100 songs that changed history

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

  • 40
    Verdi Verdi - (C) APIC

    ‘Nabucco’ – Giuseppe Verdi (1842)

    Verdi composed this opera, a tale of the Jewish people’s exile at the hands of the Babylonians, during a period where Italy was split into separate provinces, most of which was ruled by Austria. One chorus – known as ‘The Slave’s Chorus’ – is based on Psalm 137 and is sung by exiled Hebrew slaves longing for their homeland. At its first performances, the crowd demanded an encore, which was forbidden by the government of the time. Some historians contest that the encore was of a more innocuous portion than the slave’s chorus, which means this is less of an insurrectionary act than has long been believed. This opera nonetheless is closely associated with the revolution that followed.

  • 39

    ‘Relax’ – Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1984)

    If any song has demonstrated the value of being banned as a highly successful marketing ploy, it’s the notorious ‘Relax’. Its initial chart showing had been mediocre, but on January 5, Frankie… appeared on ‘TOTP’, and the following week the single shot up to number six. It was then banned by the BBC, who felt obliged to back Radio 1 DJ Mike Read in his refusal to play it. The now officially transgressive song hit the number one spot on January 24, where it remained for five weeks. Commercial radio and TV were still playing it at the time, ensuring that the days of Smashie and Nicey-styled establishment DJs were numbered.

  • 38

    ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ – The Special AKA (1984)

    Before Jerry Dammers went to an anti-apartheid gig in 1983, he’d barely heard of Nelson Mandela. And until the March 1984 release of this upbeat, brass-strafed protest song, Mandela’s plight was a minnow of a political issue in the UK. But alongside Eddy Grant’s ‘Gimme Hope Jo’anna’, it brought the former ANC military leader’s incarceration to the forefront of the national consciousness. The resulting political pressure saw then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher do a U-turn on her refusal to impose economic sanctions on the South African government, and a month later, the first meeting between Mandela and the SA government took place, starting the long process that led to his release. The rest is history.

  • 37
    Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar celebrate South Africa's Rugby World Cup win in 1995 Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar celebrate South Africa's Rugby World Cup win in 1995 - (C) Getty Images

    ‘Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika’ – Enoch Sontonga (1897)

    Chosen by Dan Snow, author, TV and radio broadcaster

    ‘When minority rule ended in South Africa, a lot of people predicted widespread blood shed. “Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika” – an ex-liberation song which became part of the South African national anthem – was designed to be a call for harmony. It’s a song for many different voices, and it became a powerful unifying force. The South African team won the 1995 Rugby World Cup with it as their anthem, and the white community really took it to their heart. Plus, it enabled the black community to warm to the Springboks - previously seen as almost a symbol of oppression. Its role in stopping bloodshed is un-provable, but who knows? History is made by these strange things.’

  • 36

    ‘Cop Killer’ – Body Count (1992)

    Ice T’s heavy-metal number about a cop killer inspired one of the greatest outbreaks of public hysteria against the arts since Orson Welles’s reading of ‘The War of the Worlds’. Dennis R Martin of the National Association of Chiefs of Police blamed the song directly for the shootings of ‘at least’ two police officers and suggested it was responsible for ‘inflaming racial tensions’ immediately prior to the outbreak of the Los Angeles riots – though most would agree the acquittal of four police officers for the beating of Rodney King was a more significant factor. Although initially supportive of T’s right to freedom of speech, his label, Time Warner, eventually buckled under pressure from shareholders and removed the track from later pressings of the album.

  • 35

    ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ – Elvis Presley (1957)

    On January 6 1957, The King made the last of three appearances on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ (rather bizarrely, dressed like Rudolph Valentino in ‘The Sheikh’), swivelling, gyrating and stamping his way through ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and six other numbers. Cameramen were famously instructed to film him from the waist up only (save for a small section of ‘Hound Dog’), lest Elvis’s shockingly lewd display excite morally corruptible teens, although the reasons given differ. Whatever, it shows just how high a risk to public decency Elvis was judged to be, and surely represents the first instance of pop-induced panic – a good seven years before Beatlemania hit America.

  • 34

    ‘I Am Woman’ – Helen Reddy (1972)

    Along with Marilyn French’s novel ‘The Women’s Room’ and Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’ artwork, this song was massively emblematic of ’70s feminism. Co-written with Ray Burton and inspired by the empowerment Reddy felt when she joined the women’s movement, it failed to set the charts on fire when first released in May 1972. However, after it was taken up as an anthem by feminists everywhere, it was re-released and went on to top the Billboard 100 in December that year. Reddy won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the song and her acceptance speech famously saw her thanking God ‘because She makes everything possible.’

  • 33

    ‘Strange Fruit’ – Billie Holiday (1939)

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

    ‘It’s unbelievable to think that America, which prides itself as the home of democracy, needed to have the civil rights movement in our lifetimes. But lynchings were still going on in South through to the ‘60s, with the last one happening in the ‘70s. And this song, with its terrible image of lynching in the South – this strange fruit hanging from a tree – was really the start of the civil rights movement. The way she’d dim the lights, and then end every gig with it: it changed popular consciousness. It was the catalyst that started off all these other civil rights songs. So eventually it bore its fruit many years later.’

  • 32

    ‘Give Peace a Chance’ – John Lennon/The Plastic Ono Band (1969)

    Recorded on June 1 1969, during Lennon and Ono’s infamous Montreal hotel ‘bed-in’, it was designed to draw attention to and rally support for the worldwide peace movement. On November 15, a 250,000-strong Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam marched on Washington DC. It featured Pete Seeger leading the crowd in a sing-along of ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ With staggeringly hubristic understatement, President Nixon responded by saying, ‘as far as this kind of activity is concerned, we expect it. However, under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it.’ He had, however, felt the pulse of the nation quicken against him.

  • 31

    ‘Wannabe’ – The Spice Girls (1996)

    Chosen by Emmy the Great

    Emmy says: ''Wannabe' broke The Spice Girls, and soon after Cool Britannia hit its international peak. Not a coincidence. Their success at home and abroad – and Geri Halliwell's Union Jack dress – contributed to a perceived British takeover, with the inevitable comparisons to Beatlemania. But I'm pretty sure they also helped speed Cool Britannia’s demise. What pisses me off about the Spice Girls is how they co-opted genuine feminist sentiment and turned it into a marketing tool. Girl Power, and its predecessor Grrrl Power, had far more clued-up advocates before it was turned into a hand signal by Geri and the gang. I don't agree with those who say the Spice Girls were anti-feminist, but that's because I don't think they belong on any feminist timeline. Call it what it was: Scary, Posh, Ginger, Sporty and Baby mark a milestone in the history of branding.'