I’m writing this shortly after reading about the latest shooting death in Winnipeg, which has led me to thinking about the whole notion of “gun culture.” Guns held a fascination in popular culture even before Smith met Wesson, and their use has been lauded, vilified and just-plain-chronicled in song for many a year. Bear in mind that with this playlist I am in no way endorsing the use of guns — it’s simply a look at several songs that feature them.
Johnny Cash — “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” [from Love, God, Murder]
While it has appeared on many of his albums and collections, I mention the version from this three-disc compilation because it neatly encapsulates Cash’s thematic tropes. The Man in Black sang numerous love songs and spiritual ditties, but he frequently addressed the dark side of the soul, like on this bleak tale of a young man who foolishly attempts to outdraw a stranger after getting liquored up. It doesn’t end well.
Boogie Down Productions — “Love’s Gonna Getcha” [from Edutainment]
Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of hip-hop tracks that feature guns and gunplay. The first on this playlist comes from KRS-One’s morality play “Love’s Gonna Getcha” which bore the parenthetic title “Material Love.” The song’s protagonist becomes involved in running for a local dealer named Rob. Eventually the character gets his own crew and hustles in competition with Rob and to fend off threats he “got myself an Uzi /and my brother a nine.” After which a drive-by shootout with the police ensues and the brother is shot by the protagonist’s spray. Love’s gonna getcha indeed.
N.W.A. — “Fuck Tha Police” [from Straight Outta Compton]
Yeah, I’m pretty sure you saw this one coming. While it’s ostensibly presented as N.W.A.’s case against the police department (in the court of N.W.A. with now-Dr. Pepper-shill/then-Judge Dre presiding), the lyrics are a revenge-dream of violence against the LAPD in retribution for police brutality in the ’hood. Ice Cube indicates that without their guns, police are suckers while MC Ren talks about being “a sniper with a hell of a scope.” And one “hell” of a fantasy.
Cypress Hill — “Hand on the Pump” [from Cypress Hill]
Remember the movie Judgment Night with Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Denis Leary where a wrong turn finds a group of friends being hunted in the ’hood? This Cypress Hill track could be the soundtrack to that film: “Finger on the trigger with my hands upon the steel . . ./You’re stuck in my so ’hood, so what ya gonna do now? /Being the hunted one is no fun.”
The Clash — “Tommy Gun” [from Give ’Em Enough Rope]
After our triptych of hip-hop gun anthems we go back to an earlier brand of anti-authoritarian attitude. The Clash question notions of heroism, the motivations of kings, queens and generals, and ultimately the value of life and sacrifice when death comes so easily by gun.
The Beatles — “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” [from The White Album]
John Lennon may very well be singing about heroin — the lyrics do mention needing a fix, but the title was apparently inspired by a magazine title that proudly proclaimed its warped notion of happiness (i.e. a gun that’s just been fired). As with many things British, I think the Beatles were taking the piss.
KISS — “Love Gun” [from Love Gun]
From piss to Kiss. Does anyone else find it creepy to have a penis compared to a gun (or vice versa)?
AC/DC — “Big Gun” [from Last Action Hero: OST]
You would think if anyone makes the penis/gun comparison it would be the band that sang about “Big Balls.” But this selection from the soundtrack to the risible Schwarzenegger film seems to actually be against glorified gun violence and subtly endorses gun-control laws, warning that “Terminators, Uzi makers / Regulators gonna get you later.”
John Renfro Davis — “The Death of General Wolfe” [Traditional]
The War of the Conquest, also known as the French and Indian War, culminated in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham which featured cannon and musket fire and claimed the lives of generals Wolfe and Montcalm. The table Wolfe is said to have died on is in the museum at CFB Shilo. There’s your Canadian history lesson for the day.
Patti Smith — “People Have the Power” [from Dream of Life]
I’ll end this playlist on a hopeful note, provided by rock poetess Patti Smith from her 1988 release. Smith dreams of — and sings of — a time when soldiers lay arms to waste. I think that notion should be expanded beyond soldiers.