This week is Remembrance Day in the UK when people will honour members of armed forces who participated in wars and died. Some will wear red poppies to honour the event, but I also read that some will wear white poppies, which stand for three things: (i) remembrance for all victims of war; (ii) a commitment to peace and; (iii) a challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war. I like this interpretation much more so I have compiled a list of protest and anti-war songs released in the 1980s and 1990s. There were hundreds of good anti-war and protest songs released in these two decades and below are simply my personal selections in no particular order. Though some songs reflect certain historical events, all of them feel timeless (unfortunately history likes to repeat itself) and some that focus on racism and police violence, for example, sound more topical now than ever.
I. “Wind of Change” (1991) by Scorpions
“Wind of Change” is one of the world’s most famous songs, talking about the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a significant event for many people that signalled the end of the Cold War. There is much hope in the lyrics that future will be brighter for all and people will live in friendship, freedom and openness: “Did you ever think/That we could be so close, like brothers…The future’s in the air/Can feel it everywhere/Blowing with the wind of change”. It was a personal song for the members of the band too since they come from West Germany. The band says that “the glory night” in the song actually refers to their performance at the Moscow Music Peace Festival in August 1989.
II. “Civil War” (1990) by Guns N’ Roses
This anti-war song has some of the most powerful and honest lyrics in protest of war to come out in the 1990s: “I don’t need your civil war/It feeds the rich while it buries the poor“, referencing President Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War and the civil rights battle in the US.
III. “Born In The U.S.A.” (1984) by Bruce Springsteen
This is one of the most misunderstood songs ever recorded. Deemed by many to be one of the most patriotic American songs, “Born in the U.S.A” is actually a song written in response to the US government’s inadequate response to the problems plaguing Vietnam veterans after the Vietnam War on their own soil. Rather than having a hero’s welcome, many veterans experienced misunderstanding, alienation and financial hardship, viewed as figures of the country’s shameful past better forgotten. Knowing the full story behind the song, the refrain “Born in the U.S.A” sounds more like an accusation, rather than words of pride. It is as though the solider returning home says: “I was born in the U.S.A. (and hence fought for it)(not any other country) and this is what I get/got?”. Hence the lyrics go: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m ten years burning down the road/I’ve got nowhere to run and nowhere to go”. The original lyrics that were cut from the song were even more telling, emphasising the inability of the solider in the story to find work after the Vietnam War in his country, being forgotten in the process and the country showing complete indifference as to his fate. The “happy” refrain “Born in the U.S.A”, which contrasts with the sad lyrics overall, may also actually underline the American society/government’s view that a working-class ex-soldier must feel happy, keep smiling and be proud of his country, even though the country has essentially let him down.
IV. “Russians” (1985) by Sting
Sting wrote this song criticising the Cold War foreign policy of nations at that time, especially the use of weapons of mass destruction, and appealing for people to remember their common humanity, to be against the dehumanisation of the so-called “enemies”, and to think and feel for themselves rather than to blindly follow the artificially-created concepts of “enemy” proposed by politicians. “There is no monopoly on common sense/On either side of the political fence/We share the same biology, regardless of ideology…..There’s no such thing as a winnable war/It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.“
V. “Black Boys On Mopeds” (1990) by Sinéad O’Connor
The best critic is time, and Sinéad O’Connor ‘s Black Boys On Mopeds feels as relevant now as she sang it in 1990. Her song reflects an incident that happened in England on 17 May 1989. Nicholas Bramble, a black young man, was riding his moped, when the police began chasing him (mistakenly believing Bramble was a thief). As a result of this chase, Bramble crashed and died. Sinéad O’Connor felt strongly about this incident and racism in the police force, believing, like so many other people, that had Bramble been white, he would still have been alive. The song also reflected the poverty in England among the working-class people and also paid tribute to Collin Roach’s death from a gunshot when he was held in police custody on 12 January 1983.
Honourable mentions: “The Foggy Dew” (cover) (1995) by Sinead O’Connor & The Chieftains and “Shipbuilding” (1982) by Elvis Costello.
Stay tuned for Part II!