The story song is one of the most difficult feats for writers of lyrics to pull off effectively. Crafting a memorable narrative with a coherently defined beginning, middle, and end is difficult enough for writers of straight fiction, without taking pesky things like rhyme and meter into account.
Of course, the point of highest dramatic impact in conventional narrative works is usually the death of a main character – a device that turns out to translate pretty well to song. Here are ten of the greatest death-laden narratives in popular music.
10. “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow
From the opening lyric – “Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl” – you know you’re in for some good old fashioned melodramatic storytellin’ with “Copacabana“, a #8 hit for Barry Manilow in 1978. No matter how you feel about Manilow, the song’s ridiculously catchy melody made it a hit – and its strong, classic narrative has given it surprising staying power.
In the song, Lola (yes, the showgirl) works at the New York nightclub Copacabana, along with her bartender boyfriend, Tony. One night, a customer (Rico, who “wore a diamond”) gets a little grabby, prompting a fight to break out between him and Tony, which quickly turns bloody:
“But Rico went a bit too far, Tony sailed across the bar / And then the punches flew and chairs were smashed in two
There was blood and a single gunshot / But just who shot who?”
Well, the crazily bleak (yet glibly humorous) final verse reveals that Tony was shot, it is now 30 years later, and Lola is a washed-up drunk haunting the nightclub, “still in the dress she used to wear, faded feathers in her hair.” The song was adapted into a successful stage musical that has had lengthy runs in both the UK and the US.
9. “El Paso” by Marty Robbins
Marty Robbins’ 1959 country single “El Paso” is simply a brilliant short story, told in ballad form, of a young man who “fell in love with a Mexican girl.” Hanging out in her cantina every night, the man’s love is “in vain, I could tell;” nevertheless, he starts a fight with a stranger over her, and ends up shooting the man dead.
He flees, but is compelled to return to see Rosa, whereupon he’s set upon by a couple dozen “mounted cowboys“, and tragedy ensues:
“Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel / A deep burning pain in my side
Though I am trying / To stay in the saddle
I’m getting weary / Unable to ride”
The object of the narrator’s affection comes rushing out just in time for him to die in her arms. The Latin-flavored country tune was a #1 hit for Robbins, and is his best known song.
8. “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
For a record that practically nobody wanted to make, the legacy of “The Message” is pretty incredible. It’s probably the first widely acclaimed rap record (given a 5-star review in Rolling Stone in 1982, by Kurt Loder,) and definitely among the first to focus on social problems and the plight of inner-city dwellers. Though credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, only one member of the group appears on the song – Melle Mel, who pushed to record it against the wishes of pretty much everyone, as the Furious Five were known for upbeat party tunes (as were all rappers of the time.)
The harrowing narratives contained in the song were jaw-dropping for the time, particularly the second-person final verse, which ends with its “stick-up kid” protagonist in prison, where he is:
“used and abused and served like hell / ’til one day, you was found hung dead in the cell
It was plain to see that your life was lost / You was cold and your body swung back and forth
But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song / Of how you lived so fast and died so young”
The jarring tonal shift from popular records of the day, combined with a stark, haunting and widely sampled instrumental track, propelled the song to #68 on the Billboard Hot 100, one of the very first rap songs to show up on that particular chart.
7. “In The Ghetto” by Elvis Presley
Legendary songwriter and performer Mac Davis wrote this 1969 comeback hit for Elvis, another artist not known for tackling such sober subject matter. And sober it is – a heartbreaking narrative about a “poor little baby child” who grows to be an “angry young man, face down on the street with a gun in his hand.” The lyrics also astutely allude to the cyclical nature of poverty and crime, with the line “and his mama cries” appearing near the beginning and end of the song, along with the chilling final lines:
“As her young man dies / on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’,
another little baby child is born / In the ghetto”
The song hit #3 on the Billboard pop chart, and has been covered by a crazy number of artists across many genres; notably, a cover version was the debut single of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and was a minor hit in the U.K.
6. “Good Old Days” by Weird Al Yankovic
Everybody knows Weird Al as the king of musical parodies, but he writes plenty of original songs as well- most of them “style parodies”, in which Al distills the essence of a band, movement or genre into an adroitly written tune. “Good Old Days” is a James Taylor-esque singer-songwriter ballad about a sepia-toned childhood gone by, when “Dad would be up at dawn, waterin’ the lawn” and “Mom would be fixing up something in the kitchen.” But, since this is a Weird Al song, something’s not quite right with the narrator, who spent those long childhood days “torturing rats with a hacksaw, and pulling the wings off of flies”.
In perhaps the darkest of all of Al’s punch lines, the pleasant little tune turns out to be the reminiscing of a complete, utter psychopath:
“Always treated me nice, gave me kindly advice / I don’t know why I set fire to his place
Oh I’ll never forget the day I bashed in his head / Well, you should’ve seen the look on his face”
Al performed a totally straight-faced rendition of the song on the Jimmy Fallon show, backed by Fallon’s house band, the Roots, one of the greatest live bands to ever exist. We’re going to go ahead and call this Fallon’s most awesome contribution to the world of entertainment, hands down.
