1. Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me”
The first-person narrator of Rockwell’s 1984 Motown novelty song “Somebody’s Watching Me” has paranoia problems; he can’t wash his hair because he worries that he’ll open his eyes and find someone in the shower with him, and he assumes the neighbors, the mailman, and the government are keeping tabs on him. “Can the people on TV see me?” he fusses. The song, with its vocoder robot voice (before such things became ultra-common) and electronic melody, is fairly effective at bringing out the eerie feeling of a guy beset by insane fantasies of persecution. (So is the all-too-appropriate Michael Jackson chorus hook, given that Jackson earned those feelings that he was always being watched.) But the “Somebody’s Watching Me” video takes crazy to a new level. No wonder Rockwell (born Kenneth Gordy, the son of Motown CEO Berry Gordy) was paranoid, with all those zombies, specters, and dead birds in his house. Not to mention the backyard cemetery and the diaper-wearing mailman. It’s enough to lead a one-hit-wonder to shower while wearing a towel and stagger around his house overacting.
2. Porter Wagoner, “The Rubber Room”
Grand Ole Opry mainstay Porter Wagoner was hardly the most likely chronicler of an unstable mind, which makes his 1972 single all the more disturbing. Beginning as an unassuming, fiddle-tinged waltz, the song gains shimmering keyboards and ghostly harmonies as Wagoner plunges deeper into his subject. In terse, pungent details, he sketches the details of a place where “a man can run into the wall ’til his strength makes him fall and lie still.” As his voice is swamped with echo, the singer hears “footsteps pounding on the floor” and winds up “screaming pretty words, trying to make ’em rhyme,” a final touch equating creativity and madness. Alex Chilton’s version, from the 1987 compilation The Bigtime Syndrome, walks even closer to the edge.
3. Geto Boys, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”
Houston’s famed, notorious Geto Boys have never shied away from songs about mental illness. The tellingly titled “Mind Of A Lunatic” plumbs the psyche of a rapist, murderer, and necrophiliac, while the group’s signature hit, “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” explores mental illness from several different angles, from Scarface’s suicidal depression to Willie D and Bushwick Bill’s paranoid delusions and hallucinations. “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” is less extreme than “Mind Of A Lunatic,” but it’s infinitely more real and relatable, and consequently much more powerful.
4. The Misfits, “Mommy, Can I Go Out And Kill Tonight?”
There’s really no shortage of Misfits songs that could be plugged in here; Glenn Danzig’s oeuvre features more first-person tales of gory shock-horror than the notebook of the average high-school goth. “Skulls,” “Die, Die, My Darling,” and any number of early Misfits classics are sung from the perspective of the kind of person who ought to be locked up somewhere deep underground. But “Mommy” benefits from its unforgettable chorus, its nerd-gets-revenge-on-everyone plotline, and the title’s almost charmingly polite inquiry. It’s even possible to imagine it as an ugly adolescent version of Danzig’s “Mother,” with the later song’s darkness made explicit.
5. Napoleon XIV, “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”
Producer and songwriter Jerry Samuels opens his 1966 novelty single with a tambourine sound borrowed from “Like A Rolling Stone.” But while both songs deal with the theme of heartbreak and abandonment, the similarity ends there. In fact, the similarity to just about anything else ends there. Performing as Napoleon XIV, Samuels rants about being dragged to an asylum, accompanied by little more than percussion, sound effects, and every voice-altering production trick available in the mid-’60s. Listen closely, and you’ll notice it’s the protagonist’s dog who’s done him wrong. It’s crazy. Even crazier: a record-buying public that turned it into a massive international hit, for reasons now lost to the ages.
6. Leroy Pullins, “I’m A Nut”
Off-kilter country legend Roger Miller was known for songs that combined humorous, almost childish lyrics with jazzy, sophisticated musical arrangements. The very idea of someone imitating such an idiosyncratic artist is insane on its face, but Kentucky-born Leroy Pullins did: His only hit was the 1966 novelty number “I’m A Nut,” which is almost completely indistinguishable from Miller’s work, right down to the free-form scatting after the chorus. The lyrics are a sort of bottom-drawer Nashville surrealism, treating madness as more of a way to relieve boredom than a serious problem. Lines like “Is it shorter to New York than it is by plane?” and “If I took a dime to go ’round the world, I couldn’t get out of sight” show that Pullins shared Miller’s bizarre sensibilities as well as his voice and musical style.
