Apocalypse (Playlist) Redux

Well sure as planets come, I know that they end. 
And if I'm here when that happens, will you promise me this my friend? 
Please bury me with it! 
I just don't need none of that Mad Max bullshit.
-Modest Mouse


Recently, my brother listed his favorite songs about the apocalypse. For various reasons, I cannot let this post stand alone. (This says far more about me than about my brother or his post.)

Why are we obsessed with the apocalypse? I actually ask this of my students on a semesterly basis. I think that the answer, if there is one, is partly psychological and structural. First, we know that we begin and end individually—part of our death drive or obsession also nearly demands contemplation (and fantasy) about everything expiring just as we will.

In addition, there is a structural logic among the cultural offspring of the Abrahamic religions. We tell the story of the world being created. Logically, that which is created must eventually be destroyed.

(Oh, and science supports this. Oh, and we keep destroying things. And, by the way, our lifestyle and growth rates are unsustainable….)

So the Younger J confessed that during the premier of The Walking Dead we were texting song lists back and forth. My brother’s list is great and, I am sure, cooler than mine. His music taste and knowledge can be so much deeper. My corresponding ‘interests’ are random and aesthetically scatter-shot.

Oh, and I am also pissed that he stole my shtick and mentioned that apocalypse is Greek in origin.

So his list is good, but it isn’t mine. In ascending order of my subjective taste (from best to 8th best), here are my favorite songs about the apocalypse.

1. “(Nothing But) Flowers”, The Talking Heads

The happiest song about the end of the world—at least on the surface level. I have loved this song since my best friend in high school (a previously mentioned Lead Singer) played it for me when we were in 7th grade. I can still remember the road we were on, the caravan his parents were driving, and how hilarious we both found the song.

While I still see the humor in it, I think that Byrne’s lyrics are more satirical and cynical. His post-apocalyptic paradise is one where men cannot adjust—not because it is too terrible or tough, but because it is too wonderful.

This was a discount store,

Now it’s turned into a cornfield

you got it, you got it

Don’t leave me stranded here

I can’t get used to this lifestyle

2. “Bury Me With It”, Modest Mouse

What more is there to say about this great song? I love the frantic balance of the multi-syllabic verses with the almost-screamed chorus. The instrumentation supports the contrast beautifully. This is Modest Mouse at its most quintessentially schizophrenic.

When I ask my wife about post-apocalyptic scenarios (on the occasions she will entertain my hypotheticals), she insists that preparing for the occasion is a waste of time. She says she wouldn’t want to survive in a world undergoing whatever cataclysmic event could be called an apocalypse.

Besides loving the late alt-rock crunch of this song (and, in general, appreciating the even quality of Modest Mouse’s work), I love this song for this one line: “I don’t need none of that Mad Max bullshit”. The command of the title and chorus (“please, bury me with it”) reflects my wife’s opinion just enough to demand the inclusion of this song.

 3. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, REM

I know my brother didn’t include this song because a lot of people despise REM. In fact, of the seminal early alt-rock bands REM get the least respect and probably garnered way too little attention when they called it quits. I think that this comes from a few things.

First, REM had too many styles and took risks (“Shiny Happy People”? Worst song by a great band). Then, when REM broke through it was with the wrong music. “Losing My Religion” was a fantastic song, but not grungy enough or angry enough. Who wants contemplative when you can be mad?

Second, “Everybody Hurts”. When I first listened to Automatic for the People (and “Drive” had just been released) I knew that “Everybody Hurts” was going to be a big hit. But like similar 1990s explosions (say, Hootie and the Blowfish and Forrest Gump) what seemed initially universally appealing, aged quite poorly. Now, “Everybody Hurts”sounds like a parody of itself.

But I don’t care about any of this. “It’s the end of the world…” is one of the few American made indie-rock songs from the 80s that (1) almost everyone knows, (2) many have imitated , and (3) sounds like nothing else. REM was one of the most important and influential bands on College Radio—they didn’t break through with a consistent style and image like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, or Green Day, but they took more risks.

There is something about the insouciance of this song that is reassuring. I also have fond memories of covering this (rather poorly) with one of my bands. It is successful because of the radical juxtaposition of the end of all we know with a feeling of not sorrow or elation but measured acceptance.

And, if you’re living through the apocalypse do you want to take risks and feel fine about it or what?

4. “Eve of Destruction”, Barry McGuire (P. F. Sloan)

This is a phenomenal protest song that I grew up hearing on the radio (since my parents only listened to Oldies stations). I love the gravel in the vocals and I love the melody and desperation in the song. Now, I know that this is not literally a song about the apocalypse, but rather one anticipating.

Nevertheless, I guarantee that if there were a cataclysmic event occurring, too many of us would be in denial about it and would ignore voices like McGuire’s as if they were panicked Chicken Littles. And, hey, it isn’t like Global Warming is a serious issue. Or that overpopulation will eventually outstrip developments in agriculture. Or that we’re playing with house money when it comes to the fact that we haven’t used atomic/nuclear weapons since WWII…

5. “Seconds”, U2

Speaking of nuclear weapons and bands that no longer get sufficient respect: U2 has almost become a dirty name to ‘real’ music lovers. Bono is a megalomaniacal self-mockery at this point and while many praised All You Can’t Leave Behind, the band should have been disbanded after Zooropa.

