With the 17th century advent of British murder ballads, the gangsta rap of the 1990s and modern-day narcocorridos (which sing about the savage exploits of Mexican drug cartels), it's been proven that murder makes for good musical subject matter. And while many a songwriter has had a hit with tales of fictitious crimes and villains, others have ripped their storylines straight out of the daily news.
As you might expect, plenty of heavy metal bands have exploited the shocking details of the most notorious serial killers to titillate their audiences. Other artists, however, have tried to get inside the minds of the killers themselves, and the results often bring a sense of discomforting sympathy. Here are 10 songs — from ‘30s folk to ‘60s rock, and from ‘70s punk to modern hip hop — that sing about some of the worst killers and most notorious murders of all time.
Chad Mitchell Trio "Lizzie Borden" (Lizzie Borden)
Satirical folk music group The Chad Mitchell Trio had a minor hit in 1961 with this humorous ditty about the accused 1800s axe murderer Lizzie Borden. Abby and Andrew Borden were murdered at their home in Fall River, Massachusetts on the morning of Thursday, August 4, 1892.
Lizzie discovered the bodies, and later become the primary suspect. However, on June 20, 1893, she was acquitted after the jury deliberated for just an hour and a half. She lived at the rest of her days in Fall River, and died at the age of 66 from pneumonia.
Woody Guthrie "Pretty Boy Floyd" (Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd)
The legendary folk singer turned this Depression-era bank robber into a folk hero with this oft-covered 1939 song. From 1925 until his death in 1934, Floyd was involved in numerous bank robberies throughout the “American Heartland,” supposedly destroying the mortgage documents the banks held over struggling Americans. He was also responsible for the deaths of several lawmen while trying to evade capture.
Though he later denied it, he was implicated in the infamous “Kansas City Massacre” of 1933, when four law enforcement officers were killed in an attempt to free from custody bank robber Frank “Jelly” Nash, who was accidentally killed in the melee. The long arm of the law eventually caught up with him in East Liverpool, Ohio in October 1934, and he was killed after drawing his gun on officers led by famed FBI agent Melvin Purvis.
The Rolling Stones "Midnight Rambler" (The Boston Strangler)
The self-proclaimed “greatest rock n’ roll band in the world” opened up side two of their landmark 1969 album Let It Bleed with this song, inspired by “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo. Between 1962 and 1964, DeSalvo strangled to death 13 women in the Boston area, which he confessed to after being arrested for a series of rapes.
He was sentenced to life in prison, where he was stabbed and killed in 1973.
Bruce Springsteen "Nebraska" (Charles Starkweather)
The title track to Springsteen’s stripped down acoustic album of 1982 is a first person retelling of this real-life rebel without a cause who killed 11 during a late ‘50s murder spree. Though his first murder was in November 1957, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather’s true blood run began after killing the mother, stepfather and 2-year-old sister of his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, on January 21, 1958.
Over the following week Starkweather, with Fugate in tow, killed another seven in Nebraska and Wyoming before being apprehended. Starkweather was sentenced to the electric chair and executed in 1959, while Fugate, who claimed she was a hostage, got a life sentence, but was later paroled in 1976.
The Misfits “Bullet” (The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy)
For their second single, New Jersey’s finest horror punk combo issued this 1-minute-and-37-second ode to the assassination of the 35th President of The United States in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. While lone nut gunman Lee Harvey Oswald was the only person ever held responsible for the killing, various conspiracy theories suggest the involvement of the CIA, the Chicago Mafia, and/or Cuban right wing paramilitary groups.
The Misfits meanwhile hold the “Lone Star” state responsible, memorably singing, “Texas is the reason that the President's dead!," before indulging in X-rated fantasies about First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The Smiths "Suffer Little Children" (The Moors Murders)
British mope masters The Smiths courted controversy with this 1984 track about The Moors Murders, which occurred in and around the band’s native Manchester in the early 1960s. Between July 1963 and October 1965, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley murdered five victims, between the ages of 10 and 17, sexually assaulted at least four of them and buried their bodies on Saddleworth Moor.
The couple was eventually caught after being turned in by Hindley’s brother-in-law, whom they’d tried to recruit as an accomplice. The pair was tried for three of the murders and received life sentences, Brady confessing to the other two in 1985. Both died in prison.
Slayer “Angel Of Death” (Nazi War Criminal Josef Mengele)
Thrash metal titans Slayer landed in a mess of trouble thanks to this 1986 song about Nazi war criminal Josef “The Angel Of Death” Mengele. Mengele oversaw the gas chambers at Poland’s notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, picking out subjects he spared for future experiments.
His subjects, mostly children, would receive unnecessary amputations or teeth extractions, exposure to infectious diseases such as typhus, beatings to see how they react to pain and injury, injections directly into their eye balls to try and change their color and injections of lethal poisons to study their effect. After the fall of the Third Reich, Mengele lived under assumed names to avoid capture, eventually making his way to South America, and settling in Brazil, where he drowned in 1979.
Talib Kweli "The Proud" (The Oklahoma City Bombing and The September 11th Attacks)
In this track off his solo, the Brooklyn rapper uses the Oklahoma City Bombing and 9/11 Attacks as bookends to discuss violence in America. “Today the paper say Timothy McVeigh's in hell/ So everything's okay and all must be well,” he raps about the terrorist’s 2001 execution for the on April 19, 1995 bombing, which killed 168 people, including 19 children.
This is contrasted in the end of the song with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, where Kweli raps, “We've been at war for years but it's much more clear/ We got to face what lies ahead/ Fight for our truth and freedom and, ride for the dead.”
The Killers “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” (The Murder of Jennifer Levin by Robert Chambers)
The Las Vegas band kicked off their debut album with this song inspired by New York’s infamous “Preppie Killer” case. Good-looking prep school bad boy Robert Chambers, 19, left Upper East Side watering hole Dorian’s Red Hand after a night of underage drinking with sometime romantic partner Jennifer Levin, 18, one August night in 1986. The following morning Levin’s half-naked body was found in Central Park, dead from strangulation.
Cops quickly picked up Chambers who said he had accidentally killed Levin during rough sex. He eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, which he served in full, due to numerous disciplinary infractions. He was released from in 2003, but soon began dealing cocaine and heroin and in 2008 was sentenced to 19 years in prison after pleading guilty to various drug charges. His earliest release date is January 2024.
Insane Clown Posse "Chris Benoit" (Chris Benoit’s Double Murder And Suicide)
These trouble-making evil clown-themed rappers explored the circumstances behind the WWE wrestler Chris Benoit’s double murder and suicide. On Friday, June 22, 2007 Chris killed his wife Nancy Benoit, herself a professional wrestling personality, binding her limbs and strangling her to death with a cord. On Saturday morning, Benoit killed his 7-year-old son Daniel, strangling him to death with his bare hands after drugging him with Xanax.
On Sunday, Benoit texted several friends his home address before killing himself by rigging a weight-lifting machine to strangle him and break his neck. Bibles were left next each of the dead bodies. While a definitive motive has never been determined, alcohol and steroid abuse, testosterone treatments and brain damage have all been considered possible factors in Benoit’s troubled mental health and violent outburst.
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