7. Eminem, “Kim”
There doesn’t seem to be any separation between Eminem’s famously traumatic personal life and his sometimes evisceratingly dark music, but he seldom takes that tendency as far as he does on “Kim.” Here, Eminem fantasizes about murdering his on-again, off-again soulmate Kim Mathers, now his ex-wife and the mother of his child. In an almost literal act of overkill, Eminem took to mock-torturing a blow-up doll representing Kim while performing the song during the “Up On Smoke” tour. Kim, unsurprisingly, wasn’t amused, and sued the rapper for defamation. Yet the pair remarried in 2006. The marriage, shockingly, did not last.
8. Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”
Like Glenn Danzig, Ozzy Osbourne knows a thing or two about singing songs from a maniac’s perspective. “Paranoid” was the depressing statement of purpose of his Black Sabbath years, but by the time he recorded “Crazy Train” as a solo artist, he’d come to terms with his own insanity, and the result is a propulsive, almost jaunty exploration of mental illness with an unforgettable opening. Lyrically, “Crazy Train” begins on a hopeful note (“maybe it’s not too late to learn how to love”), but by the end, it’s a typical Ozzy anthem of despair. “Mental wounds not healing,” he cries; “who and what’s to blame?” Thirty years later, he still doesn’t have the answers.
9. Ass Ponys, “Hey Swifty”
Few lyricists could match Chuck Cleaver’s Southern Gothic storytelling, so when he decided to write a song about a crazy person, he made it count. Swifty is slowly going insane, and everyone knows it but him; when his friends say “you’re gonna have to come around sometime,” it isn’t a social invitation, but a plea for him to get his act together. But he goes on about his business, holding his hand over a candle flame to build up his resistance to pain, and painting up the remains of a dead dog to look like an American flag. At the song’s memorable climax, he and a friend take a road trip down the length of the Mississippi, and Swifty abandons him at the river’s edge when he says the wrong thing at the wrong time.
10. Ramones, “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”
The Ramones are yet another band that cranked out song after song from the perspective of the mentally damaged. “Psycho Therapy,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” and “I Wanna Be Sedated” are all classic songs where Joey’s nasal croon paints the picture of someone who irreparably shattered his brain cells with too much Carbona. But “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” is the first and the best, with a powerful hook and a downright optimistic outlook: Johnny’s buzzsaw guitar goes into overdrive as Joey sings about how the judicious application of electricity to his frontal lobes has made him “happy, happy, happy all the time.”
11. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, “The Curse Of Millhaven”
None of the characters or protagonists described in the songs on Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads are in their right minds. That’s appropriate enough, since they’re all killers, victims, or both—and they’re sometimes so confused that it isn’t clear which is which. But the album’s batshit-loony award goes to 14-year-old Loretta, the first-person narrator of Cave’s deeply unsettling ballad “The Curse Of Millhaven.” The song starts off violent and intense, with Loretta describing a series of ghastly murders in her community. Given the persona Cave gives her, with a ranting voice just short of shouting, it’s no particular surprise when she reveals that she was behind those deaths. But where the other songs on Murder Ballads end at roughly that point, “Millhaven” ramps up the violence and intensity for nearly seven exhausting minutes, as Loretta rabidly confesses to a litany of increasingly ghastly crimes, some so well-concealed that no one in her community even suspected foul play. Cave even brings the horror into Loretta’s description of herself: “My eyes ain’t green and my hair ain’t yellow / It’s more like the other way around / I gotta pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming.” Asked, toward the end, if she feels remorse, “I answer ‘Why, of course! / There is so much more I coulda done if they’d let me!’” Shudder.
12. The Kinks, ”Destroyer”
Apparently being a sexually confused young virgin who drunkenly lets a transvestite pick him up in a bar—as the narrator does in The Kinks’ 1971 hit “Lola”—isn’t the best way to keep your head on straight. The group’s 1981 sequel “Destroyer” (a much lesser Billboard-chart hit) starts out with the narrator taking Lola back to his place, but then guilt and fear overwhelm him, as he imagines hidden cameras witnessing their assignation. His sanity disintegrates from there, as his paranoia wrecks him, and he tells Lola “there’s a little yellow man in my head… stops me touchin’ ya, watchin’ ya, lovin’ ya.” Strangely, when he later sees a doctor about his mental-health issues—including the red man under his bed and the green man in his mind—the doctor says he isn’t crazy, “just a bit sad ’cause there’s a man in you, gnawing you, tearing you into two.” Sounds pretty crazy to us. And for that matter, to Lola, who tells him “There’s really something wrong with you. One day you’re gonna self-destruct.”
