“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?….Whadda you got?” – The Wild One
Protest songs date back further than the Vietnam War, but rockers found their voice big time during the 1960’s and, from there on in, whether it be the Sex Pistols, The Who or Rage Against the Machine, rock artists have rallied against the system or have given voice to their wider concerns about the world. Therefore, I thought it may be interesting to look at some hard rock/heavy metal songs that were particularly interesting with their message, regardless of political position.
Starting in chronological order, the earliest rock artist that I remember producing an amazing song of protest would be Jimi Hendrix. In 1968, Hendrix teamed up with Curtis Knight on The Eternal Fire of Jimi Hendrix and wrote the classic “How Would You Feel“, which considered the Civil Rights Movement. The lyrics show plenty of anger with the lines “right here people are fighting and dying, and all they’re trying to do is get equal rights, as the constitution claims.” I remember the times listening to my mother’s original vinyl of this track when I was very young and asking her about what it meant and then starting to understand more about that time in American history. This made me ask more questions about politics and social movements and eventually lead to me majoring in Economics & Politics at college…Not very rock and roll, but a whole lotta fun!
At the same time, The Who were ripping up their own storm of protest, with songs like “My Generation“. However, as the years went by, they became more Establishment rather than outlaws.
Fast forward a few years and the 1970’s saw the rise of Punk Rock. It was angry, it was chaotic, it was protest in its rawest form. One song that seemed destined to push the needle into the red was the Sex Pistols‘ “Anarchy in the UK“. Johnny Rotten spat out the lyrics with a sneer that would gobble up fellow punk icon Billy Idol in one fell swoop…Gone! The words rang out loud and clear in the changing landscape of 1970’s Britain and the song became iconic, with even Megadeth covering it on the So Far, So Good…So What! album. The Pistols played up to the image it had, with them being seen as very much the social bogey men to the Establishment. When I hear the opening of “I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist, Don’t know what I want, But I know how to get it, I want to destroy the passerby…“, I get a rush that makes me want to tell people how jolly brassed off I am! Naughty!
The punks were very much a protest movement and lots of the songs stuck it to the man big time. The Jam were a British punk band, who later morphed into mods, but were a brilliant ball of rage. They sang about “work and work until you die, there’s plenty more fish in the sea to fry.” However, their biggest protest song was “The Eton Rifles” from the 1979 album Setting Sons.
Eton College is a famous English private school in Berkshire, regarded as the bastion of Britain’s elite. Its cadet corps is the Eton College Combined Cadet Force, which was founded in 1860 as the Eton College Rifle Corps. The song itself recounts the difficulties faced by the unemployed and lower paid working class in protesting against a system loaded against them.
The song used a street battle Paul Weller (singer/guitarist) had read about in the newspapers concerning elements of a Right To Work march going through Slough in 1978, breaking off to attack pupils from Eton who had been jeering the lunchtime marchers. The song resonated with the mood at the time and became an anthem for the disaffected.
The 1980’s saw a new wave of rock protestors, with Bad Religion and The Offspring offering brilliant bites of snotty-noise punk. Bad Religion‘s main protest song was “Los Angeles Is Burning“, which rallies against media sensationalism. They certainly raged and that rage ran across the path of another then little-known band Rage Against The Machine, the groovesters with attitude a mile wide. Formed in 1991, the band from L.A. only recorded three albums of original material, but their mark on metal was indelible. They sang protest songs and are well known for their political views, and almost all of the band’s songs focus on these views. “Killing In The Name” was their signature protest song. This is a classic bile shout against all the perceived injustices and it stands as a monument to sticking it to the man.
Protest songs in rock became a calling card of some bands, including System Of A Down. They became very vocal in their condemnation of the Iraq War and the 2004 release of “BYOB” from the album Mezmerize became their anthem, following on from the earlier song “Boom!“. The lines “Everybody’s going to the party have a real good time, Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine“, showed the band’s stance. The whole feel of protest against the government/establishment is dominant in this track, with the rhetorical questions of “Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?” Added to the fact that “BYOB” stomped with huge aggression, this song really did show protest in its rawest form.
2010 saw the release of Rise Against‘s album End Game, which contained a cutting critique of government inaction after Hurricane Katrina with the song “Help Is On Its Way“. Singer Tim McIlrath was critical of the United States government for its handling of various disasters, calling Hurricane Katrina, stating that it was “as much a man-made disaster as it was a natural disaster“, while citing the lack of legislation to prevent another oil spill following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. This song has become an anthem for the band and defines the protest song as an art form in itself.
Whether you agree with the sentiments in these songs or not, all of these highlight the frustrations and anger felt by the writers to many different issues. The one thing that remains is the power they present and the ability to communicate the anger felt…Long may the protests bring great music!