Songs in the Key of Doom:
Soulful Revelations on the Dark Side
Issue 4, October/November 2021
We’re in deep shit.
Well, to be fair, we’ve been in it for a while. The world has faced horrific woes this past year alone: a life-threatening virus raging globally, racial upheaval in the constant fight for Black lives to matter, the devastating effects of climate change, the final throes of one of American’s most divisive presidencies. Turning to music is one way we seek solace from the madness. But even when respite comes, another obstacle intervenes, causing us to wonder if the end of our days is near (or already here).
Like film and literature, popular music often flirts with the dark and unknown. Whether there’s a lyrical motif with biblical imagery or an instrumental passage with an otherworldly feel, musicians tell us things about the world we may not have wanted to know and show us possible futures. The tracks in Songs in the Key of Doom connect the apocalyptic outlook of our times to the controversial texts and interpretations of the Book of Revelation — but with a groove.
Sit back and enjoy the funk, or learn more about each track:
The Chambers Brothers, “Time Has Come Today”
from The Time Has Come, 1967
There’s a good chance you’ve heard this 1966 acid soul classic in a Vietnam War drama, TV theme song, or past life. There’s an even greater chance that whenever you’ve heard it, its maniacal percussion (including a cowbell that imitates the ticking of a clock), distorted guitar licks, and the recognizable “time!” refrain signal something terrible is about to unfold. Written by Joe and Willie Chambers, “Time Has Come Today” may have been inspired by the hippie generation and turbulent social climate of the late 1960s, but its apocalyptic-tinged atmosphere and imagery (“Now the time has come (time!) / No place to run (time!) / I may get burned up by the sun (time!) / but I had my fun…”) makes it the ultimate theme song for the destruction of the world as we know it.
from 1999, 1982
Songs from Prince’s vast catalog could claim ample slots in a doomsday-inspired playlist. The late great purple polymath was no stranger to melding spiritual and secular themes, or to exploring death and destruction. His definitive statement came with the hit title track of his fifth album, 1999. Perhaps the greatest song ever made about partying while the sky turns purple, bombs explode, judgment day ensues, and people run (or get laid), Prince was responding to a world that was near its own undoing. In a time where the Soviet Union and the U.S. were entrenched in the Cold War, the world’s economy was in decline, and massive hysteria coalesced around the AIDS epidemic, how could anyone not be worried?
The Police, “When the World is Running Down,
You Make the Best of What’s Still Around”
from Zenyatta Mondatta, 1980
If ever a song title was worth a ton of gold, this deep cut from The Police’s third album would take the honor. Just as the 1980s proved to be a daunting era, the 2020s look to have plunged us deeper into a nightmare; the song’s cynical political message mirrors exactly where the world is at now. And if its lyrical world-weariness isn’t alarming enough, the dense funk churned out by bassist and vocalist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers, and drummer Stewart Copeland completes the paranoid groove dystopia.
Funkadelic, “Wars of Armageddon”
from Maggot Brain, 1971
America circa 1971 reached a breaking point: the ‘60s utopia wasn’t what it was cracked up to be, the terror of the Vietnam War flashed across newspapers and televisions nationwide, inflation was at an all-time high, and everyone felt the disillusionment, fear, and hopelessness. Parliament-Funkadelic founder George Clinton knew everything was awfully funky, and responded with Funkadelic’s third album, Maggot Brain. Known for deftly mixing politically charged commentary with freaky funk-rock power, Funkadelic capped Maggot Brain with the 10-minute avant-rock instrumental, “Wars of Armageddon,” a mind-bending sound collage that captured the foul stench of the times.
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Earth, Wind & Fire, “Evil”
from Head to the Sky, 1973
Although EWF were known for their optimistic grooves and positive outlook, they could also flip to the grim side of the coin to forewarn how greed and wrongdoing would affect our future. This frightening invocation powers the Latin rock-influenced funk opener of 1973’s Head to the Sky, “Evil.”
Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”
from Curtis, 1970
The opener of Mayfield’s 1970 solo debut masterpiece, Curtis, “Don’t Worry” still sounds wickedly haunting today. The song’s apocalyptic tone is immediately tapped when ominous bass lines rumble under a woman prophesying on the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Then, Mayfield gives a searing roll call to those implicated by his titular message — i.e., all of us — before kicking the song’s confrontational funk into gear. The Chicago soul master aimed to focus listeners’ attention on the societal and political misery that was rotting away America, and succeeded.
