K, so it may seem awfully soon to be dropping another non-definitive guide feature in this column, coming only one week after the Stylus Magazine Non-Definitive Guide to the Hidden Track. And in our defense, we here had hoped to get this list out before the U.S. Marines dutch-ovened the head of a Saddam statue with the American flag, but the Freedom-Delivering Might of the American Military proved too great for both the Mustachioed Oppressor and the talented staff here at Stylus. So, instead, we’re just hoping that Cheney hasn’t already declared Syria the 52nd State in the Union by the time this goes live.
But all the shocking and awing going on in the world does beg the question: “Does Art Make A Fucking Difference Anymore?” Or rather: “Did It Ever?” Meaning, if anyone’s listening—and in this age, no matter the material’s quality, someone surely is—the relevance of pop’s almighty protest song is again worth investigating. Because regardless of how one feels about the current conflict in the Gulf, this has hardly been a banner couple of years for free expression.
And so we here at Stylus have attempted to compile, if not the definitive list of war protest pop, a respectable inventory of pop songs that attempted to lend a critical voice to the act our current president refers to as the “last resort”—from the glut of Vietnam-era folk that shaped what many of us consider to be “protest” to some of the esoterica that has emerged in the last twenty years. We aren’t yet looking at the current crop 21st Century Joan Baezes, populated by the likes of the Beastie Boys, R.E.M., and Zach De la Rocha who history will most certainly turn its critical eye toward soon enough. In the meantime, we hope this list, consisting of hoary old chestnuts, modern innovations, bizarre innovations and commercial dreck, ends up saying something about the efficacy of the war protest song in the modern age—in addition to something about the very nature of commercial entertainment as a credible tool of sociopolitical change.
But enough with the ponderous shit. Hope you enjoy.
Your Friends At Stylus Magazine
“MASTERS OF (ANTI-)WAR”
The Protest Song Archetypes
Bob Dylan - Masters of War
“And I hope that you’ll die / And your death’ll come soon / I will follow your casket / In the pale afternoon / And I’ll watch while you’re lowered / Down to your deathbed / And I’ll stand o’er your grave / Till I’m sure that you’re dead.” Shit, just typing those words gives me the chills. For pure bilious anger and venom, Dylan’s “Masters of War” cannot be topped. Addressed to the generals, businessmen, and politicians who make up the military-industrial complex, the song is by Dylan’s own admission the only one in which he wished death upon anybody. Making it all the more effective is that it comes from the pen and mouth of a nasal-voiced, guitar-strumming Greenwich Village folkie who only two songs prior had expressed the hippie sentiment that “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” “Masters of War” is an acoustic folk song written in 1962, but really, the thing is so fucking punk it might as well have a safety pin stuck through its cheek.
Plastic Ono Band - Give Peace a Chance
Described as a “tuneless dirge” by Stylus staffer Scott Plagenhoef, it behooves me to admit that he’s more or less right. Over a two-chord guitar strum, handclaps and what would henceforth be known as “those fucking hippie drums,” “Give Peace A Chance” consists of little more than a title phrase repeated ad infinitum, an ongoing fascination with “Come Together”’s “bagism” nonsense, and its composer’s preoccupation with his own cult of personality.
And you know what? It’s fucking anthemic. It’s the war protest song – love it, hate it or, in my case, love it and hate it. For all its self-important bullshit—and as with all things Lennon, there’s plenty—“Give Peace A Chance” remains the one war protest song everyone knows and no one could really disagree with. The soundtrack to every war protest march from here to eternity—as it was in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago—the song is undeniably powerful, it’s insistent and undeniably the most “effective” protest song of all-time.
Bob Marley - War
Most famous Jamaican war-related records, such as Willie Williams’ “Armagideon Time” and Niney’s “Blood and Fire”, are to do with the Apocalypse or the coming of Jah. Despite a burgeoning group of Marcus Garvey-inspired back-to-Africa songs in the 1960s, the black condition wasn’t often expressed on a global scale—until Haile Selassie.
To Rastafarians, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the Living God of Abraham and Isaac. Selassie’s state visit to Jamaica in 1966 was a galvanizing moment in many of the islander’s lives, including Bob Marley. A decade later, Marley started the more Afrocentric period of his career by putting part of Selassie’s 1963 address to the United Nations to music. The result is “War,” one of his most impassioned pleas for humanity and justice. The directness of the message and the patience with which Marley exquisitely delivers it disguises the song’s increasingly incendiary language. Marley moves from accusing the forces of racial injustice for sowing the seeds of violence to calling for war as a response—specifically in Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa—to adopting an evangelical tone, calling black war a battle between good and evil.
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
A pioneering record in so many ways—the first widely popular protest song from an African American artist, a new sound for Motown, Gaye's first true statement of independence, etc.—and the well-known title track is inexorably tied to the rest of the album in both musical and ideological theme. In fact, the rest of the album really doesn't deviate too far from the musical and lyrical formula established by the leadoff cut. Just add a new subject (drugs, children, ecology, etc.), perhaps a slightly different tempo, and--voila!—a soul-stirring classic. Perhaps that's overstating it a bit, because really, the nine tunes here do sound remarkably similar, and Gaye would repeat the trick on most of his albums throughout the decade.
That said, this stunning statement written from the perspective of a soldier returning from Vietnam still has the power to stir emotions in all but the coldest of us, and remains a vital questioning of the state of America, both then and now. But the best soul album of all time? I don't think so.
