A Guide to Protest Music


In mid 2002, British pop superstar George Michael took what he described as the ‘biggest risk of my career’ with the release of a single entitled ‘Shoot the Dog’. Despite not being an entirely accurate statement (most would think that waving his genitals at an LAPD officer in a public toilet would be more damaging to a pop star’s livelihood), it was certainly a brave move as the dog of the title was Dubya’s favourite poodle, Prime Minister Tony Blair. Like many, I desperately wanted to like the tune as Blair and Dubya’s virtually homoerotic relationship was an extremely worthy target of satire; the only problem was that the song wasn’t actually much good. Consequently, I thought that rather than wasting a good ideal, I would compile an alternative list of essential protest tunes that every progressive should own.

‘Step On’ by the Happy Mondays

‘Hey rainmaker, come away from that man You know he’s gonna take away your promised land Hey good lady he’s got God on his side he got a double Tongue you never think he would lie’

This version of John Kongo’s ‘He’s Going To Step On You Again’ was surely not picked by intellectually challenged and pharmaceutically enhanced Manchester combo ‘The Happy Mondays’ for its lyrical content; but their version is superior nonetheless. Originally about the imposition of Apartheid era Bantustans by South Africa (of which Kongo was a native), the lyrics are eerily predictive of occupied Palestine under Ariel Sharon.

‘Stars and Stripes of Corruption’ by Dead Kennedys

‘No wonder others all hate us, and the Hitlers we handpick To bleed their people dry for our evil empire’ raged San Francisco’s punk favorites in 1985, with a remarkable insight for Americans (many of whom were genuinely baffled during 9-11 that some foreigners may actually have a reason to be angry at Washington). No one could accuse Dead Kennedys of lack of ambition. Contrary to the 2 minute burst of premeditated idiocy that typified much of punk rock, this six minute epic is a scathing, witty attack on Yankee imperialism abroad coupled with consumerism induced apathy at home. Almost like 1970’s progressive rock in its sprawling length, rambling lyrics, clever time changes, and tight musicianship; it is also great fun – never has pissing on Capitol Hill sounded more exciting. Like Noam Chomsky, Biafra has made a career out of being Un-American and indeed if Chomsky had a sarcastic, degenerate son that picked up a guitar, this is undoubtedly what he would sound like. ‘You say you’ll fight to the death to save your worthless flag If you want a banana republic that bad, why don’t you go move to one?’ he spits, and with Bush/Ashcroft’s current dismantling of the US constitution, this sounds even more salient today. If you were allowed to take one Left-wing track to take to a desert island, make it this one.

‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday

Not many singers could claim to have ‘suffered for their art’ as Billie Holiday. Born Elinore Harris in 1915, Billie certainly knew torment. As well as growing up Black in the Jim Crow South; she endured sexual abuse; extreme poverty; homelessness; and a stint as a prostitute before she began recording music at the age of 18. Later in life she would survive chronic alcohol abuse, heroin addiction and regular beatings from the violent boyfriends her masochistic streak subconsciously picked. ‘Strange Fruit’ is the track most associated with Halliday, mostly due to the huge publicity given to its unusually politicized subject matter (the lynching of Blacks in the American South). However, the evocative, haunting piano and brass that back her world weary vocals (not to mention the gothic imagery of the lyrics), make this track a classic even had there not been such controversy.

‘Say it Loud (I’m Black and Proud)’ by James Brown

‘We’d rather die on our feet, than be livin’ on our knees.’

Like George W Bush, James Brown is not what you would describe as ‘intellectual’, and anyone who has heard this or any other of his monosyllabic funky classics would not describe him as a master lyricist either. It is a great tune though, and let anyone who has listened to this dare deny the righteousness or sincerity of this particular firebrand.

Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival

This anti government rant concerns the hypocrisy of the privileged classes supporting the Vietnam war while doing all in their power to secure a draft dodge for their own children (the wealthy families of Dan Quayle and George W Bush being prime examples). Mystifyingly, this was often used by American television networks following 9/11 to shore up patriotic sentiment, although the lyrics do not support such a position. The first verse may start ‘Some folks are born made to wave the flag Ooh, they’re red white and blue’; but is almost instantly knocked aside by the chorus which repeats ‘it ain’t me’ four times over. Inevitably this throwback of Sixties revolt was later used a commercial for Wrangler jeans, much to the wrath of the song’s writer John Fogerty who condemned it as ‘another nail in the coffin of the ideals of the ’60s’. Another notable protest tune from CCR is ‘Run Through the Jungle’, which shares ‘Fortunate Son’s alternatively grungy and twanging guitars and R & B drenched rhythm section. Notwithstanding, the icing on the cake was always John Fogerty’s gloriously raucous vocals, which constantly made him sound like he was gargling 6 inch nails in sulphuric acid.

‘Gimme Hope Jo’anna’ by Eddy Grant

This British born, Caribbean based reggae singer’s cheerful sounding dance-floor smash is actually an unlikely anti Apartheid anthem (the Jo’anna in question refers to Johannesburg). Your feet would have to be nailed together to hear this and stand still.

Satisfaction by Rolling Stones

This raunchy sixties classic was actually a tirade against the vacuous sedative of consumerism ? a sentiment that would be admirable were it not coming from Mick Jagger. 1968’s ‘Street Fighting Man’ was written about the near revolution in France that same year, but fails to qualify as it is unclear whether the lyrics are in favour of youthful idealism or just a good rumble.

We Gotta Get Outta This Place by The Animals

Can there be anyone who hasn’t heard this song? The ‘place’ in question is Vietnam of course.

KYEO by Fugazi

Anti Gulf war anthem from veteran Leftist hardcore rockers. ‘WE WILL NOT be beaten down’ bellows lead shouter Ian Mckaye, and by God you believe him.

Rock and Roll Nigger by Patti Smith

Another veteran maverick of the music scene, Patti Smith started her career writing poetry and acting in underground theatre productions in the New York scene of the early 1970’s. After meeting with small time rock journalist and amateur guitarist Lenny Kaye, the two performed as a duo with Kaye providing instrumental backing for Smith’s poetry reading. This partnership would lead to a collaboration over 3 decades in what was to become the Patti Smith Group. Due to hugely disparate influences on her work that were musical (Dylan, James Brown, ‘Philadelphia jazz’) and otherwise (the surrealist Antonin Artaud, the poet Arthur Rimbaud, and her own abandoned Jehovah’s Witness upbringing), her music was hardly likely to be conventional. Indeed what was striking about Patti’s records is how they combined her rambling spoken word performances with sometimes quite ferocious guitar based compositions; and the Patti Smith Group seemed to straddle the seemingly contradictory art rock tradition with that of the emerging proto punk scene. The PSG’s first release was the typically leftfield double A side single ‘Hey Joe’ (a bizarre cover of the song made famous by Hendrix, rewritten as a commentary on the Patti Hearst kidnapping) and ‘Piss Factory’ (her own experience of escaping a grimy New Jersey assembly line to work as an artist in Bohemian New York); which inevitably was an independent release. Smith’s first album ‘Horses’ was released by the newly created Arista label and was one of the most critically acclaimed and original LPs of the 1970’s, and its follow up ‘Radio Ethiopia’ was almost as good. However, after a couple more less distinguished records in the 1970’s, Patti made the unbelievably conformist decision to retire from music to devote herself full time to being a housewife and mother (she had married former Mc5 guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith in 1980 to whom she bore two children). It was 1988 before there would be another Patti Smith album with the horribly bland MOR of ‘Dream of Life’, replete with bright 80’s style production and typically American soft-rock style guitar. Unhappily it took major tragedy for Patti to return to form; and 1996’s excellent ‘Gone Again’ was a bleak, downbeat reflection on bereavement and loss following the deaths of her husband, brother, and her former keyboard player Richard Sohl. 1997’s ‘Peace and Noise’ continued its predecessors dark, bleak feel, though being somewhat harder and more guitar orientated; while the 2000 release ‘Gung Ho’ is a homecoming back to mid 70’s eclecticism. Patti Smith is 57 now and continues to produce challenging, quality work which is hardly true for her contemporaries that are still recording, and neither have her politics moved rightwards (she was one of the celebrity backers of Ralph Nader presidential bid alongside Jello Biafra, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Phil Donahue, and Susan Sarandon).

