The band say: ‘Blowin' in the Wind’: Bob Dylan’s classic has been used as a protest anthem ever since its release in 1962. It was considered a civil rights anthem and Sam Cooke thought it could be lent to the cause and began to perform it as part of his live set. It was later an anthem for the Vietnam anti-war movement and more recently in Iraq anti-war protests.’
‘Self Destruction’ – Stop The Violence Movement (1989)
Outraged by the death of a fan during a show by his outfit Boogie Down Productions, legendary rapper KRS-One assembled a dream team of East Coast MCs, including Public Enemy, Stetsasonic and Kool Moe Dee, to record peace-promoting anthem ‘Self-Destruction’. The world’s inner cities have been untroubled by violence ever since. Not really – in fact, KRS recorded a new version in 2008 (called ‘Self-Construction’) to try to stop the violence again. But ‘Self Destruction’, and the Stop The Violence Movement campaign, was an important milestone in establishing the soul of hip hop and demonstrating its potential for positive social change, giving birth to what is now referred to as the ‘conscious philosophy’.
In the early Noughties, this pop-punk trio were on the slippery slope to irrelevancy, but when an entire album’s worth of recorded songs were stolen, Billie Joe and co went back to the drawing board. Drawing inspiration from the Bush’s ham-fisted leadership, the band produced a career-rejuvenating punk rock concept record that went on to shift 14 million units. The title track was a rallying three-chord cry encouraging music lovers to question their neo-conservative government and the media’s brainwash agenda. For the first time in decades, political pop was a mainstream mega-smash
The roots of one of one of the most nuanced protest songs ever were anything but calm. After a spate of Klan killings in 1963, the murder of four children at Alabama's 16th Street Baptist Church sent Nina Simone into such a rage that she initially attempted to assemble a crude zip gun. Talked down by her husband, she took her fury immediately to the piano and within an hour had 'Mississippi Goddam'. Incredibly, it transcends its manic creation. After lulling the listener in with a jaunty show tune rhythm, Simone subtly changes key from G to E at which point she bombards them with a relentless, beautiful torrent of anger and outrage over the slow speed of change. Though banned in several Southern states, it was a long-overdue articulation that resonated hugely until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and beyond.
Chosen by Dan Cruickshank, art historian, honorary fellow of the Royal Institution of British Artists, author and TV/radio broadcaster
'The Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony was given on the 9 August 1942 - and perhaps never before in history had music been used as such a direct weapon of war. The city had been under siege by Nazi Germany for nearly a year but continued to resist. Its people needed their morale and spirits lifted, and the Symphony was intended to do that. It was also to proclaim the spirit of resolve and resistance to the Germans. The Leningrad premier was to be an act of defiance and of war, but it was also to be symbolic. The 9th of August – the day chosen for the performance – was also the date Hitler has chosen to celebrate the expected fall of Leningrad. Loudspeakers broadcast the performance to the whole city and to the encircling German army, with the premiere preceded by a bombardment of the German positions and a military sortie. The city endured – no doubt partly thanks to this Symphony – until relieved in January 1944.'
Uriah Heep - (C) Redferns
‘Bird of Prey’ – Uriah Heep (1971)
No wonder Mikhail Gorbachev was increasingly given the cold (war) shoulder throughout the ’80s, until he was challenged (unsuccessfully) by a coup in 1991. After opening up the USSR politically and culturally with his radical glasnost policy, which pinnacle of Western musical achievement did he first usher through the Iron Curtain? UK prog-rock/fantasy-metal quintet Uriah Heep. This song was first in a set played over ten nights in December 1987 at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium,to around 180,000 people, and it marked a breakthrough in terms of the recognition of, and hunger for, Western rock music and pop culture in the USSR. All we can say is – we’re sorry.
‘In retrospect there wasn’t really anyone on par with Gaye at that point in terms of how he cut across so many boundaries. He was this sort of sex symbol, and he was cutting across the racist culture of America at the time. It’s a highly politicised song, when lot of soul music at that time was supposed to be good time music, keeping people in their place and keeping people happy. All of a sudden, here was Gaye cutting across all that and making quite a poignant expression of people’s dissatisfaction. He grew his beard at that time as a symbol of his alliance with all those black guys going to Vietnam to fight for a country they didn’t even support. The effeminate sound of the song and how sensual he sang is also quite remarkable when singing about such a robust subject. He delivers it in an almost erotic way, which is pretty remarkable I think.’
Whether or not Beethoven’s perennially popular ninth symphony (colloquially known as ‘Ode to Joy’) has changed history itself, it’s certainly been the soundtrack for more dramatic national transitions than any other ditty. Leonard Bernstein performed it (retitled ‘Ode to Freedom’) at a concert to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall (although, we must say, it’s no ‘Looking for Freedom’) before it was adopted as the official anthem of the European Union. ‘Ode to Joy’ also became the placeholder national anthem for the newly established state of Kosovo in recognition of the EU’s role in the nation’s creation. Small wonder, though – after its debut performance in Vienna, police had to stop the crowd from giving Beethoven standing ovations, as the composer’s popularity ran the risk of riling the Austrian emperor.
Although this song catapulted Cui Jian into stardom four years earlier, it was adopted by students occupying Tiananmen Square in 1989. Lyrically opaque, it conveyed a sense of longing that enabled it to be interpreted as a love song or a plea for political solidarity. A ponderous, Springsteen-style rock ballad featuring suona (Chinese oboe) and dizi (bamboo flute), it was performed by Cui Jian in the square and seized on as a protest song. Interestingly, he now denies that it was one. Of course, ‘Nothing to My Name’ did not result in immediate change, but it is the anthem around which widespread agitation for greater freedoms in China first coalesced.
‘Billie Jean’ – Michael Jackson (1983)
‘Billie Jean’ didn’t so much change the landscape of pop as mark its transition from art form to industry. Although the selling of pop had always been big business, ‘Billie Jean’ was the product of an expensive, high-tech production line helmed by composer/producer/all-round genius Quincy Jones. The track was mixed 91 times before it was considered ready for release. The results were clearly worth the investment – ‘Billie Jean’ broke MTV’s (unofficial) colour barrier by being the first video by a black artist to enter heavy rotation on the channel, and the track’s success bankrolled the ‘Thriller’ video, which contributed to the LP becoming the bestselling album of all time.