13. “Weird Al” Yankovic, “Good Old Days”
What on earth was going on in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s head when he released the 1988 album Even Worse? It contains two different songs from the perspective of mentally disturbed people, both set to poppy, mild tunes that utterly belie their creepy contents. “Melanie,” about an obsessed stalker whose behavior gets increasingly outré as he wonders why his crush object doesn’t return his affections (“Are you still mad I gave a mohawk to your cat?”), is a shade on the goofy side, particularly when it’s revealed that the protagonist is still obsessing over Melanie from behind the grave. But “Good Old Days,” written in the style of James Taylor (and frequently described in Yankovic’s concert patter as a collaboration between Taylor and Charles Manson) is the most disturbing song he’s ever released. Its recitation of a psychopath’s crimes, from a childhood “torturing rats with a hacksaw and pulling the wings off of flies” to arson and murder, are presented with a sweet, gilded nostalgia that enhances the horror rather than diminishing it. This psycho is having way too much fun remembering everyone he ever killed or hurt. Catchy, but not funny, funnyman!
14. Suicidal Tendencies, “Institutionalized”
An anguished rebuttal to the pathologizing of teen angst, this 1983 hardcore classic pits singer Mike Muir against concerned friends and well-meaning parents whose desire to help encompasses everything but actually listening to him. “I need time to figure these things out,” he says over the song’s primitive three-chord vamp, “but there’s always someone there going, “Hey, Mike, we’ve been noticing you’ve been having a lot of problems lately… Maybe you should talk about it.” The song hits fever pitch when Muir attempts to divert his mother’s good intentions by sending her out for soda, a gambit that tragically backfires. “All I wanted was a Pepsi!” he screams. “And she wouldn’t give it to me!” Needless to say, things go downhill from there, until Muir ends up in a straitjacket, well on his way to being a bona fide nutcase, and all because his mom wouldn’t give him a Pepsi. Parents, take note: Give your children what they ask for, or they will go insane.
15. Peter Gabriel, “Family Snapshot”
A catchall of contemporary assassinations, Peter Gabriel’s “Family Snapshot” (from his third self-titled album, informally known as Melt) mingled excerpts from the diary of would-be George Wallace assassin Arthur Bremer with visuals courtesy of Dealey Plaza. Over piano chords and fretless bass, the narrator of Gabriel’s song details his obsession with the celebrity whose spotlight he hopes to steal. As the motorcade draws near his perch and a saxophone kicks into high gear, he addresses his would-be victim: “I want to be somebody. You were like that, too / If you don’t get given, you learn to take, and I will take you.” In a final twist that’s either a sentimental masterstroke or a cheap psychoanalytic gag, Gabriel flashes back to the killer’s childhood, his voice shifting to that of an abandoned child. Whether the mindset of psychotics can be adequately explained by a simple reference to “growing up sad” is a question best answered outside the confines of a four-minute pop song, but Gabriel’s reductive psychobabble at least has the advantage of being hauntingly beautiful, as long as you don’t parse the words too closely.
16. Prince Paul, “Beautiful Night (Manic Psychopath)”
The narrator in Prince Paul’s “Beautiful Night (Manic Psychopath),” from his 1996 solo debut, Psychoanalysis: What Is It?, winds up at the center of an evening he rap-speaks about with dismissive casualness, even though it involves various rapes and murders. First he takes a woman out for an expensive evening that ends in date rape. Then he heads to a bar and murders the bartender for refusing to serve him. Eventually, he ends up at a Beastie Boys show, where some white boy slam-dances him a little too hard, and winds up with a broken neck. And though the song is a confession, it’s made without any remorse: “Fuck it, it was a beautiful night,” he says, before giving way to a chorus of pretty voices singing lines like, “It’s a beautiful night to kill crackers… It’s a beautiful night for a homicide.” In the end, it’s more funny than scary—Paul is clearly just fucking around in the midst of an insanely weird, insanely wonderful album—but still, there’s more than a touch of madness.
17. MC 900 Ft. Jesus, “The City Sleeps”
MC 900 Ft. Jesus, the stage name of Dallas musician Mark Griffin, included a Jim Thompson-inspired track called “The Killer Inside Me” on his second album, 1991’s Welcome To My Dream. But it was another track, “The City Sleeps,” that got beneath the surface of an unsettled personality. With almost whispered vocals, Griffin discusses arson, describing in detail the pleasure of dousing a building and watching it go up in flames. “Everyone has a little secret he keeps,” he rhymes, “I light the fires while the city sleeps.” He sounds almost casual about his obsession, and the way his relaxed delivery bounces against the cool, jazzy beat gives the track an added tremor.
18. Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer”
In spite of its title, it isn’t clear whether the protagonist of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” has killed anyone. What is clear: He doesn’t fit into polite society particularly well. Beyond being tense and nervous, he gets frustrated by the kind of everyday chitchat that most people accept as part of everyday life. David Byrne’s deadpan delivery doesn’t make it clear whether he’s singing from the perspective of someone who’s just kind of cranky, or a true sociopath unable to understand how the world works, and determined to lash out against it. Maybe it’s best just to run run run, run run run awayayay.
