A couple of years ago, I recorded a discussion called ‘Truth Comedy’ with Julian Charles for his excellent alternative media website/podcast ‘The Mind Renewed’, in which we explored how comedy can be used to reveal inner and outer truths, using various reference points such as Bill Hicks, Andy Kaufman and the films ‘Being There’ and ‘Dr Strangelove’. Following on from this, I propose music as another way of finding truths, and of course just as Hicks and the rest used rhythms of speech and humorous situations to provoke thought, here we have rhythms of music doing the same thing.
In my own 30 years of playing, listening to and analyzing music, I’ve been constantly amazed by the power of what are in the end just expressions of different frequencies of sound combined (sometimes but not always)with combinations of words, to express such a bountiful variety of thoughts and emotions and to create such visceral reactions in the listener. For the purposes of trying to cover at least some small fraction of this enormous topic, I’ll discount the most extreme experimental pieces, running the gamut from total silence to ‘noise rock’, except to say that conceptual music, which fits somewhere into the broader field of conceptual art, has its place in that it never fails to engender a reaction, which may reveal some truth about the listener as it doesn’t allow them the luxury (or perhaps shield) of something tangible to follow.
First, a few quotes about truth from various well-known people, including musicians
‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’- Oscar Wilde
‘The truth will set you free but first it’ll piss you off’- 12 steps to Happiness book
‘The truth.’ Dumbledore sighed. ‘It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.’- J.K. Rowling (from the Harry Potter Series)
’Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love’ -Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov
‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’- George Orwell (n.b. when is it not a time of universal deceit?)
‘The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.’- Flannery O’Connor
‘The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are, to be true to yourself. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first’- Jim Morrison
‘I think our society is being run by maniacs for maniacal ends, and this is what I sussed when I was 12. If anyone can tell me what the British, American, Chinese and Russian governments etc..are actually trying to do, I’d like to know. I think they’re all insane, and I’m likely to be put away as insane for saying that’ – John Lennon
‘The only truth is music’- Jack Kerouac
Among the social movements that have an associated body of songs are the abolition movement, women’s suffrage, the labor movement, the human rights movement, civil rights, the anti-war movement and 1960s counterculture, the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, the gay rights movement, animal rights movement, vegetarianism and veganism, and environmentalism. I suppose you could now add to this the ‘conspiracy movement’, also known as ‘the alternative media’.
A question to ask from the outset is which types of music and approach work best to make overt protests, subtle comments on society and comments about inner struggle. Should they be direct, abstract, ironic, happy, sad, angry, funny, wistful? In fact, all of these approaches plus many more have been tried, and in a variety of styles.
As mentioned already, it’s only possible to scratch the surface but here are a number of examples with lyrical references, roughly chronological at least in era. As well as finding songs I hadn’t previously heard, I’ve drawn on a lot of my own musical taste, suggestions from others and, in the case of the Civil Rights-era protest songs, a podcast from the highly-recommended ‘Sound Opinions’ series.
Leadbelly- Jim Crow Blues (c.1930s)
The Jim Crow laws, which lasted from late 19th century until 1965, were state and local laws enforcing racial segregation in the Southern USA. This segregation included public schools, public places, public transport, restrooms, restaurants, drinking fountains, federal workplaces and the military. Folk-blues legend Leadbelly, whose real name was Huddie Leadbetter, performed this song from the 1930s as a languid walking blues, reflecting world-weariness and a slow struggle to change.
‘I been traveling from toe to toe, Everywhere I have been I find some old Jim Crow. One thing, people, I want everybody to know, you’re gonna find some Jim Crow, every place you go. Georgia’s a mighty good place to go, and get together, break up this old Jim Crow’
Ozie Waters- Old Man Atom (1950)
Composed in 1945 by California newspaperman Vern Partlow (1910-1987) and recorded in 1950, the verses are delivered at a brisk pace with bright organ in the style of a knowing schoolteacher educating his students, and employ among other things wordplay, a reference to Shakespeare and a pun on Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase in the American Declaration of Independence. This is followed by a switch to an operatic voice in the chorus, which references Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese cities onto which the American Atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945.
‘I‘m gonna preach you all a sermon about Old Man Atom, I don’t mean the Adam that Mother Eve elated, I mean that thing that science liberated
The thing that Einstein says he’s scared of, and when Einstein’s scared, Brother, I’m scared’
‘Whether you’re black, white, red or brown, the question is this when you boil it down. To be or not to be, that’s the question. If you’re scared of the atom, here’s what you gotta do, You gotta gather all the people in the world with you. ‘Cause if you don’t get together and do it, well, first thing you know I’m gonna blow this world plum to….. Hiroshima, Nagasaki etc….’
