Unless you’re quite the optimist, you’ve probably realised that the world is in a very fragile state. A rise in post-cold war tensions, the danger posed by climate change, and the recent election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States are just a few things stirring the excitement of conspiracy theorists as they speculate over our impending doom. But fear not. The world has been through dark times before, and the seeming inevitability of apocalyptic disaster generally leads to the creation of some great music. Here’s a run-down of history’s top ten songs for the apocalypse…
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan)
Legend has it that Dylan wrote this 7 minute long protest song during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In reality, however, the folk singer had performed the song for the first time a month before President John F. Kennedy announced the discovery of Soviet missiles on Cuba; but Dylan himself nevertheless remarked that the song was comprised of the lines of multiple songs he thought ‘‘he would never have the time to write.’’
Based upon the question and answer form of traditional folk song ‘‘Lord Randall,’’ the lyrics of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall progress through a Whitmanesque list of surreal and apocalyptic imagery, both provocative and enigmatic. Though the reference to ‘‘hard rain’’ is often thought to refer to atomic rain from nuclear fallout, Dylan maintained that this wasn’t the case, explaining in a 1963 radio interview: ‘‘No, it’s not atomic rain, it’s just hard rain.’’ Nevertheless, the song leaves much of the interpretation up to you.
Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones)
‘‘That’s the end of the world song, really,’’ remarked Mick Jagger on Gimme Shelter in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone; ‘‘its apocalypse.’’ Indeed, as the tumultuous 1960’s climaxed with the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, The Rolling Stones prepared to release their eighth studio album on a world that was looking increasingly bleak.
Let It Bleed was an album that reflected the era’s lost sense of innocence, and album opener, Gimme Shelter, captured the prevailing mood of anxiety and social discord that came to define the latter half of the 1960’s. Initially written by Keith Richards as he watched umbrella-wielding pedestrians struggle against a hostile storm from the window of a London apartment, the song soon came to represent the ominous presence of war and social unrest. The lyrical references to rape and murder were also shocking for a pop song, but guest vocalist Merry Clayton carries the message powerfully, and the result is not only one of The Rolling Stones greatest achievements, but also an iconic moment in rock n’ roll history.
London Calling (The Clash)
In 1979, a headline flashed across the front of the London Evening Standard, warning that should the North Sea rise and force up the Thames, the city of London would soon be under the water. The prospect is just one of many disaster scenarios that clutter the lyrical landscape of ‘‘London Calling.’’
Drawing its title from the BBC World Service’s station identification- ‘‘This is London calling’’- used in broadcasts to occupied Europe during the Second World War, The Clash’s era defining hit warns of war, the ice age, famine, police brutality, and yes, even zombies. Driven by the sharp, jagged down-stroke of the guitar, and fusing elements of reggae and rockabilly following punks peak in 1977, ‘‘London Calling’’ evokes an atmosphere in which crisis may not only be imminent, but unavoidable.
Crucifixion (Phil Ochs)
‘‘America has contributed many art forms to the world and we find many others,’’ claimed US folk singer Phil Ochs matter-of-factly before a performance of ‘‘Crucifixion’’ in 1973, ‘‘one of these we find here is that of assassination.’’ The comment was characteristically controversial of Ochs, but after suffering a number of political blows in the 1960’s, the songwriter had grown increasingly fatigued and disillusioned, and it was a statement that was very much personal for Ochs.
When Ochs had performed ‘‘Crucifixion’’ for U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy and journalist Jack Newfield back in 1967; realising the song was about his brother, Kennedy had been brought to tears.
Written during a two hour road trip whilst on his 1965 tour of the UK, ‘‘Crucifixion’’ is a deeply philosophic profile on the nature of hero slaying, an issue still raw in American consciousness two years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and, prophetically, three years before the killings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Veering from the overtly political material that had so far dominated Ochs’ career, ‘‘Crucifixion’’ instead delves deep into a disturbing aspect of human nature.
Littered with vivid poetic imagery, evocative rhymes and religious symbolism, the song depicts the rise and fall of a beloved hero destined for sacrifice, and closing with the opening verse, Ochs also seems to suggest that such a fate will continue to repeat itself throughout the course of human history.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (R.E.M)
Lead singer of R.E.M, Michael Stipe, unleashes a juggernaut of vocables in this relentlessly unravelling scroll of stream-of-conscious verbiage. Considering it’s the end of the world, however, I guess he has a lot to get off his chest. Stipe supposedly dreamed a lot about the end of the world, and the frenzied lyric style of the song captures the disorienting motion of a dream. The lyrical references to celebrities with the initials L.B also came from a moment Stipe experienced during his sleep, in which he was the only guest at a party without those same initials. The track may indeed have some strange origins, but it nevertheless proved to be a favourite amongst live audiences who reacted to the song buoyantly in spite of its subject matter. Indeed, the apocalypse couldn’t have a catcher chorus.
