Speak out, you’ve got to speak out against the madness

Back in 1954 in the classic film “The Wild One,” there’s a scene where a biker, played by Marlon Brando, is asked why he’s so rebellious.  “What are you protesting?” asks a reporter.  Brando’s character spits back, “Whadda ya got?”

3621099_origArt as a form of protest — in paintings, in music, in films, in photography — has been a particularly potent way of expressing our contempt for society’s ills.  Protest music in particular has been around in this country ever since pre-Civil War slaves came up with songs bemoaning their brutal lot in life.

By the 1920s and ’30s, Delta blues musicians like Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson and others wrote many dozens of blues songs about lack of money, lack of food, cheating spouses, broken down cars and other woes of bad breaks and hard times.  In 1939, Albert King summed it all up this way: “Born under a bad sign, I been down since I began to crawl, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

In the ’40s and 50s, folk music leaders like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger began writing lyrics that exposed the hardships of the downtrodden and the unemployed.  The songs espoused peace and humanity, and took issue with political leaders who seemed to have darker agendas.  They posed philosophical questions (“Where have all the flowers gone?”) and described the horrors every soldier endures when war is waged (“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”).

926526-bob-dylanThe Sixties became known as the golden age of protest, when marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and rallies occurred regularly in big cities across the nation and around the Free World.  And the lyrics in songs by Bob Dylan and others seemed to play a crucial, even central role in the proceedings.  “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”  — these were meaningful messages that, for the first time, were infiltrating the realm of popular music.  But even Dylan knew a song had only so much power to persuade:  “This land is your land, and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by people who never listen to music anyway.”

The number one rule of an effective protest song is this:  The song has to be great.  Musically, it must have a strong, accessible melody/chorus.  Without that, the words you’re hoping will reach the masses will most likely fall on deaf ears.

The greatest protest songs of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s have both the music and the words to become iconic, memorable anthems.  Only a relative few made a big impression on the charts, but most have seeped into the public consciousness anyway, and have become audio benchmarks for various noble causes, from inequality to war, from oppression to the environment.

Seven powerful protest songs that reached the charts and became broadly known:

PINK_MAG_01“Give Peace a Chance,” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, 1969

Not much more than a chant full of wordplay and catch phrases, recorded by a ragtag group of fellow travelers in a Montreal hotel room, this song nevertheless became the anthem Lennon hoped it would be, peaking at #14 on the charts and becoming pretty much his epitaph after his violent death 11 years later:  “All we are saying is give peace a chance…”

“For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, 1967

When a thousand young people showed up on the famed Sunset Strip in West Hollywood one night in 1966 to protest the new curfew laws, the authorities responded with what many saw was disproportionate force.  A young Stephen Stills was there to see it unfold, and he wrote about it in this watershed protest song (#7 on the charts), recorded by his band, Buffalo Springfield:  “Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, step out of line, the man come and take you away, I think it’s time we stop!  Hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down…” 

1970-ohio-single-295“Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970

Canadian Neil Young saw the Life Magazine coverage of the National Guard shootings of four college students at Kent State and was immediately moved to write about it.  He gathered David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash in the studio a day later, and within three weeks, it was in the stores and on
the radio, reaching #14.  Perhaps the best example of current events sparking a popular song:  “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own, this summer I hear the drumming, four dead on Ohio…”

“Born in the USA,” Bruce Springsteen, 1984

Ronald Reagan never even took the time to read the words to this anti-war ode about mistreated U.S. veterans before he attempted to exploit it as a patriotic anthem for his 1984 Presidential campaign.  As The Boss said at the time, “I would encourage him to actually listen to it before he embraces it.”  In the #9 song, Springsteen’s lyrics bemoan the harrowing post-traumatic stress and shabby treatment of veterans of U.S. military service by our government:  “Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand, sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man… Come back home to the refinery, hiring man said, ‘Son, if it was up to me…,’  Went down to see my V.A. man, he said, ‘Son, don’t you understand…'”   


“Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

At the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, it was discovered how many young men with wealth or connections were able to avoid being shipped off to Southeast Asia while other unlucky boys went in their place.  Creedence’s John Fogerty found this an outrageous injustice and wrote about it in this #14 hit:  “Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand, Lord, don’t they help themselves…it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son, it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no…”  

“War,” Edwin Starr, 1970

This was one of many songs Motown songwriting team Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote for The Temptations, but it was another version by solo artist Edwin Starr that took the country by storm in the summer of 1970, vaulting to #1.  It reached the Top Ten again in 1986 in a live version by Bruce Springsteen, and remains the most successful protest song ever:  “War!  What is it good for?  Absolutely nothing!  Say it again…”    

