The 90 Minute Guide: Apocalypse

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Songs About the Apocalypse

As we learned last year (twice!) with the highly inaccurate predictions of Harold Camping, predicting the end of the world isn’t an easy thing to do. Anyone with a calculator and some fuzzy theology can come up with a number, but until it happens, we’ll likely never have a good grasp on when the apocalypse will actually arrive.

Nonetheless, Dec. 21, 2012, has been interpreted via numerous eschatological phenomena, most notably the Mayan calendar, to be the end of the world. Now, scholars have debated whether or not this date, as appears in the Popol Vuh, is in fact predicted to be doomsday, or simply the dawning of a new age. Nonetheless, it’s bubbled up into popular culture, and we’ll very likely be hearing more about it in the months to come.

While it’s easy to be skeptical of apocalyptic predictions, it’s hard not to be intrigued by its idea. The prospect of a nuclear holocaust informed decades’ worth of movies, music and television, of which “The Day After” even had a profound effect on President Ronald Reagan. It can be powerful stuff, and we can’t help but be reminded of so many amazing songs inspired by the idea of Armageddon. So, to celebrate the Mayan prophecy (or whatever), we put together a mixtape of great doomsday anthems. Play these at ground zero.

Side One: Oops, Out of Time

David Bowie – “Five Years” (4:42)
[from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars]

If 2012 is really the year the Mayans predicted that our world will see its final days, then “Five Years” is actually far too optimistic for this scenario. But in the leadoff track to David Bowie’s masterpiece Ziggy Stardust, the singer is coming to terms with the fact that there’s only five years left before the earth he loves becomes obliterated. And as the song’s orchestral arrangement swells, Bowie’s cries grow ever more anguished (“We’ve got five years! My brain hurts a lot/ We’ve got five years! That’s all we’ve got!”). In the end he’s practically resorting to primal scream therapy, and who could blame him? I think I’d miss all the tall-short people too.

Johnny Cash – “The Man Comes Around” (4:26)
[from American IV: When the Man Comes Around]

Treble’s staff is composed primarily of secular types, but if there’s one voice that’ll get us all to take heed to prophecies of Biblical proportions, it’s that of the Man in Black. With the booming introduction read straight from the Book of Revelations, Cash delves into a description of the coming of the apocalypse with the kind of gravitas only his own grizzled voice can lend. It’s a catchy tune, among Cash’s most memorable, but nonetheless dark and troubling. When he says the hairs on your arm will stand up, you better believe it.

Tom Waits – “The Earth Died Screaming” (3:36)
[from Bone Machine]

Tom Waits’ Bone Machine comes rattling in from a distance with the hollow plonk of what sounds like a procession of bones come to claim the vacated streets, before exploding into a song both mischievous and exciting in its annihilation of the human race. Waits prophesies an apocalypse both “Book of Revelations” (“The lion has three heads/ and someone will eat the skin that he sheds“) and sufficiently humdrum (“I walk between the raindrops/ Wait in BugHouse Square…“) to really strike a nerve, until Mackerel, Trout, the stars and Moon all fall from the sky, only for locusts to take their place.

The Cure – “A Strange Day” (5:04)
[from Pornography]

Nobody made bleak quite so appealing as The Cure did back in their early post-punk days, and on Pornography, the band achieved a critical mass in hopelessness and despair that even Robert Smith hasn’t been able to return to since (which is probably a good thing, for his own sake). In fact, the very first line on the album is, “I don’t care if we all die.” My word. And that’s before the band even got to the song that was actually about the end of the world, “A Strange Day.” Less aggressive, but not at all lacking in atmospheric dread, the song finds Smith describing a terrifying scene where “The sun is humming,” and “the walls crash down” and then, “everything is gone/ forever.” There’s an oddly romantic and hopeful vibe about the whole thing, which seems at odds with the very idea of it all, but such is goth-rock.