‘I hold this truth to be self-evident
That all men may be cremated equal
So listen folks, here is my thesis
Peace in the world or the world in pieces’
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s contributed a great deal to the genre of ‘protest music’, with the March on Washington on August 28th 1963 being one of the key early events both for its political impact and its bringing together of different styles of music and ideas (as well as skin colours of performers) in a common cause. The March is undoubtedly best known for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. King’s speeches were poetic and powerful, and had their own particular rhythm and cadences, as he would start slowly in a low tone and gradually rise to a tremendous crescendo. His words used powerful imagery, such as when he talked of ‘the state of Missisippi, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression’, being ‘transformed into an oasis of fredom and justice’. Not surprisingly, videos have been made of MLK’s speech set to music. Now, what would you imagine would be the best music for this?. Below are links to 2 attempts, one featuring stirring strings in the classical style, the other more tranquil synth music but with a pumping, 2-note motif, perhaps signifying a relentless drive to change
In terms of music itself at The March, there was a melding of gospel and folk among other styles. It’s not hard to imagine how gospel would be a great medium for passionate outpourings of the wrongs and injustices of society, with its held high notes and lyrics designed for choruses and choirs singing in unison with one voice, perhaps augmented with sparing high harmonies. The Reverend Clay Evans, a prominent preacher in Chicago in this era, would sing his sermons and later went on to become a recording artist. Marian Anderson, famous for singing a concert on Easter Day 1939 to 75,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, sang the traditional spiritual ‘Deep River’ at The March, and Mahelia Jackson sang ‘How I Got Over’, a song written by activist Clara Ward following an incident where her group were besieged by a group of white men en route to Atlanta, Georgia. The men were enraged that black women were riding in a luxury vehicle (in this case a Cadillac), and proceeded to surround their car and terrorise them with racist taunts. The women were rescued when, in a burst of inspiration, one of their party Gertrude Ward feigned demonic possession, spewing curses and incantations at the men, who duly fled. Jackson sings the lyrics with great power and relentless passion, symbolizing not only her great faith in the Lord but also the movement’s great belief in the importance of their struggle. It’s no surprise that this song would later be sung by another singer with an extremely powerful delivery, namely Aretha Franklin
‘We’re gonna join the heavenly choir, we’re gonna sing and never get tired
We’ve got to thank god, thank him for peace, so good to me’
’I will sing hallelujah, trouble over
I wanna thank Jesus for all he’s done for me
How I got over, over
My soul look back and wonder how I got over’
Odetta sang ‘I’m On My Way’, the main refrain being ‘thank god I’m on my way’, and many songs of the time featured overlapping voices singing the same relentless passages signalling a people united in a common struggle.
Also at The March were The Freedom Singers. Formed in 1962 in Albany, Georgia, they travelled around the country giving concerts and also being locked up, subjected to fire hoses and tear gas and putting their lives on the line for their career and their message. 2 of their most famous songs were ‘I’ll Overcome Someday’, later adapted by many others to the highly significant ‘We Shall Overcome’ (see below), and ‘Free At Last’, which was quoted by MLK at the end of the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
Worthy of mention as well are The Staple Singers, a legendary gospel band with a very strong sense of their duty as singers with a message. ‘Freedom Highway’ was recorded in 1965 and inspired by an incident in March of that year when 600 marchers were travelling through Selma on their way to a march in Montgomery to protest the killing of another civil rights worker and were attacked by police with dogs, clubs and tear gas, the incident later called ‘Bloody Sunday’ for its carnage. The verses speak of the confusion that
‘There is just one thing I can’t understand, my friend
Why some folks think freedom is not designed for all men
There are so many people living their lives perplexed
Wondering in their minds what’s gonna happen next’
The answer is to:
‘March the freedom highway, march each and every day
Made up my mind, and I won’t turn around’, repeated over and over
In 1971, the Singers recorded ‘When Will We Be Paid’,
which brings to light the entirety of African-American history up to that point, including slavery, the construction of the railroads, and highways, and demands payment and reparations for the horrors and exploitation of the working class African Americans.
’We have worked this country from shore to shore
Our women cooked all your food and washed all your clothes
We picked all your cotton and laid the railroad steel
Worked our hands to the bone at your lumber mill’
‘We fought in your wars in every land
To keep this country free for women, children and men
We been beat up, called names, shot down and stoned
Every time we do right, someone say we’re wrong
When will we be paid for the work we’ve done?’
