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Oldies Against War

Top 40 golden oldies written against war and/or for peace


Vietnam was obviously the main subject threading through pop songs of the first rock and roll generation, as Korea hadn't been thought of as such and those WWII fighting songs were but a distant memory. But as the country picked sides, the children of the greatest generation began asking themselves if war was the answer, or was ever the answer to begin with. Here's a list of Top 40 classics that rail against war and, naturally, promote peace.

1. "War," Edwin Starr

There's never been an anti-war statement more blunt than this one committed to record; certainly no stronger, plainer, bolder assertion has made the Top 40. In fact, The Temptations laid their vocals down on a much tamer version of this mockingly military-style soul march first, egged on by producer Norman Whitfield, who'd already given them their mid-career makeover into a socially conscious band. But Starr was allowed to have the hit in part because he didn't have an established fan base to offend. And this blistering slice of funk will always be offensive to someone, asserting as it does that [i]all[/i] war is completely pointless. What is it good for?
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2. "Fortunate Son," Creedence Clearwater Revival

One of the finest commentaries from one of rock's great social commentators; unlike most other anti-war songs, it notices how the poor seem to be the ones always called to fight. "Some folks are born made to wave the flag, ooh, they're red white and blue. And when the band plays 'Hail To The Chief', ooh, they point the cannon at you." (No coincidence that there's now a book about George W. Bush which carries the same title.) It doesn't hurt that John Fogerty wrapped all his observations in a perfect, potent blend of swamp rock and Bakersfield rockabilly, either, making this that rare anti-war song you can play at parties.
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3. "Sweet Cherry Wine," Tommy James and the Shondells

Not often considered a protest song, this gorgeous followup to "Crystal Blue Persuasion" takes James' earlier psychedelic successes (excesses?) and uses them, along with his professed Christianity, to make the case that "only God has the right to decide who's to live and to die." Like Phil Ochs, he declares that he ain't a-marchin' anymore, but he throws his friends in with the deal -- and that subtle but powerful church organ intro seems to be asserting that peace is always the key to being on God's side. Sweet Cherry Wine? James has revealed it as the blood of Jesus.
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4. "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," The Kingston Trio

A perfect example of a folkie protest song given life over and over during the rising anti-Vietnam backlash. Its anti-war case seems to be based, metaphorically, on the cyclical nature of human brutality: the flowers get picked by girls, the girls get picked by men, the men get picked by war, the graves get filled by men, the graves get covered by flowers. Almost anyone could have taken this Pete Seeger adaptation of a Ukranian folk song, properly handled, to the charts in the Sixties, and the king of the go-go scene, Johnny Rivers, oddly enough, scored almost as high as the Trio did without detracting one bit from its universal power.
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5. "Get Together," The Youngbloods

There were tons of songs crowding the AM airwaves in the late Sixties that preached brotherhood, but many of them seemed too vague, an out for songwriters and artists not willing to take a stand on the issues. This one was different, however, an ethereal demonstration -- it's too well-centered in its philosophy to be a plea -- that love really is the correct choice, not just for moralists, but Socratic thinkers who know that outer peace brings inner peace. And its track record seems to bear that out, for while it was originally written way back in '63, it took a commercial by the National Conference of Christians and Jews to make it popular. Art imitates life.
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6. "Give Peace A Chance," John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon, who realized as far back as 1967 the power music had as a bully pulpit, knew just what he wanted to create with this singalong, recorded at his infamous bed-in and released as a single: a catchy jingle that promoted peace as not just an option, but a commodity. (As he once put it, "If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there'd be peace.") This folky chant uses the chorus to do just that, while commandeering the verses to display a typically Lennonesque mockery of the political maneuvering used to get countries to make war on each other. "This-ism, that-ism, ism ism ism." An endless display of confusion, resolving into clarity.
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7. "Bring The Boys Home," Freda Payne

Little remembered now, this followup to Payne's late-period soul smash "Band of Gold" was every bit as clear a message as Starr's "War," and with a central hook as direct as Lennon's. But her delivery almost marks it as a slam at the patriarchy: when she accuses those in power of sending men off to die in a "senseless" war, she sounds like she's upbraiding her husband for getting home drunk. Sassy, in other words -- and also quite poetic, with images of all the soldiers who've already died crossing the sky above to get back to their homeland. This isn't a debate, it's a demand: "Cease all fire on the battlefield!"
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8. "Peace Train," Cat Stevens

The best of the latter-day invocations for world peace, this beatific number attempts to make it happen by visualizing it -- not just speaking of it, but speaking of it as an approaching reality, and, with this metaphor, a reality of real weight, of inevitability. Sort of the same thing the Impressions did with "People Get Ready," but without the Biblical judgment and with a more streamlined, inclusive, self-empowering message that fit the decade perfectly. "Now come and join the living. It's not so far from you."
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9. "Billy, Don't Be A Hero," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods

The nature of this 1974 smash's production -- dig that march of the toy soldiers opening! -- doomed it for a while to the depths of bell-bottom irony, and even its creators have since played its lyrics down as being set in the Civil, not Vietnam, War (note the "Soldier Blues" Billy joins). Whatever. It's simply not possible that the societal implications were lost on its writers, who had two different hit versions on both sides of the sink; the song's message carries through to any war, in any case. And that message is pretty clear. Why else would his widow throw the death notice away?
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10. "One Tin Soldier," Coven

Featured over the credits to the film [i]Billy Jack[/i] and thus entrenched forever in its time and place, this one-hit wonder tells an ancient-sounding fairy tale with a very modern moral: killing for greed can't be justified in any sane view of religion. You don't have to love war to hate the overearnest preachiness of the delivery, and it's largely a matter of personal taste as to whether you think the sweeping arrangement is groovy or goofy -- but the song does make its point, anchored by its angry and ironic exhortations to "go ahead and hate your neighbor."
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