Stevie Wonder, “Jesus Children of America”
from Innervisions, 1973
The most overlooked song on Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic is also its most prophetic. With its dual Rhodes and ARP synthesizer groove and multi-layered call-and-response vocal harmonies, “Jesus Children of America” sounds like a brooding Sunday morning hymn. But the morbid line Stevie sings during the pre-chorus, “You better tell your story fast / And if you lie, it will come to pass,” instantly proves that we’re going deeper than that.
Mary J. Blige, “Time”
from Mary, 1999
This rugged, socially conscious highlight from one of the hip-hop soul queen’s best albums takes its cues from the Stevie Wonder evergreen, “Pastime Paradise,” where Stevie pled for mankind to live for the future and escape the unhappiness of the past. Blige tapped his theme two decades later, pleading for a Y2K-weary society to reconsider its bad deeds.
The Sylvers, “Chaos”
from The Sylvers, 1972
Unjustly overshadowed by more popular family groups like The Jacksons and DeBarge, Memphis’s Sylvers are best known for two kitschy mid-‘70s disco hits, “Boogie Fever” and “Hot Line.” But serious soul- and funk-heads know there’s more to their legacy: “Chaos” is a gritty social critique pairing the deep social consciousness of eldest member and chief songwriter Leon Sylvers III with sinewy funk.
James Brown, “Hell”
from Hell, 1974
Count on the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk himself, James Brown, to deliver a scathing indictment on societal issues that cripple the nation. The propulsive title track of 1974’s double album Hell finds him tackling the economic plight affecting poverty-stricken minorities daily. Its horn-driven groove and timely message presaged the economic hell that haunts many in the COVID era.
Graham Central Station, “Water”
from Ain’t No ‘Bout-a-Doubt It, 1975
Water is commonly seen as pure, a replenishing liquid that renews and cleanses. But in 1975, funk master Larry Graham, who’d converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith, defined it by way of his religious beliefs. A wicked funk sermon that’s anchored by Graham’s forceful thump-and-pluck bass technique along with tight brass stabs, soulful gospel organ, and an infectious backbeat, “Water” is about repentance and the cleansing of sins in preparation of judgment day: “Let him find you spotless in each and every day, hey / Time is getting nearer to Armageddon day.” The album cover includes angels pouring out bowls of wrath and Christ descending from heaven to unleash the devil for the last time.
Eddie Kendricks, “Goin’ Up in Smoke”
from Goin’ Up in Smoke, 1976
If there’s a song in this playlist that best illustrates the broad idea of Revelation, it’s this 1976 Philly soul gem from former Temptations member Eddie Kendricks. Layering striking apocalyptic allusions and biblical pessimism over posh disco-funk rhythms, “Goin’ Up in Smoke” finds a sweet-voiced Kendricks foretelling the bleak downturn of disco’s hedonism at the end of the 1970s.
Janelle Monáe, “Sincerely, Jane.”
from Metropolis: The Chase Suite, 2007
Pop maverick Janelle Monáe brought the dystopian tale of her android alter ego Cindi Mayweather to scorching heights with this theatrical epic of social commentary. A heartfelt orchestral-tinged message taking aim at inner-city despair, Monáe casts herself as a sorrowful observer. She ends each refrain with the poignant “Lord have mercy on them,” hoping for a response to the blight that’s devastating her community.
Marvin Gaye, “Love Party”
from In Our Lifetime?, 1981
Marvin Gaye stood at a crossroads at the dawn of the 1980s. Torn between his art and tumultuous life, he mined the world’s ills and his own soul for inspiration. This deep cut from his final album for Motown captures Gaye fusing the sacred and profane, resolutely crooning, “Baby, your life and mine is grooving on the danger / Revelations prophecy’s nearly fulfilled / We are blessed to experience a changing world / So let’s love before our fate is closed and sealed.”
If this song’s decadent, doom-laden lines aren’t enough proof of the tensions between the corporeal and the spiritual, the prescient album art puts them front and center. The title references the common Black evangelical belief about the rapture that will occurring when Jesus Christ comes back for his followers. The Neil Breeden-designed cover depicts Gaye’s divided soul — his religious side, a noble angel, faces off in a game of checkers again his dark side, a cunning devil while the world falls apart, with references to nuclear war, drones, natural disasters, communism, and air pollution.
Brandon Ousley is a freelance, natural-born writer, editor, and creative from Chicago. He graduated from Roosevelt University with a B.A. in Journalism and a minor in Black studies. His main writing beat is music, especially classic soul, funk, jazz, pop, rock, avant-pop, and other genres that pique his subconscious, and he’s devoted to assessing the subject’s artistic, historic, and cultural flashpoints. As an avid music collector (who owns an encyclopedic vinyl and CD collection), he contends that the album is the’s greatest (and under-championed) art form to ever exist. He’s written so far for The Coda Collection, Albumism, and Medium.