Song of the Week: “Good Kill”

Cereal KillersAs I said when we launched this refurbished site, we’re hoping to force ourselves to keep it updated regularly by creating some recurring features. So here’s the first in what will be a continuing series if we don’t flake out. It probably won’t always happen weekly, but “Song of the Undetermined Interval of Time” isn’t quite as catchy. Hopefully I won’t be the only one writing these. Anyway, we’re starting with a track from Cereal Killers called “Good Kill.”

Like a lot of TMJ lyrics, this one began with the title, which was spoken from a Navy F-14 in 1989, after its pilot had just shot down a Libyan MIG (it’s how the radar weapons officer told the pilot his missile had found its target).

I heard the audio on a news report – the tape had presumably been released by the Pentagon to prove the pilots had been acting in self-defense, but at the end of the Reagan years it felt just as likely the administration was publicizing it in a macho, life-imitates-Top-Gun fit of patriotic gloating.

The rest of the lyric should be self-explanatory. We always described this as our anti-death-penalty song, which it kind of is, but it’s mostly an argument against assuming you’re one of the good guys. When I sing that I’d never join the army, I’m not suggesting that I wouldn’t be able or willing to kill someone. I’m admitting that I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop. The bit about the only Good Fight being the one against the notion there’s any such thing is salvaged from the otherwise ridiculous “Soft Core,” which we’d abandoned by this point.

As TMJ tunes go, this is one of the more complicated ones, in that it has a lot of different sections, and the music, harmonies and structure took forever to lock down in the year before we got around to recording it. It still sounds needlessly convoluted to me. But we couldn’t resist extending it an extra minute to make room for a guest rap from Boogie Down Production’s KRS-One. We were big fans, and Sandy’s girlfriend was his publicist, so we felt him out about being on the record, and he said sure. Since this was our one clear-cut message song and part of what we loved about KRS-One was how didactic he got, it seemed like the most fertile ground for a collaboration.

We sent him a DAT with the music in one channel, and he returned it with a series of raps in the other channel. I think we used almost everything he sent us, though we placed it a little differently than he had (a fact which led to an awkward exchange when Sandy asked him what he thought of the result, and KRS-One laughed and said he would have put his lines ON the beat – TMJ has a long list of moments we’ve felt even whiter than usual, and that one lives near the top).

The whole thing was put together in 1990, as we were finishing up Cereal Killers. But since we were still flogging the re-release of Son of Sam I Am, it didn’t come out for almost a year, and when it did it was on the exact same day as R.E.M.’s Out of Time, which ALSO featured a guest vocal from KRS-One. I hope I don’t sound too petty when I say I think we used the man’s talents to better effect. I mean, all he does on “Radio Song” is go, “Hey hey hey! Hup! Hup! Yo ho ho! Baby baby baby!” and repeat some of the lyrics Michael Stipe is already singing, until a 15 second bit at the end where he extemporizes as the song fades. Feels like a waste to me.

But stuff like that happened to us a lot. This is why we sang, “I’m ahead of my time, but only by a week” on the next album.

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8 Responses to “Song of the Week: “Good Kill””

  1. Sean Says:

    Nice insight. I look forward to more of these (particularly the inevitable dissection of the disturbingly beautiful Bad Dog).

    I always felt the line, “I know everybody is my brother. Even my brother, though I don’t care much for him” was honest but hurtful, and probably led to some uncomfortable family gatherings after CEREAL KILLERS hit streets.

    Which helps explain why you guys spent Thanksgiving in a casino.

  2. tim Says:

    Well, I have two brothers, so I was able to tell each of them it was about the other.

  3. Tim H. Says:

    Very cool, thanks for the info! As always, you guys rock.

  4. Aaron Says:

    Very interesting and a great song pick to start off this feature. Looking forward to the future installments and reading the other band members insights as well.

  5. Sean Says:

    Tim (or any lurking Joy members),
    Why is it Good Kill was rarely on the set list for concerts? I was shocked to see a live performance of it on the DANTE’s VHS. And it sounded very good live.

    I managed to see TMJ 27 times. Eight or nine of those shows were in support of Cereal Killers. You guys never once played Good Kill. It’s on a short list of songs I never got to hear live – a list that’s currently topped by Nothing On My Mind, 1964 and Strong Thing. * sad face *

  6. tim Says:

    Good kill was played a fair amount at shows leading up to the recording of “Cereal Killers,” but, along with Pirate, Nothing on My Mind and Pride of Frankenstein, never made it into the set afterwards.

    Hard to say exactly why some songs become live standards and some fall by the wayside. Generally speaking, all the ones above have a lot of different parts, and therefore present more opportunities for fucking them up. That could be why.

  7. Sean Says:

    Back in the day, before I realized there was a fairly established set list of Lie, WHC, What It Is, Donna, Crush Story, et al, I shouted “Pirate” as often as the other patrons shouted “Otter Song.” I thought it would have been transcendental to have the crowd sing, in unison, “Everyone should sleep, with everyone tonight!” Cuz I could have turned to my girlfriend, given her the raised eyebrow, and know deep down that TMJ helped me close the deal that night.

    I eventually married that girl. No thanks to you guys. :)

  8. Chaz Worm Says:

    I only saw TMJ three times, Kentucky and San Diego, CA (twice the same day. I understand it was their last show until Tommy’s retirement shindig but I could be wrong). I asked W2 if they were gonna play Pride of Frankenstien. He paused as if searching for the right words to pontficate down to me. He just said “no”. He wasn’t a mean smart ass about it at all.
    My bandmate/brother (Jeffee Earth) was with me at the Kentucky show in which W2 said ‘no’. We wanted to start playing Pride live after that but we never did. We wanted to record it Kentucky style too but we realized it would have been such a pale imitation, so we never did anything with that great song.
    I have since added Sort Of Haunted House to my ‘Chaz Worm one-man banjo rock opera’.

    I have since added Sort Of Haunted House to my ‘Chaz Worm one-man banjo rock opera’. I don’t recall if they played that at any of the shows I saw.

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