The End (The Doors)
Believe it or not, The Doors’ 1967 musical epic The End began as nothing more than a simple farewell to a girl. After experimenting with the song during their performances as house band at the Whisky Go Go in Los Angeles, however, the song eventually evolved into the ominous piece we recognise today. Ironically enough, the song also signalled the end of the bands time at the club after Morrison performed his famous oedipal spoken-word passage, exclaiming: ‘‘Father, I want to kill you. Mother, I want to fuck you!’’
Many will be familiar with the song from the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, in which the track accompanies scenes from the Vietnam War. Even so, The End remains haunting with its static organ and gentle guitar picking, whilst Morrison’s voice still sends a macabre chill down the spine.
Ring a Ring O’ Roses
Most remember Ring a Ring O’ Roses as an innocent nursery rhyme, but the rhyme has also come to have more sinister connotations. Though folklorists tend to refute the idea, by the mid-20th Century the idea that the rhyme is about the Black Death or the Great Plague of 1665 became common-place. This interpretation of the rhyme suggests that it depicts the symptoms of the plague. The ‘‘ring o’ roses’’ supposedly refers to a rash, the ‘‘pocket of posies’’ herbs for protection, whilst the sneezing is yet another symptom. As for the ‘‘we all fall down,’’ well, I think we all know what that means. No matter what the true origins of the song, however, it is hard to hear it any other way once you’re aware of such a grim theory.
When the Levee Breaks
Popularised by Led Zeppelin in 1971, ‘‘When the Levee Breaks’’ was originally a blues number written and recorded by Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy in 1929 following the Great Mississippi Flood of 27’. The Great Mississippi flood is generally considered to have been the most destructive in US history, killing 500 and leaving an estimated 600,000 homeless. Many of the displaced were African Americans, and the flood contributed to the Great Migration North after homes were destroyed and the agricultural economy was obliterated. Told from the perspective of an anxious narrator contemplating the inevitable doom that would occur should the levee overflow, the song expresses the hardships and sorrows endured by those affected by the flood. ‘‘If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break,’’ sings Minnie, ‘‘And the water gonna come in and we’ll have no place to stay.’’
Though originally performed as a simple acoustic piece, when Led Zeppelin revamped the song in the 70’s, the track was given a dramatic edge and a higher degree of musical intensity, arguably capturing the true extremity of the content better than the original. In a feat of recording innovation, John Bonham’s iconic opening drum beat was recorded in a stairwell with microphones placed three stories high, thus capturing an explosive natural echo. This, combined with a blend of musical dissonance and tension, sets up the track as one of the finest conveyances of natural catastrophe in pop music history.
Bad Moon Rising (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Lead singer of San Francisco band Credence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty, explained that this 1969 hit was ‘‘about the apocalypse that was going to be visited upon us.’’ He was inspired to write the song after seeing a scene from The Devil and Daniel Webster, a 1941 fantasy film in which a hurricane devastates a town. In spite of the lyrically grim content, however, the music is actually upbeat, and it this contrast that makes the song work. Backed by a country shuffle and simple three-chord pattern, Fogerty forebodes of an impending doom like a manic preacher. Moreover, the song obviously resonated with the fractious late 60’s, reaching number two in the US, whilst in the UK it made it to number one.
We’ll Meet Again (Vera Lynn)
Of all the war time records, none remain ingrained in British memory like Vera Lynn’s ‘‘We’ll Meet Again.’’ When war was declared in 1939 and ordinary men were turned into soldiers, servicemen said goodbye to their loved-ones knowing full well that they might not return. Written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, ‘‘We’ll Meet Again’’ expresses the unyielding British optimism when faced by the absolute peril of World War 2. The ‘‘forces sweetheart’’ Vera Lynn performed concerts for troops serving overseas, and her version of the song proved to be a much needed morale booster for soldiers. The song is tinged by a sorrowful sense of optimism, encapsulated by the main refrain. Many families, husbands and wives would not ‘‘meet again’’ after the war; but should they not, then the song also leaves open the interpretation that loved ones would be reunited in the afterlife.
Over the decades since the war, the song has endured as a cultural symbol. Its meaning has been altered, used, and appropriated in a vast variety of ways in many aspects of popular culture. Moreover, during the Cold War the song was eerily listed on a playlist for the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service, a system designed to provide information and morale-boosting broadcasts in the period following a nuclear attack.