Whatever happens at the G20 protests in London, one thing’s for sure: there will be no universal protest song to soundtrack the mayhem – no ‘Eve Of Destruction’ or ‘Killing In The Name’ for rioters to roar in unison as they storm the barricades/firebomb the Square Mile/stand sheepishly hemmed-in by riot police (delete as appropriate).
Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a period in the last 50 years where the forces of rebellion have been so bereft of musical standard-bearers. In the ’60s the Civil Rights movement was buttressed by James Brown, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone. The following decade, disaffection found a voice in (to pick a few) punk rock, Gil Scott-Heron’s street-poet polemics, and the kind of gritty, social-conscience soul pioneered by Norman Whitfield.
In the ’80s there was the anti-Thatcher coalition Red Wedge, and, more broadly, a student/music press culture that associated music with leftie politics. It was cool to be engaged. Having an opinion mattered. Hell, even a throwaway pop song like ’99 Red Balloons’ was about nuclear war.
But now? All we have is the inchoate, unfocused rage of The Enemy, for whom anti-establishment fury equates to little more than the hedonistic desire to “escape” (‘Away From Here’). Beyond that, there’s the nursery-rhyme finger-pointing of Lily Allen (‘Fuck You’ is supposedly directed at George W Bush), and the vaguely comic, Citizen Smith placard-waving of Jon McClure. It’s inarticulate, and it doesn’t convince.
Clearly, we have become so numbed by irony and self-consciousness that we are no longer able to pour out political venom in song. But it wasn’t always like this. Here are 21 tracks that harness rebellion and rage to thrilling effect.
21. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Fortunate Son (1969)
John Fogerty was always good at portraying embittered outsiders, but this attack on well-heeled Vietnam draft-dodgers – specifically President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson, David – found his invective allied to a weapons-grade chorus, too.
20. The Smiths – Meat Is Murder (1985)
The title (and closing) track of The Smiths’ only UK Number One album is a bilious animal-rights polemic, written at a time when the topic was far from mainstream, and given extra heft by Morrissey’s dainty-yet-vicious poetry (“And the flesh you so fancifully fry”),as well as abattoir sound effects.
19. Gang Of Four – Natural’s Not In It (1979)
The post-punk ideologues extend the Marxist concept of alienated labour to argue that ‘leisure’ is just as sterile. There is no escape from the capitalist machine. Even while shopping, socialising, having sex, you are trapped.
18. Bjork – Declare Independence (2008)
In its original form, this roiling, avant-electro call-to-arms could apply to any state (although it was originally written about the Faroe Islands and Greenland). It was only in March 2008, when Bjork tagged the words “Tibet! Tibet!” on to the end (see clip below), that it became a critique of Chinese repression. Bjork’s website has since been blocked by that country’s Communist government.
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17. Radiohead – You And Whose Army (2001)
The political dimension of Radiohead’s music is often missed – Thom Yorke was obsessed with Will Hutton’s assault on Thatcherism, ‘The State We’re In’, while writing ‘OK Computer’ – but it was only with ‘Amnesiac’ that the band’s rage became specific, rather than oblique. On this track, the word “cronies” suggests the target could only be Tony Blair.
16. Bikini Kill – New Radio (1993)
A 90-second splurge of sexual self-determination that combines chainsaw riffing, gender politics, and pure, uncaged physicality (“The gaps in teeth, the dirty nails”) to synapse-frying effect. Produced by Joan Jett, weirdly enough.
15. Rage Against The Machine – Sleep Now In The Fire (2000)
A Panzer-strength polemic that takes aim at all of America’s darkest crimes, from slavery to the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The band shot the Michael Moore-directed video outside the New York Stock Exchange, spooking security staff into locking the front doors. (Sadly that version is not on YouTube, so here’s a live rendition):
14. Public Enemy – Fight The Power (1989)
The brilliance of ‘Fight The Power’ is that it recognises that cultural imperialism can be just as repressive a force as more obvious forms of state authority. Everyone knows about the Elvis lyric – but only Chuck D could tease out the unsettling racial stereotypes reinforced by Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ (a huge global hit the previous year).
13. NWA – Fuck Tha Police (1988)
A lyrical courtroom drama with all the expletive-strewn jargon and crisis-point fury of an episode of ‘The Wire’. The song’s moral force was borne out four years later by the LA race riots, but its sentiments have proved to be universal: in 1996, a radio station in Belgrade played the song on a loop for two days straight in support of anti-Milosevic street protests.
12. System Of A Down – B.Y.O.B (2005)
Nothing to do with barbecues, this bludgeoning calypso-metal blitzkrieg was in fact inspired by the genocide in Darfur. Look beyond Sej Tankian’s hysterical, ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ vocal style and marvel at a protest song of startling flair and googly-eyed inventiveness.
11. Sleater-Kinney – A Real Man (1995)
From the second-wave riot grrrls’ self-titled debut album, a full-throated howl of emancipation from a phallocentric, heterosexual, capitalist establishment. “Should I buy it?”, questions Corin Tucker, equating the uninvited male advance with just another unwanted product.
10. Johnny Boy – You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve (2004)
An anti-consumerist polemic set to a ‘Be My Baby’ drumbeat and a titanic chorus, this James Dean Bradfield-produced little-symphony is one of the great lost tracks, destined to be feted by music journalists and utterly forgotten by everyone else. Still, what a tune.
9. Manic Street Preachers – Motown Junk (1991)
Like a lot of early Manics songs, it’s difficult to know exactly what they were protesting about – although the exploitation of black musicians was certainly somewhere in the mix – but, with its scrawled power-chords and impossibly thrilling intro (“Revolution, revolution…”), this is certainly the Manics’ most ferocious four minutes.
8. Prince – Sign O The Times (1987)
AIDS, gang war, looming nuclear apocalypse… Prince’s own ‘What’s Going On?’ certainly has scope – although the social commentary aspect is somewhat undermined by the random nature of the lyrics: what do Hurricane Annie and the Challenger disaster have to do with urban deprivation?
7. Black Sabbath – War Pigs (1971)
The point at which anti-war sentiment merges into pagan mysticism. It’s easy to sneer at Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics (rhyming ‘masses’ with ‘masses’), but there are moments here that carry genuine, unsettling power. That final line, for example (“Satan laughing spreads his wings”) is pure ‘Paradise Lost’. The epic poem, not the goth metal band.
6. Metallica – One (1988)
An indirect protest song (in that it’s written in character), but no less chilling for that. Perhaps the most terrifying anti-war song ever, narrated by a WW1 veteran who has lost all his limbs and senses. He longs to die, but cannot communicate that wish, so remains entombed within his own silent, endless hell. ‘Give Peace A Chance’ it is not.
5. Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit (1939)
Billie Holiday had to leave her label, Columbia, before she could record this – they didn’t want the ‘controversy’ of releasing a song in which the titular fruit represent the hanging bodies of black Americans, strung from trees by white lynch-mobs in America’s South. The awful, close-up, Saxon bluntness of the language (“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”) means the song still has the power to mesmerize and unsettle.
4. Dead Kennedys – California Uber Alles (1979)
Something of an anomaly in that the target of singer Jello Biafra’s ire – Jerry Brown, one-time Governor of California – was actually a fairly liberal character. In Biafra’s fantasy dystopia, though, Brown enforces his policies with the ruthlessness of a fascist dictator. References to Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and Orwell’s ‘1984’ contribute to an unhinged, yet cleverly nuanced, tirade.
3. The Clash – Straight To Hell (1982)
The intro riff might have been given a second life as a hipster ringtone thanks to M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’, but this is one of The Clash’s bleakest songs – a sweeping panorama of disaffection that veers from industrial decline in Northern England to the persecution of Puerto Rican immigrants in ’80s New York.
2. Bruce Springsteen – Born In The USA (1984)
Originally written as a downbeat acoustic track and intended for ‘Nebraska’, it was manager Jon Landau who suggested Bruce inflate this into a big, bombastic, full-band number. It’s that beefy production that tricked people into thinking ‘Born…’ was a patriotic anthem – although only a moron could miss the throat-bursting anti-Reaganite fury evident in the opening line: “Born down in a dead man’s town”.
1. Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall (1963)
Dylan has always maintained this visionary epic, written a month before the Cuban Missile crisis, was not a song about the aftermath of nuclear war – but how else to interpret the soothsayer-like images of death, pollution, poison and decay that run right through it?