Representing folk at The March were Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Baez had a haunting and gospel-tinged soprano voice, with notes held long and with great earnestness. Together they performed among other songs Dylan’s ‘When The Ship Comes In’, which was originally inspired by a hotel clerk’s refusal to give the young singer a room due to his unkempt appearance but which took on an epic quality and seemed to be a message to the oppressive ‘powers that be’ of the coming change in mood when the oppressed would take over. Dylan also performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, a song he’d previously sung at a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi and which refers to the murder of Medgar Evers, who was the Mississippi leader of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People)
Another stalwart of the folk protest scene at that time was Pete Seeger, who came from a musical family and whose father had been hired to establish the music department at the University of California in Berkeley just prior to the outbreak of World War I before being forced to resign due to his outspoken opposition to the war. Seeger, who eventually lived to 94, recorded and performed a string of significant songs, 2 of them being ‘What Did You Learn in School?’ and the traditional ‘We Shall Overcome’, a spiritual adapted from a hymn first published in 1900 and most recently performed by Joan Baez in the White House in front of Barack Obama in 2010 at a celebration of music from the Civil Rights era. It’s worth noting that many at the time criticized Baez for her performance, citing that it appeared to glorify Obama and connect him to Civil Rights, where in reality he was conspicuous for his lack of action, not to mention his adoption of Martin Luther King’s speaking style without any of the sincerity and commitment to an end product.
In ‘What Did You Learn In School’, the banjo-picking Seeger sings a conversation between a parent and their child, choosing an ironic jaunty style to reflect the cheery confidence that the masses naively appear(ed) to have in the view of the world given to them by their glorious leaders, whether they be in the White House or the school.
‘What did you learn in school today, dear little child of mine?’
‘I learned that Washington never told a lie, I learned that soldiers seldom die. I learned that everybody’s free, And that’s what the teacher said to me.
I learned that policemen are my friends, I learned that justice never ends. I learned that murderers die for their crimes, Even if we make a mistake sometimes.
I learned our Government must be strong, it’s always right and never wrong, Our leaders are the finest men, and we elect them again and again.
I learned that war is not so bad, I learned about the great ones we have had. We fought in Germany and in France, and someday I might get my chance. That’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned in school’
The simple directness of ‘We Shall Overcome’’s lyrics meant they were made to be sung by large numbers, as they were on countless occasions, not least at the finale of The Newport Folk Festival of 1963 where the group included Seeger, Baez and Dylan
‘Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.
We’ll walk hand in hand,
We shall live in peace,
We are not afraid, we are not afraid, today
We shall overcome some day’
Jazz also played a role in Civil Rights, including avant-garde jazz (sometimes referred to as avant-garde a clue by sceptics!)
The legendary John Coltrane produced a tone poem called Alabama, referring to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan on September 15, 1963, an attack that killed four girls. A tone poem is defined as ‘a piece of orchestral music, usually in a single continuous movement, which illustrates or evokes the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other (non-musical) source’. Without lyrics to explain its content, this piece required listeners to ‘imagine or consider scenes, images, specific ideas or moods, and not (necessarily) to focus on following traditional patterns of musical form’. Coltrane successfully creates an ominous mood in the music, despite some of its passages being slow and relaxed, by use of fast, wild clusters of notes on his tenor sax, slightly reminiscent of what Jimi Hendrix would do with the guitar later in the decade and accompanied by drum rolls as the piece reaches its climax.
Charles Mingus merged jazz and gospel with his ‘Fables of Faubis’, a direct protest against Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus’s decision in 1957 to send out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African-American teenagers. This piece is generally upbeat, with multiple changes of pace in its 9 minutes and lyrics that seek to poke fun at Faubus (naturally a technique well used by socially-conscious comedians) while also making its point about the melding of the minds of the young by those in power.
‘Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous? He won’t permit integrated schools
Then he’s a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists!
Boo! Ku Klux Klan with your Jim Crow plan’
‘Name me a handful that’s ridiculous
Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower
Two, four, six, eight
They brainwash and teach you hate!’
We Insist! Freedom Now Suiteis a 37-minute 1960 album by Oscar Brown which also works as a very long single track of infinite changes, making its point with long, urgent instrumental tracks interspersed with lyrical pieces about the long, grim struggle of African-Americans for freedom.
Finally, the legend that is Nina Simone came up with Missisippi God Damn, which according to Simone derailed her career more than anything else. She deliberately made the song an uptempo show tune, stating that ‘you have to get people in with good music and something for them to sway to before you can hit them with something heavy’, in this case the lyrics, which make references to the aforementioned bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi
“Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee’s made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam!”
Simone’s discomfort is reflected in the lines ‘I can’t stand the pressure much longer, somebody say a prayer’, while there is genuine terror to be found in the lines ‘hound dogs on my trail, school children sitting in jail, black cat cross my path, I think every day’s gonna be my last’. There is despair in ‘I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there, I’ve even stopped believing in prayer’ and impatience in the repeated ‘too slow’ answering lines to Simone’s veiled anger.
Honourable mentions for songs of this period go to Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, inspired by Dylan, ‘Keep On Pushin’ by The Impressions (headed by Curtis Mayfield) and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On?’, amongst a great many others.
