Janis Ian: “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)”
From the album Janis Ian (Verve)
Janis Ian is known today for championing the rights of gays and lesbians. However, if she had taken such a stance in the mid-‘60s, she most likely wouldn’t be known today at all. Still, the teenaged Ian didn’t shy away from controversial relationships, with her first single being “Society’s Child”, a realistic first-person look at societal pressures placed on a young couple involved in an interracial relationship. The girl’s infatuation is evident in the first lines of the song, yet she is pressured to drop it by her mother, her classmates, her teachers, and a culture that classifies citizens by race. Ultimately, after lamenting the unfairness of the situation and yearning for a day when she can “raise up my glistening wings and fly”, she succumbs and ends the relationship. That interracial dating could be debated at all in the public sphere was a breakthrough, and Ian captured the injustice of forcing lovers to choose between their feelings and antiquated cultural mores.
The Mothers of Invention: “Trouble Every Day”
From the album Freak Out! (Verve)
Frank Zappa’s entire career was full of cultural and political commentary, but much of it was coated in layers of satire, some too juvenile for its own good. His most sincere piece of social protest, however, was his first: “Trouble Every Day”, the penultimate track on Freak Out!, his debut album with the Mothers of Invention. Zappa’s outraged reaction to watching the Watts riots broadcast on television is a cold-water coda to an otherwise sardonic record of pop culture lampoons. Over a simple blues backbeat and the echoing wails of a harmonica, Zappa’s double-tracked vocal riffs on “the mass stupidity” of a broken America: the ugly state of race relations, the uselessness of cultural revolution, and the media’s exploitation of it all. “Hey, you know something, people?” he asks mid-song, as the slicing guitar tears on behind him, “I’m not black, but there’s a whole lots of times I wish I could say I’m not white.” It was a gutsy statement for a fledgling rock band to make in the mid-‘60s, one that played devil’s advocate to the blossoming optimism of the peace-and-love movement.
Steve Reich: “Come Out”
From the album Early Works (Nonesuch)
First, Reich sets the scene by using a quote: “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” A fairly gruesome image, not to mention a statement of desperation—intriguing enough to convince people to seek out the context of the quote, heavy enough for anyone to know that no matter what the context, something serious was going down. That “something serious” happened to be the Harlem Race Riots of 1964, in which six black boys (one of whom was Daniel Hamm, who said the words quoted) were convicted of a murder that only one of them committed. Hamm’s statement came after he realized opening a wound was necessary to convince the police that he needed medical attention after the beating they administered. The spoken word snippet repeats three times, then Reich bases the entirety of the rest of the composition on the barely-one-second snippet “come out to show them”, first looping the sample, splitting it and phasing it into two, then four, and then eight different parts, all saying the same phrase at slightly different times. The piece works musically, because those five words are spoken rhythmically and melodically (the words almost sound as if they’ve been sung in a minor key), leading to myriad possibilities of juxtaposition via Reich’s tape-phasing techniques. What Reich is also doing, however, is putting a horrific detail from a terrible day in the spotlight and ultimately surrounding the listener with it; making Hamm’s statement the one and only component of his composition gives us nowhere to hide.
Aretha Franklin: “Respect”
From the album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic)
Aretha Franklin released her version of “Respect” in the middle of an especially tumultuous time in the US, with the Vietnam War, race, and gender serving as motivating points for activists. Within a few weeks of the single’s release, Muhammad Ali would refuse to enter the military, and race riots would break out in a number of cities. Franklin’s cut epitomized the times and became a rallying cry. Ostensibly, the song isn’t a protest song. Written and originally performed by Otis Redding, the song merely vocalizes a person’s demand for proper treatment by a money-borrowing lover. You can wrap it up as a neat little domestic squabble, a scene captured dramatically with a concise vocal (particularly on Redding’s rendition). However, between the climate of the era, Franklin’s intense delivery, and her general cultural awareness, “Respect” took on an entirely different political aspect. Franklin’s ad-libbed bridge takes the song to a higher level: She sounds as if she’s losing control, having been fed up for too long, before finally cutting off her climactic phrase to belt out only its abbreviation: “Take care—TCB!” The abbreviation marks the pinnacle of the song’s urgency, and it also throws in some specifically African-American signification in the slang. The addition of the unforgettable backup vocals also established a sense of community, making Aretha less the angry sugar mama and more the sound of a movement. Or, to be more accurate, movements. “Respect” was a number one crossover hit, appealing to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights activists. Franklin, a truly singular talent, had put together a performance with a remarkable unifying draw, and the resonance of that strength and activity has lost none of its strength.
