War on War Songs

On In a World Gone Mad, the Beastie Boys suggest that Bush and Saddam should kick it like back in the day/With the cocaine and Courvoisier. Maybe they should take their own advice.

War, as it turns out, is good for absolutely nothing when it comes to anti-war songs. At the risk of sounding like Bill O'Reilly (who, no doubt, listens only to Wagner), it's time to protest the protesters, most of whom are blowin', all right, just not in the wind. The road to hell is paved with myriad anti-war tracks floating around the Internet and on compilation discs being handed out at protests across the country and around the world. (They have to be given away, because Corporate Radio won't play them--Clear Channel's CEO Lowry Mays is close friends with fellow Texan President Bush--and people wouldn't buy them.) Some are brand-new, some got hauled out of the dustbin when lefties realized they were getting left behind, and no doubt there's some real rage here, some deep-felt caring that led to such generous online sharing, but the answer, my friend, is too often a little career resuscitation for those craving a little time on the frontline of the pop charts.

It's hard to tell which are worse: the gung-ho war cries from the redneck retributionists ("Iraq, I rack 'em up and I roll," snarls Clint Black, "I'm back and I'm a high-tech G.I. Joe") or the whimpering protestations of the peacenik brigade, most of whom seem to write songs that contain variations of the phrase "blood for oil" in every chorus. It's either black or white with these artists, and what they usually wind up with is a pile of gray mush: the rabble-rousing anthems of the hawks or the wimpy-whiny moans of the doves, both preaching to the deaf, dumb and converted.

Then, the modern-day anti-war song's always had a somewhat tortured history: In March 1941, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers cut "Ballad of October 16," which took Franklin Roosevelt's isolationist "I hate war" comments from 1940 and used them against him when he decided to begin the draft. A few months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "this song was...held against" Seeger and the Almanac Singers, wrote Jeff Place and Guy Logsdon in the liner notes to That's Why We're Marching: World War II and the American Folk Song Movement. Not long after the United States entered the war, Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others began writing fight songs with such titles as "Hitler Song," "Move Into Germany" and "If You Want to Do Your Part." (As it turns out, Darryl Worley, Toby Keith and Clint Black have their antecedents after all, though the Smithsonian-Folkways archives reveal Leadbelly actually deleted the phrase "I'll put a boot in yer ass" from "National Defense Blues.")

Vietnam, of course, spawned the franchise; you had Dylan damning the masters of war who "build to destroy" (written in 1962), Phil Ochs condemning the U.S. government as "cops of the world," Gil Scott-Heron shouting down a commander-in-chief bearing "messages of grief," Country Joe and the Fish asking what are we fighting for and Marvin Gaye wondering what's going on. Back then, the anti-war movement had a decent soundtrack, plenty of gimme-an-F shout-along anthems provided by the tie-dyed, acid-washed Woodstock Generation; ah, those were the good ol' daze.

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But the heroes armed with barbed words and weapons of mass instruction have been replaced by hacks and harpies shelling us with bad poetry (Joan Baez has plenty to answer for). For every great song like Sleater-Kinney's furious and urgent "Combat Rock" off last year's One Beat (sample lyric: "They tell us there are only two sides to be on/If you are on our side you're right if not you're wrong"), there are handfuls of sophomoric offerings that sound like something dashed off during a junior-high songwriting competition.

Billy Bragg's "Price of Oil" is available on the Internet at www.peace-not-war.org--alongside previously available contributions from Public Enemy ("Son of a Bush"), Midnight Oil ("US Forces"), Alabama 3 ("Woody Guthrie") and Ms Dynamite ("Watch Over Them"). It's his worst anti-war song in a repertoire stacked with good ones ("Like Soldiers Do," "Between the Wars," his cover of Eric Bogle's "My Youngest Son Came Home Today"); it proves he's no Woody Guthrie after all (his guitar wouldn't kill lest it fired bullets), just decent with a campfire melody.

The amplified folkie returns to roots--one-man Clash, though more Paul than Mick or certainly Joe--but treads lightly with kind words sent to soldiers; worse, he even tosses in a reference to the 2000 Florida vote, which is this close to a Lewinsky reference. "Don't give me no shit about blood, sweat, tears and toil/It's all about the price of oil," sings Bragg. "Now I ain't no fan of Saddam Hussein/Oh, please don't get me wrong/If it's freeing the Iraqi people you're after/Then why have we waited so long?" Bragg, a noble and sincere man, just comes off sounding like every other celebrity who's read a New Republic headline.  

John Mellencamp's "To Washington," from a forthcoming collection of covers tentatively titled Trouble No More, treads the same battlefield: corrupt election, war for oil, bad Bush. Confusing, though, is the final verse of a song that has no chorus (and that, sir, is a real act of revolution): "What is the thought process/To take a human's life/What would be the reason/To think that this is right/From heaven to Washington/From Jesus Christ to Washington." I have no idea what the answer is, and I stopped listening two minutes ago.

