We are delighted to welcome John Hornor Jacobs back to the Gollancz Blog for a very special post on infernal music. John Hornor Jacobs is the author of The Incorruptibles and most recently Foreign Devils. He will be taking part in the Gollancz Festival on Friday 16th October for a Facebook Panel on Real World vs. Second World Fantasy at 4.30pm.
I love the devil.
Wait. Strike that. Let me rephrase.
I love the idea of devils, and the infernal, despite being an absolute non-believer. My first book, Southern Gods, was a Lovecraftian version of the blues-drenched crossroads devil’s compact. In my young adult series, The Twelve-Fingered Boy, the main character Shreve, a telepath able to jump into and “possess” other people, becomes known as the ‘lil Devil. And in The Incorruptibles and the second book in that series, Foreign Devils, the world runs on infernal combustion.
I’m kinda invested in the infernal.
For most of my twenties and into my thirties, I was a working musician, gigging on the reg (as the kids say) and touring regionally. When I was seventeen, the first song I played on stage – Juanita’s Ballroom and Cantina, Main Street, Little Rock, 1988 – was Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” three chord verse vamp E-D-A-E, with a B in the chorus’ turnaround, still got it, baby.
In music, like literature, the devil and the demonic continually make their appearances. From the dissonant tritone, the diabolus in musica, to Mick Jagger hooting “What’s my name?” and Robert Johnson singing about crossroad deals, I’ve always been fascinated by the musical interpretation of the infernal.
Recently, at a convention in the US, Richard Kadrey, author of the amazing Sandman Slim novels, and I chatted about “the devil’s music” and both agreed to share our devil’s music playlists on Spotify. Posted here, for your enjoyment, are five of my favorite devil songs.
Listen at your own peril.
Stag-O-Lee / Stack-A-Lee / Stagger Lee – traditional
I could’ve written a whole post about this one song. An old folk tune, a “murder ballad,” it’s been covered by hundreds of people over the years since it first infiltrated the American consciousness. A simple story taken from, they say, a historical incident in St. Louis, where a man named Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons in a bar and was later put to death. But Stagger is such a “bad man” – in many versions of the song, his Stetson hat is a symbol of African American male power, so he is, consequently, vilified – Stagger Lee ends up in Hell after his execution. He promptly kicks the devil from his throne and begins to rule Hell himself.
Stack-A-Lee went to the devil to identify poor Billy’s soul,
But the poor boy was absent; he had burnt down to charcoal.
Now the devil heard a rumblin’, a mighty rumblin’ under the ground.
Said, “That must be mister Stack turnin’ Billy upside down.”
Now they sit the devil pick on top o’ the devil’s shelf.
Say, “If you want Mister Stack you go and get him by yourself.”
When the devil see Stack comin’, he holler, “Now listen to me.
Hide the children and the money, ’cause Stack-O-Lee is worse than me.”
Stack-O-Lee grabbed hold of the devil and he threw him up on the shelf.
Said, “Your workin’ days are over; I’m a-gonna run the place myself.”
Red Right Hand – Red Right Hand
Nick Cave is the literary / musical world’s worst kept secret. Like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, he tends to influence the influencers, a musician’s musician. I don’t know if this song is truly about a satanic entity, but it is appropriately Hellish and references Paradise Lost, so my money is, as usual, firmly on the nose of Old Scratch. I’m guessing Mignola’s Hellboy owes something to this song.
Murder Was the Case – Snoop Dogg
Okay, I’m going to make a little admission here: I really like Snoop Dogg’s 1993 debut album, Doggystyle. Yes, that makes me a horrible person because the album is – like most of the gangster rap albums of that period – rife with n-bombs and questionable lyrics. “Murder Was The Case” is appropriately histrionic – “as I look up at the sky/my mind starts tripping/a tear drops my eye” – and simplistic in its storytelling and lyrics. Still. I like it. I think it’s interesting in an album full of songs about gin and juice, and smoking weed, Snoop would pen a track about making a deal with the devil as if he was saying he didn’t deserve all the wealth and fame and money, he just bargained away his soul for it – contrary to what he’d been saying on other tracks.
The Devil is All Around – Shovels & Rope
I’m from a very rural southern state in the American south that most people mispronounce – Arkansas. Population-wise, we’re around two million people in an area that’s around 53,000 square miles. Compare that with, say, the United Kingdom with 64 million people in almost 94,000 square miles, you’ll get an idea of how sparsely populated we are. However, we have a church for every 300 people. Many of these people – who are poor and poorly educated (Arkansas’ educational system is consistently ranked in the lowest percentile in the US (we’re 45th in 2015)) – truly believe that Satan is a real and malevolent force working against them in their daily lives. I’ve heard many people, in real conversation, proclaim that the devil is all around. This song says much the same, but with better vocal harmonies.
Hell – Squirrel Nut Zippers
Mostly thanks to the movie Swingers in the 90s, there was a resurgence of swing music that overtook most of America, a resurgence so strong that even I became aware of it. At the time I was living in Dallas, Texas, getting a degree in computer animation and design, when I suddenly started seeing people on the streets and in the restaurant where I waited tables wearing fedoras and baggy zoot suits, hair slicked back in pompadours or other artfully retro confections. Before long the airwaves were full of swing revival rock tunes from bands with names like Cherry Popping Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Merchants of Venus, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, The Lucky Strikes, and The Squirrel Nut Zippers.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers song “Hell” is the most gleeful of these songs offered today. “This is a place where eternally / Fire is applied to the body / Teeth are extruded and bones are ground / Then baked into cakes which are passed around.” You really can’t get much better than that when it comes to happily hellish.
You can listen to Richard Kadrey’s exhaustive Devil City Destiny playlist here.
And you can listen to my Spotify playlist that accompanies this blog post here.
John Hornor Jacobs’ The Incorruptibles is out now in paperback, eBook and audio download. The sequel, Foreign Devils is out now in trade paperback and eBook. You can find out more about John Hornor Jacobs by visiting his website or following him on Twitter.