The Beatles: “Revolution” / “Revolution 1”
From the album The Beatles (Apple) B-side; available on the album Past Masters, Vol. 2 (Capitol)
The Beatles knew a thing or two about the mob mentality. The Fab Four came face-to-face with it more than once during their careers—and were frightened nearly as much by the crowds cheering for them as those railing against them. So it’s not surprising that while they became high-profile protesters themselves, they also had some serious concerns about populist movements. And that inner conflict makes “Revolution”—their protest song about the dangers of protest—one of the most politically nuanced songs on this list. Lennon and the lads were openly questioning the Left they knew so well: “We all want to change the world / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out.” And when Lennon added the word “in” on the album version of the song, he took it a step further, openly admitting his own uncertainties. Whenever it seems like we’re looking for easy answers, “Revolution” is a welcome reminder that the most important thing is to think for yourself. It’s not enough to protest; you need to be fully aware of what you’re protesting for.
MC5: “Kick Out the Jams”
From the album Kick Out the Jams (Elektra)
Long before it was corrupted into a marketing catchphrase, “Kick Out the Jams” was the title track of MC5’s explosive first album. Adopted as the rallying cry of the Motor City’s rock ‘n’ roll revolutionaries, those four simple words came to imbue the band’s approach to music—and life. Kicking out the jams was analogous to talking the talk and walking the walk, and served as a profound declaration against apathy and the status quo. At their best, the Five had no peer on stage, and their signature song resonated amongst fans and followers as a call to arms. And with the addition of an incendiary fifth word, the song’s opening charge expanded the scope of the band’s attention. “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” was a shot directed at the oppressive establishment, and a retaliatory strike against those parties thought to quell artistic, social, and intellectual freedoms. Some protested with signs and sit-ins, others with boycotts and rallies, but the MC5 used words and notes to fight their battles. And now, after nearly four decades, the song still retains its sense of euphoric rebellion when vocalist Rob Tyner demands, “Let me be who I am / And let me kick out the jams / Yes! Kick out the jams / I done kicked ‘em out.”
I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)
US: 1 Jan 1969
James Brown: “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)”
Single; available on Foundations of Funk – A Brand New Bag: 1964-1969 (Polydor)
There are perhaps more obvious James Brown songs to choose from when talking protest: “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), Pts. 1 & 2”, for example, was a defining mantra of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements; “Get Up, Get into It, Get Involved” is social activism at its grooviest; and “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” fights hard times with funky truth. “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself)”, on the other hand, may stand proudly defiant in the face of racism (“Don’t give me denigration / Give me true communication / Don’t give me sorrow / I want equal opportunity / To live tomorrow”), but above all else it’s a statement of autonomy for any human being, black or white, male or female. For close to 10 minutes, Brown holds court atop a filthy, hiccupping rhythm, demanding equality and acceptance while rejecting pity and compromise—exactly the sort of respect any man (or woman) with even a shred of dignity would expect from his fellow man.
Willy and the Poor Boys
US: 2 Nov 1969
UK: Available as import
Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Fortunate Son”
From the album Willy and the Poor Boys (Fantasy)
The phenomenon of sons (and daughters) of the rich and powerful gaining exemption from otherwise required military service may be ancient and entrenched, but so is the subsequent resentment—particularly in a nation that prides itself on having severed ties with such by-products of class entitlement. Time and again, however, it’s often the most fervent hawks who go to the greatest lengths to avoid fighting, or whose wealth and influence make it all the easier to do so. John Fogerty certainly knew the score when he penned this Creedence Clearwater Revival classic for 1969’s Willy and the Poor Boys, taking on not only the Vietnam War supporters who conveniently declined to enlist (à la Dick “I had other priorities in the ‘60s than military service” Cheney), but also hippies who could afford their protests with fancy trust fund educations. With a handful of rockabilly chords and a twangy guitar hook, Fogerty and Co. played it smart by playing it broad: not referencing the conflict by name allowed the band to keep the theme applicable to any future age, where it would unfortunately remain certain that the privileged would continue to invoke patriotism in their lust for war, while sending the unprivileged to do the dirty work for them.
Merle Haggard & the Strangers
Okie from Muskogee
US: 1 Sep 1969
UK: Available as import
Merle Haggard & the Strangers: “Okie from Muskogee”
From the album Okie from Muskogee (Capitol)
Although regarded by many as a patriotic song, “Okie” fails to take the traditional rally-round-the-flag approach prevalent in much of contemporary country music. Haggard’s anthem to the traditional American small town is in fact a protest against changing social mores, alternative lifestyles, and, well, protests. His way of life, waving “Old Glory down at the courthouse”, was in stark contrast to that of the ‘60s generation of drug-taking, love-making hippies earning much alarming media attention. Life in the town of Muskogee involves respect, football, white lightin’ (moonshine), and cowboy boots; clear signs of the decline of the American way of life are evident in those using marijuana and LSD, burning draft cards, growing long hair, and wearing beads and sandals, none of which presumably can be found in heartland America. Life in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Haggard argues, is “livin’ right”, and it is an argument that resonated with those Americans Richard Nixon labeled “the silent majority”, propelling “Okie from Muskogee” to the top of the charts for four weeks. In a time when protest songs filled the airwaves, it is ironic that Haggard scored his biggest hit protesting the rise of a discontented culture.
