Gunplay* is familiar imagery in rock music. Sadly, it has also been the demise of many a great musician. Some of the songs on this list were mired in controversy when they were released, but are now radio staples. Sometimes, the only difference between graffiti and art is time.
All of the songs listed below were #1 hits on at least one Billboard Chart.
*Note to all you young and impressionable kids out there: Guns are bad.
10. Billy Joel: We Didn’t Start The Fire (1989)
This song isn’t a story, but a rapid-fire vocalization of over a hundred newspaper headlines throughout Billy Joel’s lifetime. Between references to Bernie Goetz and JFK’s assassination, there was plenty of content that doesn’t usually find its way into a normal pop song. We Didn’t Start the Fire was the #1 song on U.S. Billboard’s Hot 100, and reached the Top 10 in a half-dozen other countries.
9. Foster The People: Pumped-Up Kicks (2010)
One of the catchiest songs you’re ever going to hear, it really has a sing-songy quality to it. Because the vocals are only slightly above a whisper, and melt with the music like butter into sugar, it takes a few listens to realize the song is about teenagers fantasizing about killing their enemies. Pumped-Up Kicks was named the #1 alternative song in the United States for the year 2011, and was also the #1 song in such diverse places as Mexico, Australia, and Poland.
8. Vicki Lawrence: The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (1972)
Vicki Lawrence is an American actress, best known for her starring roles in the Carol Burnett Show and Mama’s Family. But, back at the beginning of her career, her then-husband wrote a song originally intended for Cher, but Vicki ended up singing the song. It was a total stroke of luck, as the song soared up to #1 on both the American and Canadian Pop charts, and even crossed over to the Top 40 in country music that year. The song was a simple story of a country girl who shot down her brother’s cheatin’ wife. It was Vicki Lawrence’s only Top 40 single on any chart.
7. Soundgarden: Burden In My Hand (1996)
Soundgarden was one of the biggest bands to come out of the early 90’s grunge movement. They were not known for their singles, but their dark and moody albums. Burden In My Hand was the biggest hit of the band’s career, reaching #1 on both the American and Canadian Alternative Music charts. Pretty good for a song about a man who murders his girlfriend in the desert and lives to regret it.
6. Johnny Horton: Battle of New Orleans (1959)
In the year 1959, Johnny Horton’s light-hearted song about American soldiers chasing down and shooting British soldiers, during the War of 1812, shot up to #1 on the American Singles, Canadian Singles, and American Country charts. The song has since been covered over a dozen times, and has also been parodied a half-dozen times.
5. Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues (1955)
This raw and haunting 1955 hit produced one of the most famous lines from any song: “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Artists continue to be influenced by the song two generations later; even the Beastie Boys lifted a sample of the line for their Paul’s Boutique album. The song reached #1 on both the American and Canadian Country charts when it was re-released on the 1968 Live At Folsom Prison album.
4. Eric Clapton: I Shot the Sheriff (1974)
Bob Marley wrote and performed the original version of the song in 1973, but it was Eric Clapton’s cover version that zoomed up to #1 on the charts the next year. No matter who exactly killed the deputy, there was certainly no dispute over who had shot the sheriff. The song was #1 in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.
3. The Beatles: The White Album (1968)
Yes, a whole album. I had to include the whole thing, due to the multiple songs about gunplay: Happiness is a Warm Gun, Rocky Raccoon, and The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill. Not to mention the multiple songs that merely alluded to gunplay, such as Revolution #1, Helter Skelter, and Piggies. For all the controversy that surrounded it, and the content of the material, it is amazing that this album is still on multiple Top 10 all-time album lists, and you can’t go more than a day without hearing one of its songs on classic rock radio.
2. Snoop Dogg: Drop It Like It’s Hot (2004)
Snoop’s gift to the world is to make the even most deplorable stuff ever sound incredibly cool and smooth. Despite Snoop bragging that he’s a gangsta, and the song being loaded with gun references, Drop It Like It’s Hot went to #1 on the U.S. Hot 100, Rap, Mainstream, and Latin charts. And on top of that, it shot to #1 in nearly a dozen other countries, including the rap hotbeds of Finland, Sweden, and Norway.
Oh, perhaps you heard this song on the radio, and have no idea what gun references I’m referring to. There are three versions of this song: an explicit version, a clean version, and an extra-clean version. Track down the explicit version and you’ll figure out what Snoop’s alluding to.
1. Paper Lace: The Night Chicago Died (1974)
Paper Lace was a two-hit wonder band from England, whose biggest American single spent a grand total of one week at the top of the American charts. But what an amazing song it was. The Night Chicago Died is a fictional account of a shootout between police and the mobster Al Capone, on the east side of Chicago. In classic singer/songwriter tradition, the artist pulls you into the story and leaves you emotionally clinging to the outcome.
Honorable Mention. Body Count: Cop Killer (1992)
For the maelstrom that surrounded it, Cop Killer never even made the charts, but found itself the lead story on the Evening News for about a week. At the end of the day, the song was more of a political football than a popular song. Who could forget Charlton Heston reading the lyrics of the song at a Time-Warner shareholders meeting? The funny thing is, Cop Killer isn’t even the most offensive song on the album of the same name (though still offensive enough that there’s no way we could include a video of it in this article.)
The principal players in the controversy ended up going in very different, and unpredictable, directions. Charlton Heston went on to be turned inside out by Michael Moore in the movie Bowling for Columbine, but Ice-T, the lead singer of Body Count, went on to star in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit…as a cop!