Riffs 2.0 | Ep 45
Joe: Welcome to Riffs on Riffs, where we explore the surprising connection between songs past and present and share the fascinating stories that make music a universal language. I’m Joe Watson and I’m here with my co-host Toby Brazwell. So Tobe, how are you feeling these days?
Toby: I’m feeling a lot of things as of late. There has certainly been a lot of change in our day to day due to the Covid 19 pandemic. My thoughts have also been centered on the death of George Floyd and so many others that have sparked protests across the country. These protests have all been focused on racial equality and social change to eliminate systemic racism and police brutality.
Joe: Certainly a worthy cause and with any protest, There’s always an underlying sentiment that voices aren’t being heard. We wanted to change things up this episode and not just focus on a single sample or artist, but rather focus on a theme. We want to focus this episode on how the universal language of music has helped these voices to be heard not just in our country but across the world. Let’s talk today about some of the best protest songs ever made and the stories behind them.
Toby: So when we first discussed this idea, it just felt right but I had a hard time trying to figure out exactly where to start. There are so many great protest songs to discuss and so little time but I feel a great place to start was a song that the Beatles made called Revolution.
Joe: Such a good song that they recorded multiple versions of it. The one most people are familiar with is the single version that kicks with such a gritty guitar tone that it quite literally almost fried the mixing console.
Toby: Revolution appears on Beatles self titled double album released in 1968 — The White Album. At the time, there were a lot of protests that were taking place regarding the Vietnam War and the Beatles were being pressured to write a song that spoke on it.
Joe: John Lennon wrote the lyrics and that expresses his feelings on two fronts. He shows empathy for those that feel the need for change while at the same time disagreeing with the tactics of a political movement called the New Left.
Toby: I’ve heard this song many times but never really looked at all three verses. It seems that Lennon wasn’t opposed to social change but wanted to hear a plan before the current system was done away with and before money was donated. It’s funny how some things change, but many things don’t. These are some of the sentiments of those that are extremely dissatisfied with certain aspects of our police force.
Joe: Good point. One of the other things that I found interesting is that this song was actually the B side for the Beatles single Hey Jude. This is the 2nd episode in a row where B sides to singles actually ended up being very popular. Last episode it was Soul Makoosa by Manu Dibango. While not being as popular as Hey Jude, Revolution more than held its own and reached number 12 on the Hot 100.
Toby: The Beatles were certainly not the only ones that wrote music about Vietnam. I believe this is another artist that we had discussed on a past episode as well. Joe can you do the honors?
Joe: Yes sir, the iconic Marvin Gaye. His song “What’s Going On” was released on May 21, 1971 and was featured on his eponymously titled eleventh studio album on a Motown subsidiary label called Tamia. So here’s a random fact: Tamia was actually the original label founded by Berry Gordy, but was later folded into Motown Records. Anyway, What’s Going On is actually a concept album that followed the life of a Vietnam Veteran after returning home.
Toby: I never knew that before and you know I love concept albums.
Joe: You do? I did not know that. What’s your favorite?
Toby: Wow… that’s a tough question. There’s Del’s Deltron 3030, Mr. Lif’s has an album called Phantom… but if I had to choose just one it would probably be an album called the Minstrel Show by the hip-hop group called Little Brother. 9th wonder production combines with Phonte’s and BIG Pooh’s lyrics, nothing but classic material. MF Doom and Danger Mouse have a collab album entitled “The Mouse behind the Mask” that is also one of my favorites as well. What’s yours?
Joe: Of all time, I’d say Rush’s 2112 simply because it was so influential on my formative years. I think Coheed and Cambria makes great concept albums and I love the way that Claudio Sanchez weaves the art and storytelling into great music. Anyway, back to Marvin.
Toby: What’s Going On is the first album to credit Marvin as the producer while also being the first to credit the in house studio band known as the Funk Brothers. Maybe it’s just me, but knowing that this was a concept album really makes me want to go and take a deeper listen to it. The record’s title track was actually written by Renaldo Benson.
