The 50 greatest protest songs

19 May 2024, 18:00

Just Stop Oil climate activists slow march along Whitehall in central London on May 11, 2023
Just Stop Oil climate activists slow march along Whitehall in central London on May 11, 2023. Picture: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

The greatest songs about debate, protest, struffle and fighting the power: from John Lennon to Green Day, Public Enemy to The Cranberries.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

By Martin O'Gorman

  1. Radiohead – Idioteque (2000)

    Radiohead - Idioteque (Oficial video HD) Subs Español

    In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change issued its third report and came to the conclusion: "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the [global] warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities". Radiohead were way ahead of them, offering the following lyric on this track from 2000's Kid A album: "We’re not scare-mongering, this is really happening… ice age coming, ice age coming.” Thom Yorke gloomily concludes: "Women and children first."

  2. Pixies - Monkey Gone To Heaven (1989)

    Pixies - Monkey Gone To Heaven (Official Video)

    One of the more oblique protest songs on the list, Black Francis ponders the destruction of the ozone layer and the oncoming environmental apocalypse in terms of the Old Testament "numbers" for Man, God and the Devil. Needless to say, monkeys (and simians of all kinds, one presumes) do not fare well and end up kicking the bucket. 1988, when the song was written, was the hottest summer on record in the US.

  3. Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name (1992)

    Rage Against The Machine - Killing In the Name

    Rodney King was savagely beaten by members of the Los Angeles police in March 1991, and the whole incident was caught on camera. The subsequent acquittal of the officers in question on 29 April 1992 caused many to accuse the LAPD of institutionalised racism and sparked the worst riots in the US since the 1960s. Rage Against The Machine's classic track was released in November that year and compares such racism to the notorious cross-burning activities of the Ku Klux Klan.

  4. Green Day - American Idiot (2004)

    Green Day - American Idiot [OFFICIAL VIDEO]

    The title track of Green Day’s 2004 album was originally written as a response to US President George W Bush and the war in Iraq that came out of the September 11 attacks. Interest in the song saw a resurgence following the election of Donald Trump in November 2016.

  5. U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983)

    Bono & The Edge - Sunday Bloody Sunday - January 30 2022

    The British Army opened fire on a civil rights protest against the division of Ireland on Sunday 30 January 1972 in Derry, which resulted in 13 deaths. "Bloody Sunday" became a notorious incident that increased membership of the burgeoning IRA and was one of the key moments in "The Troubles". Both John Lennon AND Paul McCartney wrote songs in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, but it was Dublin band U2 who penned the definitive protest 11 years later.

    Sunday Bloody Sunday was the opening track on the band's third album War and was most famously performed at Live Aid. Bono was keen to emphasise that the track was "not a rebel song", but a humanitarian plea against the killing that continued throughout the decade and beyond. On the 50th anniversary of the event, Bono and The Edge performed a special acoustic version of the song.

  6. Public Enemy - Fight The Power (1989)

    Public Enemy - Fight The Power (Official Music Video)

    The rap superstars recorded this song for Spike Lee’s tale of urban racial tension, Do The Right Thing, but it became a huge track in its own right when included on their album Fear Of A Black Planet. “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant sh*t to me,” declaims Chuck D, knocking down one of America’s cultural icons.

  7. The Specials - Ghost Town (1981)

    The Specials - Ghost Town

    As Britain's inner cities burst into flames in the summer of 1981, with riots taking place in London, Bristol, Liverpool and other locations, Specials leader Jerry Dammers captured the mood of the country with the ominous sound of Ghost Town. "Can't go on no more… people getting angry" the lyrics despair. The single made Number 1 the same weekend that police used CS gas on rioters in Toxeth, Liverpool.

  8. Gil Scott-Heron - The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971)

    Gil Scott-Heron - Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Official Version)

    As the US Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the late 1960s, Gil Scott-Heron recorded this musical poem that attacks the lethargy of the nation, spouting lame TV advertising slogans to contrast the seriousness of the struggle with the apathy of the media: “The revolution will not go better with Coke / The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath / The revolution will put YOU in the driver's seat.”

  9. John Lennon - Imagine (1971)

    Imagine - John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band (with the Flux Fiddlers)

    Possibly the most misunderstood protest song ever, rather than being a somewhat soppy plea for peace as it commonly thought, Imagine was written during Lennon's most militant period.