‘Rock and Nigger’ is a more straight forward rock number from 1978’s ‘Easter’, and is the best track on that album. What appears at first glance to be a racist attack on Jimi Hendrix, is actually a hymn to radicals through the ages; from Jesus Christ to Jackson Pollack, to Hendrix himself. It is probably this song that got Smith credited with the tag ‘the godmother of punk’.

Fight the Power by Public Enemy

This savage dose of Black nationalist rage was one of the best songs of 1989 and fittingly was the title track to the best film of that year – Spike Lee’s stunning racial drama ‘Do the Right Thing’. Main rapper Chuck D’s fierce barks take bitter swipes at Elvis, John Wayne, and naturally the American government; over pounding, dense, bass heavy beats. A musical call to arms.

Kick Out the Jams by MC5

“We were Punk, before Punk. We were New Wave before New Wave. We were Metal, before Metal. We were even “M.C. before hammer…..We were the electro-mechanical climax of the age, or some sort of cruel counter culture hoax. We were considered killer, righteous, high energy dudes who could pitch a whang dang doodle all night long….” proclaimed MC5 ever modest vocalist Rob Tyner. ‘Kick Out the Jams’ is the title track of their 1969 debut LP, which was recorded live and was quite possibly the first ‘acid rock’ album ever recorded. Under the guidance of their guru cum manager John Sinclair, they were the in house band of the White Panther Party, whose radical manifesto demanded the abolishing of money; the ending of national borders; the freeing of prisoners; support for the Black Panthers; and a ‘total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock n’ roll, dope and fucking in the streets’. However, once Sinclair was jailed in 1970 for marijuana possession the political militancy fizzled out, and the band were mostly preoccupied with drug problems, bankruptcy, and getting dropped by their various record labels. The sweaty fury of ‘Kick Out the Jams’ keeps it an essential of proto punk heavy rock, and has been covered in recent years by Rage Against the Machine, Henry Rollins, and the Presidents of the United States of America. Rob Tyner’s trademark yell of ‘Kick out the jams motherfuckers!’, also provoked an early example of lyric censorship after the Hudson’s chainstore refused to stock the record, and MC5’s record company surreptitiously removed the offending profanity.

‘Hurricane’ by Bob Dylan

‘Here comes the story of the Hurricane/The man the authorities came to blame/For somethin’ that he never done’

A seven minute narrative of the events leading to the incarceration of Black middleweight boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter. Carter was eventually released in 1985 (after 2 decades of imprisonment) after the appeal judge agreed with Carter’s belief that his conviction ‘was based on racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure’. Dylan was among many celebrity supporters, and was sufficiently angered by the injustice to immortalise Carter in song. With its urgent pace, funky rhythm section and fuming vocals (a welcome departure from his usual nasal whine), it is also one of the few Dylan tracks that could be described as danceable. Apparently it is also the song that inspired Jon Bon Jovi to pick up a guitar.

‘Exodus’ by Bob Marley

‘Movement of Jah people!’

The title track of the album that Time magazine described in 1999 as the most important of the twentieth century, is a call for Black people to leave ‘Babylon’ in favour of Ethiopia (the ‘fatherland’). Although Rastafarian criticism of the decadence and immorality of the imperialist West had a degree of validity, it is questionable whether the ideal solution would be for the ethnic cleansing of all Blacks from within it (particularly as Marley’s own father was a White Englishman). A great song though, and his heartfelt passion is unmistakable.

War by Edwin Starr

This funk masterpiece was later covered by Bruce Springsteen and er, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. If only the youthful Dubya had spent some of his dope money on this or its follow up (‘Stop The War Now’) while he was dodging the draft, history might be very different.

Leonard Cohen ? The Future

Brilliantly chilling ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ style warning of a future totalitarian society built on power rather than morality. Left-wing it isn’t, but his darkly satirical muttering is compelling nonetheless. Never have both notes of Cohen’s vocal range been used to more evocative effect.

DON ATAPATTU can be reached at: dwk_atapattu@yahoo.co.uk