In the second half of the 60s, as the counterculture took full bloom, some artists appeared to choose more veiled and poetically vague references to the trouble in society that was all around, typified by Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 ‘For What It’s Worth’, with its famous first line ‘there’s something happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear’. The song was actually about curfew laws enforced on the Sunset Strip in L.A where Springfield were playing at the famous Whisky-A-Go-Go, but the line neatly conveyed the confusion all around, something that the modern age of mass information can certainly identify with. Bucking this trend somewhat was a former member of the Springfield, Neil Young, who was moved to compose ‘Ohio’ following the ‘Kent State massacre’, the shooting of unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard which occurred at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970.
Bob Dylan provided the bridge between the overt and more veiled observations, having primarily chosen the former in 1963 with songs about real-life events including the deaths of Medger Evers, boxer Davey Moore and black hotel barmaid Hattie Carroll, who had died at the hands of young white socialite William Zantzinger, with Zanzinger receiving an extremely lenient jail sentence. ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘The Times They Are ‘a’ Changin’ and ‘Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’, while not addressing specific events, warned fairly directly of changes in the air. For ‘Hard Rain’, Dylan used the question and answer style from Seeger’s ‘What Did You Learn In School?’, with ‘dear little child of mine’ changed to ‘my blue-eyed son, my darling young one’.
However, in 1965 Dylan produced ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, which contained a remarkable set of oblique lyrics that contained enough ideas for long periods of analysis for present and future Dylanologists. Just as other songs of his in the same year brought up certain indelible images such as ‘to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea’ and proclaimed that ‘you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’ (or indeed ‘the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken!!’), this piece is a biting jab (if that’s possible!) at American society and possibly mankind itself, with nobody spared. Dylan later remarked that the lyrics popped into his head like magic, and they certainly have that magical abstract quality that the turning off of the conscious mind into a more receptive subconscious state, whether artificially-enhanced or otherwise, is more likely to produce. Dylan himself used to analyse his songs in the early days but gave up, preferring to engender a general feeling in his audience by using images whose source he was at a loss to locate. Personally, I believe there is meaning and inspiration to be taken from any of the verses, with war and consumerism and the selling of those products by politicians (plus those who blindly consume them) in the front line of Dylan’s barbs. The most famous line ‘even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked’, which drew a massive cheer as captured on the live album ‘Before The Flood’ when the song was performed in 1974 in the wake of Watergate, has been routinely cheered home ever since, something I was personally testament to and participated in when I saw Dylan perform the song in concert in Melbourne in 2001. The title itself with its reference to bleeding and the clever repeat of the ‘It’s Alright Ma’ part without the second half of the title in the choruses leaves the listener free to interpret the bleeding in his own way. Such is the magic of both subconscious creation and subconscious absorption.
‘You follow, find yourself at war, watch waterfalls of pity roar, you feel to moan but unlike before you discover that you’d just be one more person crying’
‘Advertising signs that con you into thinking you’re the one, who can do what’s never been done, who can win what’s never been won, meantime life outside goes on all around you’
‘For them that must obey authority, that they do not respect in any degree, who despise their jobs, their destinies, speak jealously of them that are free, cultivate their flowers to be nothing more than something they invest in’
‘While one who sings with his tongue on fire, gargles in the rat race choir, bent out of shape from society’s pliers, cares not to come up any higher, but rather get you down in the hole that he’s in’
While this all probably reads as terribly nihilistic, hope and inspiration are offered for those individuals and perhaps societies willing to break down, rebuild and work on enlightenment, with
‘You lose yourself, you reappear, you suddenly find you got nothing to fear, alone you stand with nobody near when a distant, trembling voice unclear, startles your sleeping ears to hear that somebody thinks they really found you’
Below is a link to the song with lyrics in the description box, and for those with the steeliness for profound over-analysis, an unfinished intellectual look at the song line-by-line by a Dutch scholar.
Dylan would return to overt protest music very sporadically, most notably with ‘Hurricane’ in 1976, but in the main was content to baffle fans and scholars alike with his imagery and poetry.
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which took place in upstate New York for 3 days in August 1969, produced scores of memorable moments and performances, but 2 in particular are well worthy of comment.
I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag a.k.a. The Vietnam Song was performed by Country Joe and the Fish and is an utter masterpiece in pointed irony. Country Joe chose the singalong route of Pete Seeger (though delivered with greater force) to deliver a scathing attack on all sides of the Vietnam debacle, by now heavily protested and getting harder and harder to defend, and issuing a(n as–yet-unheeded) warning for future generations. Almost all the lyrics in this short tune are quotable and relevant, with soldiers, weapons manufacturers, generals and the parents of said soldiers all addressed with dark humour and in the final verse a masterful mimickry of advertising slogans.
