Zombie Killing Music

In honor of the closing of AMC’s The Walking Dead‘s second season:

So if you’re lonely
You know I’m here waiting for you
I’m just a crosshair
I’m just a shot away from you
And if you leave here
You leave me broken, shattered, I lie
I’m just a crosshair
I’m just a shot, then we can die
From “Take Me Out”, Franz Ferdinand

Several years ago I met up with an old college roommate (I’ll call him the Historian). As usual, we ended up rehashing the old days before sitting down to a game. In this instance, we were playing a clever board game called “Maul of America” which is, essentially, a game where you play people in a mall trying to escape a Zombie attack. (Get the word play, Maul? HA.)

Now, this was a nostalgic moment. The Historian introduced me to “Maul of America” long before zombies were cool, before “28 Days Later”, before World War Z, The Walking Dead, Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, and everyone talking about the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse. Before Zombies went high culture, the Historian resurrected them from the marginal and the low.

This was a time before Zombie modes in video games (when the N64 was a recent revolution) and before the global war on terror changed the way we fear. The Historian and I are old enough to recall fearing the USSR—we remember legitimately worrying about a nuclear apocalypse. We didn’t have to invent doomsday scenarios in our youth. (Although we did retreat to the woods for safety in fear of Y2K.)

The Historian is an uber-Geek. While I simply played a Bard in D&D to the 21st level, he had  disdain for that game—well into adulthood he dabbled in the esoteric, running games called Champions and Call of Cthulu (he was not, however, a LARPer). While I had traded my 12-sided dice in for guitar picks years earlier, the Historian was still mastering the art of the interactive narrative.

The Historian was also a secret master of board games. He has a store of games that were odd and hard to find before E-bay. Games like Monsters Ravage America and Maul of America. We would play these games habitually. Sometimes, there was drinking. Sometimes (I shudder to admit) there may have been costumes. But there was always a fanatic desire to win.

Years after moving on (he to a 3-week vacation in graduate school and I to a much longer stay in purgatory) we would meet up and return to the good old days (but not frequently enough). In the old days we used to stay up late into the night playing Risk and listening to Stop Making Sense or classic R&B or whatever we were trying to convince each other didn’t suck. During this visit and during this game, the Historian put on Franz Ferdinand’s debut album.

I had heard the album before. Shit, I owned it. But in the dim twilight as the zombies swirled around, it was almost as if I was hearing it for the first time. The music clicked with me. I could feel my anxiety rising, my blood pumping and my will to survive screaming throughout my body. My hands and the dice were one. Those zombies were going down.

I looked at the historian and said “this is perfect Zombie killing music.” And he: “I know.”

How is this possible? What makes Franz Ferdinand a soundtrack for obliterating the undead?

There is something about the make-up of the songs on this first album. The two guitars contrast in sound—one is a bit muddy and lower on the audio spectrum (as if only the bass and middle pick-ups are on) while the lead-guitar sounds a bit like a telecaster with only the treble pickups on. In most of the songs, the bass and drums push the tempo. Guitar licks repeat and scatter around a relentless rhythm.
The vocals are decent—at times they are run through some effects (almost a requirement in the post-Strokes “garage-band” world). The Scottish dialect of the singer makes the elocution of the lyrics ironically easy to understand.

The heart of the album easily resides in the hit single “Take Me Out”. As in most good rock songs, the repetition of the guitar lick and the chorus/bridges render it more than catchy. This formula is repeated—almost to a fault—throughout the album. Some songs are more successful than others. “Jacqueline”, for example, has a memorable melody,  but a vaguely moronic/obvious chorus (“It’s always better on holiday / So much better on holiday / that’s why we only work when / We need the money”). At times the band varies tempo well (from “Take Me Out” to “The Dark of the Matinée”), but generally the songs are musically similar. Not in a bad way—just in a limited way.

