Serial killers are responsible for less than 1% of murders in the US each year, and Scott Bonn, a sociologist at Drew University, estimates there are less than two dozen active at any given time. Yet, our fascination with this tiny, grisly asterisk to society endures, often dwarfing far larger problems, which he puts down to a “kind of cultural hysteria”.
This morbid fascination is a global phenomenon, for better or for worse, and most likely for worse, we can’t escape the psychological draw of the demimonde’s darkest characters. Songwriters are seemingly no different. The search for source material that spawns an interesting hit has led artists to the degenerate realms of everyone from Charles Manson to Jack the Ripper.
For those uninitiated with the depth of Randy Newman’s songbook, it perhaps comes as a surprise that the composer who makes Pixar movies sing has delved into such musical depravity. Equally, it might surprise the unfamiliar masses that the man behind ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ is one of the greatest living songwriters. It is hard to know exactly why that revelation is so surprising or even just openly objectionable to a swathe of society, but it certainly seems to be the case.
Most people are happy to accept that ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ is a wonderful song liked by both kids and adults; that it is charming and disarming, with lyrics that are both playful and poignant, and they are happy to accept that the man behind the melody surely must be a proficient composer, but for some inexplicable reason, despite all of those wonderful things that they are happy to accept, the idea of being reverential about it is ridiculous.
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Fortunately, for the “200,000” fellow “ugly” fans that Randy Newman claims to have garnered, we have the words of none other than Bob Dylan to back up our hero worship. “Now Randy might not go out on stage and knock you out, or knock your socks off. And he’s not going to get people thrilled in the front row. He ain’t gonna do that. But he’s gonna write a better song than most people who can do it. You know, he’s got that down to an art. Now Randy knows music. He knows music,” Dylan once said.
In the all-encompassing depth of Newman away from Pixar, he has never ventured deeper than with the song ‘In Germany Before the War’. The song from his 1977 album Little Criminals, charters the grisly tale of Peter Kürten. Kürten’s nickname of The Vampire of Düsseldorf tells you everything you need to know about his blood-lusting modus operandi. He attempted this hideous act on over 40 people, claiming the lives of at least nine between 1913 – 1929. Just to ram the point home, that’s 16 years of neck chomping!
The master songsmith Randy Newman tells his tale as though it was a Peter Süskind novel, imbuing the darkness with poetry. Lyrics like “We lie beneath the autumn sky / My little golden girl and I / And she lies very still,” colour his crimes with a narrative, while the stirring melody and production flourishes add an eerie atmosphere like finely tune crime prose.
In some ways, this song is central to understand Newman’s work. Long before he even entered the world of film composing his music had a cinematic quality to it (perhaps due to his families Hollywood composing tradition). His songs are more akin to short stories than typical radio jams; for instance, the melody for ‘In Germany Before the War’ has the sole purpose of forming an atmospheric crutch for the words, whereas most songwritings are happy to trot out a little ditty and jot down some sweet nothings thereafter. That is all well and good, but when you break through the boundary of Newman, these twisted tales of melody and prose paint pictures far more alluring than most.