We all love good songs. From love ballads to power ballads and rage-filled songs to dark world-building epics, we are drawn into a good rhythm and lyrics.
We usually assume that the artists are pouring their creative ideas and some of their own experiences into their music. But there are times that reality is so harsh that it needs to be put into music.
Either for catharsis or to expose hate, musicians have been secretly taking inspiration from crimes for a long time. Here is a list of popular songs that you won’t believe are based on a horrible crime.
This soft tune can fool anyone. Yet it is about the gruesome events that ravaged Manchester between 1963 and 1965. During that time, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley abducted and killed five children.
Morrissey, the front man of The Smiths, was from the area where the abductions happened and was the same age as some of the victims. This led Morrissey to write “Suffer Little Children” as the closing track for the group’s eponymous debut album.
The title of the track was inspired by a phrase in a verse in the Gospel of Matthew: “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is such.”
A highly contested death sentence by hanging is the topic of this song. Elvis Costello brings the topic of capital punishment into the musical spotlight in this late 1980s hit. “Let Him Dangle” is based on the conviction and hanging of Derek Bentley, a British teenager who was involved in the murder of police Constable Sidney Miles.
Bentley didn’t shoot the police officer. His partner, Christopher Craig, did. “Let him have it, Chris” was the shout of Bentley to Craig, a very ambiguous phrase that led to the conviction and death of Bentley.
When you think of Bon Jovi, you would hardly think of a band that dwells in obscure or dark themes like murder. They are no death metal band. With “August 7, 4:15,” the band proved that they were not afraid to take on morbid themes.
The title is a reference to the day on which Katherine Korzilius, daughter of the band’s tour manager at the time, was killed. The story is told through the song in a tasteful manner, but the facts behind the event are tragic.
The murder is even part of the Unsolved Mysteries television show because Katherine’s killer was never found. The six-year-old child was with her mother and brother on that fateful day.
On their way home, they stopped at the mailbox to get their mail. The child asked if she could bring the mail home by herself since she was always eager to prove that she was a big girl. After an hour of waiting for her daughter to arrive home, the mother decided to return to the mailbox.
Katherine was nowhere to be found. A search through the neighborhood revealed the body of the child. The song repeats the date and time of death as a chorus.
You can count on Bruce Springsteen to deliver an amazing tune with a very dark background, arguably one of the best tracks Springsteen has produced. “Nebraska” is the title track from his sixth studio album.
An embodiment of coldness and lack of empathy, the song is narrated from the perspective of 19-year-old Charles Starkweather. Along with his 14-year-old girlfriend, Starkweather went on a killing spree in Wyoming and Nebraska during the 1950s.
At first, the title looks like the statement of a rebel teen defying society or his parents. In fact, the song almost passes as a catchy pop tune. But the inspiration for the song proves to be far more dark and twisted than your traditional punk pop tune. After all, it’s based on a shooting.
In 1979, Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire at a playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California. She killed two adults and injured several children. As the chorus in the song goes, when asked about her reasons for the shooting, she just said, “I don’t like Mondays.”
This is the only presidential tune on our list—and one that shifts its focus from the victim to the environment. The song is a recounting of the assassination of President James Garfield.
But where other songs emphasize the details of the death of the subject, the ingenious Johnny Cash focuses his song on the nation and the struggle it faced after the loss of a leader.
This song has been performed many times by many artists.
But if you are looking for a song that explores the other side of a murder and agrees with the killer, then look no further than “Stack O’ Lee Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt.
This famous ballad is based on the murder of Billy Lyons in 1895. It happened in St. Louis during Christmas at the hands of Lee Shelton. The light guitar delivery contrasts with the racial commentary in this catchy tune.
Delivering some of pop’s more funky protest jams, Prince filled his 1981 album, Controversy, with heavy bass lines and synth riffs, questioning identity norms. But one song stands out as a sore thumb in terms of production.
“Annie Christian” sounds nothing like the rest of the album. The rhythms are off, and the synths sound as if they are being played as an echo of something fun. But Prince’s delivery of the lyrics disturbs the song purposefully. The song is hard to hear for anyone who is not a fan of cacophony-style lyrics.
The tune has many murder references—from the murder of John Lennon to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. The song’s crime references are enveloped in a scrambled tune that critically reflects the human condition and human ideologies—such as religion—that were the face of America at the beginning of 1980.
Ethereal tunes, somber baritone vocals, and atmospheric rhythms are a given when listening to Interpol. With lyrics that seem to speak more to the subconscious than directly to the listener, the references in “Pioneer to The Falls” to the death of Imette St. Guillen are equally hard to perceive.
The song was written around the same time that St. Guillen’s body was discovered. She had traveled in New York between two bars, the Pioneer and The Falls. Although this might be the most direct reference to the murder, the song alludes constantly to a grave in the shape of a dirt pile. The vanishing of a girl refers to the tragic circumstances of St. Guillen’s death.
This is a very curious song that was originally performed by Nigel Denver. It details the Great Train Robbery by Bruce Richard Reynolds in 1963, which was the largest robbery ever at that time.
Denver immortalized the rogue and his feat with this tune. Eventually, Reynolds served his time and the song was forgotten. A few decades later, however, Alabama 3 brought the song back with a twist.
The band claimed that the son of Reynolds was one of the band members. This led to a controversial appearance by Reynolds on the track, making it the only song in our list to feature the criminal himself.
Carlos is a graphic designer and photographer based in Wisconsin. He is currently working as a macro photographer and content writer.