Punk’s anti-establishment stance means it openly thrives on controversy and the desire to provoke, so its spearhead acts have inevitably been drawn to commenting on socio-political issues since the genre’s inception in the 70s. Accordingly, punk has sired some of music’s most potent political critiques, and while few were written with longevity in mind, many of the best political punk songs have retained their relevance.
After studying the candidates, uDiscover Music cast their votes and elect the 20 best political punk songs of all time.
Sex Pistols: ‘God Save The Queen’ (1977)
Arguably the daddy of all political punk songs, Sex Pistols’ notorious second single hijacked Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee and shocked the public so much that Britain’s broadcasting bastion, the BBC, banned the song and refused to admit it had gone to No.1 during the summer of 1977. John Lydon’s furious invective still sends shivers up the spine, however, and, to this day, ‘God Save The Queen’ packs an almighty clout that will forever ensure its place among the best political punk songs.
The Saints: ‘Know Your Product’ (1977)
Australian émigrés in Britain, The Saints’ original line-up recorded three raw but essential albums for EMI across 1976-78. As a rule, they weren’t overtly political, but their second album, 1977’s Eternally Yours, kicked off with this brass-enhanced belter: a seething anti-consumerism rant equalled only by The Pop Group’s ‘We Are All Prostitutes’.
Sham 69: ‘Rip Off’ (1978)
Sham 69 are better known for the hits ‘Hersham Boys’ and ‘Hurry Up Harry’. However, the heartfelt, class system-related ‘Rip Off’ (“It’s just a fake, make no mistake/A rip off for me – but a Rolls for them!”) from their debut album, That’s Life, showcases Jimmy Pursey and company at their street-level, politically-aware best.
The Jam: ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ (1978)
A feature of The Jam’s pivotal third album, All Mod Cons, the tense and atmospheric ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ concerned the rise of right-wing violence in the UK. Arguably the band’s first truly classic song, it reflected Paul Weller’s growing political awareness and peaked at No.15 in the UK when released as the band’s sixth single, in October 1978. The Jam would continue to be responsible for some of the best political punk songs to come out of the UK in the late 70s and early 80s.
The Clash: ‘Tommy Gun’ (1978)
With hindsight, The Clash played the role of punk’s cultural ambassadors rather than nail their colours to any specific political mast. However, they did write great songs full of socio-political commentary, also including ‘Guns Of Brixton’ and the oil-crisis epic ‘Rock The Casbah’. Arguably better still is ‘Tommy Gun’, Joe Strummer’s hard-hitting critique of terrorists and the cult status their nefarious activities can attract.
Crass: ‘Do They Owe Us A Living?’ (1978)
A curious mix of hippie ideals and white-hot punk fury, Crass operated out of a communal house deep in Epping Forest, from where they promoted anarchism as both a political ideology and a resistance movement. Founders of the anarcho-punk subculture, the band’s music advocated animal rights, feminism and environmentalism, and sometimes leaned towards the avant-garde – as ‘Do They Owe Us A Living?’ shows. They could also knock out short, sharp and savage political punk with the best of ’em.
Dead Kennedys: ‘California Über Alles’ (1978)
Influential San Franciscan punks Dead Kennedys’ brilliant debut single, ‘California Über Alles’, remains one of the best political punk songs to come out of the US. A scathing satirical attack on the then governor of California, Jerry Brown, vocalist Jello Biafra’s lyrics referred to a hippie-fascist US akin to the totalitarian regime imagined by George Orwell’s 1984. It remains a sinister but magnificent set piece.
PiL: ‘Religion’ (1978)
Post-Sex Pistols, John Lydon formed the considerably more leftfield-inclined Public Image Limited (PiL). A highlight of their 1978 debut, First Issue, ‘Religion’ was performed with a spine-chilling intensity and offered Lydon the opportunity to lambast church politics with gusto.
The Ruts: ‘Babylon’s Burning’ (1979)
Before their career was tragically curtailed by singer Malcolm Owen’s premature death, highly proficient West London punks The Ruts looked like being one of the 80s’ major players. Released prior to their magnificent debut, The Crack, their signature UK Top 10 smash ‘Babylon’s Burning’, from 1979, dealt with simmering racial tension, inadvertently foretold the Brixton and Toxteth riots, and remains frighteningly prescient today, continuing to hold its own among the best political punk songs of all time.
