May 10, 2006
My book is about zombies and the end of the world. It’s set in the present day but in some ways it came out of the distant era when I really thought the world would end: high school. All the best apocalypse songs came out of that time, or at least the ones I love. I’ve chosen here to present you the ultimate zombie mix tape, circa 1990.
Before we begin, one quick disclaimer: there’s a good deal of ‘80s nostalgia ahead. Those who are sensitive to handclap loops recorded on Roland synthesizers should avert their ears now.
Deanna by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (from “Tender Prey” 1988)
As with many songs on this list it is the best song on a great album, the story of an innocent young country girl being seduced into a life of murder and wild sex by a dubious lothario. “Our little crimeworn histories/Blackened, smoking Christmas trees.” Nick Cave has the secret of great storytelling—he knows how to take the simplest subject matter, the most basic, archetypal figures and get them to line up like grubby constellations. And then he sets them to some of the crankiest beats around. A crazy girlfriend turned me onto Nick Cave with this album. She came over one day to have lunch with me at my job at a National Ripoff Mart warehouse and we sat there in her car with the doors open (it was a hot summer) listening to this track over and over and over. Then I went back inside and sold Paula Abdul and Mariah Carey albums.
Hammerheads by Shriekback (from “Oil and Gold” 1985)
It was very difficult for me when creating this list to not just write down the names of all my favorite Shriekback songs. This transcendental and massively influential dance band put out some truly fine records that sank without a trace—their one big hit was “Nemesis” but there were so many more wonderful songs. I tried to pick my favorite, but ended up picking two, both from the same album: Oil and Gold, arguably the best thing the Shrieks ever made. Hammerheads is a zombie anthem, a braindead wail of exultation: “Onward hammerheads/keeping going!” “We are sleek and special/and we don’t know anything!” A relentless, almost atonal march that ends in a rhythmic chanting prayer to the moon-walkers, the snake-people, and the Big Damage. Post-apocalyptic dance music and I dig it.
Sweet Jane by the Velvet Underground (from “Loaded” 1970)
My favorite song of all time. I like every version of this song ever recorded, from the hard-rocking version Lou Reed cut in later years to the heroin-soft original version to the sublime rendition the Cowboy Junkies did in the ‘90s. It’s the bass line that does it, and that doesn’t change.
Wave of Mutilation by the Pixies (from “Doolittle” 1989)
The simplest songs are sometimes the best. An epic crescendo of pure obliteration. In college I had a chance to see the Pixies even before I’d heard their album. They were playing the student union at Syracuse and I bought the ticket because a goth girl at the record store said they were good and I thought she was cute. When the day of the concert rolled around I was getting high with my room mate and didn’t realize the time until the show was half over. I ran halfway across campus and made it for three songs and an encore. Kids, never do drugs. You miss all the best music that way.
Big Black Mariah by Tom Waits (from “Rain Dogs” 1985)
There was a kid named Chris Potter in my high school who was always just a little cooler than me. He was a better writer, he could play ragtime piano, and if you offered him a ride home from a party he always said he would rather walk. He made me a tape of Tom Waits songs, a cheap Memorex 90 minute job that made it sound like Tom Waits was standing in the bathroom down the hall belching drunkenly. I promptly tossed the tape on my “maybe later” pile. It wasn’t until college that I really understood Tom Waits and that he was supposed to sound like that. Years later I ran into the man himself in a bar in Denver, promptly tripped over a bar stool, and in one smooth motion came up with my hand out-stretched so that Tom Waits had no choice but to shake it. Top that, Chris Potter.
Panic by the Smiths (from “Louder than Bombs” 1987)
Another album I listened to so many times the tape wore thin and got all twisted but I kept playing it anyway. Chaos, anarchy, apocalypse, all started because there was nothing good on the radio. Well, it felt like that half the time when I was growing up in my suburban hell, with the latest Prince and Madonna singles being dunned into my ears all night and day. Every alternative album back then was a little revelation, a care package from a saner and more interesting world. The same album included the flawless and joyful “Ask”, with the famous hypothetical: “If it’s not love/it’s the bomb that will bring us together.”
Luminous Rose by Robyn Hitchcock (from “Globe of Frogs” 1988)
I can’t even begin to dissect my relationship with Robyn Hitchcock’s music. It’s been the soundtrack to my life, in many ways, because it seems like there’s always a new album out, because they’re always good, because I can listen to his keening voice all day long and not get tired of it “Luminous Rose” is a track that sounds like liquid rolling around inside a long bottle of wine. The lyrics tell of dead sailors and airmen under the English Channel, rising out of their sunken ships and airplanes to take on new life as the current tugs at their dead limbs. It’s really quite beautiful.
London Calling by the Clash (from “London Calling” 1979)
The Clash were my moral compass as a kid. They were politically aware and still they wrote great pop hooks—what more could you want? This track is their most bleakly apocalyptic, and it includes the line, “London Calling/To the zombies of death/quit holding out/and draw another breath.” The Clash supposedly had another song called “Glue Zombie,” but it was never officially released.
Talking to the Spirits by MC 900 Foot Jesus (from “Hell with the Lid Off” 1990)
When I worked at the record warehouse we would get all kind of promotional CDs. We had no buying power whatsoever—all our purchases were chosen by corporate headquarters—but the smaller labels never caught on to this fact and they dumped dozens of CDs on us every month in the hope we would fall in love with them. The vast majority were crap; this record was not. Well ahead of its time, it was a swirling mess of hip-hop beats with crazy-assed white trash mystical samples layered expertly by DJ Zero. It sounded like a transmission from the future, by way of the 19th century.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by REM (from “Document” 1987)
Ha! You think I’ve gone soft. This song will stay with me forever, though, and we needed a little comic relief, didn’t we? It came out right as I was graduating from high school, at the exact moment when “alternative” music turned into just another brand of super-marketed pop. It was the end of my world, and the beginning of a new one as I shipped off to college. Really, it was either this or Alphaville’s “Forever Young”, which they played at my prom.
Worms by the Pogues (from “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” 1988)
A novelty song, which every mix tape needs as its last track, to bring you back down to earth. Also the creepiest rendition of this song I know, and the perfect closer to the Pogues’ best album by far.
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)