Joe: You mean the founding member and bass singer of the Motown group the Four Tops Renaldo Benson?
Toby: The one and only! So Benson witnessed an altercation between the police and protestors. It obviously had a profound effect on him as he began to write and work with another lyricist named Al Cleveland who happened to be his upstairs neighbor.
Joe: I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about Al's last name that I just like! Al Cleveland…
Toby: I know right! It’s got a nice ring to it. Well originally, Benson wanted The Four Tops to do the song but they refused because it was a protest song. I’m thinking that this group thought — rightfully so — that performing a song like this could cost them fans and thus sales. He then approached Joan Baez to sing it but was again unsuccessful.
Joe: So then Benson offered the song to Marvin Gaye, including part of the royalties. Gaye added some lyrics and his personal feelings to the song and went to lay it down in the booth in 1970. But Motown refused to release it at first because they didn’t think it was commercial enough.
Toby: Of course, it was eventually released and proved everyone wrong by reaching No 2 on the Billboard Pop singles chart. Widely considered as being one of the best Songs of all Time according to Rolling Stone magazine. It might seem funny to say, but I couldn’t not imagine a world without this song. I can’t remember the first time I heard it, but every time I do hear it, I always take stock of where I am, what I’m doing, and what I stand for. And just as important what I won’t stand for.
Joe: It’s definitely a powerful song, and like you now, I want to revisit the entire album. Lines like this, “Don't punish me with brutality” are a sad indication of just how little things have changed. I mean, another 50 years have gone by and we’re still asking what’s going on.
Alright Tob, let’s change genre’s a little bit and switch to folk music. I know you’re a fan of all music — where do you come out on folk?
Toby: Well I will admit that I don’t listen to it often, I do appreciate it, mainly because of the fact that it doesn’t follow the pop formula in the sense of lyrical style and composition. A lot of us songwriters don’t do it strictly for the money, it’s about the art of communicating a message whether it be about broken homes or broken hearts. Whether it’s about making a point in jest or in protest.
Joe: Folk definitely has history of storytelling and protest, which takes us to the next artist, a folk singer by the name of Woody Guthrie who wrote the song a lot of us grew up singing in grade school music class, This Land Is Your Land. I think to fully understand the meaning and significance of this song you have to first understand Woody.
Toby: Woody had a tragic childhood to say the least. He witnessed his family home being destroyed by fire, witnessed an accident that claimed the life of his sister, and then lost his mother to sickness years later. His family was poor and he and his siblings were sent to live with family in Texas. He got married at 19 but found it difficult to provide for his family during the Dust Bowl Period and the depression. Like so many others in his position, he left his family to find employment in California. He wrote songs about his experiences which earned him the nickname Dust Bowl Troubadour.
Joe: In Feb 1940 he wrote his most famous song “This Land is Your Land” as a rebuttal to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”. So I know what you’re thinking. Rebuttal is a strong word.
Toby: It is. I mean if this was a court of law and Irving said God Bless America, a rebuttal is like Guthrie saying. “Hey God, I object. Don’t bless it.”
Joe: Well thank goodness he wasn’t saying that. Truth be told, God Bless America was being played everywhere and Guthrie grew to hate it. I guess not unlike any pop song today that gets overplayed. There are several different verses of this song that we don’t usually sing in grade school classrooms, with lyrics that were meant to discuss the huge income disparities in America, especially during the Great Depression.
“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.”
“One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.”
Those certainly paint a different picture than the more well known verses.
Toby: This song was written so many years ago but has been sung as recently as the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s certainly a very popular song. You won’t meet an adult that’s lived in this country for any length of time that hasn’t heard or been taught the song. What’s truly amazing is that Guthrie was blacklisted as a communist for being outspoken and that of course made it hard for him to earn money as a musician.
Joe: Yes, and ironically part of the reason he didn’t record all of the verses is because of the McCarthyism of the 50s and the threat of being jailed for “anti-american” thinking. Again, the more things change. Sometimes I shake my head and wonder why we suck so badly at being human beings.
