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Music With Issues: The End of Man

The End of the World, the Death of Man, the Apocalypse. We’ve long had the tools to bring an end to life as we know it, and it’s been at least three thousand years that we’ve been told The End is just around the corner now, honest. But wherever you turn for your updates on armageddon, be it The Book of Revelation, Illuminati Illustrated, or Cold War-era educational films, there is no insight more valuable than that which we may glean from drug-addled oversexed rock stars.

1) Earth Died Screaming — Tom Waits
(Bone Machine, 1992)

The Tom Waits alternative to "duck and cover."
Tom Waits

A song about the wrath of God called “Earth Died Screaming” as sung by Tom Waits? What could that possibly sound like? Well, it sounds like everything else the man ever sang: like getting gently raped by a rusty fence-post. But in a good way! Tommy’s take on the end of the world features an excellent rhythmic trot through the various plagues Our Heavenly Father has planned for us: some stars going out, a falling moon, an ambush of locusts, a rain of mackerel and a…rain of trout. Looks like God ran a little low on the creative juices toward the end there. If there ever was a voice deserving of heaping doom and destruction upon the masses, though, it’d have to be Tom’s. Personally I like to believe that he got his big break by playing the role of Throat Cancer in a school play. (Or, much less likely, a Christmas pageant.)

2) Eve of Destruction — Barry McGuire
(single, 1965)

It may have been this song’s intention to substitute integration for hate, but it makes much stronger progress toward substitutin’ apostophes for the letter G. Violence is flarin’, bullets are loadin’, you’re old enough to kill but not for votin’. (Even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’!) McGuire rode whatever brief wave of adoration came between the question, “Is that Bob Dylan?” and its answer, “No.” He sings about all of those mid-60s social issues you may have heard about in every sitcom flashback since 1990 and concludes that they make his blood so mad, it feels like coagulatin’. I wish I made that last part up. I didn’t. He also bizarrely ascribes at least some of the blame to astronauts, presumably for orbitin’ problems rather than resolvin’ them. Not nearly the best song of its type to come out of its era, but it’s notable for its backbeat: an audio loop of the world explodin’.

3) Talkin’ World War III Blues — Bob Dylan
(The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)

It’s worth mentioning that Dylan refers to his End of Days visions as “a crazy dream” and not “a fiery molten nightmare.” So I guess there is some hope. The Talkin’ Blues format means we get to follow Bob around as he shuffles through post-apocalyptic New York City, whistling along to some oldies and stealing disused Cadillacs. It doesn’t sound half bad. Nowhere does Bob encounter fleshless corpses or mutants feeding on dead vampires or anything like that. In fact, the only negative result of nuclear war we hear about is that the speaking clock telephone service is busted. (If this nuclear omelet has to be made, I think that’s a perfectly acceptable egg to sacrifice.) Unfortunately this not-really-that-bad vision of humanity’s end is only a dream…as evidenced by the fact that the only surviving female isn’t interested in sleeping with Bob Dylan. (She can be somewhat excused for this, as he spends an earlier verse porking another young lady in the sewer. Zimmy never was much one for romance…)

4) It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) — R.E.M.
(Document, 1987)

Please don’t take a picture.
Michael Stipe

It’s amazing how placid and unexciting most of these mass destruction songs are. Of the entries on this list, only R.E.M.’s feels like it’s accelerating headlong toward chaos. (Odd since they’re much better known for Michael Stipe weeping into a microphone over some plaintive mandolin.) This is a great song, though. So great, in fact, that they couldn’t resist writing and recording it a second time years later, downgrading the End of the World to a mere Bad Day. R.E.M.’s vision of the apocalypse is Biblical, technical and personal all at once, and the listener is bombarded with the shrapnel of fractured lyrics, within which we learn of such calamities as earthquakes, birds and snakes (and…um…jelly beans). Doomsday here does manage to end on an upbeat note…the repeating, “It’s time I had some time alone…” gives our narrator something to look forward to, post-nuclear-holocaust. Let’s just hope he’s seen The Twilight Zone and remembers to pack a second pair of reading glasses.

5) After the Gold Rush — Neil Young
(After the Gold Rush, 1970)

What is it with these folk-rock troubadours couching their apocalyptic visions in dreams? Certainly “We’re murdering the planet!” is a more urgent message than “I had a symbolic dream about a spacecraft full of babies which might mean that we’re murdering the planet, if you think about it.” I guess you had to be there. And by “there” I mean there, in Neil Young’s basement, stoned out of your skull while he bashed out some piano chords and sang “there were children crying and colors flying all around the chosen ones” and offered you ten thousand dollars to encourage him to put it on his next record. That’s about the only way you could accept this shit from the guy who wrote Down By the River. (A song about Chris Farley’s van, if I’m not mistaken.) Anyway, Neil’s idea is that we end up poisoning the globe so horribly that we need to shuttle our children to a new home in outer space, and it’s kind of hard to take his pro-environmental message seriously with a conclusion like that. It’s the same reason I’m glad Al Gore cut his “If we don’t take action now, our children will successfully colonize Mars by 2025” epilogue from An Inconvenient Truth.

