Time Out’s top 100 songs that changed history
Inspired (kind of) by Pete Seeger’s assertion that, ‘The right song at the right time can change history’, Time Out assembled a panel of musicians, historians and enthusiasts to debate and collate the 100 songs that have had the most significant impact on real-world events – culturally, socially and politically.
Some of these are songs that have inspired collective action, some were anthems of unity at historic moments and others were played with purpose at critical points in time.
10. ‘Looking for Freedom’ – David Hasselhoff (1989)
‘Looking for Freedom’ was at the top of the charts when West Berliners started chipping away at the wall. Hasselhoff was invited to perform to an audience in the hundreds of thousands from atop the partially-demolished Cold War icon on New Year’s Eve 1989, officially the most optimistic night in history. The mood must have had a permanent effect on The Hoff’s brain, as to this day he’s convinced he is largely responsible for the eastward spread of democracy. The only reason this song isn’t at number one on this list is a sneaking suspicion on our part that Hasselhoff may be mistaken.
9. ‘Pow! (Forward)’ – Lethal Bizzle (2004)
Musically, ‘Pow!’ is three and a half minutes of riotous energy: a cacophony of claps, frenetic synth stabs and sub-bass punches as ten of grime’s (then) leading MCs frantically cram raucously barked rhymes into a miniscule timeslot. But culturally? It turned the dancefloors of smoove R&B clubs into mosh pits for the first time. Clubs banned it. And grime acquired a reputation for violence that would see the police develop Form 696 – a risk assessment form that required promoters to specify audience ethnicity (at least initially), plus names and addresses of performers – and use it to close down nights where the genre was being performed.
But ‘Pow!’ rose from the ashes. First, as an anthem for misunderstood urban youth after David Cameron – then leader of the opposition – tried to take a hardline anti-knife crime stance by quoting its lyrics in a Mail On Sunday article entitled ‘lyrics about guns and knives do destroy lives’. Then later, the re-recorded version (‘Pow! 2011’) became the soundtrack to the 2010 tuition fee protests. Demonstrators clashed with riot police. Concrete blocks were thrown through Treasury windows. The nation’s media furiously penned articles about the revival of anarchic youth protest in Britain. And the song playing on street soundsystems throughout? ‘Pow!’, of course.
8. ‘Acid Trax’ – Phuture (1987)
Phuture’s 12-minute 1987 electronic workout is probably the most successful crowd-control device ever created, and it had the added bonus of kick-starting the acid house boom (and according to legend, giving it its name). Although at the time it was painted as the scourge of a decent, moral society and a breeding ground of lawlessness, the late ‘80s rave scene, ironically enough, had a long-term depreciative effect on one of Britain’s biggest public disorder problems of the time: football hooliganism.
Back then, the nation’s terraces (and quite some distance around them) were virtual no-go areas for anyone who didn’t like meat pies, fighting and the smell of urine. All that changed practically overnight when a generation of scallies were turned on to the magical effects of killer drug ecstasy in combination with the compelling grooves of house music. Once the nation’s teds, neds and casuals started digging the crazy peace and love stylings of ‘aciiieed’, even the most antagonistic fixtures calmed down considerably.
The downturn in violence, of course, also allowed football to flourish into the family-friendly, multibillion-pound business we know and love today, without which we surely would never have experienced that other musical masterpiece, ‘Three Lions’. Three times.
7. ‘Happy Birthday’ – Stevie Wonder (1981)
‘Happy Birthday’ – Stevie Wonder The campaign to have Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday declared a national public holiday began in 1968, soon after the civil rights leader’s assassination. Following the defeat in congress of a bill to have the day officially observed, the King Centre turned to Stevie Wonder for help. Wonder devised 1980’s insanely catchy, frequently misunderstood ‘Happy Birthday’ to inveigle a renewed campaign into the public consciousness, and the following year hosted the Rally For Peace Press Conference to inspire support for a petition in favour of the measure.
This ultimately attracted six million signatures, and still remains the largest petition for a single issue in the history of the country. Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983.
6. ‘God Save the Queen’ – Sex Pistols (1977)
If England had been generally viewed as a nation of forelock-tugging, Union flag-waving royalists, then sneering Johnny Rotten and his determinedly ill-behaved Pistols changed all that in the politically malcontent summer of 1977, during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. The Pistols’ infamous boat launch on the Thames saw them belting out their number-two single (they were pipped at the post by Rod Stewart) as they chugged past the Houses of Parliament.
Over a backdrop of ramalama punk, they rowdily declared the monarchy to be a ‘fascist regime’ and – with a little help from Jamie Reid’s insurrectionary graphics – made anti-royal sentiment both incredibly popular and very fashionable. One was presumably not amused.
