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The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the 70s

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CJ Baker is a published writer who wrote the novel and started the companion podcast An Epic Soundtrack To A Mundane Existence.

1970s | The Vietnam War, Socially Conscious Soul & the Emergence of Punk

Music is a sometimes subtle, sometimes loud way to speak your mind, and the music that came out of the 1970s is a perfect reflection of what was happening socially and politically in that decade: from soul to punk and everything in between.

The 70s protest movements picked up where the 60s left off, especially in regard to the Vietnam war. Civil rights continued to be a hot button topic, reflecting the ongoing racial tensions of the time. Meanwhile, in music, soul music began to overtake folk as the main genre for promoting social awareness and in the UK the emergence of punk rock provided a voice for disenfranchised youth protesting the status quo.

Here is my list of the 10 best protest songs of the 70s. Feel free to leave any feedback in the comments section below. You can protest the list if any of your personal faves were left off.

Curtis Mayfield

1972 photo of Curtis Mayfield, a key figure in the civil rights movement during the 60s & 70s.

1972 photo of Curtis Mayfield, a key figure in the civil rights movement during the 60s & 70s.

#10: (Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go--Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield established himself as a key figure of the 60s civil rights movement with the inspiring songs he recorded with The Impressions. But in his 1970 debut solo album Curtis, he tackled social issues with a much harder edge.

"(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go" is a warning about American race relations. In this song, Mayfield conveys the idea that if we as a society don't get our act together, then all hell will break loose. This may be the funkiest protest song ever, but the heavy fuzz bass just doesn't sound funky, it also provides an ominous apocalyptic feel.

(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go by Curtis Mayfield (Video)

#9: Fight The Power (Part 1 & 2)--The Isley Brothers

Here is another funky contribution to the protest movement from The Isley Brothers' 1975 album, The Heat Is On.

"Fight The Power" is an anti-establishment song displaying a distrust in authority. In 1989 the lyric "we gotta fight the powers that be" would end up being incorporated into Public Enemy's landmark protest rap song of the the same name.

The song definitely has an undeniable intensity which makes it a truly irresistible force to be reckoned with.

Fight The Power by The Isley Brothers (Video)

The Sex Pistols

Johnny Rotten & Steve Jones during a 1977 concert in Amsterdam.

Johnny Rotten & Steve Jones during a 1977 concert in Amsterdam.

#8: God Save the Queen--The Sex Pistols

This legendary punk anthem, one of the more antagonist protest songs of the protest movement, was from The Sex Pistols' landmark 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.

"God Save the Queen" is a bold indictment of the monarchy, declaring it a "fascist regime." While many protest songs present a call to action and hold out a hope for change, "God Save the Queen" represents a more nihilistic perspective with the repeated refrain of "no future" at the end of the song. Those nihilistic sentiments would be indicative of much of the punk rock that would follow.

God Save the Queen by The Sex Pistols (Video)

#7: Ku Klux Klan--Steel Pulse

Steel Pulse is a UK roots reggae band who focused much of their music on the plight of urban black youths. They were also heavily involved with the UK's "Rock Against Racism" movement in the 70's.

"Ku Klux Klan" is from Steel Pulse's 1978 debut album Handsworth Revolution. This protest song has a clear anti-racism stance and an irresistible driving bassline which adds weight to the song's powerful message.

Ku Klux Klan by Steel Pulse (Video)

#6: Ohio--Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

"Ohio" was a protest song written by Neil Young in response to the Kent States shootings that occurred during a May 4th, 1970 student protest over the US invasion of Cambodia. The song was an immediate response, being released in June, 1970.

The lyrics "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming" is a bold attack on then president Richard Nixon's administration, who Neil Young blamed for the death of the "four dead in Ohio." This song became one of the most enduring of the protest movement, and with it, the American youth counterculture truly embraced Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as generational spokesmen.

Ohio by Crosby, Still, Nash & Young (Video)

#5: Get Up Stand Up--The Wailers (with Bob Marley)

This classic reggae protest song is from The Wailers' 1973 album, Burnin' (before they became known as Bob Marley & The Wailers). "Get Up Stand Up" is a rousing anthem of human empowerment.

It is also worth noting Reggae's significant contribution to the international protest movement. Reggae can be considered a form of Jamaican folk music and many of the best reggae songs provide stirring social commentaries. Bob Marley, the "rasta prophet," was the foremost Jamaican protest singer. But his wide appeal is due to the fact that the sentiments of a song like "Get Up Stand Up" are universal. You don't have to necessary understand or agree with Marley's political and religious ideology for his songs to inspire you to take a stand against oppression.

Get Up Stand Up (Official Fan Video 'Legend 30th') - Bob Marley

4: (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais--The Clash

This 1978 single by The Clash also appeared on the 1979 US release of their 1977 debut album. This is just one example of many of The Clash's socially conscious protest songs. The band was also involved with the UK's "Rock Against Racism" protest movement, and their feelings about racism are clearly reflected in their music.

