Over a month into the war in Ukraine, the bombs continue to drop. On theatres, hospitals, schools, and apartment blocks. Like many of you, I find it difficult to understand how humans can do this to each other. Faced with the insanity of it all – and from my privileged position of safety here in the UK – I turn to music to try and help me comprehend.
For as long as there has been war, there have been songs decrying the human suffering that comes as a result. Folk songs from across Europe go back hundreds of years, whether protesting the Revolutionary War (‘Johnny Has Gone for Soldier’), the Thirty Years’ War (‘The Maunding Souldier or The Fruits of Warre is Beggery’, told from the perspective of a crippled soldier) or the more recent Mexican-American conflict (‘Once to Every Man and Nation’).
Moving into the pop music era of the mid-twentieth century, genres like rock and roll, reggae and hip-hop became the perfect vehicles for anti-war sentiment in the US, amplified by public frustration with the Vietnam War and the anti-authoritarian attitude of the 1960s counterculture. From Motown acts like The Supremes (‘Stoned Love’) to alternative-rock legends R.E.M. (‘Orange Crush’) and hardcore punk band the Dead Kennedys (‘When Ya Get Drafted’), this sentiment crossed genres and ethnicities.
You could probably argue that in the modern era war has repeatedly resulted in reactionary cultural movements. The pursuit of a new world order and a different, more hopeful society after WWI allowed the jazz scene to flourish in the US, eventually crossing the Atlantic to influence young British musicians too. Vietnam and the Cold War resulted in Bob Dylan’s folk classic ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, which electrified a whole generation of rebellious singer-songwriters with nuclear disaster on their minds. While politically aware hip-hop and heavy metal artists, owing to their commercial success, were perfectly placed to criticise the conflicts in the Middle East in the 90s and 2000s, with Outkast penning the prophetic ‘Bombs Over Baghdad’ (2000) and System of a Down releasing ‘BYOB (Bring Your Own Bombs)’ (2005).
Other tracks are more retrospective, with artists like the Manic Street Preachers, The Clash and Paul Hardcastle all putting out anti-war songs that addressed past conflicts in order to warn against future destruction. Hardcastle’s electronic 1985 single ‘19’ hammered home the point that the average age of men fighting in Vietnam was just 19, a staggering figure. While the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ (1998), about the Spanish Civil War, offers up a sentiment that would no doubt resonate with the Ukrainians currently fighting against authoritarianism in the name of democracy.
Outside of the US and UK in the 1970s, Bob Marley was busy near single-handedly inventing reggae, and by extension advocating for a new pan-African identity that clicked not just with Jamaicans but with black people and indigenous communities across the world. His 1976 track ‘War’ posited that until society was equal, there would always be war. Fighting a similar battle against oppression over in Nigeria, the same decade saw afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti breaking new musical and political ground, with his hugely successful anti-military album Zombie. While many protest songs are anti-war, or anti-violence in some sense, there are times when songs with no mention of war take on a new meaning and inspire rebellion, protest or patriotism in their own way. That’s what happened back in March, when ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ by heavy metal rockers Twisted Sister became somewhat of a rallying cry in the country’s fight for survival.
It couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. The start of the song’s official music video depicts an aggressive, overbearing father storming into his son’s room and trashing the place, whilst ironically shouting at him to clean up and do something with his life. The boy picks up his guitar and strikes an earth-shatteringly loud power-chord, the force of which sends the father flying through the bedroom window in a cloud of smashed glass.
You don’t need me to highlight the symbolism here, but this corny 1980s video can work in two ways: yes, it’s about the fight of the underdog against a more powerful oppressor, but it’s also about music’s power to embolden and inspire people.
Twisted Sister’s lead vocalist, Dee Snider, whose grandfather was Ukrainian, sings:
We’ve got the right to choose it, there ain’t no way we’ll lose it, this is our life, this is our song.
Over a month into a war that has seen unjustifiable human suffering as well as admirable resilience, it’s easy to see why these words have resonated with the people of Ukraine. “A song so right at this moment. Russia, we’re not going to take it anymore, we’ll fight, you’ll see,” wrote one Ukrainian commenter on YouTube. Other messages simply said “Slava Ukraine” and “Ukraine’s new national anthem”.
Music will always comfort, inspire and unite during times of conflict. With that in mind, here are some of the best anti-war songs ever put to record…
Sunday Bloody Sunday - U2 
Opening U2’s acclaimed third album, War, this 1983 single sets the theme for the record using sorrowful violins and an aggressive military beat that continues for the duration of the track. Ditching his usual echo-soaked effects, The Edge lays down some of the most stark, angular guitar work of his career, reverting to staccato machine gun-style strumming towards the end of the track. Bono’s vocal is as emotive as ever, commenting on the horror of the Troubles with lines like “The trench is dug within our hearts / And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.” Widely regarded as one of the greatest protest songs of all time, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ – and the album as a whole – called for pacifism in an increasingly turbulent world.
What’s Going On - Marvin Gaye 
A song that often finds its way to the upper echelons of Greatest Songs Ever lists, this protest classic from Marvin Gaye took soul music into completely uncharted territory and solidified his reputation as one of music’s all-time greats. “Brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying,” sings Gaye, mourning the loss of friends and family over in Vietnam. Combining psychedelic instrumentation with street-level social realism, the track also served as somewhat of a farewell to the 1960s; its utopian bubble burst by harsher realities.
BYOB (Bring Your Own Bombs) - System of a Down 
When the Armenian-American metal group System of a Down burst onto the rock scene in the early 2000s, they were everything US music fans needed in the face of the Iraq War: a political, powerful, outspoken band with the vocal chops and virtuosity to match their lyrics. They coined several anti-war songs during their brief but impactful seven-year stint, but it’s their 2005 single ‘BYOB’ that always comes to mind; combining fierce metal riffs with ear-worm pop melodies to protest the senselessness of sending young men away to war.
Buffalo Soldier - Bob Marley 
If ever you need evidence of Bob Marley’s pedigree as a songwriter, look no further than ‘Buffalo Soldier’, taken from his 1983 album, Confrontation. The genius lies in Marley’s use of historic events – in this case, the battles fought by the US Army’s all-black cavalry regiments (the ‘buffalo soldiers’) in the Indian Wars of the 1800s – as a symbol for modern struggles against racism and discrimination, both being examples of black people fighting for survival and showing true courage.
If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next - Manic Street Preachers 
More of an anti-fascist song than anything, this epic single from the Manic Street Preachers encapsulates the sentimentality of the Welsh workers who shipped off to Spain to fight against Franco in the civil war. “So if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists,” goes Nicky Wire’s lyric, attributed to a real-life Republican fighter. The soaring vocals and bombastic drums marked a new, more commercially successful era for the Manics, but their infamous political bite was still there, arguably more effective than it had ever been. Sometimes fighting is necessary to protect not just our own freedoms, but those of future generations too.
19 - Paul Hardcastle 
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 113, Pages 38-42.