Good art doesn’t have to be political, and good politics doesn’t have to be art, but when the two come together well then they can be very powerful. Here are my 10 favourite political rock songs. You may well complain that some favourites of yours aren’t on here, but that is the fun thing about these lists, isn’t it. Feel free to leave a comment.
One criterion does need mentioning however: there is no wishy-washy earnest folk acoustic stuff here. These tracks are not just good politics, they rock. I present them in rough (but not exact) chronological order. I don’t claim to be a great music critic, so feel free to ignore my comments if you want: but I have linked to versions of every track and the best thing to do with these songs is not just put them on, but listen to them…. so please do.
1. THE DOORS: FIVE TO ONE
The old get old, and the young get stronger. May take a week, but it may take longer. They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers. Gonna win… yeah, we’re taking over… Come on!
The Doors may have strayed into some psychedelic whimsy now and again, and by all accounts Jim Morrison was often narcissistic and self-indulgent, but goddammit when he and his band set their minds to it they produced some powerful stuff. This is as radical as they ever got.
2. CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: OHIO
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming. We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming… Four dead in Ohio.
On April 30th 1970 Richard Nixon announced on US TV that the Vietnam war would be extended into Cambodia. During a subsequent protest at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guard opened fire on unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine. A subsequent enquiry, the Scranton commission, concluded that the shootings were unjustified, but charges against the Guardsmen were dismissed in 1974. David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young recorded the song almost immediately after the shootings and Atlantic records rushed it into the charts. (Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Long Time Gone’ is also well worth a listen.)
3. THE WHO: WON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Hard to resist this one, in all its 8-minute glory, with the brilliant — and never matched — organ sound that opens the track, remains as an undertone throughout, and then eases its way up again towards the end before Keith Moon’s drumming and Daltrey’s scream burst the band back in. The Who were a very political band — listen also to ‘The Dirty Jobs’ off the Quadrophenia album. ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ remains highly relevant — and should be given heavy circulation before just about any election, anywhere. Alas, it’s central message also remains very true.
4. GIL SCOTT-HERON: THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions… The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner. The revolution will not be televised, brother.
Who knows whether his prediction is still true? But it doesn’t matter. Christ, this is a powerful track, one I never heard until quite recently, but it’s got to get in this top 10. This kind of thing will send white conservatives into paroxysms: talk about radical.
5. SEX PISTOLS: GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
God Save the Queen, her fascist regime. They made you a moron, potential H-bomb. God Save the Queen, she ain’t no human being. There is no future in England’s dreaming.
There’s rarely been a more subversive song than this, and John Lydon wrote it when he was 20 years old, for heaven’s sake. For a song with lyrics like this to get released at all by a record company was incredibly brave, and I would bet it would never get out today. Not only is it anti-monarchist, but it then segues into the ‘No future…. No future… for you’ ending, totally defining the punk spirit. In the present day, when a woman with no job can have a baby and receive millions from the taxpayer just because she married someone who was a member of an accidentally rich family…. we need this song. You need it. (‘Anarchy in the UK’ is brilliant too, but this is better.)
6. THE SPECIALS: GHOST TOWN
This town…. is coming like a ghost town. Why must the youth fight against themselves? Government leaving their jobs on the shelves. This place… is coming like a ghost town… No jobs to found in this country… Can’t go on no more. People getting angry.
I’ve heard this described as the UK’s best ever number 1 single… and I would agree with that. From that mournful brass at the beginning, it’s a complete work of art, invoking the despair of an urban environment in which there’s nothing to do and nothing to become. Remember, it’s about Coventry. But it could be many places. Maybe you live in one.
7. LARD: GENERATION EXECUTE
What are you being put to death for today? Is your family here? What was your last meal? Any last words for the fans? The longer you cling to life…. the more prizes for your friends!
Jello Biafra was lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, who have done a bunch of tracks of their own that could have got on here (see ‘Police Truck’, ‘Holiday in Cambodia’, ‘California Über Alles’, to name but three). Lard was his collaboration with Paul Barker and Al Jourgensen of Ministry. Both the DKs and Ministry are excellent bands in their own right — together, they were, quite simply, awesome. In my opinion their Pure Chewing Satisfaction is the best album ever recorded, by anyone. If there’s one song on this list you haven’t heard of, it’s probably this one, so give it a go. It’s a stunning prose poem set to a driving beat, an indictment of American attitudes to killing their criminals and sensationalism, as JB fantasises about a game show with ‘executions… on live TV!’ Five minutes and forty-two seconds of genius.
8. SPECIAL AKA : FREE NELSON MANDELA
21 years in captivity… shoes to small to fit his feet… his body abused but his mind is still free… are you so blind that you cannot see? I said… Free Nelson Mandela!
This and number 9 are the most exuberant songs on here. It deserves to get on if only because it annoyed the Tory Party so much at the time. Let us never forget that David Cameron was a prime mover in the anti-Mandela movement. The Special AKA were one of the two remnants when the Specials split, which makes them the only band to get on here twice, and Jerry Dammers, writer of both these tracks, king of the political rock song. I challenge you to hear this and not feel like dancing at the sheer joy of it.
9. REDSKINS: UNIONIZE
Our muscle is our labour, and we flex it when we go on strike… Fight back, unionize…. If we fail to organise we’ll waste our lives on protest songs. A life worth living is waiting to be won…
This is the most blatantly leftist track on here, but is worth including just for that reason. A paean to Marxist politics, and it’s got fucking great drums on it as well. Like the last one, it’s political and it makes you want to dance your arse off.(I think the version done on a John Peel session is the best, but that’s really hard to find. I have it though 🙂 )
10. PRIMAL SCREAM: SWASTIKA EYES
Elimination policy… A military-industrial illusion of democracy….
OK, I’m getting on a bit these days, and tend to think that most great rock ended at some point in the 1980s, but then again the lack of many newer songs on here is also a factor that rock music has just got a lot less political lately. Record companies are just too scared, too corporate these days. But perhaps you have your own favourites from the last couple of decades. Still, there’s always Primal Scream, who unlike many of their contemporaries have not yet given up and become their own tribute band — they still turn out great music, including this year’s More Light album, with its own political moments in the tracks ‘2013’ and ‘Culturecide’ to name two. But I’ll go with this track from 2000’s Xtrmntr album, thanks to its title’s allusion to a famous punk poster of the Queen (see also #4 above) and for a really kicking bass line.