Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads As Gangsta Rap Album

Dele Fadele looks back to The Bad Seeds album that has odd parallels with gangsta rap

In the mid-1990s, I spotted Nick Cave’s distinct figure at London’s Subterrania venue, under The Westway, for gigs by Wu-Tang Clan leader GZA and Method Man. Cave appeared as enthused as the rest of the room at Genius/GZA’s show, and I imagine he couldn’t have failed to have heard ‘Luminal’ from Legend Of The Liquid Sword, a controversial track that severely dented that excellent LP’s commercial prospects with its grisly depictions of the serial killer’s methodology and awful deeds. Certain acolytes of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds were also staunch Geto Boys fans. If GZA and Meth touched – and commented on – the gangsta ethos, Geto Boys were gangsta to the power of ten, albeit the most political, astute and aware gangstas extant. Bad Seeds fans will of course be able to spot the why the timing of Nick Cave’s enthusiasm for the gangstarap that terrified everyone from white suburbia to the White House is significant, coming as it did shortly before the release of the band’s 1996 album, Murder Ballads. Rather than the gothic rock, American folk or the blues with which the band had made their name, that record has gangsta rap as its closest parallel. Indeed, you could see the Bad Seeds’ use of the canonical traditions of funky country blues as a reflection of the way hip hoppers sample music from a variety of sources.

But it’s in the lyricism and Nick Cave’s violent muse that the gangsta influence is most tangible. Throughout Murder Ballads, his characters lovingly nurse grudges and let them grow, until in his imagination it becomes a sudden and murderous act of violence. Just as in gangsta rap, his lyrical directness, concentration on the heinous act of frequently motiveless murder and the ripeness of the language characterise the 10 tracks of this strange record. Just observe the way ‘Stagger Lee’ finds multiple and varied ways to use the word “motherfucker”, a feat only rivaled in the time-honoured branch of African-American linguistics named Ebonics. Hear Ice T’s furious and depraved gangsta sketches on Body Count’s Parents Advisory baiting ‘Cop Killer’, drown in N.W.A.’s furiously amoral ‘To Kill A Hooker’ and check the variegated output of Suge Knight’s Death Row Records and you’ll see that, on both sides of the tracks, African-American and Caucasian, murder is an equal opportunity affair, a fact Cave depicts with some relish throughout Murder Ballads. That’s of course not the case when it comes to reception of the music – just look at the moral opprobrium directed at gangsta rap versus the near-universal acclaim for what was then Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ most commercially successful album.

It should be noted that no gangsta rapper would thank you for labelling them such at the time. They saw it as a media construct – most claiming to be strictly hip hop, and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds wouldn’t necessarily send you flowers either for placing them perpendicular to the gangsta rap ethos. This was the deepest of ghetto blues – a line from which can be traced back to the blues (preceded by field hollers), through jazz and soul and funk and ultimately hip hop. The parallels with African-American musical tradition had therefore always been there in the Bad Seeds’ music. As far back as the group’s incendiary, sea-sick cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘In The Ghetto’, Nick Cave showed an affinity with the other side of the tracks, which was only natural as his interest in Southern USA States customs and Biblical imagery would cast him adrift to be washed up on ghetto shores. Let’s further draw a line under the fact that his former, sadly publicised, addictions would’ve definitely made him cross the tracks on long American tours, presumably at great risk to himself.

20 years ago, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds reconvened to write Murder Ballads after a two-year studio hiatus from the Let Love In LP. By now they were a powerhouse outfit that could turn their hands to many varieties of musical style and still emerge as distinctive and singular a rock band as any other in the world. By then, with ex-Birthday Party drummer Mick Harvey as musical director (a role he occupied until relatively recently); Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubauten translating industrial frameworks into bluesy guitar scree and developing into a shrewd instrumentalist in the process, the band were at the peak of their powers. The violence was driven by the engine-room of Martyn P. Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos and Thomas Wydler, who also sang mythic backing vocals amongst their various duties. Combined they were a fearsome outfit that breathed fire into Murder Ballads‘ restrained and deranged musical settings.

Nick Cave and Mick Harvey had already started down the dark road that would lead to Murder Ballads when were gnawing at the entrails of Australian punk’s bloated carcass in The Birthday Party. Disruptive, often borderline misogynistic, sometimes plain misanthropic funky punk rust blues tunes like ‘Six Inch Gold Blade’ (“I stuck a six-inch gold blade/ in the head of a girl”) and the apocalyptic vision of ‘Sonny’s Burning’ – the story of a Southern lynching – were violent pre-cognitions of gangsta rap. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds continued this path with their stylised covers of ‘Long Dark Veil’ and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe’, onwards to ‘The Mercy Seat’s nightmare vision of a murderer being fried in an electric chair.

