Many a contemporary crime fiction novel rocks along to a certain soundtrack – authors often use them to engage the reader a little more and bring in some touch points from modern culture to embellish their twisted plotlines. So we thought we’d put together a list of popular music for crime fiction lovers. These are all songs about crime or the effects of crime, and they could make an interesting playlist on Spotify if we had the inclination to mess around with that. Perhaps the limiting factor to our list is the collective memories of the crime fiction loving team and our admittedly appalling musical taste. So do feel free to add your own in the comments below the post.
Well, alright, now for the countdown…
20 – The Mercy Seat by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Re-recorded by Johnny Cash in 2000, doubling the track’s credibility, The Mercy Seat is Nick Cave’s 1988 song about facing the electric chair. Just as Cash didn’t taste more than a night in jail (see below), to our knowledge Nick Cave hasn’t been electrocuted much further than a static shock, though at times his hair has certainly stood on end. To add to his crime fiction credentials, Cave also released an album entitled Murder Ballads, wrote a book about some messed up hillbillies called And the Ass Saw the Angel, and wrote the screenplay for Lawless, based on The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. (Wait, did someone say Bondurant?)
19 – Long Black Veil performed by The Band
Actually, a number of musicians have recorded this number including the above mentioned Nick Cave, but the hottest version according to our contributor DispatchesFromNoir was done by The Band. Written by Danny Dil and Marijon Wilkin back in 1959, it’s a Folk-inspired song about a man wrongly executed for murder, whose grave is visited by the ghostly figure of the lover he refused to betray.
18 – Colors by Ice-T
To South Central Los Angeles, now, and honestly we could fill this list with gangster Rap, though thinking about it Blues and Country music offer their fair share of criminal tunes. We thought about including Coolio with Gangsters Paradise here but the honour has to go to the OG Ice-T for the way he captured the atmosphere of late 80s LA in Colors. The film it appeared in, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duval, is pretty good too. When a track starts with the line “I am a nightmare walking, psychopath talking…” you just know which direction things are headed.
17 – Jewel Thief by The Kills
You might not have come across this one unless you’re young and cool. (Or maybe we should rephrase that – younger and cooler than us.) Jewel Thief by The Kills was recommended for the list by LoiteringWithIntent and is certainly full of criminal intent. It comes from the album Keep on Your Mean Side which has a great sleeve – both artists providing their mugshots and fingerprints for it. Yes, this is musical crime fiction.
16 – Desperado by The Eagles
Hailing from California, The Eagles had to go into our top 20. After all, they recorded an entire concept album based on the outlaws of the Old West in 1973. It was entitled Desperado and the song Desperado was the main track. Rolling Stone said it was the 494th best song of all time, and the singles from the album, Tequila Sunrise and Outlaw Man, did pretty well in the charts.
15 – Jailbreak by AC/DC
There’s nothing like a power chord to strangle a melody, or your victim if you are a crime fiction villain. How about AC/DC and their Jailbreak, though, for inspired crime fiction heavy metal? The track was actually on the original Australian version of their equally crimey-titled album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. It wasn’t until 1984 that the ’74 Jailbreak EP came out and their fans in other countries had access to it. By the way, did you know that our very own Spriteby is a bit of a metaller, or metallist? It’s true and she told us about how Ozzy Osbourne actually has a song entitled Perry Mason.
14 – Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi
Spandex trousers, neck scarves, cowboy boots. When I was growing up these were all pretty much illegal garments for young men, in my town at least. So a young Jon Bon Jovi, singing about his steel horse may well have felt like the Old West outlaws that inspired this song. In fact, his criminal cred extended even further when his equally anthemic number Blaze of Glory was used in the soundtrack to the 1990 film Young Guns II, an account of Billy the Kid and his gang’s activities that co-starred William Petersen of CSI fame as Pat Garrett.
13 – Hey Joe performed by Jimi Hendrix
The debut single released by Jimi Hendrix, Hey Joe was actually first recorded a year earlier in 1965 by a band called The Leaves. It tells the story of a man who flees to Mexico after shooting his wife. Since the master of R&B guitar got hold of it, Hey Joe has been performed by all sorts of bands, and in 2006 it was used in a world record-setting strumming session by over 1500 guitarists in Warsaw, Poland.
12 – Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones
Another great 60s track, Gimme Shelter mainly seems to have been an anti-war song by the Rolling Stones but there are numerous references to rape and murder during this haunting track. If you want even more haunting, try the cover by the Sisters of Mercy. Interestingly, the song is played on the radio in JR Moehringer’s recent account of the life of bank robber Willie Sutton. In the book it becomes a bit of an earworm for Sutton as he’s driven around New York to the scenes of his crimes by a reporter.