5. “Six In The Mornin'” by Ice-T
However you feel about gangsta rap, it has been a cultural force to be reckoned with for over a quarter-century at this point. Like any genre, it has its highs and lows. But the man who kick-started the genre into high gear – the criminally underrated Ice-T – did so with one of the most dense, detailed, stunning narratives in the history of popular music: the seven-minute opus “Six In The Mornin’“, the tale of a “self-made mobster of the city streets” who begins the story by ducking out his window when the cops knock on the door in the early morning hours; he “didn’t know what the cops wanted, didn’t have time to ask”.
While Ice was never the greatest rapper, he is one of the best lyricists that rap music (of any sort) has ever produced. The proof is all over this seminal 1986 track; Ice weaves a spellbinding story of robbery, murder and flight from the law that covers the better part of a decade chronologically, with a singsongish, conversational delivery that belies the complexity of the narrative:
“The rollers gave chase at a serious speed / One more conviction was all I need
This s*** was for real, this was no La-Di-Da-Di / Cause the boys had to pin the s*** on somebody
And me and my crew we were known to get ill / We carried heat for protection, but not to kill
We bust a corner doin’ 60, one police car spun / And all I was thinkin’ was murder one”
Most point to this song as the beginning of gangsta rap. A similarly ambitious prequel track called “Midnight” appeared on Ice’s 1991 album O.G., ending with the line, “looked at my watch, it was six in the mornin'”.
4. “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” by Warren Zevon
A singularly weird song from a singularly weird artist (we mean that in a complimentary way; we like weird), this tale of a ghostly, machine gun-wielding, headless mercenary returning for vengeance on the man who blew off his head has an appropriately strange genesis as well. During a short stay in Spain, Zevon would frequent a bar run by David Lindell, an actual former mercenary who had put in time in the Congo. The two became friendly and, upon learning that Zevon was a recording artist, Lindell suggested writing a song about a mercenary. They wrote the song together, with the hard-boiled, bloody narrative often skating right up to the edge of self-parody:
“Roland searched the continent for the man who’d done him in / He found him in Mombasa in a barroom drinking gin
Roland aimed his Thompson gun – he didn’t say a word / But he blew Van Owen’s body from there to Johannesburg”
He didn’t say a word. Get it? Because he has no head. Clever boy, that Warren.
Though the track was never a single, it was one of Zevon’s most popular tunes. After he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2002, Zevon was the only guest for the entire hour of the David Letterman show, where he famously gave advice to “enjoy every sandwich.” Zevon closed the show with this song at Letterman’s request, and it was the last song he ever performed live, before passing away in 2003.
3. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by the Beatles
And since we’re on weird, dark songs by preternaturally gifted songwriters, here’s a little gem from Paul McCartney, who may be the greatest pop songsmith of them all. The bouncy, old-timey little number (John Lennon derisively referred to it as “more of Paul’s granny music”) only sounds sweet and charming if you’re not listening to the lyrics, which tell the story of a guy who just can’t seem to stop murdering people with a hammer. It does like a pretty fun hobby, to be honest.
Even, after he is caught:
“Rose and Valerie screaming from the gallery / Say he must go free
The judge does not agree and he tells them so / But as the words are leaving his lips
A noise comes from behind / Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer
Came down upon his head / Bang, Bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer
Made sure that he was dead”
2. “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick
Say the words, “once upon a time, not long ago” to any rap fan of a certain vintage, and they will instantly spill all of the words to Slick Rick’s 1989 classic “Children’s Story“. Framed as a bedtime story told to his nephews, the song somehow manages to combine whimsy and humor, with a strong message about the perils of a life of crime:
“Once upon a time, not long ago / Where people wore pajamas and lived life slow
Where laws were stern and justice stood / And people were behavin’ like they ought to good
There lived a little boy who was misled / By another little boy and this is what he said
Me and you tyke, we’re gonna make some cash / Robbin’ old folks and makin’ the dash”
Needless to say (as in most fairy tales), the story doesn’t end happily for the little boy (“The cops shot the kid, I still hear him scream”) but with a strong moral to stay on the straight and narrow. And Rick’s acknowledgement that, “I know this story is really weird.” Goodnight!
1. “Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down / Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead / When the skies of November turn gloomy”
So begins arguably the greatest musical narrative of all time, Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald“. As you may have gathered, it is an account of an actual event – a shipwreck that had occurred on Lake Superior roughly a year prior to the song’s recording, and which claimed the lives of 29 men.
While there are a few factual errors (chalk it up to artistic license,) the song is a remarkably riveting, concise (14 2-line verses) account of the wreck. And while Lightfoot was not present for the event (doi,) he was fond of sailing on the Great Lakes, and the lyrics simply ring with authenticity:
“When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck saying / ‘Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya’.
At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in, he said / ‘Fellas, it’s been good to know ya’.
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in /And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight / Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The song was a #2 US hit for Lightfoot, and he personally considers it his best work. It’s not hard to see why; lots of people can spin a great yarn, and lots of people can write a great song, but not many can do both at once.