There are many names for it — the big house, the slammer, lock up, the clink (after Clink Prison in London, which later served as a venue for fetish events) — but it’s one place you don’t want to go. Unless it’s for a fetish event, obviously.
But while numerous musicians have served time behind bars, even more have been inspired to write about prison, either from personal experience, rage against an unjust system that locks so many people away, or out of a sheer fascination for a place that holds so many fears. Here we examine 10 of the best…
1. System of a Down “Prison Song”
The opening track of their Toxicity masterpiece of 2001, System Of A Down’s “Prison Song” pulls no punches in its damning indictment of the U.S. industrial prison complex, observing that the percentage of Americans in prison has doubled since 1985, after further noting that almost 2 million Americans are locked up, many for minor drug offenses and facing mandatory minimum sentences. That number is now 2.4 million and rising, which amounts to a startling 22 per cent of the world’s prison population. Not surprisingly, System Of A Down are quite angry about this, drilling the point home by utilizing the word “prison” 33 times. 35 if you include plurals.
2. Thin Lizzy “Jailbreak”
Released in 1976, “Jailbreak” is the title track of Thin Lizzy’s U.S. breakthrough album and has since been covered by everyone from Blue Oyster Cult to Anthrax, Fu Manchu, Supersuckers, and the Dropkick Murphys. While more pedantic listeners have suggested that the lyric “tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in the town” is a little superfluous, given that its location is known (i.e., the jail), it should be noted that the album was recorded in London, where there are at least half a dozen of them. Unfortunately, such pedantry is not yet a crime, but we live in hope.
3. AC/DC “Jailbreak”
Three months after Lizzy’s Jailbreak came AC/DC’s classic of the same name which tells the tale of a man sentenced to 16 years for the murder of his wife’s lover. The final track on the band’s third Australian album, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, it was not featured on international releases until 1984, and sadly the original video, filmed in a quarry near Melbourne and featuring band members dressed as prisoners and prison guards, has been removed from the internet. Which is rather a shame, as it was apparently one of the first videos ever to employ fake blood and make use of explosives.
4. Sham 69 “Borstal Breakout”
In this punk classic of 1978, lovable faux-Cockneys Sham 69 take it upon themselves to escape from a young offenders facility – or borstal – in order to be reunited with a loved one. Strangely, the lyrics profess innocence in the first verse (“Sitting in a cell just for something I didn’t do”) before admitting guilt in the second verse (“When I done them things, I done them just for you”). But given that Sham 69 weren’t real cockneys, there is also every possibility that none of them had actually been to borstal. A cracking tune, nonetheless.
5. 2Pac “16 on Death Row
Posthumously released in 1997 on the R U Still Down? (Remember Me) album, “16 On Death Row” tells, as the title suggests, the story of 16-year-old youth on death row for murder, relating the tales of child abuse and broken families that inevitably led to a (short) life of crime. 2Pac himself was no stranger to clink, having served nine months for sexual assault in 1995, becoming, in the process, the first artist ever to have a number one album whilst serving a prison sentence. Upon his release, 2Pac signed, rather ironically, to Death Row Records.
6. Public Enemy “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
Originally featured on the 1988 album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, this song tells the fictional story of a black conscientious objector who escapes from jail, “black steel” being a reference to the gun needed to make the escape during a prison riot. Ending with the line, “53 brothers on the run, and we are gone,” it is suggested that the escape bid was a success, but in the video for the song Chuck D is hanged by a prison warden, which suggests capture, or perhaps daydreaming on the part of the storyteller. Remarkably, the song has since been covered to great effect by such disparate artists as Tricky and Sepultura.
7. Nas “One Love”
Composed as a series of letters written by rapper Nas to his friends in jail, “One Love” takes its title from the Bob Marley song of the same name, but tells an entirely different story, recounting real life events that led to the incarceration of the vocalist’s friends, including fellow emcee Cormega who was sentenced to four years in 1992 for robbery. The fifth and final single from his debut album Illmatic, this cautionary tale was named by VH1 as the 48th greatest hip hop song on all time, while the album is widely considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop records of all time.
8. Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock”
Arguably the most famous song about the big house is also perhaps the most ridiculous, suggesting as it does that prison is quite a jolly place in which to throw a party. Granted, it’s not unknown for such establishments to have musical entertainment, everyone from the Sex Pistols to Metallica and the Grateful Dead having played prison gigs. But even with the exorbitant price of tickets these days, it’s not like anyone would want to get banged up just to see a free show. Moreover, the line “you’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see” should probably be employed with due caution.
9. Johnny Cash “San Quentin”
Speaking of prison gigs, The Man In Black, Johnny Cash, not only performed several such concerts but also recorded a series of live albums from various prisons including San Quentin, Folsom, and Osteraker in Sweden. Despite his outlaw image, Cash never served any time himself — the occasional night in a cell notwithstanding — but there can be little doubt that his music resonated with the inmates, something that is particularly evident on the San Quentin recordings when he offers the line “San Quentin I hate every inch of you” to roars of applause. The iconic photograph of Cash raising his middle finger to the camera was also taken at this concert.
10. Ludacris “Do Your Time”
Given the massively disproportionate amount of black men who are sent to prison, the unjust fact that they are six times more likely to be incarcerated as white men, it’s no surprise that the subject is covered by a lot of hip-hop artists. Opening with a collect call from jail, “Do Your Time” follows a similar path to Nas’ “One Love,” being a message to friends who are locked up. “Give my eyes to Stevie Wonder just to see what he’s seen. But then I’d take ’em right back to see Martin Luther’s dream,” states one particularly evocative lyric, before advising “do your time, don’t let your time do you.”