Just the other day, as I was obliviously doomscrolling through my Facebook feed, I noticed that someone had already gone through the trouble of writing a song about the war going on in Ukraine. I guess you couldn’t possibly have your finger on the pulse of now any faster than that. Anyhow, it made me think about the subject as though from the artistic standpoint: apart from the matters of the heart, I guess war must be one of the most-used topics in song lyrics. Wikipedia lists dozens and dozens of war-themed songs – and while not all of them are explicitly about war per se, I could not help but notice that the Vietnam war alone has inspired an awe-inspiring number of songs over the years. They even made a musical about it in the 1960s. Quite often, however, war is used as a metaphor for dysfunctional relationships. You know the saying, “everything is fair in love and war.” By the looks of it, this wisdom has not played out too well in our lives since the dawn of time; the variety of ways, in which we have shot ourselves in the leg in both matters of love and war, reads more like the flowchart of a mental illness than a great triumph in being human. The American author, Marianne Williamson has written that “until we have met the monsters in ourselves, we will keep trying to slay them in the outer world. For all darkness in the world stems from darkness in the heart.” So, basically, all this high-school drama on the global stage of geo-politics essentially stems from our leaders’ striking inability to deal with their own demons, mostly.
Despite the fact that war is quite a grim topic to deal with, there are plenty of songs that tackle the subject in nothing short of an ingenious manner, with the key message unequivocally being that war is never good for anything – except, of course, for the military-industrial complex. The late American musical genius and freak, Frank Zappa, used to say that our governments are nothing but the entertainment divisions of that very same military-industrial complex. In light of recent world events, it is hard to disagree. Thus, I decided to compile a list of war-themed songs – with a twist. I deliberately left out some of the most obvious choices such as SABATON‘s whole back-catalog that is practically almost entirely based on historic battles. For the same reason, I did not include certain songs from IRON MAIDEN. War is a recurring theme also throughout the whole body of SLAYER‘s work and METALLICA has touched on the subject more than once. If I were to choose only one war-themed song from their spectacular back-catalogs, I would need to exercise an inhuman amount of self-restraint – that’s for sure! So, in order to help my task, I decided to only list war-themed songs that have impressive music videos to go along. That way I could narrow my options down to one (sic!) with regard to METALLICA, for instance, with the obvious choice being the 1989 video single, “One.” By opting for songs with a music video I accidentally ruled out most of the oldies as well. Then again, I’m not sure if the hippie-folksy anti-war anthems from the 1960s sound that influential today. You don’t necessarily need to have the flower-power paraphernalia – the bell-bottoms, tambourines, daisy chains, and LSD – to convey the message. Besides, I couldn’t help but notice that the same level of sarcasm that shines through, say, the 1967 COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” is rather prominent also in the music video of “So Long, And Thanks For All the Fish” by A PERFECT CIRCLE.
The list is comprised of fifteen songs either stressing the mindless cruelty, absurdity, and criminality of war in itself or using war as a metaphor in a somewhat poignant and haunting way. It is true that sometimes we find ourselves, but the collateral damage in other people’s war against themselves when it comes to all those dysfunctional and toxic relationships – and it quite obviously holds true on the global scale just as well. Bitter old men wage wars for the young to die in.
- Alex Clare: “War Rages On”
“War Rages On” was the lead single off Alex Clare‘s 2014 album, “Three Hearts.” This breakbeat-driven electronica onslaught falls in the category of using war as a metaphor but – oh, boy! – does it use it well! It also helps that Clare has nothing short of a spectacular voice. The message is best encapsulated in the line, “When darkness comes, you are like a burning light through it all.” Maybe we wouldn’t need to be waging wars if the idea of genuine unity of humanity, transcending all divisions of race, nation, gender, caste, and social class, was not to be replaced with some dystopian NWO bullshit at every turn.
- Nothing More: “Go To War”
The American alt.rock outfit, NOTHING MORE, released an album titled “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” in 2017. It was a conceptual thing dealing with relationships, albeit the outing had a subtle but distinct political undercurrent as well. “Go To War” was actually inspired by the singer’s divorce from his ex-wife but, like with all great art, you can interpret the lyrics in a multitude of ways.
- A Perfect Circle: “So Long, And Thanks For All the Fish”
A PERFECT CIRCLE‘s back-catalog is a treasure trove of anti-war songs. In 2014, they released an album full of politically charged covers, titled “Emotive.” I could have picked almost any one of those tracks for this list. However, I felt that the Douglas-Adams-inspired track, “So Long, And Thanks For All the Fish,” from their 2017 outing “Eat the Elephant,” was way more appropriate – especially, if paired with the music video. While nuclear holocaust is by no means a laughing matter, you can’t help but grin at the dark humor of the video.
