Trump’s saber rattling and Nazi-coddling has the nation on edge, but these songs are reminders of earlier moments of national dread.
Americans currently find ourselves in unchartered territory. Never before have we had a president who not only blatantly lies about both the important and mundane, but who has shown sympathy and understanding toward a small, yet vocal community of fascist ideologues and racists who espouse hate.
Throughout history, we’ve looked to writers, artists, and musicians to make sense of the nonsensical, express for us the things we feel, but may be unable to express ourselves. To provide comfort and hope.
With that in mind, Please Kill Me’s Todd McGovern and Alan Bisbort have compiled some songs to see us through these dark times, whether it’s preparing for war with North Korea, neo-Nazis or our own president. Please feel free to suggest your own dystopian songs to add to the soundtrack of 2017.
“Fight The Power” – Public Enemy
First released on the soundtrack of director Spike Lee’s film, Do The Right Thing, “Fight The Power” was Public Enemy’s direct call to action. The summer of 1989 was one of simmering racial tension in New York City and this song was the theme song of the times. The video, filmed in the streets of Brooklyn, is part performance, part political rally, with giant portraits of Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson and others on display over the hard beats of The Bomb Squad. Twenty-eight years on, “Fight The Power” remains a rallying cry of the oppressed.
“In the Year 2525” – Zager & Evans
Pop music has spawned one-hit wonders galore, but none quite like Zager & Evans. The Nebraska duo—Denny Zager and Rick Evans—took over the airwaves in the summer of 1969 with their dystopian folk-pop single “In The Year 2525,” hitting # 1 in both the U.S. and the U.K. and climbing charts in several other countries. And then…nothing. Well, they did release two albums on RCA but neither made much of a splash. Perhaps the timing was right for a song that prophesied the end of the human race at a time of riots, protests, assassinations, unpopular wars and Nixon. Come to think of it, this hit single resonates all over again, in the year 2017.
“Eve of Destruction” – Barry McGuire (written by P.F. Sloan)
McGuire’s version of “Eve of Destruction” was released in 1965 at the beginning of the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, although Sloan had written the song the year before. Sloan played guitar on the McGuire version, with Hal Blaine on drums and fellow Wrecking Crew mate Larry Knechtel on bass. The first vocal take was used, giving the song a rawness that perfectly matched its theme. McGuire later confirmed that the song was recorded in one take and he sung it from lyrics scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper (the instrumental track had already been laid down). Within four days, “Eve of Destruction” was getting radio airplay and within two months it was the #1 single in the U.S., and # 3 in the U.K. Sloan’s lyrics seems straight out of today’s headlines: “Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say? / And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today? / If the button is pushed, there’s no running away, / There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.”
“It’s Good News Week” – Hedgehoppers Anonymous
Hedgehoppers Anonymous was a British quintet comprised of RAF pilots who called themselves The Trendsetters when they formed in 1963. They changed their name to The Hedgehoppers in 1964—a “hedgehopper” being a hipper term for a pilot who likes to fly low over the landscape. When Jonathan King took over as their producer in 1965, he added the “anonymous,” perhaps to lend them more mystery. The multi-talented King wrote their song “It’s Good News Week,” and produced the single, which reached # 5 in the U.K. and was also a hit in the U.S. (one of the first singles I bought as a pimply adolescent in Atlanta). The band released four more singles but none clicked and they broke up. To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again,” based on some of the lyrics from the song: “It’s good news week / Someone’s dropped a bomb somewhere / Contaminating atmosphere And blackening the sky / It’s good news week / Someone’s found a way to give / The rotting dead a will to live / Go on and never die… / It’s good news week / Doctors finding many ways / Of wrapping brains on metal trays / To keep us from the heat”
“All You Fascists Bound To Lose” – Woody Guthrie
Leave it to the Dust Bowl balladeer Woody Guthrie to take on fascists in the most direct way he knew – with his upfront lyrics and guitar, complete with the famous declaration, “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.” In 1943, Guthrie joined the U.S. Merchant Marine, serving in the kitchens of ships. He also sang for the crew and the troops. He was on the ship Sea Porpoise, taking troops to the D-Day invasion when a German U-boat torpedoed it. The ship stayed afloat and Guthrie was unhurt. (Note: Playlist includes version of this song done by Billy Bragg)
“Which Side Are You On” – Talib Kweli Ft. Tef Poe Kendra Ross
Originally written in the early 1930s by the wife of a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky, many artists have covered this song over the year. This update/rewrite is from Brooklyn-based hip hop artist and social activist Talib Kweli and features fellow rappers Tef Poe and singer-songwriter and community activist, Kendra Ross. M Kweli puts a 21st century spin on the song, questioning the recent spate of police killings of unarmed black youth.
“How a kid without a gun become a threat to cops, they let off a shot hoping his head’ll pop and his breath will stop/and we’ve gotta be satisfied waitin til we get the verdict, it’s just perverted, no justice for the family or the kid they murdered?”
