Well… 2020 is starting off crazy, to say the least. The US and UK are run by far right men who don’t care about the poor, racial minorities, or women. Australia is on fire and the Prime Minister doesn’t care and denies climate change is a thing. What a mess. We are living in such a divided time with so much uncertainty. While on the plane home, I watched Interstellar and I was thinking about if that could be our future. Will we have to leave because the top 0.1% screwed up the planet? I doubt everyone will be able to leave because we don’t all have the means.
Historically, in times when governments are controlled by conservatives, I find that’s when the best music came out. You had all kinds of songs then because music, like any other form of entertainment or art, is an escape from life. It’s what makes life fun. When I think of the music from between 1965-1975, I think of optimistic songs to cheer people up and I think of protest songs. The golden age of protests songs was the 60s with the folk scene and later with psychedelic and hard rock.
Roger Daltrey once said:
“Rock n’ roll seems to have changed society much more than any politician, I think it really has.”
However, I think we can’t just be hippies and sit around talking about and wishing for change and not doing anything about it. We need to take action too. Write to your MPs/representatives, sign petitions, go to protests, register to vote, vote in local elections and primaries, do your research on the candidates, volunteer for a candidate or cause you believe in, canvass, phone bank, heck – run for office!
Or if you’re musically inclined, start a rock band and speak your mind through your lyrics. Good music has no expiry date and you can always make good music. The year on the calendar is just a construct anyways.
First, let’s talk a little bit about the history of protest songs and politics in music:
The History of Protest Songs:
Protest songs are sang in every part of the world, are all kinds of genres, and are about many issues. Songs have been written about abolition, feminism, worker’s rights, LGBT rights, anti-war, animal rights, you name it. America has had a tradition of protest songs since the 19th century with songs about the Civil War and black spiritual songs. Britain has had a long history of protest songs since the Medieval times.
The 20th century was a turbulent time with The Great Depression, labour movement, WWI and WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, many assassinations, and the Vietnam War. Protest songs were huge in the 60s with the folk music revival and folk protest songs inspired musicians in other rock subgenres to write protest songs with a different sound. In this blog post, my goal is to show the diversity of protest songs by sharing 40 that I picked. Of course, this isn’t every single protest song, but it’s a good sample of what the time period had to offer. An accompanying playlist will be on my playlist page. The playlist also has songs that didn’t make it on this list and a few “newer” protest songs from the 90s and 2000s.
In the classic rock world, most of these protest songs come from the US and UK and are in the folk, hard rock, and punk genres. Many of these songs talk about issues during that time: racism, the Vietnam War, the economy, and women’s rights. These songs are largely from a left wing perspective, but even if your politics are conservative, you might want to read these lyrics and realise what these songs are about so you don’t look as foolish as David Cameron when he said he loved The Jam’s “The Eton Rifles”. Paul Weller snapped back and said that song was about people like David Cameron.
Rock and roll is an interesting way to look at history. Now let’s look at some protest songs with timeless lyrics.
1. Sympathy For The Devil – The Rolling Stones (1968)
“Every cop is a criminal”
Mick Jagger wrote this song in the point of view of the Devil, originally using working titles like “The Devil Is My Name” and “Fallen Angels”, who boasts about his role in atrocities throughout history, but also says that we are all the Devil inside and responsible for horrible things. References were made to WWII and the assassination of the Kennedys.
In the 60s, rock and roll was still considered controversial, even though youth widely listened to it. Rock bands like The Rolling Stones were accused of being Satanic because of the sexual “Let’s Spend The Night Together” and their previous album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, which didn’t have any Satanic themes. Religious zealots called bands like The Rolling Stones devil-worshippers and a corrupting influence.
Why this lyric is relevant today: This lyric is still relevant decades later because of the police brutality going on, mostly targeted at black and hispanic men, but women and people from other ethnic backgrounds also can be victims of police brutality too.
