Dissent: American As Apple Pie: Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th
As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.
As punks might insist, Independence Day in the United States is not a time simply to recall the intent of the American founders in blind, passive faith stirred by clichés, but a time to wrestle with agitation and unease, dissent and antithetical body politics, that have stirred this country from the soapbox tirades of Thomas Paine and Emma Goldman to the modern media subversion of Noam Chomsky and Jello Biafra.
The American experience is honeycombed with diverse forms of recalcitrance, which is why the country is such a noble experiment in liberty and justice, though these traits fall short periodically. These songs don’t necessarily symbolize transgression or sedition; instead, they symbolize a yearning to speak openly and freely about the system binding us together as a whole, despite different places of origin, creeds, ethnicity, worldviews, and ideologies. America grows strong and steady, ripe and democratic, when people speak frankly about the issues making their hearts boil. These songs represent stirring dissatisfaction with the status quo, including the endless trivial pursuits of masses ignoring the loopholes and pitfalls of the American dream.
I wanted this list to highlight the perspectives of native citizen-singers, though I did include D.O.A., a fountainhead of foment from Canada, who have toured the United States like brothers-in-arms to stateside punks for 30 years. Loads of protest songs aimed at America spill from foreign shores, like “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” by the Clash (England) and “The Greatest American Zero” by BGK (Netherlands). They may be trenchant tunes, but this July 4th list, imperfect and motley as any mix-tape, is not about global complaints.
Lastly, democracy is brusque, messy, and intemperate, just like these songs. I didn't want to look at punk frozen in time, though. So, in some cases, I have chosen contemporary tunes by veteran bands, proving their idealism doesn't wilt as they endure middle age. Such veterans remain vitriolic.
7 Seconds were a band of posicore crewsters that cruised back and forth across America in a beat-up van offering their drug free version of streamlined hardcore, but by the late 1980s they seemed a lot more like U2 than Minor Threat. Still, their sincerity remained intact, despite musical changes. This brash 50-second tirade was included on the high-impact compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front produced by Maximum Rocknroll. This tinny, lo-fi punk blast heap from 1982 finds singer Kevin Seconds railing against unbridled power, “Yes, Sir” mentalities, and the fake security of patriotism. It's visceral and vehement, cut bare minimal to the bone, and fanged and choleric. Such vintage 7 Seconds proves that portions of the country, even in backyard Nevada, were sick and tired of monotone so-called truths passed as progressive ideals in classrooms and factories. The tune’s succinct, rough-hewn power wipes away the band’s later missteps, like their version of Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop”.
With a slow as molasses musical intro flooding stereo speakers, the singer's monologue recalls the destiny of America as a republic, not a democracy, and urges listeners to “keep it that way” and tweak the system to ensure truth and justice. As the tempo erupts in blunt punk paces, the mood shifts. The song pictures people living and dying for a misunderstood American ideal. Reality is gritty: people are first shackled by schools, then personal debts, then costly military interventions and genocide as people pay the price to keep the delusional American dream intact. The parent-teacher-job-Army system keeps everything controlled, dampening the very passions that once kindled the ethos of this country. Instead of basking in the twilight of freedom, youth get shackled with insecurity and ennui.
Combing aspects of skatecore, crust, and foreign formulas via Discharge, Christ on Parade were an acrid band culled from the underground ranks of San Francisco’s Teenage Warning and Treason. They also stirred the attention of iconic illustrator, guitarist, and writer Pushead. This frenetic, sludgy, hoarse-voiced tune feels like it could rip free of its own tempo. It also offers a whole slew of lyrical bile and bite, especially in regards to foreign policy, which it attacks with teeth bared (“America’s a myth, a fucking bad joke, raping the Third World, to give you hope”). The band draws attention to the sticky issue that much of America’s cheap commodity lifestyle comfort is built on the back of exploited labor abroad. So, every time a cheap grape tomato rolls into your mouth, or a cool T-shirt is bought on the sly at Target, the band reminds listeners such choices keep the system intact, to a degree. People vote with dollars spent, not just with ballots.
Photo: Skeeter Franz
Forever associated with Washington, D.C.-based Dischord Records, Scream originated in more obscure Bailey’s Crossroads in Virginia, where it brandished titanic hardcore hooks that later merged with traditional hard rock habits. These breathless tunes from 1983 serve as testaments to the band’s inchoate, fresh take on short sharp fast templates. “U. Suck A” (named after a line in a poem by singer Pete Stahl's father) rages at the “intellectual poverty” and “suburban luxuries” that wilt the nation from “slimy sea to sea”. The band is unwilling to settle for such stagnation; instead, it seeks conflagration and youthful regeneration. With jaunty reggae-inflections and echoing, wiry guitar, “American Justice” looks at legal prejudice on the streets of everyday America, where the down’n’out are subject to search and seizures as police fill jails with the “poor and black”. In this sad hulk of America, depleted of dignity and original imprints of fairness, “American justice has just been faking”. As Stahl informed me in June, "I wrote it after being arrested in New Orleans. The cops set us up, proceeded to threaten us on the way to jail, and beat up my friend when we got there. I spent a night and day I won't forget in Parish Prison and the next few months dealing with the justice system in New Orleans." Scream speaks for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, those lost in the penal system, and other outsider voices deserving recognition.
“I want total liberty!” yelps singer Dave Rubinstein (Dave Insurgent) behind a barrage of roiling tom toms, like a tribal call to overturn the system. The band attempts to resist the slavery of normal society (“bullshit democracy”), wants to forge tits own destiny, and seeks anarchy and peace, as if it is reigniting the fights of Lower East Side radicals from one hundred years earlier (like Alexander Berkman, who stirred a recalcitrant worker class community to seize the means of production and organize themselves). The song combines such old-fashioned renegade urges with an early 1980s potency born from the filthy, furious streets of Mayor Koch’s decaying New York City. Messy, polemical, and haywired, Reagan Youth was a version of hardcore more akin to False Prophets than Kraut, and remains a template for groups trying to balance timeless rough and inventive musicality with insurrection-minded lyrics. Even the Beastie Boys paid homage by covering the chant worthy theme-song “Reagan Youth”.