Curtis Mayfield: “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”
From the album Curtis (Curtom)
Listen: “Sisters, Niggers, Whiteys, Jews, Crackers… Don’t worry: if there’s Hell below, we’re all going to go!” The closest thing popular music had to a biblical prophet was Curtis Mayfield, the man who delivered stern moral messages with the voice of an angel. His sweet falsetto and musical arrangements (harp, flute, and fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar blend together in unimaginable and still incomparable fashion) had their apotheosis in his out-and-out masterpiece, the soundtrack to Superfly, but it’s the first song of his first solo outing that stands as his abiding message. He had already made history with the Impressions, and more than a few of the civil rights anthems of the ‘60s (“Keep on Pushing”, “People Get Ready”) were written and sung by Mayfield. It is no coincidence that as the next decade commenced, not enough had changed, and both the music and the message assumed an unfamiliar, but necessary edge. It’s not a new Mayfield so much as the same singer tired of having to tell the same sad story. No one here escapes unscathed: his outrage is, appropriately, aimed at the powers that be (mostly white, then as now), but importantly, he also calls on the carpet the slackers, apathy-ridden hippies, and religious hypocrites. “Everybody’s praying and everybody’s saying / But when come time to do, everybody’s laying.” This has everything art could ask for: a savage indignation delivered by a voice steeped in soul and history, shouting a message that grows more urgeny, more loud, to make certain we’re listening.
Pieces of a Man
(Flying Dutchman; US: 1 Jan 1971; UK: Available as import)
Gil Scott-Heron: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
From the albums Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and Pieces of a Man (Flying Dutchman)
Along with the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron played a key role in bridging the gap between the Beat poets of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the nascent hip-hop music of the ‘70s. His landmark single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” remains not only his most famous piece, but is also one of the most quoted and referenced protest songs of the last 40 years. Sparsely accompanied by conga and bongo on 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, the spoken word piece was re-recorded a year later for the Pieces of a Man LP with a trio of trap kit, electric bass, and flute, and while the minimal groove arrangement can be heard now as a precursor to modern hip-hop, it’s what the articulate, confrontational New York artist has to say that leaves such an indelible impression. Following the example set by the jazz poetry of Langston Hughes and especially the politically charged, syncopated style of Amiri Baraka, Scott-Heron launches into a three-minute polemic, lambasting the culture of television, as well as the masses in white America that sat hypnotized by the blue glow in their living rooms, yet turned a blind eye to what was going on in their own neighborhoods. His popular culture references may be obscure to younger listeners these days, but his message, with that key phrase repeated with the stern patience of a parent trying to hold the attention of a TV-obsessed child, is still as powerful as it was 37 years ago.
War b/w He Who Picks a Rose
(Motown; US: 9 Jun 1970; UK: Available as import)
Edwin Starr: “War”
From the album War & Peace (Gordy/Motown)
Not every great protest song needs the poetic lyrics of a Bob Dylan or a Woody Guthrie, and “War” is the proof. While lyrics like “War can’t give life, it can only take it away”, “The thought of war blows my mind”, and the famous chorus of “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!” are simplistic almost to the point of parody—they’re also darn catchy. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that for the biggest hit of his career, Edwin Starr had the entire Motown arsenal behind him. Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, then the label’s leading songwriting team, had originally written the tune for the Temptations, but it was Starr’s version that got the full treatment. Whitfield produced it himself, using a generous complement of horns, a whole whack of percussion, and his own new act, the Undisputed Truth to back Starr’s rousing vocals. The result is a fiery, brash anthem—and one of the most memorable songs of the antiwar movement. It’s also a testament to just how much Vietnam had seeped into spectrum of musical consciousness. It wasn’t just folk singers and peacenik rock stars taking up the fight, but artists from every genre of music, including the ones you can dance to. Who said protest can’t be fun? Huh!
The Beach Boys: “Student Demonstration Time”
From the album Surf’s Up (Brother)
Mike Love’s shameless rewrite of Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot in Cell Block #9” is widely considered to be the nadir of the Beach Boys’ uneven Brother Records catalog, and for good reason. It’s an embarrassing attempt to ally the Beach Boys with other socially conscious artists of the Vietnam era, and its subject matter, the tragedy at Kent State in ‘70, had already been covered with greater poise by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in their single, “Ohio “. The tone of song is so perplexing—the ‘50s-style rock ‘n’ roll rhythm, the police siren sound effects, Love’s vocal sounding like it’s coming through a megaphone—that it’s tough to know if the band is expressing solidarity with a progressive culture or unintentionally ridiculing it. (The feel-good refrain of “There’s a riot goin’ on” must have sounded like some out-of-touch white boy’s joke to Sly & the Family Stone.) But regardless of Love’s insufferable self-indulgence, “Student Demonstration Time” is an important example of how the social revolutions of an epoch can have an effect on the most unsuspecting of pop stars, even guys who like to sing about girls and surf boards.
