Songs in the Key of Strife
Message in the music:
Here are some notable political/issue songs, from the left and right, that crossed over to become mainstream hit singles. They are listed in alphabetical order by artist, and we've indicated where they peaked on Billboard's Hot 100. This isn't meant to be a complete list (and some tracks considered iconic, such as the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter", didn't chart as singles). It's merely a reflection of some of the socially oriented pop hits of the past 45 years:
The Beatles, "Revolution" (1968) Chart peak: No. 12
The Fab Four countered some of the late-'60s extremism with this mocking track.
The Clash, "Rock the Casbah" (1982) Chart peak: No. 8
One of the more controversial tracks from the British left-wing punk band, this became an anthem for many American soldiers in the first Gulf War. The song, supposedly inspired by an Iranian crackdown on pop music, was the group's highest-charting U.S. single.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Fortunate Son" (1969) Chart peak: No. 14
John Fogerty attacked what he saw as the unfairness of a draft system that sent working-class kids to fight in Vietnam while their better-off friends got deferments.
Crosby Stills Nash & Young, "Ohio" (1970) Chart peak: No. 14
This track was inspired by events at Ohio's Kent State University where four students were killed by National Guardsmen during a Vietnam War protest.
Dion, "Abraham, Martin & John" (1968) Chart peak: No. 4
A salute to two presidents and a civil rights leader, this touching tribute was less a protest than a plea for understanding.
Bob Dylan, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (1965) Chart peak: No. 39
Features the oft-quoted line, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
Grandmaster Flash, "The Message" (1982) Chart peak: No. 62
This blast of muted rage was arguably the most potent example of urban social protest to hit the charts since Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" in 1973.
Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" (1971) Chart peak: No. 2
"What's Going On" encapsulates in a few minutes both the anger and despair of many dealing with the fallout from the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and civil unrest in the '70s.
The Guess Who, "American Woman" (1970) Chart peak: No. 1
It was a group of Canadians who gave an angry shout to their neighbors south of the border in this anti-imperialist rant later covered by Lenny Kravitz.
Impressions, "People Get Ready" (1965) Chart peak: No. 14
Carried skyward by Curtis Mayfield's distinctive vocals and a sense of angelic calm, it's also a low-key encouragement to join the civil rights movement.
Toby Keith, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)" (2002) Chart peak: No. 25
In the aftermath of 9-11, Keith's rousing dose of musical patriotism resonated with many Americans, while others decried it as pandering and jingoistic.
Barry McGuire, "Eve of Destruction" (1965) Chart peak: No. 1
This folkie anthem of unease captured the mood of a decade in transition.
John Cougar Mellencamp, "Rain on the Scarecrow" (1986) Chart peak: No. 21
Mellencamp has recorded many socially aware songs and this one was an anguished plea for the survival of the family farm and small-town life.
Midnight Oil, "Beds Are Burning" (1988) Chart peak: No. 17
The plight of Australia's Aborigines is the focus of this song from one of the most popular, and ferociously political, bands to emerge from the far side of the Pacific.
Peter Paul & Mary, "Blowin' in the Wind" (1963) Chart peak: No. 2
Peter Paul & Mary took this Bob Dylan song into the Top 10. R&B singer Sam Cooke saw in it as a cry for racial justice and later recorded his own version.
Public Enemy, "Give It Up" (1994) Chart peak: No. 33
Though other tracks, namely "Fight the Power" and "Don't Believe the Hype", are better known among hip-hop fans, "Give It Up" is the one that got this incendiary rap group onto contemporary-hit radio.
Rage Against the Machine, "Guerrilla Radio" (1999) Chart peak: No. 69
A head-slamming call to arms against political and musical apathy, "Guerrilla Radio" helped turn the politically charged RATM into a modern-rock radio staple in the '90s.
Barry Sadler, "Ballad of the Green Berets" (1966) Chart peak: No. 1
Sadler was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces when he recorded this track, which was seen as a response to the pessimism of the likes of Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction".
Gordon Sinclair, "The Americans (A Canadian's Opinion)" (1974) Chart peak: No. 24
Canadian radio/TV host Sinclair recorded a spoken-word toast to American ingenuity, bravery and charity. It's hard to believe there was a time when a speech could get major airplay on commercial radio.
Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the USA" (1984) Chart peak: No. 9
Often misunderstood by those of all political persuasions who listen only to the chorus, it's actually a slam against the ill treatment of Vietnam War veterans.
Edwin Starr, "War" (1970) Chart peak: No. 1
With its shouted, sing-along chorus "War" is one of the most hard-hitting protest songs to hit the charts. Springsteen's version reached No. 8 in 1986.
Sting, "Russians" (1985) Chart peak: No. 16
The former leader of the Police lashes out at the American and Russian intransigence of the Cold War.
Styx, "Show Me the Way" (1991) Chart peak: No. 3
A re-edited version of this, featuring the voices of children whose parents were stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, transformed it into an anthem.
Temptations, "Ball of Confusion" (1970) Chart peak: No. 3
The ever-smooth Temptations weren't known for politically pointed singles, but this litany of the world's late-20th century woes proved to be the exception.
Stevie Wonder, "You Haven't Done Nothin'" (1974) Chart peak: No. 1
In the early '70s, Wonder released a batch of socially themed albums, including "Fulfillingness' First Finale", which included this jab at the Nixon administration.