A compilation of great songs from the late 1960s and early 1970s inspired by the revolutionary movements of the era.
Street Fighting Man (1968) – The Rolling Stones
Written after Mick Jagger joined 25,000 anti-war protestors outside the US embassy in London, this song – which complains about the *lack* of revolutionary zeal in Britain compared to France or America – was released in the US shortly after the riots at the Democratic National Convention, leading several Chicago radio stations to ban it. Asked whether the song was subversive, Jagger answered, “Of course it’s subversive! It’s stupid to think you can start a revolution with a record. I wish you could.”
Fortunate Son (1969) – Creedence Clearwater Revival
John Fogerty, who had been drafted and served in the Army reserves a few years earlier, says he was thinking about the unfairness of the draft when the core lyric “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son” came to him. Released in September 1969, Fortunate Son quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam War movement – and has reappeared since then in nearly every documentary about the conflict. Excerpt: “Yeah, some folks inherit star-spangled eyes / They send you down to war / And when you ask ’em: ‘How much should we give?’ / They only answer: ‘More, more, more.’”
Living for the City (1973) – Stevie Wonder
The song tells a story of implicit racism as a country boy from Mississippi arrives in the big city but is soon swept up by police and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Stevie Wonder played every instrument on this track, which topped the R&B charts late in 1973 and rose to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971) – Gil Scott Heron
The jazz and blues poet brilliantly contrasts many of the commercial television tropes of the era (“highlights at 11 …”) with the utter chaos that an actual revolution would unleash. The revolution, as Heron describes it, would bring down mass market commercial culture. Yet many of the cliches this song satirizes remain staples of cable and network news 50 years later.
What’s Goin On (1971) – Marvin Gaye
Gaye said he had been troubled for years by the violence and injustice around him when Four Tops singer Renaldo “Obie” Benson brought him the germ of this 1971 lament. The song was revolutionary for American pop both because of its moody, jazzy sound as well as for its politics (“Father, father, we don’t need to escalate. War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.”). “I didn’t know how to fight before,” Gaye told his brother, a Vietnam vet, “but now I think I do. I just have to do it my way. I’m not a painter. I’m not a poet. But I can do it with music.”
Woodstock (1970) – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Songstress Joni Mitchell never actually attended the four days of music and mud in August 1969, but her tune, penned just after, became its best-remembered anthem. Mitchell’s lyrics say little about the protest movements of the day – only a glancing reference to bombers turning into butterflies. But they capture the yearning of many young people for a truer, simpler life through music. As the “child of God” explains in the opening stanza, “I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm / I’m gonna join in a rock ‘n’ roll band / I’m gonna camp out on the land / I’m gonna try and get my soul free.” This CSNY cover of the song, which came out a month before Mitchell released her own recording, reached #11 on the US Hot 100 and became, for many listeners, the defining version.
My Generation (1965) – The Who
Like every generation before and since, our generation started off with no plans to get old. But unlike many others, ours had a definitive musical anthem for that sentiment: this 1965 masterpiece by The Who. Pete Townshend’s lyrics offer little comfort to those born earlier: “Why don’t you all just fade away / Don’t try to dig what we all say.” And lead singer Roger Daltrey’s deliberate stutter (he sings it as “f-fade away”) disappears on the most memorable line, “I hope I die before I get old.” Thankfully, both Townshend and Daltrey are still with us, though the other two original members — drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle – both passed away at relatively young ages. But this song stands out, among other reasons, for what Wikipedia calls “one of the most distilled statements of youthful rebellion in rock history.”
Big Yellow Taxi (1970) – Joni Mitchell
Though the song ends by alluding to the apparent loss of a lover, environmental concerns were central to Mitchell when she wrote this tune at a hotel on her first visit to Hawaii. As she told journalist Robert Hilburn, “I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise.” The song first appeared on Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon album, but peaked on the U.S. charts (at #24) only when re-released in a live version four years later.
Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud (1968) – James Brown
Co-written by Brown and bandleader Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, “Say It Loud” reflects the shift in strategy from the non-violence of the early civil rights movement to calls for Black Pride and even Black Power in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As Brown & Ellis put it, “We’d rather die on our feet than keep living on our knees.”
Lola (1970) – The Kinks
“Well, I’m not the world’s most passionate guy,” admits the low-spark narrator of this hit from a British band theretofore known mainly for hard-rocking numbers. His lyrics might be considered offensive today, given the wink-wink double-entendres about a cross-dresser he meets at a London club “where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola.” But in the context of the day, “Lola” was in fact criticized because of its support for gay rights. Kinks front man and songwriter Ray Davies told one interviewer, “It really doesn’t matter what sex Lola is, I think she’s all right.”
