We’ve all got one thing on our minds right now and whether your thoughts are on the life-threatening potential of the coronavirus or the economic devastation it is about to wreak or the thousand other correlated effects we’re going to experience; disease, death and global change are surging through the collective consciousness. Artists have always created as a tonic for our ills and a reaction to our fears. A quick look at Wikipedia under the heading “Songs about the apocalypse” yields a disturbingly large list. There are pages and pages of doomsday tunes and that is overlooking a massive contingent of black and death metal tracks (apparently their fans aren’t the most meticulous Wiki updaters). Sickness and medicine are frequent topics too but they’re usually just loose metaphors in hair metal songs. ‘Bad Medicine’, ‘Dr. Feelgood’, ‘Somebody Get Me a Doctor’ etc.
This playlist is a look at songs about literal sickness and an exploration of artists who have imagined a world, like our current one, where a massive global event has changed our human interactions in a profound way. So hunker down in your bunker, pull up a can of beans and let’s stare into that abyss together! HEYO!!
FIVE YEARS – DAVID BOWIE
Existential threats to the planet have come and gone over the years. There are the long slow ones like climate change that progress in terms of decades like an out of control cruise ship careening into the boardwalk and there are the sharp uptick ones like nuclear war and fallout, and an exponentially growing pandemic. ‘Five Years’ is an incredibly bleak way to kick off an album so steeped in glitz, glamour and the non-stop party attitude of the 70s but Ziggy as an album is predicated on the idea that the end is just around the corner so we might as well go out with a bang.
Bowie brilliantly put into words the disbelief that would come over people as the news of their coming doom interrupted their daily lives. This wasn’t “There’s a fireball coming, we’re done”, this was “We’ve got an expiration date, now what?”. It’s a song that gets overshadowed by the record’s starchild mythology tracks at first but after a while, it shines through as one of the album’s best.
THE WIDOW – THE MARS VOLTA
The first single from their second album is a ballad, or at least what qualifies as a ballad in the realm of these progged-out spaz-wizards. Cedric Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics are a bilingual pastiche of seeming non-sequiturs often populated by medical and anatomical terminology. After all, their debut record, which set the tone for the rest of their career, was about a man wading through the dream state of a coma. ‘The Widow’ vividly describes a sickened man with “fasting black lungs/Made of clove splintered shards/They’re the kind that will talk/Through a wheezing of coughs”. Sickly enough for ya?
TOUCH ME, I’M SICK – MUDHONEY
Don’t do it, folks!!! If you’re sick, stay home! Let’s minimize this damn thing so we can have nice things like concerts and vacations and easy access to toilet paper again soon! However, do listen to this rippin’ debut single from Mudhoney circa 1988. Squishy fuzz guitars and rabidly sputtering drums drive this feverish track.
EPIDEMIC – SLAYER
Slayer’s lyrics are nothing if not apocalyptic but this track outlines our current crisis in savage surgical detail. Grab any cross-section of the lyrics and you’ll get the story of the virus from within your veins: “Breeding fast in poverty/Infectious driving dormant seed/Inside your carcass start to mate/Left in charge to dominate”, “Death machine, infest my corpse to be”, “Pulmonary overthrow/Possession of your inner throne”. The band delivers its message with its usual breakneck pace and scorching scream.
The first of two entries on the list from 2007’s Year Zero album. The entire record could make it on this list as the storyline outlines various acts of terrorism, some of which are biological, that lead to a censuring of public assembly and eventually, civil rights. With the help of bombastic beat poet Saul Williams on backing vocals, Trent Reznor blazes through the track with martial law militarism. With all the empty supermarket shelves and Black Friday-style stampeding going on, this piece named after those doomsday preppers is very au courant.
THE SHAPE I’M IN – THE BAND
The tale of a man down on his luck who is stranded alone, nearly escaped death on several occasions and is so broke that he was locked up for it. All this told with the bouncing relentless optimism of The Band, the group that makes going down in defeat a glorious and noble battle.
PNEUMONIA – BJORK
A sombre horn-led track from the Icelandic queen of the ethereal. The soft rain in the background treads the line between comforting and ominous. Is it a light drizzle or the coming of a deluge? Another pulmonary reference for our list “And your lungs, they’re mourning/T-B style”. The song may very well be a metaphor for heartbreak but Bjork does such a good job of musically imitating the medical condition that we’ll throw it on the list over Bon Jovi or Motley Crue.
