Archive for the ‘Protest Songs’ Category

It’s time for another installment of ‘80s protest songs. In my last post, I focused on the anti-apartheid movement and how artists helped bring this issue to a broader audience. This time around I’ll be focusing on songs that dealt with the backlash against Ronald Reagan and his policies. There were countless artists who spoke out against the administration’s policies, such as cuts to social programs and taxes for the wealthy, deregulating the EPA, and the rise of capitalism. It would take another post to cover protests over the administration’s military policies.

The B-52s’ song “Channel Z” is pretty much an indictment of the Reagan administration as a whole wrapped up in a fun, upbeat tempo. But mostly this song is a condemnation of the deregulation of the media under the administration and the constant feeding of mass information to an all too eager public. It was the debut single off the 1989 album Cosmic Thing. Although not achieving the success of other songs from the album, such as “Love Shack,” and “Roam,” it did reach #61 on the UK Singles Chart.


One of my favorite songs off R.E.M.’s 1987 album Document is the opening track, “Finest Worksong.” The song is basically a rousing call to arms against Reagan capitalism delivered in an almost sermon-like form. It was the third, and last, single to be released off the album. It reached #50 in the UK but failed to chart in the U.S. A slightly lighter-sounding version of the song is included on the greatest hits compilation, Eponymous. It’s the brighter version that Pete Buck felt should have been on Document but I think I’ll have to disagree with Mr. Buck on this one.


The Ramones also joined the fray with their song “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.” The single, released in 1985, was a protest to a visit Ronald Reagan paid to a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. Along with members of the German army, there were also several members of the Waffen SS (a branch of the Third Reich) buried there. The Ramones were joined in protest by holocaust survivors, US politicians from both sides of the aisle, and many countries in Europe. To stem the tide of criticism, a visit to a concentration camp was added to Reagan’s agenda. The single was not released in the US and as an import became a minor success on college radio. Retitled “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg),” the song was included on the 1986 album Animal Boy.



What would the eighties have been without protest songs? Just as every decade prior, and since, the eighties were filled with protest songs. There were protest songs about nuclear war, oppressive regimes, gang violence, and anyone who was president at the time. The whole of 1982’s Combat Rock album from The Clash was pretty much a protest to all things wrong in the world. Besides the videos of the impending doom of a nuclear holocaust, the ones that readily come to mind had to do with anti-apartheid.

For all its faults, one good thing that came out of MTV was bringing awareness to causes outside my small world. Before being exposed to these videos, I wasn’t even aware of apartheid or Nelson Mandela. Musicians from all genres were getting involved. Artists such as Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, The Specials, and the whole eclectic mix of musicians in Artists United Against Apartheid all participated in this effort and it was hard to not take notice.

One of the first references I have of Nelson Mandela, and apartheid, was the video “Nelson Mandela” by The Special A.K.A. The song was released in 1984 and became a hit around the world, except the U.S. where it didn’t chart. With its upbeat African rhythms and catchy beats it’s easy to see why this became a hit. Some say this song was focal in the anti-apartheid movement, largely due to its mass appeal.


Recorded under the name Artists United Against Apartheid, and led by Steven Van Zandt, the song “Sun City” brought together the likes of Bruce Springsteen, The Fat Boys, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Lou Reed, Afrika Bambaataa, U2, George Clinton, Stiv Bators, Keith Richards, Hall & Oates, and Joey Ramone among many others. Released in 1985, the song was a pledge by these artists to not perform at this large resort town. The song is a fusion of hip hop, rock, and African beats. It peaked at #38 on the U.S. charts with only half of radio stations giving it airplay – the other half having issues with its anti-Reagan sentiments.


Then there is Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko,” a song about Steve Biko, a well-known anti-apartheid activist who was arrested and jailed in South Africa in 1977. He died in police custody a month later. Released in 1980, the single was off of Gabriel’s self-titled album. It reached #38 on the British charts but didn’t get much airplay in the U.S. until its promotional use for the 1987 film Cry Freedom.