What’s Going On b/w God Is Love
(Motown; US: 20 Jan 1971; UK: Available as import)
Marvin Gaye: “What’s Going On”
From the album What’s Going On (Tamla/Motown)
In 1970, it looked like Marvin Gaye was done with music. He was in the middle of a deep depression; Tammi Terrell, his long-time singing partner, had just died; his marriage was falling apart; and he’d been dissatisfied with Barry Gordy’s mindless Motown hit machine for years (ever since his brother had returned home from Vietnam). Looking for a new life, he even made an unsuccessful bid to play football for the Detroit Lions before the Four Tops’ Obie Benson came to him with a new tune that he’d been working on. Suddenly, all that pain and turmoil had an outlet. The result was “What’s Going On”, one of the most intensely personal of all protest songs. Gaye poured himself into the track, not only producing it himself, but singing every one of the layered vocal parts. His pleas for peace and understanding in a world gone mad are filled with emotion, the heartache heightened by jazz-inspired strings. In fact, he was so personally invested in the song that when Gordy famously balked at releasing it as a single, claiming it wasn’t commercial enough, Gaye refused to record again until he did. And the singer was right—“What’s Going On” raced to the top of the charts and before long, Gordy would be asking him to expand it into an entire album.
Bob Marley & the Wailers: “Get Up, Stand Up”
From the album Burnin’ (Tuff Gong)
A devout follower of Rastafarian culture, Bob Marley’s own experience growing up in the ghettos of Kingston made him a credible leader of the downtrodden, who embraced his message of peace and justice. Jamaicans saw his music as the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of human freedom, opposing violence and celebrating life. Transcending race and class distinctions, the liberating effect of Marley’s music on the island extended worldwide to become a global phenomenon and continued even stronger after his untimely death in 1981. “Get Up, Stand Up” is a reggae anthem written by Marley and fellow Wailer Peter Tosh, and served as a simple and powerful call against oppression, offering a hopeful reminder of the power they possessed over their own lives: “Life is your right.” While the song has officially been adopted as the anthem of Amnesty International, the idea of personal liberation in addition to social and political freedoms is a universal theme that keeps the song at the core of the reggae catalog.
Alice Cooper: “Only Women Bleed”
From the album Welcome to My Nightmare (Atlantic)
Nestled inbetween songs about infanticide and necrophilia on Alice Cooper’s 1975 concept album, Welcome to My Nightmare, “Only Women Bleed” tackled the equally taboo but sadly more commonplace subject of domestic violence. Coming from a shock-rock act like Alice Cooper, “Only Women Bleed” was completely unexpected, taking a sympathetic and feminist stance from the vantage point of the song’s victim. The track gives a thorough dissertation of the various forms of domestic abuse, ranging from physical beatings to spousal neglect and abandonment and verbal beratings. (Ironically, the song was later covered by Ike and Tina Turner.) Everything about the song’s composition seems to underline the gravity of its subject matter. “Only Women Bleed” starts softy with acoustic, arpeggio guitars layered over a stirring string arrangement and complimented by curiously subdued vocals. Desperate sounding electric guitars burst in at the song’s final moments to underscore the hopelessness of shattered domesticity. Although much has changed and a blind eye is no longer turned to domestic altercations, women still contend with the “happy homemaker” role, which often demands they abandon their dreams for the good of home and family. Decades of societal conditioning still allow low self-esteem to act as a woman’s worst enemy. Alice Cooper stands as an unlikely champion in recognizing these struggles.
Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols
(Warner Bros.; US: 10 Nov 1977; UK: 28 Oct 1977)
The Sex Pistols: “Anarchy in the UK”
From the album Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)
By the time 1976 rolled around, the spirit of the ‘60s was long dead. The better world promised by a thousand pop songs had never come; now the radio waves were dominated by the hedonism of disco and the bloated pretensions of prog-rock. And then, the day after the Band threw in the towel at their last waltz, the Sex Pistols released their first single. “Anarchy in the UK” announced punk to the world—and with it, a new style of protest. It was everything the political music of the ‘60s generally wasn’t; it was aggressive, it was bitter, and it had given up hope. Johnny Rotten’s derisive snarl said it all: Everything’s fucked—the government, commercialism, the music industry—and if it’s all going to hell, anyway, you might as well get shitfaced and break something. At a time when Britain and the rest of the world were quietly submitting to a suffocating death of shopping malls and platform shoes, the Pistols offered another option: cynical rage. Millions of kids worldwide decided to shred their clothes, steal their mom’s safety pins, and take them up on it.
From South Africa to South Carolina
(Arista; US: 1 Jan 1976; UK: Available as import)
Gil Scott-Heron: “Johannesburg”
From the album From South Africa to South Carolina (Arista)
“What’s the word? Tell me, brother, have you heard about Johannesburg?” When Gil Scott-Heron sings these lyrics, he conveys a sense of camaraderie, as a citizen of the global community reaching out to others for strength, information, and solace. If you didn’t live in or near Johannesburg, then the song’s subject, the protest against apartheid in South Africa, probably seemed to reside “over there”, in a foreign land, as “sometimes distance brings misunderstanding”; yet Scott-Heron and longtime collaborator Brian Jackson encourage listeners to consider the commonalities and bonds between Americans and South Africans, and more abstractly, human beings sharing this planet. Musically, “Johannesburg” aligns American and African cultures by featuring an African-style rhythm (congas, shakerai, and gembe drum), along with a classic call-and-response song structure and Jackson’s jazz-influenced handiwork on keyboards and Moog synthesizer. The seeming simplicity of the music suggests that our resistance to oppression should be easy, automatic even, while the actual complexity of the tune denotes the practical realities and intricacies of solving our societal problems. Nothing about the struggle is romanticized: “I hate it when the blood starts flowin’ / But I’m glad to see resistance growin’”. “Johannesburg” teaches us that freedom may come at a price, but we lessen the burdens when we all contribute.
Peter Tosh: “Legalize It”
From the album Legalize It (Columbia)
Jamaican reggae pioneer Peter Tosh was somewhat more in-your-face militant about his beliefs than his former (and more widely known) band mate, Wailers frontman Bob Marley. This is apparent from the cover of his first solo album, Legalize It, which features Tosh meditatively toking a chillum amid a veritable forest of reefer, leaving very little doubt as to what “it” is he seeks to legalize. Even more iconic than the album’s imagery, though, is its title track, which espouses marijuana’s many virtues and its equally numerous sobriquets. “Legalize It” is a protest against the prohibition of the Rasta sacrament that even those skeptical of the divinity of Haile Selassie can get behind. The track also touts marijuana as a folk remedy for a few illnesses, but the main gist of the song is political, not medical. Revolutionary as Tosh’s message may have been, only lunatic-fringe traditionalists, business executives with a stake in marijuana’s prohibition, and people running for public office (frequently the same people, anyway) have reason to resist it.
—Matthew A. Stern
Joan Armatrading: “Taking My Baby Up Town”
From the album To the Limit (A&M)
Adhering to the feminist adage “the personal is political”, Joan Armatrading’s “Taking My Baby Up Town” is a profoundly political protest song. Armatrading’s song describes her as walking on the street, “Looking like a million dollars / With a pretty person on my arm / When someone started hooting and hollering / They were saying I should never / Have been born.” While it is possible to regard this as an interracial relationship, the lack of gender specificity in this line, as well as the response to the protagonist’s action of walking in the street arm-in-arm, coded it as a queer song to those in the LGBT community in the late ‘70s. Each of the three verses repeats the scenario: The protagonist’s presence in public, twice in the company of her lover, causes a public outcry. The third verse provides a reason for this reaction: “We started a commotion / Someone making comments / Morals / The state of affairs.” Many in the LGBT community were familiar with the furor caused by public displays of queer affection. But what made the song attractive, indeed anthemic, to the queer community was Armatrading’s celebration of the love the protagonist and her “pretty person” had with one another: She responds to the public jeering by telling her lover, “What we’ve got is the best.”
—Lisa L. Rhodes
Suspect Device b/w Wasted Life
(Rough Trade; US: Available as import; UK: 17 Mar 1978)
Stiff Little Fingers: “Suspect Device”
From the album Inflammable Material (Rough Trade)
The “troubles”—the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland—informed many great records during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Certainly the Gang of Four, Angelic Upstarts, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners all had their say and offered significantly different perspectives. Stiff Little Fingers’ perspective, however, was different again. They actually lived there. The best debut single from any punk-rock band that wasn’t the Sex Pistols, “Suspect Device” was a balls-out frenzied howl of distorted protest against the activities of terrorist groups / gangsters of both “traditions” in Northern Ireland and (presumably) against the political parties whose persistent failure to resolve the underlying issues created the environment in which the groups were able to prosper. “Suspect Device” simply seethed with rage and resentment, and the band’s 1979 debut album, Inflammable Material, mined the same rich vein with songs as powerful as “Alternative Ulster”, “State Of Emergency”, and “Wasted Life”. The message was simple: the band wanted no part of the terrorists (“nothing but blind fascists brought up to hate”), the army on the streets of Belfast, or the “RUC dog of repression” (Royal Ulster Constabulary). They just wanted to be able to live a normal life, and until that became possible, there was every chance that they would “blow up in their face”. Food for thought, Mr. Bush. Mr. Blair, food for thought.
The English Beat: “Stand Down Margaret”
From the album I Just Can’t Stop It (Sire)
Even if the two-tone movement was a reaction to the growing ethnic unrest associated with punk, the English Beat (or in its native UK, simply the Beat) was still among the most unlikely political spokesman. After the band found fame with a cover version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”, no one would have expected its first album to be anything but another sampling of good-time party music. The Selector and the Specials would carry the flag of militancy. Surprisingly, I Just Can’t Stop It did have significant bite, with songs like “Two Swords” and “Click Click” taking on intolerance and violence respectively. But it was “Stand Down Margaret”—an outgrowth of a cover of Prince Buster’s “Whine and Grine”—that indicated the band’s inherent strength at combining melody and message. Taking the toaster lead, frontman Ranking Roger downplays the government’s “bright new tomorrow” before systematically repeating the title request (a call for Prime Minister Thatcher’s resignation). Inbetween are pleas for “unity” and cautions against starting at third world war. The languid skank established by the rhythm section grows more and more ominous as Roger’s words become a world-weary mantra. Though never a single, it remains one of the band’s crowning achievements.