Give Peace a Chance b/w Remember Love
US: 7 Jul 1969
UK: 4 Jul 1969
Plastic Ono Band: “Give Peace a Chance”
Single; available on the album Lennon Legend: The Very Best of John Lennon (Apple/Parlophone)
Lennon recognized the power of a good slogan. Whether it was “All you need is love”, “War is over if you want it”, or even Bagism and the Bed-In for peace, he had a knack for boiling an idea down to its essence. And no song boiled down the essence of the ‘60s antiwar movement better than “Give Peace a Chance”. From the verse that asks you to forget about all the distractions (like revolution, evolution, masturbation, flagellation) and the kind of minimalist production values you’d expect from a song that was written and recorded in a Montreal hotel room, everything about the song is stripped down to focus on the powerful, catchy refrain. Sung on the record by a full chorus that included the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Petula Clark, and Tommy Smothers, those few simple words—“All we are saying is give peace a chance”—didn’t take long to dig deep into the cultural consciousness. Within a few months, “Give Peace a Chance” was being sung by throngs of demonstrators outside the White House, well on its way to becoming the antiwar anthem of not only the Vietnam era but of peace movements worldwide for decades to come.
Black Sabbath: “War Pigs”
From the album Paranoid (Warner Bros.)
With prophetic lyrics penned by “Black Sabbath” bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler, “War Pigs” first appeared on Black Sabbath’s 1970 album Paranoid. The original album title was War Pigs, but Warner Brothers changed it to avoid any perceived animosity to the Vietnam War. The song’s original title was “Walpurgis”, and the lyrics initially condemned Christianity rather than war (this original version is available on Ozzy Osbourne’s The Ozzman Cometh: Greatest Hits collection from 1997). With the new words, the song became a searing indictment of politicians who callously send others to war. (A war pig, not coincidentally, is a sadistic military tactic used in ancient warfare where warriors doused pigs with incendiary materials and sent them into enemy lines to cause panic among transport animals.) Punctuated by Bill Ward’s chaotic drumming, Ozzy’s soulful voice and haunting screams, and Tony Iommi’s guitar work, the song is arguably the first and most important protest song in the heavy metal pantheon. The wildly pumping bass lines from Butler reflect the underlying machinations lurking in war plans, and Iommi’s perverse riffs, especially at the coda, remind us how logically and beautifully orchestrated and justifiable war plans might seem at first, and how quickly they descend into pandemonium once adrenaline and politics wash over. One wonders today how George Bush and Dick Cheney would respond to this song: “treating people just like pawns in chess… wait till their Judgment Day comes.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: “Ohio”
Single; available on the album So Far (Atlantic)
Written, recorded, and released less than three weeks after the Kent State shootings, where National Guardsmen gunned down protesters of the US invasion of Cambodia on a college campus, the single “Ohio” (backed with the Stephen Stills-penned “Find the Cost of Freedom”) captures the shock and anguish of a nation that doesn’t recognize itself anymore. One of Neil Young’s best and most passionate songs, “Ohio” was recorded live in a very emotional session (you can hear Stephen Stills moaning “Why did they die?” and “How many more?” at the end of the song), with the four principles of CSNY plus Calvin Samuels on bass and Dallas Taylor on drums. It’s a driving, electrified take on antiwar anguish, the phrase “Four dead in Ohio”, recurring like the nightmarish news footage of young people under fire. Because of the politically-charged line, “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming”, the song was banned from mainstream radio, but it was played over and over on then-underground FM stations, becoming a rallying cry for the burgeoning antiwar movement. Despite the ban, it went to number 14 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 list and, later, was ranked 385 on Rolling Stone‘s “Top 500 Songs of All Time” list.
Jimi Hendrix: “Machine Gun”
From the album Band of Gypsys (Capitol)
On New Year’s Eve 1970, it took popular music’s most iconic figure to bring closure to the turbulent ‘60s with a riveting personal statement. At the Fillmore East in New York, James Marshall Hendrix took a stand against the convoluted Vietnam conflict armed with nothing more than his Fender Stratocaster. Backed by bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles, Hendrix led his Band of Gypsys through a kaleidoscopic musical exploration of acid rock, blues and all points beyond. “Machine Gun”, recognized as the pinnacle of the Fillmore set, was never more potent than when it ushered in the ‘70s: Lyrically, Hendrix conveys the pain, anger, and anguish of the military havoc being wrought in faraway lands. Musically, the guitarist transforms his six-string into an automatic weapon, strafing the audience with round upon round of amplified gunfire. The song ebbs and flows, alternating between loping rhythms and furious bent strings assaults, but never once loses its power—or its magic. “Machine Gun” takes on a life of its own, bringing listeners into a hellish firefight marked by somber desperation.