Melodramatic types that they are, musicians love a bit of doom and gloom set in far-flung futures where society’s crumbled and sits on the brink of collapse. From the Rolling Stones and Kate Bush to St Vincent and Rage Against The Machine, loads of acts have ended up with killer songs after imagining the end is nigh. Here are 40 tracks that picture the end of the world as we know it…
Rolling Stones – ‘Gimme Shelter’: ‘Gimme Shelter’ is an “end-of-the-world song, really,” says Mick Jagger. “It’s apocalypse.” The lyrics are packed with gathering storms, carpets of coal and biblical floods, as well as Merry Clayton’s unforgettable refrain: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.” The second time her voice cracks from the strain, listen out for a tiny supportive ‘woo’.
Bob Dylan – ‘Talkin’ World War III Blues’: Poor Bob is having visions of a post-apocalyptic future in which he is the sole protagonist – as is his doctor. “Everybody sees themselves walking around with no one else.” When he spots a lone girl and asks to “play Adam and Eve” she refuses: “You see what happened last time they started.” Well played.
St Vincent – ‘The Apocalypse Song’: There’s a moment on St Vincent’s tuneful ‘Apocalypse Song’ where an ironic, discordant refrain of “time”, backed by handclaps and horror-film violins, bursts into what feels like a joyful resolution. But no, this is St Vincent – a sinister end awaits. “Take to the streets with apocalypse refrain: your devotion has the look of a lunatic’s gaze.”
Rage Against The Machine – ‘Testify’: Dystopia gets lairy here as Rage paint a picture of a doomed America. The accompanying video shows evil aliens plotting to place a puppet in office, controlling both presidential candidates at the time – Gore and Bush. Minus the sci-fi elements, it’s a scathing analysis of the artifice behind democratic choice.
Prince – ‘1999’: Under Reagan’s administration in 1982, with the threat of nuclear war in the air, Prince decided to party like it was 1999 and in the process created this funky jam: “We could all die any day but before I let that happen I’ll dance my life away,” he sings. But the song ends on a serious note, with children’s voices asking: “Mummy, why does everybody have a bomb?”
Radiohead – ‘Idioteque’: Cold and brutal, ‘Idioteque’ has women and children climbing into bunkers, an ice age on the way and Yorke laughing till his head comes off because no one has listened to him. “This is really happening” he keens, the relentless drum machine plastering over everything as events reach their inevitable conclusion. Bleak.
Kate Bush – ‘Breathing’: You can always trust Kate Bush to come at things from an interesting angle. As an unborn baby she examines the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. “My radar sends me danger but my instincts tell me to keep breathing … after the blast, chips of plutonium are twinkling in every lung.” When she screams “leave me something to breathe” there’s really no counterargument.
The Doors – ‘The End’: Jim Morrison said that this resigned, psychedelic raga “could be almost anything you want it to be” after it emerged that it was originally written about a breakup. “The end of our elaborate plans, the end of everything that stands, the end,” mourns Morrison: either it was the worst breakup in history, or this is an apocalyptic anthem.
Tame Impala – ‘Apocalypse Dreams’: The first time Kevin Parker co-wrote a song – with bandmate Jay Watson – he came up with this melodic beauty, teetering on the edge of hopefulness before embracing its own paradox: “Nothing ever changes, no matter how long you do your hair … Everything is changing: I guess I should warn my mum, but she’ll just be excited.”
Nick Drake – ‘Pink Moon’: This one’s especially short and sweet. Only a tranquil piano interlude separates the identical verses of this acoustic guitar-backed piece, in which Drake calmly heralds the end times: “Pink moon is on its way, and none of you’ll stand so tall: pink moon gonna get you all.” Cheers for that, Nick.
R.E.M. – ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’: “It starts with an earthquake” is the line opening this chaotic stream of consciousness, partially inspired by a dream Michael Stipe had about guests at Lester Bangs’ birthday party. Speaking about the fast-paced imagery of the song, he said, “I’m extremely aware of everything around me.” What do you want, a medal?
Sufjan Stevens – ‘Seven Swans’: Riffing off the Book of Revelations, Sufjan’s own account has signs appearing in the sky: seven swans and seven horns. But he also hears a voice in his head saying, “I am Lord”. It’s not really clear if what follows is meant to be intimidating, but Stevens identifies as Christian, so perhaps it’s a cheery end of days that he’s envisaging.
Everything Everything – ‘Radiant’: This Everything Everything track from their second album predicts nuclear devastation and earthquakes: “I see a Geiger counter and a Richter scale,” preaches frontman Jonathan Higgs. It’s all painted in absolute terms before he realises his own hypocrisy: “I could make a difference so easy but I don’t.” It’s like the CND equivalent of champagne socialism.
