Rock ‘n’ Revolution

Dave Marsh on 20 years of political music

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[Editor’s Note: Elvis defined music in the ’50s, and Beatlemania revolutionized the ’60s. But whose music captures the mood of the past 20 years? This being Mother Jones‘ 20th anniversary, we went to Dave Marsh, described as the “Methuselah of rock critics,” and asked for his list of the top 20 political songs since 1976. Marsh, a former editor at Rolling Stone, author of Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock ‘n’ Roll Song, and current editor of the newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential, submitted the following.]

The past two decades have been exceptionally fruitful for social comment in popular music, which may be key to the battering it takes from politicos. Popular music–punk, alternative, rap, hip-hop, folk, rock, and R&B–is one of the few places left for anything resembling democratic dialogue. The least capital-intensive mass medium, and until recently, the least subject to content control on the class-race-gender spectrum, music lets those with no voice in our culture reach a broad audience–a precious and increasingly rare opportunity.

1977–“Anarchy in the U.K.,” The Sex Pistols The story begins with the original punk band’s snarl to the future that Thatcher/Reagan/Bush/Clinton had in store for us. The sound, as much as the words, constitutes the rebellion (Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, Warner Bros.).

The Clash, The Clash You’ve got to have the whole album, because its songs are an inseparable cycle, raging against disenfranchisement and seeking power anywhere, from a gun barrel to a late-night reggae show (1977, Epic).

1980–“Happy Birthday,” Stevie Wonder So joyous and positive you have to be reminded it was a plea to make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The record played a key role in reviving a fight most had given up in light of Ronald Reagan’s opposition. (Hotter Than July, Motown).

1981–“Bad Reputation,” Joan Jett Jett’s stance as rock ‘n’ roll’s black-leather heart is archetypal protofeminism: Rejecting worries about gender roles and her “reputation,” she takes on a persona that makes Keith Richards seem effete. The result is one of the great power-chord singles of our times, as nasty as it wants to be (Bad Reputation, Blackheart).

“Tiburon,” Ruben Blades and Willie Colon The original anti-Central America intervention protest (portraying the Yank war machine as a shark circling for the kill) came from this collaboration by two of the salsa world’s most inventive artists (Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos, 1981, Fania).

1982–“The Boiler,” Rhoda Dakar with the Special A.K.A. The most harrowing account of date rape I’ve ever encountered in any medium. It’s one of the few records here that wasn’t a big hit. Wonder why? (The Two-Tone Collection, Chrysalis).

1983–“Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Cyndi Lauper Protofeminism revisited–a sheer assertion of female will and the exultation that comes with it (She’s So Unusual, Portrait).

1984–“The Message,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five Rap began with boasts and exhortations, but with this sometimes tragic, sometimes comic account of urban ghetto life, it took a politicized turn that accounts in large part for the form’s persistence today (The Message, Sugar Hill).

“5 Minutes,” Bonzo Goes to Washington A nonhit, but surely you know the material: Reagan’s radio “joke” announcement of missile warfare. Sliced, diced, and transfigured by a band including Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins (EP, 1984, Sleeping Bag).

1985–“Sun City,” Artists United Against Apartheid The other superstar charity collaborations of the ’80s went out of their way to avoid being political and became megahits. Little Steven Van Zandt and Arthur Baker, architects of this collaboration featuring Miles Davis, Run-D.M.C., and Joey Ramone, received a greater honor: none other than Nelson Mandela declared himself a fan of this blast against apartheid (Razor & Tie).

1986–“Fight for Your Right (to Party),” The Beastie Boys If they can’t dance, you can keep your revolution (Licensed to Ill, Def Jam).

“Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel with Kate Bush Plays out the ravaged lives of unemployed British industrial workers, while finding strength in community and (genuine, rather than rhetorical) family values (So, Geffen).

1988–“Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman A final optimistic folk-rock narrative, or the beginning of a new chapter? It’s set in a homeless shelter, so you figure it out (Tracy Chapman, Elektra).

“People Have the Power,” Patti Smith Spitting in the eye of the conservative hurricane, Smith expresses a bedrock faith in folks that stems from early ’70s hits (Dream of Life, Arista).

“F_ _ _ Tha Police,” N.W.A. Rails against police brutality so eloquently, the FBI waged a campaging against it. A few years later, Ice-T set off a similar frenzy that subsided when the police were caught red-handed beating Rodney King (Straight Outta Compton, Priority Records).

1989–“Fight the Power,” Public Enemy This song from the movie Do the Right Thing remakes an old Isley Brothers record in the voice of embattled black youths, doing whatever they can to survive–in this case, doing it brilliantly as well as brutally (Do the Right Thing, Motown).

“Rockin’ in the Free World,” Neil Young The theme for the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, and for resistance to the emerging New World Order (Freedom, Reprise Records).

1991–“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana What were they rebelling against? What’ve you got? the “Louie Louie” of our time (Nevermind, Geffen).

1992–“Tennessee,” Arrested Development The “Strange Fruit” of our time. Odd, isn’t it, that a song lamenting lynching played as part of rap’s “positive” side (Three Years, Five Months & Two Days in the Life of…, Chrysalis).

1995–The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen The whole album qualifies because its songs are an inspearable cycle, baffled by our utter despair and the inability to find power anywhere (Columbia).

Honorable Mentions: “If I had a Rocket Launcher,” Bruce Cockburn (Stealing Fire, 1984); “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna (True Blue, 1986); “Misery” by Soul Asylum (Let Your Dim Light Shine, 1995).

E-mail us at with your list of top political songs.


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