‘Put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun’
‘Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow,
There’s plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade’
‘Well, come on generals, let’s move fast
Your big chance is here at last
And you know that peace can only be won
When we’ve blown ’em all to kingdom come’
‘Come on mothers throughout the land,
Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on fathers, and don’t hesitate
To send your sons off before it’s too late
Be the first one in your block
To have your boy come home in a box’
And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for ?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die’
The final act of the entire festival was Jimi Hendrix, already a legend in his own lifetime and by this point in an almost permanent state of chemical transcendence. Following rain delays, Hendrix and his band eventually went on at 8.30am on the Monday morning and played a 2-hour set which included an unorthodox and thoroughly psychedelic rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ by Jimi and his Fender Stratocaster alone, utilizing every sonic trick in his playbook, including growling guitar and sounds that were undoubtedly designed to resemble the machine guns of the Vietnam War. For an ex-Marine who’d once believed in Uncle Sam and all he stood for, this was a defining moment for Hendrix and all who witnessed it.
Around the same time, Jim Morrison made his own point in concert by introducing the Doors’ next song as the new national anthem before they leading them into a version of the R&B hit ‘Money’. Strange days indeed.
John Lennon had seemingly been socially aware from the time he was a young boy but when he came to public prominence in 1963, it was behind the shield of Beatlemania and a mop-top image that prevented overt social commentary of any kind. However, Lennon couldn’t be kept away for ever, and he and George Harrison started to make references to Vietnam from around 1965. Lennon described the famous withdrawn ‘butcher cover’, actually the idea of the photographer but one that the group didn’t hesitate to go along with, as ‘just as relevant as Vietnam’ and must have posed for the photos at the sessionwith an element of glee.
In 1969, Lennon was at the height of his peace campaign with Yoko Ono and during their second ‘bed-in’ in Toronto, where the couple spent 7 days in bed talking to the world’s press about their new favourite subject, he composed the anthemic ‘Give Peace A Chance’, designed to be an update of ‘We Shall Overcome’ and sharing its simple words, tune and structure, but with an additional busker style that endeared Lennon as one of the people and giving the idea that anyone could potentially do what he was doing.
Most critics agree that Lennon was at his best with this sort of direct but more general style of protest rather than the sloganeering of his 1972 album ‘Some Time In New York City’. His 1970 album ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ contained the stark results of the heavy doses of Primal Therapy he’d undertaken in that year to try to rid himself of his childhood emotional baggage, and he showed himself a master of both inner and outer exploration in 2 songs in particular.
In ‘Working Class Hero’, in many ways Lennon’s version of ‘It’s Alright Ma’, he attacks the system and authority figures that ‘hurt you at home and hit you at school’ and ‘hate you if you’re clever and despise a fool’, not to mention ‘keep you doped with religion and sex and T.V’. Those who swallow the propaganda are ‘fucking peasants’ who think they’re free.
‘Look At Me’ turns Lennon’s spotlight on himself, the title itself relating to his belief that those who make it as entertainers are simply the ones who need it the most due to parental neglect. ‘Who am I supposed to be?’, he asks himself, and the simplicity of the fingerpicking and starkness of the mood and vocal delivery are very effective.
One year later, Lennon would write and record the ‘Imagine’ album, which was in all a softer affair than his previous record but contained the scathing ‘Give Me Some Truth’. Lennon pulls no punches as he lists all the types of people he’s ‘sick to death’ of hearing from, cleverly including mental disorders among the biting adjectives, which goes along with his statements in the late sixties that society is run by insane maniacs (see truth quotes above). The bridge is a weird salad which appears to reflect all the words we are bombarded and bamboozled with by our well-trained and well-scripted glorious leaders. This song was later covered by 90s grunge band Pearl Jam, who substituted Lennon’s ‘Tricky Dicky’ ( a reference to then-President Richard Nixon) for ‘Georgie Porgie’ (a.k.a president George W. Bush) but otherwise playing the song in its original form.
’I’m sick to death of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics.
I’ve had enough of reading things from neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians.
I’ve had enough of watching scenes from schizophrenic, ego-centric paranoid primadonnas’
‘All I want is the truth, just give me some truth’
As for the title song, its combination of a catchy tune, simple lyrics and a message of universal brotherhood has been enjoyed, not to mention analysed, for years. Conversely, Yoko Ono’s contributions to her husband’s songs and the music world in general have been vilified and ridiculed to extreme degrees over the years, but Klaus Voormann, who played bass with Lennon and Ono’s Plastic Ono Band in concert, describes her performances as ‘incredible, as she howled and screamed out her pain’. Judge for yourself…
At this point, the enormity of the task of covering this topic seeks to overwhelm the writer and I’ll continue with single examples of musical conveyance of inner and outer truths in chronological order from the 70s up to the present day, followed by a conclusion.
Get Up, Stand Up (For Your Rights) by Bob Marley & The Wailers (1973)
Marley began with The Wailers in 1963 but burst to prominence in the 1970s, producing a number of anthems espousing belief in God and the virtues of personal and worldwide liberation, his chosen genres being ska and particularly reggae, with its slow beat designed to be swayed to while the message of Marley’s lyrics hit home. This song was inspired by the plight of Haitians living in extreme poverty, which Marley witnessed while touring the country with his band.
