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A Musical Eschaton

Friday, December 21, 2012

Two of John Schaefer's picks for end-of-times music.

People have been fascinated by the end of the world for millennia, since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, who gave us the very useful and now very timely word "eschaton."

In Western parlance, the eschaton is the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. It has been a recurring theme in literature, art, poetry, music, and of course, in Hollywood, where New York is routinely annihilated and now has the whole world following it into the abyss in movies like The Road2012, and Legion. Now, we've landed on 12-21-2012. You know, the day on which the world should end, according to some widely debunked theories about the Mayan calendar. 

Classical music is full of apocalyptic visions, whether so named or not. Gustav Holst’s The Planets contains one of the most horrific visions of the end of the world in “Mars, The Bringer of War,” and does so without using a single word. This highlights my major beef with most of the eschatological stuff out there now (there’s a sign of my own impending apocalypse: using a fancy word like “eschatological” and finding nothing better than “stuff” to follow it). It’s too literal. 2012 shows everything falling down and crashing; The Road just takes some kind of Apocalypse as a given and leaves you to imagine for yourself what calamity might have occurred. Which do you think is more unsettling? It’s like horror movies – the scariest ones are the ones where you never actually see the monster; your imagination is much more equipped to scare the bejeezus out of you than whatever Hollywood’s special effects folks can come up with.

And so it is with songs. The best “End of the World” songs are the ones that leave you to imagine what’s happening. The Clash’s apocalyptic “London Calling” mentions a nuclear error, and an ice age coming, but aside from that, the imagery is basically just frantic calls of alarm and distress, that become more like personal pleas for help by the end. Even more disquieting is Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood,” one of a number of songs that uses flood imagery to suggest the end of things – and my personal favorite Song of the Apocalypse. “Waves of steel hurled metal at the sky / And as the nail sunk in the cloud / the rain was warm and soaked the crowd.” I don’t know what’s going on there, but it sounds pretty terminal.

Tell us: what is your favorite artistic vision of the End of Times?



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Comments [26]

12-String Frank from Staten Island

Thanks for mentioning Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes The Flood". I performed this on my 12-string guitar at an open mike after the storm. Great haunting song. Robert Fripp did a version of it on his 1st solo album, with PG on vocals.

But where is the most obvious choice?
REM "It's The End of the World as We Know It".

Dec. 24 2012 05:49 PM

"Everything's Cool" by Pop WIll Eat Itself is a good apocalypse song or, at the very least, about the crumbling of civilization into dystopia.

Dec. 05 2009 11:51 AM
Fabio Carasi from Montclair

Check out "We won't be there" (in original Italian: Noi non ci saremo), video with subtitles by cult band "I Nomadi", a mix of 1960's precursor of U2 Greatfuld Dead Cosmic Consciousness, Kierkegaard's pessimism and some basic loud scruffy rock. Lyrics sound and live performance with audience sing along: what else do you want?

Dec. 05 2009 10:27 AM

My favorite is the "Its the End of the World" by REM. Any eschatological song that leaves you feeling happy and peppy has got to be brilliant. Leave it to Michaal Stipe!

Also, I feel like every Smiths and Morrissey song is about doom and darkness in some strange way, maybe not global destruction but perhaps disintegration of the human soul.

Dec. 05 2009 07:09 AM
Doug Walker from Brooklyn

To the Bach, Verdi and Messiaen
references I would add Strauss'
'Four Last Songs'.
'Wooden Ships' was co-written by
David Crosby, Stephen Stills and
Paul Kantner (of JeffersonAirplane)
and each band's version was re-
corded and released nearly simul-
taneously.....(grammar, grrr...)
The Airplane's album 'Crown of
Creation' yields the amazing title
song (criticizing the masters of
destruction, among others) and
the startling 'House at Pooneil
Corners', truly a picture of the end
times. A friend calls the imagery
2nd-rate William Blake, but I would
not know, never having been
to university :>) And the album
cover artwork leaves nothing
to the imagination !

Dec. 04 2009 09:57 PM
Francesca from Bronx, NY

"Wooden Ships" by Crosby,Stills, and Nash or Jefferson Airplane (don't remember who did it originally) and in movies "Twelve Monkeys.

Dec. 04 2009 02:49 PM
Soundcheck producer from New York, NY

Hey Tony [44]: "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire did make our guest Gary Burton's list of songs.

And don't forget: you can listen to today's Soundcheck online by about 5 p.m. today ... or listen again tonight on FM 93.9 at 10 p.m.

Dec. 04 2009 02:47 PM
Tony from Ossining, NY

I missed the early part of the show. Has anyone mentioned the song "Eve of destruction" ?

Dec. 04 2009 02:43 PM
Fred from New York

"The Last Mall" - Steely Dan ... delivered of course, with irony and wit.

Roll your cart back up the aisle
Kiss the checkout girls goodbye
Ride the ramp to the freeway
Beneath the blood orange sky
It's last call
To do your shopping
At the last mall

Dec. 04 2009 02:41 PM
Soundcheck producer from New York, NY

Suki [31] mentions "The Road" soundtrack. We heard a clip from the soundtrack today. Anyone else see the film? What did you think of the music?

Dec. 04 2009 02:40 PM
john from Annandale, NJ

so many good choices, but my vote is for Genesis "Supper's Ready." It has a fairly positive ending, after a thousand mile journey through some dense lyrics. "There's an angel standing in the sun..."

Dec. 04 2009 02:38 PM
Eric Singer from Pittsburgh, PA

Apocalypso by 80s new wave band Monochrome Set and a different
Apocalypso by Boston ska band Bim Skala Bim

Dec. 04 2009 02:34 PM
Jim Beckman from Central New Jersey

For the real "end of the world" atmosphere, I'll put the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's "Requiem" up against just about anything else.

Dec. 04 2009 02:34 PM
david linton from greenpoint brooklyn

hey john maybe plodding chord progressions really do contain the key to the end of the world?

Dec. 04 2009 02:34 PM
Brian from Bronxville, NY

In another realm of media, I love Yeats' poem "The Second Coming." Some say it's political and many others see it as Yeats' skepticism of God and the notion that an apocalypse would ever happen.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Dec. 04 2009 02:26 PM
Marielle from Brooklyn

Messiaen - Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour la fin du temps) - written during his incarceration in a Nazi POW camp - stunning - I feel like I am gasping for breath between every movement.

Dec. 04 2009 02:24 PM
Cory from Manhattan

Come on John. Go for the gold. The opening bars of the St. Matthew Passion.

Dec. 04 2009 02:20 PM

I'm neither a Waylon Jennings nor a Rapture fan, but one of my faves is "Revelation."

It sure sends a chill down your back when he sings at the climax of the song,

"And there stood Jesus Christ in all His glory.

And the saddest eyes I've ever seen were looking right at me."

Dec. 04 2009 02:20 PM
GR from Sunset Park

X "Year One"

Dec. 04 2009 02:20 PM
Jim from Red Hook

"Five Years" by David Bowie.

Dec. 04 2009 02:19 PM
Dinu from New York

The end of Fight Club. Pixies, Where is My Mind. The song is not on topic but the feel is right on.

Dec. 04 2009 02:19 PM
kris from ny,ny

Talking Heads.
no dust. no rocks. the whole thing is over...

Dec. 04 2009 02:19 PM
Jerry from NYC

XTC's Living In Another Cuba. Most apocryphal.

Dec. 04 2009 02:19 PM
Liz C from New Paltz

R.E.M- It's the end of the world!!

Dec. 04 2009 02:19 PM
Liz C from New Paltz

December 24th 2012- we're goin down!! Didn't the Aztecs predict that? It's the end of the world as we know it, I feel fiiiinnnnnneeeeee

Dec. 04 2009 02:18 PM
sean Micka from Brooklyn

Godspeed! You Black Emperor is the most tasteful end of times music.

Dec. 04 2009 02:13 PM

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