What binds the songs together, what contributes to the overall menace of the album, is the combination of the driving rhythm with lyrics that advertise or imply violence. This menace permeates the single “Take Me Out”, but it rings throughout the album
In the second best song on the album (“This Fire”) the singer repeats “This fire is out of control / I’m going to burn this city / Burn this city” against a musical backdrop that echoes the desire for destruction. The frantic music and aggressive vocal delivery belie the repeated invitation to dance in “Michael”; the beginning quiet of the final song (“40’”) sounds more like an ironic gothic rock homage—an irony realized in lyrics that refer to congealing blood and dying arms drying in the sun. Even the seemingly anodyne first song declares “I’m alive / I’m alive / I’m alive / And how I know it / but for chips and for freedom / I could die”.

The album does not seem to celebrate violence but rather repeatedly acknowledge it as an essential fact, as a feature of existence. In this acknowledgement, as shown in these final words from the first song, hangs the rebel yell of defiance, the promise that the fight, while raging, is only just begun. When the vocals break into harmony at the end of “40’”, declaring that “forty feet remain”, there is no doubt that the vocalist plans to cross those forty feet or die trying.

Anti-Zombie Fortress or Modern Art

The album is a celebration of the defiance of life alongside  a recognition that violence precedes and supersedes it. In its unfailing repetition of structure and sound, it is still tremendously flawed—it wouldn’t make my desert island list, unless I were going to an island filled with zombies.

If, however, the zombie apocalypse does come, and I have sufficient ammo and either a good attack plan or a defensible position, you will see me, white ear-buds trailing under my shirt, blasting the unclean brains out of the undead and laughing. My weapon will be one with my hand. I will move slowly, and decisively, letting Franz Ferdinand show me the way.

And you, brother? What will you listen to when the undead knock on your door?

22 comments on “Zombie Killing Music

  1. professormortis says:

    Your mention of the Cold War recalled the time we watched The Day After on Sci-Fi while consuming copious amounts of gin and tonic.

    It shames me a bit to admit that I did not think of putting “Take Me Out” on when I made up my playlist for my last, currently in hiatus and probably never to run again RPG, which is something that I wanted to run since just after we moved on to our respective adventures in graduate school, and only got a chance to run around the start of the ‘teens. Zombie Love Song, the story of a group of travelers who meet at a besieged highway rest stop with just one goal: to get the hell out of Southern California and travel cross country to New England-whether to find parents, wives, children, siblings, beloved pets, or just so they can die in the only soil they’ve called home. I made an epic playlist for this game, but no Franz Ferdinand on it…what a terrible mistake!

    I do know what song I’ll be playing when the zombies come:

    Oingo Boingo’s “No One Lives Forever”:

    • theelderj says:

      You know, professor, the Cold War memories really need to be reignited. You and I have talked about this before, but I keep trying to explain to the Younger J how it felt to have a clear villainous enemy state like the USSR. The fear of nuclear obliteration was heavy, but the clarity of an us-them world was nice (but that just may be the simplicity of childhood seeping in my memory).

      Can you imagine if we added Zombies to a cold war narrative; what if “Red Dawn” part 2 had the Wolverines coping with Commies and Zombies? Or Communist Zombies (Combies? Zombunists?)

      • professormortis says:

        It’s funny…I feared the end due to nuclear obliteration, but (and maybe this was my Fidel Castro loving, socialist leaning, contrary, World War Two history reminding father’s fault) but I never saw the Commies as black hated, monolithic enemies, never bought into the “Red Dawn” mentality (though I love the movie dearly for its “so-bad-its-good” value. I was afraid of being nuked because, according to most adults I knew, the Gipper was a senile idiot, war was almost always bad, and people are stupid. I remember one time kids wanting to play “U.S. vs. Libyans and Russians” and I wanted to play “U.S. vs. Daleks and Cybermen”. Sci-fi and horror/monster movie bad guys were more “real” to me for some reason (although Nazis were acceptable bad guys). I sought “us vs. them” clarity in fantasy because my dad wouldn’t let it exist in fantasy.

        Zombunists! I love it. “The liberals thought we were safe, but what they didn’t know is that the Communists HAD infiltrated our soil in the 1950s….literally! They left “sleeper” zombie agents ready to drag themselves out of the soil and attack. The signal to awaken them was never sent…until now!”