Racial profiling is a huge problem. My dad, who was a former police officer, said that it happened all the time. Police officers made up reasons to pull people over. It makes sense why among ethnic minorities, there isn’t a lot of trust in the police and so hate crimes often go unreported.
The War on Drugs is a racist thing the US put in place and forced other countries into prohibition on marijuana, psychedelics, and other drugs. When Richard Nixon realised that you can’t just jail people for their skin colour or because they are progressives, he thought why not make marijuana and drugs illegal and arrest people for it. Blacks and latinos are more likely to be arrested for smoking marijuana than whites, even though the usage rates are the same across all ethnicities.
It’s ridiculous that smoking a plant can get you jail time, yet all those Wall Street crooks who screwed up the economy for working people are free.
Here’s an example of how the criminal justice system has its priorities out of whack: William Leonard Pickard is serving two life sentences for manufacturing LSD, yet white collar criminals Martin Shkreli only got 7 years and Jordan Belfort only served less than 2 years in prison. Steve Mnuchin is the Secretary of the Treasury, and Kamala Harris didn’t prosecute his bank so he got away with aggressively foreclosing on homeowners during the recession. “Too Big to Prosecute” was the excuse the government gave when they didn’t go after Wall Street.
Our criminal justice system is a mess from the failed War on Drugs to the for profit prisons to the prison-industrial complex. We need change: legalise marijuana, decriminalise other drugs (at the very least), treat addicts as patients and not criminals, focus more on rehabilitation, and remove the profit motive from prisons.
My personal experiences with the police haven’t been very good. Not really so much to do with my ethnicity, but more to do with having Aspergers and depression. I don’t want to go into it, but I’ll say it: I don’t have a lot of trust in the police and I think they could use a lot of reform and mental health training.
Cops only seem to care about the rich and private property, so “every cop is a criminal” is absolutely relevant even 50 years later.
2. Trouble Every Day – Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention (1966)
Civil rights, social justice, classism, sensationalism
“Well I’m about to get sick
From watchin’ my TV
Been checkin’ out the news
Until my eyeballs fail to see
I mean to say that every day
Is just another rotten mess
And when it’s gonna change, my friend
Is anybody’s guess”
“There ain’t no Great Society
As it applies to you and me
Our country isn’t free
And the law refuses to see
If all that you can ever be
Is just a lousy janitor
Unless your uncle owns a store”
This song from The Mothers of Invention’s debut album, Freak Out!, is about the Watts Riots of 1965. The electric talking blues song touches on racism, social injustice, classism, and sensationalist journalism.
Why these lyrics are relevant today: The lyrics of this song could even be about today, like the Ferguson unrest after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer. People act like the 60s was more racist than today, but racism then was more overt and now it’s more covert. Now, you have no idea who is on your side, and bigots weaponise civility and politeness to gaslight people. Sure, on paper, you may have equal rights, but is it really equal when a group of people have been marginalised and disenfranchised? It’s even hard to break out of poverty when your ancestors weren’t free, were denied an education, and didn’t have equal opportunities. This graphic sums it up well, but you can argue that segregation and slavery even went on longer. Things didn’t change overnight.
Go across the pond, and the 60s were a horrible time for the Windrush Generation, black Caribbean immigrants who moved to the UK post WWII to rebuild the country. Black Caribbean people came for better opportunities and hope, but they faced a lot of racism and it never ended. Many people from this generation have been wrongly detained, wrongfully deported, and denied legal rights because of poor record keeping by the British government. If one were from a British colony that didn’t gain independence yet and their tax money goes to Britain, doesn’t that mean they should have a British passport? If you’ve spent most of your life in a country, shouldn’t you get to stay? You’d feel out of place in a country you haven’t even been to in decades.
With Trump as president, racists have been emboldened and hate crime has gone up. Trump didn’t start it and racism won’t be gone when it’s over, but his presidency is certainly not helping things. And then you have Boris Johnson, who called Muslims “letterboxes”, used the term “picaninny” and referred to black people having “watermelon smiles”, says that the British Empire should take over Africa again, and believes there’s a link between IQ and race,.