- Frankie Goes to Hollywood: “Two Tribes”
What do you get when you mix lyrics that are sarcastically enthusiastic for nuclear war, to the point of being downright nihilistic, and a funky synth-bassline, wrapped up in a music video depicting a no-holds-barred wrestling match between the 1984 US President, Ronald Reagan, and the secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the time, Konstantin Chernenko? A phenomenal classic, I’d say! FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD tested and stretched the boundaries of the so-called good taste on multiple occasions, but the music video for their song “Two Tribes” was – and still is – absolutely the best of their efforts.
- Metallica: “One”
Since I’m old as shit, with regard to this monolith of a classic, I can say: I was there! I can still remember the huge impact that METALLICA‘s 1989 video single “One” had on the 15-year-old version of me. Taken from their fourth studio album “…And Justice for All,” the song remains one of the most iconic war-themed metal songs ever released – and half of the magic is due to the spectacular music video, which is intercut with scenes from the 1971 anti-war film, Johnny Got His Gun.
- Pink Floyd: “Goodbye Blue Sky”
One of the darkest and possibly the most haunting songs in PINK FLOYD‘s back-catalog is the 3-minute piece, “Goodbye Blue Sky,” from the gargantuan double-album treat, “The Wall.” The music video is from the 1982 film based on the album, directed by Alan Parker. The haunting animation was done by Gerald Scarfe. The song is nothing short of a beautiful and perplexing take on war; Roger Waters‘ father was killed by the Nazis in WW2, so you might have expected him to deal with his childhood trauma in a bit more resentful and aggressive way. Yet, this acoustic piece sounds almost like a sonnet – until you start to pay attention to the lyrics.
- Alice In Chains: “Rooster”
ALICE IN CHAIN‘s 1993 hit “Rooster” had its music video pulled from MTV rotation due to its rather graphic content. The video features some real documentary footage from the Vietnam War, as well as realistically re-enacted combat scenes. In movies such as Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and The Deer Hunter, we have seen way more graphic content but, for a music video, it was and still is rather unusual to show somebody stepping on a landmine. The blood and gore is not the most prominent thing that gets under your skin, however, but rather the somewhat disorienting feel in the music video, which is subtly reminiscent of the 1990 film, Jacob’s Ladder.
- Megadeth: “Symphony of Destruction”
Lately, the public narrative has thrown the term “puppet” around in a rather loose manner. On the 1992 MEGADETH outing, “Symphony of Destruction,” Dave Mustaine wrote the title track about the hypothetical situation where an average dude is placed in a position of running the whole country while the public is led by a puppet administration. Maybe the idea does bear an uncanny similarity to some of the world events that have been taking place recently, I don’t know. Maybe we have been led by some modern-day Pied Pipers of Hamelin, or maybe we are merely living in a simulated reality that has been screenplayed by a bunch of haggard aliens with a serious alcohol problem. One thing is for certain, though. This sort of play with all these puppet governments usually does not end well.
- Portishead: “Machine Gun”
A disclaimer is in order here: this isn’t actually the official music video for the haunting PORTISHEAD song, “Machine Gun.” The song has no music video. However, I felt compelled to break my own rules here because this is one of the most well-crafted non-official music videos of all time, as someone in the comments quite rightly points out. The footage is from the Japanese cyberpunk horror film, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, from 1989. It pairs rather nicely with the apocalyptic, Terminator-like atmosphere of the song. Of course, it takes the concept of war to a different, existential plane altogether. The lyrics resonate with the same sentiment as the one from Marianne Williamson that I quoted in the first paragraph; we must bring our own light to the darkness because nobody is going to do it for us. The Swiss psychiatrist, C.G. Jung, has also said that “people will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul.” Wouldn’t we rather see our great leaders pull some other type of absurd shit than wage these stupid wars? With regard to this most recent crisis, why don’t the world leaders whip out their dicks for measuring so that we could get this thing over and dealt with without more casualties?
- Massive Attack: “Flat of the Blade”
At face value, MASSIVE ATTACK‘s song “Flat of the Blade” from 2010 does not necessarily come off as one about war, not at all. When you really listen to the lyrics, it slowly starts to take shape as an account of a war veteran having PTSD or flashbacks of something horrible, what with lines such as “Things that I’ve seen will chase me to the grave” and “I’ve got skills I can’t speak of” – let alone the line, “How does it feel to kneel at defeat? To kneel at defeat at the choices you make?” Soundtracked by their signature dark shades of trip-hop, MASSIVE ATTACK really gets under the skin here, with this haunting track that brings the scars of war to the forefront.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” I think that about sums it up.