Six Rock Songs about The End of the World

Eschatology has been the be-all and end-all (pun intended) of my academic research for some two decades now.  My Ohio State Department of History doctoral dissertation (2001) and two of my four books have dealt with Islamic beliefs about the apocalypse. But I’d been fascinated with the End Times long before learning about the Mahdi and the Dajjal—probably since I was about 10 years old, when I used to gaze in fear at the 10-headed beast of Revelation illustration found in the back of my great-grandparents’ King James Bible.  Besides, what’s of more ultimate importance than when and how the world ends, and our eternal fate after death?

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The Last Judgment (from Orthodoximages.com).

I’m also a huge fan of rock music, from classic to hard.  Two of my favorite Sirius XM stations are “Classic Vinyl” and “Classic Rewind”—along with the “70s,” “Deep Tracks”  and of course the Beatles channel.  For the last several months, however, the U2 channel mainly played in my truck—until Sirius swapped it out for the “Dave Mathews Band” one. Damn you! Damn you all to hell!  (And I mean both Sirius and DMB.) However, “Ozzy’s Boneyard” also sometimes makes my presets, and listening to the heavy metal songs there introduced me to music about the apocalypse to which I’d never paid much attention.

Herewith, then, are my six favorite eschatological rock/metal songs, based on lyrical content and on music. Why only six? Because 666 would just be too damned many.

  • Iron Maiden, “The Number of the Beast.” Released in 1982, the single was a top ten hit in many European countries but not in the US, although the album of the same name reached #33 on the US Billboard chart, hitting platinum (at least 1 million in sales) status. The song starts with verses from the book of Revelation spoken by the late actor Barry Clayton (supposedly because Vinent Price cost too much). The salient reference is from Revelation 13:18: “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: his number is 666.”  (The numbering derives from applying numerical values to Greek letters; in so doing John the Apostle may have been referring covertly to the Christian-persecuting Roman emperor Domitian.) The lyrics supposedly resulted from a dream one of the band members had after watching one of the Omen movies about the Antichrist: “In the mist dark figures move and twist/Was all this for real, or just some kind of hell?” “666 the number of the beast/Hell and fire spawned to be released.” “I’m coming  back/I will return/And I’ll possess your body and make it burn.” “I have the fire/I have the force/I have the power to make my evil take its course.”  Sung by Bruce Dickinson, often in his operatic voice, over pulsating—if repetitive—guitars, the song might make you take St. John’s apocalypse seriously, even if you aren’t a Christian.  By the way: I’d always wondered about the difference between “hard rock” and “metal.” A few years ago, a co-worker (at US Special Operations Command, of all places!) who moonlighted as the bass player in a metal band told me the difference: in hard rock, you can understand the sung lyrics; in metal, you might understand some of them; in heavy metal, there’s just screaming. (But then, where does that leave “thrash metal?”)  So by that metric, Iron Maiden is doing hard rock.  Also: lead singer Bruce Dickinson fences epee—quite well. And of course he’s sinister (left-handed)!

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The “Four Horsemen of the Rock Apocalypse,” from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, OH (my picture, July 2017): Mick, Elvis, Jeff and Keith, I believe.