’If you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on earth
And now you see the light, you stand up for your rights’
Us And Them by Pink Floyd (1973)
Although a founder member of the Floyd in the mid-1960s, Roger Waters did not emerge as its chief songwriter until nearly a decade later. Having lost his father, an activist and former conscientious objector, in Italy in World War II while he was still a baby, Waters gradually began to put the pain of his loss and his anger about war into his art, starting with this powerful statement on the band’s seminal album, ‘The Dark Side of The Moon’. With its slow build-up verses, heavy chorus and wailing saxophone solo, the song attacks the generals sending ordinary men into seemingly pointless wars with the inevitable confusion and sacrifice of life, and also the selling of war as something glorious.
‘Forward he cried from the rear, and the front rank died.
The general sat and the lines on the map moved from side to side’
‘Who knows which is which and who is who’
‘Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words, and most of them are lies
Listen son, said the man with the gun, there’s room for you inside’
I Am The Slime by Frank Zappa (1973)
The self-taught Zappa was a unique creation, with a prodigious output extending to, including posthumous releases, over 100 albums, and an eccentricity and polished musicianship equal to anyone in rock history. Having addressed racial violence, social injustice and sensationalist journalism in a relatively straight musical way with his song ‘Trouble Every Day’ in 1966, he began to employ a comedic touch in a jazz-rock style to make points about society. This song attempts to convey the evils of television and its use as a mind-control tool by the powers-that-(shouldn’t)-be.
‘I am gross and perverted, I’m obsessed and deranged
I have existed for years but very little has changed
I’m the tool of the Government and industry too
For I am destined to rule and regulate you’
‘I make you think I’m delicious with the stuff that I say
I’m the slime oozing out from your TV set’
‘You will obey me while I lead you, and eat the garbage that I feed you
Your mind is totally controlled, it has been stuffed into my mold
And you will do as you are told, until the rights to you are sold’
‘That’s right, folks . . .Don’t touch that dial
Well, I am the slime from your video’
Black-Eyed Dog by Nick Drake (1974)
A singer-songwriter in the folk tradition with a prodigious ability on acoustic guitar and poetic lyrics influenced by his studies of the romantic poets while at Cambridge University, Drake was always fragile and hinted at a shaky mental condition from early on in his life. Although the causes for his depression and alienation were never fully established, it’s likely that his large intake of marijuana and experiments with LSD were contributing factors. The lack of success of his 3 studio albums, seemingly a mystery to Drake but explainable by his lack of promotion of them through live concerts, added to his woe, and his deterioration was rapid and shocking to those around them. His final 4 recordings before his death from an overdose of anti-depressant Amitriptyline found him in such a distressed state that for the first time he wasn’t able to play guitar and sing simultaneously, instead recording the parts separately. The songs are remarkable, and ‘Black-Eyed Dog’’s starkness is perfectly in line with the song’s clear subject matter, that of Drake’s depression. The lyrics are direct and reveal a world-weariness and desperation at the tender age of 26.
‘A black eyed dog he called at my door
The black eyed dog he called for more
A black eyed dog he knew my name
I’m growing old and I wanna go home
I’m growing old and I don’t wanna know’
24 Hours by Joy Division (1980)
Another fragile singer and lyricist was Ian Curtis, formerly of the Manchester band Joy Division, who committed suicide at the age of 23. Curtis suffered from epilepsy and this, combined with the pressures of stardom and his apparently depressive personality, supposedly led to his demise, though the latter point is disputed. Curtis’s lyrics were full of imagery of desolation, emptiness and alienation, none more so than in this song from the band’s second and final album, Closer, and the band’s minimalist, driving groove created a magic fit for their lead singer’s angsty words and delivery.
‘What once was innocence, turned on its side.
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move
I never realized the lengths I’d have to go,
All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know.
Just for one moment, I heard somebody call,
Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all
Got to find some therapy, this treatment takes too long
Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late’
Straight To Hell by The Clash (1982)
The Clash emerged as part of the punk movement in Britain in the mid-1970s, but they were always far more than that, merging elements of ska, reggae, rockabilly and classic rock ‘n’ roll into their often political songs. Led by their left-leaning frontman Joe Strummer, they tackled issues of wealth distribution and class unity in ‘White Man’, mass social housing in ‘Up In Heaven’ and lack of prospects for the underprivileged in ‘Career Opportunities’, while ‘Straight To Hell’ touches on racism, the Vietnam War, immigration and dystopian visions of the future, delivered with Strummer’s typical blend of punk urgency and dry irony.