As for the latter quote, and social mobility is practically nonexistent today. Your odds are as good as Charlie Bucket finding a golden ticket inside a Wonka Bar. Fun fact: Roald Dahl originally wrote Charlie as a black character, but because it’s Britain in the 60s, there was pressure from his agent to make the character white for marketability.
University tuition, even accounting for inflation, has skyrocketed. Boomers were able to pay for university by working a summer job. My generation? Not so much. I lucked out, but many people are under crippling debt, meaning that they can’t buy homes of their own or spend their money in the economy. Nope, all that money goes to the big banks and to the top 1%. It’s a rigged economy.
America really isn’t free. The American Dream really can’t be achieved by all. Getting ahead in life is a lot about who you know and a lot of luck.
3. My Generation – The Who (1965)
Generational gap: The Boomers’ OK Boomer, or in this case, OK Greatest Generation
“People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)”
“Why don’t you all f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
And don’t try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)”
Not really a protest song, but this is an anthem of young people expressing anger towards the generation running everything. The “Greatest Generation” were in power during this time and making all the decisions in the government.
This song is for the Mods of the 60s and their teenage angst. You’re upset with your parents who don’t seem to understand, you’re questioning authority, you’re angry at the government. This was punk rock before punk rock.
Pete Townshend’s inspiration behind this song was when the Queen Mother allegedly had his Packard hearse towed off a street in Belgravia because she was offended by it. In 1967, Pete Townshend said this was the only successful social comment he made.
Why these lyrics are relevant today: “My Generation” was the boomers’ “Ok Boomer”, except in their case, it was “Ok, Greatest Generation”. There’s always been a generation gap. Older people looking down on younger people as unrealistic pie in the sky thinkers, lazy, listening to ‘deviant’ music, and going down the wrong path because they’re breaking traditions. We use different slang, have a different understanding of the world, and technology has come a long way.
Look at what songs were considered “controversial” in the 60s. They’re actually quite tame: “Light My Fire”, “Louie Louie”, “Come Together”, “Jackie”, “White Rabbit”, “Eight Miles High”, and many more! Even “My Generation” had its controversy, but not because the stuttering ‘f’ sound sounds like he’s going to say ‘fuck’, it’s because some people thought it would be offensive to people who suffer from stutters.
What “Ok Boomer” means to me is it’s millennials taking their power back. Ok boomer goes to all the corrupt people in the government and evil corporations. Boomer is more of a mindset in the ok boomer context. It’s old school, but not in a good way, conformist, straitlaced, and conservative. Many millennials believe in progressivism, egalitarianism, fairness, compassion, and being considerate. Sure we have our dreams, but I think it’s good to never give up and keep fighting for what you believe in.
4. The Times They Are A-Changin – Bob Dylan (1964)
“Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging
Please get outta’ the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'”
Bob Dylan is not only a singer-songwriter, he also writes songs about social issues and politics. Which is why I’m baffled when a conservative says they love Bob Dylan. Have you even listened to his songs and do you know his history? He performed at the March on Washington too. “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” are two protest/anti-war anthems he wrote in the early 60s and they were so influential and were anthems of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. A month after the song was released, JFK was assassinated and Bob Dylan decided to open up a concert the day after with “The Times They Are A-Changin”.
Before the hippies and how that all got commercialised in the late 60s and early 70s, this is what being a hippie is all about.
Why these lyrics are relevant today: In 2016, Bernie Sanders used Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” as a campaign song. There was a really good ad with that song playing in the background. It really shows what America is all about: diversity, kindness, and opportunity.
A few days ago, my husband showed me a compilation video of Bernie Sanders with “The Times They Are A-Changin” playing in the background. This is definitely the America ad 2.0, but even more poignant, but this isn’t an official ad. It’s another fitting song for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Makes me think about all the horrible things that have happened because of governments taking bribes from corporations: climate change, poverty, and lack of public services.
5. Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire (1965)
“Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
Can’t you see the fears that I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave
Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”
“Eve of Destruction” is a protest song written by P.F. Sloan and full of history, or rather, at the time it was written, current events: the JFK assassination, Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the threat of nuclear war, and the space race. Of course, when you write a protest song, expect there to be backlash from the establishment media, and this song was no exception. It was banned from airplay on many radio stations in the US and the UK. Conservatives were offended… Baffles me because what’s truly offensive is people dying in war and people’s human rights being violated, but what do I know? But thanks to that controversy, the song got popular.
Why these lyrics are relevant today: People from my generation often see the 60s as a happy, optimistic time with a lot of technological advances, cool clothes, and great music, but in reality the times we are living in right now aren’t that much different from the 60s. I often see activists say that if you want to live in the 60s and make a difference then, since time travel isn’t a possibility, go out and make a difference now!
War is not a decision to be taken lightly and if Trump decides to declare war, it’s not like he can go back and control-z and pretend that didn’t happen. War only takes life and when a life is gone, it can’t be saved.
Now we have climate change threatening people in the Global South (developing countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific). Poor people will be the most affected and with rising sea levels, that means many climate refugees. And then think about the animals, they’re voiceless, lots of species are going extinct because of climate change and destruction of their habitats.
We really are on the Eve of Destruction and the sad thing is the boomers lived through it in the 60s and things are even worse now with climate change on top of war and corruption in the government. Then again, I don’t think the boomers in power were exactly hippies themselves back then.
6. Something in the Air – Thunderclap Newman (1969)
“Call out the instigators
Because there’s something in the air
We’ve got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution’s here”
Pete Townshend’s former roommate and driver, Speedy Keen wrote this song for this short-lived project called Thunderclap Newman. He had previously written “Armenia City In The Sky” for The Who and Pete Townshend and Kit Lambert formed a group for Speedy to perform these songs he wrote. The other two members were Jimmy McCulloch (who later went on to join Wings) and Andy “Thunderclap” Newman.
They didn’t expect to get famous, but “Something In The Air” was a chart success and they ended up touring the UK, opening for Deep Purple.
This song is a song all about revolution and change, fitting for the late 60s when there was a lot going on.
Why these lyrics are relevant today: Just look at the times we are living in. While the mainstream media don’t like to cover revolutionary political movements, they’re happening right now. People are organising. We’ve got to get together sooner or later to make changes. Systemic change is needed.
7. A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke (1964)
“It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes, it will
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky”
Sam Cooke wrote this song after he was refused a hotel room in Shreveport, Louisiana. Sam Cooke and his brother were rightfully upset when the management told them they had no vacancies (which wasn’t true). At this time, he was famous and when his wife told him that they will kill him for standing up for himself, he said “They ain’t gonna kill me, because I’m Sam Cooke.” He left, honking his car horn and shouting at the hotel management and went to another hotel and was arrested for disturbing the peace because of that incident at the hotel. In 2019, the mayor of Shreveport apologised to Sam Cooke’s family and posthumously awarded him a key to the city.
Sam Cooke’s inspiration behind the song was Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. He was moved when he saw that a protest song about racism written by a white man was so celebrated and he knew he had to write a song like that. However, he had worries that because he was black if he wrote a song like that he could alienate white audiences.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: While people have equal rights on paper, it doesn’t stop people from being prejudice. You can’t legislate away bigotry.
8. War – Edwin Starr (1970)
“(War), It ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
(War), Friend only to the undertaker, awwww
War is the enemy of all mankind
The thought of war blows my mind
War has caused unrest, within the younger generation
Induction then destruction. Who wants to die?”
This song, written by the famous Motown songwriting team, Whitfield-Strong, was originally performed by The Temptations, but the record label made the decision to have Edwin Starr record his own version and release it before The Temptations because for them to release a very political song it was a risky move. There’s a risk of alienating more conservative fans.