11 – Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson
For all its funkiness, this song is about a man breaking into a woman’s apartment, chasing her around and beating her down. Smoothly, of course. There are bloodstains on the carpet, and there’s doom for Annie, the woman Michael Jackson is singing about. Meanwhile, the video took on a 30s Chicago theme with tommy guns and fedoras mixed in with the moonwalking. Personally, I was oblivious to all of this until Spriteby pointed it out. When I was younger I thought he was singing about someone called ‘Eddie’. Never had an ear for Michael Jackson…
10 – Jesse James – performed by Bruce Springsteen
“That dirty little coward, that shot Mr Howard, he laid poor Jesse in his grave.” Another one taking the Wild West for inspiration, this ballad talks about the shooting of Jesse James by Robert Ford, when James was going by the name Thomas Howard and living in Missouri in 1882. Numerous recording artists have sung this Folk song going back to Bascom Lamar Lunsford who first recorded it back in 1924.
9 – Delilah performed by Tom Jones
Not many people seem to realise this when they sing along to Delilah at weddings and other joyous events, but the song is actually about a man who is ditched by his lover, spies on her when she’s with another man, and then stabs her to death. Made famous by Welsh crooner Tom Jones in 1968, it was written by Barry Mason.
8 – Road Rage by Catatonia
Didn’t Tom Jones record a duet with his fellow Welsh citizen Cerys Matthews of Catatonia? Think so… Anyway, Matthews and her band were prone to homicidal rage which shows in several of their songs, but nothing sums it up better than the single Road Rage. The concept of getting out of your car and beating up another driver seems so 90s now. A bit like Catatonia, really, but the song is perfectly placed at number 8.
7 – Bang Bang by Cher
We got a scare the other day when we got a text through saying ‘That Cher’s Dead’. However it was just someone’s autocorrect playing up and the Californian songstress is still going strong. Her 1966 hit Bang Bang is about a woman shot down by her baby, and is widely attributed to Nancy Sinatra who recorded it later that year. Sinatra’s version appears on the soundtrack to Kill Bill.
6 – I Fought the Law – performed by The Clash
Originally written back in the 1950s by Sonny Curtis of the Crickets, I Fought the Law became a punk anthem thanks to the Clash in 1979. As the lyrics correctly point out, if you fight the law, the law will usually win and that is the case in most crime fiction contexts unless, of course, you veer into the post-modern strands of the genre where the anti-hero can act outside the law and, sometimes, win. Or, your book might just have an unsatisfactory ending. Further crime cred goes to the Clash for singing that, ‘Daddy was a bankrobber…’
5 – Shoplifters of the World Unite by The Smiths
Apparently what Morrissey was referring to with this potentially revolutionary lyric was the idea not of sticking Smiths records in your jacket and bolting for the exit in Woolworths, but lifting musical ideas from other artists. We’re not so sure because within a year of this 1987 release, the band’s final album came out with the title Strangeways, Here We Come. Certainly there must have been criminal intent there… Morrissey later sang about latino gang crime in Los Angeles, too, and let’s not forget that Elvis Presley who sang Jailhouse Rock appears on the Shoplifters single sleeve.
4 – I Shot the Sheriff by Bob Marley
Here’s an example of what Morrissey might have been talking about. I Shot the Sheriff was first recorded by Bob Marley & The Wailers in 1973, but it’s the Eric Clapton 1974 version that went to number one in the US. Simple though the song may be it has some of the key elements of a good crime fiction plot – a confession, an argument of innocence where the deputy’s death is concerned, and the accused makes a case for self-defence. The song has been shoplifted by many other performers from Warren G to The Jacksons. There’s even a Nordic noir version – Jag sköt sheriffen – by Swedish band Just D.
3 – Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
It’s the defining prison song and it was written by The Man In Black. Johnny Cash hadn’t actually been to Folsom Prison when he wrote those lines. He was serving in the US Army in West Germany when the lyrics came to him. Although he cultivated an outlaw image during periods of his career, was sued by the government for starting a forest fire, and was at one time a heavy alcohol and amphetamine user, he only spent a few nights in jail, for misdemeanours. He also wrote a novel – The Man in White – based on his Christian convictions.
2 – Rocky Raccoon by The Beatles
The cracks were already appearing amongst the Beatles as John Lennon pointed directly in Paul McCartney’s direction when asked about Rocky Raccoon. The American Folk music pastiche that appears on the infamous White Album was not a favourite of Lennon’s. Jilted Rocky drinks plenty of gin, grabs his weapon and heads out to shoot down his love rival. Though we’re never told what sort of animal it was he went to confront, the raccoon is known to be the bandit of the animal kingdom, giving the song even more crime fiction credibility. Convicted murder Charles Manson was said to have listened to The White Album (which includes this track) repeatedly in the period before his killing spree in Death Valley, believing an apocalyptic message was being channelled to him via the music.
1 – Watching the Detectives by Elvis Costello
There’s a reason this song is number one on the Crime Fiction Lover top 20, and that’s because it’s actually about a crime fiction lover. The person Elvis Costello is singing about is someone who’d rather lie around all day and watch detective shows on TV than hang out with him. That’s all of us! But thanks for the song, Elvis. It’s a diamond.
There are plenty of other crime-inspired pop songs. Tell us about your favourites below.