  • Metallica, “The Four Horsemen.” This song was from the band’s 1983 debut album, Kill’em All which, despite peaking at only #66, sold over 3 million copies. (Why did I choose this tune, and not the band’s “My Apocalypse?” Read the lyrics.  “My Apocalypse” is not about the End of Time, but a personal catastrophe.) Metallica turns the Horsemen of Conquest, War, Famine and Pestilence of Revelation 6:18 into Time, Famine, Pestilence and Death—although referring to them as the “quartet of deliverance” does seems to put the band squarely on the side of evil.  There are some other, great lines in this song: “The sound of hooves knocks at your door/Lock up your wife and children now/It’s time to wield the blade.” “Now is the death of doers of wrong/Swing the judgement hammer down/Safely inside armor, blood guts and sweat.”  Much of this 7:13-long song is guitar work; but while the (allegedly) “Sweet Home Alabama”-inspired middle solo is engaging, the rest of the “solos” are high-speed, thrash-mode riffing—which is not my cup of tea.  And face it: James Hetfield is just not the quality lead singer that Bruce Dickinson is.  Still, the subject matter of this song is dead-on for my tastes, and thus for this post.
  • Black Sabbath, “After Forever.” This track came from the band’s third album, the 1971 double-platinum Masters of Reality.  Perhaps Black Sabbath’s most explicitly Christian song, it severely undercut their reputation as Satan-friendly.  “After Forever” failed to chart as a single—but then, Black Sabbath never had a single that hit the US top 40 (although a number did in the UK).  Really a hard rock, not a metal, song, Ozzy sings Geezer Butler’s lyrics: “Is Christ just a name that you read in a book/When you were at school?” “Would you like to see the Pope/On the end of a rope/Or do you think he’s a fool?” (A good question, here in 2018, with the ongoing revelations of Pope Francis failing to act against sex predators in the Roman Catholic clergy.) “I think it was true/It was people like you/that crucified Christ.” “Perhaps you’ll think before you say that God is dead and gone/Open your eyes just realize that he’s the one/The only one who can save you from all this sin and hate.” OK, it’s not explicitly, or even primarily, about the Apocalypse—but it IS about the Last Judgement and how to escape consignment to the Lake of Fire.  And the flip side is “Fairies Wear Boots!”
  • Wishbone Ash, “The King Will Come.” This was a cut from the progressive rock band’s third and most successful album, Argus—which reached #3 in the UK but failed, like every other Wishbone Ash album (despite selling over half-a-million copies, and stellar reviews), to hit the top 40 in the US. I came reluctantly to admit the talent of this band—having to overcome some deep-seated prejudice. Back in 1974, my high school chum Mark Gray and I drove to a record store in Covington, Kentucky (just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati) to get copies of Elton John’s (first) greatest hits album. The dude working at the store must have come from Hippie Central Casting: long hair and Lennon-esqe glasses, emerging from behind a bead curtain.  And there was also a miasma of incense in the air.  (At least I think it was incense.)  When told we were looking for Elton’s latest album, Sir Tokes-A-Lot grimaced and implored “have you ever tried Wishbone Ash?” We declined, purchased EJ, and backed away slowly, never making bloodshot eye contact.  Well, thanks to Sirius XM’s “Deep Tracks,” I’ve come to see the error of my ways and the unintentional wisdom of that gentle, if addled, holdover hippie. Wishbone Ash is a damned fine band, with excellent musicanship and profound lyrics—especially on the topic at hand. “The King Will Come” opens with 1:30 of guitars, layering up from acoustic to electric, and reaching rather hard status before the lyrics finally begin. (Indeed, the band was seminal in developing “twin-lead guitar harmonisation later adopted by bands such as Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden.”) While there are no overt references to Revelation, the End of the World is described in just a handful of exquisitely harmonized lyrics. “In the fire, the king will come/Thunder rolls, pipe and drum/Evil sons/ overrun/Count their sins—Judgement comes.”  “The checkerboard of nights and days/Man will die, man be saved/The sky will fall, the earth will pray/When judgement comes to claim its day.” Like Metallica’s 7 minute-plus offering, much of Wishbone Ash’s is guitar work—but whereas the former wields a musical Claymore, the latter brandishes a rapier and dagger.  Metallica’s apocalypse screams in like an asteroid, Wishbone Ash’s sneaks up like a thief in the night—which makes it no less threatening.  Addendum: I called my old high school buddy Mark tonight, and he reminded me that the name of the aforementioned record store was the Lemon Starship.  Groovy!
  • U2, “The Wanderer.”  This was the last track on U2’s 1993 #1 album Zooropa, with Johnny Cash singing lead. On this album, continuing their practice on the previous Achtung Baby!, U2 veered heavily into electronic/Euro-dance music.  On this specific song, accordingly, there’s a (synthesized) bass part, minimal drumming, almost no guitar and some electronic instrumentation. The Man in Black sings about wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, “under an atomic sky/Where the ground won’t turn/and the rain it burns/like the tears when I said goodbye.”  Some of the lyrics clearly reflect the still-resonating end of the Cold War, while others refer to Biblical themes. “I went drifting through the capitals of tin/Where men can’t walk or freely talk/And sons turn their fathers in.” “I went out walking/with a Bible and a gun/The world of God lay heavy on my heart/I was sure I was the one.” “Now Jesus, don’t you wait up/Jesus I’ll be home soon/Yeah I went out for the papers/Told her I’d be back by noon.”  In the middle of the song is a spoken part by Cash, reminiscent of St. Augustine’s Confessions: “I went out there/In search of experience/To taste and to touch/And to feel as much/As a man can/Before he repents.”  This song will make you think—about mortality, and about The End.  It’s Ring of Fire meets A Canticle For Leibowitz (one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written).  And not only did it relaunch Cash’s career—the year after this he released American Recordings—but, as my sons told me, “The Wanderer” was used as musical background for one of the Fallout post-apocalypse video games.

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The Mount of Olives’ Garden of Gethsemane, from my trip there, 2003.  When Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, it probably wasn’t this manicured.

  • U2, “Until the End of the World.”  The single greatest song referencing the topic ever written—although, to be fair, the lyrics are not actually apocalyptic; rather, they describe the betrayal of Christ by Judas, building from the Last Supper to His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The track is found on 1991’s Achtung Baby!, U2’s second-best selling album (18 million).  It was never released as a formal single, although it did come out as a “promotional single” on the US Rock and Album track charts.  “We ate the food/We drank the wine/Everybody was having a good time/Except you, you were talking about the end of the world.”  These lyrics reflect Judas’ presence at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-26; also Mark 14:12-21 and Luke 22:7-16).  “In the garden I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips, and broke your heart.” (U2 also sings about the betrayal of Christ in “Pride:” “one man betrayed with a kiss.”) The Gospel reference is Matthew 26: 47, 48 as well as parallels in Mark and Luke. The last verse sounds like a heartfelt, albeit belated, regret by Judas for his damned perfidy: “Waves of regret, waves of joy/I reached out for the one I tried to destroy/You—you said you’d wait till the end of the world.”  This is also one of U2’s best rock songs, with The Edge going more for a rock guitar sound and less the quasi-acoustic effect.  Although clearly Christian in content—as is to be expected with U2, several of whose members are overtly Christian—the first verse makes me think, every time I hear it, of Islamic eschatology.  “Haven’t seen you in quite a while/I was down the hole just passing time”–which could easily be referring to the Twelfth Imam of Shi`i Islam who will emerge from a well behind Jamkaran Mosque in Qom, Iran.