"(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" tackles many weighty issues such as anti-violence, race relations, and wealth distribution. The song also protests the mainstreaming of punk rock--"Turning rebellion into money"--and takes aim at the social decline in the UK: "If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they'd send a limousine anyway."

For a four minute song, it really does cover a lot of ground. In addition to being an important protest song, it was also an important song in the development of punk rock because of its fusion of reggae and ska elements: here, we see The Clash moving away from the confines of the traditional punk sound.

"(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" (along with other Clash songs) provides an important antithesis to The Sex Pistols and other punk bands of that time. Even though The Clash shared many anti-monarchy and anti-establishment views, they refused to adopt a nihilistic approach. Instead, their music is a call to action to incite positive social change. The Clash is one of the most important socially conscious bands of all time.

The Clash: (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais (Video)

#3: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised--Gil Scott-Heron

This proto-rap classic was originally recorded for jazz poet Scott-Heron's 1970 live album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox in a stripped down version which featured only congas and bongo drums. The more well known, full band version appeared on his 1971 landmark album, Pieces of Man. Gil Scott-Heron has been called the "Black Bob Dylan" and the father of socially conscious rap.

"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" protests political passiveness and makes some strong statements about the inability of pop culture and mainstream media to address the real concerns of the people. This protest song truly is a poignant musical document of the protest movement.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron (Video: Full Band Version)

John Lennon

John Lennon wrote many socially conscious tunes.

John Lennon wrote many socially conscious tunes.

#2: Working Class Hero--John Lennon

There is no shortage of John Lennon songs that could have been selected for this list, and his place with in the protest movement is undeniable. It was tough to narrow it down to one: "Working Class Hero" may not be his most well known or direct protest but, while some of his songs might come across as simple sloganeering, "Working Class Hero" offers a subtle, insightful social commentary.

"Working Class Hero" appears on his 1970 album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. The song is a stirring social commentary on class splits and how society tries to manipulate individuals to become cogs in the machine.

Working Class Hero by John Lennon (Video)

#1: What's Going On--Marvin Gaye

This classic soul protest song comes from Marvin Gaye's 1971 legendary album of the same name. The entire What's Going On album is a masterpiece of socially consciousness and includes a number of songs that could be included on this list. Gaye based the concept of the album on the story of a soldier returning from the Vietnam world who is shaken up by how the world has changed around him, inspired partly by the experiences of Marvin's brother, who was a Vietnam vet.

Renaldo Benson (who was a member of The Four Tops), who helped co-write the song "What's Going On" with Marvin Gaye, was inspired to write the song because he was disturbed by the police brutality taking place during student protests of the Vietnam war. The song was initially going to be about that police brutality but Gaye's contribution broadened the scope of the subject matter.

While many protest songs are angry indictments, "What's Going On" is a mournful questioning. It is an earnest yearning for positive change. Sadly, like most of the best protest songs of the protest movement, today, the song is more relevant than ever.

What's Going On by Marvin Gaye (Video)

© 2012 CJ Baker


Bayou Baby on June 11, 2019:

"War" Edwin Starr

CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on April 07, 2017:

Hi Kessi, thanks for the read and the comment. To answer your question I'll say it is a little bit of both. Most anti-war songs were written while protests were already starting to take place, but sometimes a song might protest social ills before there is wide spread protest. I'll have to do a bit more research to cite specific historical examples, but I know there are recent examples with the Black Lives Matter Movement, for example there is Kendrick Lamar's Alright whose chorus is quite often sung at rallies, but that wasn't necessary the intent when he wrote it. There is also the current rap song FDT which was written before Trump became president and before there were widespread protests. But the chorus of that song is chanted at rallies and appears on signs.

Kessi Gale on April 07, 2017:

This list was an extrememly helpful source for songs that were written for the social movements. I just wanted to ask, do you know of any instances when these songs were used as catalysts for protests? Were most of these songs written because people were protesting or were they written and then became the beginning of a protest?

Sorry I know this is a little vague, I really enjoyed reading through all the descriptions of the songs and the history of their creation.

CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on June 25, 2012:

Thanks for the read and the comment! Maybe it was only thrown in for rhyming reasons. But as far as protest songs goes it had the right amount of anger (even though I almost excluded it, because it really doesn't promote change).

What's Going On was unusual as a protest song because it didn't necessary have the usual righteous indignation. But I do love the mournful question and positive yearning of the song.

Chris Hugh on June 24, 2012:

Yay, Sex Pistols! I have that album. I always figured they threw in that fascist regime part because it rhymed with queen, but you found deeper meaning in the song:)

What's Going On starts like a protest song then it ends like a love song. Confusing.