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Top 11 Songs About Fear
“I don’t have a fear of flying; I have a fear of crashing.”
— Billy Bob Thornton
- “I’m Afraid of Americans” by David Bowie
“I’m Afraid of Americans” was written by David Bowie and electronica musician Brian Eno. The song was released as a single from the 1997 album Earthling. It became Bowie’s last single to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 while Bowie was alive.
Bowie explained the track’s meaning in a Virgin Records press release. “‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ was written by myself and Eno. It’s not as truly hostile about Americans as say, ‘Born in the USA’; it’s merely sardonic. I was traveling in Java when the first McDonalds went up; it was like, ‘for fuck’s sake.’ The invasion by any homogenized culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.”
Ann Wilson covered the tune on her 2018 album Immortal, a tribute to artists who had recently died. Wilson told Yahoo! News that she decided to include the song “because it’s so relevant for right now. I liked taking the position of looking at Americans from a longer viewpoint. He was a Brit looking at Americans — and it’s not hateful toward Americans, it’s just sort of a whimsical thing. It says some real true things. And what I tried to do with the song was make the production full of sounds and feelings from other countries, so the message about America is put into the perspective of the rest of the world.”
- “Scared” by John Lennon
John Lennon‘s Lost Weekend was a period in 1973–1974 when he had separated from Yoko Ono and lived with May Pang in Los Angeles. It was a time of hard drinking with pals Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr. Despite the boozing, Lennon continued to be productive, beginning to record his oldies album, Rock ‘n’ Roll, producing Nilsson’s Pussy Cats and writing music. One of the most confessional of these songs was “Scared.”
In “Scared,” Lennon reveals his fear of ageing and loneliness without Ono. “I was terrified when I wrote it, if you can’t tell,” said Lennon. “It was the whole separation from Yoko, thinking I had lost the one thing I needed.”
Lennon recorded “Scared” July–August 1974 with Jesse Ed Davis on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano. “Scared” appeared on 1974’s Walls and Bridges.
- “Are You Man Enough” by the Four Tops
When Motown moved to Los Angeles from Detroit in 1972, one of its premier acts, the Four Tops, refused to relocate. Instead, the group signed with ABC/Dunhill Records, where they struck gold in 1973 with “Ain’t No Woman,” written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter.
Lambert and Potter also wrote 1973’s “Are You Man Enough,” which appeared on the soundtrack of Shaft in Africa. “We got to work a little different to how we had worked over at Motown,” founding member Abdul “Duke” Fakir told UK Music Reviews. “The music was a little different to how it had been over at Motown, but it was good music. In fact I would go so far as to say that it was great music. I have to say that I always felt that the singles were not in the same vein as the classic Holland-Dozier-Holland hits that we had recorded for Motown.”
“Are You Man Enough” reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1973. “I have always loved that particular song; we all enjoyed doing it, and it really is a great song,” said Fakir. “I must say that in my opinion, Lambert and Potter really were great songwriters. Naturally they brought us songs that were a little different to the Motown sound, but they were great songwriters. I really do treasure a lot of the recordings that we did over there.”
- “Welcome to My Nightmare” by Alice Cooper
“Welcome to My Nightmare” is the title track of Alice Cooper‘s 1975 concept album. The LP was the first solo release by Cooper after leaving the band that was a hit machine in the early 1970s. “There was some discontent about the direction we were going in, if I remember correctly,” Cooper told Classic Rock. “Some of the band decided that they were going to go and work on their own projects so I quite naturally thought I’d do pretty much the same. At the time there was no major decision to disband the Alice Cooper Band, we were just working on different things. It just happened that eventually that’s the way things turned out.”
Cooper enlisted Bob Ezrin as producer of the album, which describes a series of nightmares suffered by a young boy named Steven. “I loved horror movies,” recalled Cooper. “Still do. And I also love theater and musicals. And I always had the grand idea that we could take the basic album and create a stage show from it, which is what we ultimately did. I saw it as like a cross between a nasty fairy tale and something like West Side Story.”
The album reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and led to a Welcome to My Nightmare TV special, a worldwide concert tour and a 1976 concert film. A sequel, Welcome 2 My Nightmare, was released in 2011.
- “Running Scared” by Roy Orbison
“I was always fishing for something on the radio,” Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles: Volume 1. “I moved the dial up and down and Roy Orbison’s voice came blasting out of the small speakers. His new song, “Running Scared,” exploded into the room.
“He sang like a professional criminal. Typically, he’d start out in some low, barely audible range, stay there a while and then astonishingly slip into histrionics. His voice could jar a corpse, always leaving you muttering something to yourself like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it.’ His songs had songs within songs.”
Orbison’s “Running Scared” topped the charts in 1961. The ode describes Orbison’s fear that his girl’s former boyfriend will return and whisk her away. All things work out in the end when she decides to stay. “Running Scared” was the last song Orbison performed in concert. Orbison closed a show in Cleveland with the song on Dec. 4, 1988 and passed away two days later.
“Pressure” by Billy Joel
“When I was starting out and trying to get things going, the pressure was if you don’t get things going, they’re going to throw you out of this apartment. That was that kind of pressure. ‘I’m hungry,’ my stomach was going, ‘pressure, food.’ I think that’s pretty intense pressure. The pressure I was writing about in this song wasn’t necessarily music business pressure, it was writing pressure.
“At the time, I was saying, ‘Well, I gotta write some more stuff for the album’; I was about halfway through, and I said, ‘Well, what am I gonna do? I don’t have any ideas, it’s gone, it’s dead, I have nothing, nothing, nothing. There’s nothing.’ And then the woman who is my secretary came into the house at that point and said, ‘Wow, you look like you’re under a lot of pressure. I bet you that’d be a good idea for a song. And I went, ‘Thank you!'”
- “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs
“Lil’ Red Riding Hood” was the second Top 10 hit by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. The 1966 novelty tune, written by Ron Blackwell, reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Lil’ Red Riding Hood” is a takeoff on the Charles Perrault fairy tale. Sam, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, doesn’t think Red Riding Hood should “go walkin’ in these spooky ol’ woods alone.”
Sam, whose real name is Domingo Samudio, first burst on the scene with 1965’s hit “Wooly Bully.” That song’s success was a surprise as it was released during the heart of the British Invasion. Samudio explained in Classic Bands how he got his name. “When I was in the Navy I used to work clubs, moonlighting as an emcee. So you have to be quick on your feet and introduce the band, do all of that. I learned that and shamming, where you’re cutting up, show timing. You call that shamming. That’s what I did. I was fronting the band, the group the Pharaohs, that we organized in Texas. This musician was calling me The Sham because I could only chord on the organ, you know? I played it as a rhythm instrument as opposed to a lead instrument, but it was a unique rhythm. They can call me whatever they want to, it’s what you do with what they call you.”
The Pharaohs female backup singers, the Sham-Ettes, were enlisted by MGM Records to release a regrettable answer song, “(Hey There) Big Bad Wolf,” following the success of “Lil’ Red Riding Hood.”
“Lil’ Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs
“(Hey There) Big Bad Wolf” by the Sham-Ettes
- “Once Bitten Twice Shy” by Ian Hunter and Great White
The expression “once bitten, twice shy” dates to the 19th century. It means that when someone is hurt, usually in a relationship, they are cautious of repeating it for fear of being hurt again. Ian Hunter used the phrase for the single from his self-titled 1975 album, produced by Hunter and guitarist Mick Ronson.
After two unsuccessful albums, Great White released a harder-edged cover of “Once Bitten” in 1987 that shot them to fame. The single was a Top 10 hit. “The record where people discovered us!” singer Jack Russell told Sleaze Roxx. Russell ignored manager Alan Niven’s guidance on how he should approach the song. “Up until that record, Alan had this thing that he would say ‘Jack, sing like “Jack Evil” on this one.’ So I would do what I was told, but on ‘Once Bitten,’ you get to hear what I really sound like. I’m very proud of that record.”
“Once Bitten Twice Shy” (live) by Ian Hunter
“Once Bitten Twice Shy” by Great White
- “My Brave Face” by Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney wrote “My Brave Face” with Elvis Costello, a single from his 1989 album Flowers in the Dirt, though Costello did not perform on the track. “There was a nice kind of equal collaboration on it,” McCartney explained in the Club Sandwich fanzine. “We’d just sort of throw words about and stuff and where I thought he was getting maybe a bit too cryptic or whatever, I’d just say ‘I don’t like that, we should go a bit further here, or we should maybe take it there,’ and it was nice. If he spotted an idea he liked then we’d go that way, or similarly with me.”
Hamish Stuart, an original member of Average White Band, shares vocals with McCartney. “He’s a very good singer,” McCartney added. “He can always handle harmony lines anywhere.”
- “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” by Stevie Wonder/”Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & the Wailers
Stevie Wonder counsels fearlessness in “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” a Top 20 single from his 1973 album Innervisions. Wonder opens the song with a spoken word passage, moving from English to Spanish, saying “Todo ‘stá bien chévere,” or “Everything’s really great.”
“The thing with ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing,’ when I did the demo, I was just, you know, saying some things. You know, I didn’t speak Spanish,” Wonder told NPR. “I remember the night I was going to do this song. And I just so happened to meet this girl named Rain. And she was beautiful.
“And she worked at this record shop — this record store. And I’m like saying to her, hey, you know, it’s amazing. You know, she sings. You know, she’s Puerto Rican. I say, yeah, OK, well, you know, I’m doing a little thing and like a little something called ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.’
“Give me something, something. I’ll let you come to the studio if you have anything to say. I’ll say some things, and it will be a wonderful day. And she said, ‘Todo está bien chévere.’ And that’s how I got that in a song. And, you know, we fell in love, and it was a beautiful thing.”
“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” (live) by Stevie Wonder
From Bob Marley & the Wailers’ 1977 album Exodus, “Three Little Birds” features a similar theme, the warm song urging the listener “Don’t worry about a thing/’cause every little thing is gonna be all right,” which is helpful to keep in mind … even when faced with life’s difficulties.
“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley & the Wailers
- “Stage Fright” by The Band
“Stage Fright” is the title track of The Band‘s 1970 album. Written by Robbie Robertson, the song features Rick Danko on lead vocals. Music critic Ralph Gleason called “Stage Fright” the greatest song about performing ever written. The album was produced by The Band and engineered by Todd Rundgren at the Woodstock Playhouse.
“There was something fascinating to me of that thing, about that particular dilemma,” Robertson said in Goldmine about the fear of performing live. “That part of human nature, you know, that people will put themselves in that position where it scares you half to death, but you just gotta do it! It’s very scary and very exciting at the same time. And it was kind of a personal thing for me, as well. I certainly felt a connection to that, and it was just something that I felt like I needed to express.
“It was named after the experience of having put ourselves in the public eye but we were kind of private people at the same time. Taking our music out and performing it, there was something very private about it and the way we performed it was not very flashy or showy. We just came for business so we could go on and play our hearts out.
“Not being very showy, it all added up to this kind of stage fright thematic thing in our lives. It became so vulnerable and sensitive somehow, presenting this music in public.”
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