MI0001957169“What’s Goin’ On,” Marvin Gaye, 1971  

After nearly a decade reigning as the smoothest, suavest voice in Motown singing about love, Gaye burst into social consciousness in 1971 with his vital “What’s Goin’ On” album, with multiple songs lamenting the state of the world.  The hit (#2) title track, written by Renaldo Benson, Al Cleveland and Gaye, oozes a laconic serenity even as its lyrics cry out in pain:  “Father father, we don’t need to escalate, war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate…”


There are many dozens of protest songs that missed the charts but are still highly regarded and revered for their important lyrics about major issues of the day.  Five favorite examples:

“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Bob Dylan, 1964

It’s hard to believe this enormously influential song, recorded by dozens of artists, never once was a hit single.  No matter — it’s one of the most quoted lyrics of all time about the inevitability of change when society demands it:  “Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call, don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall, for he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled, there’s a battle outside and it’s raging…”

200_s“Get Up Stand Up,” Bob Marley, 1973

One of the biggest selling songs in Jamaican history, this defiant tune by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh has taken on an even bigger role since Marley’s death in the mid-’80s.  Just about every group with a grievance has adopted this song in an effort to carry on the struggle:  “If you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on Earth, and now you see the light, you stand up for your rights, get up, stand up, stand up for your rights!…”  

“I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” Country Joe and the Fish, 1969

CJWoodstock1Joe McDonald led a ragged, regionally popular Bay Area group that secured a spot on the lineup at Woodstock, and he certainly made the most of it.  He first changed his trademark “Fish” cheer to a “F**k” cheer (“Gimme an F!…”), and then launched into his darkly comedic anti-war ditty, which featured “follow the bouncing ball” lyrics on screen in the “Woodstock” film:  “Come on mothers, throughout the land, pack your boys off to Vietnam, come on fathers, don’t hesitate, send your son off before it’s too late, be the first one on your block to have your boy sent home in a box, all right!  And it’s one, two, three, what’re we fighting for?…”

“A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke, 1964

Just as the civil rights movement was reaching its apex, and legislation was about to bring about sea changes in American life, Cooke wrote and recorded this amazing soulful song that long outlasted its composer, who was shot and killed two weeks before its release.  In some circles, it ranks up there with “We Shall Overcome” as a musical pillar of the movement:  “It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come, yes it will…”   

f5b2360e2f5fdd4358ba66fe348e4210“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2, 1983

Still a brash young Irish band at the time of this song’s release, U2 has since evolved into one of the biggest rock bands in history.  With spokesman Bono at the forefront, they have continued to speak out about a broad range of humanitarian concerns around the world.  This track refers pointedly to the violence in Northern Ireland in the ’70s, but it’s really more about the centuries-long futility of war:  “I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away, how long, how long must we sing this song?”


There isn’t room for a thoroughly comprehensive list of protest songs, but I’ve provided nearly 50 worthy ones for you all to investigate.  If I left out one of your favorites, my apologies.  (Methinks you doth protest too much…)

Songs protesting war in general:

urlIt’s the End of the World as We Know It,” R.E.M., 1983; “Games Without Frontiers,” Peter Gabriel, 1980; “Military Madness,” Graham Nash, 1971; “Other Arms,” Robert Plant, 1983; “Draft Dodger Rag,” Phil Ochs, 1965; “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath, 1971; “The Dogs of War,” Pink Floyd, 1987;  “It Better End Soon,” Chicago, 1970;  “Brothers in Arms,” Dire Straits, 1985; “Universal Soldier,” Donovan, 1965; “Nighttime for the Generals,” CSN&Y, 1988, “Machine Gun,” Jimi Hendrix, 1970.

Songs protesting the neglect of the environment:

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Marvin Gaye (1971); “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell, 1970; “Wind on the Water,” Graham Nash and David Crosby, 1975; “Burn On,” Randy Newman, 1970; “Goodbye to a River,” Don Henley, 2000; “Before the Deluge,” Jackson Browne, 1974; “Farm on the Freeway,” Jethro Tull, 1987.

Songs protesting specific tragedies:

Abraham, Martin & John,” Dion, 1968;  “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” Bob Dylan, 1964;  “Give Ireland Back to the Irish,” Paul McCartney & Wings, 1972; “American Skin (41 Shots),” Bruce Springsteen, 2005; “He Was My Brother,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1964; “Hurricane,” Bob Dylan, 1976; “Chicago,” Graham Nash, 1971.