Toby: Guthrie had a tough time earning money for his musical efforts and one of the only places he got a chance to perform was in front of children at summer camps. The song has been recorded 100’s of times and the influence that he has had on folk music is evident by the fact that folk singer icon Bob Dylan names Woody Guthrie as being one of his main musical influences.
Joe: Did you know Woody Guthrie was an early pioneer of sampling?
Toby: Sampling? I didn’t know that - break it down for me.
Joe: Well, he was always on the lookout for tunes that he could set his lyrics to, and in this case he took the 1930 gospel recording, "When the World's on Fire," sung by the Carter Family and set “This Land is Your Land” to it.
Toby: It’s a little weird to hear the original song after we’ve been exposed to Guthrie’s lyrics so much.
Joe: Alright Tob, I'd like to spend the rest of this episode discussing protest songs that deal with another issue that has been with us for far too long — police brutality. I also can't believe this has to be said, but I'm going to say it anyway. Black Lives Matter. If you're someone that for some absurd reason doesn't understand that or wants to offer some sort of asinine rebuttal, then I'm simply going to take a page from Seth Rogen's playbook and tell you to stop listening to this show. I can't deal with the nonsense any more.
Toby: Black lives do matter, and no one is saying they matter more, but we are saying they matter as anyone else’s life.
Joe: Now some of the songs we are going to talk about are controversial, and there are certainly many layers to the conversation. So what do you say we place our focus today on the "protest" themes of these tracks?
Toby: Sounds good, where do you want to start?
Joe: We're going back to 1988 and the debut of NWA's straight Outta Compton, which contains a song that's title leaves very little room for interpretation.
Toby: I believe you are referring to eff the police? I cleaned that up for our family show.
Joe: That’s the one. I wore out that cassette back in the day, and it was always pretty obvious to me what the purpose of that song is- it is absolutely a protest song.
Toby: With lyrics like, "A young (man) got it bad cause I'm brown. And not the other color, so police think, they have the authority to kill a minority”. I'd say it’s fairly apparent what the message is — if you bothered to listen to the song.
Joe: That's an interesting point. I wonder how many people get into an uproar simply because of the titles but don't bother to go any deeper than that and understand the meaning.
Toby: It's a lot easier to be offended than it is to understand someone, or attempt to empathize with their experience.
Joe: That's the truth. The world would be a better place if people tried to understand one another — and thought for themselves instead of being spoon fed someone else's opinion. But I digress.
Toby: The song would reach #25 on the hip hop and R&B charts in 2015, coinciding with the release of the NWA biopic movie. Now Joe, I know you abhor violence of any kind as much as I do. And certainly the violence and misogyny of this entire album is not something we condone. But you also can't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Joe: Correct. This album chronicles the reality of life for many people, and sadly that reality has changed very little when it comes to police brutality.
Toby: It's also interesting how different artists can get away with different things. You remember our episode on The Clash, where we talked briefly about their song “Guns of Brixton”?
Joe: Yep. Another song about police brutality.
Toby: I'm just going to read a few lyrics here. "When they kick at your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun? You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you'll have to answer to the guns of Brixton."
Joe! Sure sounds to me like advocacy for meeting force with lethal force.
Joe: Somehow because it's the Clash and they were pioneers and avant garde it is ok. But if you get into the gritty reality of the black experience — especially if you use language authentic to that experience — it is not ok. And look, we'd be foolish and naive not to acknowledge that the Clash was a white band. That has to factor in somewhere.
Toby: Guns of Brixton was released in 1979, but just a few years earlier we had a song with a similar theme, but toned down a bit for public consumption.
Joe: I believe you are referring to the 1973 song from Bob Marley and the Wailers, "I Shot the Sheriff."
Toby: Yes sir. Marley had this to say about the songs meaning: "I want to say 'I shot the police' but the government would have made a fuss so I said 'I shot the sheriff' instead. But it's the same idea. Justice."