‘As railhead towns feel the steel mills’ rust
Water froze in the generation
Clear as winter ice, this is your paradise
When it’s Christmas out in Ho Chi Minh City
Kiddie say papa-san, take me home
Let me tell you ’bout your blood, bamboo kid
It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice
Straight to hell
Go straight to hell boys’
Born In The USA by Bruce Springsteen (1984)
Having been personally exposed to this song as a child when it was a chart hit for Springsteen in the mid-1980s, I never took it as anything other than a typical expression of patriotism and nothing more political than a piece of triumphant Cold War propaganda in the vein of the film ‘Rocky IV’. The confident swagger of the music seemed to convey this well, but in fact it’s an ironic statement about the negative effects of the Vietnam War on Americans and the heartache and disillusionment of a man returning home from the war after personal loss. The protagonist being unemployable for “doing the right thing”, it is an indictment of American foreign policy, which cost so much at the time and still continues to do damage up to the present day.
‘Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road, nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.’
Fight The Power by Public Enemy (1989)
Along with N.W.A, Public Enemy were one of the foremost exponents of American Hip-Hop, which burst into public consciousness as part of the movement of the same name in the 1970s, whose 4 essential elements were rapping, scratching/DJing, break dancing and graffiti writing. Rapping ‘s mixture of singing and speech allowed a directness which fitted perfectly with the making of politically-charged music, and Public Enemy, one of the most critically acclaimed bands in history, pulled no punches in their criticism of the American media and anger at the plight of the African-American community in their native New York and beyond. ‘Fight The Power’ needs no explanation, and its power remains undiminished with time.
‘Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We’ve got to fight the powers that be
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
You say what is this?
My beloved, let’s get down to business
Mental self defensive fitness
Fight the power
We’ve got to fight the powers that be’
Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine (1992)
The rap-metal band’s name reflected their attitude, and the cover of their self-titled first album, from which this song was taken as a single, featured the self-immolation of a Vietnamese Monk in Saigon in 1963 as a protest against the Presidential administration’s oppression of the Buddhist religion.
Employing drop-D tuning to accentuate the heaviness of the guitar riffs, the song is ‘a howling, expletive-driven tirade against the ills of American society’, railing against the ‘military–industrial complex’, a.k.a the war machine, and building in intensity with vocalist Zack de la Rocha chanting the line “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” initially with a murmur before building to an angrily-screamed crescendo of remarkable power. The lyrics also reference the allegation that some members of the U.S. police forces are members of the Ku Klux Klan, whose symbol is the burning cross, and the song as a whole reflects the racial tensions that existed in the United States just 6 months after the Los Angeles Riots.
‘Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses
Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites
You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites’
The Cause of Death by Immortal Technique (2003)
The September 11th attacks on the United States sent shockwaves throughout the world and inevitably spawned books, films, songs and other artistic responses. Most of these tended to focus on the impact of the attacks and the bravery of the firefighters and others on that day, but as the dust settled and the initial feelings of shock and outrage subsided, other artistic endeavours started to pin blame on the capitalising on the events by the American government and its disingenuous statements about the links between the attacks and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, which helped garner public support for the highly-controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Not only this but others also began to point out anomalies and inconsistencies in the government’s version of the attacks, leading to the formation and rise of the 9/11 truth movement.
This movement, which was inevitably dismissed by some as mere ‘conspiracy theory’, spawned an entire internet-based movement known as the alternative media. 9/11 truth reached a peak in 2006, as several well-known celebrities started to speak out, and in the music field it was rappers who spoke loudest, including Immortal Technique, a Peruvian rapper and activist who moved to the U.S.A. as a boy and from the outset sought to not only make provocative music but also to control its content and distribution, stating that it is record companies rather than artists who profit most from the mass production and distribution of music. ‘The Cause of Death’ references the C.I.A.’s ‘Operation Paperclip’ utilisation of former Nazis for intelligence-gathering, as well as theories about the Illuminati and New World Order, the supposed hidden hand behind the governments of the world, the C.I.A’s training and arming of terrorists, including Bin Laden and menbers of Al-Queda, and scores of other proven and unproven claims that run contrary to most people’s mainstream-media led view of the world. As an amateur musician friend of mine pointed out during a discussion, if these type of songs do nothing else but make the listener aware of phrases like ‘proxy war’ and ‘military-industrial complex’, they serve a purpose.
‘I see the world for what it is, beyond the white and the black
The way the government downplays historical facts
‘Cuz the United States sponsored the rise of the 3rd Reich
Just like the CIA trained terrorists to the fight
Build bombs and sneak box cutters onto a flight
My words’ll expose George Bush and Bin Laden
As two separate parts of the same seven headed dragon
And you can’t fathom the truth, so you don’t hear me
You think illuminati’s just a fuckin conspiracy theory?
