The 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.
20. 7 Seconds - "Fuck Your Amerika"
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".
19. Decry - "American Way"
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.
18. Christ on Parade - "America the Myth"
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.
17. Scream - “American Justice" and “U. Suck A."
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.
16. Reagan Youth - "U.S.A."
"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".
15. Pennywise - "God Save the USA"
With surging, marshaled, skatecore spirit and speed, Pennywise eschews trite formulation of "shreddin" and "skate to hell" attitude and instead offers a tough-minded, unblinking assessment of American gone wrong. From "corporate greed and perverted priests" to stolen elections rigged by the GOP, the band members set themselves as defenders of opposition and resistance, all coated with melodic tuneage that even Mom might be enjoy for a minute.
Sure, they are not Profane Resistance crust punk types, but their scalding rancor is still easily felt through the humming din. While decrying the triple hydra head of "Government Hypocrisy -- American Idolatry -- Corporate Philosophy", they resemble a version of Howard Zinn on amphetamines, but become much more readable and compressed, like a real high school education in antithetical feelings American.
14. NOFX - “We Called It America" and others
Apart from the tongue-in-cheek, juvenile delinquent, snot-nosed aspect of NOFX, the group has continued to offer sardonic tunes, replete with vim and vinegar, that even Jonathan Swift might appreciate. In fact, singer Fat Mike was a major force behind Rock Against Bush, so while skateboarders and mall rats might prefer the band's low culture tirades, others realize that such festering, fiery pop-punk is the perfect venue to subvert the public's political sphere via tunes like "We Called It America" (remember the middle class-infused, liberal-leaning, pre-broke America?... now dying in a ditch), "Freedumb" ("Is freedom of expression just a load of shit? Just another farce?" NOFX ponders), the synth-dolloped "Franco Un-American" (which catalogs a youth's change from apathy and ignorance to becoming a blind follower of Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky), and "USA-Holes" (which describes media-saturated, knee-jerk, go-to-war America reading "headlines with sweat and nausea"). If you thought NOFX only wrote simplistic songs about bongs, venereal disease, and enemas, think again.
13. Green Day - "American Idiot"
Some will strenuously argue Green Day lost its authenticity after signing to a major label -- or even worse, by going to Broadway and offering a Tin Pan Alley version of late-capitalist punk. Oh well. Like Nirvana before it, the trio still musters quality, cut-to-the-truth songs with subject matter that Bon Jovi would never touch, like the scalding "subliminal mind-fuck America".
Billie Joe Armstrong may not exactly be the everyman punk anymore, but a mansion on the hill hasn't overshadowed his sense of injustice, especially during the "age of paranoia", when the media environment stirs the citizenry to march lockstep ("do the propaganda") to the redneck agenda. Catchy, irreverent, and stirring, it speaks to the punk's ever-present sense of being outsiders -- faggots, punks, rejects, weirdos, and losers -- as the American dream steamrolls in every direction, squashing diversity and dissent in the pursuit of "one nation" policies. My 13-year-old nephew plugs into Green Day's tunes with unabashed verve, which I much prefer to Justin Beaver's milquetoast grooves.
12. Anti-Flag - "The Bright Lights of America"
From the Middle American rust belt realities of Pittsburgh, Anti-Flag pushed the limits of politics in popular music, signing to RCA but never giving up its brand of zealous radical ideologies. This title track to the album of the same name, which pushed past the barricades of the rock industry and flew the banner of punk rock crusades (the CD featured cut-out stencils and postcards designated to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights).
This tune, however, is more down-to-earth, aimed at teenage fury in go-nowhere America: suburban wasteland U.S.A., "a concrete city hell". where "they sell souls". It's armed with mucho desire and camaraderie, uniting kids of the suburban wasteland and urging them to "to leave this empty ugly place", or at least remake it with Walt Whitman-style ethos. Sure, like the Clash, Anti-Flag produced major corporate product, but the group packed that opportunity tight with dissent and ready-made revolt.
11. TSOL - "American"
Most punks identify early TSOL as a prime example of potent politics, including the group's iconic "Abolish Government/Silent Majority" (covered by Slayer), released in 1981 on Posh Boy. After a disastrous affair with Hollywood Boulevard glam rock in the mid-1980s that left only a single original member standing in the band, TSOL re-united in the 1990s and focused on its signature soundscapes again.
Signed to Nitro Records (the offspring of the Offspring's Dexter Holland), the group released the under-appreciated slab of succinct resistance, Divided We Stand in 2003, a multi-faceted record ripe with flavors culled from past efforts. "America" begins with the lulling gothic shades last seen on Beneath the Shadows and soon shifts into high gear, avoiding Romantic prosody in favor of socio-political analysis of an America gone wrong ("You got no life / And you live in a box afraid").
