To me politics and music have always been inseparable. My interest in radical politics came about at the same time as I started listening to punk/new wave in the late seventies and reading the NME. This blog is two years old today – 1 May 2016 – and also two years ago I listed my Top 10 political songs – a personal view on my Facebook page. Now I want to share it with more than just my Facebook friends, so now it’s here.
Have any of the songs changed since it first appeared. No. The list remains as it was in 2014. I can’t find any new songs to replace those here. From the point of view of this blog – animal rights and anarchism – it’s a pity there are no AR tracks. Robert Wyatt’s Pigs came close, but not quite and there are no others I can think of which deserved a shout for the top 10.
So here is the post exactly as it appeared on Facebook two years ago (except for a few links which were changed because they were no longer valid). Enjoy.
I listed my favourite Christmas songs on 24 December, my best love songs on Valentine’s Day, so what better date for my top 10 protest songs than 1st May. May Day has always been a time of pranks, subversion, revolt and protest. Only this time I couldn’t whittle it down to just five, there are too many good ones to choose. The first nine are in no particular order, then my number one. Click on the links to view. See if you agree with me and let me know what you think.
Billie Holiday – “Strange fruit” (1939). The oldest song on the list is about racism and lynchings in the American South, where black people were left hanging from trees. Holiday found it emotionally draining to sing and would only perform it at the end of her show. Sampled by Kanye West on his last album.
Bob Dylan – “The Times they are a-Changing” (1964). The song that made Dylan famous was adopted by the civil rights movement and the anti-war counter culture. It is still one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded.
Tricky – “Black Steel” (1995). Tricky’s version of the Public Enemy song “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” – about a draft dodger escaping from prison – sounds nothing like the original and is one of the best covers ever. Brilliant vocals by Martina Topley-Bird, it appears on his debut album, Maxinquaye.
Crass – “Bloody Revolution” (1980). Perhaps this most political of band’s most controversial song. An anarcho-pacifist critique of violence inspired by a benefit for the Persons Unknown trial in which punks and anarchists fought with fascists. A few years later some members of the band collective would reject pacifism.
Keith LeBlanc – “Malcolm X: No Sell Out” (1984). LeBlanc is best known as a member of the industrial/hip –hop/dub band, Tackhead. Before that he was one of the backing band for Sugarhill Records, the early hip-hop label. This song is a powerful musical collage of hip-hop beats, samples and Malcolm X’s speeches.
Chumbawamba – “Rappaport’s Testament: I Never Gave Up” (1990). The Chumbas are my favourite anarcho band and I saw them loads of times in the eighties. This song, from their album Slap!, is the true story of Leon Rappaport, a concentration camp inmate who refused to let Hitler “get the better of him” despite his certain fact. A true testament to the human spirit and a great dance record.
Plan B – “ill Manors” (2012). Described as “the first great mainstream protest song in years”, Plan B’s commentary on the 2011 riots is visceral and compelling. The video is equally good but I’ve chosen this blistering performance from Later with Jools Holland. Love the masked up string section!
Killer Mike – “Reagan” (2012). Think hip hop is all about bling, hoes and machismo? Then listen to this scorching attack on the culture and values of modern America. Begins with Reagan’s own words on the Iran contra scandal, but is really an indictment of hip-hop’s indirect adoption of his values. An absolutely stunning video as well. This is one you won’t be able to get out of your head.
The Specials – “Ghost Town” (1981). They made loads of good songs but this is the one the Specials will always be remembered for. Thatcherism and the riots of 1980 led to this state of the nation address, but as the single was released in the summer of 1981 a fresh wave of urban disorder erupted. Great records always fit the mood of the times perfectly and this is no exception.
That’s the top 9. And now the winner is…
The Sex Pistols – “God Save the Queen” (1977). How could it be anything else? As a teenager in the late seventies this was the wakeup call, a blast of rebellion, a mighty two fingers up to the establishment. Banned by the BBC and independent local radio, it was hard to even hear it unless you owned a copy. Many did when it was released just before the silver jubilee and it was supposedly kept off the no.1 spot to prevent offence to the Royal Family. Time hasn’t dimmed its visceral power and it still sounds as relevant today as it did 37 years ago. Not just the best political song ever, in my opinion, but a contender for best song, period.