Violence and war aren’t the obvious choices of inspiration when composing a song. Usually people sing about love, or losing love, or wishing they had love, or basically anything love-related. Barring that, they might write lyrics reflecting on partying, or how awesome the party they are at is, or how they are going to make a party awesome once they grace it with their presence.
But sometimes musicians delve into the unpleasant, dark side of human nature. That doesn’t mean the songs have to be depressing; some of the ones on this list are happy, or at least upbeat tunes. But they all explore what happens when people turn on each other and cause a lot of pain.
Here are seven songs about violence and war, plus the fascinating stories behind them.
If you were old enough to be dancing around to Prince’s megahit “1999” as the Millennium dawned, you probably relate it to New Year’s Eve, partying, and possibly a slight fear of planes falling out of the sky due to Y2K. But when he wrote it in 1982, the artist still known as Prince at that point had something even scarier in mind: nuclear war.
Behind the groovy beats are some seriously disturbing lyrics. From an opening that says it looked like “judgment day” and people were “tryin’ to run from the destruction,” to the realization that “war is all around” and everyone must prepare to fight and die. As for addressing nuclear war more directly, Prince opines that, “Everybody’s got a bomb/we could all die any day.”
Pitchfork reminds us that while the 1980s is remembered now as a quirky decade full of terrible hair, terrible fashion, and the terrible New Coke, it was also a time that was “full of dread—bad guys lurked around corners, and the threat of nuclear war hovered over the world’s geopolitic.” The album 1999 was a middle finger in “the face of near-assured annihilation,” and its title track was the biggest F-U of all.
Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to think that since no one got nuclear bombed to death then it must not have been that bad. But 11 months after Prince released his album, a malfunction in the Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system brought the world thisclose to ending. Prince was singing about something very current and very real.
While Prince was clearly influenced by the fact the “fear of nuclear war was in the air,” the lyrics also give a nod to his Seventh Day Adventist belief in Armageddon. Maybe he was worried about a lot more than a few nukes.
Bob Marley only had 36 years on this earth, but in that time he released over a dozen albums, made reggae music mainstream, and brought hope to oppressed people all over the world. Not too shabby.
While Marley was proudly Jamaican, one of his most famous songs, released after his death, was about a decidedly American incident. “Buffalo Soldier” told the story of African American cavalry in the 1800s forced to fight Native Americans.
If this isn’t something people are that familiar with today, it was almost completely unknown when Marley sang about it. Listeners wouldn’t have learned in school about the men “Stolen from Africa/Brought to America/Fighting on arrival/Fighting for survival.”
While Marley doesn’t go much deeper into history than saying these men were told to “win the war for America,” the story of the Buffalo Soldiers is fascinating. While all-black troop units served as early as the Revolutionary War, it wasn’t until 1866 that Congress created six African American cavalry units whose main job was to “control” or “subdue” the Native Americans out West, particularly the Apache and Cree.
It’s not clear why, but the Native Americans dubbed these black regiments “buffalo soldiers.” All we have are theories, like the one that says they thought the men’s hair looked like buffalo fur, or that the soldiers fought so hard that they were revered as much as the buffalo. Wherever it came from, the name stuck around.
The mid to late-1800s in the West was a period known as the Indian Wars. Native Americans were, understandably, pissed off at the US government for all their broken promises. Around 20 percent of the troops who fought the Indian Wars were buffalo soldiers, who notched up 177 conflicts.
While the soldiers were free men by 1866 (barely) and were said to be “willing” to carry out their orders, Marley reminds listeners that ultimately, they had little choice.
While Marvin Gaye added his own lyrical embellishments to the tune, the anti-Vietnam War protest song “What’s Going On” was actually written by Four Tops singer Obie Benson. But it took the two of them to take a song about violence and storm the charts.
It wasn’t the conflict in Vietnam that first got Benson’s creative juices flowing, but violence at home. In 1969, he was on tour in San Francisco and saw police attack a group of hippies, he said for no reason: “The police was beating on the kids with the long hair but they weren't bothering anybody.”
This led him to the now immortal question: “I saw this and started wondering what the f*** was going on. What is happening here? One question led to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas to Vietnam? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?”
Benson started working on the tune, but his Four Tops bandmates didn’t want to record a protest song. While Benson swore it was really about love, in the end the group passed, and Marvin Gaye decided to record it. He’d recently become interested in taking a new, more activist direction with his music.
The singer’s additions were key. Benson said, “[Gaye] made it visual. When you heard that song, you could see the people and feel the hurt and pain.”
With lyrics like, “There's far too many of you dying,” “We don't need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer,” and “Don't punish me with brutality,” the song clearly addresses the violence at home and abroad. Gaye knew something about this; his own brother fought in Vietnam, and when he came back, he was “changed.”
Motown hated the song and refused to release it. Gaye had to threaten to leave the label before they caved. The song blew up, and helped change how people, especially musicians. talked about Vietnam.
Bono may be the expressive frontman, but “Sunday Bloody Sunday” started with The Edge. In 1982, while U2’s lead singer was off on his honeymoon, The Edge had a terrible day. He got in a fight with his girlfriend and started doubting if he was even that good at writing songs.
He did what musicians do in that situation and put all that anger into a guitar riff. Then he added lyrics railing at Irish terrorists, starting with the line, “Don’t tell me about the rights of the IRA, UDA.”
If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” you’ll know that isn’t one of them. The Edge’s musical rant was so “blunt and risky” that it was replaced by a message of tolerance to “ensure the safety of the band and their families.” Or as Bono would put it in 2010, “Over time, the lyric [would] change and grow.”