This turned out pretty well for Edwin Starr, who got a #1 in 1970 with “War”, making him a Starr. This is his best known song and one of the best known protest songs with so many musicians covering it.. Honestly, the whole song is brilliantly written and really hits you. That’s the reality of war.
Why these lyrics are relevant today: It’s all true. In most cases war is good for nothing because innocent civilian lives are stolen when the army are looking for the “enemies” and the “big guys”. For the most part, the people dying are just average everyday people, not terrorists. The reality when a country sends poor young men to fight is that many will come back in coffins with a flag draped over, the families weeping. It’s just death and destruction, there are no winners. If you’re lucky to come home alive from war, you’ve deferred your dreams, spent years of your youth fighting some rich man’s war, and you end up with PTSD and anger. The government will virtue signal about how much we “care” about and “support” the troops, but many veterans are homeless, poor, trying to figure out what to do next in life, adjusting to civilian culture, and feeling isolated after spending so much time away from family and friends.
9. Fortunate Son – CCR (1969)
“Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh they’re red, white and blue
And when the band plays Hail to the Chief
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no senator’s son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no fortunate one, no”
John Fogerty wrote this anti Vietnam war song about classism and the Vietnam War. It’s not the rich people in the government whose kids are going to Vietnam to fight, it’s the poor and working class. If the rich were going to war, perhaps there may not be a war. As time went on though, more and more Americans were regretting their previous support for the war and wanted America to leave Vietnam.
This song is considered one of the greatest of the 60s and no doubt will be referenced in many history classes to come. You may think this is a fun yee-haw patriotic rock song to fist pump and bang your head to, but listen to the poignant lyrics.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: While it may be 50 years later, war still works the same. People are still worried about a war with Iran. The privileged can avoid the draft, while the poor are going to be the ones drafted and with a shrinking middle class, there’s a high chance, you’ll be drafted. As always, the rich only care about themselves… let them eat cake!
You may have the “luck” of being born in America, but if you’re born into a family with fewer means, you don’t have the economic privilege to avoid fighting a war you don’t want to fight. At least back then running away to Canada was a lot easier than it is now.
10. Ball of Confusion – The Temptations (1970)
History: The OG “We Didn’t Start The Fire”
“Well, the only person talking about love thy brother is the (preacher)
And it seems nobody’s interested in learning but the (teacher)”
“…The sale of pills are at an all time high
Young folks walking round with their heads in the sky
The cities ablaze in the summertime
And oh, the beat goes on”
This political song predates “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by nearly 20 years. Another great Whitfield-Strong composition, it talks about world events in the 60s with some pop culture thrown in. What I like about this song’s approach is the rapid fire name drops and wordplay in a poetic way. It must have inspired “We Didn’t Start The Fire”. Pop culture references are made to The Beatles, “The Beat Goes On”, the Mod subculture, and Eve of Destruction.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: History repeats itself. In a modern day remake, you could talk about LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, immigration, gun control, climate change, war, legalisation of marijuana, opioid epidemic, SpaceX, the recession, 9/11, emos, goths, scene kids, VSCO girls, and e-boys. We are indeed living on a ball of confusion.
11. For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield (1966)
Protest song, generational gap
“There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Are getting so much resistance from behind”
No, it’s not “Stop, Hey What’s That Sound?” Just like it’s “Baba O’Riley”, not “Teenage Wasteland”. Another well known protest song from the 60s, part of the golden age of protest songs. However, this wasn’t inspired by Vietnam War protests. Stephen Stills’ inspiration for the lyrics came from the Sunset Strip curfew riots in November 1966. At that time, Buffalo Springfield were the house band at the Whisky A Go Go and outside of there, young people were clashing with the police. Because of huge crowds going to night clubs there, there was a lot of congestion so residents and businesses in the neighbourhood lobbied the local government to enforce curfews and stop loitering. Young people didn’t like these laws because they felt they infringed on their civil rights, so they protested. Notably, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda were at the demonstration.
The song title is nowhere to be found in the lyrics. It actually comes from when Stephen Stills presented it to Atlantic/ATCO record company executive Ahmet Ertegun and told him “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.”