Talking Heads – “Life During Wartime” (3:41)
[from Fear of Music]

Let’s treat the universe of David Byrne’s song as if it’s a post-apocalyptic world rather than the ravings of a paranoid mind. It’s a world where even identity isn’t allowed and where even intimacy puts one’s life in danger. There are rumors of mass graves, roadblocks are constructed and personal communication is intercepted. People are forced to be always on the move, compile weapons and constantly change how they look and dress. Cities like Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh are destroyed. The song seems to divide us and the narrator, “the team,” from the ambiguous “them.” The only solace is companionship, and the narrator seems to soften somewhat near the end of the song: finding a meaning for living.

Black Sabbath – “Into the Void” (6:12)
[from Master of Reality]

Ozzy Osbourne has shared more dark, sometimes cryptic, apocalyptic visions than most, though he seems to get straight to the point on the immortal (or, very mortal) “Into the Void.” In a way, it’s almost a message of environmental awareness, as Tony Iommi’s righteous stoner riffs play a dark companion to Ozzy’s foretelling of a planet ruined by pollution and war, mankind left with no other choice but to abandon Earth for a brighter future. It has a lot in common with Antony and the Johnsons’ “Another World,” come to think of it, which is a parallel I never really expected to draw. Needless to say, Sabbath’s tale of humanity’s bleak future is a lot heavier, and probably more fun than a doomsday scenario should be.

Julee Cruise – “Until the End of the World” (5:33)
[from The Voice of Love]

An earth-shattering intro of percussive crashes lend an underlying panic to an otherwise luscious song. This Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch-penned track bears all the dreamy yearning of their previous collaborations with Julee Cruise, the vein they tapped a sort of morphine in song form. While not explicitly, lyrically about the apocalypse, the aforementioned earthquakes give this a decidedly Doomsday mood. Cruise’s multilayered angelics talk of a love that transcends earthly bonds, mingling with the elements in the heavens lasting until, and surpassing, The End of the World.

The Dismemberment Plan – “8.5 Minutes” (2:57)
[from Emergency & I]

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, during which Cold War anxiety permeated every square inch of pop culture, songs about nuclear war were standard fare. But for a while there, it seemed as if everyone had sort of forgotten about the terrifying prospect of having the earth nuked into oblivion. In 1999, though, The Dismemberment Plan reminded us all again, with “8.5 Minutes,” a tragicomic narration of the eight minute, 30 second span of time that occurs after the world’s powers all launch their nuclear weapons simultaneously. In typically jittery fashion, Travis Morrison paints a darkly humorous picture, noting “some of them went off course and hit the moon instead/ it was kind of pretty.” Nobody loots, but it’s “fucking freezing.” Cars are frozen. Scientists break down. But what’s important is what you would do in that amount of time, and if it would be well spent. Just a thought: in that brief duration, you could play this jerky post-punk gem almost all the way through three times.

Prince – “1999” (6:15)
[from 1999]

It’s almost quaint to think that “1999” could have once been a year in which the end of the world might have occurred, but not only are we still here, Y2K didn’t empty our bank accounts or turn our blenders against us either. Nonetheless, it’s a number that suggests a kind of finality, a millennium-ending year that signified a shift, and possibly toward some unseen terror. Prince recorded this during the Reagan era, when Cold War tension was still pretty high, and he uses it as an opportunity to throw one last banger of a party. Ignore, for the time being, the fact that he’s thrown about two dozen other parties since then, but it’s a humdinger all the same. It’s funkily fatalistic, never in denial of the possibility that tomorrow is going to bring our doom. Party up.

Side Two: The Ice Age is Coming

Public Enemy – “Countdown to Armageddon” (1:40)
[from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back]

The first track on Public Enemy’s groundbreaking second album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, isn’t really a song, so much as an ominous threat. Air raid sirens sound, and Flavor Flav drops a few slogans, like “the revolution will not be televised.” But it ends ominously, with “London, you’ve been warned,” which makes a good transition into…

The Clash – “London Calling” (3:19)
[from London Calling]

Much to the contrary of the sneering Johnny Rotten, nobody would have confused Joe Strummer for a nihilist, though on “London Calling,” at times he comes startlingly close. A catchy punk rock anthem polished up with some dub-influenced effects, “London Calling” is a portrait of the world falling apart: “The ice age is coming/ the sun’s zooming in/ Meltdown expected/ the wheat is quite thin.” But Strummer seems to beckon his impending doom, snarling, “I have no fear, because London is drowning and I… live by the river.” Bleak stuff for a song that would prove to be one of the band’s most beloved tunes.

