Liz Buckley is back in charge of what’s going into our ears and this week she’s talking stories that don’t end well. WARNING: May not end well.
In previous columns for Standard Issue‘s 7 Wonders section, I’ve told you of things that have happened in my life, both sad and very stupid, and the songs that remind me of those times. For this month’s playlist, I think it’s important someone else does the work. I say this a lot when I get to the office as well, if I’m honest.
Songs that tell a complete story from beginning to end as part of the lyrics are a wonderful thing. Some of them you might only want to hear once, like an amusing breakfast show or an episode of 24. You enjoyed the ride but once you know what’s happened, there are plenty more boxsets in the sea.
Other story-style songs are such good yarns, they get told again and again and stand the test of time. Passed down from artist to artist like a mysterious wedding ring, with each recipient adding a little detail to the story of their own. Or a scratch on the pattern they’re embarrassed about and tell everyone was there already.
In the words of Max Bygraves, I wanna tell you a story. No. In the words of Rik Mayall, I hope you’re not sitting comfortably, it’s flippin’ Jackanory.
Nick Cave – Stagger Lee
The Clash – Wrong ‘Em Boyo
Stagger Lee is a real-life tale of murder and moonshine that began life in the late 1800s… ‘Life’ is the wrong word. The apocryphal tale of the arrest of a St Louis pimp, ‘Stag’ Lee Shelton, for a fatal fight first made it into a song format in the early 1900s. It finally entered the charts as a Lloyd Price hit recording in the 1950s, but it feels as old as those goddamn hills.
Along the way it’s also been called Stag Lee, Stack O Lee, Stack-a-lee and Stacker Lee and has been recorded by a line-up of both usual and unusual suspects: Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, James Brown, Pat Boone, Beck, Hugh Laurie, Jerry Lee Lewis, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Huey Lewis and Nick Cave have all given it a quite literal shot. In fact, Cave’s recording features piercing screaming and brutal rounds of bullets as well as the kind of world-class swearing that would make The Thick of It’s writing team blush.
Stag turns up in other stories, like a popular cameo who randomly steals a round of applause in your favourite TV shows. The Clash’s cover of Wrong ‘Em Boyo on London Calling, for instance, now has Stag and about-to-die Billy playing dice – and a really strong opinion on who’s the one in the right. The Black Keys have Stack Shot Billy, which gives the victim more airtime – in the title at least. The do-gooders. In pretty much every version of the tale, there are changes, amendments, embellishments and OK, let’s call them FRESH LIES: Stag’s on a steam boat; he’s in a bar; he’s a loner with an intimidating team behind him; he’s a goat. He’s never been a goat. Almost certainly though, someone tried to steal a hat in a saloon and it wasn’t good for Billy Lyons. Stag/Stack/Stacker then died in prison, was pardoned, returned the hat, and was definitely in the right and wrong.
Give all the versions a listen and see what you think really happened back in the 1800s. This is basically my version of Serial.
You may think Benny Hill wrote the greatest song about a milkman, but you can fuck off. This is.
Jack White and Brendan Benson got together in 2008 to write their version of a Southern Gothic ballad and it all began with a character called – YES! – Billy. ALREADY CLASSIC. This story further features a priest, a milkman, a mother, a brother, a shit boyfriend, “a drunk temper, a triple loser and a red-necked bastard with a hammer”. The cast is perfect, the set-up is a dream and I’ve basically made you a trailer for the show right there. Tune in at 9.
I particularly love this take on the storytelling song as it begins with the under-confident “I’m not sure if there’s a point to this story” and finishes open-ended with the case still open: Well now you heard another side to the story / But you wanna know how it ends? / If you must know, the truth about the tale / Go and ask the milkman.
Alongside a truck-load of “la-la-ing”. In your face! Those boys know that no one wants to know what really happened, not deep down. The damn teases. It’s all about the milk mingling with the blood, the Deep South being godless and everyone being called Billy. Even Billy’s brother is called Billy’s brother.
The Handsome Family – Knoxville Girl
This one dates back to the 17th century. Yup, ultimately it’s Elizabethan. No problem finding it on Spotify then; royalty issues are a breeze.
Appropriated as an Irish ballad and then as a US country-style outlaw song, this one’s certainly done the rounds, but one thing is sure: whatever happens and whoever sings it, it doesn’t end well. It’s also been known as The Wexford Murder but that sounds like a bonus edition of Inspector Morse. Personally I like Americana specialists’ The Handsome Family’s version, which featured on their album Smothered and Covered. It’s creepier when told by a real life husband-wife duo. Will they die too?
Well. Eventually. *holds candle up to face*
The Shangri-Las – Leader of the Pack & Give Us Your Blessing
During my years putting together compilation albums, I’ve had the pleasure of working on two albums completely filled with songs in which people DIE. YEAH! My friend Alan loaded them all onto his iPod without the album title info, so that way when he shuffled his library of songs, he would never know if the person singing would be dead by the end. Which is obviously brilliant. Do The Alan!
Spoiler: queens of the teenage melodrama, The Shangri Las’ Give Us Your Blessings is no less tragic than Leader of The Pack, but the song is lesser known these days and bloody great. Bloody being the operative word. More eerie still – leader Shangri La was called Mary, as is the girl who dies in the song.
Dead! AND Still Dead! are the amusingly named death-themed compilation albums available at Ace Records.1938 Views
Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.