As promised, here is part 2 of this two part series on socialist classic rock lyrics, or rather song lyrics that are critical of capitalism from Lindisfarne to The Smiths! You can read part 1 here.
11. “Bring Down The Government” – Lindisfarne (1972)
“So bring down the government, get them on the run
We’ll bake their heads to ginger bread
And eat them one by one
Bring down the government, do it now for love
Do it for your mother and sister too and do for God above
So roll on my brothers we can find out how
To walk hand in hand to the promised land”
Thanks to the book, Strat! (read my review here), I’ve been listening to Lindisfarne and one thing that is pretty cool about them is that main songwriter Alan Hull wasn’t afraid to get political. Besides music, he was very involved in the Labour Party and would play benefit concerts for striking/laid off miners and shipyard workers. The band were from Newcastle, a very industrial working class city in the Northeast of England, not far from Scotland, in fact England’s northernmost city. Might explain the politics. Many Northerners and rural people in England feel left behind and looked down upon.
“Bring Down The Government” is from their 1972 album, Dingly Dell. It wasn’t the band’s strongest album, but still a good album that sold well. There are a couple other political songs on there like “All Fall Down” and “Poor Old Ireland”. At the time the album came out, there was a Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath. For sure this song sounds like a left libertarian anthem and singalong friendly. The first bit of the quoted lyrics reminds me of the whole “eat the rich” slogan. Regardless, the status quo isn’t working.
12. “Part of the Union” – Strawbs (1973)
“As a union man I’m wise
To the lies of the company spies
And I don’t get fooled by the factory rules
‘Cause I always read between the lines
And I always get my way
If I strike for higher pay
When I show my card to the Scotland Yard
And this is what I say
Oh, oh, you don’t get me, I’m part of the union”
Why were people financially better off in the 60s and 70s? Well for starters, unions were stronger then and that means higher pay, which meant that you could raise a family on one income and buy a house at a young age. Being a millennial, I can’t believe that had I been born in 1944 and not 1994, I could have been able to go to university for free or at least cheap and I could be a homeowner by the age of 25 and not have to worry so much about money. Boomers had it pretty good and it’s easy to see because as a generation they hold a disproportionate amount of the wealth. However, generations and ages don’t mean everything. Every generation had poverty and every generation had people who were marginalised.
Unions get a lot of hate and I think it’s thanks to mainstream media spreading neoliberal talking points like “unions just take your paycheque and do nothing”, “they promote mediocrity”, and “they make pointless rules and make things harder for the managers, which ends up hurting the company”. Unions are the reason governments passed all sorts of regulations. But if you want capitalism to continue, there has to be some sort of workplace democracy. The other option is the workers own the means of production.
You, as a worker, need to work to survive, while someone who owns a business (has capital) doesn’t need to work to survive, as they make money from their business. So there’s a power imbalance. The boss has a lot of power over workers, even though without the workers they won’t have a business and therefore won’t make money. The boss has very different interests from the workers and unless the workers unite and show solidarity, the boss will just throw out a worker who demands what they deserve because they can find someone else to replace them. The boss/owner’s goal is to pay the workers as little as they can get away with and pocket as many of the profits as they can. The workers want to be treated with dignity, work reasonable hours, be fairly compensated, to have a safe workplace, get time off for holidays and for medical reasons, and get a good benefits package.
Let’s look at the lyrics, which celebrate unions and are supportive of them, in the quote above you see a reference to spies. Company owners will hire spies to bust unions. If we look at the present day, Amazon famously used spies and tactics to bust unions. Amazon hired the notorious detective agency, Pinkerton, to spy on workers, infiltrate, and intimidate them out of organising. If unions had no power, corporations like Amazon and Walmart wouldn’t be breaking their backs to bust unions. And guess what? Amazon are going to be releasing a film about a female Pinkerton spy. Now that’s what I call Girlboss™ Propaganda!
As I am writing this, Nabisco workers all around the US are going on strike because Nabisco cut pay, make the workers work 7 day work weeks with no or very few days off, not pay overtime, and stopped contributing to pensions, showing that they don’t care about the workers.
13. “Welcome to the Machine” – Pink Floyd (1975)
“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
Where have you been? It’s alright we know where you’ve been.
You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time,
provided with toys and Scouting for Boys.
You bought a guitar to punish your ma,
And you didn’t like school, and you know you’re nobody’s fool,
So welcome to the machine.”
From the Wish You Were Here album, this song could be interpreted as being about the music industry and how it’s a (capitalist) machine. Workers, including rock stars, are often told they are easily replaceable and they’re just a cog in the machine. School just prepares someone to be part of the machine. Ever felt like you couldn’t take chances and risks at school and the whole point was to pass, or better yet ace, the tests? Think about it, how much of what you were taught in school do you remember?
