100 songs that changed history

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Time Out explores the music that changed the course of world events

  • 80

    ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ – Sylvester (1978)

    At the time, disco may have been famously judged to suck, according to reactionary punks and hippies and ignorant homophobes alike, but this Studio 54 smash by the openly, fabulously, flamboyantly gay Sylvester James triumphed, its twisted, driving groove effortlessly compensating for its lightweight, comically repetitive lyrics. The song just sneaked inside the US Top 40, but here it reached number eight in the charts in October, not only securing Sylvester’s status as an international star, but also reassuring the spooked horse that was the British public that homosexuals were really nothing to be afraid of.

  • 79
    Horst Wessel Horst Wessel - (C) Getty Images

    ‘Horst-Wessel Lied’ - Horst Wessel (1930-45)

    This song performed a dark, dubious and dangerous political function in that it provided European fascism (the lyrics were modified for use in Britain, Spain and France) with an extremely catchy song that was terrifyingly effective at galvanising a mob. Its melody was not original but was that of an old, northern European folk song taken up by the Nazi Party as its anthem between 1930 and 1945. The lyrics were written by SA commander Horst Wessel, who was murdered by an anti-fascism activist in 1930. Also known as ‘Die Fahne Hoch’ (‘The Flag on High’), its tune and lyrics are now illegal in Germany and Austria.

  • 78
    Freed American slaves Freed American slaves - (C) Getty Images

    ‘Amazing Grace’ – Traditional (1759 - present)

    Chosen by Dan Snow, author, TV and radio broadcaster

    Dan says: ‘Amazing Grace has meant completely different things to different groups, but it’s been massively influential across the world. It was a rallying cry for the abolitionists in their campaign to end the slave trade in the West. It defined what it is to be a man, what it is to live in a civilised society. And I think it genuinely changed people’s behaviour. It played a big part in the American Civil War, with the victory of the North over the slave traders in the South. And later, it became the anthem of the 19th century Christians who wanted to turn America into a Christian country. It’s been massively important in the birth of modern America.’

  • 77
    Rezso Seress Rezso Seress

    ‘Gloomy Sunday Waltz’ – Rezso Seress (1933)

    Strictly speaking, for some of those who heard it, ‘Gloomy Sunday’ didn’t so much change the world as stop it. ‘Gloomy Sunday’ became known as ‘the Hungarian suicide song’, after copies of the ditty were reportedly found on the phonographs of several suicide victims in the 1930s. Composer Seress, meanwhile, killed himself in spectacular style in 1968 – after surviving a leap from a building, he strangled himself with a wire in hospital. The lyrics deal with separated lovers promising to reunite in the afterlife, which plays neatly into the legend, but since there were so many good reasons to top oneself in the ’30s it’s perhaps a little extreme that it remained banned by the BBC until 2000.

  • 76
    Billy Bragg Billy Bragg - (C) Redferns

    ‘The Internationale’ – Pierre De Geyter/Eugène Pottier (1888/1871)

    Although originally penned in 1871 by French poet Eugène Pottier, it wasn’t until 17 years later that the ‘song’ gained notoriety when Belgian composer Pierre De Geyter set it to music. Played to audiences for the first time in 1888, it was quickly adopted by the French Socialist Party, as well as other communist and anarchic groups across France, due to its lyrical content about ‘enslaved masses’ rising up, because alone ‘we are nothing…let us group together and tomorrow The Internationale will be the human race’. These one-for-all-and-all-for-one values haven’t changed in people’s eyes over the years, which is why the song still has such an impact. Between 1922 and 1944, members of the Soviet Union assumed it as their national anthem, and even later in 1990, the left wing punk rocker Billy Bragg – who is well known for his politically-focused lyrics and activism – rewrote ‘The Internationale’ to appeal to the modern-day masses and included it on his album of the same name.

  • 75

    ‘London's Burning’ – The Clash (1977)

    Chosen by Summer Camp's Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey

    Jeremy and Elizabeth say: 'It seems odd that a song about the bleakness and boredom of inner city life could be pivotal in unifying black and white youths against racism and the fascism of the National Front, a party that was becoming more powerful after Enoch Powell and the inevitable slide into Thatcherism in the late 1970s. When The Clash headlined Rock Against Racism in 1978, they were as high octane and aggressive as ever, but the message was one of all races embracing political activism for positive change and acceptance.'

  • 74
    King Charles II King Charles II - (C) Getty Images

    ‘The Diggers’ Song’ – Traditional (1649)

    This folk ballad concerns the 1649 Digger Commune and its agitation for the rights of every man to live in freedom and work the land (‘a common treasury’) in peace. The lyrics were written by Gerrard Winstanley and published in 1894 and urged the Diggers (also known as True Levellers) to stand up not only to King Charles’s tyrannical Cavaliers, but also to lawyers and priests, advising the rebels to ‘conquer them by love’. The roots of Cameron’s hug-a-hoodie campaign go back a long way, it seems.

  • 73
    James Weldon Johnson James Weldon Johnson - Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

    ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ – The Total Experience Gospel Choir (1970s)

    Also known as ‘The Black National Anthem’, it was first performed (as a poem written by James Weldon Johnson) during Abe Lincoln’s birthday celebration and was only set to music years later. With lyrics mentioning heaven and earth ringing ‘with the harmonies of Liberty’ and talk of a ‘path through the blood of the slaughtered’, it was often found pasted into standard hymnbooks in African American churches. It was taken up as a rallying hymn by the American Civil Rights Movement and, during the ’70s, was sometimes sung immediately after ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, thus sealing its status as a heavily symbolic black anthem.

  • 72

    ‘Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)’ – Toby Keith (2002)

    This post 9-11 anthem for the more hawkish elements of US society ushered in a new era of McCarthyism. After Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks took issue with lyrics like ‘You’ll be sorry that you messed with/ the US of A/ because we’ll put a boot in your ass./ It’s the American way’, Keith responded by photoshopping Maines into a photograph of Saddam Hussein and used it as a backdrop at gigs. A boycott of the Dixie Chicks saw their single drop from the charts and sponsors abandon them. Bulldozings of their CDs were organised, death threats followed, and eventually President Bush had to make a statement appealing for public calm. Pretty ironic for a country Keith refers to as ‘Mother Freedom’ elsewhere in the song…

  • 71
    Aretha Franklin Aretha Franklin

    ‘Think’ – Aretha Franklin (1968)

    Chosen by Summer Camp's Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey

    Jeremy and Elizabeth say: ‘On first listen this sounds like a woman asking her man for respect, pleading with him to consider her feelings before once again letting her down. However, its message runs much deeper than the cries of a woman scorned. This track was a rallying call for women to stand up and embrace their own freedom, encouraging them to think for themselves. Released a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it was also an anthem dedicated to the black liberation movement, supporting them and asking them to keep going.’


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