10 March 2018

Zip Gun Bop: Songs About Crime & Criminals

by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
Let’s be real, I could write about crime songs all day, because there are a billion of them. But we’ll come back to this series every so often, because songs about the wrong side of the law are my favorite genre of music. This month’s theme? The criminals themselves, the best of the bad guys and all of their gruesome deeds. Consider this the start of your master heist mix tape.

  1. Kid Charlemagne” Steely Dan (The Royal Scam). Oh, like you didn’t see this coming. Steely Dan writes a LOT of songs about crime and criminal acts, ranging from drugs to murder to gambling to prostitution to child molestation. But “Kid Charlemagne” remains not only their greatest song, but possibly the greatest song in the history of all pop music (Fight me, I dare you.) This song, inspired by famed, ah, chemist Owsley Stanley, is a little tiny novel in itself, the tension building through Larry Carlton’s legendary guitar solo, from the talk of the town to hiding drugs from the cops. Is there gas in the car….?

  2. The Long Arm of The Law” Warren Zevon (Transverse City) Zevon, like Becker and Fagen, is no goody-two-shoes when it comes to songs about crime, and as a fan of Raymond Chandler and a friend of crime and thriller luminaries like Stephen King and Carl Hiassan, it should be no surprise that mercenaries and murders crept into his songs. But “The Long Arm of the Law,” like “Kid Charlemagne,” is a whole arching narrative, starting with a gun runner in South America and ending with him in chains. “Only the dead get off scot-free,” he laments, and he isn’t wrong.

  3. I Remember Larry” ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (Bad Hair Day). I love this one because it’s so unexpected. The man who gave us “Eat It” and “Like a Surgeon” can also go to some dark places, rapidly escalating a series of pranks played on the narrator by his neighbor Larry, who makes prank phone calls, post embarrassing photos and dumps toxic waste on the singer’s lawn—where he got toxic waste is probably another song—to the final snap in the last verse. “If the cops ever find him who knows what they’ll say/but I’m sure if ol’ Lar were still with us today/he would have to agree with me/it was a pretty good gag!” Yankovic bleats cheerfully. April Fools can be deadly, folks.

  4. Sweet and Tender Hooligan” The Smiths. (Louder Than Bombs) Who doesn’t love a bad boy, especially one on a post-punk beat and a Morrissey wail? Maybe I’ll put this one on a mix for LesterNygaard.

  5. Only a Lad” Oingo Boingo (Only a Lad). Danny Elfman takes a decidedly less romantic look at teenage criminals, snarking on a soft society that lets arsonists, car thieves and murders walk free because of their white and suburban precociousness. This song is just as true today as it ever was, as young men repeatedly get away with rape, assault and other crimes because, hey, boys will be boys, right?

  6. Hospital Food” The Eels (Electro-Shock Blues). Dark and low and grimy like an alley after midnight, everything about this song, sound and lyrics and all, captures a hitman’s nightlife. I think of Vic Mackey when I hear this one, or Eric Powell’s The Goon and Franky.

  7. Gimme The Goods” Boz Scaggs. (Two Down, Then Left) Another pulp-novel narrative coming out of the yacht rock canon, Boz takes his all the way back to 1948, telling a doomed tale of drug runners, complete with one final and badly botched job, a bullet wound, a femme fatale and the wail of sirens coming down rain-slicked streets. I would watch whatever movie was made from this song.

  8. Opportunities” Pet Shop Boys (Please). “If you’ve got the inclination/I’ve got the crime” is the most perfect invitation to wicked deeds ever set to music. This is the soundtrack to assembling your team for a casino heist, a bank job or maybe a long con played out of a sleazy motel room.

  9. Stool Pigeon” Kid Creole and the Coconuts (Tropical Gangsters). Sure, he’s bringing in the bad guys, but this ex-con isn’t getting the hero’s ballad for turning in his old friends to the FBI. Singing the chorus through the crackling static of a policeman’s radio, Kid Creole seems to be warning him of the oldest adage in the book—snitches get stitches. So maybe he’s got a plane and a boat and a new face, but all that money can’t buy him the kind of friends he had in the joint.

  10. Zip Gun Bop” Royal Crown Revue (Mugzy’s Move) The neo-swing revival of the late 1990s drew much of its songwriting inspiration from pulp of the 1940s and no one drew more heavily on it than Royal Crown Revue, widely considered to be the founders of the movement. This gangster-addled number incorporates the slow scream of the police siren, rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire and plenty of other genre pastiche.


  1. Great list here, Libby! Know many of these but already bookmarking to check a few more out!

  2. John Prine's written a heck of a lot of songs: Illegal Smile, Christmas in Prison, Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard, Lake Marie, etc.

  3. Bob Dylan, "John Wesley Harding," from the album of the same name, 1967:

    John Wesley Harding
    Was a friend to the poor
    He traveled with a gun in every hand
    All along this countryside
    He opened a many a door
    But he was never known
    To hurt an honest man

  4. Woody Guthrie wrote a song about Pretty Boy Floyd.
    "Jesse James" is public domain and was used in The Long Riders among others.
    Many folk songs are about pirates, highwaymen, or other real criminals.
    (Man, now I feel old...)

  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Jwr758hUAs - "Pretty Little One" by Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers. Yeah, that Steve Martin!

  6. This is a list that could go on and on, of course. I love XTC's "No Thugs In Our House," which sets up what looks at first to be a rebellious teenage hero, only to reveal him as a violent racist who's out of the reach of the law because he comes from one of the "good" families.

  7. Great selections, Libby, and what a choice topic! I listened to the first half dozen this morning and am now finishing your list. Yankovic’s song is a nice treat.

    Love your spirited Steely Dan defense, er, support. Wonderfully done!

    Steve mentioned Jesse James, THE quintessential American crime ballad… prejudicial, political, and just plain wrong.

    Other classics that come to mind are Frankie and Johnny, also based upon a true incident. I assumed it came out of the 1920s, but its origins date back into the 1800s.

    I hesitate to admit it, Libby, but one of my favorite crime songs is Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe. It’s a complete Southern gothic tale that leaves the mind to unravel the mystery.

    The Highwayman has been set to song several times by such artists as Phil Ochs, Stevie Nicks and later Fleetwood Mac, Loreena McKennitt, Andy Irvine, and others. I can’t hear those songs without my eyes watering, damn it. When I was little, my mother used to read the poem. My little self was shocked, shattered, shattered in the moonlight…

  8. Sheesh, Elizabeth. That's one less predator! Ben's song certainly contains all the clichés.


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