19. Jack Kittel, “Psycho”
A blind country singer from Texas, Leon Payne found considerable success as a songwriter, most notably with the classics “Lost Highway,” “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me” (recorded by Hank Williams), and “I Love You Because,” one of Elvis Presley’s first recordings. He also penned the only hit scored by Michigan singer Jack Kittel, a deceptively straightforward-sounding country song that gets stranger and more disturbing as it goes along. Singing to “mama,” whose name ends every other line, Kittel mournfully recalls killing an ex and her new beau, a puppy, and a girl he was playing with. And mama herself doesn’t make it out of the song in such great shape either. Elvis Costello used to play the song live during his early-’80s country excursion. The version that eventually made it onto one of his B-sides is good, but he oversells the nervous energy a bit, whereas Kittel just relaxes into his tales of horrible deeds he barely remembers committing, sounding a lot like a normal guy with some unfortunate memory and impulse-control problems.
20. Ministry, “So What”
Ministry’s lengthy catalog of disturbing songs probably has a few sung from the perspective of a lunatic, but “So What” is the most obvious and best-executed. It builds an ominous atmosphere with Paul Barker’s creeping bassline, snippets of dialogue about thrill-killing and juvenile delinquency from the 1956 film The Violent Years, and Chris Connelly’s distorted voice shouting about killing. The lyrics veer into coherence (“I only kill to know I’m alive”) and out again (“Anal fuck-fest, thrill Olympics”), but the “Die! Die! Die! Die!” chorus drives the point home. Listeners know little about this person other than his callous disregard for life (“So what?”) and that he seems to be building up to some kind of climax: “Now I know what is right / I’ll kill them all if I like / I’m a time bomb inside / No one listens to reason / It’s too late and I’m ready to fight.” Still, the song could succeed with just Barker’s bass and the movie samples—marking the one time in history that an Ed Wood script succeeded in scaring anyone.
21. Black Flag, ”Damaged I”
When Henry Rollins joined Black Flag in 1981, he was essentially a karaoke singer. Three previous frontmen had each stamped their own deranged claim on the pioneering hardcore group. Still, on Damaged, his debut with the band, Rollins made Black Flag’s brand of crazy sound fresh and frightening. Following the album’s breakneck bursts of sociopathic punk is “Damaged I,” which closes the disc with a bleak, atonal, water-torture-paced grind. “My name’s Henry and you’re here with me now,” he declares at the start of the song, sounding like a mental patient greeting a new bunkmate. From there, he pukes up a litany of emotional disturbances before admitting, “I put the gun to my head / and I don’t pull / I’m confused.” Rollins often comes off as a caricature of himself, but this is pure self-loathing in aural form; “Damaged I” not only marks Rollins’ first true moment of ownership of Black Flag, it points toward the unhinged sludge that the band would subsequently make its trademark.
22. Angry Samoans, “Inside My Brain”
The last thing anyone really needs is a peek at the maniacal mindscape of “Metal” Mike Saunders, the infamously mad leader of punk legend Angry Samoans. But that kind of vision is exactly what listeners get with Inside My Brain, the band’s 1980 debut. Amid harsh, barking anthems about the sick joys of drug-induced comas, sex with donuts, and hating your dad, the lyrics include the disc’s title track. “Won’t somebody stop my mind? / It’s crawled away, I’m going blind,” Saunders implores, before indulging in a little ultraviolent reverie: “I see black Christmas trees / barbed wire, funeral homes / I see your face, forest fires / rats in the streets gnawing at your bones.” It’s a moment of semi-lucid self-diagnosis that reinforces just how cracked Saunders’ psyche seems to be.
23. The Police, “Mother”
Sting’s songwriting dominated The Police’s albums from the start, but bassist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland usually got at least one track in per album. That doesn’t mean they were particularly good tracks, however, and on his sole songwriting contribution to Synchronicity, the group’s final album, Andy Summers seems to be almost intentionally trying to deliver a terrible song. The character he adopts on “Mother” has some pretty serious Oedipal issues, singing about his fear of being devoured by his mom and how every girl he goes out with “becomes [his] mother in the end.” Mental problems? You bet, and Summers’ backing track—a mélange of repetitive Eastern sounds—could drive even the most stable listener mad with too many spins.
24. The Doors, “The End”
And speaking of Oedipal issues, Jim Morrison lays the Freudian imagery on with a trowel in this epic—or is it just endless?—song at least partly about one bad night in a family’s life. “‘Father.’ ‘Yes, son?’ ‘I want to kill you,’” Morrison sings. Then, “‘Mother, I want to AAAAAHHH.’” Hey, Lizard King, it’s called subtext.