Rock Fought the Law and the Songs Won: Pop Music Gets Criminal (but stops short of homicide)
By Hector DeJeanOctober 16, 2020
Crime has inspired so much music that multiple volumes could be devoted to the subject. Certainly the blues, country, punk, and hip-hop have all produced songs with crime at the center, but so have Cole Porter (“Miss Otis Regrets”), Berthold Brecht (The Threepenny Opera), folk singers, and big bands. There are whole categories of songs—“murder ballads,” “gangsta rap,” “outlaw country”—which exist because of crime. To peer into some of the quirkier sonic takes on lawbreaking, I want to look at only rock and pop songs, and set aside all those where the crime in question is murder (so no “Hey Joe” or “Delilah” or “Folsom Prison Blues”). What you’re left with is a nice sampling of music created by very inventive—and fairly twisted—people who saw subject matter where others saw only police blotters.
“Legal Tender” — The B-52’s
Crime/Sentence: Counterfeiting — Up to 25 years in federal prison, fines of up to $250,000.
Counterfeiting is a crime that seems to lend itself the least to pop creativity, but The B-52’s entered the recording booth up to the challenge in 1982, releasing their synth-heavy Sprechgesang track the next year. It’s far more an example of experimental early 80’s New Wave than the top-40-friendly hits the band was putting out toward the end of the decade. The poppy, upbeat tempo hides the punk ethos of the song—Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson are, after all, gleefully singing about committing a federal crime and getting away scot-free.
“I Can’t Drive 55” — Sammy Hagar
Crime/Sentence: Speeding — Varies per state, but fines can be as high as $2500 and penalties can include jail time.
One of those cuts that everyone knows and no one really likes (prove me wrong here), Hagar based this song on an actual speeding ticket he got for going 7 miles over the limit in NY. Cars and rock go together like Kentucky and toothlessness, so I guess it’s no surprise that Hagar struck gold with this one, which has probably become his most famous song. But, honestly, are there any hair-metal air-guitar diehards out there who still rock out to this?
“Rumble” — Link Wray
Crime/Sentence: Youth violence — Penalties vary based on age, can be as high as 2 years juvenile detention.
“Rumble” is a rock ‘n’ roll monument, a track that rock legends such as Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page credit with inspiring them to pick up guitars. Link Wray and his band put the number together on stage as background music for another band as they came on. At a local recording studio’s request, Wray and co. quickly recorded it as they were leaving town. It wasn’t until many months later that Wray discovered his piece was now called “Rumble” and was in the top 20.
It’s also notable for being the only instrumental piece of music ever banned on U. S. radio. The heavy distortion and ominous throb led several people to imagine it was some kind of paean to teenage street gangs, despite no lyrics of any kind. Radio stations across the country took it out of rotation fearing that it would incite waves of youth battles, though let me repeat the piece has NO WORDS.
“Signs” — Five Man Electrical Band
Crime/Sentence: Criminal Trespass — Penalties vary by state, can be up to $4000 in fines or possible jail time.
Canadians who did not get the memo about being affable and accommodating, the Five Man Electrical Band scored a solid hit in 1971 with their civil disobedience pop tune about disregarding the directions of local ordinances. The song fits with pop music’s ethos of being young, defiant, and not caring what the squares think, and it tiptoes into the realm of crime, or at least misdemeanors, when the lead singer crosses a fence to tell a landowner that barriers just aren’t cool. The defiance, though, seems like a smug pose. Which is a fancy way of saying “adolescence.”
“Stolen Car” — Bruce Springsteen
Crime/Sentence: Vehicular Theft — For valuable cars, up to 99 years in prison.
When you think about it, there are a lot of rock songs about cars and a lot about breaking the law, so there should be a lot of songs about car theft. And there are—here’s a list. Springsteen, the bard of blue-collar tension erupting in a dangerous or even criminal act, wrote the definitive song in this category, but if you thought the quotidian desperation would build up to something brash an anthemic like “Badlands” or “Born in the USA,” here the Boss gives us a soft and beautiful song with a lovely piano lead-in. Of lyric interest, Springsteen sings that he’s driving a stolen car and waiting to get caught, but he doesn’t specify that he’s the one who stole it. The song isn’t really about crime, it’s about guilt, whether one is a criminal or not (and maybe the narrator of this song can’t decide which label applies to him).
“There Goes a Tenner” — Kate Bush
Crime/Sentence: Safecracking (Burglary of a Safe or Vault) — Up to 7 years in prison.
Kate Bush defies easy categorization, and her music can defy easy reception. With her crystalline voice and her model looks, she easily could have been a successful conventional pop star, but she wanted to create albums that were unlike anyone else’s, and she built a recording career largely on her own terms (Why be Sheena Easton when you can be Captain Beefheart?). It can take some getting used to, and you have to accept a level of theatrical drama, but Bush’s playlist has some true gems. “There Goes a Tenner” is an odd number about breaking into a safe, and while some songs use crime as a metaphor for romance or sex, Bush is clearly singing about the specifics of breaking into a safe, and even lyrics like “I hope you remember / To treat the gelignite tenderly for me“ are free of innuendo. She has a lookout, her crew is waiting for the signal, there’s an explosion, one of her colleagues is a rat, she gets caught and demands her lawyer.
“Been Caught Stealing” — Jane’s Addiction
Crime/Sentence: Shoplifting — Depends on state and value of stolen property, penalties can be fines of up to $1000 and community service.
Pop music should be about those things that unite us all—love, grief, parties, and shoplifting. Jane’s Addiction had a #1 hit with this alt-rock song in 1990, though the song is less about theft as a crime than it is about theft as a mania. The bouncing-around lyrics combine the singer’s past shoplifting experiences, tips on how to do it, boasts about his girlfriend (also a compulsive shoplifter), and exclamations about the rush of stealing. And there are dog barks! The anarchic craziness that makes this song work also clearly shows what horrible criminals Perry Farrell and his bandmates are—they DID get caught after all, it’s right there in the title. Unlike Kate Bush’s crew, these crooks definitely are not treating their gelignite tenderly.
And while I said I wanted to avoid discussing country-western tunes, another contender for most memorable song about theft is “Five Finger Discount” by Kacey Musgraves—a sort of rebuttal to “Been Caught Stealing.” Musgraves explains exactly what she will do to the woman who took her stuff (“You better hope karma ain’t a bigger bitch than me!”).
“White Collar Crime” — Grace Jones
Crime/Sentence: Embezzlement — In NY, up to 10 years in jail and fines of up to $250,000.
Along with counterfeiting, there’s something very un-rock ‘n’ roll about corporate crime. Sometimes-pornographic model and occasional poster-child for both discotheques and heroin Grace Jones decided to ditch her disco career for 80’s New Wave pop and on her 8th album recorded an airy song that isn’t really about white collar crime as it just mentions it by name. We get none of Kate Bush’s incriminating specifics or Bruce Springsteen’s angst reflected in the bleak surroundings. “White Collar Crime” isn’t much of a song, and Jones isn’t much of a singer, but I suppose in the ‘greed is good’ era, someone had to put out a tune about pocketing corporate largesse, and it’s kind of impressive that the person who did it was Grace Jones.
“Naked Man” — Randy Newman
Crime/Sentence: Indecent exposure — Jail time of a few months and possible fine.
Before he was writing songs for cartoon cowboys, Newman was embracing misanthropy in tunes about child murderers and the pathos of the short. He somehow killed two transgressive birds with one jaunty stone in “Naked Man,” an upbeat-sounding song about an old woman who has her purse snatched by a nude thief. The victimization of the woman takes a back seat to the lunacy (or maybe it’s just poor impulse control) of the criminal. Newman ends the song from the viewpoint of his clothes-free crook.
“Sunny Came Home” — Shawn Colvin
Crime/Sentence: Arson — Possible life imprisonment or death sentence.
While there are countless pop songs about fire, in most of those the fires are not intentionally criminal. Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin drew Grammy gold from that untapped vein with her 1997 hit. It’s unclear if the main character in this song is full-on bonkers or if she has a deliberate plan—we’re told she has a “list of names” and is motivated by vengeance—but she definitely finds something useful and redemptive about fire. There’s an undercurrent in a lot of 90’s music of vague, ambiguous desperation (P. J. Harvey and Beth Orton come to mind), and this song belongs to that sisterhood.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” — The Velvet Underground
Crime/Sentence: Possession of a narcotic — Class D felony in NY: 1 to 2.5 years in prison, fine of up to $5,000.
The best song on this list (since “Rumble” lacks words, it’s not exactly a song) is the Velvet Underground’s astonishing account of a young white Manhattanite heading up to Harlem to buy heroin. There’s no judgement of the players, and the song doesn’t revel in carefree defiance of the law as much as it describes the consequences of living in a world where the law is second to addiction. Lou Reed sings about exact details—the location of the deal, the comments the locals make, the pusher’s straw hat—nailing an atmosphere and a mindset that must have seemed alarming to listeners in 1966, and which can still shock. One of the most incredible things is that Reed never says the words junkie, drugs, fix, dealer, habit, or high, and yet there is no mistaking what is going on here—why he is waiting, and what he’s waiting for.