Socialism and Marxism are two “scary”, misunderstood words even in the most liberal, socially progressive circles. Why is that? A lot of anti-capitalist leftists will describe socialism and Marxism without saying those words and people actually like it, until they hear it’s socialism or Marxism. I think it’s years and years of propaganda and manufacturing consent that has made people complacent and accept the status quo, or rather things getting worse. I wrote a more in depth rant about incrementalism (you know there’s gonna be at least some classic rock references, actually a lot) on my Medium page, where I will write about things that just don’t fit on this blog that’s about music, but I do like to share my opinions on current events and the world here too, I just make it even more about music.
The Diversity of Classic Rock has always been about social issues and approaching classic rock in a different way: talking about the underrepresented sides of it and telling the stories of the diverse people who made it and the diverse sounds. It’s not about identities, but about stories and connections. I wanted to prove classic rock isn’t white dad music and it’s not just about cars, sex, and hot chicks. Classic rock can also be poetic and philosophical.
I’ve written about four posts about political classic rock lyrics (part 1, part 2, part 3), but never one that only was on one topic. Like in that post, in this two part series I will talk about 20 different classic rock songs covering about 30 years of rock history and spanning lots of subgenres, highlighting lyrics that I think are important. You’ve probably heard quite a few of these songs before, but did you ever think about the anti-capitalist message behind them before? In this first part, we’re going to be looking at songs from 1958-1970 starting with “Summertime Blues” and ending with “The American Ruse”.
I wanted to talk about socialism because with every day that goes by and every time I look at my bank balance or the bills, I see more and more why the current system at the very least has got to go. Capitalism isn’t sustainable. Any system where people get left behind isn’t acceptable. Any system where a small number of people get richer and the vast majority get poorer isn’t sustainable. You’ve seen it on the news: these multibillionaires had so much wealth transferred to them in such a small amount of time, while there are so many people going hungry and losing their homes. With the extremely rich it’s all a contest of who can be on top. They will never willingly pay their fair share of taxes or pay the workers good wages and treat them with dignity. They’d rather compete on who gets to space first, not saving the planet or getting people out of poverty.
And I think this pandemic is what is causing many people to see the truth. Sure, big corporations are happy with the many bailouts given to them (when the bailouts should be going to the people), but eventually cash dries up. You need to sell goods and services to make money and if people don’t have money because you bled them dry how do you make money? Socialism is looking more and more attractive, or at least certain elements of it.
Now, a little disclaimer about the musicians. I can’t confirm all or any of them are/were socialists and surely people’s politics change over time and with money. Money changes people more than anything that’s for sure.
Without further ado, 10 classic rock lyrics that criticise capitalism! Don’t have the time to read theory? That’s okay! Rock and roll is here to teach you some theory!
1. “Summertime Blues” – Eddie Cochran (1958)
“I’m a-gonna raise a fuss
I’m a-gonna raise a holler
About workin’ all summer
Just-a trying to earn a dollar”
You might not have thought about this song as one that criticises the man. On the surface it sounds like just a teenager complaining that he has to work. Often when people get their first paycheque, that’s their first wakeup call and what makes them think about money and capitalism. Wait! You mean a lot of my money goes to taxes and taxes go towards war and not essential services? Why do rich people pay less in taxes than me? Wow that was back breaking work and all I get is just a few dollars an hour? I’m worth more than that! Kudos to anyone who figures it out at such a young age. Now it’s time to organise your workplace and get better conditions and pay.
Good on our protagonist for doing something about labour rights, but unfortunately back in the 1950s, you couldn’t vote until you were 21! You’d have to wait a decade and some for 18-20 year olds to be granted the vote. And there’s an argument to be made that 16 year olds should be allowed to vote, as some people have graduated from secondary school at that age and quite a few 16 year olds have jobs, and therefore pay taxes. No taxation without representation, right?
Even when you’re in your 20s, the government still doesn’t care about you. Even more so nowadays with the gerontocracy. Did you know in the US it’s still legal to discriminate against under 40s?
2. “What Are You Fighting For?” – Phil Ochs (1964)
“Before you pack your rifle, go sail across the sea
Just think upon the southern part of land that you call free
Oh, there’s many kinds of slavery and we’ve found many more
Yes I know you’re set for fighting, but what are you fighting for?
And before you walk out on your job in answer to the call
Just think about the millions who have no job at all
And the men who wait for handouts with their eyes upon the floor
Oh I know you’re set for fighting, but what are you fighting for?”
Phil Ochs was in a way, a rival of Bob Dylan, except much more overtly political, describing himself as a “singing journalist” who sang songs inspired by news stories he read in publications like Newsweek. But he admired Bob Dylan, especially for his pissing off the folk establishment by going electric. I’ve spoken at length about his classic “Love Me I’m a Liberal” many times, which I think of as MLK’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail but in song format. Phil Ochs was unapologetically a pacifist and a socialist and he was not just upset with conservatives, but also “moderate” liberals who weren’t doing enough to change things substantially and make things better for the working class.
The mainstream media historically and even today are very pro-war and hawkish and Phil Ochs commented on this asking people what they’re fighting for? It’s not the working class who want a war, it’s the rich who benefit from it. Slavery is also not just limited to chattel slavery, and slavery was never truly abolished in the US. It surprises me that so many people are not aware that prison is where modern day slavery still happens. As well, it can be argued that working for wages (especially really poor wages) is slavery, wage slavery. You have no choice but to work. If you don’t work, you can’t keep a roof over your head or eat and that means you can’t survive. Work itself isn’t the problem, work needs to be done, but the work day and weak are too long for no reason. People need leisure time. Work isn’t all there is to life and throughout this blog post, you’ll find more songs that touch upon this. The rich always pit working class people against each other. “Oh look at those people on welfare, they’re lazy and dumb and you don’t want to be like them so go back to work, peasant!”
3. “Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan (1965)
“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I wake up in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more”
Bob Dylan wasn’t afraid to get political in his music at times and this is one of his best known political songs, and in this case it’s pro-worker’s rights and anti-capitalist in theme with an electric blues sound. It’s a simple song in format and straightforward in its meaning. The song is written from the point of view of a farm worker who is tired of being exploited and abused working on Maggie’s Farm. He just wants a day off and to not do degrading, menial work. He wants to live a fulfilling life. It has widely been covered. One famous example of a cover is Paul Jones’ (of Manfred Mann fame) band The Blues Band covering it in 1980, during the Thatcher Era, from there, people who opposed Thatcher saw it as an anthem. When she died “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” reached #2 in Scotland. Now people joke about Maggie Thatcher’s grave being the best toilet. She was an enemy of the poor and working class. No respect for warmongers and classists.
4. “Friday On My Mind” by The Easybeats (1966)
“Do the five day drag once more
Know of nothing else that bugs me more than working for the rich man
Hey I’ll change that scene one day”
An unexpected place to find socialist song lyrics, but here you go! From the legendary Vanda-Young songwriting team, a powerhouse in Australia, and yes the Young in the songwriting team was George Young, older brother of Malcolm and Angus Young of AC/DC, a musical family! You might see this as a great Friday anthem, but listen closely to the lyrics and you can hear a frustrated narrator who is tired of the old grind, five days a week and only two days off, he’s living for the weekend (and The O’Jays had a song about that a decade later, and before that they got a bit socialist with the hit “For The Love of Money”, inspired by a quote from the Bible. Friendly reminder that Jesus was a socialist!).
That’s the truth, when you work, the majority of the value you’re creating is going to someone else, enriching them. You’re working for the rich man!
5. “Piggies” by The Beatles (1968)
“In their sties with all their backing
They don’t care what goes on around
In their life, there’s something lacking
What they need’s a damn good whacking!”
Before Pink Floyd released their George Orwell inspired concept album, Animals (Ha Ha! Charade you are!), George Harrison wrote this baroque pop song also inspired by Animal Farm and it’s on The Beatles’ White Album, one of their most musically diverse works and a very long album, considered one of the best releases of the year. Conservatives love to pay lip service to 1984, but the thing is they completely misunderstand that book. Conservatism by definition is pro-status quo. Now George Orwell wasn’t perfect. He was homophobic and that is absolutely not okay, no matter what time period someone lived in. Animal Farm didn’t only criticise capitalism, but also Stalinism, a totalitarian ideology and at the end of the day not very socialist after all. It’s important to emphasise that liking socialism doesn’t mean you want to live in the Soviet Union and you think socialism should have to be that way. Socialism doesn’t have to be authoritarian. It can also be libertarian or anarchist. There are environmentalists, feminists, and gay rights activists who take a socialist approach to their activism.
Back to the song, the pigs are the capitalists and in this lyric George says the rich pigs need a good whacking. While The Beatles were certainly doing well for themselves by the late 60s, many other rock stars were selling lots of records and had nothing to show for it. The money went to the music businesspeople, enriching them instead of rewarding the musicians who are the reason the music businesspeople have a job. No one goes to a concert to see the band manager, they go to see the rock stars!
6. “Salt of the Earth” by The Rolling Stones (1968)
“Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back-breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth.”