Songs protesting inequality and oppression:

Give a Damn,” Spanky & Our Gang, 1969; “Inner City Blues,” Marvin Gaye, 1971; “Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves,” Aretha Franklin & Annie Lennox, 1985; “Society’s Child,” Janis Ian, 1965; “Allentown,” Billy Joel, 1982; “Southern Man,” Neil Young, 1970; “Youngstown,” Bruce Springsteen, 1995; “Woman is the Nigger of the World,” John Lennon, 1972; “Down in the Boondocks,” Billy Joe Royal, 1966; “Respect,” Aretha Franklin, 1967;

Songs calling for activism:

Waiting on the World to Change,” John Mayer, 2006; “The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen, 2002; “We Can Be Together,” Jefferson Airplane, 1969; “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” Tracy Chapman, 1988; “Power to the People,” John Lennon; “Street Fighting Man,” Rolling Stones, 1968; “Lives in the Balance,” Jackson Browne, 1986.

Songs espousing peace and brotherhood:

Imagine,” John Lennon, 1971; “Get Together,” The Youngbloods, 1969; “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding,” Elvis Costello, 1978; “One,” U2, 1991; “Peace Train,” Cat Stevens, 1972; “In the Eighties,” Graham Nash, 1980.





The heart of rock and roll is still beating…in Cleveland…

In 1983, up-and-coming bar-band rocker Huey Lewis had just finished an exhilarating show before an enthusiastic crowd in a small venue in Cleveland.  He and his band, The News, were in their van heading off for the next stop on their tour, and Lewis took a last look at the bridges, industrial Flats and downtown buildings that mark the skyline of the much-maligned Midwest city on Lake Erie.  “You know,” he said thoughtfully, to no one in particular, “there’s plenty of great music on the West Coast, and the East Coast, and in the South…but the heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland!


Lewis and guitarist Johnny Colla wrote an infectious song with that theme in mind — heartland, blue-collar, fist-pumpin’, rock and roll-lovin’ fans in Cleveland are the best, most passionate rock fans you’ll find.  Ultimately, their manager persuaded them to make the lyrics more universal by mentioning numerous cities across the country so people anywhere could relate to it.  But Lewis’s initial thought was right on the money:  Cleveland and rock and roll are a pair made in heaven.

What’s up with that?  How did Cleveland earn its reputation as the Rock and Roll Capital?  How is it that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is located not in Memphis, or Philadelphia, or New York, or Los Angeles, but Cleveland, Ohio?

A number of cities have played a role in the birth, nurturing and continued support of rock and roll music since its inception in the mid-1950s, but Cleveland has been lMoondog_posteroudly and proudly involved in rock virtually every step of the way.

Want proof?  How about this:  The Moondog Coronation Ball, held at the old Cleveland Arena in 1952, is widely regarded as the very first rock concert ever staged, sponsored by…

2011_moondog-coronation-ball_1303535620Alan Freed, the iconic disc jockey who purportedly coined (or, at the very least, first aired and popularized) the term “rock and roll,” began his radio career on WJW-AM in 1951 in Cleveland, playing rhythm-and-blues music (then known pejoratively as “race music”) to white and black audiences alike.  It was Freed who sponsored the Moondog Ball before moving on to a bigger spotlight (and infamy from a payola scandal) in New York.

Radio brought the music to the audience, and Cleveland listeners benefited from being regarded as a test market among record companies, who were eager to try new releases in influential smaller markets before going national with them.  In the Fifties and Sixties in Cleveland, Bill Randle was THE man.  From his perch at WERE, he had more clout than just about anyone in the country.  By the mid-’60s, it was “WIXY 1260, Super Radio” that ruled the airwaves, playing Top 40 and more to an eager audience.

upbeat.bmpAt the same time (1964-1971), Cleveland’s WEWS-TV broadcast and syndicated a rock and roll showcase called “Upbeat” that far outlasted national rock-based programs like “Shindig” and “Hullabaloo,” airing performances every week by virtually every artist (British, R&B, American, whatever) of the time period who came through town.

By the mid-’70s, everyone was listening to FM radio with its better signal, and in Cleveland, listeners were blessed with the formidably hip gang of DJs and program directors of WMMS-FM 100.7, which was regarded as the best rock radio station in the country for many years running.  Major artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music and Bruce Springsteen all credit the ‘MMS personalities — Billy Bass, David Spero, Kid Leo, Denny Sanders, Betty Korvan, Len Goldberg and others — for helping to break them nationally.

