The fascinating, often disturbing, true stories that inspired songs
Alexandra Pollard

16:13 21st July 2015

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It is a great and rare skill to condense something as intangible and abstract as grief, sadness, or regret, into a three minute song. It's even rarer still, in many ways, to do so when that grief and sadness is a public, collective one. 

Sometimes, though, from shocking, tragic events in history - the Hillsborough disaster, for example, or the murder of Abigail Folger at the hands of the Manson family - comes a song that manages, in some small way, to make sense of things in a way no news report ever could.

From Sufjan Stevens' deeply disturbing 'John Wayne Gacy Jr' to Bob Dylan's iconic protest song 'Hurricane', here are 9 songs inspired by shocking real life events. 

  • Bob Dylan - 'Hurricane': One of the most famous protest songs, and a damning indictment of institutionalised police racism still holds water today, 'Hurricane' chronicles the events of 1966 that resulted in boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter being wrongly imprisoned for murder. "In Paterson that's just the way things go," sings Dylan, "If you're black you might as well not show up on the street / 'Less you want to draw the heat."

  • Sufjan Stevens - 'John Wayne Gacy Jr': John Wayne Gacy Jr was a man popular in his neighbourhood, who dressed up as "Pogo the Clown" for children's parties, and who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and men in the '70s. Stevens' lyrics are profoundly beautiful and almost unbearably disturbing: "The neighbors they adored him / For his humour and his conversation / Look underneath the house there / Find the few living things, rotting fast, in their sleep / Oh, the dead."

  • Don McLean - 'American Pie': Though many of the song's lyrics are still shrowded in mystery, with McLean rarely answering questions about their meaning, "the day the music died" refers to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP 'The Big Bopper' Richardson in 1959. Holly, a hugely significant figure in the legacy of rock 'n roll, was just 22 years old.

  • Boomtown Rats - 'I Don't Like Mondays': In 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer walked into Grover Cleveland Elementary school and shot eight children, two adults and, later, one police officer. When asked to explain her actions by a reporter who'd managed to get hold of her while she had locked herself in her house, she said, chillingly, "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." After hearing that quote in a TV news report, Bob Geldof began writing what later became Boomtown Rats' most famous song.

  • Deadboy and the Elephant - 'Stop, I'm Already Dead': Patricia Krenwinkel, a member of Charles Manson's murderous cult, killed coffee heiress Abigail Folger by breaking into her house, dragging her out of her bedroom and stabbing her. Folger briefly escaped and ran outside, but was quickly re-captured by Krenwinkel. While pinned to the ground, she pleaded, "Stop, I'm already dead."

  • Billy Joel - 'We Didn't Start The Fire': Less about a specific historical event than it is about every single historical event that happened in the 30 years between 1949 and 1989. Its references include, and this is just a very small sample, Harry Truman's inauguration as president, the Korean war, the conviction of the Rosenbergs for espionage and the publication of The Catcher In The Rye. "I had turned forty, it was 1989," said Joel of the song, "and I said 'Okay, what's happened in my life?'" A lot, as it turns out.

  • Anais Mitchell - '1984': Taken from Mitchell's second album, Hymns For The Exiled, the title of this song refers to George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. It name-checks George Bush's controversial USA PATRIOT act - a reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 whose surveillance clauses were seen as an invasive breach of privacy. "Down at headquarters, there%u2019s a big database / With black and white photos of the side of your beautiful face / And your library record, and all your test scores / And an invitation to party like it%u2019s 1984." It's a political commentary disguised as a love song... or perhaps the other way round.

  • Manic Street Preachers - 'South Yorkshire Mass Murderer': There's no attempt to veil the meaning behind this track, which deals with the 1989 Hillsborough disaster during which 96 football fans were crushed to death - a tragedy that many felt could have been prevented by officers in charge of crowd control. "South Yorkshire mass murderer / How can you sleep at night?" asks the chorus, which, at the time of its release, prompted a top-ranking police official to slam the song as "offensive."

  • Gordon Lightfoot - 'The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald': This song commemorates, in painstaking detail, the storm in 1975 that sunk an American Great Lakes freighter, killing the entire crew of 29. "When suppertime came the old cook came on deck / Saying 'Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya.'/ At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in / He said, 'Fellas, it's been good to know ya.'"

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Photo: WENN