Top 5 Anti-War/Protest Songs of the 1980s and 1990s (Part I)

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!


19 thoughts on “Top 5 Anti-War/Protest Songs of the 1980s and 1990s (Part I)

  1. I didn’t know about the white poppies, that’s interesting! I like “Winds of Change.” And I’ve never really listened to a Sting song before, but “Russians” is pretty moving (also the music video). Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t know about white poppies myself until very recently. I certainly now have the desire to wear them. “Russians” is indeed moving. Apparently, back in the day, Sting with his friend managed to somehow watch satellite television showing Soviet programmes and they were both impressed with the care, attention and love shown in devising and presenting children’s programmes in the Soviet Union, hence the idea for the song also came about. I mean I was partly brought up on these programmes, too, so I can say there is much truth in that.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Good question. I don’t know myself, but possibly greater sensitivity to that kind of content in music on the part of audience? Musicians’ desire not to alienate a part of its audience? There has always been that concern, I am sure, but maybe now more than ever? When researching these songs, I did note some prominent rock bands producing some “political” songs and there have been some on the post- 9/11 atmosphere and even Trump references, but it seems that even these were not really “radical”. Given the current somewhat fluctuating political climate in the world, nothing may seem to people black and white anymore and perhaps because people are not sure whether they’d wake up tomorrow with a completely different set of political views or switch to a different party overnight, it is perhaps more of a risk to produce certain content (and be embarrassed because of one’s old songs later). That’s just my random thoughts.


  2. A great post, I haven’t seen or heard of the white poppies but I’ll keep a look out they do sound more relevant. I think there is a bit of glamorising war with the red poppies

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting post. Being older, “my” protest songs are more form the 60’s of course. Dylan, Baez, Sieger…
    I do remember Sting’s Russians… And when I came home one night in Paris, the news were one, my wife told me they were tearing the Berlin wall down. As I watched, dumbfounded, I thought: “well, this is it. No more war.” (How naïve)

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Sorry to have missed the era you were covering. You have an excellent list. Another song I appreciate is 10,000 Manics Gun Shy. It’s perhaps not anti-war but it’s certainly don’t-rush-to-war.

        There should be more songs with such messages. Thanks for your post.


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