Cleveland’s rock and roll fans were not only passionate radio listeners but also bought records in huge numbers.  In downtown Cleveland, Record Rendezvous owner Leo Mintz was among the first to recognize the growing number of white teen customers who were buying R&B records in the ’50s, and consequently steered his business in that direction.  More stores opened in the suburbs, and hip shops like Record Revolution in the counterculture Coventry area of Cleveland Heights, Melody Lane in Lakewood,  and Music Grotto near the Cleveland State University campus flourished.  The chains (Peaches, Record Theatre, Disc Records) added fuel to the fire, and by the 1970s and ’80s, Cleveland was the number one market in the US for rock music record sales.

When rock bands began hitting the road in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, no tour was considered complete without a stop in Cleveland, where promoters, venues staffers, hotel managers, radio personnel, spirited groupies and hard-core fans rolled out the red carpet, eager to show them that they loved their rock and roll, and they meant business.

Belkin_Productions_rock_concerts_-_1972_print_adAs rock and roll grew exponentially around that time, so did the business interests, reach, influence and success of Jules and Mike Belkin, two Cleveland brothers who built Belkin Productions from a small concern in 1966 into the undisputed king of rock concert promotion in Cleveland and all over Ohio and the Midwest in the ’70s and ’80s and beyond.  They combined efforts with most venues in the area to bring thousands of concert opportunities to Clevelanders for many decades.

Cleveland offered a rich, broad array of venues for bands at every stage of popularity.  The top acts played Public Hall or Music Hall downtown, or later, the Richfield Coliseum south of town.  Blossom Music Center, one of the nation’s first outdoor amphitheaters, opened in 1968 and still hosts many dozens of shows annually more than 50 years later.  In the 1970s, the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium was the home of The World Series of Rock, a series of multi-act concerts that drew upwards of 75,000 fans.  In the early days, clubs like the Chesterland Hullabaloo catered to an under-age crowd with notable acts of the era.  Leo’s Casino brought in the top R&B acts of the day.  The grand old Allen and Palace theatres in Playhouse Square have hosted many concerts.  There was the theater-in-the-round Front Row Theatre.  There was Peabody’s in the Flats, the Euclid Tavern in University Circle, the Phantasy Nite Club in Lakewood, the Empire downtown… And so many more that came and went, in the suburbs and outlying areas over the years…

Easily the most influential, most prized, most famous concert venue in Cleveland was The Agora Ballroom (and its basement-level second stage, The Mistake), where pioneering impresario Hank LoConti brought in countless major and minor bands (from Dire Straits to ZZ Top, from Yes to Springsteen, from Todd Rundgren to Alice Cooper) to play to packed audiences night after night in the sweaty, vibrant, authentically rock venue.  It ranked with the West Coast’s Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore and The Roxy, and New York’s The Bottom Line and Max’s Kansas City as the club every band longed to play.

Curiously, Cleveland hasn’t exactly been a fertile breeding ground for musical acts that made it big on a national scale.  While the region was full of excellent local/regional bands that had rabid followings in the clubs and venues there — Glass Harp, Beau Coup, Fayrewether, Death of Samantha, Damnation of Adam Blessing, Love Affair, American Noise, Tiny Alice, Wild Horses, Deadly Earnest, Nitebridge — only a handful of musicians went on to widespread notoriety.

James_GangMentioned most often is guitar hero Joe Walsh, who attended Kent State and honed his chops in clubs and bars around Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.  He joined The James Gang in 1968 and was largely responsible for them winning a record contract, releasing hit albums and singles, and gaining the attention of luminaries like Pete Townshend.  Walsh, of course, then went on to international success as a solo artist, member of The Eagles, and session guitarist on dozens of other artists’ recordings over a 50-year career.

Also notable were The Raspberries, now often regarded as the first “power pop” group, playing engaging Beatles-like rock and pop in the 1970-1974 period, led by the voice and songs of Eric Carmen, who was born and raised in the Cleveland suburbs.  Carmen’s solo career in the late ’70s and ’80s included a half-dozen Top Five singles and a huge following here and abroad.



The multi-talented Tracy Chapman came out of one of Cleveland’s tough inner-city neighborhoods and, thanks to the “A Better Chance” program, lifted herself out of poverty and to the opportunities presented at Tufts University in Boston.  She was discovered playing coffeehouses there, and her 1988 debut album and hit song “Fast Car” helped her win the Best New Artist Grammy that year.  She has enjoyed broad critical acclaim for her eight albums of original material, including the Grammy-winning song “Give Me One Reason” in 1995.

