Got Gore on the brain? No surprise, considering the time of the year. Yes, late October can only mean one thing: It’s time for zombies. However, 2008 has become known as the Year of Change. It is time to heal this nation of undead and seize our future from the still-breathing. So, before you fall prey to this year’s hee-lariest dud, I ask that you consider an alternative: Please, discard that worn soundtrack and put some more zombie in your life.
Now, by “zombie” I mean music from beyond the grave. I am talking about those brave artists who gave their lives in the name of their craft — and entrusted the heart-beaters to take that same music, add some more music to it, maybe even move stuff around a bit or take some stuff out, and release a “posthumous” song.
This type of music has so often been dismissed as subpar, amoral, morbid and just plain wrong. However, let me put it to you: Isn’t that the conventional thinking? This type of bitter partisanship has led us to divide our music between music about zombies doing some kind of mash and music by zombies that, well, have nothing to do with dances. This type of divisiveness is bad for our country, and this is our chance to end it once and for all.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about those wannabe zombies who died right before their song or album was released. These carpetbaggers actually completed their work prior to their death, and therefore had complete input in the creative process. No, I am not advocating that we extend an olive branch to that conniving Janis Joplin and her lively antics on Pearl, or that glue-sniffing Joey Ramone and his warm and cuddly Don’t Worry About Me.
Nor am I speaking of the hucksters that annually dip into their “archives” of “unreleased” “material.” Frank Zappa, I point my finger at you for continually confusing listeners by releasing your concert performances or your rehearsal tapes — all clear documents from when you were alive. My goodness, in the nation of zombie, why would we want another live performance? No, this is not the nation of zombie that we believe in.
Our nation is filled with crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children alike — and a deceased rapper who continues to remind us of this fact.
Our nation has shuttered mills and homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from all walks of life — and a guitarist who drowned in his own vomit, but performs a mean reverb-washed version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to give us hope.
Our nation is a nation of men and women of every color and creed who serve together and fight together and bleed together under the same proud flag — and a bullet-riddled singer who wants to have sexual relations with all of them.
This type of change has never come without struggle. But where we are met with cynicism and doubt and fear and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of the zombie in four simple words: Uh, we can, yes.
10. 2Pac: “Happy Home”
No list of zombie music would be complete without the genre’s undisputed champ, 2Pac. No other artist has had his work so thoroughly dismembered and rearranged postmortem. So vast is his post-life repertoire that choosing just one song is near impossible. However, much of this material achieves what all zombie music should do: reinforce the last, favorable, living memory of the artist. Legitimate zombie music solidifies and amplifies the listener’s image or perception of the artist.
“Happy Home” illustrates this point by highlighting 2Pac’s status as the thug poet laureate. The song’s anonymous yet vaguely funky track is so unimportant that we can completely fix our attention on ‘Pac’s poetry, wherein he explores the flaws of his domestic relations and his attempts to reconcile these differences to create a…yes, you guessed it. “Happy Home” is hardly the end all of 2Pac’s zombie stature, but if this track can prove the point, why squabble over which one is the best?
9. Jimi Hendrix: “Somewhere”
Jimi Hendrix is undoubtedly one of the most influential rock musicians evar. His three studio albums upended perceptions of the guitar, black men, sexuality, and more. His accidental death at the age of 27 left a terrible void that led many to wonder what else he could have done. Producer Alan Douglas, who conveniently controlled Hendrix’s master tapes, immediately began answering that question by re-editing, overdubbing and constructing “new” songs.
By the time Douglas’ Crash Landing was released in 1975, five years after Hendrix’s death, several other posthumous albums had been released. However, Douglas’ effort earns a spot on this list for the producer’s unabashed commitment to zombifying music by wiping out existing parts (say, Buddy Miles’ drums or Noel Redding’s bass) and mixing in newly recorded parts (like Alan Schwartzberg’s drums and Bob Babbitt’s bass).
