Classic rock music was built during the 1950’s. It was a way of bringing the masses together and giving them a voice during a time of political unrest. The music was loud, the rhythm was catchy, and the lyrics were compelling. Here are 10 classic rock anthems of the protest era.
1. “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath
“Generals gathered in their masses” rings the first line of this Black Sabbath classic. “Just like witches at black masses.” Lazy rhyming aside, this song was criticized for its apparent use of occult imagery.
However, the band insisted the Vietnam War was the inspiration. “War is the real Satanism,” Bassist Geezer Butler once said. “Politicians are the real Satanists. That’s what I was trying to say.” Faith No More also covered this barnstorming rock anthem.
2. “Taxman,” the Beatles
George Harrison was inspired by the Batman theme tune when he wrote this quirky Revolver opening track. One commenter finds one fact about “Taxman” hilarious.
“George was in the middle of his ‘Hari Krishna, we are all one’ enlightenment phase,” says the fan, “and then just decided to write a song complaining about taxes!” To be fair, no amount of spiritual enlightenment will quell the anger of paying 95% taxes — the going rate for his wealth in 1966.
3. “Born in the USA,” Bruce Springsteen
“Everyone plays it on the 4th of July, but it really is calling out the U.S.!” argues the thread poster, adamant that Springsteen’s song isn’t the patriotic tub-thumper many believe.
Springsteen sings, “They put a rifle in my hand and sent me off to a foreign land,” from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran returning home. “I mean, it is a patriotic song,” adds another Boss lover, “just not in the sense that some people think it is.”
4. “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” Pink Floyd
“Hey, Teacher, leave them kids alone,” go the famous Roger Waters lyrics that echo his childhood struggling with the British education system. The prog-rock classic from England’s finest depicts Waters’ hatred of evil teachers trying to mold his personality.
In his eyes, they are “just another brick in the wall,” which is the metaphorical wall surrounding Waters’ life growing up in post-war Britain without a father, who was killed in the war.
5. “Killing in the Name,” Rage Against the Machine
Okay, not classic rock per se, but a classic all the same! “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses,” screams Zack De La Rocha, frontman of the most explosive and ardently political band of the ’90s. Rage Against the Machine raged against everything the U.S. Government stood for.
But this song stood firm against police brutality and KKK connections while throwing a big bag of middle fingers at the man. The Gen-X teenagers of 1991 couldn’t (and still can’t — guilty) help but turn the volume up and scream profanities in their bedrooms when this came on. Many weren’t even sure why — the song just requires it.
6. “Gimme Shelter,” the Rolling Stones
In the ’60s, before shocking news events were normal, Mick Jagger was shocked by the decade’s storm of controversy: the Charles Manson murders, the Vietnam War, and the race riots. “Gimme Shelter” is a metaphor for sheltering from all the world’s evils. “The floods is threatening my very life today,” sings Jagger. “Gimme, gimme shelter, or I’m gonna fade away.”
7. “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World,” Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro once revealed how he and Young were discussing world events once in an interview. The title was born after a deal in pre-Berlin Wall Russia involving an exchange between the Russian Ballet and Neil Young went south.
Sampedro remarked they would have to “keep rocking in the free world instead,” and Young claimed it as a new song title. The song became a rallying cry during the Berlin Wall’s destruction — so its Russian connection went two ways.
8. “Rock the Casbah,” the Clash
Another song on the fringes of classic rock, English new-wave rockers The Clash make an appearance with “Rock the Casbah” for its wonderful message of hope. During the late ’70s, Iran’s new regime punished its citizens for possessing subversive materials. After frontman Joe Strummer discovered that Iranians would receive lashes for owning a disco record, his disco-inspired protest song was born.
9. “Bicycle Race,” Queen
“You say smile, I say cheese Cartier, I say please Income tax, I say, Jesus, I don’t wanna be a candidate For Vietnam or Watergate,” sings Freddy Mercury in Queen’s iconic single about personal freedoms.
Mercury’s bisexuality was well-known at the time, though his lifestyle choice was still unpopular with mainstream culture. His playful use of pop culture references adds great ballast to an important and personal message.
10. “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
One of the greatest Vietnam War protest songs rallies against classism and war. When the draft began for the Vietnam War, it emerged that mainly working-class men (including a disproportionate number of African-Americans) were drafted ahead of middle or upper-class citizens.
This song is from the perspective of one such draftee. “It ain’t me. It ain’t me; I ain’t no senator’s son, son,” screams lead singer John Fogerty in the chorus. The draft lottery in 1969 made it somewhat equitable, though the war’s resistance on home soil was growing by then.
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