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: Young adults also experience ageism. We often talk about ageism towards old people, but ageism towards young adults is often dismissed and ignored. Young people aren’t in power and usually have less money on average.
Every generation in their youth has been looked down upon by the older generations. We speak our minds, but older people who are in power look down upon us condescendingly and act like we don’t know what we are talking about and we’re not taken seriously.
It’s important for young people to vote. Millennials now outnumber Boomers. We can make the difference in an election. If all the people who threw up their hands, saying ‘I’m only one person. I can’t make a difference’ actually went and did something about it, the world would be very different. When there’s high voter turnout, progressive candidates are more likely to win and that’s good news for young people and people from marginalised groups.
12. Enter The Young – The Association (1966)
“Enter the young, yeah
Yeah, they’ve learned how to think
Enter the young, yeah
More than you think they think
Not only learned to think, but to care
Not only learned to think, but to dare
Enter the young”
Just a song about being a young person who wants to make a difference in this world. This song has that optimistic 60s sound.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: The first people I thought of when I thought of these lyrics are activists like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, Isra Hirsi, Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, and Jazz Jennings. The reason young people care so much about our planet is because we’re going to be the ones who will have to live with the consequences the longest. It’s our future. We don’t just think, we also care and we have bold ideas.
13. Imagine – John Lennon (1971)
Anti-war, anti-theism, peace
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…”
Can’t have a list of political songs without including the humanistic “Imagine”. Call it overplayed, but it’s a classic and the message still applies to today. A song about peace and people being divided because of identities we made up like religion or nationality. A song that calls out materialism and greed in human beings.
The inspiration for this song came from Yoko Ono’s book, Grapefruit, particularly a part in the book called “Cloud Piece”.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: At the end of the day we are all humans, all one, and we aren’t all that different after all. We all have desires, dreams, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. This may be controversial, but I believe religion is something that has done more harm than good for society. How many wars were fought over differences in religion? Look at how religion oppresses gay and bisexual people, trans people, and women. We’re seen as second class. At the end of the day, humans created these borders between countries and created this whole “us and them” mentality.
This song makes me think about Trump’s immigration detention centres and racist immigration policy. I think about the whole “Occupy Wall Street” movement. I think about feminists in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia. I think about people fighting over religion, when there’s really not a lot of difference between their beliefs.
This song is idealistic, but can’t we all dream of this truly egalitarian world?
14. Revolution – The Beatles (1968)
“But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out”
“Revolution” came out in the historic, tragic year of 1968. North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against the US and South Vietnam, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, Nixon was elected president, Tommie Smith and John Carlos peacefully demonstrated against racial discrimination by raising their fists at the Olympics, America’s first televised interracial kiss was aired – the Star Trek episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren”, Hair debuted on Broadway, and Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon. That year changed everything.
John Lennon was inspired by the anti-Vietnam War protests to write this song, but his opinions on what methods to use differed from those in the New Left. He didn’t like the idea of violent tactics. The rest of the band had reservations about the song, but John Lennon was persistent and insisted that it be released as a single. What do you know, it’s one of the band’s best known songs?
The Beatles weren’t known for being a political band. Most of their songs were about love, and the only other political song they released before this was George Harrison’s “Taxman”. If we were to use a political compass meme, these two songs fit in the libertarian side of the chart with “Revolution” in left libertarian and “Taxman” in right libertarian. Perhaps “Back in the USSR” can be in the left authoritarian quadrant. Not sure what would be in the right authoritarian quadrant, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” maybe?
Why these lyrics are relevant today: Like 1968 was a year that changed American and world history, I’d argue that 2016 was that year with Brexit and Trump. Since 2016, I’ve seen so many people become more radical, speaking of revolution and honestly I don’t blame them, but at the end of the day it’s not practical. I want change, but I’ll always be peaceful.
15. The Fish Cheer – Country Joe & The Fish (1967)
“And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam
And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die!”