Jimi Hendrix – “All Along The Watchtower” (4:01)
[from Electric Ladyland]

Forever connected to countless montages of Vietnam War footage, “All Along the Watchtower” will, in context, be seen as Dylan’s commentary on the war, even if its cryptic lyrics aren’t so explicit. Hendrix’s version brings an added intensity, even further pushing the apocalyptic darkness therein, reaching its ominous climax as Jimi sings, “Outside in the cold distance/ a wild cat did growl/ Two riders were approaching/ and the wind began to howl.

St. Vincent – “The Apocalypse Song” (3:47)
[from Marry Me]

If told the world would end tomorrow, a lot of folks would prefer to spend those 24 hours with loved ones, cherishing those moments. Meanwhile, there’s a certain segment of the population that would likely indulge in physical pleasures. St. Vincent’s “The Apocalypse Song” isn’t about that specific scenario, but Annie Clark’s lyrics directly address carnal needs (“Please keep your victory/ but give me little death”) while cynically mocking religious fantaticism (“Your devotion has the look of a lunatic’s gaze”). We’ll put her in the skeptic column.

Judy Garland – “Get Happy” (2:53)
[from Summer Stock]

There are many different apocalyptic visions, but rarely has one been so cheerful and seductive. Sung in the film “Summer Stock,” Ms. Garland struts across a sound stage surrounded by eager-looking men and coos about getting ready for Judgment Day. While the Book of Revelation doesn’t wax so much to the sexy side of the scale, this song makes Armageddon sound like something not only worth witnessing, but something that would be regrettable to miss.

The Police – “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” (3:36)
[from Zenyatta Mondatta]

Sting and The Police wrote quite a few songs about the Cold War, apocalypse scenarios and general paranoia, and this one is among the best. Over a laid-back groove that otherwise might suggest better times, Sting lays out a narrative that, at first, sounds like the diary of a shut-in (“turn on the VCR, the same one I’ve had for years“), but it becomes clear that this same person may very well be in a fallout shelter (“Don’t like the food I eat, the cans are running out“). As one goes deeper into the subtext, it may very well be that the world isn’t merely outpacing the narrator, but actually coming to an end.

Elvis Costello – “Waiting for the End of the World” (3:22)
[from My Aim is True]

A history of Western Civilization taking place entirely on a London tube or something far simpler, “Waiting for the End of the World” is one of those songs that’s about nothing and everything all at once. We’re introduced to a TV personality, a hippie hitchhiker and a church congregation, to whom Costello finally suggests, when they’re drowning, “don’t throw out the lifeline till they’re clean out of reach.” It’s a darkly humorous tune, that may not be about the apocalypse directly, but Costello seems to tempt God all the same: “Dear Lord, I sincerely hope you’re coming/ because you really started something.” Given how many false prophecies we’ve witnessed, it seems especially apt.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – “Dead Flag Blues” (16:28)
[from F#A# ∞]

No band has been able to capture post-apocalyptic atmosphere quite with such beauty and quiet terror as Canada’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor did with “Dead Flag Blues,” the four-part suite that opens their epic 1998 album F#A# °. It’s part atonal grotesque, part weepy surf-guitar epic, and part symphonic majesty. But it’s all extremely creepy, and thoroughly devastating. Yet it’s the haunting monologue by Efrim Menuck that takes the chilling ambience to its horrifying extreme: “The sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides… We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine/ and the machine is bleeding to death.” That it ends with such an upbeat section of violin and glockenspiel only speaks to how unsettling the whole thing is, as well as its glory.

Vera Lynn – “We’ll Meet Again” (3:01)
[from We’ll Meet Again]

What good is the end of the world if you can’t have smile about it, right? Nothing seemed to cap this 90 minutes of gloom and doom better than this ’30s-era tune, which shall forever be tied in pop culture history to the final scenes of nuclear warfare in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove. Yee-haw!


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