Why do rockers write so many sad songs? Peter Gabriel noted in interviews that writing sad songs was much easier than writing happy songs. From the days of the blues, sad music can make you feel really good. Or does it just make you feel worse. And why do want to hear sad songs when we are already feeling pretty down. Isn’t rock and roll supposed to be all about making us feel great, happy and all that jazz? Here is a look at some of the saddest songs in rock music. Of course there are thousands more, but we just thought we mention some of the saddest. What are yours?
# 10 – Tom Waits: Hell Broke Luce
Tom Waits puts his customary gravel-inside-a-silk-purse growl into a wail of despair as he takes on the voice of a crippled, drug-addicted veteran. It’s thought that the song was (sadly) inspired by a real Iraq veteran named Jeff Lucey. The song marches relentlessly through Luce’s problems, including being crippled, mother dying, watching a buddy die, and getting addicted to meth. “What is next?” he cries and apparently nothing is next because that’s where the song ends. It appears on Tom Waits’ 2011 album Bad as Me.
# 9 – The Beatles: Eleanor Rigby
Nothing very dramatic happens is this next look at the saddest songs in rock music, but that’s just why this is so depressing. Two ordinary people are shown, Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, and how their lives turned out to be completely inconsequential. It’s a stark reminder of our own mortality coming from The Beatles, then incredibly consequential and young. Often, a look at mortality only comes from older musicians. This first appeared in the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver.
# 8 – Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy
Although it does not deal with the usual sad song subject of lost love, Warren Zevon’s macabre classic looks at a wasted life of a murderer and rapist. If that’s not deserving of a spot in the saddest songs in rock music, we don’t know what is. It’s all set to an upbeat tune, with doo-wop backing vocals and a robust sax solo, which underscores how stark the lyrics are. It first came out in the 1978 album Excitable Boy.
# 7 – Pink Floyd: Don’t Leave Me Now
Even rock stars get the blues. Here, Roger Waters writes of a rock star hitting rock-bottom. His wife has left and he is totally blind as to how cruelly he treated her. Roger Waters wail is accompanied by an echoing piano, synths, organ, bass and distorted guitar and what sounds like a person hooked up to a ventilator. The song builds up to a crescendo of pleading. It was first released on the classic 1979 masterpiece, The Wall.
# 6 – Trent Reznor: Hurt
There are very few things sadder in life than a drug addict that’s hit bottom and realizes that he’s wasted his life and the lives of everyone who loved him. This might have been confined as an obscure song, even for Nine Inch Nails fans, had it not been for country superstar Johnny Cash recording a jaw-dropping version for his 2004 album Cash I: The Man Comes Around. Producer Rick Rubin brought the song to Cash’s attention and the rest is history. The song first appeared in the Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 album The Downward Spiral.
# 5 – The Rolling Stones: Paint it Black
Far back in European folk music is the ballad to the girl who died young. In 1968, this tradition was explored by The Rolling Stones. Flavored with the late-sixties standard of a sitar, guitars and a pounding drumbeat, this is an intensely relentless look at a man mourning the loss of his young love. All of normal life seems obscene, as if not recognizing the horror of the girl’s death. That’s why Mick Jagger insists on everything being painted black and “I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky.” It first appeared on the 1966 album Aftermath.
# 4 – Roy Orbison: Crying
For a sheer weep-fest, it’s hard to beat Roy Orbison’s heartfelt 1961 classic. Orbison explained in videos that this was based on a meeting he had with an ex. Although it’s often been covered, it’s hard to beat Orbison’s quavering soul-filled voice, revealing the agony of living while the one you love does not love you anymore. This three-minute masterpiece first appeared as a single and then in the album called, appropriately enough, Crying.
# 3 – Peter Gabriel: Home Sweet Home
Perhaps Peter Gabriel’s most underrated song, it can be hard to listen to because of the subject matter. A young mother kills herself and her child because of poverty. The husband then suddenly wins a fortune and lives in a huge home all by himself. Gabriel wrote this after reading of just such a suicide. As a father, he thought of how the father felt coming home from work to discover his reason for working were dead. This first appeared in Gabriel’s first solo album, Peter Gabriel in 1977.
# 2 – The Magnetic Fields: From a Sinking Boat
Drowning is a horrible death. And yet, what would the last thoughts of a drowning person be? According to the Magnetic Fields, the last thoughts are of you. This song reads as if a last letter was discovered in the wreckage of a sunken ship. The vocals are low and dirge-like, multi-layered as if the while drowning crew is singing the same song. The backing instruments include an accordion, an instrument usually associated with sea shanties. This song first appeared on the 2010 album Realism and in the soundtracks of documentaries on sad subjects.
#1 – Lou Reed: The Kids
Even die-hard Lou Reed fans find The Kids hard to listen to because of how desperately sad it is. It’s a song about authorities taking children away from a single mother. It features recordings of two children screaming their hearts out. The good news is that the screaming kids were actors. The song’s producer asked one child to think of the saddest thing he could think of. When he started crying, the second child did, too. This is a more than worthy list topper for our look at the saddest songs in rock music.
10 Saddest Songs In Rock Music article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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