100 songs that changed history

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

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    Jean Sibelius Jean Sibelius - (C) Getty Images

    ‘Finlandia Op. 26’ – Jean Sibelius (1899-1900)

    In 1899 Finland was under Russian rule. But after decades of cordial relations between the two nations, the Tsarist authorities had begun attempting to limit Finnish national identity. To assert their freedom of speech, the Finns put on an evening of ‘Press Celebrations’, for which the composer Jean Sibelius wrote his symphonic poem to accompany a tableaux of Finnish history. It was adopted as the anthem of Finnish national struggle and was performed at concerts under a false name to avoid censorship. Whistling it in public became an important gesture of rebellion. Eighteen years later, the failure of russification was made official as Finland declared independence from Russia. To this day, ‘Finlandia…’ remains one of the most important national songs of Finland.

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    ‘Declare Independence’ – Björk (2008)

    Chosen by Dan Snow, author, TV and radio broadcaster

    Dan says: ‘Released in 2008, Björk initially dedicated her lyrics to the Faroe Islands and Greenland. I only really became aware of this song later when she caused uproar in China by shouting "Tibet! Raise your flag!" during a part of the song. Before this performance, she played in Tokyo and stated her support for Kosovo's declaration of independence, which led to claims that she was banned from performing at Exit Festival in Serbia over fears she may dedicate the song to Kosovo in a similar fashion.’

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    ‘Rock Around the Clock’ – Bill Haley and His Comets (1954)

    It may not be the very first rock ’n’ roll record – that’s arguably Haley’s ‘Crazy Man, Crazy’ from 1953 – but this rather basic, swinging 12-bar blues number became an instant classic and is widely acknowledged as the song that propelled rock ’n’ roll into mainstream popular culture. Thanks to its use in the opening credits of the 1955 movie ‘Blackboard Jungle’, it’s also responsible for inventing the concept of the teenager. Before this time, teens were viewed as unformed mini-adults, rather than as a separate and distinct demographic in their own right. That year, Haley handed advertising agencies the world over the phenomenally lucrative marketing gift that keeps on giving, the teenager with disposable income.

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    American slaves reaching freedom via the underground railroad American slaves reaching freedom via the underground railroad - (C) Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

    ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ – Traditional (nineteenth century)

    Although in the UK these days it’s largely thought of as the rugby national anthem, ‘Swing Low...’ has a more noble history. The seemingly sacred lyrics are actually coded instructions advising slaves on how to escape to the free north. Songs were an important element of the underground railroad, allowing slaves to share information without arousing suspicion. ‘Swing low’ is an exhortation to crouch while moving through long grass to escape detection, while the ‘band of angels’ refers to slavery abolitionists who held sway over the other side of ‘Jordan’, ie the Mississippi River.

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    Martin Luther Martin Luther - (C) Getty Images

    ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ – Martin Luther (1527-1531)

    Martin Luther may be best known for instigating the Protestant Reformation after pinning a memo on a church door, but all music truly owes him an incalculable debt. He was the first to suggest that an entire congregation should sing, not just professional choirs, and in a language they actually understood (German, as opposed to Latin). He instigated the chorale tradition, which led to multiple-part harmonies, and as a hymn writer, he would take popular folk melodies and construct new words around them – just like J-Lo did with the Lambada recently. 'A Mighty Fortress...' was his best-known composition. An adaptation of Psalm 46, its melody has reappeared through the ages, from Bach to Mendelssohn to Vaughan Williams and beyond.

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    ‘Helter Skelter’ – The Beatles (1968)

    When it comes to the classics of misheard lyrics, the evergreen ‘’Scuse me while I kiss this guy’ seems positively sensible compared to Charles Manson’s garbled interpretation of ‘Helter Skelter’. Somehow the petty crook turned psychopath heard ‘When I get to the bottom/I go back to the top of the slide’ as ‘Instruct your followers to kill innocent people in the wrong house’. If only he’d heard it on a Memorex. Manson’s aim with the Tate/LaBianca murders was to kickstart an apocalyptic race war he believed was prophesied in the throwaway Beatles number, which we must say casts some doubt on his hippy credentials. Still, it’s at least fitting that the band credited with turning the world on to the psychedelic ideal would also soundtrack its bloody demise.

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    ‘That’s All Right’ – Elvis Presley (1954)

    Chosen by Michael Wood, fellow of the Royal Historical Society, author and TV/radio broadcaster

    Michael says: ‘Bo Diddly took the western African griot beat, which was in turn taken by Elvis, and he made it absolutely electrifying. At the time, we were coming out of World War II, the Cold War was on, and Britain and America were very conformist in their attitudes. That sound coming in the reserved post-war era was seen as very dangerous – it was lock-up-your-daughter time. You can see how scary it was to people by the Daughters of the American Revolution’s attempts to ban it. It absolutely changed everything.’

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    Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five - (C) Getty Images

    ‘The Message’ – Grandmaster Flash (1982)

    Chosen by Howling Bells' Juanita Stein

    Juanita says: 'One of the greatest, and definitely, most important hip hop tracks of our time. The message is clear, the conviction is all in the delivery. The lyrics could be felt and understood universally. It also has a video, as it mirrors the song's sentiment so accurately - Grandmaster Flash is looking through the lens of a camera with such intent. The track's political commentary is speaking for a million people who felt trapped and disappointed. This paved the way for so many other groundbreaking hip hop artists, as well as heralding a new era in American music.'

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    ‘Crush On Obama’ – Obama Girl (2007)

    Back when Barack Obama was just a tall, sexy Senator from Illinois, one of the things that marked him out as candidate material among Democrats was his grasp of the web. Fast forward to the 2008 campaign, and just as JFK had conquered the new medium of television, Obama had mastered the internet as a means of connecting with voters. The love affair went both ways. 'Obama Girl' was one of the first Obama virals to surface, and with tongue-in-cheek lines like 'universal health reform/it makes me warm' delivered by a smitten fan, it was the more lol-some counterpart to will.i.am's earnest 'Yes We Can'. Candidates have always had songs written about them – see 'Lincoln And Liberty', 'Nixon's The One' or 'Hello Lyndon'. Never before had 20,000,000 people heard them though.

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    ‘War’ as performed on Saturday Night Live by Sinéad O'Connor (1992)

    In a thrilling moment of live television, Sinéad O'Connor used her gift as a provocateur to hurtle the issue of abuse in the Catholic church into the mainstream. During dress rehearsal, O'Connor had held up a picture of a Balkan refugee at the climax of her solemn, a capella cover of 'War'. On air though, things began to go awry when she altered the words from 'racism' to 'child abuse'. As the camera went in close, she switched pictures, produced a photo of Pope John Paul II, tore it in half and shouted 'fight the real enemy'. The show's producers were stunned and felt betrayed, yet still allowed her the dignity of not cutting her performance from its later West coast airing. Many others wouldn't be so kind. With no apparent irony, headlines the next day read 'Holy Terror', and with his typical charm towards women, Frank Sinatra allegedly said he wanted to 'punch her right in the mouth'.


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