Keeping it real mediocre is Dan Bern, a folkie of some critical adoration who I believe to be a Republican plant in the anti-war movement; any feller who'd name a song "Talkin' Al Kida Blues" and actually play, sing and blow into a harmonica just like Bob Dylan circa 1964 has gotta be out to destroy from the inside. Frankly, I'd like to like Bern: The last song of his brand-new Swastika EP is "Lithuania," where our families are from; the song resonates like kin wrote it, down to the story about relatives being gunned down in the streets of Lithuania. Bern can also make you laugh--on purpose--which is rare among the self-serious and self-satisfied carrying placards with the word "Vietnam" crossed out and "Iraq" penciled in. "I had to turn in my own mom," he whines in his "Al Kida" blues. "You know what they say/Unpaid parking tickets aid terrorists." Still, that Dylan thing grates, maybe because the real thing never tried so hard.

Brit folkies Seize the Day--otherwise known as Peter, Paul and Peter--offer their own retro-bution on www.seizetheday.org; their track "United States" sounds 35 years old, and listening to it makes me feel 35 years older. Their mellow protest is just the kind of thing that gives the anti-war movement a bad name, because it bends so far backward it completely snaps in half. "I am not an Islamicist/Religion's not my thing," sing the folksmen who dress in silly costumes. "But they're friendlier than Christians/And I like the way they sing." On second thought, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's just a joke.

In very shocking news, available at www.handontheplow.com is the House Music Against War EP, featuring electronica artists who couldn't get a dance-floor crowd to break a sweat, much less a bunch of pissed-off placard-wavers. Still, the damnedest of the lot is George Michael's cover of Don McLean's 1971 "The Grave" (ooof), performed so earnestly it sounds as if he's going to melt into a puddle of tears at any moment. The soldier's lament was gooey, superficial drivel first time around, and it doesn't help that Michael takes it more seriously than McLean, who thought himself as deep as the trenches of which he sang and sang and sang. Wake me up before you go-go; I fell asleep during the second verse.

Speaking of golden oldies, didn't know Chumbawumba was still around, frankly, so it was surprising to discover "Jacob's Ladder" on the Web. Turns out it's a lyrical remake of a song from the band's album Readymade, which was released last year (again, who knew?). The band exists to prove it's possible to admire a band's politics and loathe its music with equal ferocity; in other words, boring dance music about "oil for guns." Still, it's hardly the most disposable of the lot: That honor would go to Turner Prize Freak Show's strummed-down "Don't Attack Iraq," which sounds like something made up after a few bong hits (it manages to rhyme "Al Qaeda" with "Darth Vader" and concludes "we don't even have a light saber") and might have been funnier if there weren't so many giggles on it.

Most talked-about among the new wave of old guards waving the white flag is the Beastie Boys' "In a World Gone Mad," which debuted two weeks ago on beastieboys.com and even garnered some K-ROCK airplay. The track's astonishingly drab--Paul's Boutique with a "For Lease" sign hung out front--and stunningly didactic, especially from the band that once had more hits than Sadaharu Oh. Here's how Mike D kicks it: "We need health care more than going to war/You think it's democracy they're fighting for?" Yo, don't they just know Dubya's partying for his right to fight? Maybe so, since they hint at the flavor they used to savor by insisting Bush and Saddam "should kick it like back in the day/With the cocaine and Courvoisier." Not bloody likely, though the Zoolander reference later reminds they're never so funny as when they're trying to be soooo serious.

But all's not lost in the battle for hearts and eardrums: Zack de la Rocha rages against the war machine in "March of Death," a collaboration with DJ Shadow available at www.marchofdeath.com. On the site, de la Rocha offers his reasons for posting the single, which slams like a Scud: "Lies, sanctions and cruise missiles have never created a free and just society. Only everyday people can do that...I hope [the song] not only makes us think, but also inspires us to act and raise our voices."  

De la Rocha, with the siren-scream "voice of a riot," does himself no favors by picking a fight with Bush: "this man child, ruthless and wild...this Texas furor" (not führer, says the lyric sheet, though given the context, de la Rocha may just be covering his ass). You think Natalie Maines has it tough, good luck getting this on a Clear Channel-owned station; I don't think Clear Channel higher-ups Tom Hicks and Lowry Mays will allow an upstart rocker to call their old pal George a "compassionless con" conducting a "high-tech drive-by." Still, this smart bomb of furious and lyrical hip-hop that recalls the days when Chuck D was Public Enemy Number One will embed itself in your brain; you may not nod your head in agreement, but you will nod it nonetheless. It's a killer.

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