Talking Heads – ‘Road to Nowhere’: “I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom,” David Byrne has said of this track, which he composed a gospel choir intro for “out of embarrassment” – otherwise the song would have been made up of just two chords. “It’s very far away, but it’s growing day by day,” he sings, “and it’s all right.”
Editors – ‘All Sparks’: Not exactly apocalyptic in scope, this one: “You burn like a bouncing cigarette on the road: all sparks will burn out in the end” drawls frontman Tom Smith. Still, the casual, unrelenting gait of the song makes its message chilling: this end is inevitable, its cause indifferent. Life of the party, Tom Smith.
Joy Division – ‘Transmission’: Now some real Joy Division. “Frightened of the sun… we would have a fine time living in the night, left to blind destruction,” sings Ian Curtis on this breakthrough track by the consummate miserablists. In a book co-edited by his widow, links are drawn to Curtis’ consumption of dystopian fiction at the time – from A Clockwork Orange to Brave New World.
Pink Floyd – ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’: From the tranquil sound of a skylark, this song from Pink Floyd’s double album ‘The Wall’ descends into an account of the Blitz. “The flames are all long gone but the pain lingers on: goodbye blue sky.” The song has been described by Waters as a “recap” of the troubled life of Pink, the concept album’s character, at the start of the first B-side.
Jethro Tull – ‘Protect and Survive’: Named after a public information initiative in the late 70s and early 80s which explained how people might survive a nuclear blast. Mixing wildly polyrhythmic Irish flutes and relaxed rock, Jethro are unimpressed, imagining gory results: their postman doesn’t survive because “8lbs of overpressure wave seemed to glue him to the wall.”
Metallica – ‘My Apocalypse’: There’s one thing you need to know about Metallica’s apocalypse: it happens quickly. The Grammy Award-winning track is a cornucopia of catastrophe: “Crushing metal, ripping skin, tossing body, mannequin, spilling blood, bleeding gas. Mangle flesh, snapping spine, dripping bloody valentine, shatter face, spitting glass.”
Merchandise – ‘After the End’: With a thumping bass drum and a lugubrious keyboard line, ‘After The End’ does sound as though it’s about impending doom: “The Sky is falling all around us,” Carson Cox observes. “We’re watching the people panic like it’s the end.” Equally, though, it could just be about the Black Friday sales.
Johnny Cash – ‘Ain’t No Grave’: This traditional American song was supposedly written by Claude Ely when he was just 10 years old and ill with tuberculosis. Johnny Cash’s version was released posthumously, an old voice singing like one of the undead: “When I hear that trumpet sound I’m gonna rise right out of the ground: ain’t no grave can hold my body down.” Er, good?
Janelle Monae – ‘Violet Stars Happy Hunting!’: If you’ve not encountered Janelle Monae’s suite of concept albums, this song is your intro: android Cindi Mayweather has fallen foul of the malevolent authority in Metropolis. Her crime? Loving a human man: Sir Anthony Greendown. Singing her narration, she tells him, “Now the army’s after you for lovin’ too.”
Rage Against The Machine – ‘Darkness (Of Greed)’: ‘Darkness (Of Greed)’ is a slightly unfocussed take on the impact of HIV in Africa and the greed of foreign nations. “My people were left without a choice but to decide to conform to a system responsible for genocide,” raps Zack de la Rocha. His response is to “strike a match and it’ll catch”, as if greed is some kind of flammable gas.
Incubus – ‘Talk Shows On Mute’“: “Lights, camera, transaction” is the morose refrain on this jam from Incubus’ fifth album, ‘A Crow Left of the Murder…’ It casts inane talk shows as insidious Orwellian tools, bringing “electric sheep … into 1984”. Now it makes sense – all along it seemed as if Jeremy Kyle was being a mean-spirited prick for no reason at all.
Coldplay – ‘Spies’: In the running for most controversial thing Coldplay have produced, this track from their debut ‘Parachutes’ supposedly got the album banned in China for its ‘sensitive’ lyrics about fugitives and spies hiding around every corner. At a New York performance in 2001, Chris Martin performed a mock-salute to Chairman Mao, who had by then been dead for 25 years. The rebel.
Dead Kennedys – ‘California Uber Alles’: Here Dead Kennedys take a wry look at the consequences of a ‘zen fascist’ government led by California’s then (and current) governor, Jerry Brown, in which cool-supremacists force people to “jog for the master race”, controlled by “suede/denim secret police”. They cry “mellow out, or you will pay!” Something doesn’t quite add up.