Yet, these dulled people remain ready to tame and kill those that are different or question the validity of this terminal paranoid lifestyle. Acidic Jack Grisham effortlessly subverts people's fear and prejudices, their mishaps and misjudgments. "I try to deal with underlying conditions, not players", Grisham reminded me in June. "Freedom comes at a price. 9/11 unified America like Pearl Harbor, but we surrendered some freedoms. We need responsibility and discipline to achieve ideals, but there is no quick goal or plan. Like Martin Luther King said, 'We now have guided missiles and misguided men.'"
10. Strike Anywhere - "Sedition"
With ubiquitous urgency, Strike Anywhere unleashes a barrage of politics-soaked hardcore tucked inside a melodic maelstrom. Not unlike beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Strike Anywhere bemoans the disintegration of the United States. The group's philosophical vein is honest, all-encompassing, and left-wing, but it knows no slogans can replace real, hard wrangling to get things done. These themes percolate in wordplay and agitation. "Which lie is the one / That will take me", yelps singer Thomas Barnett in a potent, harrowing use of rhetorical devices. He describes staring at suns and walking the dead ends streets, one foot still inside the American dream of heroic dissent, the other stuck in the collapsed industrial state, paved in dead intentions and "generations of age slave data".
Banks buy Presidents, corporate capital drives democracy, and suburban homes glow with security lights where wild animals once roamed. Barnett chooses not to retreat, but to recall the legacy of his grandfather's own fight for honest pay and work. Stand up and be counted, he breathlessly infers.
9. Adolescents - "Lockdown America"
Their still-buzzing early seminal songs like "Amoeba" and "Kids from the Black Hole" remain a huge part of the punk musical fabric of youth-gone-mad America, but their comeback album OC Confidential in 2005 proved their politics were as fierce and focused as ever as they grew into middle age, even as young Hot Topic bands stole the limelight. Singer Tony Cadena (Tony Reflex) is a barbed poet of lethal caliber, while the music forged by Derek O'Brien (fine-fingered former drummer of Social Distortion) is a surging force. Taking no prisoners, they unleash their vehemence at America's darker tendencies, such as backfiring colonial aims ("Pax Americana"), floundering ideals ("a dying democracy"), and major indifference ("sweep it under the rug"). With tuneful tenacity, the Adolescents combine surf-punk prowess with vetted, true and tried, bona fide punk ideas that should make any old Yippie or 1982 Dead Kennedys admirer shake a fist or turn a flag upside down.
8. MDC - "America's So Straight"
Reeling with disgust and indignation, Dave Dictor pounces on prejudice and pummels the homophobic narratives spewed by normal dominant society. Formed first as the Stains in the gender-bending punk scene of Austin, TX -- where lead singers such as Gary Floyd of the Dicks and Randy "Biscuit" Turner of the Big Boys proved that punk was shaped by queer sensibilities -- MDC attacks small-minded, straight-laced heterosexual mumbo jumbo. Part an ode to streetwalkers, men in drag, and true sexual freedom, Dictor unleashes the protagonist "rebel rebel on the street, make-up on my face, stockings on my feet" to confront the jeers of men. In doing so, Dictor tests the limits of freedom, which irks so many bystanders.
"Call this the land of the free... home of the brave... they call me a queen... just another human being", the persona recounts, years before ACT UP and Queer Nation took to protesting and clashing. Few bands in the early 1980s were willing to stake such an intractable position on gay and lesbian rights, so this song is mighty prescient and powerful, insightful and incendiary.
7. The Ramones - "Planet Earth 1988"
The Ramones are forever link to pinhead, bubblegum, and teen psycho cartoon punk by many writers dismissing their larger, varied, and complex style. "Planet Earth 1988" proves the depth of their conscience right at the peak of hardcore in New York City, when the Cro-Mags, Bad Brains, Cause for Alarm, and Agnostic Front reigned. The Ramones did not turn a cheek to world events, nor did they play up their pop modes on Too Tough to Die which remains one of their most bitter and treacherous albums.
Penned by Dee Dee Ramone in a fit of clairvoyance, the songs lyrics read like a heading from today's newspapers: "The solution to peace isn't clear / The terrorist threat is a modern fear / There are no jobs for the young / They turn to crime, turn to drugs." He places the blame on Cold War powers concerned far more about guerrilla armies than Christmas seasons, and war machines rather than goodwill and peace. Dismissed as pop fodder, the Ramones remain controversial, contradictory, and poetic American icons.
6. Hüsker Dü - "In a Free Land"
Though these Minnesota natives were often more associated with emotional hardcore, the personal politics of frustration and unease, this track proves they could also deconstruct American idealism. Knowing that 2/3 of the band were closeted gays at the time further fuels the debate about the song's significance. Perhaps latent in the lyrical palate is an urge to find freedom in both a country and underground music scene that made false promises and pretended to honor difference while squashing dissent.
"Nostalgia is a symptom of a dying culture", drummer/singer Grant Hart said in the liner notes to the live album The Living End, yet this tune represents, in clarion call urgency, a nostalgia for the roots of American liberty, independence, and respect. In Bob Mould's brash narrative, students are subjected to a "government that authorize education... they'll teach you want they want you to think... saturation, stars and stripes." Hüsker Dü's blitzkrieg bombast bop delivery is what made it famous, especially when anchored by such terse, puncturing prose and razor-sharp musical skills.