Stiff Little Fingers: ‘Johnny Was’ (1979)
Young people in London and most other British cities may have been bored and disaffected when punk first emerged in 1976, but kids in Troubles-torn Northern Ireland lived through far worse on a day-to-day basis. Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers’ terrific debut album, Inflammable Material, reflected life (and death) in Ulster’s powder-keg political arena, with the band’s punky-reggae cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Johnny Was’ providing the record’s high point.
The Slits: ‘Typical Girls’ (1979)
In 1976, simply daring to form an all-girl band was a political statement. However, not only did The Slits do just that, but they took no prisoners whatsoever, while proving that sisters could do punk for themselves. From their astounding, dub-infused debut album, dub-infused debut album, Cut, ‘Typical Girls’ (“Don’t create, don’t rebel/Have intuition, don’t drive well”) is a fantastic put-down of female stereotypes and it showed that one of punk’s best attributes was its willingness to support equal opportunities.
Killing Joke: ‘War Dance’ (1980)
London’s Killing Joke are usually classed as post-punk trailblazers, but they first emerged from Notting Hill’s punk-era squat scene, so their work qualifies for inclusion among the best political punk songs of the era. Besides, ‘War Dance’, their second single and a militant highlight of their self-titled debut, perfectly encapsulated the prevalent feeling of paranoia on the cusp of the 80s, when the Cold War was at its height and the nuclear clock teetered on midnight.
Discharge: ‘Decontrol’ (1980)
Hailing from Stoke-on-Trent, early 80s pacifist punks Discharge alchemised a nihilistic new sound hewn from deafening slabs of punk and Motörhead-esque metal. They showcased it to devastating effect on early single ‘Decontrol’ – a record Metallica have since cited as an influence – wherein the band spew vitriol all over their favourite political targets: capitalism and nuclear warfare.
The Damned: ‘Generals’ (1982)
The Damned are rarely cited as a political punk band, but they aren’t averse to a little well-aimed polemic on occasion. A case in point is ‘Generals’: a brilliant, widescreen anti-war anthem which – despite stiff opposition – conquered the battlefield on their underrated 1982 album, Strawberries.
Bad Brains: ‘Banned In DC’ (1983)
The brilliant, if quixotic, Washington, DC, hardcore punks Bad Brains effortlessly switched between politically-aware hardcore fury and chilled roots’n’culture reggae. As the militant ‘Banned In DC’ proves, they were only accepted by a discerning few in their hometown, but after they moved to New York in the early 80s, they released albums such as Rock For Light, Quickness and Black Dots, which attracted fans such as Dave Grohl and Beastie Boys.
Fugazi: ‘Suggestion’ (1988)
Originally the founder of Washington, DC, hardcore legends Minor Threat, Ian MacKaye’s second iconic band, Fugazi, lived and breathed punk’s DIY philosophy, self-releasing records through their Dischord label and playing matinee shows for underage kids. A righteous blast of indignant, dub-infused punk, ‘Suggestion’, from 1989’s 13 Songs, addresses feminism with positivity and shows the band at their proficient, politically-aware best.
Sonic Youth: ‘Youth Against Fascism’ (1992)
Sonic Youth weren’t political punks, you reckon? Well, the slamming ‘Youth Against Fascism’, from 1992’s Dirty, vehemently disagrees with you. All together now: “Yeah the President sucks/He’s a war pig f__k/His s__t is outta luck!”
Green Day: ‘American Idiot’ (2004)
Bizarrely, Californian punks Green Day’s most overtly political record, 2004’s American Idiot, remains their biggest, multi-platinum success. Like all the best political punk songs, its muscular title track has lost none of its power since its release: the claim that America’s mass media orchestrates paranoia among its people seems all the more topical in the current climate of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.
Anti-Flag: ‘Racists’ (2017)
A killer cut from the stalwart Pittsburgh punks’ 2017 opus, American Fall, ‘Racists’ discusses the rise of neo-Nazi groups in Donald Trump’s America. As frontman Justin Sane told uDiscover Music: “Confronting racism, homophobia, bigotry and other ‘-isms’, such as sexism, are all things punk rock should stand for.” Right on.
Prophets Of Rage: ‘Living On The 110’ (2017)
A fully-fledged US punk supergroup comprising Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Cypress Hill’s B-Real and Rage Against The Machine’s engine room, modern day refuseniks Prophets Of Rage make it clear they’re gonna fight The Man all the way. Featuring the chilling homelessness-related paean ‘Living On The 110’, their furious self-titled debut album remains one of 2017’s most politically-charged – and necessary – releases.
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