20 Protest Songs for Today's Occupy Everything

by PopMatters Staff

2 November 2011


Bob Marley and more...

Bob Marley & the Wailers
“Get Up, Stand Up” (1973)

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.—Dara Kartz

The Sex Pistols
“Anarchy in the UK” (1977)

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.—Adam Bunch

Heaven 17
”(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” (1981)

After the break-up of the original Human League lineup (with lead singer Phil Oakey taking the name to new commercial heights), former members Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh created the British Electric Foundation. Their hope was to use their synth-pop conglomerate (they’d produce, various guests artists would lend a hand) to expand the influence of keyboard-based music. But when their instrumental efforts (Music for Stowaways and Music for Listening To) failed to chart, they grabbed fellow Sheffielder Glen Gregory, re-recorded one of the tracks with more aggressive vocals, and christened their new enterprise Heaven 17. This song, given the spunky funk title “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang”, expertly captured the climate of a Britain torn apart by unhappiness at home and fears from across the pond. Over a rhythmically dense beat and the sparsest of musical accompaniment, Gregory scolds Europe for still supporting racism as well as the Thatcher regime’s caustic conservatism. But the grandest slam is aimed at recently elected Ronald Reagan, lyrics labeling him a “fascist god in motion” who lets “generals tell him what to do”. Naturally, the BBC banned the single, and it became an immediate hit and remains a powerful statement some 26 years on.—Bill Gibron

The Specials
“Ghost Town” (1981)

“Ghost Town” was the most unlikely chart-topper the UK has ever seen. Substituting eerie atmospherics and a spooky dub bass for the sing-along chorus typical of the genre, it was a broodingly sullen protest against inner-city decay, devastating unemployment, rising racial tensions, and all the other good stuff that Margaret Thatcher had to offer Britain. Further, “Ghost Town” pretty much predicted the large-scale Brixton, London, and Toxteth riots of that same summer and actually hit the UK number one spot the day after “disturbances” broke out all across the country. Seldom, if ever, had a pop record caught the mood of a nation so spectacularly well. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to keep the multiracial Specials together. Following an appearance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops that should have been a celebration of their outstanding success, the band’s three frontmen, Terry Hall (vocals, white), Lynval Golding (vocals, rhythm guitar, black), and Neville Staples (vocals, percussion, also black) returned to the Specials’ dressing room just long enough to announce that they were quitting. With hindsight, “Ghost Town” and the summer of rioting that will be forever associated with it seemed to mark something of a change in British music and its politics. Previously, we’d enjoyed the directionless rabble-rousing of bands like the Pistols and the Clash—punk, lest we forget, was forged in the torpor of a country ruled by the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments. But now we had a hate figure worthy of the name. As unemployment grew and industrial strife seemed to bring us close to all out civil war, performers such as the Redskins, Easterhouse, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, and others all began to pour on the bile. But the Specials did it better, more effectively, and with a much better sense of timing.—Roger Holland

Faith No More
“We Care a Lot” (1985)

Before Mike Patton hijacked these art-metal jesters, Faith No More were a funk-punk outfit akin to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And while they epitomized the narcissistic excess of the ‘80s, they also packed some barbed wit. Disguised behind Billy Gould’s thumping bass line, “We Care a Lot” is Faith No More’s antiprotest, a smirking account of everything that pop and political culture shoved down our throats at the height of the Reagan revolution: AIDS, crack babies, Soviet subs, and shuttle disasters. It was a thinly veiled dig at misty-eyed celebrity-charity efforts like “We Are the World”, which did little to disguise the tightly-wound national psyche on the brink of collapse. Like school kids squealing in a fire drill, Faith No More’s pleas exude sarcasm. Just listen to vocalist Chuck Mosely pipe gleefully about the mess they’re in: “We care a lot about you people / We care a lot about your guns / We care a lot about the wars you’re fighting / Gee that looks like fun!” Sneering satire never sounded so good. With crunching riffs and an impossibly catchy chorus, the band leads us on a delirious sing-along, which feels harmless now that the world’s safe again—right?—Jarrett Berman

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