Addressing political issues is one thing, but isn’t it great when a band or artist grabs the bull by the horns and takes on authority head-on? In this column over the last few months, we’ve discussed these things at length but it feels like a playlist is necessary at this point. These are difficult times, so cue these tracks up and immerse yourself in the knowledge that there have always been struggles, and music has always offered an outlet.
Rage Against the Machine “Killing in the Name”
From the opening power chord to that killer bassline, the multiple changes in direction, and finally Zack de la Rocha uttering the song title, this is one of the great contemporary rock songs. Period. Nevermind greatest anti-authority songs. But damn, it really does hit the spot. There aren’t many lyrics—a couple of lines are repeated over and over—but that’s where the song’s power lies. “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” That’s an incredibly disturbing sentiment, that some of the people in authority are so infected with institutional racism that they could at least be symbolically aligned with the Klan. Back in 1992, “Killing in the Name” got a lot of teen rock fans thinking and it continues to do so today.
Public Enemy “Fight the Power”
This stunning hip-hop anthem first appeared on the ’89 soundtrack to Spike Lee’sDo the Right Thing, though the following year a slightly different version popped up on the stunning PE album Fear of a Black Planet. The song begins with a sample from a speech by 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!” That, paired with Chuck D’s proclamation of “our freedom of speech is freedom or death,” and the value—the importance of a band like Public Enemy bringing these issues to light—is clear.
Bobby Fuller/The Clash “I Fought the Law”
Both versions of the song are great (and there are certainly more) and they both hammer home the same message. There’s no doubting that our anti-hero, the subject of the song, is guilty of “robbin’ people with a six gun.” He admits to that very thing, but the key point here is he “needed money ’cause he had none.” Our boy was fighting the law out of necessity, something that likely rings true throughout underfunded areas in the United States (and beyond) to this day. He’s “breakin’ rocks in the hot sun” and he did the crime but maybe things could be different if some of that wealth from the 1% was shared a little more equally.
Bob Dylan “The Times, They Are A-Changin’”
Any list such as this that doesn’t feature Bob Dylan isn’t worthy of your time. There are a whole lot of Dylan tunes we could have picked (incidentally, that’s also the case for Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy in particular), but we went back to the early days for this folk classic (pre-electric Dylan). “Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway, Don’t block up the hall, For he that gets hurt, Will be he who has stalled, The battle outside ragin’, Will soon shake your windows, And rattle your walls, For the times they are a-changin’.” Magnificent.
Neil Young “Ohio”
Neil Young is another one who has been beautifully outspoken in the past and could be on this list multiple times. Only recently, he made headlines when he asked Trump to stop using his songs at rallies. The protest song “Ohio” was written by Young and originally performed by his band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was released as a single in 1970 in response to the Kent State shootings that saw four unarmed college students shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the bombing of Cambodia. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.” Devastating.
Machine Head “Clenching the Fists of Dissent”
Fair play to Oakland thrashers Machine Head. Not all bands of that genre throw themselves into the world of politics, for fear of polarising opinions within their fanbase, but Machine Head, like Sacred Reich, are an exception. In fact, when former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo yelled “white power” on stage and later tried to claim it was a joke, MH mainman Rob Flynn was one of the first to condemn him, to his immense credit. This anti-war anthem, from the excellent The Blackening album in 2007, is a gem. “They say that freedom isn’t free, It’s paid with the lives of sons and families, ‘Cause blood is their new currency, And oil pumps the heart of money.”
Green Day “American Idiot”
Remember when Green Day were considered disposable pop-punk goofs, singing songs about jerking off and shit like that? They put that notion to bed in 2004 with their seventh studio album American Idiot and the single of the same name. The lyrics, while stuck with a slur, couldn’t be more appropriate today. “Well maybe I’m the f*****t America, I’m not a part of a redneck agenda, Now everybody do the propaganda, And sing along to the age of paranoia.”
Rise Against “Prayer of the Refugee”
Unlike Green Day (but like Anti-Flag), Rise Against have been known as a political punk band since their inception in 1999. The Chicago band have spoken out about homophobia, gentrification, environmental issues, animal abuse, war, political corruption, and much more. “Prayer of the Refugee” hits home hard in Trump’s America: “We are the angry and the desperate, The hungry, and the cold, We’re the ones who kept quiet, And always did what we were told, But we’ve been sweating while you slept so calm, In the safety of your home, We’ve been pulling out the nails that hold up, Everything you’ve known.”
John Mellencamp “Authority Song”
John Mellencamp, like Bruce Springsteen, is generally considered a blue collar hero but the depth of the lyrics is often overlooked. Mellencamp’s “Authority Song” might be a little on the nose for some, but the lyrics are superb. “They like to get you in a compromising position, They like to get you there and smile in your face, They think, they’re so cute when they got you in that condition, Well I think it’s a total disgrace, and I say, I fight authority, authority always wins.”
Crass “Do They Owe Us a Living?”
In the case of British anarcho-punks Crass, standing against authority was their whole reason for existing. Formed by Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant in 1977, the band was a political and art collective and they pretty much kick-started a subculture. On the Feeding of the 5000 album, they cleverly intersected a traditional Christian ideal with socialist ideology. On the song “Do They Owe Us a Living?” they answer their own question with “Of course they fucking do.” A vital band.