“Well, come on Wall Street, don’t move slow, why man, this is war a-go-go
There’s plenty good money to be made by supplying the Army with the tools of the trade
Just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb, they drop it on the Viet Cong”
A satirical, dark humour song made famous by its performance at Woodstock. Sometimes you need some dark humour to get through difficult times and cope. In the original version, Country Joe asks the audience to spell and shout Fish, but at Woodstock, he famously got them to spell and shout Fuck. This was a radical and shocking beginning for the late 60s because if you know American culture and how the FCC feels about swearing, they still don’t take kindly to it and if you air a swear word you could get fined. In fact, because of the F-U-C-K cheer, Country Joe & The Fish were banned from The Ed Sullivan Show.
This song is one big well written f-you to the government, high up people in the military, Wall Street, and the military-industrial complex.
Country Joe McDonald wrote this song in 1965 just as the US was increasing its involvement in Vietnam and young people were growing angrier and angrier at the government for this. The song was a popular one to play live.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: Will we go to war with Iran? I’m not sure if that will happen, but war is war and the only people who will benefit are the rich people making money off weapons and oil. No one wins in war. “Whoopee we’re all gonna die” is right.
16. Everyday People – Sly & The Family Stone (1968)
Civil rights, classism, equality
“I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do
You love me you hate me you know me and then
You can’t figure out the bag I’m in”
Sly & The Family Stone were a multiracial group that had male and female members. In the 60s, it wasn’t easy being an integrated band. It only makes sense that they would have a song about peace and equality. “Everyday People” is really simple, people hate each other because of such tiny differences: skin colour, height, hair length, weight, or how much money you have and it’s ridiculous.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: No one is better than anyone else and we are more similar than we think. Sadly we still aren’t equal
17. Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen (1984)
“Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the USA
I was born in the USA”
This song, like “American Woman” is wrongly interpreted as a patriotic proud to be American song. So don’t have a David Cameron moment on Fourth of July because you only heard the “I was born in the USA” part. If you listen to the lyrics, you’ll hear the story of a Vietnam veteran that resonates with any veteran. The only difference is the country America is fighting.
The story is told from the point of view of a working class man who gets drafted to fight in Vietnam, only to face having trouble getting a job and losing his brother who also fought in the war. Is war really worth it? No.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: Vietnam veterans came back disabled and traumatised. America virtue signals about how much it cares about the troops, but many veterans face unemployment, loneliness, inadequate healthcare, and even homelessness. They’re lost in a country that pretends to care about them. But this isn’t just Vietnam veterans, that’s veterans generally
If you’re poor and your only opportunity to get ahead is to join the military, the first lyrics resonate. You’ve been kicked on the ground from the start only to get traumatised even more when you fight in a war and alienated when you return to America.
18. Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell (1970)
“They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel *, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum *
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em”
Joni Mitchell wrote this song while she was on holiday in Hawaii. It was her first trip there. The title of the song came from the taxi she took to the hotel. In Hawaii, there are beautiful landscapes, but because of growing tourism and rich people developing it by building hotels and parking lots for them, it distracts from the natural beauty of Hawaii. She called the paved parking lot in front of all of these mountains and lush greenery, “a blight on paradise”.
The lyrics also mention the pesticide, DDT, that harmed birds. There are references to actual places in Hawaii like the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu and the Foster Botanical Garden (which charges you to look at trees that you can see naturally for free elsewhere on the island).
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: Richard Nixon was better environmentally than current president Donald Trump. He signed an executive order to establish the Environmental Protection Agency. That was pretty much the one good thing he did. Otherwise he was awful: corrupt and pushed the whole War on Drugs to put minorities and hippies in jail.
Donald Trump’s environmental policy is a nightmare. He wants to run national parks like a business and open them up to drilling and mining. He said he wanted to “modernise” national parks with Wifi and Amazon deliveries, increase entry fees, rescind climate policies for the national parks, and privatise campgrounds. Besides the national parks, he has approved controversial oil pipelines, increased oil drilling, and pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord.
