Fallen from Grace: Music of Real Life Pop Criminals

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Human beings are prone to doing some bad things sometimes. In that regard, musicians are no different from the rest of us. Some of them do some very bad things, though -- like cheat on their taxes, operate a motor vehicle under willfully negligent circumstances, commit acts of assault, murder, pedophilia… but let it be known that immoral, illegal, or otherwise offensive actions have no bearing on talent. Dig these tunes by some of pop’s troublemakers, and a few real-life “monsters of rock.” And just to add a touch of wholesomeness, no drug offenses were considered for this mix (though some of these artists certainly do have drug busts on their rap sheets). This is not out of any moral obligation, but more due to the fact that, well, 15 mixes could probably be filled with songs by drug offenders alone! 

Children’s Story,” Slick Rick (The Great Adventures of Slick Rick)
The recently pardoned Slick Rick was imprisoned for the attempted murder of his cousin outside a club in 1990. How ironic that one of his biggest singles cautioned against the kind of violent behavior that got him into trouble two years after its release!

Too Fast for Love,” Vince Neil/Motley Crue
(Too Fast for Love)

In late ’84, Vince Neil was not only too fast for love, he was also too drunk to drive. The unfortunate result was the death of the passenger in his car, Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle. It was a pricey joyride for Razzle, but Neil’s jail time, probation, restitution, etc., was a comparatively small price to pay.
Rock N’ Roll, Part 2,” Gary Glitter
(The Ultimate Gary Glitter)

The British glam rocker’s biggest hit isn’t much of a song – other than occasional shouts of “hey!” it’s basically a fun, party-time instrumental. The party ended for Gary Glitter when he was classified as a sex offender after kiddie porn was found on his computer in ’97. Then he had to go and do some unspeakable activities with young girls in Vietnam eight years later, for which he has been doing time. Some people never learn.

Layla,” Jim Gordon/Derek & the Dominoes
(Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs)

Though Jim Gordon was primarily the drummer in Eric Clapton’s legendary supergroup Derek & the Dominoes, he went down in history more significantly for contributing the haunting piano coda to the group’s defining hit, “Layla.” That, and for serving time in prison for the murder of his mother in ‘83. Why, you ask? Well, he was hearing voices in his head, and it wouldn’t be till after the murder that he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Gordon is still serving his sentence to this day.

A Man Needs a Maid,” Jack Nitzsche/Neil Young (Harvest)
Jack Nitzsche is, sadly, a perfect example of the “troubled genius” type. His string arrangements, such as those he did for Neil Young’s records, were lush, emotionally stirring, and just all-around beautiful. The trouble into which he got himself – nabbed for assault with a deadly weapon against his girlfriend (Neil’s ex, believe it or not) in ’79 – was anything but.

Be My Baby,” Phil Spector/The Ronettes (Back to Mono)
OK, so Phil Spector hasn’t been convicted yet, but the hung jury was certainly leaning towards guilty. He created the “wall of sound” production technique in the 1960s that made “Be My Baby” one of his all-time greatest hit singles, and that earned him production jobs with the Beatles as a group (Let it Be) and individually (Lennon’s Imagine, Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Concert for Bangla Desh), among many others. But he just had to keep his legacy on shaky ground the whole time by behaving carelessly with guns throughout his life, resulting in the tragic death of Lana Clarkson] in 2003. We’ll see what the jury says during his retrial, but I wouldn’t count on him walking away scot-free.

That Smell,” Artimus Pyle/Lynyrd Skynyrd
(Street Survivors)

The “smell” in this classic Skynyrd tune may have been the one of death, but it was the smell of training pants that apparently turned on Skynyrd’s drummer. Artimus Pyle was sentenced to eight years probation and required to register as a sex offender in his home state of Florida after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl. Had he served hard time, like Mr. Glitter, surely prison justice would have introduced Pyle to “that smell” long before now…

Mr. Policeman,” Rick James (Street Songs)
“Why don’t you go and roll your own?” has got to be one of the funniest musical questions asked of a police officer, and by none other than Mr. Super Freak himself. Rick James had far more trouble than being harassed over smoking weed, though. Rick served two years in Folsom Prison (unlike Johnny Cash, who you will note is nowhere to be found in this mix) for a highly publicized case of sexual assault against a 24-year-old woman… in which James’ future wife also participated! Freaks of a feather…