If the people at the top find you conform enough to what they want in a worker, you may be promoted and what comes with a promotion? Higher pay and perks that come with that like being able to drive nice cars and eat in high society restaurants and mingle with other well off people and show off their status symbols to the working people and express this is what you can have if you conform and “work hard”.
14. “Bastille Day” by Rush (1975)
“There’s no bread let them eat cake
There’s no end to what they’ll take
Flaunt the fruits of noble birth
Wash the salt into the earth
But they’re marching to Bastille Day
La guillotine will claim her bloody prize
Free the dungeons of the innocent
The king will kneel, and let his kingdom rise”
Classic rock meets history class in this song, le 14 julliet is France’s national holiday, commemorating the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille (a fortress and political prison) in 1789, one of the most important events of the French Revolution – a time of political and social change that was very influential in history, inspiring other revolutionary movements: abolition of slavery, 1917 Russian Revolution, and women’s suffrage.
Let’s keep this short as this isn’t a world history blog: In the 1700s, France’s population grew by 8 million and the economy was not doing so well: prices of food were going up, therefore people were hungry and angry, many people were out of work, and the government under both Louis XV and XVI were incompetent. France was at war with Britain twice, pretty much back to back): the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and helping the Americans out with the American War of Independence (1775-1783). As we all know today, war is very expensive and in this case it bankrupted France and the rich were certainly not paying their taxes and certainly weren’t going hungry (sound familiar?).
The government wasn’t very democratic and the closest thing they had to a parliament was the Estates-General, but the richest in society were way overrepresented with the First and Second Estates making up a disproportionate number of seats and the Third Estate, the commoners being underrepresented. There was deadlock and the Third Estate walked out forming a National Assembly to create a new constitution. The Jacobins were a “radical” wing who wanted a republic. Europe was mostly monarchies at the time and so the other monarchies looked at this movement in fear.
That plus angry people meant that there was going to be a protest, the French people said “We’re not gonna take it!” and so they organised. The poor saw the inequality and were like that’s it, eat the rich and off with their heads! And so thousands were executed by guillotine. Today, the Bastille no longer stands, but there is the Colonne de juillet that stands in its place in the Place de la Bastille.
15. “Peace of Mind” by Boston (1976)
“I understand about indecision
But I don’t care if I get behind
People living in competition
All I want is to have my peace of mind”
To me, these lyrics are about the rat race and how cutthroat and ruthless working is. Or maybe it’s beyond working, but about feeling like life is a competition, which I think is a feeling that will always be there even under socialism. It’s human nature to want to be the best and to want to have bragging rights. It’s natural to compare yourself to others and nowadays where do we see this more than on social media? You scroll on social media and see that everyone’s buying houses, travelling, getting married, having kids, having all these nice things happen to them and you’re wondering where all the nice things are for you? It’s not that you resent others for having nice things, you want those nice things too. But maybe you want to unlearn those things and that’s good. It’s hard to break from that competition and rat race mindset, but once you do, it feels better (can’t say from experience, I admittedly still compare myself a lot to others). Peace of mind is something priceless. Money can’t buy that.
16. “Hey Mister” by The Jam (1979)
“Hey mister with your head in the clouds
You can’t see further than the shillings and pounds
The things that you say don’t mean nothing anymore
You have no control they’ve broken down all the doors
And the only way that you’ll fix them up is another war”
The Jam weren’t afraid to get political and famously, David Cameron said he loved “The Eton Rifles” without realising that song is about him… Reminds me of that Garfield meme:
In the 80s, Paul Weller was involved in the Labour Party initiative Red Wedge, a group of musicians popular among young people who encouraged young people to vote and get involved in politics. He grew up working class and you can hear a lot of those themes in The Jam’s music. The 80s were a very conservative time in politics in both the US and UK and because of that, there were a lot of protest and anti-war songs, especially in the punk subgenre. Simply put, this song calls out politicians and rich people who can’t see past money. They’re like who cares about the greater good and the future, I got money!
17. “The Magnificent Seven” – The Clash (1980)
“Working for a rise, better my station
Take my baby to sophistication
She’s seen the ads, she thinks it’s nice
Better work hard – I seen the price
Never mind that it’s time for the bus
We got to work – an’ you’re one of us
Clocks go slow in a place of work
Minutes drag and the hours jerk”
From the epic length Sandinista! album, here’s a funky political song and such a great way to open an album. Top tune that is! That bassline is probably one of my favourites ever (bravo Norman Watt-Roy of The Blockheads!) and this is an example of how The Clash weren’t just a rock band, they also incorporated the sounds of other genres like disco, rap, and ska. If you listen closely to the lyrics, you’ll hear working class and anti-capitalist themes. Gotta grind and work hard for what? Material goods that won’t come with you into the afterlife (if there even is one)? Also the slowest minutes I swear are microwave minutes, workout minutes, and every minute you spend at work.
