Peter Tosh: “Legalize It” (1976)
Jamaican reggae pioneer Peter Tosh was somewhat more militant about his beliefs than his former bandmate and 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
Fela Kuti: “Zombie” (1976)
In the annals of protest music, few artists have inspired as much fear in their governments as Fela Kuti. His 1976 Afrobeat masterpiece “Zombie” attacked Nigeria’s military junta, comparing the army to the supernatural creatures themselves: mindless, soulless, having no will of their own. Worse still for the government, the song was a smash hit, Kuti’s band at its brassiest and best. The fallout was cataclysmic for Kuti. The government conducted a violent raid of his commune, the Kalakuta Republic. A thousand soldiers destroyed Kuti’s studio and tapes, burned down the compound, severely beat Kuti, and threw his mother Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, an activist in her own right, out of a window, resulting in her death months later. None of this stopped Kuti, of course; he fought back with song after song as the government continued to deny official involvement in the raid. “Zombie” would continue to spark controversy, inciting riots during a 1978 concert in Ghana. The song cements Kuti’s role in musical history as an artist willing to risk everything for human rights. – Adriane Pontecorvo
Tom Robinson Band: “Glad to Be Gay” (1978)
Having scored a UK Top 5 hit the previous year with “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, the TRB reached #18 with “Glad to Be Gay”, written in punk-chanson style with a sing-along chorus. It was released as part of a live EP (including feminist-ally anthem, “Right on Sister”), issued as a stop-gap by EMI. Because of a spike in homophobia during the 1980s, it’s sometimes forgotten that the 1970s were almost equally hostile. Robinson’s song begins by describing police brutality (the heavily sarcastic narrator expressing disbelief that such a thing exists) so that by the time the chorus comes around and the word ‘gay’ makes its first appearance, the listener is already on side. The strategy worked; audiences joined in, whether or not they had hitherto agreed with the sentiment. The double-standard of Page 3 and Playboy being deemed acceptable while gay publications were put through obscenity trials, gay bashing, internalized homophobia and the closet make up the balance of the song, which thrived in the charts despite a BBC ban and almost no radio support. “Glad to Be Gay” has since been dubbed the UK’s ‘gay national anthem’. – Charles Donovan
Thomas Mapfumo: “Hokoyo!” (1978)
Born in what was then Southern Rhodesia, artist Thomas Mapfumo has faced no shortage of injustice. In a nation dominated by a white ruling class and governed by discriminatory policies, Mapfumo developed a new music style, calling it chimurenga, the Shona word for struggle. An adaptation of older Shona music traditions to modern rock and sung in the Shona language, chimurenga was by its structure an act of revolution, embodying Mapfumo’s refusal to surrender his culture. “Hokoyo!” means “Watch out!” – and the Rhodesian government did, banning the 1979 chimurenga song from radio and imprisoning Mapfumo without charges. While the government tried to keep the song’s distinctly anti-colonialist message out of the public sphere, though, it spread quickly.
Protests against Mapfumo’s incarceration and the state’s inability to find grounds for keeping him imprisoned led to his quick release. 1980 marked the nation’s first free election and the establishment of Zimbabwe; Mapfumo performed at celebrations alongside Bob Marley. The jubilation was short-lived – Robert Mugabe’s reign soon cast a pall on the independent nation, and Mapfumo would soon leave for the United States, rarely to return to his home country. To this day, Mapfumo has never stopped making music about the causes that move him. – Adriane Pontecorvo
Joan Armatrading: “Taking My Baby Up Town” (1978)
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’s 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
Elvis Costello and the Attractions: (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding (1978)
Recently at a Shovels and Rope show, the duo began the night with their interpretation of Nick Lowe’s classic 1974 tune, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”. They sang it as a heartfelt lament, almost hymn-like, about Donald Trump’s America. It proved this vital song made famous by Elvis Costello and the Attractions is a timeless one, speaking to essential human desires for love, peace, compassion, empathy, and yes, understanding. Those are all things we need more of in this age of rising racism, xenophobia, hate, violence, and populism. The song wants to know “who are the strong and who are the trusted”? Who are those who will stand up and fight the oppression and hate, who will sue for peace, and who will take us forward to a healthier future?