19. War Pigs – Black Sabbath (1970)
“Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role for the poor, yeah”
Originally titled “Walpurgis” for the witches’ sabbath, this song is interpreted to be about the Vietnam War from a British perspective. While mandatory military service ended, young adults in Britain were worried that the country might join the US and Australia and send troops to Vietnam. Black Sabbath though say that the song is about evil and man’s desire to kill and destroy. The reason they changed it to “War Pigs” was because “Walpurgis” sounded too satanic to be marketable.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: It’s a common theme, poor people fighting rich people’s wars. The rich politicians are cowards. The year may be different, but human nature is still the same.
20. American Woman – The Guess Who (1970)
“I don’t need your war machines
I don’t need your ghetto scenes
Coloured lights can hypnotise
Sparkle someone else’s eyes”
The Guess Who were from Canada, a country that didn’t fight in Vietnam. Because of that, it was the most popular place for draft dodgers to go. It’s close, not too different from the US, and you don’t need to learn a new language (unless you’re going to Quebec). The song had multiple meanings, according to different band members, part of it to express how they’re proud to be Canadian and that they preferred Canadian women to American women and the other part, against the Vietnam War and you can definitely see that in those lyrics. I interpret the “American Woman” as a metaphor for the American government.
The band toured Canada and the US and they saw that the audience were full of people against the Vietnam War and in Canada, there were a lot of draft dodgers who would see them.
What’s really funny about this band’s story is despite the song’s critical lyrics towards the American government, they were still invited to the White House to perform, but the First Lady told them they couldn’t play “American Woman”. Good thing they have lots of other good songs like “No Time”, “These Eyes”, and “No Sugar Tonight”.
Why these lyrics are still relevant today: I can identify with the running away to Canada bit. I lived in Canada between the ages of 17 and 18 and I wanted to move there because it wasn’t America, but it was still close enough to my family so they could visit if they wanted to. There also wasn’t much culture shock, but mind you, Canadians will make it very clear that they are not Americans. I was sad when I had to leave Canada. I still think Toronto is my favourite place I’ve lived in and I miss it so much.
After the election of Trump, the Canadian immigration website crashed because of Americans wondering how they could get out of America. Progressive Americans have this idea of Canada being a better America and I can see what they mean. Weed’s legal, women have the right to go topless, LGBT equality, and universal healthcare. I live in Britain’s equivalent of Canada (Ireland) and I get it. It’s greener, friendlier, and less of an embarrassment. Canada has a good reputation throughout the world. A few of my cousins moved there from Venezuela and they love it. They feel grateful every day.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are Americans who run away to Canada or Europe if there’s another draft.
Honourable Mention: You Get What You Give – New Radicals (1998)
“Health insurance rip off lying FDA big bankers buying
Fake computer crashes dining
Cloning while they’re multiplying
Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson
Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson
You’re all fakes
Run to your mansions
We’ll kick your ass in”
I found out about this song thanks to Todd in the Shadows’ One Hit Wonderland. I’m not the most into 90s music, but this song really stands out to me. New Radicals released an album in 1998 called Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too. A very political title and listening to the music you can hear a 70s influence. As you can tell by the title, they’re critical of corporate America.
“You Get What You Give” is the band’s biggest hit and it’s one that I can play on a loop over and over again. It’s catchy, upbeat, cheers me up, motivates me. The lyrics at the end are controversial and tell it like it is. Even 20+ years later, they resonate. Health insurance is even more of a ripoff now, the FDA is a joke, the big bankers are thieves, and rich people are fakes. “Come around we’ll kick your ass in” is just such a badass way to finish the song
Songwriter Gregg Alexander wrote these lyrics as a test to see what the media will pay attention to: the deep political message or the shallow lyrics about celebrities.
It’s even classic rocker approved with The Edge calling it a song he wished he wrote and Joni Mitchell saying it rose from the “swamp of McMusic like a flower of hope”.
Shoutout to my friends Patrick and Matt for supporting the blog.
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