This is the End: Six Great Musical Visions of the Apocalypse

Originally published on MadeLoud, Oct 29, 2009

The Halloween season brings with it all kinds of superficial scares, generally of the ghosts and goblins variety. Plenty of artists have tried their hand at spooky songs about creepy creatures, from Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” to Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” to the Fresh Prince’s “Nightmare on My Street.” But it takes a different kind of vision to tackle a topic of true existential terror – namely, the end of the world as we know it. Whether by fire or ice, with a bang or a whisper, it’s a pretty unsettling idea. Big ups to these six artists for daring to share their very different visions of the end of days.

Tom Waits – “Earth Died Screaming” (Island, 1992)

The opening track from Waits’s spectacularly grim Bone Machine, this creepy crawler was used to marvelous effect in Terry Gilliam’s classic pandemic piece 12 Monkeys. Narrating the world’s destruction over a rickety percussion track that recalls nothing so much as clattering bones, Waits’s voice is at its most gravelly as he recites grotesque couplets about the night when “There was thunder / There was lightning / Then the stars went out / And the moon fell from the sky / It rained mackerel / It rained trout.” It’s a harrowing litany of horrors, perhaps none more disturbing than the notion that “Hell doesn’t want you / And Heaven is full.” The whole thing plays like a capsule version of the Book of Revelations (“Crows as big as airplanes / The lion has three heads / And someone will eat the skin that it sheds”) minus the Apostle John’s relentless optimism.

David Bowie – Diamond Dogs (RCA, 1974)

Sometime in the ‘70s, the ever-outré Bowie hit upon the idea of adapting George Orwell’s cautionary novel 1984 into a concept album and stage show. That creative process hit a snag when Orwell’s widow refused to relinquish the rights, but Bowie had already crafted the core of Diamond Dogs. Opening with a “Future Legend” telling how the last dregs of humanity sought refuge in crumbling skyscrapers while “fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats” and trudging onward to the closing “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” Diamond Dogs foretells a time of degradation, totalitarianism and all-around ugliness. Even with one of his more upbeat hits, “Rebel Rebel,” wedged in the middle, this would go down as Bowie’s scariest production – at least until he and Mick Jagger flailed their way through “Dancing in the Streets” a decade later.

New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra – Burning Sands (Camelback, 2003)

A collection of jazz and ragtime standards performed in the effervescent style of the 1920s, this swinging little record may look like an odd fit for this list. A closer listen to the Orchestra’s between-song banter, however, reveals that things aren’t quite as rosy as they appear. It seems the band’s performance is being broadcast from a WWII-era submarine traveling aimlessly beneath the Arctic Circle, and the passengers are refugees from a surface world in ruins. With little else to do but run out the clock, the submariners are making the most of their remaining days by dancing to the sounds of “the last orchestra in the world” in the vessel’s “beautiful Barbara Bush ballroom.” It’s an exceedingly odd conceit for such a traditional album, but the catastrophic veneer adds a macabre vitality to the whole proceeding. There would surely be worse ways to wait out the apocalypse.

Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030 (75 Ark, 2000)

From Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome to Death Race 2000 to Robert Altman’s Quintet, there’s a long sci-fi tradition of future societies that have regressed to the point that brutal competitions have become the only thing that matters to the beleaguered survivors. In Deltron 3030’s vision of the 31st Century, high-stakes, intergalactic rap battles dominate the public interest. We join our heroes Del the Funkee Homosapien and Dan the Automator on a quest to bring down the shadowy corporations that dominate the futurescape and control all information. The path to overthrowing the overlords runs through the Galactic Rhyme Federation Championship. That may seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but Del can explain: “Living in a post-apocalyptic world, morbid and horrid / The secrets of the past they hoarded / Now we just boarded on a futuristic spacecraft / No mistakes, black – It’s our music we must take back.”
Mama Cass Elliott – “California Earthquake” (Dunhill, 1968)

Probably the most disturbingly plausible of any of these doomsday scenarios, Mama Cass’ deceptively upbeat ode looks ahead to the devastating earthquake that’s long been expected to send California sliding into the ocean. Singing dispassionately over a jaunty rhythm and a lively horn section, Elliott seems curiously resigned about the day when “Atlantis will rise, Sunset Boulevard will fall / Where the beach used to be won’t be nothin’ at all.” The jarring contrast between subject matter and presentation makes “California Earthquake” extra unnerving, and the half-minute’s worth of bawling emergency sirens that close the track don’t hurt the effect either.

 

“Weird Al” Yankovic – “Christmas at Ground Zero” (Scotti Brothers, 1986)

A departure in several ways for the Great Weird One, this holiday cult hit uses Fishbone’s “Party at Ground Zero” as a jumping-off point for a raucous, barbed celebration of impending nuclear annihilation. Weird Al’s satire rarely got more pointed than these images of the American populace trying to proceed with Christmas as usual while ignoring the fallout around them (“We can dodge debris while we trim the tree / Underneath the mushroom cloud”). He even makes room for an appearance by that staple of ‘80s political commentary, the Ronald Reagan sound bite. Catchy though the carol may be, it’s a bit jarring to hear the goofball behind “Eat It” and “Amish Paradise” spouting off acidic rhymes like “You might hear some reindeer on your rooftop / Or Jack Frost on your windowsill / But if someone’s climbing down your chimney / You better load your gun and shoot to kill!”

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