But then, what is a murder ballad if not, in the rock & roll era at least, a section of musical country blues concerning killings, motivated or unmotivated? When Johnny Cash sang “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die”, or when Kurt Cobain subtly transgressed barriers on MTV’s Unplugged with Nirvana covering Leadbelly’s ‘In The Pines’, they were luxuriating in a centuries-old tradition. Since the 17th Century in Europe, murder ballads – at first sold as musical notations on broadsheets – depicted the act of unlawful killing, from shifting points of view, and were at first entertainment for an underprivileged sector of society. The events leading up to slaying, the grimy act itself, the depiction of supernatural retribution are all given lyrical life, sometimes from the point of view of the murder or the victim (or both, in the example of Cave’s duets here). Should you peruse GZA/Genius’s ‘Victim’, from his deadly Beneath The Surface LP, you’ll find him berating the hellish conditions of the projects, and then casually shooting someone who lacks respect and boasting with the pay off line, “I left my name/The GZA”. And this is not in graffiti either…

On ‘Song Of Joy’, Cave sings of a liquidator, to the Bad Seeds’ eerily moving accompaniment, who quotes John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ in his victim’s blood. As the song twists and turns, you gradually come to realise that the narrator is in fact the murderer, on the prowl for more victims. It’s sick, bitter, twisted, and, dare we say it, funny – the sad tale of his wife Joy and three daughters, Hilda, Haddy and Holly who meet their fate at his hand. The true-life murder of Billy Lyons by Lee Shelton, an African-American pimp in St Louis, Missouri, down South in 1895, has been enshrined in folklore and the collective unconsciousness as ‘Stagger Lee’. Passing into popularity from a work song to the blues to Duke Ellington’s jazz version in his 20s heyday, the song evolved in versions too numerous to mention up into the rock & roll era, when it was taken on by The Grateful Dead and The Clash. Yet it’s Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds who shot them all dead in their tracks with their ultra-gangsta and fluidly funky version.

It’s gloriously and gratuitously horrible and nasty, this time-skewered version of ‘Stagger Lee’ that has a bleak humour at its heart: “I’m a bad motherfucker/Don’t you know?/ And I’ll crawl over 50 good pussies/Just to get to one fat boy’s asshole”. Cave extemporises to the clatter of gunshots. The gangsta rap ethos is there, but paths diverge somewhat due to the genre’s engrained homophobia (Nas once described the USA government to me as “a bunch of faggots”). PJ Harvey – Cave’s then consort, who would be the sole subject of Murder Ballads‘ follow-up LP, The Boatman’s Call – then disposes of Henry Lee with a pen knife and dumps his lifeless body down a 100 foot-plus well. By the time ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ pairs Cave with a breathy Kylie Minogue, the methods of murder have become more rudimentary. Over three days, he seduces then kisses his fellow Australian, as a groovy string arrangement swells, and then smashes her head open with a rock. There’s vomit-inducing humour here and perhaps even sicker than you think, considering Minogue was only just about outgrowing the musical affections of producers Stock, Atiken And Waterman.

‘The Curse Of Milhaven’ resumes the vicious body-count as Nick Cave now throws caution to the wind and emotes from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old girl to a Bad Seeds non-ossified take on rockabilly. The trouble teen kills twenty children, denies murdering a dog named Biko, and ends up in a psychiatric ward with nary a shred of remorse. She has something in common with ‘Crow Jane’, whose punchline Cave mercifully delays, and whose main character offs twenty grown-ups with a "Smith’n’Wessun".

“If I have no free will/how can I be morally culpable?” Cave queries, on the juggernaut steamroll of a Bad Seeds exercise in musical carnage, named ‘O Malley’s Bar’. This is supposedly Murder Ballads’ centrepiece, a well-denoted and hellishly over-the-top 14-and-a-half minutes, in which a complete psychopath shoots up an entire bar, frothing and salivating as he goes along. Cave sounds pregnant with evil, and, by the end, the murderer briefly contemplates suicide and decides he’s ready for his close-up instead. “Curling up the business end of my gun/Was a query mark of cordite”, he snarls, as he goes on a Luciferian killing spree, before being hauled off in a Black Maria, accompanied by 50 officers.

There are rays of light in gangsta rap’s variant on hip hop, like Ice Cube’s semi-parodic ‘It Was A Good Day’, but even when the Bad Seeds finally let light in on Murder Ballads during ‘Death Is Not The End’, undercurrents of bristling menace and the hint of malevolence still glisten. It could be argued that the track remains therapeutic to this day for any murderous impulses you might harbour. Some of the supporting cast – PJ Harvey, Kylie Minogue, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler – and Shane MacGowan trade verses and you’re told that “When the cities are on fire/With the burning flesh of men…/When you search in vain for some law-abiding citizen…/”, you should, “just remember that death is not the end”.

Until Murder Ballads, the body count in Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ musical canon remained fairly low. Sure, people died casually sometimes, usually at a rate of one per song as on ‘Saint Huck’, but this catalogue of 75 human deaths and one dog perhaps does require you to believe that death is not the end, that there are still possibilities after the final curtain. In the pantheon of gangsta rap the characters do behave as though they’re living in a form of hell on earth, so why should there not also be a hell beneath? Cave hasn’t to my knowledge ever killed anyone, and you can say the same about the majority of gangsta rappers too – they live after all in a country where the threat of a trip to the mercy seat is all too real. Both the gangsta rappers and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ grisly depictions and evocations of death and murder reveal that their authors are merely avenging angels (who believe that all things move towards their inescapable ends) of the imagination.

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