Even then, the new, nicer lyrics didn’t pull any punches. They drew attention to “Bodies strewn across the dead-end street,” how “the battle's just begun/There's many lost, but tell me who has won,” and that “today the millions cry/We eat and drink while tomorrow they die.” Not exactly subtle.
That’s because the Irish band was talking about a pivotal and extremely painful event in the island’s history. On January 30, 1972, the British Army fired on unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland. 14 people died, seven of them teenagers, making it one of the deadliest days of “The Troubles.” Bono called it the day people “[gave] up on peace.” The British wouldn’t admit fault for 38 years.
So no wonder the lyrics were angry. But one lyric they refused to change was the title, repeated over and over in the song. A record exec said “bloody” had to go, because the word “[wouldn’t] bloody work on the radio.” Obviously, it worked out just fine. Surprise, record executives don’t know everything.
You will be absolutely shocked to hear that things didn’t immediately get betting in Ireland after U2 released their song about the violence. That meant there was plenty of Irish violence left to inspire other artists. Like Dolores O'Riordan from The Cranberries.
On March 20, 1993, two IRA bombs hidden in garbage bins in Cheshire, England exploded within a minute. One 3-year-old boy, Johnathan Ball, died instantly, and 12-year-old Tim Parry was badly injured, dying five days later.
The IRA claimed credit for the bombings but was less thrilled about being responsible for the deaths of two young children. They claimed they had given two warnings before the attack (something they often did to give people time to evacuate) and that it was the police’s fault for not acting in time. No one was buying that excuse.
O’Riordan said she was watching TV and saw one of the mothers so upset over losing her son: “I felt so sad for her, that she'd carried him for nine months, been through all the morning sickness, the whole thing and some prick, some airhead who thought he was making a point, did that.”
The fact that innocent people were being harmed inspired her to write the song, even though she said she never planned on covering topics like that, thinking she would “get in trouble.”
The anguish in her lyrics is palpable, opening with “Another head hangs lowly/Child is slowly taken,” and that “Another mother's breakin'/Heart is taking over,” because “They are fighting/With their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns.” She even brings up the historical context of how long the violence has been going on, singing, “It's the same old theme/Since nineteen-sixteen.”
The BBC banned the original version of the video which showed images of The Troubles. Tim Parry’s father knew the song well but didn’t find out until O’Riodan’s death in 2018 that it was about his son.
Perhaps no war (sorry, not war, “Extended Military Engagement”) in history inspired more music than the Vietnam War. It was long, it didn’t seem to have much of a point, the draft was unbelievably unpopular, and 11,000 Americans died in the conflict every year. While most historians agree it all came to a head in 1969, for John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, that happened the year before.
In 1968, one of the greatest political marriages of all time took place. Then-President-Elect Richard Nixon’s daughter Julia married President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson David.
Fogerty read about the wedding and got extremely angry. To him, it wasn’t an example of two young people in love, it showed how unfair the war was, because he knew there was no way in heck David, the grandson of one president and now son-in-law of another, would ever be selected to go to Vietnam.
In his 2015 memoir, he wrote about how politicians’ sons were always magically getting deferments if their draft number was called. He told Pitchfork in 2007, that while poor, lower class men were getting killed because of a war the politicians were responsible for, their kids always got “cushy jobs somewhere.”
With that inspiration, he claims he wrote “Fortunate Son” in 20 minutes. Creedence drummer Doug Clifford (who was in the Coast Guard Reserve in the 1960s) says it’s not really an anti-war song as such, it’s just about how unfair the class difference was. Fogerty served in the US Army Reserve in the 60s himself, although he never left the country.
But Fogerty made clear in the lyrics that his good luck wasn’t down to connections, singing, “I ain't no senator's son.” The song became intrinsically connected to the Vietnam War, in part because seemingly every Hollywood movie that takes place during that time uses it as part of the soundtrack.
In 2014, there was controversy when Fogerty played “Fortunate Son” at a Veteran’s Day concert. He responded to the criticism saying in part, “I do believe that its meaning gets misinterpreted and even usurped by various factions wishing to make their own case. What a great country we have that a song like this can be performed in a setting like Concert for Valor.”
The British had a very different view of the Vietnam War. That is to say, they were looking at it as outsiders, people who didn’t have the risk of going to fight, but still seeing the tragic disaster for what it was.
In 1965, the US ramped up its military efforts in Vietnam and wanted international assistance. President Lyndon Johnson was pestering the British prime minister to help out. While the American draft was ongoing, the UK’s stopped in 1960. And to put it in perspective, WWII, which devastated Britain, only ended 20 years before, and WWI was still very much within living memory. While British troops were in Northern Ireland, their appetite for war was nonexistent.
But for young British people in the late 1960s, it was like their war was missing, according to The Guardian. Their grandparents fought in WWI; their parents fought in WWII. What war were they going to fight?
The Zombie’s bass player Chris White was interested in WWI, so with Vietnam aggressively knocking on Britain’s door, he wrote a song about the past conflict. It stands out as a serious song on a mostly poppy album and it “succeeds because of its restraint and complete synchronicity of form with content, of music with lyric, of feeling with imagination.”
The lyrics tell the story of a butcher that’s inspired to go fight in WWI by a preacher who says it’s the right thing to do, even though the man of God will never end up under fire himself. He sees his friends die horribly and the flies covering the battlefields. The chorus hauntingly tells how war affects soldiers mentally and physically:
“And I can't stop shaking/
My hands won't stop shaking/
My arms won't stop shaking/
My mind won't stop shaking/
I want to go home/
Please let me go home.”
While obviously the band “did not experience the western front, but they projected themselves into a terrible event with all the considerable talent at their disposal.” They made a timely anti-war song about the past.