Today soldiers patrol the streets of Kabul and Baghdad with metal and rap tunes resonating in their armored vehicles. In that respect, rock and its offshoots have become part of the culture of war, often sustaining our warriors through their trials and challenges.
The history of rock as war’s soundtrack goes back to Vietnam, a conflict that has sometimes been described as the first rock ‘n’ roll war. The popular songs of the day helped sustain troops in their jungle outposts and provided a connection to home via American popular culture. Bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Jimi Hendrix Experience also described the trials of our soldiers in the music they created, as well as the struggles of a United States divided by the swirl of politics and perspectives that enveloped the Vietnam era.
As we celebrate Veteran’s Day on Monday, November 11, let’s be thankful for the sacrifices and bravery that generations of members of the American military have made and shown on our behalf. And not forget the complexities involved in armed conflict between nations, and how often individuals carry the burden of those complexities.
These 10 classic tunes that helped make Vietnam the first rock ‘n’ roll war serve as a reminder of all this:
• “Imagine,” John Lennon: This 1971 plea for peace was a direct result of the conflicts the ex-Beatle observed all around him, from Vietnam to the struggle for Civil Rights and other issues. It’s simplicity is a stark contrast to the complexities of modern life, and calculatedly so. Some may pronounce it naïve, but for 3:03 it is also a refuge that provides a respite from violence, anger, greed and the other forces that create turmoil, and it does so without chastising or finger pointing. That’s a beautiful thing.
• “War,” Edwin Starr: This hard-driving R&B-based rocker lays it out with the message “war/yeah/what is it good for?/absolutely nothing.” Vietnam had a disproportionate amount of casualties from the African-American community, which is something Starr and the driving forces of Motown were acutely aware of. Since the song reached number one in 1970, its message struck a nerve. Bruce Springsteen covered it eloquently in 1985, in keeping with the banner theme of his “Born in the U.S.A.” tour.
• “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival: Since the ’60s the children of lower income families have primarily made up America’s warrior class. During Vietnam, this inequity was a frequent topic of discussion and fueled this song by Gibson Les Paul legend John Fogerty. The “fortunate sons” were those of the upper class who were able to more capably avoid the draft.
• “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” Sgt. Barry Sadler: Not all hits during the Vietnam era were protest numbers. In 1966 this song held Billboard’s number one chart position for five weeks straight. It is an unabashedly romantic and patriotic celebration of the U.S. Special Forces and obviously struck as strong a nerve in the American psyche of the day as any protest numbers.
• “Machine Gun,” Jimi Hendrix: Following in the footsteps of great jazzmen like John Coltrane, whose 1963 composition “Alabama” was an angry, broken-hearted response to the bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four little girls, Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” is an eloquent essay in the horrors of war where he employs extended technique and feedback to recreate the sounds of the battlefield. This live 1970 recording from the Band of Gypsys is even more incendiary and potent than Hendrix’s version of the “Star Spangled Banner” from Woodstock.
• “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye: Like Lennon, R&B giant Gaye managed to create a commentary on the era with this title track from his 1971 album that essay the time’s social ferment without preaching or pointing fingers. Songwriters who can make such pointed observations without being didactic or strident are few, which makes the loss of figures like Gaye and Lennon, who preached against the kind of violence they fell victim to, all the more tragic.
• “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Creedence Clearwater Revival: John Fogerty has alternately said this song was inspired by the downpour at Woodstock and by the impotence of the American government during the Vietnam War. But when it became a hit from 1970’s Cosmo’s Factory, only the most literal minded listeners thought it was about weather.
• “I’m Feel Like I’m A Fixin’ to Die Rag,” Country Joe and the Fish: With it’s chorus line “And it’s one, two three, what are we fighting for?,” there was no ambiguity in this tune, which Country Joe McDonald and his hippie band performed at Woodstock. The song also became known as the “Fish Cheer” and is still occasionally resurrected at peace rallies throughout the U.S.
• “The Time They Are a-Changin’,” Bob Dylan: This Dylan classic has been embedded in the American spirit. It was inspired by the Civil Rights movement and released in 1964, a year before American troops shipped out en masse to Vietnam. But its rejoinder “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call” rang true and loudly for the rest of the decade and into the ’70s.
• “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield: Many consider this song to be about the 1970 killings at Kent State University, but in reality it was written and released three years earlier and inspired by the Sunset Strips Riots, which were a reaction by the members of Los Angeles’ youth culture against the city’s attempt to impose a 10 p.m. curfew in 1966. But as events of the decade unfurled and war and civil unrest intensified, this Stephen Stills number took on a powerful life of its own and, thanks in part to Still’s reverb drenched guitar lines, holds a sense of foreboding undiminished by time.