Costello’s take on the song took a punk rock approach with his anger at the troubling situation causing immense frustration that “just makes [him] want to cry”. Costello’s version comes across as a dig at the working class misery in Thatcher’s Britain and the ongoing Cold War when we were still years away from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Be it rock, punk or Americana, this song will live forever as a call for hope in bad times, a rousing of the faithful to action, and an anthem that yearns and pleads for better days ahead. – Sarah Zupko
Stiff Little Fingers: “Suspect Device” (1978)
The “troubles” — the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland — informed many excellent 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, stands out among them as they 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”. – Roger Holland
Peter Gabriel: “Biko” (1980)
Peter Gabriel’s tribute to Stephen Biko galvanized activists and became an anthem for the anti-apartheid movement as it spread internationally in the late 1980s. An outspoken advocate for Black Consciousness in South Africa, Biko was killed while in police custody in 1977. The BBC’s coverage of Biko’s death inspired Gabriel to write the song, which was released in 1980. Gabriel also impacted other musicians who became a vocal public force in the anti-apartheid movement. In a 2013 interview with NPR, Steven Van Zandt called Gabriel’s tribute “very inspiring” as he began to organize Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985.
The startling, stripped down lyrics are chilling in their simplicity. Gabriel’s call to action in the aftermath of Biko’s death is intended to inspire: “You can blow out a candle / But you can’t blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch / The wind will blow it higher.” The repetition of Biko’s name created a powerful litany when Gabriel performed the song live, often at the end of a concert. Notable live versions were recorded at the Amnesty International Concert in 1986 and at the concert celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, held at Wembley Stadium in 1988. – Linda Levitt
The English Beat: “Stand Down Margaret” (1980)
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 spokesmen. After the band found fame with a cover version of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”, no one would have expected the group’s 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). In between 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. – Bill Gibron
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 synthpop 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
Devo: “Beautiful World” (1981)
Devo’s satirical core philosophy of de-evolution functions as a protest against the blind foibles of modernity and of American culture in particular, and “Beautiful World” might just be their masterwork: an attack on white privilege released 35 years before the conversation entered America’s public consciousness. The lyrics are deliberately mundane, failing to rise even to the level of greeting card verse as they offer a simple-minded appreciation of the banalities of middle class, American life. But that, of course, is the trap. The evil in the banality is unacknowledged white privilege that enables such fantasies to dominate late 20th century American culture.
This is protest music that ensnares the listener in the crime, particularly through the acidic accompanying video that received extensive MTV airplay. There, we see Boojie Boy spinning a wheel of video clips that get progressively more violent: beauty pageant parades of glistening white skin give way to fire hoses and dogs attacking black protesters; the blooming flowers that open the video are bookended by a blossoming mushroom cloud. Throughout, Gerald Casale sings like a dutiful choirboy until the song’s last chorus, where the emphasis of “It’s a beautiful world for you” is answered by negation: “not me.” – Ed Whitelock
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 hit the UK number one spot the day after “disturbances” broke out across the country. Seldom, if ever, had a pop record caught the mood of a nation so spectacularly well.
With hindsight, “Ghost Town” and the summer of rioting which will be forever associated with it seemed to mark something of a change in British music and 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 there was a hate figure worthy of the name. As unemployment grew and industrial strife brought the country 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 more effectively and with a much better sense of timing. – Roger Holland
The Clash: “Know Your Rights” (1982)
When you’re talking about the Clash, you’re looking at an entire catalogue of politically-engaged protest music. There’s a reason that my generation considered the Clash as “the only band that matters”. Joe Strummer is and will remain my biggest hero because he wrote music about “things that matter” and blew up the Clash when it was clear they were going to become corporate rock stars. Authentic to the very end as they say, and that end was Combat Rock, the 1982 album that housed hits like “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. “Know Your Rights” sits atop the track list and serves as a powerful statement of intent for a record that also includes “Straight to Hell”, a song bemoaning the plight of the immigrant in a racist world.
Stating three basic rights – the right not to be killed, the right to food money, and the right to free speech – the song is a ferocious barn-burner, twisted with fury and cynicism over governments’ unwillingness to protect basic human rights. Sure, we’ll give you some money so you can eat, but first we’ll humiliate you and tell you you’re undeserving and always keep you guessing if you’ll get fed again. Yeah, you have the right not to be killed unless a policeman kills you, or an aristocrat. No justice for you. And we’ll say we support free speech, even build a whole country around that principle, but just don’t be “dumb enough to actually try it”.
Timeless. Essential. Sadly true then and now. – Sarah Zupko
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (1982)
As someone once recommended, don’t believe the hype. “The Message” was neither the first political hip-hop record, nor the best. And indeed it had precious little to do with Grandmaster Flash or four of those Furious Five. But nonetheless it was the song that seized the public imagination, and the one that posterity remembers. Rolling Stone, for example, ranked it as the 51st best song of all time. Old school hip-hop built upon a synthesizer riff crafted by Sugar Hill session player Duke Bootee, “The Message” stopped the block party dead to talk about social decay, Reaganomics, and how the strain of having to stay home and watch Dallas when you really want to go see Sugar Ray fight can drive a poor boy to crime, into prison, and on to an ugly, untimely death. MC Melle Mel’s energetic style and socially conscious lyrics may have been enough to get “The Message” added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, but I wonder how he’d fare today, exclaiming that “I might hijack a plane”? – Roger Holland
Robert Wyatt: “Shipbuilding” (1982)
Though Wyatt could be much more blatant in his Socialist propaganda, this sweet, affecting anti-war song (written, in particular, about the Falklands War) is probably the most moving tune in his catalog. Penned by Elvis Costello (heard here on backing vocals along with the Attractions’ Steve Nieve playing beautiful piano), rather than making an obvious statement about the horrors of battle, “Shipbuilding” draws a heartbreaking portrait of a small town drawn into conflict where holiday celebrations (birthdays, Christmas) are disrupted as men are called to prep boats as their craft and their probable means of destruction (hence the title). But even after all the eloquent details that proceed it, nothing prepares you for the hopeful and mournful last lines: “With all the will in the world / Diving for dear life / When we could be diving for pearls.” You’d have to pity anyone who wasn’t moved by such a touching sentiment. – Jason Gross
U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983)
From their earliest days, the members of U2 were open in expressing their Christian faith (save for their secular bassist Adam Clayton). Bono, Edge, and Larry Mullen, Jr. complicated fans’ expectations and prejudices regarding faith, a radical act for a group with U2’s ambition. But it is radical faith that informs their strongest protest, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Inspired by the January 1927 “Bloody Sunday” in Derry when British police fired on a group of unarmed protesters, striking 28 and killing 14, the song transcends simple protest to reveal the complicated work of healing.
The radicalism of this song is its call for peace amidst justified anger, its abandonment of eye-for-an-eye vengeance. Bono’s cry of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is not a propagandistic call to militaristic action but rather a recalling of that horrible day as inspiration to stop the violence. Acknowledging that both the British army’s militaristic bullying and the IRA’s domestic terrorism fuel the engine of ongoing violence, he concludes that one side has to stop. Through his Christian vision, Bono calls on those most aggrieved to overcome “the trenches dug within our hearts” to make the most difficult choice and “claim the victory Jesus won.” That victory is forgiveness, the most difficult, necessary, and, for the time, radical act if the violence was to end. – Ed Whitelock
Nena: 99 Luftballons (1983)
Nena’s “99 Luftballons” was a massive hit in the ’80s, topping the charts in the US and Australia with the original and best version of the song sung in German. Despite its funky beats and killer chorus laden with poppy hooks, it’s a serious song and one that takes a strong anti-war stance. The 1983 tune emerged from the imagination of Nena guitarist Carlo Karges who was attending a Rolling Stones gig in Berlin when he saw a bunch of balloons being released. That inspired the cautionary tale in which 99 balloons are released and they are mistaken for UFOs. The military shoots them down even though they are simply balloons and the surrounding countries attack. There’s a 99-year war that results in total devastation.
Pretty heady for a pop tune, but it’s such a clever way to get the point across: war is bad; war is really bad and we need to avoid it all costs; nothing good emerges from war. Most importantly, World War III could begin over something innocent or mistaken because of the human propensity for violence. Those are notions worth revisiting in this age of populist uprisings and war-mongering across the globe. – Sarah Zupko
Twisted Sister: “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (1984)
Although the glam-adjacent heavy metal band had been fully operational with Dee Snider as lead singer since 1976, they did not achieve their first and only Top 40 hit until 1984, with this single off the Stay Hungry album. What began as a fairly generic teen punk manifesto with accompanying music video full of slapstick humor ultimately morphed into a protest anthem against censorship. Ranked seventh on the list of “filthy 15” songs targeted by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, the song and its singer emerged as a vanguard of the music community’s disagreement with the prudish mission of the PMRC. Snider’s articulate testimony against the RIAA’s “parental advisory” sticker ultimately did not prevent its adoption, but it did put enough of a dent to contribute to the dissolution of the PMRC by the mid-’90s. In 2016, the song received renewed attention after Snider donated it as an anthem for the pediatric cancer foundation Heal Every Life Possible. – Megan Volpert
The Pogues: “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (1985)
Written by Eric Bogle in 1971, this song references the 50,000 Australian soldiers who died at the Battle of Gallipoli at the hands of Turkish troops in the first World War. The beautiful imagery and lyrics describe the futility and horrors of war as a human construct, as the protagonist returns home, an amputee, only to have the generations after him lose interest in his original cause, and unable to dance the free-spirited “Waltzing Matilda“, the very song that inspires Australian boys to go to war and fight for their values. Obviously, this was an oblique metaphor for the uselessness of the Vietnam War, but has appreciated with age to be commentary on all war. Though it’s been recorded time and time again, the rendition by The Pogues is most notable and important for the new generation of the left to which it was released in 1985. The legacy of the song lives on as this Doonesbury fan brilliantly utilized it as a metaphor for the war in Iraq. – Bobby Evers
Artists United Against Apartheid: “Sun City” (1985)
Forget “We Are the World”. Relegate “Do They Know It’s Christmas” to its place as a nice seasonal song. For pure rock ‘n’ roll politics, no one can beat “Little” Steven Van Zandt and his Artists United Against Apartheid project, which he formed in response to what he saw as the decidedly non-committal attitude of voguish celebrity charity projects. Van Zandt used the recent boycott of the South African luxury resort area as a way of bringing the bigotry of the nation into perspective. With help from a divergent cast of musicians — famous faces from jazz, rap, punk, and pop — the former E Street Band guitarist created the perfect fusion anthem, a danceable diatribe with a heart as heavy as its beat.
With an instantly memorable chorus and a fearlessness in naming names (as in Joey Ramone’s classic line “Constructive Engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan”), “Sun City” evokes the ’60s style of easy-to-remember slogans with proto hip-hop chants. Literally pouring their souls into the song, even Bono and Bruce Springsteen deliver with the kind of undeniable urgency missing from their previous participation in political rock events. Thanks to an equally impressive video, it remains the high watermark in the ’80s artists-as-activists movement. – Bill Gibron