Songs that changed history
‘The right song at the right time can change history’ said American folk singer, Pete Seeger’. And while Pete himself would admit he’s been wrong about some things – such as whether or not Stalin was a decent sort of fellow – on this point I’m inclined to agree with him. Think of all the occasions which have been affected or instigated by a popular song.
Would the Ethiopian famine appeal have caught the public imagination without ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Would Manuel Noriega still be holed up in the Holy See embassy if it weren’t for Van Halen’s ‘Panama’? Would Martin Luther King Jr have a national holiday in his name if not for Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’? And what kind of limp ending would the Bible have had were it not for popular Judean folk hit ‘Barabbas is a Righteous Dude’?
Pondering this point, we recently asked a panel of historians and musicians, including the likes of Dan Snow, Michael Wood and Wild Beasts, to vote for songs they believed had the greatest impact on world events. We were surprised by the results, and running order. In fact, I downright disagree with some of what they had to say, and would like to take this opportunity to point out the three songs I personally believe have made the greatest impact on the world (excepting ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ because I’ve already mentioned them).
Phuture – Acid Tracks
Widely accepted as having been the first acid house record, ‘Acid Tracks’ ushered in a brave new world of repetitive bleeps and mind-bending. Acid house’s impact on British society is hard to overstate, even with a megaphone. Initially, it caused all manner of entertaining moral panics, from the plague of deadly ecstasy to the new age traveller movement to some seriously fucked-up-looking trousers. Once the money started coming in, it gave us the superclub era and the concept of ‘chilling out’. And now, like a cultural Goldman Sachs, graduates of the rave generation are now running the world, doing everything from creating your arts to, if that one YouTube video from Surise is to be believed, Prime Ministering your government.
But one thing that’s often overlooked is dance music’s contribution to cleaning up the terraces. Or, more specifically, the part played by ecstasy. Having been hugging each other at Fantazia the night before, acid fans were suddenly less inclined to knock lumps out of each with meat tenderisers on a Saturday afternoon. With the terraces now safe for ordinary, not especially hard football fans, live football exploded in popularity, opening the door for the Premier League to become the haven of responsible spending and role modelling it is today. Thanks, ravers!
Public Enemy – Fight the Power
This track was used by pirate radio station B-92 as a form of musical samizdat during the break-up of Yugoslavia, as reported by eyewitness Matthew Collin, and has earned its place in history for that alone. But Public Enemy’s defining cut has a broader significance globally as the ‘We Shall Overcome’ of the good-tune-appreciating era. Its non-specific call to arms against unaccountable authority translates equally well to any environment where abuse of power or corruption is endemic, from the mean streets of Inglewood to the harsh refectories of Charterhouse.
Ramy Essam – Irhal
As a piece of music, ‘Irhal’ sounds more like a jingle for an out-of-town furniture retailer than a revolutionary anthem, but if this track didn’t inspire the Arab Spring, it was at least played over the opening credits. Written and performed by Ramy Essam – Egypt’s answer to James Morrison – ‘Irhal’ is a very jolly ditty. Its upbeat nature seems to capture the optimistic mood of a passionate crowd pushing for rather than kicking against a new idea, although there may be a more prosaic reason for its chirpiness. Although he’s personally a fan of heavy rock, Essam changed his own style to acoustic ballad-pop as this was the only chance he had of sustaining a career as a musician. Rather than taking the route more familiar to Europeans and selling out with a trite hit about lost love, Essam took the words out of the mouths of protestors in Tahrir Square, composing the jaunty track by stitching together the slogans he heard there. The rest is recent history.
You can see what the panel had to say about the 100 songs they think had the most significant impact on history here. I’d be interested to know what songs Indie readers think we’ve missed…Tagged in: Acid Tracks, band aid, do they know it's christmas, Fight the Power, Irhal, music, songs that changed history, time out
Recent Posts on Arts
- Crowds at Lahore Lit Fest ignore bomb risks and raise hopes for Pakistan’s future
- Rolo Tomassi Interview: “It's comforting to know that we've not been treated as a novelty”
- Goblin's Claudio Simonetti on Profondo Rosso reaching the big 4-0
- Friday Book Design Blog: The Ecliptic, by Benjamin Wood
- Ask the Author: Vivian French
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter