Part 4: Heaven 17 to N.W.A. (1981-1988)

Artist: Heaven 17
Album: Penthouse and Pavement
Label: Caroline
US Release Date: 2006-10-03
UK Release Date: 2006-08-07

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

From the album Penthouse and Pavement (Virgin)

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 GibronHeaven 17: Penthouse and Pavement

Artist: Minor Threat
Album: Minor Threat [EP]
Label: Dischord
US Release Date: 1981-06-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

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Minor Threat: “Straight Edge”

From the Minor Threat EP (Dischord)

Minor Threat was the defining band of the legendary early ’80s D.C. hardcore scene, and its discography is widely regarded as amazing, no matter what kind of intoxicants you do or don’t dig. “Straight Edge” might not be the band’s strongest track, but the idealistic protest against all things inebriating had an unprecedented impact on punk rock. The rare protest against drugs and alcohol not born from uptight religious morality, “Straight Edge” was quite the opposite of square. Ian McKaye’s lyrics indicted substance abuse as being lame, mainstream, and status quo, and made it seem like common sense. This single song unintentionally coined the name and outlook for a whole multifaceted and oft misunderstood movement within hardcore punk. As the genre has undergone numerous shifts in sound and style over the past 25 years, intrascene arguments about the minutia of the song’s message, its impact, and its overall importance have sprung up, and are discussed with an almost comically Talmudic degree of scrutiny. Regardless of where you stand on Straight Edge as a movement or an antifashion, “Straight Edge” is a protest song with a staggering impact on a particular subculture, from a band that remains uniformly acknowledged as incredible.

Matthew A. Stern

Minor Threat: Minor Threat [EP]

Artist: The Specials
Album: Ghost Town b/w Why? and Friday Night Saturday Morning
Label: 2 Tone
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 1981-06-20

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The Specials: “Ghost Town”

Single; available on The Singles Collection (2 Tone/Chrysalis)

“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

The Specials: Ghost Town b/w Why? and Friday Night Saturday Morning

Artist: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
Album: The Message
Label: Sugar Hill
US Release Date: 1982-01-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

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Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message”

From the album The Message (Sugar Hill)

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

Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message

Artist: Robert Wyatt
Album: Shipbuilding b/w Memories of You and Round Midnight
Label: Rough Trade
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 1982-01-01

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Robert Wyatt: “Shipbuilding”

Single; available on His Greatest Misses (Hannibal)

Though Wyatt could be much more blatant in his Socialist propaganda, this sweet effecting antiwar 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

Robert Wyatt: Shipbuilding b/w Memories of You and Round Midnight

Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Born in the U.S.A. b/w Shut Out the Light
Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 1984-10-30
UK Release Date: Available as import

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Bruce Springsteen: “Born in the U.S.A.”

From the album Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)

By 2000, the only people left on the planet who actually believed “Born in the U.S.A.” was a love letter to American ass-kicking were apparently Republicans and Pat Buchanan, who, in a interpretive fuckup that registered never-before-seen readings on the irony meter, used the song as intro music during his stillborn presidential campaign that year. Hilariously, this came nearly 15 years after Ronald Reagan gave Springsteen an unwanted shout-out (given that in ’80, Springsteen called Reagan’s election terrifying) and Lee Iacocca tried to sell cars with it. To be fair, Springsteen didn’t do himself any favors by outfitting the song — about an irreparably damaged Vietnam veteran — with one of the most anthemic hooks of all time, nor by stamping Old Glory on the album cover and appearing onstage as Joe Lunchpail. But by 2000, a child could have realized “Born in the U.S.A.” is hardly a tribute to war, but rather a dark and alarmingly rare look at the cost to the actual humans sent into it. Springsteen caught onto the confusion he created pretty quickly, and by his 1996 acoustic tour had powerfully rebuilt the track as a raw dirge on the 12-string, finally letting breathe the words that had been buried for nearly 20 years. The final lines, “Nowhere to run, nowhere to go…” drift away while Springsteen tapped a rhythm on his guitar that sounded suspiciously like a heartbeat. Even Pat Buchanan couldn’t have misunderstood that message.