The Byrds - Draft Morning
For those familiar with the band whose sumptuous vocal sound had earlier projected the hope and optimism of the Sixties, the bitter “Draft Morning” can be a fairly jarring experience. Telling the story of a boy’s last morning at home before shipping off to war against his will, “Draft Morning” was David Crosby’s first real foray into what would become an unhealthy obsession with the Vietnam War and the U.S. government he felt untrustworthy (witness the comments he made at the Monterey Pop Festival about the JFK assassination, which resulted in the band being edited out of the documentary). With Gary Usher’s lush, glistening production and a bridge consisting of bugles and suitably explosive sound effects courtesy of Usher-favorite Firesign Theater, the song marked the acrimonious end of the original Byrds, as Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman fired Crosby, rewrote what are probably an impressionistic few lines and took half the writing credit for themselves. Cold to be certain, but McGuinn’s rendition of taps on his Rickenbacker 12-string during the song’s fade is undeniably poignant.
Phil Ochs - The War Is Over
Phil Ochs liked to describe himself as a "singing journalist". His first three albums dealt exclusively with social issues. But by 1967, Ochs' depression was deepening and he expanded his repertoire on Pleasures of the Harbor to include sketches of personal anxieties. 1968 was the most tumultuous year of the war for Americans, so Ochs had to turn his gaze back to what he had written so much about in 1964-66. He produced Tape From California, easily his most accomplished album. Paranoid, angry and righteous, the album is a perfect reflection of the year. Nowhere is there a better example of Ochs' maturation than on "The War Is Over". Set to a marching drum beat with baroque horn flourishes, the song is a sharp contrast to his early New York-scene guitar strumming. The lyrics, like the music, differ drastically from early Ochs. Instead of directly attacking those in charge, Ochs paints a surreal picture of the war. "The War is Over" was Ochs' last and great Vietnam song and perfect illustration of the changes Ochs' and the anti-war movement had gone through.
John Lennon/Yoko Ono - Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
While John Lennon was in the Beatles, he tended to cowtow to the status quo by curbing the political statements in his music. Witness his first attempt, ‘Revolution”: a non-stand if ever there was one. But not so in his post-Beatles career. Free of having to please the rest of the boys and their massive audience, Lennon dropped this immortal Christmas message of peace (and a massive guilt-trip) on the world. From the opening couplet, “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?” it’s clear that Lennon expects more from his audience than just holding up a peace sign or wearing a sloganeering T-shirt. The sing-songy chorus and Phil Spector’s larger than life production helped to make it a hit, but this was no mere sappy love message—Lennon wanted action, no cop-outs this time. Something tells me the countless bastardizations of his song in the years since (by everyone from the Alarm, to Neil Diamond, to Celine Dion) wouldn’t meet with his approval.
Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USA
In hindsight, he should have seen it coming. But Bruce Springsteen’s passion rarely considers consequence, and instead lives for the moment. And indeed few moments in his catalogue rival the furious whirlwind of the title track to his enormously popular 1984 album. As inevitable as it was, no protest song has ever been taken so far out of context. Ronald Reagan, whom Springsteen publicly despised, almost co-opted it as a campaign theme song, and hailed the “young” artist’s patriotic, can-do spirit. Bruce’s own fans saw it as a flag-thumping rally cry. Even now, the song can’t escape its retarded connotation. Yet, in context, it’s one of the greatest protest songs of all-time, a searing indictment of a country that rarely offers what it promises. Originally recorded for Springsteen’s masterfully minimal 1982 album, Nebraska, but later fleshed out with his E-Street Band, the song details the life of a Vietnam veteran who returns home from battle only to find himself hated by his community, jobless and alone. As he growls through the song’s insistent beat, Springsteen seethes with so much disgust that he’d be punk if the production wasn’t slick as oil. As the E-Street band dashes head-on into the track’s legendary finale, Max Weinburg takes center stage with a press roll that could level buildings. Hell or high water, Springsteen got his point across. But still, he should have seen it coming.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - Ohio
David Crosby famously pushed Neil Young to write this in reaction to the events of May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, in which the National Guard fired upon a group of anti-war protestors, killing four. Consequently, the song was out within weeks. A decent song, succinctly capturing the dread, pain, and confusion of the time with Young’s taut, tense guitar lines supported by the slightly ragged harmonies of CSN. But “Ohio’s” greatest contribution to the protest song was in how it immortalized the tragedy in pop culture iconography. “Four dead in Ohio...”
Creedence Clearwater Revival - Fortunate Son
God bless corporate America. If you hear this song now, your first instinct might be that someone on TV is trying to sell you some Wrangler Jeans. The irony is rich—a song written to piss off wealthy white-bread chickenhawk uber-patriots is now used to sell clothing to wealthy white-bread chickenhawk uber-patriots who believe that purchasing a pair of rugged jeans somehow makes them Pure Country. Depressed yet?
But at one time, CCR’s “Fortunate Son” seemed to represent the voice of revolution. Granted, this was before Saul Zaentz got his grubby little hands on the John Fogerty catalog, but just knowing that a time like that once existed should make us all feel a little better. “Fortunate Son” was an anthem for the blue-collar dispossessed—you know, the guys who actually had to fight the Vietnam War. Although born-and-bred San Franciscans, the guys in CCR never seemed farther away from their acid-dropping Bay Area contemporaries than when Fogerty was howling his working class anthem at anyone who would listen. Both rich warmongers and rich draft-dodgers (one of whom went on to become president) were meant to hear this song and start squirming uncomfortably. Meanwhile, disenfranchised veterans were meant to hear it and start pumping their fists. OK, so now it’s just another tool of consumerism. In the late 60s, “Fortunate Son” announced that the Vietnam War was primarily a class war. Not bad for three minutes of classic-rock mayhem. Jeans, Mr. Bush?
