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I Won't Forget To Put Roses On Your Grave; Takedown Songs

(Jonathan Daniels)
When I hear people use the phrasing of how music is the soundtrack of their lives, I do not judge them for employing empty platitudes. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a more sincere and accurate statement. Music is the sound of our emotions, and there is a song out there for just about every emotion we are capable of feeling.

Love. The grandest emotion of them all. From the first caveman's lullaby, we've been singing about loveits indescribable joys represented in music from every culture and country in the world.  As we regrettably know, too often love goes wrong. Necessity is the mother of invention, and so the breakup song was created. But there are special cases when love goes wrong because the other person is, crudely put, an asshole. These cases call for not just a mere breakup song, but a song that convincingly expresses the singer's displeasure with the behavior of his or her partner. I call this the takedown song.

The takedown song is characterized by leitmotifs of merciless, mocking censure and cathartic comeuppance. This field is mainly dominated by three major artists: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and The White Stripes. But there are takedown songs everywhere if you look closely enough.

Here are my favourites:

Fatboy Slim

That Old Pair of Jeans  An honest and frank appraisal of an unbalanced power dynamic. The powerful lyrics and delivery by Lateef the Truth Speaker are reinforced by a cathartic track from Norman Cook. Lyrics like, "All you used to do is criticize me / But now I find the good and I emphasize, you see / You would always get so sensitive / And try to turn your transgressions into my guiltiness" specifically address a common asshole behavior. As with most Fatboy Slim's releases, the video is wonderful and will make you smile.

Sonic Youth

Kool Thing  Sonic Youth's first single with a major label was inspired by a botched interview by bassist Kim Gordon with LL Cool J. It's not completely clear what happened, but extrapolation from the lyrics suggests that LL tried to hit on Kim in a disrespectful way. A special cameo from Public Enemy's Chuck D completes the dressing down. "What are you gonna do for me? / Are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?"

Howlin' Wolf

I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline) — The title says it all.

The Who

I Can See For Miles  One of the bigger insults a romantic partner can make is treating their lover like he/she is stupid. This Pete Townshend gem should have been a huge smash hit, it has everything, including a great delivery from Roger Daltrey with killer lines like, "If you don't think I know about the little tricks you played / And never see you when you deliberately put things in my way / Well here's a poke at you / You're gonna choke on it, too / You're gonna lose that smile / Because all while / I can see for miles." Probably the best pre-Tommy era Who song.

Carly Simon

You're So Vain  Ok, now we're getting serious. Probably the most famous of all the takedown songs. They say the song is about Warren Beatty, and I believe it. I heard a story on Howard Stern once where one of his ex-lovers said she woke up in the middle of night to find Warren staring at himself in the mirror, naked. The lyrics are so magnificent I'd have to post the entire song, which decorum precludes me from doing. Oh yeah, Mick Jagger on backing vocals (who probably thinks the song is about him).

The Delfonics

Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)  Even amongst a list of powerful songs, this one stands out in a major way. The soaring strings and delicate vocals amplify the momentousness of lines like, "I gave my heart and soul to you, girl / Didn't I do it, baby? Didn't I do it baby? / Gave you the love you never knew, girl / Didn't I do it baby?" The singer has finally left the person who never thought he would and laments, "It seemed to make you laugh each time I cry." A song for those times when you're stuck in an unhealthy relationship.

Editors' Note 9/6/18:
New Order's Blue Monday was omitted in error from the original post.

New Order

Blue Monday — Widely covered, the best selling 12" single of all-time is a synth-pop masterpiece. An epic sonic excursion that's essentially the Ark of the Covenant for house/edm boom of the '80s and '90s. Dark and aggressive, Bernard Sumner's autistic-like delivery suggests an emotional numbness and a certain resignation, "and I still find it so hard / to say what I need to say / But I'm quite sure that you'll tell me / Just how I should feel today."

Electric Light Orchestra

Evil Woman  I always appreciate a song whose lyrical message contrasts sharply with the musical arrangement. In this Jeff Lynne classic, the singer is hitting his subject hard and fast with catchy lines backed by an upbeat, almost cheerful track. "Ha ha, woman, it's a crying shame / That you don't have anyone else to blame." 

Don't Bring Me Down  This track has been on my regular listening rotation for years now. Jeff Lynne's greatest composition. The beat is hard, hot, and as a rule for Jeff Lynne, catchy. Takedown song, workout song, party song; this song can do it all. "What happened to the girl I used to know?" 

Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia

Next Time You See Me  First recorded by Junior Parker in 1956, the Dead included it in their live repertoire starting in 1966. I know all Deadheads are gaga over Turn On Your Lovelight, but I think this is my favourite Pigpen song; he gets to shine both on the vocals and harmonica. The fact that they didn't play it after Pigpen left the band (and quickly died) supports my claim. The lyrics are simple but assertive, "You were wrong to do it, woman / And now another queen is on your throne."

Linked here is one of my favourite versions from 1971.

I'll Forget You — An outtake from Jerry Garcia's "Compliments" album, this is a cover of a 1968 John Roberts song. Yea, I've never heard of him either. But the song is a spiteful treatise on forgetting and schadenfreude. Plus fantastic performances from Ron Tutt on drums, Merl Saunders on organ, and Jerry, on guitar, per the usual.

Aretha Franklin

Think  This song is somewhat different from others on this list as the singer hasn't broken up with her lover yet, but boy, she's right on the edge of the cliff. She's giving her lover a final, stern warning, "you better think what you're trying to do to me." All said, though, a reconciliation remains possible. Soul music by its very definition has always explored the more painful aspects of life with the late great Queen Aretha leading the way.

Chain of Fools  Now this song is coming fast and heavy. Aretha is pulling no punches here. Her delivery is just devastating, "You got me where you want me / I ain't nothing but your fool."

Nine Inch Nails

Sin  Frankly, Trent Reznor's entire career has been one big takedown song. Except his aggression is pointed at himself, God, or humanity. We here at Cahiers du Musique do not aspire to such lofty ambitions. However, Trent did occasionally find cause to aim his animus at a romantic partner. Sin is an earthshaking industrial rocker, great for working out. "You give me the anger / You give me the nerve" / "I gave you my purity / My purity you stole." Serious stuff.

Gave Up  Another ultra-aggressive industrial pyscho rocker. Man, this will exorcise the demons from your very core. It feels like you can run through a brick wall full of assholes just by listening to this. "It took you to make me realize / It took you to make me see the light / Smashed up my sanity / Smashed up my integrity / Smashed up what I believed in / Smashed up what's left of me / Smashed up my everything." Here's a cool music video featuring the recording studio in 1992. Looks like a young Marilyn Manson on bass.

Velvet Underground/Lou Reed

Femme Fatale  Andy Warhol told Lou, "write a song about Edie," referring to Edie Sedgwick, so that's what Lou did. This seemed to be a common occurrence in their friendship/partnership. "You're written in her book / you're number 47, have a look."

Beginning to See the Light  A classic Lou Reed fast paced rhythm-based track focusing on that moment when you get over that heartbreak hump.  This version was recorded at The Matrix in San Francisco in 1969. It was officially released in 1974 as 1969: The Velvet Underground Live in 1974. The catharsis climaxes at the end when the band in unison repeatedly demand to know, "How does it feel to be loved?'

Vicious  You know how I just mentioned Andy Warhol's suggestions turn into Lou Reed songs? Here's another one. Andy told Lou, "Why don't you write a song called 'Vicious.'" Lou asked, "What kind of vicious?" Andy responds, "Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower." This is a fun track with great lines, "When I see walking down the street / I step on your hands and I mangle your feet / You're not the kind of person that I even want to meet."

The White Stripes

I Can't Wait  If Trent Reznor made his career from writing takedown songs directed at himself, then Jack White made at least half a career from writing bonafide, crackling takedown songs. This guy is the real deal. I'm just picking the ones that really stand out for me, but an argument can be made that Jack White doesn't just write incredible takedown songs, he crafts comprehensive takedown albums.

I Can't Wait from White Blood Cells is a straight forward message, culminating with the repeated chorus, "I thought you made up your mind" immediately followed by a towering distorted guitar solo. Pure genius.

There's No Home For You Here  Angry, brilliant, raw. Everything you could ever ask for in a takedown track and more. Biting lyrics that are almost comical in their penetrative specificity. Guaranteed to give you a burst of adrenaline.

Blue Orchid  One of the catchiest tunes on the list. Jack White compares the slow degeneration of a relationship to giving his lover a pure white orchid and then her bespoiling it blue.  "How dare you? / How old are you now anyway? / You're given a flower / But I guess there's just no pleasing you / Your lips taste sour / But you think that it's just me teasing you" belies the bitterness of a ruined affair. Super cool video directed by Floria Sigismondi.

You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)  Again, the title speaks for itself. The angry yet weeping guitar solo towards the end is a study in the distillation of pain.

The Rolling Stones

So Divine (Aladdin Story)  The first notes from this outtake from Exile On Main St. session sounds EXACTLY like Paint It Black but this features some of the most legendary takedown lyrics on this list. Also worthy of note is the chorus uses alternating lyrics that incrementally increase the intensity of the attack. Mick Jagger isn't playing around.

Under My Thumb  The bombs are coming fast and furious now. Ok, so the Stones aren't going to win awards from Feminists organizations anytime soon, but boy, for anyone who has ever reversed an uneven dynamic with a formerly disrespectful partner, this one hits home like a pile-driver. Also, strong contender for top Stones track of the '60s, which is saying a whole hell of a lot.

Out of Time  A somewhat obscure track that is rather startling for its sophisticated musicianship, particularly for 1966 Rolling Stones. It was a minor hit for Chris Farlowe. "You're obsolete, my baby / My poor old fashioned baby." A song for when the partner that once spurned you now wants back in, but you've moved on.

This recording uses the backing track from the Chris Farlowe version, only with Mick Jagger on lead vocals.

She's So Cold  "I tried rewiring her / I tried refiring her / I think her engine is permanently stalled" Say no more, Mick.

Although, for a man's of Jagger's sexual reputation, you'd think takedown songs would not be such an integral part of the Stones songbook.  It's like he wrote a song for each individual instance a seduction of his was unsuccessful.

Dead Flowers  The Stones are the prototypical rock band, a reputation earned in spades, but they also were able access a new level of musical craftsmanship when Keith Richards befriends Gram Parsons in 1971. By any other artist not named The Rolling Stones this song would be considered part of the country genre, and indeed, the Coen brothers' used a Townes Van Zandt version in The Big Lebowski. Although the singer salves his heartbreak with "with a needle and a spoon / And another girl" to take his pain away, in the end, the singer makes a solemn vow, "I won't forget to put roses on your grave."

It's All Over Now  Written by Bobby Womack, this early Stones raucous rocker has a very simple message, "I used to love her / but it's all over now." Notable for being the Stones' very first #1 hit in England. Later, the Grateful Dead performed this song 154 times beginning in 1969.

Star Star  When Atlantic Records owner, and rock 'n roll legend in his own right, Ahmet Ertegun, saw the original title of this song, he insisted on a change. Starfucker was just too much for Ahmet to tolerate, even for a cash-cow like the Stones. Raunchy, obscene, hilarious, with references to '70s It couple Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen this song starts off somewhat slow but crescendoes to a very satisfying finish.

Bob Dylan

Just Like A Woman  Few on this list approach the artistry or poetry of Bob Dylan. "She takes just like a woman / She makes love just like a woman / And she aches just like a woman / But she breaks just like a little girl," gets me every damn time.

This is an outtake from the Blonde On Blonde sessions.

Leopard-Skin Pill-box Hat  Dylan attacks with an audacity that would be comical if it weren't so staggering. The guitar cuts like a dozen paper cuts around the place where a heart should be. "Yes I see you've got a new boyfriend / You know I never seen him before / I saw you making love with him / You forgot to close the garage door / You might think he loves you for your money / But I know what he really loves you for / It's your leopard-skin pill-box hat."

This version is from the infamous Royal Albert Hall concert in 1966.

Don't Think Twice, It's Alright  Written by Dylan upon receipt of a telegram from Suze Rotolo, featured with him on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, that she wasn't returning from her trip to Italy. The somber tone is punctuated by Dylan's genius, "I once loved a woman / A child I'm told / I gave her my heart / But she wanted my soul." It's a takedown song through and through, but the heartbreak is palpable, too.

Positively 4th Street  So you've read all the way to the bottom to find out what everyone already knew, even if they didn't realize it before: Positively 4th Street is the greatest takedown song of them all. Dylan is relentless in his sneering, mocking tone as he assails his subject. The final confrontation is an ironic reversal, where he wishes the subject can be in his shoes just so she could experience what a drag it is to see her. This song is the ultimate send-up of all the assholes. It really deserves to have the lyrics published in their entirety.

Honorable Mention

Like A Rolling Stone  So obviously the Song of Songs is a classic takedown song, but it's also the Song of Songs. Its epic greatness transcends all labels and distinctions. It is the greatest song of all time.