Jeff Vrabel

Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. b/w Shut Out the Light

Artist: Artists United Against Apartheid
Album: Sun City [12″]
Label: Manhattan
US Release Date: 1985-11-01
UK Release Date: 1985-11-01

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Artists United Against Apartheid: “Sun City”

From the album Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid (Razor & Tie)

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 noncommittal 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-activist movement.

Bill Gibron

Artists United Against Apartheid: Sun City [12″]

Artist: Dead Kennedys
Album: Frankenchrist
Label: Alternative Tentacles
US Release Date: 1985-10-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

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Dead Kennedys: “MTV — Get off the Air”

From the album Frankenchrist (Alternative Tentacles)

What it claimed in its relentlessly self-aggrandizing, self-promoting agenda in the early ’80s was that it was an iconoclastic trailblazer changing the course of music history. But what MTV left out was that it was, in fact, “of, by, and for corporate America” — specifically, major record labels, for which MTV served as a 24-hour infomercial. Witness the worst that the FM dial had to offer — from crappy AOR like Toto to pathetic pop like Madonna — set to vapid images. And yet, MTV was basically given a free pass by the vast majority of the music world — until Dead Kennedys spoke up with “MTV — Get off the Air”, that is. Mixing equal doses of humor and commentary, the song begins with a funky beat and pitch-altered chant of “Fun fun fun in the fluffy chair / Flame up the herb / Woof down the beer” as Jello Biafra does an exuberantly mean imitation of MTV video jockey J.J. Jackson with the promise “to help destroy what’s left of your imagination.” And by the time the song shifts to blazing punk, the so-called “artists” on MTV get theirs: “See the latest rejects from The Muppet Show shake their tits and their dicks as they lip-sync on screen.” The industry is controlled by “tin-eared, graph-paper-brained accountants.” MTV has come up with a few good programs since then, but has anything changed with the music industry itself?

Doug SheppardDead Kennedys: Frankenchrist

Artist: Faith No More
Album: We Care a Lot
Label: Mordam
US Release Date: 1985-01-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

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Faith No More: “We Care a Lot”

From the album We Care a Lot (Mordam)

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

Faith No More: We Care a Lot

Artist: Joni Mitchell
Album: Dog Eat Dog
Label: Geffen
US Release Date: 1985-10-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

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Joni Mitchell: “Dog Eat Dog”

From the album Dog Eat Dog (Geffen)

Apathy was popular in 1985, Joni Mitchell was not. On Dog Eat Dog, her second album for Geffen Records, Mitchell explored the very unromantic themes of tax cuts, rampant consumerism, starvation, corporate greed, and media manipulation. Among this bleak menagerie stood the title track, which brilliantly unveiled the hypocrisy endemic to religious and governmental institutions. Mitchell cited “Dog Eat Dog” as her political awakening after being robbed by “thieves and sycophants” in the state of California: “It’s dog eat dog / I’m just waking up / The dove is in the dungeon / And the whitewashed hawks / Peddle hate and call it love”, she sings ominously. Her protest was observational. She was witnessing a “culture in decline”, expedited by the public’s obliviousness to the insidious ripple effect of Reaganomics and a strengthening Christian right. The economic divide widened under false promises of trickle-down economics, which appeared to benefit only the small percentage of Americans who lived in diamond-studded tax brackets. Listeners, perhaps still under the spell of a charismatic commander-in-chief, were not ready in 1985 to heed Mitchell’s chilling observation — “Holy Hope in the hands of snakebite evangelists and racketeers and bigwig financiers.” How prophetic “Dog Eat Dog” rings today.

Christian WikaneJoni Mitchell: Dog Eat Dog

Artist: The Ramones
Album: Bonzo Goes to Bitburg b/w Go Home Ann and Daytime Dilemma [12″]
Label: Beggars Banquet
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 1985-06-01

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The Ramones: “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)”

From the album Animal Boy (Sire)

It’s strange how one of the most vehement protest songs rock ‘n’ roll gave us during the ’80s came courtesy of a band that many had considered to be on its last legs. Five years removed from their glory years, the Ramones were mired in a musical rut in 1985, but a controversial visit by President Ronald Reagan to a military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany lit a spark under one Jeffrey Hyman, known by most as Joey Ramone. Whenever the Ramones dabbled in political themes in the past, the results were always tongue-in-cheek (“Havana Affair”, “Commando”), but upon seeing news footage of Reagan visiting the graves of Nazi SS members, Joey, a fervent Jewish Democrat, got serious. Co-written with bandmate Dee Dee Ramone and former Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir, “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” seethes with anger, Joey spitting his lyrics (“You’re a politician / Don’t become one of Hitler’s children”), but is ingeniously offset by one of the band’s most contagious melodies from that decade, and Joey’s venom is countered by cheeky “ah, na na na” vocals in the background. The band might have been well past its prime, and fervent Republican Johnny Ramone was none too pleased with the song, but “Bonzo” remains one of Joey’s finest moments on record.

Adrien Begrand

The Ramones: Bonzo Goes to Bitburg b/w Go Home Ann and Daytime Dilemma [12″]

Artist: Suzanne Vega
Album: Luka b/w Straight Lines (Live)
Label: A&M
US Release Date: 1987-01-01
UK Release Date: 1987-01-01

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Suzanne Vega: “Luka”

From the album Solitude Standing (A&M)

Songs about children — never mind abused children — carry a high risk of sentimentality, but Suzanne Vega’s biggest hit, “Luka”, worked all the more powerfully because of the way it skirted any sort of smarminess. The song, written from the perspective of a little boy named Luka, is a heartbreakingly tough snapshot of a battered soul. Luka’s not asking for your sympathy and he doesn’t want your help, and yet there’s a pathos in the way he makes sense of his situation. “I think it’s cause I’m clumsy / I try not to talk too loud,” he observes, then, “Maybe it’s because I’m crazy / I try not to act too proud.” Vega has said in interviews that she wrote the song after observing a young boy who didn’t seem to fit in with his peers; she didn’t think he was abused, but he got her thinking about children who were. It’s a clear-eyed, indelible portrait of a boy who seems specific and real, yet universal. His chorus of “You’re only hit until you cry / Don’t ask questions / Don’t ask why” was sort of shocking on late ’80s commercial radio, and yet it got a good number of people asking about it. It’s one measure of the song’s unlikely popularity that it appeared briefly on a Simpsons‘ episode; when Homer sings your political lyrics, you know you’ve made an impact.

Jennifer Kelly

Suzanne Vega: Luka b/w Straight Lines (Live)

Artist: N.W.A.
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Label: Reckless
Label: Priority
US Release Date: 2007-02-28

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N.W.A.: “Fuck tha Police”

From the album Straight Outta Compton (Priority)

Before the controversy surrounding the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart scandal, in which police officers were accused of asphyxiating alleged gang members, and before the Rodney King trial and the Los Angeles riots that followed, there was “Fuck tha Police”. West Coast rap crew N.W.A. (made up of rappers Eazy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and producers Dr. Dre and DJ Yella), were self-described “Niggaz With Attitudes” who sought and secured a platform for dealing with racism in the justice system. The song offered a realistic description of police brutality along with a satisfying fantasy of invulnerability in the face of it. Its sheer power put the world on notice and also prompted a concerned letter from the FBI. In crafting one of greatest hip-hop records ever, the group took aim at tactics like racial, economic, and age profiling, as well as the problem of black cops seeking acceptance within police culture by being aggressive against minorities. The genius of the track, though, is the presentation: the crew’s shoe-on-the-other-foot courtroom parody, illustrating how false testimony and misconduct can run rampant. Calling the case “N.W.A. versus the Police Department”, “Fuck the Police” has Judge Dre presiding over a trial filled with testimonial verses from Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E, which culminates with a police officer being found guilty of being “a redneck, white-bread, chickenshit muthafucka.”

Quentin Huff

N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton