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The 10 best songs based on real crimes

There seems to have been something of a cultural obsession with serial killers and ‘true crime’ over the past decade or so. Seemingly every week crops up a new documentary on Netflix with fresh evidence surrounding an infamous murderer, or perhaps on someone who was not, until that point, known to the public consciousness.

Our fascination with such depraved acts arguably stems from our fear of just how beyond moral control some individuals can get, whether that is owed to a decline in mental stability, or, even worse, just the fact that some people appear to have an inherently evil nature — take Charles Manson, for example.

Yet, this cultural obsession is not exactly new per se. In fact, many songwriters have turned to the draw of the morbid and depraved acts of serial killers for inspiration in creating new material. Sometimes this leads to a championing of the spirit of the killer’s victims. At other times, songwriters just need some sickening news to write about.

Below, we have compiled the ten best songs that find their root in some of the darkest acts committed by mankind. Like all great songs, those found on this list have enabled us to closely examine the dark nature of man and in doing so, reinforce its exclusion from our lives.

So, brace yourself. Here we go.

The 10 best songs based on real crimes:

10. ‘Georgia Lee’ – Tom Waits

Beside a freeway in Petaluma, California, in August 1997, the body of 12-year-old Georgia Lee Moses was found naked and strewn across the floor. She had been missing for eight days but had not yet been reported in an official capacity to the authorities.

Georgia Lee’s murder was eventually classified as a ‘suspicious death’ and is still yet to be resolved by the law. Waits shakes his hands at the sky in sorrow for Georgia Lee, as he sings, “Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?”

9. ‘Jenny Was a Friend of Mine’ – The Killers

The body of Jennifer Levin was found in Central Park, New York City on August 26th, 1986. Robert Chambers, who was later called ‘The Preppy Killer’, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He had initially been tried for second-degree murder, but the jury could not find enough evidence. Levin and Chambers had been partners.

The Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers has stated that it was The Smiths singer Morrissey who had inspired him to write about murders and serial killers, initially with his track ‘Sister I’m a Poet’, the B-side to ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’.

8. ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ – Boomtown Rats

Sixteen-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer opened fire on a group of young school children in 1979 on the playground of Grover Elementary School in San Diego, California. She then used a .22 calibre rifle to kill the school’s principal and janitor, and eight children were wounded.

When a news reporter asked Spencer why she had committed such a terrible act, her response was: “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day”. However, in a 2009 parole hearing, Spencer claimed that she does not recall making the famous remark, saying instead that it was “a lot of fun”. Bob Geldof wrote the song after reading a news report of the events.

7. ‘Let Him Dangle’ – Elvis Costello

Derek Bentley was an 18-year-old young man with epilepsy. In 1952, he decided to rob a confectionary warehouse in Croydon with his friend and accomplice, Christopher Craig, who was just 16. The pair were quickly caught in the act by two police officers. One officer held down Bentley, while the other requested that Craig hand his gun over. It is alleged that Bentley said to Craig, “let him have it,” after which, Craig shot the officer in the shoulder.

They fled to the roof of the warehouse, followed by police officer Sidney Miles. There is a lack of concrete evidence from this point on, but someone shot and killed Officer Miles. Both young men were charged with murder, despite signs leading to Craig actually performing the murder. Bentley’s exhortation of “let him have it”, ultimately contributed to his sentence as it was suggested that this was a mental aid in the event. There was a public outcry when Bentley was hanged. Costello attempts to clarify the dubious events atop that warehouse.

6. ‘Tom Dula’ – Neil Young & Crazy Horse

The legend surrounding Tom Dula in North Carolina seemingly paints Dula as a selfless hero who pled guilty to a murder he never committed, in order to protect the actual murderer and not see her being hanged. However, the actual story of the murder is one that does not portray Dula in such a kind light.

Essentially, Dula was in a peculiar open marriage with James and Anne Melton. When Anne’s cousin Pauline Foster moved in, Dula began an affair with her too. But he didn’t stop there, soon another of Anne’s cousins moved in, Laura Foster, who Dula took for a lover. At some point, unsurprisingly, Dula contracted syphilis. Dula believed Laura to be the culprit and she went missing and was later found murdered. Young’s lyrics paint Dula in this darker light.

5. ‘I Just Shot John Lennon’ – The Cranberries

A narrative of the events of John Lennon‘s death. On the evening of Monday, December 8th, 1980, Lennon returned to his home in New York City. He was approached by Mark David Chapman, who alleged called out the name ‘Mr. Lennon’, before dropping to his knees in a shooting stance and firing five .38 calibre bullets from his revolver at point-blank range.

When Chapman was asked what he had just done, he replied: “I just shot John Lennon”. The Cranberries took the title of the track from this statement. One of many songs to recall the event, the track ends with the commentary: “What a sad, and sorry and sickening sight.”

4. ‘Suffer Little Children’ – The Smiths

Northern England was shocked in the 1960s by the Moors Murders, a series of child murders acted out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Their method of performing such sickening acts usually involved Hindley asking a child to help her find a lost glove, then kidnapping the child once they were near the pair’s car.

Hindley and Brady would sexually assault the child and strangle them, and all five victims were buried on the Moors. Morrissey mentions each victim by their real name. Sad stuff, even for Morrissey.

3. ‘Nebraska’ – Bruce Springsteen

One night in January 1958, Charles Starkweather went to pick up his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, at her parents’ house. Starkweather had murdered a gas station attendant the previous November. Upon Starkweather’s arrival at their house, Fugate’s parents refused to let her out with him. Starkweather went into a frenzy, killing both of Fugate’s parents with a shotgun and strangling their two-year-old daughter.

Following this, he went on a rampage across Nebraska with Fugate, murdering eleven innocent people. The spree ended on January 29th, when Starkweather handed himself over to the police and took full responsibility for the crimes. “They wanted to know why I did what I did/Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”, sings The Boss.

2. ‘Riders on the Storm’ – The Doors

This story is, in part, of Billy Cook, the hitchhiker murderer. Texan mechanic Lee Archer picked up Billy Cook, who soon robbed him and stole his car. After the car ran out of fuel, Cook once more pretended to be hitchhiking. He was picked up by Carl Mosser, his wife and three young children. At gunpoint, Cook forced Mosser to drive around aimlessly for 72 hours before Cook shot the entire family and their dog dead.

Chased by the police, Cook kidnapped and killed another motorist, Robert Dewey as well as kidnapping a pair of hunters and a deputy sheriff. He was driven over the borderline to Mexico, where eventually he was arrested.

The Doors created a deliciously dark mood on this track, with samples of falling rain present, for Jim Morrison to tell this dark and harrowing story.

1. ‘Hurricane’ – Bob Dylan

In New Jersey on June 17th, 1966, two men entered a bar and opened fire on its patrons. They killed three customers and quickly fled in a white Chevrolet. Later that night, famous boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter was arrested by a police officer whilst driving his own white Chevrolet with his friend. Both men were tried for murder and were convicted in 1967.

It transpired that the arresting officer had a personal vendetta against Carter, having arrested the boxer previously as an 11-year-old when he stabbed a man in self-defence. Carter was falsely accused of murder. Bullets found in Carter’s car were different from those found at the murder scene. The conviction was overturned in 1985 and Carter was released from prison.

Through Dylan’s track, we get the full story, from the initial bar scene, the arrest of the wrong man, to the uproar caused by the strained race relations between the authority and civilians of the time.