The Rolling Stones’ ode to the working class and in my opinion one of their best songs generally, and such a great political song. Originally this list I put together had 15 songs on it, but as I was doing research and going down rabbit holes I found a few more great songs for this list and this is one of them, thought about the meaning of it when I was listening to Rotary Connection’s cover. How can you leave The Rolling Stones off a list about classic rock? Inspired by John Lennon and his love of writing political songs, Mick Jagger wrote these lyrics as a salute to the working class (although he later on moved abroad to pay less in taxes), who no doubt made up a lot of their fanbase. This was also from a time when The Rolling Stones were coming into their own and finally finding themselves, their sound, and not just trying to mimic American R&B. The Stones had their own brand of rock and roll, and it wasn’t just vapid party music, this song is thoughtful and thought provoking.
This song is also a rare one where Keith Richards sings lead, and the second officially released Stones song to feature him on lead (the first was “Something Happened To Me Yesterday”. This song was on the album Beggars Banquet, which came out in 1968: a very turbulent year. As you know, the assassinations of MLK and RFK happened that year, the Vietnam War was going on, the protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention got bloody, and student protests happened all over Europe that year (The Stone Roses’ “Bye Bye Badman” is about the May 1968 riots in Paris).
The song title comes from a Bible passage, Matthew 5:13. You might even see a little something that reminds you of Led Zeppelin in it too (“Trampled Under Foot”).
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned ? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men”
This song was famously covered by Joan Baez in 1971 and 40 years after that she performed it in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street Movement. It’s also important to remember that poverty was so bad and still is so bad that women and children need to work to support their families. One income is not enough and it’s important for middle and upper class feminists to remember that working class women always worked! I’ve heard many heartbreaking stories of secondary school students having to work to support their parents and put schoolwork and their dreams and ambitions on the back burner. It shouldn’t be a thing. Children and teenagers deserve to have a happy, safe childhood.
7. “Shangri-La” – The Kinks (1969)
“The little man who gets the train got a mortgage hanging over his head
But he’s too scared to complain, ‘cos he’s conditioned that way
Time goes by and he pays off his debts
Got a TV set and a radio for seven shillings a week”
This song is from The Kinks’ creative golden era, from their concept album Arthur. While it wasn’t a commercial success, music fans who gave it a spin on their turntables fell in love. What made The Kinks special among all the British Invasion groups was their fearlessness and boldness. They weren’t afraid to try things before everyone else, break away from the trends, and sing about things other musicians weren’t singing about. Early on in the band’s career they did that with “Dead End Street”, a converse to “Sunny Afternoon” and “Shangri-La”, and innovative with their music video that told a story of poverty. And they continued writing political songs even into the 80s with songs like “Do It Again” and “Living On A Thin Line”, the latter being one of Dave’s best compositions.
“Shangri-La” is about a man who busts his butt at work and because of that he has money to buy these nice things for his family to live that comfortable middle class life: a very nice, albeit cookie cutter house in suburbia with all mod cons and car, makes me think a bit of The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (a Goffin-King composition), which was a critique of consumerism and the need to buy these status symbols to keep up with the Joneses. Dave Davies and bassist John Dalton have called this song one of Ray’s best songs, and I have to agree. Not only lyrically, but musically, as it has multiple movements: a real evolution and growing up from those power chords dominating their early work.
Thinking about capitalism, why is it that everything hinges on a credit score and you have to put yourself in debt so you can get ahead? Why is debt rewarded, but not too much debt? Why doesn’t paying rent count for your credit score? I guess financing options are part of consumerism where things that are out of reach to most people because most people don’t have the money to pay for expensive things all in one go, it gives them an option to buy more and the company makes more money.
It also gets me thinking about conformity and social expectations, having to fit into respectable middle class norms and buying things because others have them. Isn’t there more to life than materialism, consumerism, and work? Capitalism is Work, Buy, Consume, and rinse and repeat until you die. And I guess in capitalism there’s a ceiling for so many people. Only so many can be millionaires and billionaires. The opportunities aren’t equal for everyone. Middle class people often think they’re closer to the rich than the poor, but that’s not true if you’ve got debts! If you can’t pay back your loans, you’re gonna be on the street.
“Shangri-La” reminds me of this quote by journalist Ellen Goodman:
“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”
There’s a reason that I quoted Ray Davies alongside great minds like Martin Luther King and Oscar Wilde in the incrementalism essay I linked in the intro of this blog post and as a working title I called it “Yes I Read Theory”. Yes, I am arguing that Ray Davies’ song lyrics are theory. Don’t just take it from me, Dave Davies said it best:
“Ray was writing fantastic, sensitive words that were so relevant to what was going on – better than any politician.”
