We Sold Our Souls
is my heavy metal horror novel, and while I’m not a natural metal head, I learned to love metal while writing it. This is probably the darkest book I’ve written, and it was a huge stretch that took me down a rabbit hole and out the other side. This is a list of the key songs that took me down, and lifted me up, while writing it, and I hope it does the same thing for you.
“Iron Man” by Black Sabbath
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Everything starts with Sabbath, the original riffs heard round the world, played by a bunch of lunkheads from Birmingham who by all rights shouldn’t have gone anywhere except to their next shifts at the factory. In We Sold Our Souls
, “Iron Man” is the first metal song Kris Pulaski, my main character, teaches herself on the guitar, and it’s probably being woodshedded by kids around the world right this minute, all of them bent over their guitars, fingering out the chords, picking their ways towards freedom, trying to be heard.
“Dead End Justice” by The Runaways
Everyone knows The Runaways’ other song, “Cherry Bomb," but this one is the kind of song that you can get obsessed with, and in We Sold Our Souls
it’s become a secret language for the book’s band. From its sneering purple prose lyrics (“Dead end kids in the danger zone / All of you are drunk or stoned”), to its ridiculous rhymes (“They beat me with a board / It felt just like a sword”), its mid-song beat poetry breakdown, and the closing high camp rock opera between Joan Jett and Marie Curie playing two kids sentenced to juvie for the crime of being cool, it’s a ridiculous rock 'n' roll epic spiked with rolling snares, a chugging bass line, and occasional snarls of electric guitar madness. But in the midst of all this silliness it occasionally achieves some heart-on-its-sleeve grandeur, especially in Joan Jett’s final wailing guitar solo that gets stomped to shards beneath Sandy West’s drums.
”Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
No one rocks like Joan Jett. She looks like a black eye, plays like a chainsaw, and has a voice like an ashtray. She doesn’t give a fuck what you think about her, and she’s happy to tell you that to your face. In a world where female artists feel a need to appear accessible and approachable, Joan Jett is a punch in the throat. And here she honors the rock 'n' roll maxim that no good song should last more than three minutes.
“All We Are” by Warlock
From the opening a capella chanting of Doro Pesch to the howling guitar riffs that lay infinite yawp over this chanted anthem, “All We Are” is the ultimate ’80s heavy metal hymn. As Jett was to the ’70s, Pesch is to the ’80s: a rock 'n' roll goddess with ironclad vocal cords, beamed down from Planet Rock to beat mere humans into pulp with whips made of feedback and battle axes forged out of power chords.
“Country Fairs” by Plasmatics
Starting like a whimsical folk ballad before the chorus erupts like a ripe zit that sprays steaming hot punk rock all over your face, “Country Fairs” is the best song to listen to when road tripping across America. A portrait of a schizophrenic country that’s all golden rules and Sunday schools during the daylight hours and then a nightmare carnival of laughing zombies and screaming nightmares out to get you when the moon rises, it’s anchored by Wendy O. Williams’s punk-tastic voice that can go from gravelly incoherence to banshee wail to junkyard dog growl in a handful of measures. Should probably replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.
“C’mon Let’s Go” by Girlschool
What Motörhead would sound like if they were women, Girlschool is one of those forgotten early metal bands that put four on the floor and drove full speed ahead with rudimentary hooks, wild shouts of joy, and an absolutely demonic rhythm section. Messy, derivative, and a hell of a lot of fun, they’re probably forgotten because where other female metal bands got pushed into posing in cheesy lingerie, they kept their leather jackets on, their hair messy, and their grins big. I imagine Girlschool is the kind of band that closes down every bar they visit.