5. The Freeze - "American Town"
These often unheralded heroes of gritty East Coast punk easily meld surfy, rhythmic roil with anthemic punch. The Freeze wrote detail-rich, sarcastic narratives that hit deep and hard. Released in 1982, this hostile slab is catchy as hell as it catalogs stagnation and ennui in everyday America, where cops are crooks, the factories loom large, and the Army can't wait to induct the masses into its ranks. The breakaway urges and need for genuine brouhaha is heartfelt, for the persona delineates a need to break his mold before getting old.
The world spins around, but the locals stand still, deferring the dreams of youth as bankers count their profits. Young teens drop acid, others get into rousing drunk car rides, while still others head for the state borders, willing to leave it all behind like so many beatniks and punks, and face the unknown and uncertainty. As always, punks seek the flux and tension of modern life, not stalemates.
4. DOA - "America the Beautiful"
Since 1978, DOA has ripped and shredded right-wing rhetoric while establishing itself as the hardest working band in underground music. A trailblazer on par with Black Flag, it left no locale unvisited, it seems, while changing line-ups like most people change air filters. DOA's resilient politics -- epitomized by tireless soapbox punk orator Joey Shithead -- have remained firmly liberal, green, and working class, while the band's music has blended the Sex Pistols with Bachman Turner Overdrive with fiery aplomb.
This gem from 1982, cut for the meteoric "War on 45" single, might come via the northern climes of Canada, but it timelessly fits America's ongoing pitched political battles: "Lock your doors, lock 'em tight / It's the new immoral right / They want to cleanse the home of the brave / For the master race of the USA". During the heated debate about immigration this election cycle, hum this vociferous song.
3. Articles of Faith - "American Dreams"
With furious, almost d-beat speed and double-guitar tumult, these Chicago hardcore pioneers attack the scale and devastation of patriotic schemes, linking blood and war to the darker shade of the American spirit. Instead of cataloging individual episodes and incidents, singer Vic Bondi uses a soldier's persona to explore first-hand malevolence and describe violence binding both victor and the victim, making each a slave to calamitous forces. "Look what's happened to my hands. I can't get past the blood on them", the narrator admits, evoking the tragedy of a fight, once considered righteous, being submerged in lies.
The battlefield gives way to post-traumatic nightmares and prescribed pills; meanwhile, the good fortune of men is lost forever, left behind in the conflict zone, just as the same men sent to defend ideas are later denied their own tongues, their own voices. Hence, the resulting exasperation and final curtain call "I've had enough of American dreams". As singer Vic Bondi told me in June, "It was definitely on the vibe of American dreams often being nightmares -- repressed, fragmented experiences that fester and turn monstrous. They explode in reality and shatter everything around them. The Vietnam legacy, that cowboy dream of being free on the frontier to kill whomever, was definitely part of that song. I'm not immune from the desire, or above it, which makes it all the more frightening."
2. Bad Religion - "You Are (The Government)"
By 1989, much of the hardcore scene had melted away, though bands like Fugazi shed light on new possibilities such as breaking the mold of the musical template. Bad Religion opted to return with tour de force gusto and a back-to-basics approach, forging a melodic punk sound that has remained entrenched in the internationalized genre ever since. The lead track is a two-minute torpedo of American truths, rooted in the dreams of rebels that pushed back the British. Yet, as Bad Religion notes, that spirit needs to be dusted off, rekindled, even atomized.
The group pushes the creed of direct democracy in action, not the blunders of corporate technocracy and mind-forged manacles: "Puritan work ethic maintains its subconscious edge as old glory maintains your consciousness." Break away, Bad Religion suggests, and immerse oneself back into the fine forces of jurisprudence, volition, and jurisdiction. Understand the workings of law, peace, and prosperity, it implores, before corrupt laws and politicians limit people even further.
1. The Avengers -- "The American in Me"
Very few bands have released such scant material and become such a huge part of the American punk idiom as the Avengers, who inspired everybody from Jello Biafra to Bikini Kill. Their singular, uncompromising vision made meaningful, muscular music for the heady days of San Francisco's late 1970s unrest, all under the sharp intelligence of leading lady Penelope Houston, who has bounced back every so often to reform the band and thrill audiences all over again. "Ask not what you can do for your country", she asks, appropriating, slicing, and dicing the words of John F. Kennedy, "What's your country been doing to you?"
In the shadow of COINTELPRO and FBI probes, the right-wing tilt towards Ronald Reagan's vision of America, and a bitter legacy towards women, people of color, the Third World, and gays and lesbians, the song remains a super-heated mile marker of punk intransigence. With rebel yell panache, the band takes pop music's strut and remakes it with pogo possibilities and tireless two-minute wit.
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This article originally published on 3 July 2012.