Superbad,” James Brown (20 All-Time Greatest Hits!)
The Godfather of Soul was superbad in more ways than one. He had several brushes with the law during the course of his life (like that time he allegedly assaulted his wife with a lead pipe and fired a gun at her, resulting in a hilarious TV interview that has become a YouTube legend), but perhaps the most memorable was his arrest in 1988 for leading South Carolina police on a high-speed chase that ended with his tires being shot out across the border in Georgia. He served three years of a six-year sentence for the incident, including assault charges. All the while, his musical achievements have consistently outshone his dark side. He really wasn’t kidding when he sang “I feel good!”

Take This Job and Shove It,” David Allan Coe
(For the Record: The First 10 Years)

David Allan Coe’s original recording of “Take This Job and Shove It” actually comes off as a bit tame compared to Johnny Paycheck’s hit version. Rather ironic, considering Coe’s rough background. He served prison time for various offenses in the 1960s, including armed robbery, though that tale about Coe being on death row for allegedly killing a prison inmate who demanded oral sex from him appears to be one of those urban legends that never seems to die. And why not? What’s an outlaw country singer without a boastful rap sheet?

Who’ll Buy My Memories,” Willie Nelson
(The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?)

Good ol’ Willie has a reputation today for being a legendary, boundary-busting country singer and songwriter, as well as for taking up progressive causes like supporting biofuels and reforming marijuana laws. But in 1990, he made headlines for evading the I.R.S. to the tune of $16.7 million. It took only a few years for Willie to pay off his debts, and helping him along the way was a collection of solo demos and outtakes cheekily titled The I.R.S. Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? Unfortunately, you can’t buy The I.R.S. Tapes anymore, but the songs are all out there, and hopefully those royalties are being properly portioned off to Uncle Sam.

My Way,” Sid Vicious/Sex Pistols
(The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle)

Sid Vicious may have been light on actual talent, and a total idiot on top of it all, but his version of “My Way” is kind of funny in an ironic punk rock way (especially noteworthy are his substitutions of certain lyrics with offensive phrases like “you cunt, I’m not a queer” and “to think I killed a cat”). His demise was anything but – he infamously died of a heroin overdose before his trial for the stabbing death of girlfriend Nancy Spungen could begin.

I Wanna Fuck Myself,” G.G. Allin (Rock N’ Roll Terrorist)
GG Allin probably could have been tried and convicted for merely walking the Earth, but the most serious time he did was for felony assault on a woman who accused him of something he regularly did to his audiences – rape and torture. Of course, he performed these acts on himself as well, so at the very least, one could say that GG was consistent. Not only that, “I Wanna Fuck Myself” was brilliantly covered by Faith No More in 1995. Even the most extreme types of sick fucks can write likeable songs.

My Ding-a-Ling,” Chuck Berry (The Definitive Collection)
Chuck is unquestionably one of the most important and influential rock n’ rollers. He’s also, you guessed it, a bit of a perv. He served five years in prison for employing a 14-year-old prostitute at a club he ran in St. Louis in ‘59, and who could forget the sensational news about the lawsuits he was served for videotaping his female patrons as they used the bathrooms in his restaurants? In a way, it’s entirely appropriate that “My Ding-a-Ling” was his only number one hit.

Look at Your Game, Girl,” Charles Manson/Guns N’ Roses
(The Spaghetti Incident)
Charlie Manson, songwriter? He wanted to be a rock star, it’s true, and he really did have some songs that weren’t all that terrible. He hoped that befriending Beach Boy Dennis Wilson would help his cause, but unfortunately, Charlie had a greater talent for manipulating weak-minded fools into committing acts of murder. His creepy personality drove Dennis away before the murders, but not before the Beach Boys recorded one of his songs (uncredited, of course). Leave it to Axl Rose to revive Charlie’s “Look at Your Game, Girl” in 1993 as an unlisted bonus track on The Spaghetti Incident. Unlike the Beach Boys, Axl had no bones about the association – he clearly whispers “thanks, Charles” after the song has concluded.

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