100 songs that changed history

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

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    ‘I’d Like To Buy the World a Coke’ – The New Seekers (1971)

    Conceived by advertising exec Bill Backer after observing a group of people drinking Coco-Cola and laughing during an unexpected airport layover, Backer saw the fizzy drink as more than just a refreshment but rather ‘a subtle way of saying, “Let's keep each other company for a little while.”’ Cheesy in the extreme, but the concept in the hands of songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenway ended up as The New Seekers’ biggest hit. The accompanying hilltop commercial featuring a multi-racial group clutching cokes and singing in unison became instantly iconic and quickly spawned the reworked hit ‘I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing (in Perfect Harmony)’. Ad jingles were hardly a revolutionary concept in 1971, but this song forged a lasting and profitable relationship between pop and commerce, paving the way for countless branded musical endorsements.

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    Woody Guthrie Woody Guthrie - (C) Lester Balog Courtesy Of Woody Guthrie Archives

    ‘The Sinking of The Reuben James’ – Woody Guthrie

    Flag-waving jingoism was simply not Woody Guthrie's bag. Famously 'This Land Is Your Land' was written in direct response to Irving Berlin's complacent and triumphalist 'God Bless America'. Yet when the USS Reuben James was sunk by a German submarine in 1941 (before the USA had joined WWII), Guthrie crafted this stirring tribute to the 88 dead crewmen, loaded with the implication that this was a national issue via the line 'did you have a friend on that good Reuben James?' Why? The man who displayed the legend 'This machine kills fascists' on his guitar may well have used the sinking as a focus for his own anti-fascism, but the effect was certain: to galvanise the American left into supporting intervention.

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    The 1969 Stonewall protests The 1969 Stonewall protests

    ‘Stonewall Girls’ (to the tune of ‘Howdy Doody Theme’) – Stonewall Protestors (1969)

    ‘We are the Stonewall girls/We wear our hair in curls/We don’t wear underwear/We show our public hair’ may not match ‘The Red Flag’ as a revolutionary manifesto, but this was the ballad that precipitated the great watershed moment for gay rights. Sung by Stonewall protesters as they faced off against New York’s Tactical Police Force, it was set to the theme tune of creepy US puppet show ‘Howdy Doody’. The improvised lyrics united campaigners in a positive spirit cemented by a chorus-line, high-kick routine, enraging the police so much that they rushed in and beat them. This violence ultimately galvanised broader public support for the protesters’ cause.

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    ‘That's Life’ as performed by James Brown at the Boston Gardens (1968)

    Immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King, cities across America were going up in flames as anguish gave way to rioting. Boston was a powder keg with a tiny fuse. To make matters worse for the city's mayor, James Brown was scheduled to play to 20,000 no-doubt livid fans the following night, April 5 1968. Fearing chaos, a plan was hatched to broadcast the concert live on television in an attempt to keep people off the streets. Such was the dynamism and power of the Godfather of Soul at the time, it actually worked. After a delayed start, he launched into 'That's Life' and proceeded to deliver a spellbinding show that actually united the city while others around it burned.

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    ‘Darling Nikki’ – Prince (1984)

    This was one of several tracks denounced by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) for containing graphic lyrics of a violent, sexual or occult nature. Led by Al Gore’s sassy wife Tipper, the PMRC saw rock and rap as ‘infecting the youth of the world with messages they cannot handle’. In Prince’s case, they had a point – we first meet the song’s protagonist masturbating in public – but some of the PMRC’s other targets were less judiciously selected (eg John Denver’s easy listening classic ‘Rocky Mountain High’, one of Denver’s state songs). After a Senate hearing in September 1985, the parental advisory warning (or ‘Tipper sticker’) was introduced to protect younglings’ fragile little minds.

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    Crosy Still Nash Young Crosy Still Nash Young - (C) Redferns

    ‘Ohio’ – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)

    When the National Guard opened fire on a peaceful protest against Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, four Kent State students were dead and America was shocked and confused. As Devo's Jerry Casale, who was on the campus that day, said, 'the government and the press tried to lie about what happened as well as they could. The fact that anybody knows what happened is amazing because they did such a good job of muddying it up'. Step forward the counter-culture's own CNN. The band recorded this protest song, with no overdubs, the day it was written and soon after it was on the airwaves. The huge harmonies, Neil Young's trademark guitar crunch and that urgent coda of 'Four dead in Ohio' would keep this massacre seared onto the minds of a generation.

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    ‘The Theme From Barney & Friends’

    What wits and wags the interrogators at Guantanamo were... From a sinister playlist that included Eminem, AC/DC, Queen and the charming 'Fuck Your God' by death metal band Deicide, the saccharine-coated theme from kids show ‘Barney & Friends’ ended up being the song most played by psyops teams as a form of horrifically loud, endlessly looped aural torture. Some artists, like Metallica, were happy that their music was being used to instil madness in untried prisoners. Since Barney wasn't available for comment, we're just going to presume he felt such a crass and cruel use of his theme tune was symptomatic of the amateurism and bungling incompetence that characterised the camp.

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    ‘So Sick’ – Justin Bieber (2007)

    In what looks like a town hall and in a video of handy-cam quality, a good Christian boy from Ontario, Canada, decked out in a crisp white shirt and tie, stretches his impressive 12-year-old lungs on a cover of Ne-Yo’s slick R&B hit ‘So Sick’ to a room full of parents and friends who have no idea this kid is going to be an international megastar. While scouring YouTube, talent scout Scooter Braun discovered this video, and so began the phenomenon of viral video stardom. ‘If Justin Bieber can do it, why can’t I?’ was the thought on everybody’s minds. Forget ‘X Factor’; this doesn’t even involve leaving the house! Of course, it also helps if your rich parents throw a wad of cash at you, like Rebecca Black, who in February 2011 unleashed her auto-tune-heavy song ‘Friday’ on unwitting YouTube viewers. They were so disgusted by it – the video racked up 3,190,000 dislikes within four months compared to 451,000 likes – that they shared it with all their friends, and she ended up on ‘The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’.

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    Fela Kuti Fela Kuti - (C) Getty Images

    ‘Zombie’ – Fela Kuti (1977)

    The brass-punched, good-time feel of this epic Afrobeat workout belies not only its serious political message but also its devastating repercussions. It’s directly critical of a corrupt Nigerian government and accuses the military of mindless, zombie-like brutality against its own people. In retaliation for this, 1000 of General Obasanjo’s soldiers attacked and burned down Fela Kuti’s compound (his ‘Kalakuta Republic’), including his house and recording studio, and beat him severely. His 82-year-old mother – a well-regarded anti-colonial activist – was thrown from a second-story window and subsequently died from her injuries. Fela Kuti was later inspired to launch his own political party (Movement of the People) and twice ran for presidency.

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    Oliver Cromwell Oliver Cromwell - (C) Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

    ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ – Traditional (1643)

    Chosen by Bettany Hughes, research fellow at King’s College London, fellow Of the Historical Association, New York Times bestselling author and TV/radio broadcaster

    ‘This song is from 1643 and was a protest against Cromwell’s Parliament attempting to ban the celebration of Christmas. It’s really important because it’s this fundamental protest saying that the state cannot tell people not to enjoy themselves. It told the powers that this is one of the most dangerous things that they can do. It was incredibly popular: people used to sing it together in pubs as a protest at not being allowed to drink and feast. Within a couple of years, the king was back, and maybe this inspired grassroots opinion that it wasn’t such a bad thing to have a king as well as a Parliament.’