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Music

The 7 best songs inspired by prisons

Since the dawn of time, music and anti-establishment thought have been synonymous. The arts have forever been a means of rebellion and subversion and always will be. This is because the artist imbues their true sense of self within the craft and uses it to say what they really want to, as they’re free from any form of constraints, personal, political or otherwise. 

There’s also a case to be made that to be a musician of worth, you have to be something of a radical. It’s almost a prerequisite of the job that you don’t agree with every social more or the path that society outlined for you since pre-school. There’s no surprise then that many of the most iconic musicians of all time have fallen foul of the law.

Be it rock, rap, country or even pop, the stories of musicians coming head to head with the law are countless, ranging from the hilarious to the genuinely scary. One only has to mention Willie Nelson and Phil Spector in the same breath for you to heed what we mean. Music vs the law is an age-old battle and one that will be raging until the end of time.

This has led to many of our favourite musicians being captivated by the concept of prison, either through experiencing it directly or through second-hand knowledge. Our favourite songs that deal with prison pick apart every part of the experience, opening ordinary, law-abiding listeners up to the ins and outs of a life behind bars.

Duly, we’ve listed the seven best songs that are inspired by prisons. It’s a mixed bag, but one thing is certain, each song on this list is brilliant.

The 7 best songs inspired by prisons:

‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – Johnny Cash

Where else to start than with Johnny Cash’s 1955 track? This is perhaps the most iconic song inspired by prisons, and it kicked off a trend where the country legend wrote songs about some of the most famous prisons in the US, adding to his mystique as ‘The Man in Black’. 

Fascinated by jails, Cash was known to host free concerts for prisoners, and the most famous is undoubtedly the one he delivered at California’s Folsom Prison in 1968. There’s so much to love about this track, and it makes a strong claim to be the ultimate prison anthem forever. Lyrically and musically, it is flawless.

‘Jailbreak’ – Thin Lizzy

1976’s ‘Jailbreak’ by Irish heroes Thin Lizzy, is not only one of the best songs inspired by prisons but one of the best classic rock songs of all time. Whether it be the attitude-laden verses where frontman Phil Lynott delivers some of his most anarchistic lines or the anthemic chorus, there are many reasons why the song is one of the band’s most loved.

The band were always obsessed with all things macho, as ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ shows, but on ‘Jailbreak’ they go one step further, detailing a fictional jailbreak and the escapees’ hunt for female company.

‘Jailhouse Rock’ – Elvis Presley

1957’s ‘Jailhouse Rock’ tussles with Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ for the title of the ultimate prison-inspired song. Written by the hit-penning duo Leiber/Stoller, this classic piece of rock ‘n’ roll was written as an accompaniment to Presley’s film of the same name that also came out that year.

The song retells the story of the film, describing how Presley’s young prisoner, Vince Everett, discovers his musical talent whilst interred in prison. It’s impossible not to love this song. The introduction is timeless.

‘Jail Guitar Doors’ – The Clash

‘Jail Guitar Doors’ is perhaps the most obscure cut on this list, but that does diminish its brilliance. A raucous piece of English punk, this is one of The Clash’s best moments from their early period, and was the B-side to the timeless staple, ‘Clash City Rockers’. Co-frontman Mick Jones takes the lead on vocals and delivers an outstanding performance.

Interestingly, the song was actually written by Joe Strummer, who gives nods to three iconic rockers who have notoriously found themselves falling foul of the law, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and Wayne Kramer of The MC5.

As was the case with pretty much everything Strummer did, ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ had a palpable effect, and in the years following its release, Wayne Kramer of The MC5 teamed up with English troubadour Billy Bragg to devise the Jail Guitar Doors initiative, which gives prisoners musical instruments. It’s not all bad inside.

‘Hurricane’ – Bob Dylan

‘Hurricane’ by Bob Dylan is one of the finest protest songs out there, and one of the best songs he released in the 1970s. Notably, the song tells the true story of boxer Robin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and his wrongful conviction for a triple homicide in 1966, which resulted from racism. Duly, Dylan takes the travesty to task in this masterpiece.

Carter’s story is a well known one, there was little to no evidence linking him to the crime, but the jury still convicted him. The song did manage to stoke interest in Carter’s case again, leading to a new trial. However, he was found guilty again in 1976, indicative of just how racist America still was. The former boxer was finally released from jail in 1985, but you couldn’t help but think that this was one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the modern era.

‘Rusty Cage’ – Soundgarden

1992’s ‘Rusty Cage’ by grunge masters Soundgarden is a foot-stomper of a song. Featuring one of late frontman Chris Cornell’s best vocal deliveries, he enters the truly primal realm with his howls, embodying something of a ’90s version of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. It also contains one of the band’s most famous guitar lines, coloured by the “weird”, down-tuned sound that Cornell found by using his wah pedal as a filter. 

Taken from the band’s magnum opus, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, the song tells a tense story of captivity and the need to escape. Cornell sings about cutting his teeth on bars and rusty chains and his plan to break free and run away, a sentiment the video clearly displays.

‘Murder Was the Case’ – Snoop Dogg

There was no way that I wasn’t including Snoop Dogg‘s gangsta rap classic from his 1993 debut album Doggystyle. The song tells the story of the Snoop’s fictional character as he makes his way from the streets to the California Institute for Men in Chino. A genius work, when the character finds himself in prison, he’s stuck in the middle of a bloody gang war, touching on the grim reality of many prisons across the world. 

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