ST. JAMES INFIRMARY – LOUIS ARMSTRONG
There are plenty of deadly (excuse the pun;)) versions of this standard of unconfirmed origin. Cab Calloway gave it an uptempo bouncing rendition, playing up the tawdry nature of the protagonist’s predicament (dying of venereal disease from a prostitute). The White Stripes revived the track in 1999 incorporating the same plunky saloon piano that would be heard on the track 70 years prior, with an inexorable stomp-to-the-grave from Meg White’s heavy-footed kick drum. However, it’s Armstrong’s 1928 recording that nails the ominous nature of the tune by moving at a sluggish, dragging pace. This version swims in its bluesy timing, with piano, clarinet and Armstrong’s trumpet trading melodies while the trombones slide out the tragedy in an incredibly haunting, woozy fashion.
IN MY TIME OF DYING – LED ZEPPELIN
Another old standard from the gospel world, Jimmy Page takes this one way down south to the Mississippi delta with his slithering slide guitar playing the same role as the trombones in Armstrong’s ‘St. James Infirmary’. Plant and Bonzo lift this one back up to a raucous stomp with rock n roll preacher vocals and a blistering stop-start drum beat. “In my time of dying, don’t want nobody to mourn”.
ISOLATION YEARS – OPETH
Alright, so we don’t wanna die. And we don’t want our elders to die either. So now the name of the game is self-isolation. Stay home whenever possible, cancel any events with large crowds. It’s gonna be a dark time for a while with no concerts and limited social interactions. Opeth’s sorrowfully soaring finale to their monumental Ghosts of Perdition album is a piece about melancholic isolation caused by a departed love but we’ll put it on here anyway. It might get lonely for a while here people.
Another ode to reclusion, this time highlighting John and Yoko’s schism from society in the wake of their marriage, The Beatles breakup and the enormous insanity of their position of fame. “We’re afraid of everyone, afraid of the sun/Isolation/The sun will never disappear but the world may not have many years/Isolation”. Lennon gets gospel on this Plastic Ono Band track, one of two on this list. A couple of years back, garage rocker Ty Segall released a deliciously crunchy version complete with Lennon’s iconic slapback vocal effects.
A HARD RAIN’S A-GONNA FALL – BOB DYLAN
Dylan’s songs, like any of the great folk troubadours, were made for hard times. He has an eloquence about suffering that not even he understands. Most of his songs in that realm were pointed at a particular injustice like racial crimes or the horror of war but ‘Hard Rain’ took a wide view of adversity through the looking glass of many characters and in the end, summed up the courage of facing dark times with a quiet bravery. Was it literal floods? Was it atomic rain? It doesn’t matter, its relevance is ubiquitous.
IDIOTEQUE – RADIOHEAD
Does locking yourself in a bunker make you want to laugh your head off and dance manically to euro-electronica? Apparently, it does for Thom Yorke. Maybe he understands the effects of too much isolation more than we do. The song, though never released as a single, became a fan favourite and is arguably the turning point for the band from guitar-driven rock to experimental electro-jazz and beyond. Yorke spasms out of control to the crisis-inspired lyrics: “We’re not scaremongering/This is really happening/Happening/We’re not scaremongering/This is really happening/Happening/Mobiles squerking/Mobiles chirping/Take the money run/Take the money run/Take the money”
The ultimate party for the end times. On his latest special, Dave Chappelle slyly sings the opening verse a capella, pointing out: “And this is the bar of the whole song, Prince say: ‘Tried to run from my destruction, you know I didn’t even care’”. If this is how we’re going down, we’re gonna go down havin’ a good fuckin’ time. This track will have you up and dancing in the bomb shelter with twitchy Thommy Yorke.
THE LAST DAY ON EARTH – MARILYN MANSON
If Mechanical Animals was Manson’s take on Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie (which it most definitely was), then ‘The Last Day on Earth’ is his ‘Five Years’. With all the urgency and panic, and personal re-evaluation that’s happened over the last week, the opening lines “Yesterday was a million years ago/In all my past lives I played an asshole” take on more relevance than ever. Spacey synths and sound-the-alarm guitars set the scene for the earth’s final stand.
IN THIS TWILIGHT – NINE INCH NAILS
The penultimate track from Reznor’s 1984-inspired opus, along with the final track ‘Zero Sum’, take a look at the culmination of the crisis from the other side. Perhaps as the survivors in a stark new world, perhaps from the beyond looking back. Fuzzed-out bass and guitars are distant and muted while the drums crackle like sparking downed power lines and high-pitched descending squeals bring to mind falling ashes from a fireball-ridden sky.
HOLD ON – JOHN LENNON
‘Hold on, World/World hold on, it’s gonna be alright/You gonna see the light”.
Maybe this is going to get a lot worse for a long time. Maybe our “abundance of caution” has bridged over to hysteria and this will all pass very soon and we’ll be out TP’ing houses with all this extra toilet paper in a fortnight. We’re on the precipice now. The best thing to do is be cautious, be diligent, but keep sane. And while you’re stuck in quarantine, use the time to reacquaint yourself with some fine tunes.
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