    The ex-Beatle was hanging out with leading figures of the British Left, including Tariq Ali, who interviewed him for the influential Marxist magazine Red Mole. Imagine the album was Lennon's attempt at "sugar coating" the harsh personal and political ideas of his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and the song itself concerns how positive thinking can make political change - if you imagine a new world, you can help achieve it. Lennon's next song was more to the point - Power To The People!

  10. Bob Dylan - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (1963)

    Bob Dylan - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Audio)

    Appearing on his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, this classic protest song sums up the tensions of post-war America. It was written just before the Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962, in which the US and USSR faced each other off, with a very real threat of nuclear war hanging over the world. While Dylan was keen to stress that the "hard rain" wasn't nuclear fall-out, he acknowledged that the song was apocalyptic in tone.

  11. No Doubt - Just A Girl (1995)

    No Doubt - Just A Girl

    Fronting a band of men in the male-dominated rock industry must have been a trial for Gwen Stefani, so one of No Doubt’s earliest hits was a weary riposte to sexism and stereotyping: “I'm just a girl in the world / That's all that you'll let me be!”

  12. Sex Pistols - Anarchy In The UK (1976)

    The Sex Pistols - Anarchy In The U.K (official video)

    Britain in the mid-1970s was struggling under strikes, cutbacks and a general depression. If you were 20 in 1976, like John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon was, prospects for your future were pretty grim, hence the first single from his punk band the Sex Pistols. His plea for some kind of change in Britain was put in the most extreme terms - pure anarchy - and encapsulated the feelings of the unemployed, alienated youth who looked on as the country staggered on.

  13. The Beatles - Revolution (1968)

    The Beatles - Revolution

    The civil unrest that took place in Paris in the May of 1968 led John Lennon to ponder on the nature of revolution. His new song was the first to be recorded for the 'White Album', but he still wasn't sure whether he was against violence or not, hence the album version's: "When you talk bout destruction, don't you know that you can count me out/in". When the song was re-recorded for the b-side of Hey Jude, Lennon was emphatic that you should count him OUT.

  14. Manic Street Preachers - If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next (1998)

    Manic Street Preachers - If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next

    The band's first number one single was about the Spanish Civil War that took place between 1936 and 1939. A group of Welsh miners travelled to Spain to join in the fight against General Franco's troops, and the title was taken from a propaganda poster of the time.

    One line from the song is a genuine quote from a Welshman: "If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists." Nicky Wire later claimed that the ideology behind the song was that political issues seemed to have lost their relevance in modern society.

  15. Gossip - Standing In The Way Of Control (2005)

    Gossip - Standing In the Way of Control

    The Federal Marriage Amendment was a piece of legislation first floated in 2002, that sought to define marriage in the United States Constitution as strictly between man and woman. Beth Ditto, The Gossip’s lead singer, didn’t take kindly to this, stating: “I wrote the chorus to try and encourage people not to give up. It’s a scary time for civil rights, but I really believe the only way to survive is to stick together and keep fighting." The legislation still hasn't gone through, so people took Beth's advice.

  16. Frankie Goes To Hollywood - Two Tribes (1984)

    Frankie goes to hollywood - Two Tribes (HD)

    The early 1980s were a tense period as the Cold War between the US and the USSR had intensified. With nuclear weapons being placed at Greenham Common in Berkshire and pointed towards the Russians, the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real.

    Coupled with an amazing video that featured lookalikes of US President Ronald Reagan and Russian premier Konstantin Chernenko wrestling each other for supremacy, the song claims that in nuclear war “One is all that you can score.”

  17. The Rolling Stones - We Love You (1967)

    The Rolling Stones - We Love You (Official Music Video)

    The Man was definitely out to get the Stones in the Spring of 1967. Already tagged as Public Enemies by the Establishment, their notoriety was assured when police mounted a raid on Keith Richards' house and claimed it had found all sorts of illicit substances. With both Jagger and Richards facing the very real prospect of a jail sentence, the band marked time before the court case by recording this new song.

    With a promo video that recalled the persecution of Oscar Wilde for his homosexuality, the Stones claimed that while the state's "uniforms won't fit we", they assured the stuffed shirts that "We love you". Although Mick and Keef were found guilty, the case against the guitarist was dismissed due to lack of evidence and the frontman was given a conditional discharge.

  18. The Clash - Rock The Casbah (1982)

    The Clash - Rock the Casbah (Official Video)

    The British punks' only US Top 10 hit, the original lyric was inspired after Clash manager Bernie Rhodes complained that one of the band's tracks was as long as an Indian raga. The song then morphed into a meditation on Arabic censorship of Western music. Another use of the record - probably not intended by its creators - was when the US Armed Forces Radio used it as the first track when they opened coverage of Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War of 1990/91.