5. ‘Imagine’ – John Lennon (1971)
Chosen by Bettany Hughes, research fellow at King’s College London, fellow Of the Historical Association, New York Times bestselling author and TV/radio broadcaster. Bettany says: ‘“Imagine” is the first globally significant song showing a basic, humane desire for peace. It wasn’t a protest song; it was an aspirational piece of music, and that’s why it became so popular so quickly. For the first time, there was this feeling that you could have one global anthem which everybody could share because the motivation behind it was this universal desire that wasn’t linked to a particular nation, state, civilisation or religion. Before that, there were plenty of localised equivalents, but this is the first genuinely global song.’
4. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ – Sam Cooke (1964)
Chosen by Dan Snow, author and TV/radio broadcaster. Dan says: ‘Actually released actually after his death in 1964, this was only a moderate hit for Sam Cooke, compared to his previous singles. Despite this, it typifies the American Civil Rights Movement and its music, due to its devastating honesty, dignity, faith and hope. It enjoyed a sort of second life around the time of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign (only thanks to mass media, not in any official capacity), almost bookending the civil rights movement and highlighting its incredible journey.’
Also chosen by James Morrison. James says: ‘In 1964, racism and social injustice were rife in the US. Sam Cooke, previously known for his sweet balladeering, took up the mantle of the civil rights movement to deliver an incredible song of hope and optimism. It was made poignant by his death a year before its release. The yearning in his voice gets me every time.’
3. ‘Irhal’ – Ramy Essam (2011)
Irhal means ‘leave’ (as an imperative) in Arabic and became the anthem of the Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square against President Mubarak’s dictatorial regime. Popular poetry, improvised colloquial verse and a mix of high and low Arabic characterised the protest’s political slogans, and singer Ramy Essam set this particular chant to a simple acoustic guitar backing. He became a YouTube sensation and a revolutionary figurehead of the Arab Spring. Mubarak finally got the message to ‘Irhal’ and was forced to resign, but when Essam returned to the square after this historic announcement, he was identified as an agitator, arrested and detained for four hours, during which time he was beaten and Tasered.
‘Irhal’ is one of the most influential songs on the mordern age. And so it should be, considering the source material: the song itself was stitched together from the catchiest chants Essam heard while camped out in Tahrir Square.
But what really makes ‘Irhal’ significant is how it caught the public imagination, and conscience, at precisely the right moment. ‘Irhal’ struck a resonant chord with Egypt’s dissatisfied citizens, and the rest is, literally, history. It’s this ability to give a unified voice to a disparate crowd which makes music such a powerful catalyst. Intriguingly, the acoustic flamenco stylings of ‘Irhal’ belie Essam’s actual musical tastes, which run more toward metal. He didn’t think he could make a living playting heavy rock, however, so it’ll be interesting to see if ‘Irhal’ opens up a new future for him.
2. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ – Band Aid (1984)
Band Aid promoter Harvey Goldsmith on ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’: ‘What did I think of the single? It was okay. Nothing special. But getting all those people to perform together on a collective song with a message to it was something. What really made it successful, of course, were the pictures from Africa on the news, which are repeating again as we speak. ‘Did we have any idea that Live Aid would be that huge? None. None whatsoever. We were just getting the job done in the shortest possible space of time – organising it took ten-and-a-half weeks from start to finish.
So we didn’t have time to think about what it was or if it was good enough or big enough. We just knew we had to do it and that there had to be two shows, which had never been done before – in fact, we ended up with three because there was one in Australia that kicked the day off. It sold out really quickly so we knew people were there to support it. We ended up with a fantastic list of artists, and our target was to raise a million quid. We had no idea we were going to raise £160 million.
‘The single changed the way people gave money. It changed the way people thought about giving. And we showed the world that pop artists, as crazy as they are, are also the most caring of all the artists. And that they understood how to use their powers of attraction for good.’
1. ‘Fight the Power’ – Public Enemy (1989)
Subtlety and nuance are great qualities. Public Enemy’s Chuck D had them in spades: he was a man so professor-like, he needed playful sprite Flavor Flav just to remind people to occasionally have fun. Subtlety and nuance don’t change the world, however. ‘Fight The Power’ was incendiary because it was brutally explicit and unequivocal. Nobody else was willing to tell it how it was. As Chuck himself said, ‘”Don’t worry be happy” was a number one jam, damn if I say it, you can slap me right here.’
Black America as he saw it was still being denied – a fact soon borne out by the LA riots of ’91. What makes this our number one, though, is that it transcended its locality and became a call to action around the world: in Ireland, in Serbia, along the fault lines of the crumbling Soviet bloc and beyond.
Chosen by Matthew Collin, journalist and author of ‘This is Serbia Calling’ and ‘Altered State’
Matthew says: ‘First heard as the incendiary intro to Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing”, “Fight the Power” encapsulated the resurgent Black Power spirit in rap music at the time – but it was far from the USA where the song had political impact.
During an armed crackdown by Slobodan Milošević’s regime in the Serbian capital of Belgrade in 1991, rebel radio station B92 was banned from broadcasting news. The station responded by playing tracks like “Fight the Power” over and over again, subverting the ban by expressing in music what they weren’t allowed to say in words.’
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