Music

Say It Loud! 100 Great Protest Songs: Part 2 - Steve Reich to the Sex Pistols

Photo: David Wilson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike. Stay tuned all week as we unveil the top 100.

Read all parts of Say It Loud! 100 Great Protest Songs

The Mothers of Invention: "Trouble Every Day" (1966)

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. - Zeth Lundy

Steve Reich: "Come Out" (1966)

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. - Mike Schiller

Aretha Franklin: "Respect" (1967)

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. - Justin Cober-Lake

The Beatles: "Revolution" / "Revolution 1" (1968)

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. - Adam Bunch

MC5: "Kick Out the Jams" (1968)

Long before being 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." - Adam Williams

Gilberto Gil: "Aquele Abraço" (1969)

Written just before Gilberto Gil left imprisonment in Rio de Janeiro, recorded upon his subsequent stint under house arrest in Salvador, and at its most popular after his exile from Brazil, 1969 samba-based single "Aquele Abraço" was never meant to be a protest song. In it, Gil evokes joyful images of Rio - its people, its parades, its culture - and in so doing gives the city the heartfelt embrace suggested in the song's title.

In a time and place of government censorship, though, no expression is without a political aspect. "Aquele Abraço" won the Rio-based Golden Dolphin prize in 1970, while Gil was still forbidden from returning to his own country. Gil refused the award with a scathing letter in resistance-oriented periodical O Pasquim, pointing out the hypocrisy in receiving awards from institutions upholding "cultural fascism" and decrying the idea that gentle "Aquele Abraço" is acquiescing to the government's ideas of "pure" Brazilian music and writing inoffensive samba for the rest of his career. He ends the letter with an explicit rejection of the prize: "Let the dolphin go back to the tranquil waters of its insignificance." The song remains an act of revolutionary love for a cherished city. - Adriane Pontecorvo

Creedence Clearwater Revival: "Fortunate Son" (1969)

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, 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. - Michael Metivier

Merle Haggard & the Strangers: "Okie from Muskogee" (1969)

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's 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's ironic that Haggard scored his biggest hit protesting the rise of a discontented culture. - Michael Abernethy

Plastic Ono Band: "Give Peace a Chance" (1969)

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 anti-war 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 anti-war anthem of not only the Vietnam era, but of peace movements worldwide for decades to come. - Adam Bunch

Black Sabbath: "War Pigs" (1970)

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. - Chris Justice

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: "Ohio" (1970)

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 anti-war 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 anti-war 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. - Jennifer Kelly

Jimi Hendrix: "Machine Gun" (1970)

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. - Adam Williams

Gil Scott-Heron: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (1970)

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 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. 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. - Adrien Begrand

Edwin Starr: "War" (1970)

Not every 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 anti-war 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! - Adam Bunch

Malvina Reynolds: "It Isn't Nice" (1971)

However peaceful a protest, like athletes kneeling during the national anthem, many conservatives still deem it disrespectful. Folksinger-songwriter Malvina Reynolds responded to this critique of protest with her song "It Isn't Nice," written in the mid-'60s and recorded in 1971. "It isn't nice to block the doorway or go to jail," she sings: "There are nicer ways to do it but the nice ways always fail." Reynolds should know, born in California to Jewish socialist immigrants whose activism in the 1930s caught the attention of Orange County KKK. A violent attempt to kidnap and lynch the family was foiled by "Red Squad" police who'd also been monitoring the family's left-wing activities. No wonder Reynolds turns stinging at the end of "It Isn't Nice." She reminds critics of civil disobedience about 1) the longstanding practice of lynching, and 2) the assassination of activist Medgar Evers in 1963 with the lines, "You were quiet just like mice / Now you say we aren't nice / Well, if that is Freedom's price, we don't mind." - A. Loudermilk

Marvin Gaye: "What's Going On" (1971)

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. - Adam Bunch

The Staple Singers: "I'll Take You There" (1972)

In 1972, this popular gospel and soul family band finally achieved its first number one hit on the Billboard charts, with another single, "Respect Yourself," nipping at its heels. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section backed Mavis Staples and her siblings for the Be Altitude: Respect Yourself album, which helped Stax Records to make money as well as waves during a tumultuous time in the label's history. The label was fighting to keep its independence at the same time that African-Americans began bussing to integrated schools and the first ever National Black Political Convention was convening in Indiana.

Al Bell, co-owner of Stax, wrote the two-chord song expressly to contribute to the national conversation on civil rights by imagining what the world would look like once all races are treated as genuinely equal. The song continues to thrive as a call to racial justice thanks to the many artists who have taken an interest in proliferating it and reviving the career of Mavis Staples, from Prince to Spike Lee. - Megan Volpert

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

Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra: "Space Is the Place" (1973)

Everything Sun Ra did—from his music to his poetry to the life he lived—is essentially a protest against the repression of post-war American white bourgeois heteronormativity. The mantra "Space is the Place" neatly sums up Ra's Afrofuturist project of release in four simple words and a bass-line hook over which a tidal wave of sound cascades. The cut takes up the entire first side of the original vinyl release, beginning with the electronic burbling of Ra's modified Farfisa (credited on the album as a "space organ") leading to Pat Patrick's riff, trading between the baritone sax and electric bass, that carries throughout its 21-plus minutes. June Tyson leads the vocals, supported by a chorus of Space Ethnic Voices, who intone visions of Afrofurturist utopia such as: "Outer space is a pleasant place / A place that's really free." Ra's emancipation narrative is articulated more explicitly in the science-fiction film of the same title released a year later. In it, Ra plays a prophet who proposes to lead all African-Americans to another planet free of white oppression via the medium of music. - Vince Carducci

The Sex Pistols: "Anarchy in the UK" (1976)

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

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