6) It’s Gonna Rain — Violent Femmes
(Hallowed Ground, 1984)

Nearly all of the songs about Humanity’s Doom look forward to some as-yet-fictional apocalypse…only Violent Femmes take us back in time to a previous one. And why not? After all, the most massive of all mass murderers is Jehovah himself, who flooded the Earth so that…wait, why did he do that again? Maybe we can learn from Violent Femmes, who sing this song from Noah’s perspective, and therefore might give us some valuable insight into the old man’s mindset. Hmm, let’s see…apparently that mindset is a weather report featuring three chords and a banjo! So much for insight. Evidently Noah’s heard Sympathy For the Devil (man, The Rolling Stones must be really old…) because he keeps asking us who we think he is. But such clues as “I built this ark with Japheth, Shem, and Ham” explain why this identity puzzle never did quite enjoy the same recognition as, for example, Keyser Soze’s.

7) Amused to Death — Roger Waters
(Amused to Death, 1992)

If Roger Waters is to be believed then it won’t be war that will kill us, it will be our continuous jacking-off to the live coverage on C-SPAN. (Quite how this leads to death isn’t made clear, but that’s probably for the best.) Actually, wait a minute! It’s not Roger we have to believe, since he, presumably, will amuse himself to death as well. So who is it that remains to narrate this unfortunate turn of events? Why, the aliens, of course. The aliens are amusing themselves (not to death, though…the aliens know just when to turn away from the telescope) with our misfortunes. Interesting that Roger’s concept album about the seductive dangers of nuclear war sort of cops out at the end, choosing instead to wrap up a sci-fi story that never really began, and assure us that “the alien anthropologists admitted they were still perplexed.” Who gives a fuck? The human race is extinct and we’re worried about extraterrestrial scientists? There’s no point to the sci-fi twist, and it dampens the impact of the entire project. Would The Wall have been as well-received if the final track revealed that the whole thing was a robot’s hallucination as he had a new program installed?

8) Rapture — Blondie
(Autoamerican, 1980)

Admit it, you didn’t even know her songs had lyrics.
Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry took some serious liberties when she interpreted the Book of Revelation, as her vision of the Rapture has to do with…um…disco-dancing with some white-tophatted hunk and a 24-hour shopping spree. (Pfft! Women!) So much for Christ coming back and redeeming his flock, or whatever it was He was supposed to be doing. The good news, of course, is that Debbie becomes much more literal in the second, faster-paced section of the song. In fact, she more or less just recites Revelation 13:1-3, in which John writes: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and down came the Man from Mars, and I tried to run, but he had a gun, and he shot me dead, and he ate my head. […] Yea wall to wall, door to door, hall to hall, he’s gonna eat em all.” The specific meaning of these verses has been debated for centuries, as has the validity of any Biblical translation that includes references to Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash. But if John could prophesy of a spaceman eating Mercurys and Subarus, surely he could also predict the rise of hip-hop.

9) We Will Become Silhouettes — The Postal Service
(Give Up, 2003)

I’m not sure how much this actually counts for, but this is probably the best example of a track that’s equal parts love song and end of the world paranoia. It also kind of proves that even in the midst of mass extinction, emo kids will still puss about the only girl who didn’t make fun of their makeup and black nail polish. “I’ve got a cupboard with cans of food, filtered water and pictures of you.” It’s reassuring to know that obsessive, weepy masturbation will survive the abrupt depopulation of Earth. I guess it’s kind of sweet that this boy manages to cling to thoughts of his One True Love in the face of imminent death, but since I can too easily imagine Steve Urkel entering a fallout shelter with similar thoughts of Laura Winslow, most of the emotional impact is lost.

10) Five Years — David Bowie
(The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)

In this version of humanity’s end, we are at least given a countdown. I say “at least,” but I think Bowie’s song makes a pretty good argument for ignorance. If we are doomed, awareness of that doom is only going to prevent us from enjoying whatever time we might have left. After the announcement that we have “five years left to cry in,” Bowie sees child abuse, street violence, quiet insanity, prejudice…and his thoughts turn mainly to a love from his past that he will now never have time to rekindle. None of which, interestingly, would be out of place in a song that had nothing to do with the end of man. But maybe that’s Bowie’s point…however bad the end of the world might be, it can’t be any worse than what we’ve got now. Oh, who am I kidding…Bowie’s point is that we’ll all be saved by a well-hung alien rockstar in kitty-cat makeup. I guess you can give somebody too much credit.

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I’d also have included “When the Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash and “Tupelo” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds; the latter really does sound like the soundtrack to Armageddon.

Zagrebo's picture

By Zagrebo
October 15, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

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Dude, srsly, no Muse? Also, second the Cash suggestion.

I actually made a playlist a little while ago of “apocalyptic songs”. Will have to see if I can dig it out to see how it compares…

Seb Patrick's picture

By Seb Patrick
October 15, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

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Cash got a mention in my previous one, so I’m trying to keep it a little varied. Regarding Muse I have a little rule wherein I only write about songs/bands I actually know. ;-)

But yes, there are dozens of songs about this and it broke my heart to cut more than a few of them.

Then I remembered that these lists are by no means intended as a place of honor and my heart repaired itself right then and there.

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
October 16, 2008 @ 12:03 am

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