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The hole/well whence the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi will emerge is behind that Jamkaran Mosque.  Pictured also: Infidel Great Satanist researcher. 

There you have it: my half-dozen favorite rock and metal (?) songs about this topic.  What say you?

17 thoughts on “Six Rock Songs about The End of the World

  1. Thanks for this, Tim. Great to reflect on such things. The Church Fathers say that we should be able to find something to consider or spark our faith in all circumstances, and he who does so is able to be saved.

    The only song I am really familiar with is “Until The End Of The World,” but the first U2 song which struck me as eschatological was “A Sort of Homecoming,” from The Unforgettable Fire. It’s a haunting account of a pilgrimage across a winter wasteland, which immediately reminded me of the Lord’s words, “Pray that your flight will not be in winter.”

    After that, U2’s “Bullet The Blue Sky” (The Joshua Tree) leaped out at me, primarily for the musical effect, which sounds like bombs falling, or like the heavens being ripped open…

    I have also always (even before I was a Christian) considered Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” to be about the End of All Things. That it concerns a personal eschaton in the form of a flood does not diminish its universal application as a blues lament for the end of the age. Like “Bullet The Blue Sky,” the music is overwhelming, devastating, evoking images of a flood sweeping all things away.

    In the pop-rock singer-songwriter category also, one can find numerous songs with eschatological references, often quite literate and subtle. Bruce Cockburn’s “Child of the Wind” is a personal meditation on the end, and many of Dan Fogelberg’s songs are imbued as with leaven with allusions to the Last Day when, “One day we’ll all understand” (“Part of the Plan”).

    One of my favorites is “Don’t You Want To Be There,” by Jackson Browne (The Naked Ride Home, 2002), an achingly eloquent meditation on forgiveness, repentance, redemption, and the beyond, with its second verse and chorus especially:

    Don’t you want to be there, don’t you want to know?
    Where the grace and simple truth of childhood go
    Don’t you want to be there when the trumpets blow

    Blow for those born into hunger
    Blow for those lost ‘neath the train
    Blow for those choking in anger
    Blow for those driven insane

    And those you have wronged, you know
    You need to let them know some way
    And those who have wronged you, know
    You’ll have to let them go someday

    Don’t you want to be there?
    Don’t you want to see where the angels appear
    Don’t you want to be where there’s strength and love
    In the place of fear.

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  2. Thanks Ralph! Good points about those songs–but of course I was looking for ones that at least somewhat explicitly mentioned the topic. As for Jackson Browne: I can’t abide anything he does, so I won’t even pretend to objectivity there.

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  3. I had not, Charles–although I know it. It’s just not one of my fave songs about this topic–at least in terms of music. The lyrics of course are quite relevant.

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  4. It’s amazing how eschatology has always shaped our cultural consciousness. It’s like the sword of Damocles about to drop. This song, from 1969, “In the year 2525,” was one of my favorites. It has haunting lyrics and used to remind me of HG Wells’ Time Machine:
    “In the year 7510
    If God’s a coming, He oughta make it by then
    Maybe He’ll look around Himself and say
    Guess it’s time for the judgment day
    In the year 8510
    God is gonna shake His mighty head
    He’ll either say I’m pleased where man has been
    Or tear it down, and start again”

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    1. Thanks. But the lyrics are not really apocalyptic, much less Biblical–so as much as I like The Clash, the song is really marginal for my purposes here.

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  5. Charles Cameron

    I guess I should say I feel a thrill, quite “tremens” actually, when after a fairly simple opening, the descendingsounds accompanying the “golden ladder reaching down” quite unexpectedly enrich the score — and as Cash himself sings just a line or two later, “the hairs on your arm will stand up”. That’s the mysterium tremens right there — and Cash evokes it brilliantly with those descending stairs. And that’s why his song strikes me as the outstanding apocalyptic song of our age..

    The truly obscure dream reference to Queen Elizabeth and “the whirlwind is in the thorn tree”, the line “alpha and omega’s kingdom come” and the scratchy — beginning and end of a 78 rpm record? –)beginning and ending readings.. all add to the strong impression Cash makes.

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  6. cjk

    Black Sabbath was my favorite group when I was about 20 and After and Forever has always been one of my favorite songs, but as far as Sabbath apocalyptic stuff goes I think War Pigs wins.

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