Curtis Mayfield - Back to the World
One of St. Curtis’s finest moments, the shuffling, brassy “Back to the World” opens the record of the same name with a radio tuning in, before the singer begins intoning a long, seven-minute soliloquy about an African-American soldier “wet up to his knees” in battle in Vietnam, before he returns home to his mother, who’s about the only one happy he’s back – himself included. She tells him “the war was never won,” that there are no jobs and his girlfriend has left him (“The doggone war just lasted too long!” Mayfield wails). And as if that weren’t bad enough, the poor guy gets mugged. “People don’t give a damn,” indeed.
“Back to the World” isn’t all bleakness and grim realism, though. As with all Curtis Mayfield, the songwriter finds his salvation in the last verse with a particularly Christian form of forgiveness; it’s as if by admitting any anger or bitterness he would be giving in. No wonder he was worshipped by African-American soldiers fighting in Vietnam.
Bob Dylan - Blowing in the Wind
Arguably the most famous war protest song of all time, and for good reason. The lead track off of the album that launched a thousand singer/songwriters, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind” irrevocably changed the landscape of music at the time, merging the folk and rock scenes and setting a new standard for lyrics and subject matter in pop music. But the important thing is why—and that’s because over forty years later, it still has no parallel in pop music for sheer power and thoughtfulness. Asking an increasingly pleading number of rhetorical questions in the verses, peaking with the second’s “How many deaths will it take ‘till he knows that too many people have died?” only to cool it down with the ambiguous chorus, “The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind,” the song questions not just war, but the ignorance of the public in general (“how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”) and damned if the answers wouldn’t get stuck in any man’s throat. A list of the best war protest songs that doesn’t include this is trying too hard to be obscure and should not be taken seriously.
“RAP MUSIC IS BLACK CNN”
Innovations, Evolutions, and Modern Classics
Public Enemy - Black Steel (In the Hour of Chaos)
A note to government employees: check the addresses before you send draft notices out. In the hands of Chuck D, this letter becomes a spiraling narrative that ends in a prison riot of epic proportions. Taking the letter as a jumping off point, D relates the experience of a black man in America—a far worse fate than being in an army serving a government that never gave a damn for African Americans. The song captures the rage of a nascent hip-hop genre and the possibilities inherent for the medium as one of the only active social commentataries for African Americans. While the promise of a black CNN seems to have fallen through in recent times, this song represented a vengeful idealism for a new world order. And the real CNN? Suckas, I suppose.
Glen Campbell - Galveston
Songwriter Jimmy Webb’s melancholy ode to a simpler time exemplified what one might consider to be the “tonal protest song,” replacing as it does more typical anti-war language with a reflection on the emotional uncertainty of war that even hawks in the heartland could identify with. As such, the subgenre often featured stories of separation and longing (see Bacharach-David’s “Windows of the World,” an ode to the latter’s Vietnam-fighting son that climbed to number 32 in 1967).
“Galveston,” achieves such an effect, voiced by AM-stalwart Campbell in his typical country yearn from the perspective of a young man reflecting on his hometown, his girl and the sea birds and waves of the ocean (that the town of the title is regarded as a miserable wasteland remains something of a joke among Texans). The secret to the song, however, was that it only makes passing reference to war; were it not for one verse’s brief mention of “cannons flashing” and the narrator as he “cleans my gun,” the listener would have no reason to believe “Galveston” is about anything more than a country boy adrift in the big city. As such, the song would go to number one on the pop charts in 1969.
Worth hearing is Webb’s own version from the mid-90’s, largely performed on solo piano and nearly Schubert-esque in its art-song aspirations, resulting in a particularly haunting form of what might be called Okie-lieder.
The Cro-Mags - World Peace
Written before the band’s much-mused-about partial conversion to Krishna consciousness, this song plays out like the boneheaded, scrappy younger brother to Hüsker Dü’s “Real World.” Listeners to The Age of Quarrel surely knew what they were in for when they saw its vivid mushroom-cloud cover, but the band seems intent on cleaning the blood-soaked floor with any sloganeering anarchists who happened to wander into the venue: “All you hippies better face reality / With all your far-fetched dreams of anarchy / It’s time to see things the way they are / The way things are goin’, they won’t be goin’ far!” Harley Flanagan and a line-up featuring at least one former Bad Brain thrash away according to the same brute equation of hardcore-plus-metal calculated force while John Joseph continues to rail against idealists in his inimitable, nearly operatic, delusions-of-grandeur voice. It’s partly a raw expression of bewildered anger from a sub-lower-class young man who’s spent of his adolescence in burnt-out tenements getting in fights daily, partly a bemused look at the state of 1980s America (with references to AIDS and nuclear war), where—as the gang of backing vocals doesn’t hesitate to tell us—“World peace can’t be done / It just can’t exist!”
Cassetteboy - Fly Me to New York
A disorienting plunderphonic cut-up takes a large portion of Frank Sinatra's catalogue to make him sing disturbing lines such as: "Now my skin is melting away," "I've got a razor in my pocket", and "I'll be holding my knife deep in the heart of you." But that's only the first half. The second half mainly uses hip hop references to construct a new, more shocking narrative of the World Trade Center bombings ending the proceedings with an editorial comment voiced by the Moz: "there's no one but yourself to blame." With the aid of sampling technology, Cassetteboy does something here that nearly no artist has been able to do with a guitar and voice in the past year—convey the terror, the hurt, the disorientation caused by the September 11th attacks—and disconnect the jingoistic sentiments that commonly go along with them. Take that Sheryl Crow.
Captain Beefheart - Dachau Blues
Trout Mask Replica may not have been the sort of album that struck its early listeners with a coherent political philosophy, given its non-linear, impressionistic lyrical style focusing largely on the organic and all its mutations, which makes this song all the more shocking for its explicit nature. Guitars and horn skronk out a mournful Guernica of drab tonal color that shoots in several directions at once (possessing what probably seemed to those hearing it for the first time a sort of sprezzatura chaos and senselessness that recalls Black Power free jazz) while Don Van Vleit presents us with simple, straightforward lyrics that seem to take Theodor Adorno’s multi-faceted dictum that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz to mind. “Dachau Blues / Those poor Jews,” he croons soulfully, “One mad man, six million lose.” He speaks of the legacy of wars in the past both recent and distant, which include “balls and powder and blood,” “showers and skeletons,” and an undeniably powerful image that recalls at once Vietnam protestors, Kent State brutality, the horror of the draft and the early deaths brought on by war: “Three little children with doves on their shoulders / Their eyes rolled back in ecstasy.” Is this the ecstasy of an innocent idealism under the truncheons of pain, or is it the first stirrings of an agonized realization of mankind’s horrors? Don doesn’t seem to know. All he knows is this: he’s sad about it and this is the only way that he can express this properly. Few have been more eloquent or unexpectedly graceful.
The Clash - The Call Up
You know it’s a Clash song when it starts with an air-raid siren. The Clash had been no stranger to war on their own terms, but never had they so blatantly tackled the subject before 1981’s Sandinista! , and the lead single, “The Call Up.” It’s a confusing single off of an album with no obvious hits, but it’s still classic Clash. It’s also the first song of theirs (as hinted at with London Calling’s “Lost in the Supermarket”) to truly conquer punk music’s Fear of Disco, with a funky Paul Simonon bass line that could not be interpreted in any other way. The song itself is a statement against youth going off to war merely because their parents expect them to, Strummer and Jones urging in the chorus, “it’s up to you not to heed the call up,” with the afterthoughts “I don’t want to die/I don’t want to kill,” and finally concluding with the chilling sentiment “for he who will die/is he who will kill.” Sandinista! is packed to the brim with musical experiments, genre exercises and protest songs, but “The Call Up” is where it all comes together.
XTC - Generals and Majors
Wanna talk about war protest songs that have special resonance today? Take any line from this song—“they’ll never come down till once again victorious,” “generals and majors always seem so unhappy ‘less they got a war,” “your World War III is drawing near”—and you should have enough “eerie prescience” to last you for quite some time. From 1980’s Black Sea, “Generals and Majors” is one of XTC’s most topical songs, but it’s also one of their bounciest, a great performance with a driving ska beat and a wonderfully infectious whistling hook. Actually, from the tenor of the song, you’d never guess it was about much of anything serious, but it’s one of the best critiques of the 80’s—a humorous rumination on the over-anxiousness of “generals and majors” (which could obviously be interpreted as the world leaders at large), who “like never before, are tired of being in the shade.” Oh...and you can dance to it, too.
R.E.M. - Orange Crush
If R.E.M. lyricist Michael Stipe’s tendency towards inscrutability could ever potentially get in the way, it’s on an anti-war song. It seems that even when he’s intent on getting out a message, Stipe can’t resist the temptation to be poetic and slightly vague. Thus, the references to napalm and American imperialism in “Orange Crush” probably went largely unnoticed by the average listener, even though they’re certainly a lot clearer than Michael’s usual nonsense. “Orange crush” is actually a common Vietnam-era euphemism for napalm, and the line “I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush” may be a double-edged jab at supposed American bravery and the spinal diseases caused by napalm. Obviously, America does “send [its] conscience overseas” all the time, imposing U.S. will and values on foreign countries—strikingly, the song applies just as much now as when it was written back in 1988. And just in case you missed what the song was about, the band was kind enough to throw in a bridge of marching chants and helicopter sounds, the traditional signifiers of an anti-war tune.
Dead Kennedys - When Ya Get Drafted
Jello Biafra has been called a lot of things in his day, but I sincerely doubt anyone has ever accused him of subtlety. As the frontman for the Dead Kennedys, Biafra’s cartoonish voice and far-left politics epitomized punk angst, casting his bitterly sardonic wit against all manner of social problems. The Kennedys’ undisputed masterpiece, 1980’s Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, contains innumerable punk classics packed into a compact frame, but seldom has Biafra’s bile been more concentrated than on “When Ya Get Drafted.” Clocking in at a concise 1:22, this track is particularly timely in regards to our present situation, as Biafra quickly rattles off a litany of accusations and rhetoric. “The economy is looking bad, let’s start another war,” he growls, before going on to skewer the corruption and back-scratching involved in granting war contracts to big business. The song’s message is occasionally lost in its frantic dash to get to the end, but with Biafra the politics are never exactly ambiguous, so the gist is all you need.
Black Sabbath - War Pigs
Bow your heads in solemn prayer; it's time for the dark lords of rock to get medieval on the military-industrial complex. Listening to this turgid, piss-your-underwear-yellow funny load of old toss, there's no doubt this world without irony in which we live, has reduced “War Pigs” to the status of a silly old relic. Sure, the riffs coolly chug and hypnotise you into aching for some qualuudes and recall memories of standing in crepuscular churchyards I never had. But if this is the sound and seriousness of war, my name is Henry Kissinger.
The message is naive and innocent in a quite astonishing way. "Why should they go out to fight? They leave that role to the poor, yeah." "Evil minds that plot destruction, sorcerers of death's construction"—can I just say DUH! I yearn for some subtlety. You wish Ozzy and the gang could have been sent out into the Vietnam jungle and have a shit smeared bamboo spike stab them in the eye. That's war boys. This is more like Lord of the Fucking Rings. It makes you think of Ozzy as a poor lost puppy, how much valium he as taken since 1975, but most of all it makes me wonder how few brain cells he had in the first place. Quite like the title though. In fact I like any song that uses the words 'Pigs'. Just say it. It's catharsis and an explosive breath wrapped in one.
Primal Scream - Exterminator
XTRMNTR should have been the last album Primal Scream ever made, but then they had to go and ruin it by not capping a triumphant follow up tour with dying in a blazing plane crash. Seeing Evil Heat cut price in my local chain supermarket is a sorry sight, seeing a pallid Bobby Gillespie now push a pram along the street like some mental patient on day release even sadder. In 2000 the Scream reached their zenith. XTRMNTR got the nitroglycerine brand of sexed up nihilism, feral politicking, screaming guitars and dirty, dirty beats just right.
As for “Exterminator” the song ... well. I can feel my neck involuntarily crane backwards and forwards in reponse to Mani's mesmeric bass and the electronic squall. The effect is narcotic, but more Mogadon-like than the amphetamine rush that characterises much of the rest of the album. And however much I think it bored me senseless the first time I listened to it, every time I renew its acquaintance, I realise it has crept up on me and held me tight in its grasp. But, and this is a big BUT, Gillespie's words are so damn trite, they smack of illiteracy. The repeated motifs of "No civil disobedience", "Everyone's a prostitute" and "Prisons are concentration camps" (what? Are prisons actually cosy theme parks then?), are symptoms of the group using language the same way they are using the music—without a single thought for what it really means, only because it sounds good. The anti-war, in fact anti-everything, message is drowned because you start to think Gillespie is a nutcase with political Tourette's. After a while you stop taking notice.
Wire - Reuters
The first track on Wire’s seminal debut Pink Flag, ironically, is not a helpless cry of despair or a witty remark from an outsider, like most of the album, but a sort of warning of a war-zone chaos. A standard kraut beat begins the track, as bass and guitar sludge suddenly rolls over the eye of the hurricane opening to reveal stark, apocalyptic wails of Colin Newman. "Food is short, crime is double / prices have risen since the government fell" conjure up fairly unoriginal images of war, but only when the song slides along to a disquietingly layered climax does one feel the horror Wire has been trying to evoke. "Gunfire’s increasing / looting, burning, and rape," become a plea of desperation, and as sounds of crowds build up to the monotonous chant of "rape / rape / rape," it rings eerily prescient of a Nazi death march with a Fuhrer-like drone and an intense degree of ... nothingness.
Elvis Costello & The Attractions - (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?
Originally written and recorded a few years previous by Nick Lowe (Costello's producer and labelmate at the time) with his pub rock outfit Brinsley Schwarz, Costello's recording of "What's So Funny" actually made it's first appearance as the B-side to Lowe's "American Squirm" single (to which Elvis lends backing vocals), and was credited to Nick Lowe & His Sound-the 45 sleeve tipped listeners off, however, as Lowe was pictured holding Costello's signature-neck Fender Jaguar and sporting Elvis' trademark shades. Tomfoolery aside, however, Lowe wrote the tune at a time when the old "peace and love" hippie ideals were being roundly ridiculed as outdated stoner nonsense. But the song's upbeat guitar-led attack brought the idea screaming into the new wave and gave Costello an early hit of his own. Whether you take the tune as a sincere plea or as a tongue-in-cheek statement on the Woodstock generation, there's no denying that it had a good beat and you could frug like hell to it—just like all the great protest tunes, eh? Keep the kids dancing and they're more likely to listen to the message. (Strange addendum-lame-ass Michael Bolton wannabe Curtis Stigers recorded the tune for the gazillion-selling soundtrack to the utterly crap Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner flick The Bodyguard. After 20 years in the music business, the royalties from that single performance made Lowe a millionaire. Lowe also maintains that Mr. Stigers will now never have to pay for a meal in London for the rest of his life. Somewhere, Phil Ochs spins in his grave.)
The Jam - Little Boy Soldiers
When Paul Weller decided to record a concept album it was no surprise that—like it had been for heroes Pete Townshend and Ray Davies—war and duty to one’s country would be a factor.
For Townshend and Davies—each born to parent’s who survived the German bombing of London and lived through the horror of World War II—challenging the British reverence for the past and the military in particular was still a revolutionary act. For Weller, it was a bit easier and a bit more fashionable.
Weller’s character, facing the draft, asks his nation what they’ve done for him, claiming that his only connection to the government is the vote, but he’s still required fighting in a foreign war in order to protect national security. Which is all well and good, but the song’s major drawback is that it’s not really any good. The military drums are a bit of a cliché and the lyric is a well-worn notion. Weller’s one saving grace is that his relating the war to childhood games fits nicely alongside Setting Sons’ other tracks about idealism being sacrificed in adulthood. On it’s own, however, it’s a bit lacking.
Operation Ivy - Unity
Some might have a problem with an anti-war song couched in such simplistic language, paired up with ridiculously upbeat punk/ska music, but for Op Ivy simplicity was always the key to their charm. You can’t get much simpler than this cut’s two catchphrases (“stop this war” and “unity, as one stand together”), but despite the lyrics this song is as much fun as anything else on the band’s discography CD. The infectious melodies and shout-along choruses are nearly impossible to resist; this song’d get even the most jaded protestor skanking along. Besides, there “ain’t nothing wrong with another unity song.”
Elvis Costello/Robert Wyatt - Shipbuilding
When asked to write a song for Robert Wyatt—" perhaps something to do with hours of the clock", Elvis Costello elected to describe the Falklands Conflict as he saw it escalating. The song is not a direct protest but a study of morality and consequence. The song describes the war's effects, positive and negative, on a working class English town, now back in business, building ships. Both versions are melancholy piano ballads, perfectly complementing the troubled, apprehensive lyrics. A perfect "warning sign," as Elvis described it, for war.
Randy Newman - Political Science
“No one likes us—I don’t know why,” sings Newman in the opening bars of “Poltical Science” and that pretty well sums up his read on a callous, indifferent U.S. foreign policy. Finding the songwriter’s forked tongue masterfully planted in his pudgy cheek, the narrator bemoans the antiquity of Europe before going into a litany of pain-in-the-ass countries he’d like to “drop the big one” on. And since everybody hates our country anyway, why not drop the big one on the poor bastards? “Boom goes London and boom Paree” sings our hero, whose idea of peacefulness is turning every city in the world into “just another American town.” Is it possible that Randy Newman is some kind of voodoo anagram for Donald Rumsfeld?
“THOU DOTH PROTESTETH TOO MUCH”
The Protest Song as Product
Barry McGuire - Eve of Destruction
The first protest song to reach No. 1 in the U.S. charts, McGuire’s hit was so ubiquitous that he was resented and regarded as a lightweight in the serious folk scene. It didn’t help, too, that the song was written by musical freelancer P.F. Sloan and not the former New Christy Minstrels singer.
Yet McGuire’s low, scratchy voice and aggressive strumming (rather than lilting picking) perfectly fit the song, a laundry list of humanity’s contemporary missteps rattled off as proof of a coming Armageddon. The song’s structure—each line within a verse rhymes before a single-line “chorus” (You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”)—is cumbersome, but that’s precisely the point. McGuire buries the listener under the charges of hypocrisy, racial hatred, war, and government corruption. The song and world’s only release, then? Destruction, of course. Cheery!
Edwin Starr - War
The Fox News of war protest songs. Like “Give Peace A Chance,” the chorus of Starr’s monster—“War, what is it good for? Absolutely NOTHIN’!!”—is known by millions. But where its predecessor was simple, “War” is merely simplistic, cynically and almost laughably so. And as such, the song’s message is hardly as resonant, its anti-war stance about as credible as that of, say, France.
Its conception, though, is worth noting; as with everything he set his mind to, Norman Whitfield, the Motown equivalent of the Corporate Raider, studied, dissected, and spit back out a classic in the genre of his choosing. In this case, he chose the protest song, which by 1970 had become something of a moneymaker after the decades of considered and decidedly uncommerical dissent by the likes of Pete Seeger and Curtis Mayfield. And so with the Motown hit machine behind them and dollar signs on their minds, Whitfield and collaborator Barrett Strong’s “War” obliterated and reduced the loving concern of his forebears’ craft to the lowest of common denominators, with insights such as “War, it really blows my mind” and the constipated James Brown-“HUH!!!” here voiced by journeyman soul brother, Edwin Starr (and later Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who intrinsically knew trash when they heard it). With “War,” the protest song was completely debased and stripped of its meaning—all in the name of commerciality. At last, it had become, well, American.
Time Zone - World Destruction
It certainly was a strange way for two of the most recognizable faces of late-‘70s musical insurrection to unite (especially given the fact that they were somewhat past their prime at this point, and brought together by the perpetually bewildering Bill Laswell), but John Lydon and Afrika Bambaataa performed a duet of sorts on this 1985 piece of hugely-reverbed-kick-drums-and-chanting the-end-is-nigh funk. Sample lyric: “This is a world destruction, your life ain’t nothin’! / The human race is becoming a disgrace / Countries are fighting with chemical warfare / Not giving a damn about the people who live!” Given Lydon’s penchant at this point for “This Is Not a Love Song”-esque infusions of irony—he certainly resurrects his unpleasant trill at several times on this single—you’d expect him to phone in a lackluster performance, or find some other way to antagonize his complacent audience, but he does an earnest job. And Bambaataa, of course, gets off plenty of powerfully delivered lines about “Islamic force” (a recent resurrection of this song by some music-geek staffer on The Sopranos circa Fall 2002 gave it a certain eerie prescience, to say the least). I could do without the somewhat clumsy sub-Rubin metallic guitars, but it’s a great obscure 12” slice of apocalypse, functioning as something like the miniature, evil mutant offspring of “We are the World.”
Frankie Goes to Hollywood - Two Tribes
Opening with an air-attack warning, this was the sound of the future and the present coming together in a furious clash of wills. From Holly Johnson’s impassioned vocal to Trevor Horn’s furious, vital production, it sounds like the apocalypse—or at least a cathartic release of the frustration of the rest of the world over being carved up by a pair of superpowers.
Today the song is best known for the video, which featured Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Constantin Tchernenko in a Superpowers wrestling match with the rest of the world at first watching, cheering, and wagering on the outcome, before eventually joining the tussle. (The look of which—coupled with Frankie’s album title—make it a curious and potential influence on Mad Max’s Thunderdome.) In the UK, it was a sensation spending nine weeks at No. 1 and was so popular that the band’s former No. 1 “Relax” moved back up the chart and lodged behind it at No. 2.
One of the most powerful and economic anti-war statements in pop, the wistful “tell the world that you’re winning” section illuminated the lie of the end-sum game and “Cowboy No. 1 / A born-again poor man's son” is as succinctly biting a description of Ronald Reagan as has been written.
Pink Floyd - The Fletcher Memorial Home
When Roger Waters sings, “take all your overgrown infants away somewhere / And build them a home,” he’s referring of course to all the world’s “incurable tyrants and kings,” in an indictment of war-mongering leaders everywhere. The last album recorded with Waters still in the group, The Final Cut is actually more of a solo album for the bitter vocalist; he wrote and sang all the songs, reducing bandmates Nick Mason and David Gilmour to the role of sidemen. Waters builds on the themes first introduced on The Wall (particularly “When the Tigers Broke Free,” a powerful song inexplicably left off that album), but with an even heavier lyrical emphasis. If The Wall was viewed as a bit much to take, The Final Cut can be downright unbearable: the music is almost without exception stark, with Waters’ distinctive screech accompanied mostly just by ghostly piano and string arrangements. Lyrically, the album attacks Maggie Thatcher for the war in the Falkland Islands, and “The Fletcher Memorial Home” is the lyrical climax. Waters sounds alternately bitter and sad here; his voice full of rage but also the knowledge that his utopian dream will never come true. He attacks Reagan, Thatcher, McCarthy, Nixon, and a host of others to whom war is nothing but a game. “Do they expect us to treat them with any respect?” he asks, a sentiment doubtless echoed by many as we watch our present warmonger stumble through his presidency.
Culture Club - War Song
Boy George and Culture Club had been on top of the world in the time leading up to this single's release, and it's appearance can be seen as the point where it all started to go horribly wrong. Cursed with one of the most banal choruses in history ("War, war is stupid, and people are stupid..."—oh God, I can't even type the rest of it) and a cloying tune that managed to stick in your end even while you were praying for it to leave, the tune was actually a hit (#17 U.S., #2 U.K.). It also ensured that no one would ever take the band seriously again. As Boy George reflected a few years later, "We knew a lot of people thought we were a joke, and in some ways we were." Couldn't have said it better myself, George.
Nena - 99 Luftballoons
Ironically, the last antiwar song to be a big hit in the U.S. was in a foreign-language, its message obscured and not one of the main reasons for its success. (An English-language version of the song fared poorly).
Even more ironic, the song is in German, a language that at the time was not associated with peace. But just as Germany’s collective post-WWII guilt forced its culture to look to the future and deny the past, it also turned its humiliated peoples into a nation of pacifists. Germany itself may have ceased its war machinery, but it was still the gateway between West and East and a key launching pad for NATO’s military forces. And it’s in this culture of denial and fear that the song’s premise—a group of balloons could be mistaken for warplanes—seems plausible.
The song’s big bass and synth gives it its kick and drive, and offered millions of Americans the fun of attempting singing along and being able to only confidently yell, “Captain Kirk.” Its almost childlike naivete and subject matter—red balloons as a metaphor for loss—recalls the wordless twee touchstone “The Red Balloon”. In a final irony, when the film made its U.S. television debut it was introduced by...Ronald Reagan.
“EVE OF DESTRUCTION”
Esoterica and Other Protesting Perversions
Charles Mingus - Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me
Nuclear hysteria was running rampant when Charles Mingus released Oh Yeah in 1962, and this slow, apocalyptic gospel blues number chilled to the bone. Mingus may have riffed, “Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em drop it, stop it, be-bop it,” but this was no tune of light humor. His gruff, down-home-preacher style vocals eerily channeled the fear being felt all around the world. The lyrical message may have been simple, but perhaps no other tune in the Mingus canon got to the worrisome, hopeless spirit of the blues as well as this. In 1992, Keith Richards recorded a version of the tune for the stellar tribute album Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus; and while an old millionaire like Keef may not bring that same sense of authenticity to the tune (we all know by now that Richards will outlive the cockroaches in the event of a nuclear holocaust), his signature world-weary vocals and plaintive guitar certainly do it justice.
Freestyle Fellowship - Five O’Clock Follies
Some of To Whom It May Concern’s examinations of issues such as race and the Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em-era commercialization of hip-hop have aged poorly, but one could ask for no better denunciation of the absurdity of the news media in this day and age. (The title references a Vietnam-era term that war correspondents had for the military’s daily briefings on the war.) To top it all off, Aceyalone throws out disses to just about every recognizable face of oppression in early-90s America, most memorably doing so with “F-U-C-K-Y-O-U / Fuck Bush, fuck Quayle, fuck the whole Republican crew / And the Democratic, and the automatic...” Throw in a lysergic, percolating bassline, a whole lot of not-just-lo-fi-but-sub-fi grime, and you have one of underground hip-hop’s finest political gems. It may not be as strident or awe-inducing as, say, Public Enemy, but it gets its point across and does so with finesse.
Paul Hardcastle - 19
In 1985, people didn’t talk much about the Vietnam War. The pain and humiliation of losing a long, divisive war was still too close and wouldn’t become a well-worn cinematic subject for another year or so. Maybe it was this need for release that made Paul Hardcastle’s mid-‘80s anti-Vietnam song such a massive hit. (In the UK it spent five weeks at No. 1—in a particularly bleak time for the charts, it was only replaced by a version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” recorded to honor the victims of the Heysel stadium disaster—and hit the top 20 in the U.S.)
This cut-and-paste electronic track seems like a 180-degree from the typical Vietnam protests of 10-20 years earlier, but is also curiously very similar. Extremely solemn, Hardcastle uses vocal samples of traumatized soldiers questioning the necessity of the war and stark crime and post-traumatic-stress-disorder figures (“Almost 800,000 men are still fighting the Vietnam War”) to describe the horror of men anonymously returning home from a war one-at-a-time without the release of victory. Like Simon and Garfunkel had done a generation earlier, Hardcastle incorporates somber evening news reports—stubbornly poking out from under dancefloor-friendly beats—as a grim reminder of the times. Apparently, if you didn’t have an acoustic guitar—or a singing voice—you could still be a protest singer.
Bonzo Goes to Washington - Five Minutes
Just weeks before the 1984 election, Bootsy Collins and the Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison released this one-off single, a hip-hop/funk hybrid built on Ronald Reagan’s famous “five minutes” speech. The then-president joked that “My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
By the end, he rushed the speech as he nearly collapsed into laughter. A bewildered world cringed at the thought that nuclear war and the elimination of the Russian people would be considered a joke by the U.S. president. A few months later, Americans re-elected him in a landslide.
Using an Emulator, an early sampling keyboard, Harrison manipulated the speech, stretched out the words and carefully catching the nuances of Reagan’s delivery. At the time, it was revolutionary. Now, because of its slightly naïve sonics and one-note tone, it’s mostly a curio.
Sun Ra - Nuclear War
With “Nuclear War,” Sun Ra took a decidedly different approach to the protest song. Over a loose jazz ensemble, the most ridiculous anti-war lyrics ever written appear: “Talkin’ about nuclear war/ It’s a motherfucker/ Don’t you know/ If they push that button/ Your ass got to go...Whatchoo gonna do/ Without yo ass?” Whether it’s the preposterousness or the fact that it doesn’t even sound like it’s trying (in a good way)- the song has an incredibly powerful effect. “Nuclear War” uses an ingenious trick not found in other protest songs: it reflects the absurdity of war in the absurdity of the music. Recently, Yo La Tengo brought back “Nuclear War” during their shows. They abandon their traditional instruments for a bit, and sit around with drums, letting the song go on for any period of time. After countless refrains of “You can kiss your ass goodbye” and “It’s gonna blast your ass so high in the sky”, the audience’s rapt attention is on the song: one that appeals to people in a way few other protest songs have ever done, and for that, it’s worth listening to.
Elephant Man - The Bombing
For whatever reason, most post-September 11 songs are almost universally dire, and the new anti-war ones aren’t much better. Those who have felt the need to address 9/11 with more than knee-jerk pro-American rhetoric are left floundering trying to articulate the chaos and confusion and fears generated by such a large-scale atrocity. Felt by the whole of the nation and for which most of the world has some emotional stake, September 11 didn’t leave much room for carefully considered personal reflection.
Thank goodness for Elephant Man then, who reacted to the atrocity by addressing the largest and smallest possible effects. Over a sparse, mechanical riddim, Elephant Man draws a picture of Bush and bin Laden as warring gangsters and the surreal feeling of continuing to consume and dance and shop amidst the pain of the realization of September 11th and its effects. He also laments, on a selfish level, the denial of his visa and how much more difficult it will be to smuggle weed into the U.S.. His final dire predictions: famine and “World War III.” At the time of the song’s release—just weeks after the event—that possibility seemed a little comfortably far-fetched.
The Monks - Monk Time
Few bands would ever cram this much rhetoric and opinion into what is, ostensibly, just the warm-up to their album. In between cries of “it’s beat time, it’s monk time,” Monks singer Gary Burger shrieked in his typically off-key howl about the dangers of the A-bomb, the Vietnam war, and armies in general. “We don’t like the atomic bomb,” he screams, and indeed the Monks had good reason to be scared of war: they were soldiers themselves, U.S. draftees stationed in Germany during the Vietnam era. Bored with service life, the quintet began playing in bars around Frankfurt and recorded one album before disappearing from the musical scene altogether. A clear predecessor to punk with its deliriously primitive rhythms and shouted vocals, Black Monk Time remains an underground classic. If anything could prepare you for the controlled lunacy to come, it was the chaotic intro “Monk Time,” an impassioned rejection of war from a few guys who were closer to it than most at the time.
Born Against - Wearing a Lampshade
From the always political band’s final release, a split 8” with Man is the Bastard that positively seethes in a way the rest of their output only hinted at—it seems to find the band past defeatism, as heard on the incredible (and now deleted from the Kill Rock Stars reissue, due to Sam McPheeters’ embarrassment) “Albany Academy” and “My Favorite Housing Project” (“My favorite housing project / Is the one where my grandmother died...”). This song, however, takes a pared-down approach to the ever-present target of oppression in all hardcore lyrics from the era; cribbing a page from the Fugazi notebook of oblique, kaleidoscopic verse, it starts out seemingly like a standard, fatigued indictment of animal rights abuses before it expands its scope into the definitive damaged, pain-wracked shouting down of all forms of oppression. “I’m tired of being a threat in a world of murderers / Shit on just for giving a shit about a bunch of rats,” McPheeters yowls. As the band hits one astonishing crescendo after another, he repeats the closest thing we get to a chorus with dragged-away-in-chains insistency: “The lampshades in the fatherland are only / Fifty years old.” Redunancy never sounded quite so good.
Billy Bragg - I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night
Though the mini-album this cut is lifted from (The Internationale) is chock full of political statements on war, international politics, and the like, it’s this personal statement of inspiration that lingers longest. Set to the tune of Earl Robinson’s “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” Bragg finds himself visited by the Ochs’ ghost. The ghost chillingly claims he never died because “they could not kill what they could not compromise/I never compromised.” True enough—when Ochs died in 1976, his FBI file was 410 pages long. None of the other so-called “new Bob Dylans” of the 1960s can claim to have stayed true to his or her political beliefs like Ochs, and modern-day protest singers like Bragg readily acknowledge his influence.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2003-04-14