Playing piano on Chapman’s second album was Marc Cohn, another product of Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, who went on to fame himself by also winning the Best New Artist Grammy, in 1991, due to his hugely popular piano hit “Walking in Memphis,” a Song of the Year Grammy nominee.  He has released a half-dozen strong albums in the singer-songwriter genre over the past two decades.

nine-inch-nails1Nine Inch Nails, led by eccentric visionary Trent Reznor, got their start in Cleveland in 1988 and went on to chart a half-dozen Top Five albums in the ’90s and beyond.  Reznor still tours and records today with a revolving lineup of supporting players.

A Cleveland punk band known as Frankenstein found local audiences to be indifferent to punk rock and left in 1976 for New York City, where they became The Dead Boys, led by Stiv Bators, and ranked right up there with The Ramones, Blondie, Television and The Dictators in the New York punk rock scene of the late ’70s.

Emanating from Cleveland’s east side near Shaker Heights was The Dazz Band, the talented funk group that enjoyed success on R&B and Top 40 charts in the early ’80s, especially Grammy-winning #5 hit “Let It Whip” in 1982.

Pere Ubu was a Cleveland-based “avant-garage” band that “celebrated ’50s and ’60s garage rock and surf music as seen through a fun-house mirror,” as one critic put it.  They formed in 1975 and made more than a dozen albums over the next 40 years which, while not commercial hits, were critical favorites.

michael-stanley-page-image-2Cleveland’s favorite homegrown band by far was the Michael Stanley Band, a polished Midwest rock band with a compelling sound and great songs who inexplicably didn’t break through nationally, except for two underperforming singles (“He Can’t Love You” at #33 in 1980 and “My Town” at #33 in 1983).  Between 1973 and 1983, Stanley and his band made nine solid albums that were every bit as good as, and better than, other national acts of that genre.  MSB still holds records for sell-out show attendance records at several Cleveland venues.

In the mid-’80s, when national movers and shakers in the music business announced plans for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, there were conflicting views as to where such an attraction should be located.  Some said Memphis; others lobbied for San Francisco; still others thought Philadelphia; and, of course, New York and Los Angeles because of their size and wealth.  The board members were inclined to go with New York, but Cleveland civic leaders and radio execs put on a full-court press to sell the city as the appropriate place for the museum.  This included a visit to Cleveland by board members to see potential sites and hear how passionate Clevelanders were about playing host to the facility.

The deciding factor turned out to be a USA Today poll, where readers were encouraged to phone in their votes for the most deserving city.  The response was overwhelming — the largest response ever to a newspaper phone-in poll — and it was also incredibly one-sided:  Cleveland garnered 110,000 votes, and in second place was Memphis with a paltry 7,200.  That level of enthusiasm by the people of Cleveland — the rock music lovers who already recognized their town as the rock and roll capital — tipped the scales.

2014-rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame-ceremony-1024It took another nine years, but the Hall of Fame building — a visually dramatic structure (designed by I.M. Pei) on Cleveland’s lakefront — opened in 1995, with a spectacular all-star rock concert at the now-razed Cleveland Stadium next door, featuring dozens of the biggest names in the business.  It was, and continues to be, a huge victory for Cleveland and its connection to rock and roll.

Probably the definitive and certainly most exhaustive book about Cleveland’s rock credentials and history is Deanna Adams’s 600-page Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Cleveland Connection, (Kent State University Press, 2002).  Sprinkled with vintage photos and brimming over with quotes from most of the key figures in Cleveland’s rock music scene, the book is a fascinating read for any Cleveland rock fan and, indeed, for any fan of rock music history anywhere.

I must say, I find it curious that there seem to be so few rock songs that reference Cleveland.  I went digging and came up with only a handful:  “Cleveland Rocks,” Ian Hunter, 1979; “Look Out Cleveland,” The Band, 1969; “Cleveland,” Jewel, 2001.  There are two about the city’s infamous burning river:  Randy Newman’s “Burn On” (1970) and R.E.M.’s “Cuyahoga” (1986).  Others are really about nearby cities, like Springsteen’s “Youngstown” (1995), or The Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone” (1985), about Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio; or, of course, Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s “Ohio” (1970), about the shootings in Kent, Ohio.

There’s the occasional lyrical reference too.  You may have noted, for instance, that in Gordon Lightfoot’s #1 ode, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the freighter’s destination on that fateful journey was…Cleveland.

I’ve assembled a playlist of songs by Cleveland-based acts, from Alex “Skinny Little Boy” Bevan to Damnation of Adam Blessing, and I think you’ll be pleased by what you hear by the early James Gang, the Raspberries and the fabulous Michael Stanley Band.  If you listen closely at the end of the Huey Lewis hit, God bless him, he wrapped up the tribute to rock and roll by concluding that its heart was indeed “still beating…in Cleveland…”