I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag (1967) – Country Joe and the Fish
“Country” Joe McDonald knew the military well, having served three years in the Navy before turning to music in his early 20s.This blistering anti-war anthem, released in November of 1967, became his best known song. No one – not the soldiers, their parents, the generals or the Wall Street traders – escaped satire in his lyrics, which question why, exactly, Americans were fighting the war.
War (1970) – Edwin Starr
Starr’s oft-repeated refrain says it all: “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
Purple Haze (1967) – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Hendrix’s second big hit – and the first he wrote himself ( “Hey Joe” was a cover) – supposedly described the hazy feeling of being in love. But most listeners took the “haze” as drug-induced. It only reached #65 in the US charts, though it was #3 in Britain and helped lift the band’s Are You Experience album to the top of alternative radio that year. It is one of many tunes – ranging from Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (1967) to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971) – whose popularity depended partly on references to psychedelic drugs.
I Feel the Earth Move (1971) – Carole King
By the early 1970s, King – who had begun her career writing Brill Building-style standards like the Shirelles’ 1960 “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” with then-husband Gerry Goffin – had moved on. She had divorced Goffin and, with two young children, moved out to LA’s Laurel Canyon, where she found new friends like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Her work changed too, notably with the Tapestry album, from which this song is drawn. Its lyrics describe a vigorous, active feminine sexuality that might have been taboo in earlier pop but was right in sync with the burgeoning feminist movement of the era (Ms. magazine, for example, launched that same year).
The Times They Are a-Changin’ (1964) – Bob Dylan
Recorded in New York the month before the Kennedy assassination in 1963, this song was among the first to announce that a revolution was coming – and specifically warned parents, politicians and pundits that their comfortable worlds would soon be upended. As Dylan told interviewer Cameron Crowe later, “This was definitely a song with a purpose … I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.” The song reached #8 as a 1965 single in the UK, and was covered by everyone from the Seekers to the Beach Boys to Nina Simone during that decade alone.
For What It’s Worth (1966-67) – Buffalo Springfield
At a time when law enforcement was routinely bugging or infiltrating radicals of all stripes, paranoia – often heightened by illegal chemicals – ran rampant among the young. Stephen Stills’ song captures this fear, and its words are still relevant today: “Paranoia strikes deep / Into your life it will creep / Starts when you’re always afraid / Step out of line, the man come and take you away.”
Revolution (1968) – The Beatles
John Lennon insisted that this languid blues be included on the band’s August single that year, after he became disillusioned with the violent rhetoric of the New Left. The single’s A-side “Hey Jude” got more airplay. But “Revolution” remains the Beatles’ answer to would-be radicals who “want money for people with minds that hate.”
Respect (1967) – Aretha Franklin
Couched superficially as one woman’s plea for respect from her lover, this song – a slightly modified cover of a Otis Redding composition – endures as a powerful demand for an end to racism. “Black people will be free,” Franklin told Jet magazine after Angela Davis was jailed in 1970. “I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.” Three years after her death, it remains perhaps her best known number, and was once listed fifth on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Something in the Air (1969) – Thunderclap Newman
This song, written by John “Speedy” Keen and performed by the band that Pete Townshend of the Who had helped form earlier that same year, stood atop the British charts for three weeks on the strength of lyrics that promised “… the revolution’s here, and you know it’s right.”
Ain’t That Peculiar (1970) – Fanny
Though its content was anything but radical – a cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1965 super-hit – this tune was decidedly radical in its source: a self-directed, all-female band that focused on music rather than sex appeal. Signed to Warner Brothers Records in 1969 after an open-mic performance in LA, Fanny brought out the self-titled album on which this track appeared the following year. Among other changes, their version adds a soaring slide guitar over the original’s signature piano riff. Though Fanny broke up five years later, their work paved the way for many later all-women groups including the Bangles, the Runaways and the Go-Go’s.
Truckin’ (1970) – The Grateful Dead
Like popular musicians since at least the Middle Ages, rock bands typically had to earn their living on the road – with all the dreary hassles that implies. In “Truckin’,” the Dead’s highest-charting single to that point, songwriters Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and lyricist Robert Hunter, nailed both the highs and lows of that life. They recall being “busted, down on Bourbon Street;” mourn a friend who’s “livin’ on reds, vitamin C and cocaine;” and end by thinking, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” As Lesh wrote later, “We took our experiences on the road and made it poetry.”
Fight the Power Part 1 & 2 (1975) – Isley Brothers
Not to be confused with Public Enemy’s similarly titled 1989 rap number, the Isley Brother’s hit was both a powerful funk dance tune and a protest against some vaguely sketched “powers that be” – which could be anything from stubborn music promoters to racist oppressors. As the Brothers put it, “Time is truly wastin’ / There’s no guarantee / Smile’s in the makin’ / You gotta fight the powers that be.”