No doubt are The Clash one of the top socialist rock bands! Probably #1 in a lot of people’s books! And no they weren’t liberals who just said things that were palatable to the establishment, they said some pretty revolutionary things. With the Clash’s politics, class came first, but it wasn’t class only. They would also talk about racism in the UK and talk about issues in the global south.
18. “Let’s Lynch The Landlord” by Dead Kennedys (1980)
“The Landlord’s here to visit
They’re blasting disco down below
Says “I’m doubling up the rent
Cause the building’s condemned
You’re gonna help me buy City Hall”
CEOs and billionaires aren’t the only hated people right now, another group that are widely hated by the working class are landlords. Let’s be blunt, renting sucks. Financially: Rent costs more than a mortgage, but even if you’ve paid your rent on time for decades, banks still are like “yeah can’t trust you with a mortgage” and on top of that you get no equity from renting. Also, landlords will often pocket the deposits and find reasons to not give it back to you in the hopes you don’t fight them. Little quality of life things: you have to contact the landlord if any repairs are needed, you can’t paint the walls or put up wallpaper or do too much customisation or home improvement (and if you do, you can’t take it with you).
And worst of all, the landlord has a lot of power over you, not unlike a boss. When you own your house, it’s yours. But if you rent, the landlord can decide to kick you out because they want to sell the property, renovate it, or kick you out only to raise the rent for some new tenants who have no idea how much the rent has gone up in recent years. Landlords can also be horrible because they may cut corners in keeping up the property, raise rents by as much as they are allowed to as often as they are allowed to, and may even be controlling over their tenants’ lives including not allowing guests, parties, or loud music.
For some people, they have no choice but to rent because they work jobs that cause them to move a lot or because their job doesn’t pay them enough and they can’t have the opportunity to save up enough money for a down payment. So people are stuck renting. There are plenty of houses so no one has to be homeless, yet there are rich people out there who have multiple properties, meanwhile people are struggling to make rent or don’t even have a home because it’s too expensive. Renting properties will always be a thing, but there needs to be more protections for tenants and tenants shouldn’t be ripped off.
In this day and age, landlords are especially hated because they act whiny and entitled. Being a landlord shouldn’t be your only source of income and it’s funny how they don’t take their own advice of “learn to code bro” or “stop spending money on avocado toast”. Landlords, you make money off overcharging people for housing, take a few seats please!
Being a cat is better than being a human. Humans have to pay to live on this planet. Cats don’t!
19. “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton (1980)
“Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all taking and no giving
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it”
What would this list be without Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”, which talks all about how bosses take advantage of their workers? Sure I’ve talked about this song before, but always fun to revisit songs from a different angle. Thanks to unions, we have the 40 hour work week, but that doesn’t stop workplaces from exploiting workers by not hiring enough people and having their workers work way more than 40 hours a week or leaving many people underemployed and part time because they don’t want to pay benefits.
Still, I think there’s an argument that 40 hours a week is too much to work and a five day work week isn’t the best for workers. Multiple countries like Ireland, Spain, and Iceland have tried 4 day work weeks. And Sweden tried six hour work days. That along with work from home could be the future of work. We all know that work life balance is very important. Four day workweeks and people working less than 40 hours a week are family friendly policies and also beneficial for disabled workers. Why do we have to spend a third of our days at work doing mundane and menial tasks? Happy workers are better workers. And isn’t there more to life than work?
Overall, Dolly Parton’s very wholesome and has done a lot of good such as her free books programme and funding the Moderna vaccine (happens to be the vaccine I got!). A national treasure!
20. “Shoplifters of the World Unite” – The Smiths (1987)
“Tried living in the real world
Instead of a shell
But before I began…
I was bored before I even began
Shoplifters of the world
Unite and take over”
This song is a nod to the Communist Manifesto and the famous quote “Workers of the World Unite”. This lyric talks about how dull and boring the world is. Certainly capitalism and being forced to work in order not to starve is a big part of what makes the world boring. As for the shoplifters bit, it’s not literal. Morrissey described it as about spiritual and cultural shoplifting, taking things and using them to your advantage. Well, you do what you gotta do to survive in this world. Now here’s a question: do you think of it as shoplifting if people steal to survive because they have no other choice? I don’t think so.
Governments keep pushing these tough on crime policies, but it doesn’t address the root problem. Does it make the world a better place to punish someone severely for a crime? Rehabilitation makes the world a much better place than punishment does. One big reason people commit crimes is poverty. Maybe if we looked after people’s material well being, people wouldn’t feel the need to steal to survive. One more thing, it’s time to legalise drugs, that would make our cities and towns safer.
Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!
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