Who took the anti-establishment out of pop music?

November 4, 2018 0 By NatalieM
Who took the anti-establishment out of pop music?

Pop music has become bland, predictable and over-produced… in my opinion!

Even the “old record shows” aimed at people in their 40s, 50s and 60s only seem to play the unthreatening songs.

I was listening to one of these old record shows on BBC Radio 2, where they play all the chart hits from a particular year in the past. This one was 1984. There’s not enough time in the show for all the hits to be played, so they sometimes skip over one or two.

When the presenter Tony Blackburn skipped over this particular top ten hit of the past, it really made me think. I realised I hadn’t heard that record on the radio for years! Or anything that “edgy”.

The record in question was Free Nelson Mandela by The Special AKA.

OK, the reason for the song is dated now, but ignoring the existence of songs like this one gives a skewed and sanitised version of history.

The 1980s was a time when boundaries were being pushed and walls were being broken down. It sometimes seems that today there’s a feeling that we’re all sorted now. All the barriers of race, religion and sexuality have been pushed down, so there’s no more need to protest… or so it often seems.

Which is actually quite a dangerous thing. We still have wars and injustices, but the media messages on these issues are possibly more controlled than ever.

Not that there wasn’t any control in the past. Certain attempts to ban anti-establishment records backfired spectacularly. That’s probably why more subtle methods are used these days.

I was 15 in 1977. It was the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and on May 17th, me and my sister went to George Square to welcome the Queen and her entourage. We bought little Union Jack flags, and waved them excitedly as she passed by.

(My sister remembers nothing of this.)

A few weeks later, everyone at school started talking about this very rude record that had been banned. “It’s called God Save the Queen and it says she isn’t a human being!” my friend said. “And it’s by a band called (whispering) The Sex Pistols!”

“The what?”

“The Sex Pistols!”

It was an absolute sensation. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of that record. By the end of 1977 we were committed anti-royalists. One of my friends bought the Sex Pistols album, and we listened to it with glee.

Punk rock became a thing. Me and my friends didn’t become punks, but our attitudes were massively changed by this underground movement that exploded into the mainstream with this one song.

A conspiracy theory that God Save the Queen was deliberately kept from the No. 1 chart position was verified in a 2001 BBC article, which stated: “God Save The Queen reached number one in the UK in 1977 despite being banned by the BBC and marked a defining moment in the punk revolution.”

Punk put the anti-establishment back into pop and rock. Pop music unleashed its radical and rebellious side – and it was played on the radio, though the most challenging tunes were played on John Peel’s evening show on Radio 1.

Reggae broke through to the fringes of the mainstream, with Steel Pulse’s 1978 album Handsworth Revolution becoming a classic. It reached number 9 in the UK album charts 10 days after its release, and the band even appeared on the weekly early evening pop TV show Top of the Pops.

Here are some other pop records with very anti-establishment messages that became big hits:

Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello (1979)

The lyrics for this song focused on the recruitment of young unemployed lads to the British Army to fight in Northern Ireland, and referenced Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army of the 1640s.

More info from the Wikipedia link.

The dark message was cleverly packaged in a jaunty tune, but it certainly got people talking.

Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1983)

This song about sexual liberation was happily being played on the radio, until a DJ called Mike Read famously expressed on-air shock at the lyrics one morning, and the record was promptly banned. It became a sensation, hitting the No. 1 chart spot and remaining there for five weeks. It became the seventh best-selling UK single of all time! The BBC’s ban was lifted at the end of 1984, and the record was performed on the Christmas edition of Top of the Pops.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood became linked with a range of giant t-shirts bearing ethical messages, from the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett.

Apparently the scantily-clad woman was from a performing duo called The Leatherpets. I certainly don’t remember her appearing on the Christmas Top of the Pops!

More info here.

Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid (1984)

Christmas 1984 was dominated by one song, a song protesting against extreme poverty and famine. This song certainly does have a place in history. Do They Know it’s Christmas was hastily written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure in response to a shocking TV news report on famine in the Sudan region of Africa.

I vividly remember watching that news report by Michael Buerk, as a student, and I was so shocked by it that I decided I’d send money to the relief effort, something I rarely did as a poor student (most students were poor in those days!).

Then I heard about this supergroup being put together by Bob Geldof, called Band Aid, featuring the UK and Ireland’s biggest stars. The rest is history.

There are many critics of that record now, but there’s no doubt that it changed things and created massive waves throughout the music industry and beyond. The American single “We Are the World” followed in March 1985, and in July of that year, an enormous dual-venue benefit concert was held at Wembley Stadium in the UK and John F Kennedy Stadium, Philadelphia, in the US.

The music industry had found its voice.

I remember another, not quite so big protest record… and then suddenly everyone seemed to be talking about “compassion fatigue”.

Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid (October 1985)

The grainy quality of this video suggests that maybe it’s been somewhat forgotten about… yet there are quite a few household names featured here.

The record was written by Stephen van Zandt, a guitar and mandolin player with Bruce Springsteen’s EStreet band. It declared that the artists involved refused to play at Sun City, a South African resort in a state created by the then apartheid South African government as part of a forced relocation programme.

The record reached No. 21 in the UK charts and No. 38 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart. According to Wikipedia, only about half of US radio stations played the song. I certainly remember it being played on BBC radio stations.

South African apartheid officially came to an end in the 1990s, with Nelson Mandela the first black president of the Republic of South Africa. Music probably did play a part in changing the tide of events, though it was only one part of many protest initiatives.


I don’t remember too many protest or anti-establishment records getting a lot of radio airplay since then. I feel that the music industry was seen as having got a bit out of control at the time, and there was probably an attempt to rein it back in. A very successful attempt, because today’s pop music seems so much more over-produced and manufactured.

What do you think?

If there have been recent challenging, anti-establishment records in the charts, please let me know about them! I rarely listen to contemporary pop music these days, so maybe I’m missing some of the good stuff.

I doubt it, but if I am, please enlighten me!

Agent Orange by Pharoahe Monch (2003)

I want to finish with this song from 2003, which is the last time I can remember a new anti-establishment song being played on BBC radio. (Actually no, it’s the second-last time, because Morrissey’s “Spent the Day in Bed” was played on Radio 2 a few months ago.) And to be honest, this could be because I so rarely listen to pop music radio these days.

It amazes me that this record got airplay. I heard it on the Radio 1 Rap Show back in 2003, at a time when I was aghast that we were going to war in Iraq. The BBC news was sanitising the whole business, with cuddly Clive Myrie and Rageh Omar reporting daily from Baghdad, while I was despairing at what was going on.

Then I heard this record. I only heard it once or twice, and I don’t think it got into any chart, anywhere!

The lyrics are profound, challenging and brilliant… in my opinion! Oh, and it has a couple of sweary words. But nothing about bitches and ho’s.

At the time it sounded like a strident voice in the wilderness.

It goes to show that just because we’re not hearing much anti-establishment music doesn’t meant that it’s not being made.

A little endnote…

How ironic! Just after I posted this, I nipped out to get fuel for my trip up north, and I put on Radio 2 in the car. The programme was Sounds of the Seventies with Johnny Walker, and the music was… God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols!

So occasionally a brave DJ will play those old anti-establishment tunes. Good for you Mr Walker!