Give Peace a Chance (1969) — Plastic Ono Band
Whatever it lacked in musical polish, John Lennon’s “Give Peace” certainly had its publicity mojo working. Recorded on June 1, 1969 in Room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada, where Lennon and wife Yoko Ono were staging a much-covered “Bed-In,” the song name-checked many of the celebrities gathered for the event, including Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Tommy Smothers, who played acoustic guitar. Audio engineer André Perry took the noisy tape back to the studio that evening for some strategic overdubs and “sweeping,” as he put it. The result was Lennon’s first solo single (though he was still part of the Beatles). “Give Peace” rose to #2 on the British charts and #14 in the U.S. It went on to become the unofficial theme song of the anti-war movement and was sung by fans outside Lennon’s apartment in New York after his assassination in December 1980.
Ohio (1970) – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Composed and recorded right after Ohio National Guardsmen shot & killed four student protesters at Kent State University in April 1970, Neil Young’s stompin’ call to action was released the following month and soon rose to #14 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Its lyrics captured the very personal way that many young people viewed the violence. Example: “What if you knew her / And found her dead on the ground? / How could you run when you know?”
Out in the Country (1971) — Three Dog Night
In the years just before and after the first Earth Day in April 1970, many bands released songs friendly to the nascent environmental movement, including Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology).” Both artists are represented elsewhere in this collection. So for an Earth Day tune, we chose another number that climbed high on the Billboard charts: Three Dog Night’s gentle August 1971 ode to clear air and fresh water. Co-written by actor/lyricist Paul Williams with musician Roger Nichols, the song imagines escaping to a pollution-free respite “before the breathin’ air is gone [and] … the sun is just a bright spot in the night time.”
Draft Dodger Rag (1965) – Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs’ hilarious 1965 satire lists every conceivable excuse a young man could offer to his local draft board in order to evade service in Vietnam – except possibly bone spurs (how could Ochs have missed that?).
Give More Power To The People (1971) – The Chi-Lites
Again, the lyric says it all: “For God’s sake, you got to give more power to the people.”
Sunshine (1971) – Jonathan Edwards
This song by country folk singer Edwards, which rose to #4 in the fall of 1971, would never have become a single except that a recording engineer accidentally erased the intended track and “Sunshine” was used instead. “It was just at the time of the Vietnam War and Nixon,” Edwards said later. “It was looking bad out there. That song meant a lot to a lot of people during that time–especially me.”
I’d Love to Change the World (1971) – Ten Years After
The British band’s biggest hit, this song never rose higher than number 40 on the U.S. charts and is another tune that probably would not fare well with today’s culture censors thanks to lyrics like “freaks and hairies, dykes and fairies.” But it did capture a widespread feeling among the young that the world could be a better place, if only we knew how to make it so – something that singer/author/guitar soloist Alvin Lee admits baffles him: “I’d love to change the world / But I don’t know what to do / So I’ll leave it up to you.”
Volunteers (1969) – Jefferson Airplane
This anti-war call to arms – “Got a revolution (got to revolution)” – first appeared in Jefferson Airplane’s 8 a.m. set on the third day of Woodstock in 1969. Written by Paul Kantner and Marty Balin, with backing vocals by Grace Slick, the song’s militant refrain – “Volunteers of America” – was inspired by the sign on a charity group’s truck. It was a defiant political single from a band the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would later call “a transformative voice of the psychedelic revolution.”
Peace Train (1971) – Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Yusuf Islam was still calling himself Cat Stevens for fear of anti-Muslim sentiment when he wrote this vision of a world without conflict. It peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November of that year.
I Am Woman (1972) – Helen Reddy
Though sometimes criticized for tokenism, this hit – co-written with fellow Australian Ray Burton – grew out of Reddy’s frustration with the way women were portrayed in pop music. “I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being a woman was about,” Reddy told Australia’s Sunday Magazine years later. “I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that. The only songs were ‘I Feel Pretty’ or that dreadful song ‘Born A Woman.’ These aren’t exactly empowering lyrics.” (Sandy Posey’s 1966 tune had described women as “born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt.”)
I’maman (1973) — Jobriath
Though New York’s Stonewall rebellion took place in 1969, the brewing demand for LGBTQ rights stayed mostly hidden in American popular music during the 1960s and early ‘70s. An exception was Jobriath (real name: Bruce Wayne Campbell of King of Prussia, PA), who in 1972 became the first openly gay American pop musician to be signed to a major record label (Elektra) for a reported $500,000, a huge sum at the time. This song, from the artist’s self-titled first album, was perhaps his most popular, and paints a dramatically different picture of maleness than the better known, similarly titled Bo Diddley hit of 1955. Jobriath sang “I’maman” during his debut performance on the hit-making TV show Midnight Special. But by 1975 he had retired from music and in 1982 became an early casualty of the tragic AIDS epidemic.