But, to be fair, how many bands have given the world so many great songs? This song is about nuclear holocaust. As the Historian and I used to discuss, people just 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 arms race. Even in my 30s, I still mistrust Russians because I was born and bred to expect a war of total annihilation in my lifetime.

So, this song takes me back to when I first started listening to U2 and when we didn’t have to hear random and unexpected attacks or religious war or Y2K.

6. “California Love” 2Pac (Featuring Dr. Dre)

I know that this song isn’t really about the end of the world. Including it also made be feel bad that (1) I didn’t include Tool’s “Aenima” which is also a song about California (and the world ending). But, Tool gets a little too heavy for me and I love this song.

What makes it fit for this list, though, is the video. Dr. Dre and 2Pac in a Mad Max party? It might not be the safest place to imagine, but what the hell do you expect from the end of the world. Count me in.

7. “Come to Daddy”, Aphex Twin

All I have to say is this. If the end of the world is anything like this video, I don’t want to be there.  Also, if you’re short on reasons that mankind may not be worthy of survival, watch this video.

( That was only partly a joke)

8. “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth”, The Dandy Warhols

So this song is only partly serious. A great rock song—and the song the Lead Singer mentioned above said was the only one ‘half-assed’ music fans would know. This was the song that put the band on the map and which also inspired a great parody from the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

It is also a reminder that, should the end times come, survival will be random and serendipitous. The best won’t survive. The most well-prepared will not prevail. It will be chaos. Chance will preserve few. Some of those will be survivalists. Some will be honest and virtuous. But many will also be criminals, drug addicts, and, most of all, the ruthlessly selfish and opportunistic.

And, with that thought in mind, maybe I will join my wife and Modest Mouse to ask for this: if the world starts to end, please, bury me with it.

11 comments on “Apocalypse (Playlist) Redux

  1. professormortis says:

    Great list. Nothing But Flowers, in a way, reminds me of Heaven because, it too, has a narrator who is unhappy with something lovely, perfect. On the other hand, I’ve heard Byrne claim that song actually comes from the want, when on a tour and doing the constant grind of going to gigs, of just simple quite and nothing going on. Who knows. My favorite “Apocalypse” song from that band is “Life During Wartime”, which makes me, in part, think of the early part of Dawn of the Dead:

    “I know of a truck, loaded with weapons
    Packed up and ready to go
    Heard of some gravesites, up on the hillside
    a Place that nobody knows
    Heard about Houston. Heard about Detroit. Heard about Pittsburg PA”

    For some reason this makes me think of the early part of zombie movies, when something’s happening but people don’t really get it yet. Yeah, the dialog is more cloak-and-dagger-y and I probably don’t get it, but that’s what it makes me think of.

    I would like to think I’d have the strength of will to kill myself, but I’m not really sure I could do it, but maybe I can hope to be the guy who just gets wiped out the first day.

    Re: Nuclear Paranoia: remember watching The Day After while sucking down gin and tonics in those old cheap glasses? Poor Gutenberg! He just wanted to get home.

    • theelderj says:

      I was torn about “Life During Wartime”. I love that too, and you’re totally right that it evokes early zombie movies and the narrative pattern of disaster films quite well. For some reason, I feel like it is more of a disaster we recover from story than an apocalypse. I love the line about peanut butter and the other one about night school.

      Gutenburg had to learn that his home was on the police force.

      The Day After was awesome, but only in the retro-way that someone who grew up when it seemed plausible/likely could appreciate. I don’t know if my brother would like it much.

      Still, seen Jericho?

      • professormortis says:

        Well, I think the thing is, in the early stages, who knows, we might recover. And my favored undead are the shambling hordes, not today’s sprinters, and those guys we might have overcome. You could easily read “Life During Wartime” as being about, I don’t know, “Life During Wartime”, so it could be a temporary dislocation.

        Oh, I don’t think The Day After works unless your remember the fear, or, in my case, at least, I recalled when it aired, and my older siblings and their friends talked about it, and how it traumitized my sister when they showed it in Sociology class in Jr. High.

        Never seen Jericho, though sometime Apocalypse Afficienado BVH used to watch it; I think maybe nights I was either working or had Grad School.

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  4. londongigger says:

    The early 80’s was THE era for Apolocalytic songs.

    How about: Mutually Assured Destruction by Gillan (1982), Dancing with Tears in my Eyes by Ultravox (1984), Let’s all Make A Bomb by Heaven 17 (1981) or Russians by Sting (1985)

    • theelderj says:

      I think you’re right that the 1980s were a golden era of Apocalyptic songs. I was a little young for Gillan and Heaven 17, but I shouldn’t have missed “Russians” or Ultravox (neither of which my brother is likely to remember).

      Does this mean that a return of the old empire could possibly improve our music scene?

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