Joe: Of course, the lyrics also explicitly state it was in self-defense. It's interesting how Marley has been commercialized over the years since his death. I'm not sure how many today recognize him for his activism.
Toby: He was not a man afraid to take a stand, whether that was advocating for Pan-Africanism or, in this case, against police injustice.
Joe: And once again, we have an example, intentional or not, of a sort of whitewashing of the message. Because in 1974 Eric Clapton covers the song and it soars straight to #1. It's a great cover, and has even been inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame. But it certainly takes on a different spin when performed by a white guy from England.
Toby: Well now it's time to fast forward a couple decades and talk about another protest song that has garnered even more attention on the topic of police brutality. Joe, where were you when the Rodney king verdict was announced?
Joe: That verdict came down on April 29, 1992, and I vividly remember being on campus at Ohio University and being as stunned at the acquittals as the rest of the world. Where were you?
Toby: I remember being in school and talking with some classmates that were upset with the riots that were happening at the time, and trying to explain to them that riots are different from revolution.
Joe: For those of you too young to know the Rodney King story and the ensuing aftermath, please look it up. George Floyd Breanna Taylor, Ahmad Arbury-these are just the latest in a LONG list. Educate yourself, then speak up and be part of the change.
Toby: Well back in 1990, Ice-T had formed a metal band called Body Count, and in 1992 they released their debut album of the same name.
Joe: It contained the track Cop Killer, and I think from the title you can guess the lyrical content.
Toby: Again, it's pretty explicitly stated in the song with lines like, "cop killer, better him than me. cop killer. (Eff) police brutality!” He’s not really pulling any punches here.
Joe: And It's a fictional, first person narrative of a character fed up with police brutality. Ice-T describes it as "a warning, not a threat, to authority that says, 'Yo, police, we're human beings. Treat us accordingly."
Toby: As you might imagine, controversy ensued, and we could spend an entire episode on that alone. I mean, we have then President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle railing against it. Al and Tipper Gore got the PM RC into the act. Moses himself was up in arms!
Toby: Charlton Heston. Close enough.
Joe: Body Count eventually pulled the song from the record, but gave it away as a free single. Ice-T would go on to say this:
"I didn't need people to come in and really back me on the First Amendment. I needed people to come in and say 'Ice-Thas grounds to make this record.' I have the right to make it because the cops are killing my people."
Toby: I'm reminded of another previous episode, and another debut album that contained a first person narrative of the mind of a killer...
Joe: I believe you are referring to the Talking Heads and their song Psycho killer. Man, I remember all the controversy that stirred up! Senate hearings! Lawsuits!
Toby: Flag on the play, I think I detect some sarcasm.
Joe: Oh wait, it’s the talking heads, It's arty and nuanced lyrics — not like those graphic and raw accounts that are a little too real.
Toby: I think I detect sarcasm again.
Joe: I guess I'm just frustrated by some of the hypocrisy and willful ignorance in the name of outrage.
Toby: These are multifaceted issues, and certainly we recognize the safety and freedoms provided by law enforcement. But we also can't continue to turn a blind eye to systemic racism and police brutality.
Joe: Correct. Change needs to happen. Somehow we need to support and encourage the good while finding a way to eradicate the evil. Lines like "some of those who work forces are the same that burn crosses" from Rage Against The Machine's 1992 song "Killing in the Name" shouldn't feel so timely 20+ years later.
Toby: Well, as childish Gambino says in his' 2018 protest song, “This is America”. Hopefully we are finally at a tipping point where real and lasting change can happen.
Joe: I hope so too my friend, and you know I love and support you. Unfortunately, that's all the time we have left for today's unusually heavy episode. But these are heavy times.
Toby: Agreed. But music not only gives a powerful voice to the protester, it is a universal language that can unite and soothe. We definitely need more of that.
Joe: Let's all get out there and do our part to make that happen. Thank you all for listening, and we'll catch you next time for Riffs on Riffs.