Freddie’s Dead (1972) – Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 hit was written for the blaxsploitation film “Super Fly,” which came out late that summer. The song laments the death of Fat Freddie, a street corner drug dealer pushed into violence by higher-ups and then killed while fleeing the police. As Mayfield sings, “Everybody’s misused him / Ripped him off and abused him / Another junkie plan / Pushin’ dope for the man … [and now] Freddie’s dead.”
Doctor My Eyes (1972) – Jackson Browne
Browne’s hit captured his despair over the scars on his psyche from witnessing rampant evil in the world. The song, from his self-titled first album, was Browne’s second highest charting ever, reaching #8 in the spring of 1972. “Doctor, my eyes,” Browne sings, “… cannot see the sky / Is this the price / For having learned how not to cry?”
People Make the World Go Round (1972) – The Stylistics
The Stylistics, a four-year-old Philadelphia soul ensemble, were better known for love-focused ballads like “Betcha By Golly, Wow” when this tune came out. The song, written by Avco producer Thom Bell and frequent collaborator Linda Creed, ticks off irritants from striking public workers to fat cats on Wall Street, advises listeners to “Go underground, young man,” but then seems to conclude that the madness is all part of human nature. Whatever its politics, the song is a vivid reminder of lead singer Russell Thompkins Jr’s beautiful falsetto – and the easy, jazzy sound of soft R&B from this era, which still lives on in cover versions today.
Bring Them Home (1969) – Pete Seeger
This track, part of an album titled “Young vs. Old,” preserves the bitter generational divide that had opened in the late 1960s, with members of the Greatest Generation squaring off against their own children over the Vietnam War. Facing American flags labeled “Love it or leave it,” Seeger countered by casting anti-war sentiment as patriotic instead: “If you love this land of the free / Bring ’em home, bring ’em home.”
Bring the Boys Home (1971) – Freda Payne
Payne’s 1971 plea for the lives of young soldiers spent 10 weeks on the Hot 100 list in the US, but was banned by the US Command from the American Forces Network for fears that it would encourage the enemy.
Mississippi Goddam (1964) – Nina Simone
Describing it as a “show tune” for which the show had yet to be written, Simone wrote this song in response to the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers in Mississippi and other racist violence in the South. The lyrics are among the most openly angry of the era: “Yes you lied to me all these years / You told me to wash and clean my ears / And talk real fine just like a lady / And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie / Oh but this whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies.”
Get Up, Stand Up (1973) – Bob Marley & the Wailers
Reggae, with its roots in Jamaican music of the 1960s, often expressed direct political commentary, and this crossover hit from Marley’s sixth album is a great example. In it, Marley and co-author Peter Tosh urge listeners not to wait for divine justice in the afterlife, but to demand earthly justice today. The song is said to have been inspired by a trip to Haiti, during which Marley saw oppressive and widespread poverty. The lyrics dismiss intellectual dithering – “we’re sick and tired of your ism-schism game” – and call instead for direct action: “So now we see the light / We gonna stand up for our rights.”
La Muralla (1969) — Quilapayún
While revolutionary themes surfaced only sporadically in American pop, Latin American music of the era could be more frankly political. This song, “The Wall,” by Chilean folk group Quilapayún, exemplifies the Nueva Canción movement that helped bring leftist President Salvador Allende to power in Chile in 1970. The Spanish lyrics describe people of all colors uniting to build a giant wall that will stretch from mountains to sea. Though Allende was overthrown and died in an American-supported coup just three years later, Quilapayún – which had formed in 1965 – continues to record and perform today.
I Was Born This Way (1975 & ‘77) – Valentino & Carl Bean, respectively
Though its title calls to mind the Lady Gaga hit of 2011, this early disco anthem – first recorded by Valentino in 1975 and then by Carl Bean (our playlist choice) two years later – pre-dated and anticipated the explosion of LGBTQ pride songs in the late 1970s. “Now I won’t judge you,” the narrator sings, “Don’t you judge me / We’re all the way / Nature meant us to be.” The song was a big hit in its genre, with Valentino’s version reaching #1 on the UK disco charts and Bean’s #15 in the USA. In both cases, the singer’s mood was unambiguously positive: “I’m happy, I’m carefree and I’m gay. I was born this way.”
Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today) (1970) – The Temptations
Like many before it in this playlist, this song – by Motown veterans Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong – expresses anger and frustration over pervasive injustice of the world of the 1970s, including its housing market: “People moving out, people moving in / All because of the color of their skin / Run, run, run but you sure can’t hide.”