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Heads Will Roll: A Brief History Of Beheading In Song

Sir Walter Raleigh: "Watch the neck!"
Sir Walter Raleigh: "Watch the neck!"

"Find another victim for my machine/ Put 'em in a homemade guillotine/ Blade falls, gonna need a casket / Watch your head plop in a wicker basket."

Offspring singer Dexter Holland flexed his oddly sinister sense of humor in the band's aptly-titled 1995 song, "Beheaded." But as we were embracing the Halloween spirit by hunting down the holiday's creepiest tunes, we made a discovery - and ran with it.

"Off with their heads!" Words penned by Shakespeare, but made famous by Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts, have proven inspirational to acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who capture a similar macabre aura in 2009's "Heads Will Roll." "Off with your head," singer Karen O howls. "Dance 'til you're dead/ Heads will roll, heads will roll/ Heads will roll on the floor."

Indie post-punks The Kaiser Chiefs followed suit on the ghoulish sentiment, naming their 2008 album after the expression. Perhaps these tongue-in-cheek artists were simply flaunting their sarcastic wit; but we like to think they were channeling the spirit of Halloweens past.

On All Hallows Eve, we figured it doesn't get much creepier than - you've probably already surmised - beheading banter. Appropriately, we've learned that today marks the 392nd anniversary of the execution of English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. Cause of death? You guessed it: Beheading.

Can't remember your high school history courses? Not to worry, we couldn't either. Here's a quick refresher: After aiding in the end of the Irish rebellion in the late 1500s, the English aristocrat rapidly rose in Queen Elizabeth I's favor, and then set out to explore and settle North America. Under royal patent, he eventually established the early colony of Roanoke off the coast of what is now Virginia and North Carolina. He's perhaps even better known for popularizing tobacco smoking in England.

Guys, ever wonder who raised the bar for chivalrous acts? You can thank this guy. Raleigh is the one credited with placing his cloak over a puddle, in order to prevent QE1 from muddying her shoes. Sounds like an overachiever to us. But this is the music blog, and we require more grit. Thankfully, Raleigh tempered such chivalry with pure rebelliousness - after all, he had to have been beheaded for something.

 

Sir Walter Raleigh's cell in the Tower of London
Sir Walter Raleigh's cell in the Tower of London
Kjetil Bjørnsrud

In 1591, without permission from the Queen, Raleigh secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of her Ladies-in-Waiting. Incurring the Queen's wrath, Raleigh and his bride were swiftly sent to the Tower of London and imprisoned. So begins Sir Walter Raleigh's rebellious streak - and his eventual march toward the guillotine.

Raleigh's Get Out of Jail Free card was granted after one of his ships, the Madre De Dios, returned to England sporting vast treasure. After his release, he quickly set out on his next expedition, this time to Venezuela in search of gold. Having failed his mission, Raleigh unwittingly attacked a Spanish outpost, angering England's new ruler, King James. In desperate hopes of restoring a rapport with Spain, King James ordered Raleigh's execution.

In 1618, Raleigh was marched from the Bloody Tower to his execution at Whitehall. After seeing the very axe that would behead him, he allegedly mused to his executioner, "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries." Legend has it, as Raleigh awaited the axe's fall, his last words were, "Strike, man, strike!" And so confirms Raleigh's rebellious, varied, and poetic nature.

Heads Will Roll: A Brief History Of Beheading In Song

Raleigh's legacy reflects his Renaissance spirit; he was an explorer, settler, poet, soldier, and tobacco aficionado. North Carolina's capital is named in his honor, as is West Virginia's Raleigh County.

His infamy stretches even as far as the Beatles' White Album, as John Lennon laments in "I'm So Tired," "I'm so tired/ I'm feeling so upset/ Although I'm so tired I'll have another cigarette/ And curse Sir Walter Raleigh/ He was such a stupid git." Thus proving one man's discovery can be another's vice.

After Raleigh's execution, his wife was presented with her deceased husband's head, not uncommon in that time. She allegedly carried it with her every day until her own death - 29 years later.

Any couples still thinking of a His & Hers costume idea, look no further.

Happy Hauntings, folks!


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