“Shitlist” by L7
They’re not metal, but I listened to this song almost constantly while writing We Sold Our Souls
(well, that and Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow,” which Spotify doesn’t carry). I went to college during the heyday of the riot grrrls and the Lunachicks, L7, Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and a million others were the last gasp of real rock before irony fatally poisoned pop. L7 were the tightest of the bunch, spitting out short snappy songs like bullets where all their lyrics actually rhymed. This number has a special place in my heart not just for its totally cathartic use in the opening of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers
, but for being so bone simple. It’s like getting beaten to death with a jagged chunk of concrete wielded by that weird girl you used to make fun of in elementary school, come back to teach you to never underestimate anyone.
“Rock Star” by Hole
Say what you want about Courtney Love, she’s a one-woman wrecking ball and before her outsized personality became her own worst enemy she turned out some fist-to-the-face hardcore sounds. Released a week after her husband’s suicide, Live Through This
felt like an album written after she saw the future and it made her throw up. This song in particular sums up everything suffocating and hideous about “scenes," and the pent-up fury that forms them in the first place. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Love’s finest hour, and that it ends on a note of nausea and “stop the merry-go-round” wooziness only feels even more precognitive.
“All That Remains” by Fear of God
The prototypical gothic metal band, Fear of God released two albums before their lead singer, Dawn Crosby, died. In true rock star fashion, the cause of death was liver failure from her years of substance abuse. You can accuse this song of being too emo, of being self-indulgent, of being kind of adolescent. But you can also say that it’s a perfect showcase for Crosby’s voice — chanting, invoking, screaming, sighing, whispering, crawling all over this song like a tarantula. If you like your metal epic, Fear of God is a road not taken, a what-might-have-been.
“Aorta” by Tanya Tagaq
Show me a dude this brave, and I’ll give him a trophy. An Inuk singer, Tanya Tagaq’s mutated her tribe’s indigenous throat singing into a muscular, violent, horror show that sounds like she’s a possessed person fighting with herself. Fearlessly outspoken, seeing her live is like attending an exorcism, and “Aorta” is a cut-and-paste freak-out with Tagaq panting, gerning, shrieking, squealing, and seemingly swallowing her own tongue. By the time she’s gasping out, “Kill or die, kill or die” you feel like this should get classified as black metal.
“School Revolution” by Voice of Baceprot
They wear hijab, they come from Indonesia, and they met in high school. Voice of Baceprot is a metal band that’s surprisingly slick and sharp, a bit too nu metal for me to truly love their tunes, but they’re kids doing something new, and so the torch is passed, from the Runaways, to Girlschool, to Warlock, to Voice of Baceprot.
“Something on Your Mind” by Karen Dalton
Let’s close it out with the most aching, heartbreaking song ever written. She only ever released two albums. She stopped performing around 1985. Bob Dylan said she had "a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played the guitar like Jimmy Reed and went all the way with it.” Karen Dalton wasn’t discovered, or managed, or groomed, she just appeared on the folk music scene in the sixties and did her thing. You can imagine her singing this song about giving up to a friend sinking into addiction, or you can imagine Dalton, who was taken on a potentially life-changing world tour by Santana but was so scared of the audience she couldn’t leave her dressing room, singing it to herself. “Yesterday, any way you made it was just fine,” she begins in a voice like a bag full of broken glass, “So you turned your days into night-time / Didn't you know, you can't make it without ever even trying?” and when she draws out that “trying” and her voice catches and breaks, your soul breaks with it. If that doesn’t shatter your heart, try reading the last sentence in her Wikipedia entry: “She died from an AIDS-related illness in March 1993, aged 55, in her mobile home, which is located in a clearing off Eagle's Nest Road, outside the town of Hurley, near Woodstock, New York.” There’s a moment in We Sold Our Souls
when Kris sings for all the losers who never made it, all the geniuses who died broke and unknown. She’s singing for Karen Dalton.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a novelist and screenwriter based in New York City. His novels include Horrorstör
, named one of the best books of 2014 by National Public Radio, and My Best Friend’s Exorcism
, for which the Wall Street Journal
dubbed him “a national treasure.” We Sold Our Souls
is his most recent book.