  2. theyoungerj says:

    I don’t think you would want to listen to any music if the zombie apocalypse was upon us. You would need all your senses to deal with the undead menace.
    On another note, this post made me think of the scene in Grosse Pointe Blank where John Cusack is fighting another hitman in a 7-11 type structure while Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” is playing through the shopboy’s walkman while he plays Doom 2 unaware of the gunfight around him. This, my zombie playlist if one was safe to have, would be Motorhead.

    • theelderj says:

      My brother, this is a very sensible response to a nonsensical proposal. I guess my image of the Zombie apocalypse is a little more burlesque or video gamey (let’s say 2 parts “shaun of the dead” and 1 part” Resident Evil”).

      Silence would be the best, but far too eerie. Let’s say we’re in a heavily fortified position mowing Zombies down without fear of being outflanked? Then we can pump up the Motorhead, Rob Zombie, Franz Ferdinand, and, to really creep us out, some Aphex Twin.

      • professormortis says:

        I loved the bit in World War Z where they blast Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” to get the zombies to come to their fortified, prepared positions to slaughter the Zed. While I love that song, and think it would be a fine addition to any Zombie Killin’ Playlist, to me it’s always what I think of when charging (to my certain death) in paintball:

        “You’ll take my life but I’ll take yours too
        You’ll fire your musket but I’ll run you through
        So when you’re waiting for the next attack
        You’d better stand there’s no turning back
        The bugle sounds as the charge begins
        But on this battlefield no one wins
        The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath
        As you plunge into a certain death”

    • professormortis says:

      Also, I should have said, “Ace of Spades”=damn near perfect Zombie killing music.

  3. kate58 says:

    Wow….where can I get a copy of that game – I l♥ve board games….. 🙂

  4. […] a recent exchange with the good Historian over Twitter, I learned that the flagship alternative rock station of Boston MA, WFNX, has been […]

  5. […] to the radio in some time, there are artists who just haven’t been on my radar. Now as the good Historian and my brother will attest, I am usually resistant to new music. I like to find things to dislike, […]

  6. […] (he has a great blog, if you don’t read it, you should). He has appeared in blog posts before as the Historian and he made an indelible (and at times uncleanable) impression on my life when we were roommates […]

  7. […] my friend the Historian, (who is a guest poster under his nom de plume Professor Mortis) writes a pretty cool blog The […]

  8. […] a machine gun in a zombie apocalypse because it would require too much ammo. My brother wrote a zombie killing playlist a while back and does a much more comprehensive job than I will do here on the subject as […]

  9. […] a little younger than we are (say, the Younger Js age), fear terrorists and Global Warming (and Zombies, fake things). We were raised with the fiery fear of nuclear war. I remember attack drills. I remember the 80s […]

  10. […] had a twitter discussion with @professormortis (AKA, the Historian) about the Fraggle-featuring debut video from the album, “Do It Anyway”. Now, knowing my love […]

  11. […] I discuss elsewhere, a good song for killing Zombies. Or running from them. IF you’re heart isn’t racing, this song will start it up. The entire […]

  12. […] talked about the apocalypse, zombies, bands with numbers in the name, and The New Kids on the […]

  13. […] are some of the bands we’ll be thinking about Sunday night (or, most likely, Monday morning. The Walking Dead returns Sunday […]

  14. […] six years ago when I saw a poster while participating in the weekly Saturday 11:00 am hangover zombie walk to my favorite local diner. I saw this poster with a woman all dressed in leather saying […]

  15. […] Last year around this time we got excited about the apocalypse and posted several things to mark the return of a certain apocalyptic narrative.  In honor of the opening of AMC’s The Walking Dead‘s fourth season, I am re-posting this piece: […]

  16. […] I discuss elsewhere, a good song for killing Zombies. Or running from them. IF you’re heart isn’t racing, this song will start it up. The entire […]

  17. […] an exchange with the good Historian over Twitter a few years back, I learned that the flagship alternative rock station of Boston MA, […]

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