Radiohead – ‘2+2=5’: When writing the lyrics for ‘Hail to the Thief’ Thom Yorke said, “I desperately tried not to write anything political … But it’s just fucking there.” The album – whose title references an anti-Bush slogan – begins with this 1984 doublethink reference. “It’s too late now,” Yorke laments, “because you’re not there paying attention.” If only he’d told us sooner, eh?
The Clash – ‘London Calling’: As well as ice ages, nuclear errors and a scorching sun, the band is also worried about its own future in this classic anthem, since “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” Joe Strummer has said “a lot of Cold War nonsense” inspired the lyrics in this vision of a flooded capital: “London is drowning and I live by the river.”
Manic Street Preachers – ‘Faster’: Back to 1984 again: introducing this is John Hurt’s doomed rebel Winston Smith saying “I hate purity… I want everyone corrupt.” By the end of the song Richey Edwards’ lyrics have taken the Manics from posturing anarchists to obedient citizens. “So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything.”
Depeche Mode – ‘Two Minute Warning’: Nuclear Armageddon has never been so synthy. Alan Wilder, who wrote the song, said “the possibility of nuclear holocaust is so terrifying, but to turn it round and try and make it beautiful is more of a challenge than making it doomy.” As he says, it’s “light and bouncy” – contrasting nicely with the idea of being blown to pieces.
Anais Mitchell – ‘1984’: Eventually, someone’s going to write something as prescient and seminal as 1984, but until then we’ll keep stumbling across these homages. “Sure is gonna be lonely after I turn you in,” Mitchell sings matter-of-factly in her folky twang, “so I’ll wait until tomorrow… and tonight we can party like it’s 1984.”
My Chemical Romance – ‘Na Na Na’: The NME Award-winning video for this punk anthem takes place in a post-apocalyptic Californian desert, where The Fabulous Killjoys – from the album title – fight menacing ‘draculoids’. “I’d rather go to hell than be in purgatory… Pull the pin, let this world explode,” sings Gerard Way, as the forces of good and evil line up and take shots at one another.
Pearl Jam – ‘Do The Evolution’: “Drunk with technology” is how Eddie Vedder describes the crazed rock protagonist of this 1998 song. The animated video is all about mankind’s selfishness and violence, portraying concentration camps, bombings, slavery, whaling, pollution and, inevitably, nuclear armageddon. “2010, watch it go to fire,” they sing. We’re still here.
Gorillaz – ‘Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head’: Here Dennis Hopper narrates a disturbing fable about the exploitation of untouched natural phenomena to a typical Gorillaz groove. The ‘Happyfolk’ live idyllic lives at the base of a monkey-shaped mountain until the ‘Strangefolk’ come to mine the mountain of its precious materials and provoke a volcanic eruption.
Styx – ‘Mr Roboto’: In the first track from camped-up rock opera ‘Kilroy Was Here’, we meet Mr Roboto – the armoured shell of which our hero Kilroy hides inside to escape imprisonment by the anti-rock fascist government. He later goes on to team up with rocker Jonathan Chance to take down the fascists through the power of rock. Something like that, anyway.
Chairlift – ‘Planet Health’: What’s more chilling: a dystopia you can see or one that hides behind a utopian façade? Chairlift’s scenario involves spaced-out inhabitants of a perfect society who live off “the food pyramid in the desert of vitamins”. Sick and old people are sent “into a universe of cold” but our character doesn’t seem to care.
Deltron 3030 – ‘3030’: In the year, you guessed it, 3030, Deltron Zero is an ex-mech soldier rebelling against the evil authorities suppressing people. For fans of both sci-fi and hip-hop it’s nerdy gold-dust: “Fuck dying, I hijack a mech, control it with my magical chants, so battle-advanced through centuries of hip-hop legacy, megaspeed hyperwarp to Automator’s crib and light the torch.”
Arcade Fire – ‘Intervention’: That thundering organ means we’re talking church, and Win Butler has a fair few things to say about a society living in blind faith. “Working for the church while your life falls apart, singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart, every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.” Noted.
Sonic Youth – ‘The Sprawl’: Inspired by William Gibson’s concept of an urban sprawl, ‘The Sprawl’ imagines a world of unlimited consumption. The first verse of Kim Gordon’s sardonic narration uses pithy lines from Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel The Stars At Noon: “To the extent that I wear skirts and cheap nylon slips, I’ve gone native. I wanted to know the exact dimension of hell.”