most certainly never friends.
SAMPLE LYRIC: There's many a man with a face fine and fair/Who start out in life with a chance to be square/Just like poor Billy they wander astray/They'll lose their lives in the very same way.
4. The Smiths, "Suffer Little Children" (1984)
Britain has a pretty grisly history of serial killers. More than OG murderer Jack the Ripper, the country has been home to high-profile criminals Harold Shipman (a doctor suspected of killing 250 people from 1975 to 1998), Fred and Rosemary West (who together tortured and murdered 10 women in the '70s and '80s,) and Colin Ireland (convicted of murdering five men over three months in 1993.) For Smiths frontman Morrissey, though, it was the crimes of couple Ian Brady and Myra Hindley that dominated his lyric-writing.
Growing up in Manchester in the '60s, Morrissey was close in age to all five children that the pair killed and buried on the Yorkshire Moors, and lived a short bus ride away from two. The disappearances became a formative event for the precocious singer, who wrote one of his first songs with guitarist Johnny Marr on the topic, complete with sample recordings of children playing and a woman’s demonic laughter. “Suffer Little Children” portrays the grim events from the perspective of the victims, as well as detailing the fates of three of three children and Hindley’s day in court. Much has been made of the frontman’s preoccupation with the subject, with certain writers speculating that the band was named after Hindley’s brother-in-law, David Smith, who blew the whistle on the crimes.
SAMPLE LYRIC: Lesley-Anne, with your pretty white beads/Oh John, you'll never be a man/And you'll never see your home again/Oh Manchester, so much to answer for
5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Stagger Lee" (1996)
The great Nick Cave wasn't the first artist to write about mythical American old-west badass Lee Shelton. The African-American Texas-born outlaw has surfaced in songs by artists ranging from Frank Westphal & His Regal Novelty Orchestra to Ma Rainey to the Clash. No one, however, painted as vivid and depraved a picture of the famed carriage driver, gambler, amateur politician, and pimp as Cave. The alternative legend's version starts with Stagger Lee being thrown out by his woman, and then making his way through the ice and snow to a bar called the Bucket of Blood. After entering the premises with his fabled Stetson hat on his head, the outlaw first pumps the barkeep full of lead, flirts with a local prostitute named Nellie Brown, and then shoots her boyfriend Billy Dilly full of lead while he's in the middle of a gunpoint-ordered blowjob. While the historical accuracy of all these events may be debatable, that doesn't make them any less grimly captivating.
SAMPLE LYRIC: I'm a bad motherfucker, don't you know?/And I'll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get one fat boy's asshole/Said Stagger Lee