100 songs that changed history

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

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    ‘Funeral Music For Queen Mary’ – Henry Purcell (1694)

    Chosen by Dan Cruickshank, art historian, honorary fellow of the Royal Institution of British Artists, author and TV/radio broadcaster

    Dan says: ‘Purcell’s music captured the historic importance of the death of a thoughtful, intelligent woman and queen. As joint monarch with William III, Queen Mary II helped to formulate the Bill of Rights: the most important constitutional document in British history. It guaranteed the powers of parliament, with pre-eminence given to elected members of the House of Commons, and limited the powers of the monarchy. Purcell’s music to celebrate her untimely death was powerful, beautiful and solemn. A year later it was played again at another public funeral - that of Purcell himself.’

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    Crass Crass

    ‘Do They Owe Us a Living?’ – Crass (1978)

    Crass’s agit-punk anthem has had a direct effect on the culture and tourism policy of Iceland – or, at least, that’s the opinion of Einar Orn, former Sugarcubes singer turned Icelandic minister for culture and tourism. ‘This inspired me politically and socially,’ Orn told Time Out. ‘Back in 1976 when I was 14, I listened to punk. Punk is my roots. It is me still today.’ Orn is not, of course, the only former musician turned politician. Tropicalia figurehead Gilberto Gil, imprisoned by the Brazilian military regime in 1969 for his subversive artistic activities, went on to serve as the country's minister for culture from 2003 to 2008, during which time he established the successful Culture Point programme, which gave access to music education and equipment to Brazil’s poor. And Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett has been a member of the Australian House Of Representatives since 2004, and currently serves as minister for school education, early childhood and youth. And let’s not forget Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, who was marginally more successful as a bassist from 1960 no-hit wonders The Electras.

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    Beethoven Beethoven - © Getty Images

    ‘Symphony No. 5’ – Ludwig van Beethoven (1808)

    Chosen by Dan Cruickshank, art historian, honorary fellow of the Royal Institution of British Artists, author and TV/radio broadcaster

    Dan says: ‘It was started in 1804, during the Napoleonic wars. By then Beethoven's initial admiration for Napoleon as a representative of enlightenment and liberty had turned to loathing when it became clear Napoleon was a despot and dynastic imperialist. Its first performance in Vienna in 1808 – after Napoleon’s forces had occupied the city – soon saw it recognised as representing spiritual struggle against tyranny. The bizarre and powerful simplicity of a strange opening passage which repeated three short notes and one long note was a clarion call, a declaration of intent. Later, it became significant in the Second World War as an audible symbol of defiance to totalitarian aggression, for the three short beats and one long coincided with the Morse code for V - three dots and a dash. V, representing victory, was painted surreptitiously in occupied Europe while the opening phrase of Beethoven's Fifth was broadcast on the BBC. It’s the sound of freedom.’

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    Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle - (C) Popperfoto/ Getty Images

    ‘La Marseillaise’ – Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1792)

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

    ‘It’s the first of its kind. No such song had ever been composed. A soldier and amateur musician wrote it one night, and it was played at a patriotic banquet. Right from the moment that it was composed, the revolutionaries saw the power of it and handed out copies. So as thousands of troops entered Paris in 1792, they marched on the royal palace singing the song. It’s this electric moment, and all the English radicals were over there – Mary Wollstoncraft, Wordsworth – to see this phenomenon. Every subsequent revolution was influenced by the French Revolution, and this song is still sung all over the world today.’

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    Homer Homer - (C) Getty Images

    ‘The Iliad’ – Homer (800 BC)

    Chosen by Dan Snow, author, TV and radio broadcaster

    Dan says: ‘This is a slightly naughty choice. But it was known as the Song of Ilium. It may not have necessarily been sung, but it would have been chanted. It’s the oldest surviving piece of storytelling in the Western world, and it’s influenced soldiers, religious leaders and would-be conquerors across the ages in ways you can hardly overestimate. Just to take one example: Alexander the Great was self-consciously copying the Iliad when he set out to conquer the world. It’s had a massive impact on world history.’

