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War: What is it good for? According to Edwin Starr, absolutely nothing, although countless other musicians seem to have found one useful thing about war — inspiration for some very moving and popular songs.
Since people have learned to pick up guns and fight each other, just as many people have learned to pick up their guitar and write about what they see. Not surprisingly, war songs became increasingly popular in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Vietnam War and rock music were both at their heights. We all know some of these protest anthems by heart, such as “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Give Peace a Chance.” But there are tons of other popular songs that sprung up during this era that you probably didn’t even realize were inspired by war and violence, and that subtle inspiration has continued to permeate lyrics today.
Veteran’s Day is next week, the perfect time to pay our respects to the severity of war and the men and women who have fought/are still fighting. Start by giving a listen to these 12 mainstream hits that have historical and violent backgrounds. Which ones are you most surprised to see?
“1999” by Prince
Yes, it might be an awesome dance song, but Prince’s “1999” actually reflects the very serious fears people had in the midst of nuclear warfare. The song was written in 1982 during the Reagan administration, when nuclear attack was a universal threat. The song refers to the fact that while most people expect the world to end in the year 2000, this new presence of bombs makes it possible for the world to end at any given second — so you might as well start partying as if today is your last.
Everybody’s got a bomb
We could all die here today
But before I’ll let that happen
I’ll dance my life away
“American Woman” by The Guess Who
“American Woman” might be one of the most misinterpreted songs ever, with people speculating that it’s a patriotic ode to American women (an understandable mistake, given the song’s title). In reality, The Guess Who is a Canadian band that wrote the song during the widely protested Vietnam War and the American draft. The band’s bassist Jim Kale explained, “The war was going on, and that was terribly unpopular. We didn’t have a draft system in Canada, and we were grateful for that.”
American woman, said get away
American woman, listen what I say
Don’t come a-hangin’ around my door
Don’t wanna see your face no more
I don’t need your war machines
I don’t need your ghetto scenes
“Violet Hill” by Coldplay
“Violet Hill” is one of Coldplay’s most-downloaded songs, but the inspiration behind it is rather surprising: Fox News. The song was written in 2007, in the midst of the War on Terror and political mass media. Chris Martin told Rolling Stone, “So many people spend their lives being told what to do by people that they just don’t like. So it was that idea, and watching Bill O’Reilly, and all these words just came out.” Can you spot the Fox News references in these lyrics?:
When the future’s architectured
By a carnival of idiots on show
You’d better lie low
Was a long and dark December
When the banks became cathedrals
And the fox became God
“Sunday, Bloody Sunday” by U2
“Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is the lead track from U2’s hit album War. The lyrics were inspired by two Sunday massacres that occurred in 1972 during the “Troubles” — the long civil war in Northern Ireland. Although it focuses on that one incident, the main message of the song is one of universal protest and anti-violence. In an interview, U2 drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. made the band’s intentions clear: “Let’s forget the politics … the real battle is people dying, that’s the real battle.”
And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters
“Zombie” by The Cranberries
Continuing on the path of Irish anti-violence tunes, The Cranberries released “Zombie” in 1994. The jarring rock anthem was inspired by an IRA bombing in 1993 in which two children, Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry, were killed. The lyrics speak to the frustration of the seemingly endless violence that Ireland had been experiencing since the beginning of the century.
It’s the same old theme since 1916.
In your head, in your head they’re still fighting,
With their tanks and their bombs,
And their bombs and their guns.
In your head, in your head, they are dying
“London Calling” by The Clash
“London Calling” defined British punk rock with its dystopian theme about the world ending in various ways, including war. The title itself alludes to the BBC World Service’s radio identification during WWII: “This is London calling…” The inspiration for the lyrics came in 1979 after the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island during the Cold War. The incident instilled new fear in people everywhere and made global demise seem very real.
The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growin’ thin
A nuclear era, but I have no fear
London is drowning, and I, I live by the river
“Alive with the Glory of Love” by Say Anything
You probably wouldn’t expect an emo-rock love song with an uplifting melody to be about the Holocaust, but “Alive with the Glory of Love” dares to be unexpected. The Say Anything hit is written from the perspective of a Jew during WWII who doesn’t want his girlfriend to be taken away from him. “My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, which struck a chord with me,” said lead singer Max Bemis. “I thought about what it would be like to be in love and be separated from the person you love, because these times are just as dire in a way.”
Should they catch us and dispatch us to those separate work camps,
I’ll dream about you. I will not doubt you with the passing of time
Should they kill me, your love will fill me, as warm as the bullets
I’ll know my purpose. This war was worth this. I won’t let you down.
“Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley
“Buffalo Soldier” clearly references warfare in some way (the world “soldier” is in the title…), but you may not realize the true meaning behind the song. The title refers to the Buffalo Soldiers, segregated regiments of black soldiers formed by Congress to fight in the American Indian Wars in 1866. They were forced to drive the American Indians out of the West so that “civilized” white people could live there instead. Bob Marley recognizes these soldiers’ fight as one of survival, and he honors them as symbols of black resistance through his lyrics.
I’m just a buffalo soldier in the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival, fighting for survival
Said he was a buffalo soldier, win the war for America
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye
In 1969, Ronald Reagan (then the governor of California) sent hundreds of police officers to Berkeley to shut down protests of the Vietnam War and Arab—Israeli conflict. The result was a famously violent showdown between police and citizens, now known as “Bloody Thursday.” Motown singer Renaldo “Obie” Benson happened to pass through Berkeley during the incident and was immediately inspired to write “What’s Going On” with Marvin Gaye. Benson was quick to clarify the meaning of the song: “I’m not protesting, I want to know what’s going on.”
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
“Orange Crush” by REM
No, “Orange Crush” does not refer to an orange-flavored soft drink. The title of the popular REM song actually refers to Agent Orange, a chemical the U.S. Military used to destroy the jungle during the Vietnam War. The lyrics evoke images of soldiers leaving the comforts of home to suffer in the throes of war.
High on the booze
In a tent
Paved with blood
Nine inch howl
Brave the night
Chopper comin’ in, you hope
“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen
“Born in the USA” has practically become a national anthem over the years, but the song was actually intended to showcase the negative effects of the Vietnam War on American life. Ronald Reagan famously misunderstood Springsteen’s song as a supportive “proud to be an American” tribute (even referencing the singer in his campaign speeches), when it actually laments the loss of national pride and people feeling their voices weren’t being heard.
Had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms now
Down in the shadow of 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
“Forever Young” by Alphaville
“Forever Young” certainly seems to be a fluffy ’80s ballad about how great it is to be young, but a closer listen reveals it’s actually about the fear of growing old and dying. The song was written in 1984, when the Cold War and nuclear bombs were making people all over the world reevaluate their mortality. Take another look at the lyrics, and you’ll wonder how the true meaning ever slipped by you:
Let’s dance in style, lets dance for a while
Heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst
Are you going to drop the bomb or not?