“(Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below We’re all Gonna Go” – Curtis Mayfield
The most ominous cut from the sweet-voiced former Impression, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below We’re all Gonna Go” opens with a bass line capable of starting an earthquake. Eventually, the 1970 song brings in the patented wah-wah guitar, conga-driven preacherman style everyone recognizes from his Superfly soundtrack, running down a litany of terrible things going on in the world, with the chorus: “And Nixon talking about ‘don’t worry’ he say ‘don’t worry’. But they don’t know there can be no show and if there’s hell below we’re all gonna go.” The song closes with the most mournful plaint, ‘Lord, what we gonna do?” Mayfield, it should be noted, was the man who wrote “People Get Ready,” an inspiring anthem for nonviolent change only six years earlier.
“Five Years” – David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars
Bowie gets right down to it in the first verse of the first song on arguably his greatest album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972): “Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing / News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in / News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying / Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.”
“It’s After The End of the World” – Sun Ra and His Intergalactic Solar Arkestra
A haunting chanted chorus opens this wonderfully demented “free form” instrumental from 1972: “It’s after the end of the world…Don’t you know that yet?” Sun Ra’s funereal organ shoves this chanting session toward an abyss and 55 seconds into this cut, you begin falling, falling, falling…a perfect segue would be Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”
“My Apocalypse” – Metallica
We’re covering all of the metal classics with one entry. Beyond this song, we exempt heavy metal, thrash metal, death metal, speed metal, etc., because nearly every cut on every album by artists in these genres is dystopian. So, if you are inclined to wallow in the apocalypse, any album by Metallica, Megadeth, or any band from Norway should provide hours of listening displeasure. “My Apocalypse,” from 2008, is a catchy fast march into the bleakest future imaginable, featuring the lyrics, “Fear thy name extermination / Desecrate inhale the fire / So we cross that line / Into the grips / Total eclipse / Suffer unto my apocalypse!”
“Clampdown” – The Clash
Released as a single off their 1979 masterpiece, London Calling, the opening stanza of “Clampdown” could be straight from the Alt-Right playbook:
“Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a Jew?
‘Cause they’re working for the clampdown
They put up a poster saying we earn more than you!
When we’re working for the clampdown
We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers…”
Whether railing against the capitalist economic system, the trap of consumer culture or conformity itself, the Clash are a definite must for any anti-fascist soundtrack.
“Idioteque” – Radiohead
One could argue that every Radiohead song is dystopian. But this one, from Kid A (2000), really creates the proper ominous vibe of what it might feel like in an underground bunker while the bombs are bursting overhead.
“Who’s in the bunker? Who’s in the bunker? / Women and children first, and the children first, and the children / I’ll laugh until my head comes off / I’ll swallow until I burst, until I burst, until I / Who’s in the bunker? Who’s in the bunker? / I have seen too much! / I haven’t seen enough, you haven’t seen it / I’ll laugh until my head comes off…”
“Big Yellow Taxi” – Joni Mitchell
“Big Yellow Taxi,” included on the Ladies of the Canyon album, which helped shape my eco-apocalyptic outlook when I was a teen, as the underground FM station in Atlanta played it continuously. “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot” and “They took all the trees, and put ’em in a tree museum / And charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em” Good old Joni!
“Pink Moon” – Nick Drake
Everyone’s favorite depressive, Nick Drake, created this apocalyptic masterpiece with just an acoustic guitar and a few lines. “Saw it written and I saw it say / Pink moon is on its way / And none of you stand so tall / Pink Moon gonna get ye all / And it’s a pink moon / Yes, a pink moon / Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon /Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon.” The verse is repeated a second time, in case you didn’t get the message the first time through. Hard to see how this song could have been used to sell Volkswagens, but there it is. Somehow, this VW commercial only adds to the apocalyptic feeling for me.
“Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” – The Clash
Turning the Apocalypse into a dance contest, The Clash, on their politically righteous Sandinista! album, stared into the abyss…and the abyss stared back into them! The action in the song culminates with the U.S. hitting the dance floor to confront the Russian bear: “Now it was G.I. Joe’s turn to blow / He turned it on – cool and slow / He tried a payphone call to the Pentagon / A radar scan – a leviathan / He wiped the Earth – clean as a plate / What does it take to make a Ruskie break? / But the crowd are bored and off they go / Over the road to watch China blow!”
Everything old is new again.
“Take Off Your Swastika” – Phranc
Born Susan Gottlieb, Phranc is a self-described “All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger,” with a trademark “flat top” haircut. Released in 1989, her song “Take Off Your Swastika” takes on punks for wearing the Nazi emblem. Whether donning the symbol for shock value or because they think it’s “cool,” Phranc isn’t buying it. “If it was you in those ovens, you wouldn’t think it was so…goddamn…cool!”