We are constantly told that the protest song is dead. Certainly, in recent years there has been a dearth of openly political content in popular music but student demonstrators recently found solace in Lethal Bizzle, only two years ago Rage Against the Machine were the Christmas number one while Arcade Fire’s tunes are full of implied criticism of Government so I don't think it’s the death knell of protest just yet.
Having said that, the heyday of protest was undoubtedly in the 1960s and 1970s as various minority groups asserted themselves and this was reflected in the music. Just a quick word on scope - I've included only songs that protest rather than those that reflect a particularly miserable time - hence no Ghost Town and no Shipbuilding. Also, I've eliminated numbers which simply express pride in a particular identity rather than protest e.g. Spasticus Autisticus by Ian Dury or Respect by Aretha Franklin. Anyway, here are 10 of the very best songs of anger- if you disagree leave your choices below the article...For more excellent commentary on protest songs check out the recently published 33 Revolutions per minute by Dorian Lynskey.
10. Harrowdown Hill - Thom Yorke (2006)
"We Think The Same Thing At The Same Time, We Just Can't Do Anything About It, We Think The Same Thing At The Same Time, There Are So Many Of Us That You Can't Count"
One of the few musical commentaries on the New Labour years. While Noel Gallagher was off to meet Blair at Downing Street, Thom Yorke was writing this tune about the pressure put on Government Scientist Dr David Kelly during the run up to the Gulf War and his subsequent suicide. A commentary on the force of power over evidence…chilling
9. Killing in the name of - Rage Against The Machine (1992)
'Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses'
An anti-establishment diatribe, but perhaps even more importantly the defeater of Simon Cowell inspired pop when it went head to head with X-Factor winner Joe McCedderly for Christmas number one. It unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve in its anger, suggesting that members of the US police force are members of the Ku Klux Klan and featuring 17 fucks - a call to arms for teenagers everywhere.
8. Fight The Power - Public Enemy (1989)
Public Enemy's whole career was essentially a collection of protest songs but this is probably the one that best articulates their anti-establishment credentials. Famously used in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, it begins with a vocal sample of civil rights activist Thomas "TNT" Todd 'Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it's safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.' The whole track is a proud reflection of Afro-American culture and was voted the greatest hip hop song of all time on VH1.
7. Masters Of War - Bob Dylan (1963)
Supposedly a protest singer, Dylan has repeatedly denounced the label, but this is one of a few of his tracks that undoubtedly carry a protest message (The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll is undoubtedly another).Taken from the traditional Nottamun Town and as relevant today as it was then - rich men build arms and send younger, poorer men to their deaths. Dylan's anger is clear as he wishes death on the protagonists and promises to watch their funeral caskets when they die. Ouch…how did he go from this to advertising Victoria's Secret?!
6. War - Edwin Starr (1970)
'War…what is it good for…absolutely nothin'
Has any line got across so important a message so simply? Probably not. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong it was originally recorded by the Temptations before Starr made it a hit reaching the US number one for three weeks.
5. Zombie - Fela Kuti (1977)
If there is anyone in the world of music who was really a revolutionary, it might well be Fela Kuti. He verbally attacked his own Government on numerous occasions, Zombie being just one example (a commentary on what he saw as a mindless military). In return they killed his mother and destroyed his compound. He responded in return by delivering his mother's coffin to the army barracks and writing Coffin for Head of State. Brilliantly angry and dancy and how many songs can you say that about?
4. Ohio - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1970)
Written by Neil Young and a proper 60's counterculture classic. This tells the story of the killing of 4 students at Kent State University by the police following an anti war march. Its long drawn out story - the misery and sadness reflected in the music. 'Tin soldiers and Nixon coming' left the listener in no doubt who's side the band were on and who was ultimately responsible….
3. Burnin and Lootin - Bob Marley (1973)/Police and Thieves - Junior Murvin (1976)
Impossible to separate these two as they are very similar in feel and delivery. Both reflect the difficulties of the Caribbean communities in the 1970s in Jamaica and London but feel strangely fitting at the current time. Burnin and Lootin was used in the opening credits of French cult Classic La Haine while Police and Thieves sound tracked the Notting Hill Carnival Riots and was covered by the Clash.
2. A change is gonna come - Sam Cooke (1964)
Famously adopted by Barack Obama during his election campaign, this Cooke number saw his move from writing love songs to explore a much deeper seam in relation to the civil rights movement and he used gospel, soul and blues to tell his tale. Other tracks (notably Don't Call Me Niger Whitey by Sly Stone) also touched upon racial injustice but this one did it with real class. Cooke claimed he wrote it off the back of hearing Dylan's Blowing In The Wind….
1. Strange Fruit - Billie Holliday (1939)
"Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze."
Subtlety is something sadly lacking from most protest songs but this example shows that you don't need to be sloganeering or shouting to get your point across. Written by communist Abel Meeropol, it tells in vivid terms the lynching of black men in America's deep south and was perhaps the first real attempt to tell the story of injustice in contemporary song.Holiday was regularly prevented from playing it in her live shows. Some have argued that the song was instrumental in America's black population's articulation of the struggles they faced which would culminate in the civil rights movement years later. Deeply powerful.