Thanks to Juicy J’s rap, Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” is the latest No. 1 song to mention a convicted murderer by name. From Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and Foster the People’s “Pumped up Kicks,” pop music has its share of songs about bad people who can inflict physical harm, including the devil himself (The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”).
There have been many songs about outlaws (Jesse James, for instance), who are often more brutal than the romanticized legend. There are also songs that make references to people who were never found guilty (Lizzie Borden is a prime example) and songs that mention a fictional killer like Hannibal Lecter. Here are all the No. 1 songs that refer to convicted killers and assorted criminals specifically.
- Elvis Presley – Jailhouse Rock (1957)
The title song from the “Jailhouse Rock” soundtrack refers to a gang that was suspected of taking part in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.
- The Kingston Trio – Tom Dooley (1958)
Tom Dooley is the former Confederate soldier from North Carolina who was convicted of murder and hanged.
- Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife (1959)
The titular character of this song from “The Threepenny Opera” musical is based on a London thief who was eventually hanged.
- Lloyd Price – Stagger Lee (1959)
The second No. 1 song to mention a convicted murderer by name.
- Lorne Greene – Ringo (1964)
A song about the outlaw Johnny Ringo.
- Paper Lace – The Night Chicago Died (1974)
Even though the account in this song is fictional, Al Capone’s name is mentioned.
- Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire (1989)
Think of this song as headline news between 1949 and 1989 in four minutes and 50 seconds. It’s no surprise that some bad people are mentioned by name here, starting with the spree killer whose story inspired the 1973 film “Badlands.” As we get further away from 1989, one questions why Billy Joel chose to include a Nazi officer and the New Yorker who was acquitted of attempted murder in the mid-1980s. Note that this song also mentions a few world leaders that some would consider murderers.
- Snow – Informer (1993)
The Canadian reggae singer’s autobiographical song deals with an incident in 1989 when he was charged with attempted murder and later acquitted of a lesser charge.
- Kanye West – Stronger (2007)
The biggest hit to date that mentions the former football player who was acquitted of murder in the trial of the century in the mid-1990s.
- Katy Perry Featuring Juicy J – Dark Horse (2014)
The first No. 1 song in rock and roll history to refer to a convicted serial killer by name.
Then there are No. 1 songs that are somehow connected to real-life criminals.
- B.J. Thomas – Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (1970)
From the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
- Madonna – Live to Tell (1986)
From the film “At Close Range,” which is about an organized crime family in Pennsylvania.
- Bryan Adams – (Everything I Do) I Do It for You (1991)
From the film “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”
- Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart/Sting – All for Love (1994)
From the film “The Three Musketeers.” Cardinal Richelieu is portrayed as the bad guy.
And finally, let’s end with chart-topping songs about fictional characters.
- Sheb Wooley – The Purple People Eater (1958)
A novelty song about a creature who wants to be in a rock and roll band.
- Jimmy Dean – Big Bad John (1961)
A song about a fictional killer.
- Bobby “Boris” Pickett & The Crypt-Kickers – Monster Mash (1962)
A novelty hit about a dancing monster.
- Cher – Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves (1971)
Thieves are technically criminals, but this song is really about prejudice.
- Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando – Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree (1973)
A song about a prisoner’s homecoming.
- Vicki Lawrence – The Night the Lights Went out in Georgia (1973)
A fictional crime story.
- The Edgar Winter Group – Frankenstein (1973)
Though the title here refers to the way this instrumental is edited, the literary name comes from Mary Shelley’s novel.
- Cher – Dark Lady (1974)
Another fictional crime story.
- Eric Clapton – I Shot the Sheriff (1974)
A song about justice more than anything else.
- Steve Miller Band – The Joker (1974)
While this song has nothing to do with Batman’s rival, one of DC Comics’ video games did quote its lyrics years later.
- Rhythm Heritage – Theme From S.W.A.T. (1976)
The disco version of the theme from an ABC crime series.
- Meco – Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band (1977)
The “Star Wars” saga includes one of the most recognizable film villains of all time, Darth Vader.
- Michael Sembello – Maniac (1983)
A song about a maniac…on the dance floor (from the “Flashdance” soundtrack).
- Phil Collins – Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now) (1984)
The theme from a crime drama.
- Duran Duran – A View to a Kill (1985)
Christopher Walken plays another classic Bond villain who wants to destroy Silicon Valley (off with his head!).
- Jan Hammer – Miami Vice Theme (1985)
From NBC’s groundbreaking crime series.
- Madonna – Who’s That Girl (1987)
The singer plays an ex-convict in this comedy.
- Prince – Batdance (1989)
From the first movie adaptation of the “Batman” comic book, which is full of bad guys. The film’s dialog can be heard on this record, including the voice of the Joker.
- Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle – A Whole New World (Aladdin’s Theme) (1993)
Aladdin is one of the most famous thieves in literature.
- Ini Kamoze – Here Comes the Hotstepper (1994)
Though hot stepper is Jamaican slang for fugitive and the word “murderer” is repeated throughout, the “lyrical gangster” part seems to imply this song is not about a real criminal.
- Coolio With L.V. – Gangsta’s Paradise (1995)
A modern gangster’s lament.
- Seal – Kiss From a Rose (1995)
From the film “Batman Forever.”
- Will Smith With Dru Hill & Kool Mo Dee – Wild Wild West (1999)
The big-screen adaptation of the 1960s TV series features a mad scientist.
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