  19. N.W.A. - F**k Tha Police (1988)

    Fuck Tha Police

    “They have the authority to kill a minority,” yells an angry Ice Cube on this controversial polemic that was released in 1988. The FBI asked questions about the track and its accompanying album Straight Outta Compton, but the rap collective were proved right with their predictions of doom: tensions bubbled over between civilians and the LAPD causing a series of riots across the city in 1992.

  20. The Smiths - Panic (1986)

    The Smiths - Panic (Official Music Video)

    On 26 April 1986 the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine went into meltdown, bringing about a huge disaster, the consequences of which linger on to this day. Morrissey was listening to the news bulletin announcing the event on Radio 1, which was immediately followed by a typically cheesy bit of 80s pop (urban myth says it was George Michael's clean cut duo Wham!).

    The juxtaposition of genuine horror and harmless tuneage led the Smiths frontman to pen Panic, which claimed that the radio DJs said "Nothing to me about my life". Some commentators later claimed the song was racist, as it attacked the growing DJ culture in the US which was making its presence felt in the UK - but it was more about Steve Wright In the Afternoon than Run DMC.

  21. Billy Bragg - Between The Wars (1985)

    Billy Bragg - Between The Wars

    The Bard Of Barking is known for his stark protest songs, often performed solo on acoustic guitar. Top Of The Pops viewers were stopped in their tracks when Bragg performed this song on a 1985 episode, brutally exposing the frequently violent struggle of the UK’s miners, who had been striking for over a year to avoid the closure of collieries around the country. Bragg laments the loss of a trade for generations of workers: “Build me a path from cradle to grave / And I'll give my consent / To any government / That does not deny a man a living wage.”

  22. Bruce Hornsby - The Way It Is (1986)

    The Way It Is

    Now remembered for being a cheesy, piano-led 80s classic, this was actually a musing on the American Civil Rights movement, and how America had made some progress… but not enough. As a rich businessman speeds past the queue for the welfare office, he sneers at the unemployed. Bruce gives the shrug that things have always been that way: “That's just the way it is”… and then adds “But don't you believe them.” Hornsby ends by pondering over the American Civil Rights Act: “Well, they passed a law in '64 / To give those who ain't got a little more / But it only goes so far.”

  23. Bruce Springsteen - Born In The USA (1984)

    Bruce Springsteen - Born in the U.S.A.

    The title track of The Boss’s seventh album was famous for being adopted as an anthem by the US President Ronald Reagan, who was then on the campaign trail for a second term in office. Springsteen was outraged - his song was about how the state had neglected Vietnam war veterans.

  24. Marvin Gaye - What's Goin' On (1971)

    Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

    Obie Benson of Gaye’s fellow Motown group The Four Tops was present at the University Of California in Berkeley when he saw police attacking anti-Vietnam War protesters. He wrote a song about the incident, but it was a bit near the knuckle for his own group and it was quickly adapted and adopted by Marvin Gaye. The singer used the bewildered, baffled track to kick off his socially-conscious album of 1971.

  25. Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five - The Message (1982)

    Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - The Message (Official Video)

    “It's like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under.” One of Hip Hop’s first big hits, Flash took a socially-conscious message about urban tensions in the early 80s and took it to the streets.

  26. Midnight Oil - Beds Are Burning (1989)

    Midnight Oil - Beds Are Burning

    This Australian band’s frontman Peter Garrett spent time as an MP in the early 2000s, but back in the 80s he was writing politically-charged songs with his group Midnight Oil. This song was a plea to the Aussie government to allow the Aboriginal group the Pintupi to return to their homelands: “It belongs to them / Let’s give it back.”

  27. The Special AKA - Free Nelson Mandela (1984)

    The Specials - Nelson Mandela

    The South African political activist was arrested in 1962 for “conspiring to overthrow” the country’s ruling white National Party, who advocated apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and Jerry Dammers’ song about his plight brought his name to a wider audience for the first time. Mandela was released in 1990 and four years later he became the South African President.

  28. Stiff Little Fingers - Alternative Ulster (1979)

    Alternative Ulster

    Hailing from Belfast, SLF were ideally placed to talk about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, which saw sectarian division, violence, terrorism and a military presence on the streets. But, in the DIY spirit of punk, the band plead for a better future: “Grab it and change it, it's yours!”

  29. M.I.A. - Paper Planes (2008)

    M.I.A. - Paper Planes

    Maya Arulpragasam is the daughter of a Sri Lankan Tamil activist, so she’s well-placed to appreciate the daily struggles of immigrants and refugees who hail from areas of conflict. Paper Planes is her “underdog” song, giving an impressionistic snapshot of how a refugee would adapt to living in a super-Capitalist country like the US.

  30. Stevie Wonder - Living For The City (1973)

    Living For The City

    Little Stevie always had a social conscience, and this track from his classic Innervisions album details the regular struggles of a country boy in the big city, facing hardship, hard work and hard attitudes from his racist neighbours. Wonder concludes: “I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow / And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow.”

  31. The Doors - The Unknown Soldier (1968)

    Unknown soldier. The Doors

    One of the most brutal contemporary depictions of the horrors of the Vietnam war, Jim Morrison’s lyric details the gruesome sight of war footage on the breakfast TV news, coupled with the harsh sounds of what sounds like a military execution performed by Doors drummer John Densmore.

  32. Madness - (Waiting For) The Ghost Train (1984)

    Madness - Waiting For The Ghost Train

    Best known for their funny videos and the classic cover It Must Be Love, the Camden band actually wrote some incisive lyrics on many a dark topic. Before they split for the first time in ’84, they released this superficially merry tune, which was actually about the horrors of apartheid in South Africa. “It’s black and white, don’t try to hide it.”

  33. Tom Robinson - Glad To Be Gay (1978)

    Tom Robinson - Glad To Be Gay (Secret Policeman's Ball)

    Hard to believe, but homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1967 - however, ten years after that, gay culture remained a target for abuse, violence and police victimisation. Now better known as a broadcaster, Robinson’s song was direct, confrontational and heartfelt. The BBC refused to play it on the Top 40 countdown, but it became the defining anthem of gay liberation in Britain. As Robinson said before his famous performance of this song at The Secret Policeman's Ball in 1979: "You don't have to be gay to sing this song... but it helps."

  34. The Smiths – Meat Is Murder (1985)

    [HD] The Smiths - Meat Is Murder (album version)

    Morrissey has, of course, always been outspoken about his vegetarianism - these days, Moz frequently petitions gig venues to take meat off the menu. The title track of The Smiths' second album, released in February 1985, remains Morrissey's most impassioned plea against the slaughter of animals, with its hideous sounds evoking an abattoir, Johnny Marr's plaintive melody and emotive lyrics that offer the stark refrain: "Death for no reason is murder".

  35. R.E.M. - Drive (1992)

    R.E.M. - Drive (Official Music Video)

    Michael Stipe was a supporter of Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidential race and offered up a campaign that claimed “Don’t Get Bush-Whacked” - a reference to his opponent George Bush. Dukakis lost, of course, but the song’s sentiment filtered into the opening track of the seminal Automatic For The People album.

  36. Metallica - One (1988)

    Metallica - One [Official Music Video]

    Dalton Trumbo's anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun was published in 1939 about a young soldier in the First World War who is injured and loses his arms, legs, eyes, tongue, face… but his mind is still alert, leaving him trapped in his own body to consider his fate. This harrowing book was turned into an equally harrowing film in 1971, when the Vietnam War made the story still relevant. Metallica took the novel as the inspiration for their 1988 track One, and included clips from the movie in the video, while Trumbo’s eventful life was made into a biopic starring Bryan Cranston in 2015.

  37. Peter Gabriel - Biko (1980)

    Peter Gabriel - Biko

    Taken from Gabriel’s commercially successful third solo album, this is a tribute to Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, who became a figurehead of the struggle following his death while in police custody in 1977. His story and that of the journalist Donald Woods, who brought the injustice to the world’s attention, was made into the film Cry Freedom ten years later.

  38. The Jam - The Eton Rifles (1979)

    The Jam - The Eton Rifles

    The trio’s fourth album Setting Sons had something of an anti-war theme, but Paul Weller’s lyric concerns a protest march for jobs in Slough that came into conflict with the local public school and its army cadets. When Old Etonian David Cameron claimed it was one of his favourite songs, Weller snorted: “It wasn't intended as a jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.”

  39. X-Ray Spex - Oh Bondage, Up Yours!

    X-Ray Spex - Oh Bondage! Up Yours!