8. “Fancy” by Bobbie Gentry (1970)
“Now in this world there’s a lot of self-righteous hypocrites that would call me “bad”
And criticise my momma for turning me out no matter how little we had
And though I ain’t had to worry ’bout nothin’
For nigh on 15 years, I can still hear the desperation in my poor momma’s voice ringin’ in my ear
“Here’s your one chance, Fancy. Don’t let me down!”
Bobbie Gentry knows how to tell a story and I wish she was more talked about in classic rock and oldies circles. Very important in popular music history because in a time when female pop stars were singing songs written by other people, here she was singing her own compositions, and they were amazing! Sadly though her career was incredibly short, only releasing albums between 1967 and 1971. Her breakthrough came in 1967 with the Southern Gothic narrative “Ode to Billie Joe”, about a suicide.
Her other big hit was “Fancy”, which was a semi-autobiographical song, but a bit more exaggerated. In real life, Bobbie Gentry grew up in poverty in Mississippi without electricity or indoor plumbing, mind you she was born in 1942, so she’d be 80 years old next year. Her grandmother traded a cow for a piano and Bobbie learnt to play piano. As a teenager, she moved to California with her mother, who was remarried. Her stage name came from the movie and titular character Ruby Gentry, a poor girl from the countryside who marries a rich man, sound familiar? That’s kinda the story of “Fancy”!
Fancy’s family are very poor and they live in a rickety shack. At the age of 18, her mother took a chance on her and spent every last penny she had on a dancing dress and styled her up nicely and said she’s got to make a living as an escort. Through escorting is how she could get out of poverty, and maybe a rich man will marry her. After she left home, her mother died and her little sibling was put in foster care. Fancy is desperate to get out of poverty and does what she has to do. She eventually gets a sugar daddy and she’s living rich. People criticise her and her mother, but she had no other options to get out of poverty. Sadly though, money can’t bring back her mum.
Women shouldn’t have to turn to sex work to survive. While yes I believe it should be legal and regulated because I’m a libertarian and I believe that if there’s no victim no crime was committed, there should be paths out of sex work and opportunities for former sex workers to get education and well paying jobs. It’s not a sustainable job and it’s mentally taxing.
Of the song, Bobbie Gentry said:
“‘Fancy’ is my strongest statement for women’s lib, if you really listen to it. I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for — equality, equal pay, day care centres, and abortion rights.”
9. “Working Class Hero” – John Lennon (1970)
“Keep you doped with religion, and sex, and T.V.
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see”
“Working Class Hero” is from John’s first post-Beatles album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. His best known songs in his solo career are the ones with a message. This one talks about how the world treats the working class, stomping all over them and leaving them in pain. School and work are both hell and have arbitrary rules and standards and they’re frankly hard to live up to. This whole system moulds people and makes them into robots. The big corporations don’t want people who are bold, different, and intelligent. Instead, they want someone they can control and will do their bidding. Even if you make it to the middle class, you’re still a peasant as far as the rich are concerned. A billion is a large number. You think a million or even a few hundred thousand is a lot? Well it’s nothing compared to a billion! Scarier yet, do you think Jeff Bezos will be the world’s first trillionaire?
10. “The American Ruse” by The MC5 (1970)
“Sixty nine America in terminal stasis
The air’s so thick it’s like drowning in molasses
I’m sick and tired of paying these dues
And I’m finally getting hip to the American ruse”
The MC5 had close ties to leftist politics and sang songs with anti-establishment themes. The band were inspired by The Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, and the Beat Generation. Poet John Sinclair was their manager, but didn’t like being referred to that way. The band members were all unapologetically anti-war and perform at protests.
“The American Ruse” is an anti-war and anti-capitalist song and in the lyric quoted above, I interpret the “I’m stick and tired of paying these dues” as a sentiment against working for the man and against paying taxes. I personally believe taxation is theft if it doesn’t go back to helping the people. Who is helped by a war?
This song also calls out the idea of American Exceptionalism. I lived in conservative parts of the US and I hated seeing people acting like America is uniquely free and the best place in the world to live and the only place that’s a land of opportunity. Look at the statistics, people in other developed countries often live better. Are you seriously going to act like people in Canada or Scandinavia don’t live well? Luckily as a teenager, I was waking up to The American Ruse. I hate that America acts like the world police, spends its tax money on war, and locks up so many people. Sure, I like the pretty much absolute freedom of speech, but are you really free if you can go into debt because you fall ill or have an accident? Are you really free if there’s not enough support if you’re going through a hard time financially?
Liked this post? Read part 2 now!
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