“Somewhere,” often called “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” is the crown jewel of the album for its lucid attempt to recapture Jimi in his glory. Guitars (both Hendrix’ and that of an overdubbed studio musician) swell and reverberate as Hendrix sings about a world gone astray. In many ways, it sounds like classic Jimi — aside from the fact that only chunks from Hendrix’ corpse made it to the final cut.
8. Elliott Smith: “Shooting Star”
One cliched description of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith is that he was the heir to Kurt Cobain. However offbase that statement may have been, Smith deserves credit for fulfilling the indie resurrection fantasy that Cobain could not achieve. Upon Smith’s death in 2003, he left behind both an incomplete album and a family that wished to see it completed. The family hired two of Smith’s past colaborators, producer Rob Schnapf and musician/ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme, to finish this task. The two deliberately did not add or overdub any additional parts but instead worked solely from the existing material and Smith’s notes.
The resultant From a Basement on the Hill was subsequently a vegan zombie: a purist, back-to-the-basics approach to zombified music. That almost any song from this album could have been picked for this list is testament to how much of Smith is present in these recordings. However, “Shooting Star” deserves recognition for adhering to the musician’s signature heartache while previewing the noisy arrangements he had hinted at just prior to his death.
7. Notorious B.I.G.: “Rap Phenomenon” ft. Redman & Method Man
On the other hand, Notorious B.I.G.’s Born Again is an excellent example of the hate zombie can create. Unlike Smith, who died in the middle of making an album, rap phenomenon Biggie was killed just before releasing his album. Sure, he left behind numerous miscellaneous recordings, but hardly a fully conceived album. So, when carrier-cum-producer Puff Daddy released another Biggie album about a year and a half later, many were taken aback. Understandably, at the time it was difficult to see past the sheer disbelief of dragging back B.I.G. — keep in mind, Daddy was not yet Diddy, so he did not have the standalone celebrity status that he now enjoys. However, roughly ten years later one can enjoy this thoroughly modern monster mash.
“Rap Phenomenon” is one of the standout tracks that captures the kind of aesthetic choice Biggie would have approved. The Primo beat recalls past collaborations between the two. Meth’s appearance also references their pairing on Biggie’s debut. Red’s appearance simply makes sense. And Biggie’s verse is so good, Jay had to quote a few in “What More Can I Say?” “Rap Phenomenon” does not try to keep up with the Joneses by featuring some D-list celebrity with whom Biggie would have never associated. An exemplar zombie joint from the deadest Frank White.
6. Marvin Gaye: “Sanctified Lady”
Throughout Marvin Gaye’s career, the handsome singer was widely identified as a master of romantic songs. However, the last hit single of his lifetime, “Sexual Healing,” amplified his status as a sexual icon. So the transformation of his incomplete “Sanctified Pussy” recordings into the hit single “Sanctified Lady” was a logical conclusion. Gaye’s brother-in-law Gordon Banks (who had also played on Gaye’s prior album, Midnight Love) took these recordings from the Midnight Love sessions, added a drum machine, that now-signature vocoder bit and the choral responses, and subsequently fulfilled every Marvin Gaye fan’s (wet) dream. A true example of throbbing gristle.
5. Bob Marley: “I Know”
After Bob Marley passed away in 1981, his label head, Chris Blackwell, continued organizing his final recordings; two years later, Confrontation was released. This particular track, “I Know,” places Bob atop a pseudo-R&B-ragga hybrid in a seemingly blatant attempt to curry pop favoritism. However, the song actually works. Marley’s sparse vocal embellishments and phrasing clear out the excess. And his message is a surprisingly lucid summation of his faith in the righteous path. The song is a reminder from beyond of Marley’s pop potential. By the mid-’80s, he and Marvin could have been doing a whole album of R&B-reggae duets. But at least in the land of undead, we get to enjoy songs from both artists.
4. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros: “Ramshackle Day Parade”
In November 2002, punk-rock legend Joe Strummer and his then band, the Mescaleros, finished touring and headed straight to the studio to capture the energy of their latest chunes. Strummer passed away suddenly a month later, leaving band members Scott Shields and Martin Slattery to salvage an album from the remaining recordings. A year later, eight songs from these sessions and two earlier recordings with Rick Rubin were cobbled together to form the band’s third and final album, Streetcore.
In spite of these circumstances, the album scarcely gives any hint of the difficulty surrounding its production — with the notable exception of “Ramshackle Day Parade.” Strummer’s spare mood poem is fleshed out into a heroic rallying cry set against blaring guitars, anthemic drums and a thick male chorus. Shields and Slattery seemingly toasted the good punk and sent him up to zombie heaven with this heavily produced track that made the most of what little of Joe remained.
3. The Beatles: “Real Love”
The Beatles deserve automatic entry to this list not for their stature in rock but for trying to revive deceased singer-songwriter John Lennon not once, not twice, not even thrice, but four times in the mid-’90s. Indeed, it takes effort to stay at the top. Admittedly, the latter two attempts did not yield songs, so “Real Love” became the last single by the Beatles.
The song’s subject is undoubtedly a late-period Lennon creation with its lucid, repetitive exploration of love as both a means and end in life. However, his rough home demo got the “Beatles treatment” by being sped up and pimped out with slide guitar solos, sweet harmonies and good ol’ Ringo simple backbeat. The accoutrement is completely unnecessary, yet a morbidly fascinating exercise in reverse karaoke.
2. Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway: “Back Together Again”
“Back Together Again” comes dangerously close to being kin to one of the aforementioned carpetbaggers. After all, singer-songwriter Donny Hathaway technically completed a couple songs with Roberta Flack for their reunion album prior to his suicide. That said, the full version of this song deserves inclusion for its attempt to extend the pair’s final recording together for as long as (in-)humanly possible. It begins with the performed metaphor of the duo’s reconciliation, but the Hathaway-Flack footage soon runs out and the song transitions into a dance-floor workout. Bassist Basil Fearrington in particular slaps and slides his way through three and a half minutes of slick instrumental sex while the horns and the chorus repeat the main melodic hooks. Hathaway may have left little to work with, but his Frankenstein-minded peers embraced his spirit and brought his virtuosity to the proceedings.
1. Queen: “Mother Love”
Of all the artists and bands on this list, Queen perhaps had the “advantage” (if one can call it that, considering the circumstances) of crafting an album with instructions from the then-ailing Freddie Mercury. Prior to the singer’s death in 1991, Mercury recorded as many vocal parts as he physically could but directed the band to “fill in the blanks.” 1995’s Made in Heaven, a direct nod to the original title of Mercury’s first solo album, is unsurprisingly a broad reflection on Mercury’s life. Tracks include vocals from Mercury’s final months, as well as remixed versions of past songs (such as the title track) and other unreleased material.
“Mother Love” best suits this list because of its novel patchwork quality. The song contains Mercury’s last recorded vocal take before bronchial pneumonia prevented him from singing (and ultimately led to his death). Guitarist Brian May sang the last verse and the rest of the band added a quiet arrangement. As a further reference to the end of the group, samples of past performances by the band wind through the song’s close.
Though the song seems uncharacteristically somber and measured — the above 2003 video by Jim Gillespie for the Made in Heaven: The Films collaborative project certainly follows this theme — it is still chock full strings and cymbal washes that recall the band’s stock sturm und drang. And the baby crying at the end? “You Don’t Fool Me” should be acknowledged for being edited into a song from fragments of Mercury’s recordings, but “Mother Love” gets my vote for building a bridge to somewhere: from the living to the undead.
Acknoweldgement should be given to the Doors’ An American Prayer album, or more specifically “Ghost Song.” Recording music for deceased singer Jim Morrison’s recorded poetry, when said poetry was not intended to be used for the music of the Doors, was an appropriately zombie-like move.
However, nothing kills zombie wood quicker than beatnik poetry. Nothing.