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    ‘Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond Of Each Other)’ – Willie Nelson (2006)

    When Latin country musician Ned Sublette wrote this song back in 1981, it was a groundbreaking moment: the exploration of a subject utterly taboo within the famously conservative music genre. In fact, Sublette composed it with Nelson in mind, but it wasn’t until after 'Brokeback Mountain' that the outspoken country legend decided it was time this brilliantly titled ditty came out of the closet. Although Nelson’s cover wasn’t the first country tune to be embraced by the LGBT community – Garth Brooks’ hit 'We Shall Be Free' became an anthem in 2000 – 'Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)' was the first song to address sexuality solely and specifically. Released in 2006 with the campest of fanfares, the promo came replete with rippling biceps, hip thrusts and cowboys doing the do-si-do. Despite some American country stations refusing to give the song airtime, it became Nelson’s biggest hit since 1984 and thousands of closeted spur-rocking cowboys rejoiced.*


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    Acrassicauda Acrassicauda - (C) Getty Images

    ‘Beginning of The End’ – Acrassicauda (2004)

    In 2004, the young men of Iraqi metal band Acrassicauda had on their doorstep what 99% of Western counterparts could only evoke: misery, fear and despair. During the horrors of the Baghdad insurgency, they recorded 'Beginning of The End' as part of a set of scratchily recorded demos. They ended up receiving death threats from Islamic militants for their trouble.

    They didn't sing about politics. They didn't need to. The simple fact that they and their generation were unable to rock in the free world tugged at global heartstrings, their plight championed across the political spectrum (from Vice magazine to Fox News), uniquely engaging ordinary folk with the conflict in Iraq in the process.

  • 83

    ‘Ku Klux Klan’ – Steel Pulse (1978)

    Chosen by Sam Duckworth aka Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.

    Sam says: ‘Steel Pulse came at a funny time. The National Front was pretty prevalent and there was a lot of frontline street racism. It was the first dub reggae, white men and black men onstage crossover. It gave a different weight to the rock against racism movement. The slogan of the campaign was ‘Black and White Unite and Fight’ and not only did two cultures came together but it paved the way for the two-tone movement. They were pioneering and the lyrics of the song are pretty heavy – very much an attack on racism in Britain at that time. The fact that they dressed up as the Ku Klux Klan onstage – the white hoods with these massive dreads down the back - was bonkers! I think it really galvanised communities and different generations especially in the West Indian population that were living around Brick Lane at the time and the festivals and celebrations that were going on in Coventry – I guess it paved the way for band members of different races.’

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    Joan Baez Joan Baez - (C) Redfern

    ‘We Shall Overcome’ – Traditional (1950s and 1960s)

    Perhaps best known through Joan Baez’s rendition, it sets lyrics lifted from Rev Charles A Tindley’s gospel song of 1900 to the opening and closing melodies of a pre-American Civil War spiritual. Thanks to folk icon Pete Seeger, who’d learned it as early as 1947 via The Highlander Folk School, the song was picked up, taught to other folk singers and adopted as an anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s, when it was sung en masse at rallies to strengthen crowd solidarity. Unusually, the song’s determinedly religious lyrics in no way diminish its secular force.

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    ‘Fuck tha Police’ – NWA (1988)

    Never a single, but surely the best known of the Cali gangsta rap crew’s tracks, this was a standout from their 'Straight Outta Compton' debut LP and hit out explicitly at the LAPD for their brutality and practice of racial profiling. Bowing to pressure from evangelical Christian organisation Focus On the Family, an assistant director of the FBI wrote to both Ruthless Records and its distributor, warning against the record’s inflammatory nature, which saw police refusing to provide security for NWA shows. 'Fuck tha Police' may be credited with setting the ubiquitous Parental Advisory sticker ball rolling; outraged protest groups had their label-warning way – and inevitably helped drive up record sales.