    There seemed to be a drought of women in the early days of punk, but there soon there were incredible musicians like The Slits, Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene aka Marion Elliott-Said of London’s X-Ray Spex. Their debut single begins with Poly recounting the old, sexist creed: “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard…” before kicking into one of the most confrontational tracks of the punk era.

  40. Bob Marley And The Wailers - Get Up Stand Up (1973)

    Bob Marley - Get Up Stand Up (Live)

    “You can fool some people sometimes / But you can't fool all the people all the time.” Written by Marley and fellow Wailer Peter Tosh and released on their 1973 album Burnin’. It was inspired by Marley touring the Caribbean island of Haiti and being alarmed by the poverty of the people there. It would be the last song that Marley performed live onstage before his untimely death in 1981, aged 36.

  41. Pink Floyd - Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) (1979)

    Pink Floyd - Another Brick In The Wall, Part Two (Official Music Video)

    Roger Waters’ double album The Wall concerns war, society and personal alienation, but the big hit (and the last No 1 of the 1970s) concerned more mundane things: the oppression of individual personalities to conform while in school. Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!

  42. The Farm - All Together Now (1991)

    The Farm - All Together Now - Official Video

    Treading similar ground to Macca’s Pipes Of Peace, the Liverpool baggy outfit told the story of the Christmas Day truce during World War I in 1914: “Countries' borders were right out of sight / When they joined together and decided not to fight.”

  43. James Brown - Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud) (1968)

    james brown,say it loud i'm black and i'm proud

    The Godfather Of Soul’s influence was so great that when riots broke out in Boston following the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968, he calmed the disturbance in the city single-handedly. Later that year, he released this defiant song that caught the mood and became the anthem of Black Power: “We're tired of beating our head against the wall and workin' for someone else.” Chuck D of Public Enemy later said: “James said you can say it loud: that being black is a great thing instead of something you have to apologise for."

  44. Muse - Psycho (2015)

    Muse - Psycho [Official Lyric Video]

    One of the key tracks from the trio’s anti-war concept album Drones, it illustrated the state of mind that a soldier would have to enter into in order to fight - while name-checking the new technology that allowed warfare via remote control. Matt Bellamy said: “To me, drones are metaphorical psychopaths which enable psychopathic behaviour with no recourse.”

  45. John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band - Give Peace A Chance (1969)

    Plastic Ono Band - Give Peace A Chance (1969)

    “All we are saying… is Give Peace A Chance” His first real attempt at striking out with a solo career away from The Beatles, Lennon publicised his and new wife Yoko Ono’s peace publicity campaign by recording this simple protest song in their honeymoon hotel room. It was immediately adopted by anti-war protesters.

  46. The Killers - Land Of The Free

    The Killers - Land Of The Free

    In the aftermath of a mass shooting in their hometown of Las Vegas on 1 October 2017 which killed 58 people, The Killers issued this heartfelt plea for gun control in the US. Brandon Flowers puts it simply: “How many daughters, tell me, how many sons / Do we have to have to put in the ground / Before we just break down and face it / We got a problem with guns?”

  47. The Clash - (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais

    Joe Strummer knew how to rabble rouse, so there are many Clash songs to pick from. This 1978 single rails against the way things were going in Britain at the time with racism, cuts and violence ailing the streets. Strummer concludes gloomily: “If Adolf Hitler flew in today / They'd send a limousine anyway.”

    The Clash - (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais (Official Video)

  48. The Cranberries - Zombie

    The Cranberries - Zombie (Official Music Video)

    “Another mother's breaking heart is taking over.” Written in response to the IRA bombing of Warrington town centre on 20 March 1993, which killed two children, Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry, this is an outraged howl against the violence that spawned from The Troubles in singer Dolores O'Riordan’s home country. The band’s manager later claimed that O’Riordan ripped up a $1 million dollar cheque that was given to her, asking for a less politically-charged song.

  49. Paolo Nutini - Iron Sky

    Paolo Nutini - Iron Sky [Short Film]

    Paolo’s 2014 hit features a snippet of Charles Chaplin’s 1940 satirical film The Great Dictator which implores the followers of Adolf Hitler to think again: “Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men! Machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men!” Read the full story here

  50. Hozier and Mavis Staples - Nina Cried Power

    Hozier - Nina Cried Power ft. Mavis Staples

    The Irish singer-songwriter looks back on a century of civil rights protest with the voice of Mavis Staples, whose father was personal friends with Martin Luther King Jr and who was one of THE voices of the movement. The lyrics sum up the defiance: “Power has been cried by those stronger than me / Straight into the face that tells you to rattle your chains.”