I hacked the Pentagon for self-incriminating evidence
Of Republican manufactured white powder pestilence
So here’s the truth about the system that’ll fuck up your mind
They gave Al Queda 6 billion dollars in 1989 to 1992
And I know a lot of people find it hard to swallow this
Because subliminal bigotry makes you hate my politics
But you act like America wouldn’t destroy two buildings
In a country that was sponsoring bombs dropped on our children
I was watching the Towers, and though I wasn’t the closest
I saw them crumble to the Earth like they was full of explosives
Four Non-Arabs arrested during the emergency
And then it disappeared from the news permanently
They dubbed a tape of Osama, and they said it was proof
“Jealous of our freedom,” I can’t believe you bought that excuse
The Devil crept into Heaven, God overslept on the 7th
The New World Order was born on September 11
And just so Conservatives don’t take it to heart
I don’t think Bush did it, ‘cuz he isn’t that smart
He’s just a stupid puppet taking orders on his cell phone
From the same people that sabotaged Senator Wellstone
The military-industrial complex got it poppin’ and lockin’
Looking for a way to justify the Wolfowitz Doctrine
And as a matter of fact, Rumsfeld, now that I think back
Without 9/11, you couldn’t have a war in Iraq
Or a Defense budget of world conquest proportions
Colonialism is sponsored by corporations
That’s why Halliburton gets paid to rebuild nations
Tell me the truth, I don’t scare into paralysis
I know the CIA saw Bin Laden on dialysis
In ’98 when he was Top Ten for the FBI
Government ties is really why the Government lies
Read it yourself instead of asking the Government why
‘Cuz then the Cause of Death will cause the propaganda to die..’
When The President Talks To God by Bright Eyes (2005)
A ‘ragged acoustic blues’ evoking memories of the pre-electric Bob Dylan, Bright Eyes attacks former President George W. Bush with specific reference to Bush’s oft-quoted statement that ‘God made me invade Iraq’. The voice is husky and full of angry passion, imagining what other dastardly orders might have come from the deity.
‘Does he ask to to rape our women’s rights?
And send poor farm kids off to die?
Does God suggest an oil hike?
When the President talks to God?
Does he fake that drawl or merely nod?
Agree which convicts should be killed?
Where prisons should be built and filled?
Which voter fraud must be concealed?
While they pick which countries to invade,
Which Muslim souls still can be saved?
I guess God just calls a spade a spade,
Does he ever think that maybe He’s not?
That that voice is just inside his head?
When he kneels next to the Presidential bed,
Does he ever smell his own BULLSHIT?
When the President talks to God?’
(Cunts Are Still) Running The World by Jarvis Cocker (2006)
Following the extended haitus of Britpop band Pulp, their leader released his first album, which contained this (extremely well-)hidden track a full 30 minutes after the end of the album proper. A piano-led slow stomp, it attacks among other things upper-class elitism, the hegemony of the free market and the powerlessness of protest movements, all delivered with Cocker’s nicely-judged wry delivery.
’If you thought things had changed
Friend, you’d better think again
Bluntly put, in the fewest of words:
Cunts are still running the world
Now the working classes are obsolete
They are surplus to society’s needs
So let ’em all kill each other
And get it made overseas
That’s the word, don’t you know
From the guys that’s running the show
Let’s be perfectly clear boys and girls,
Cunts are still running the world’
Bradley Manning by Cass McCombs (2012)
In the year (2013) that Edward Snowden leaked classified information from the National Security (NSA) regarding their global surveillance programs amongst other things, a U.S. Army soldier called Bradley Manning, who has subsequently identified himself as the female Chelsea Manning, was put on trial, convicted on 17 charges and sentenced to 35 years in prison after leaking to Wikileaks nearly three-quarters of a million unclassified and otherwise ‘highly-sensitive’ military and diplomatic documents. The aforementioned alternative media pointed not only to the injustice of Manning’s initial imprisonment and his brutal treatment and harsh conditions while in detention awaiting trial, but also to the scant media coverage given to this most important of cases and exposition to some of how one who tries to expose war crimes is treated by an all-powerful establishment. The year before the trial, Californian Cass McCombs wrote and recorded this acoustic standalone single telling the fairly straight story of Manning’s life up to his arrest in 2010. The fairly stark delivery of the song, which was debuted on the activist news programme Democracy Now!, ends with a touching message for the detained and dishonourably discharged soldier.
‘Bradley, know you have friends, though you’re locked in there’
Company Store by Dissident Prophet (2014)
Self-proclaimed ‘apocolyptic indie rock band’ from England Dissident Prophet offer a sprightly, ironic celebration of the corporate dream and the egoic joy of keeping up with the Joneses.
‘I’ve got a future, it’s looking bright
It’s like a barcode, it’s black and white
I’ve got a credit card, I’ve got a phone
The chips are coming down, I’m like a dog with a bone
I spend money I don’t have to buy things I don’t need
To show my friends, impress my neighbours
They ain’t watching ‘cause they’re watching T.V.
I owe my soul to the company store
Slave or free or rich or poor’
So there you have it, readers, the fruit of many hours of listening and writing though ultimately a labour of love. Since the topic got bigger and bigger as I kept going with it, I decided to content myself with scratching the surface and offering a few things to think about and at the very least some fine music to listen to and great lyrics to absorb.