NME Festival blog: 30 songs about war


Of all the subjects that inspire songwriters, war and love are a couple of the main contenders. Popular music’s archives are littered with songs rising up against conflict, pleading for peace, and simply depicting scenes of battle throughout history. Here are 30 of the greatest songs about war.

Black Sabbath – ‘War Pigs’

War: Vietnam War
The message: Geezer Butler said in Martin Popoff’s 2006 biography of the band that ‘War Pigs’ was “totally against the Vietnam War, about how these rich politicians and rich people start all the wars for their benefit and get all the poor people to die for them.” However, Ozzy Osbourne has countered that statement in the past, saying it was a general “anti-war” song.
Key lyric: Politicians hide themselves away/They only started the war/Why should they go out to fight?/They leave that all to the poor, yeah!

Radiohead – ‘Harry Patch (In Memory Of)’

War: World War I
The message: Thom Yorke wrote on Radiohead’s website that an interview with Patch had strongly resonated with him. “The way he talked about war had a profound effect on me,” he said. It would be very easy for our generation to forget the true horror of war, without the likes of Harry to remind us. I hope we do not forget.”
Key lyric:I’ve seen devils coming up from the ground/I’ve seen hell upon this earth/The next will be chemical/But they will never learn.

The Clash – ‘Spanish Bombs’

War: Spanish Civil War
The message: Joe Strummer compared the incidents of the Spanish Civil War with the actions of the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a nationalist group from the Basque Country who had been bombing popular holiday resorts. The song also referenced the IRA and warned of history repeating itself.
Key lyric:Spanish bombs rock the province/I’m hearing music from another time/Spanish bombs on the Costa Brava/I’m flying in on a DC 10 tonight.

Rolling Stones – ‘Gimme Shelter’

War: Vietnam War
The message: “Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense,” Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. “The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it… [‘Gimme Shelter’ is] a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.”
Key lyric:War, children/It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.

Plastic Ono Band – ‘Give Peace A Chance’

War: Vietnam War
The message: Although written while the Vietnam War was ongoing, ‘Give Peace A Chance’ has since become a more general anti-war song thanks to its message of striving for harmony.
Key lyric:All we are saying is give peace a chance.

The Supremes – ‘Stoned Love’

War: Vietnam War
The message: The song called for an end to conflict, specifically the Vietnam War, and for the world to unite in peace instead. The title referred not to drugs but to an unchanging bond between people.
Key lyric:A love for each other will bring fighting to an end/Forgiving one another, time after time, doubt creeps in/But like the sun lights up the sky with a message from above/Oh yeah, I find no other greater symbol of this love.

Elvis Costello And The Attractions – ‘Oliver’s Army’

War: Northern Irish troubles
The message: “I made my first trip to Belfast in 1978 and saw mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons”, Costello said in 2002. “They were no longer just on the evening news. These snapshot experiences exploded into visions of mercenaries and imperial armies around the world. The song was based on the premise ‘they always get a working-class boy to do the killing’. I don’t know who said that; maybe it was me, but it seems to be true nonetheless.”
Key lyric:There was a Checkpoint Charlie/He didn’t crack a smile/But it’s no laughing party/When you’ve been on the murder mile.

The Cranberries – ‘Zombie’

War: Northern Irish troubles
The message: Dolores O’Riordan wrote the song after two children were killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington. She once described it as the band’s “cry against man’s inhumanity to man; and man’s inhumanity to child,” and told NME: “If you feel really strongly about something and it really annoys you, then other young people will think the same as you and something can be done about it.”
Key lyric: Another mother’s breaking heart is taking over/When the violence causes silence, we must be mistaken.

Prince – ‘1999’

War: Cold War/the threat of a nuclear attack.
The message: Prince told CNN’s Larry King in 1999 that the song was inspired by finding himself surrounded by people dreading the end of the world. “I knew that there were going to be rough times for the Earth because this system is based in entropy, and it’s pretty much headed in a certain direction,” he said. “So I just wanted to write something that gave hope, and what I find is people listen to it. And no matter where we are in the world, I always get the same type of response from them.”
Key lyric:Everybody’s got a bomb/We could all die any day/But before I’ll let that happen/I’ll dance my life away.

Bright Eyes – ‘When The President Talks To God’

War: Afghan and Iraqi wars
The message: “His presidency is an absolute failure in every aspect, and anyone who is at all connected to reality can realize that now,” said of then-President George W. Bush in a 2007 interview with Spin. The song implies the administration “picked” both Middle Eastern countries as their targets, rather than there being a need to do so.
Key lyric:When the President talks to God/Do they drink near beer and play golf/While they pick which countries to invade?/Which Muslim souls can still be saved?

Pink Floyd – ‘Us And Them’

War: Vietnam War
The message: The band portrayed the insensibility of war in the ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ cut’s lyrics, the “us and them” sung of attempting to highlight the similarities between people on either side.
Key lyric:Us and them/And after all, we’re only ordinary men/Me and you.

Joan Baez – ‘Song Of Bangladesh’

War: Bangladesh War of Independence
The message: As you might expect from a protest singer, Baez sang against the genocide that took place in Bangladesh in 1971, writing the track in response to the Dhaka killings in March of that year.
Key lyric:Once again we stand aside/And watch the families crucified/See a teenage mother’s vacant eyes/As she watches her feeble baby try/To fight the monsoon rains and the cholera flies.

Metallica – ‘One’

War: WWI
The message: The song was inspired by the book Johnny Got His Gun, in which a soldier gets his limbs blown off on the frontline. The track aimed to get into the soldier’s psyche and bring his feelings to life.
Key lyric:Landmine has taken my sight/Taken my speech/Taken my hearing/Taken my arms/Taken my legs/Taken my soul/Left me with life in hell.

Iron Maiden – ‘Run To The Hills’

War: Native American clashes
The message: The east Londoners took inspiration from the Native Americans’ battles against European settlers. The lyrics refused to pick a side but highlighted the desperate brutality of both camps.
Key lyric:Murder for freedom, the stab in the back/Women and children are cowards attack.

Bob Dylan – ‘Masters Of War’

War: Cold War
The message: The track ends with Dylan wishing death on those responsible for the Cold War. “I’ve never written anything like that before,” he said at the time. “I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out… a feeling of what can you do?” He later added that the track was supposed to be “pacifistic” rather than anti-war.
Key lyric:I’ll watch while you’re lowered/Down to your deathbed/And I’ll stand over your grave/Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

The Band – ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’

War: Civil War
The message: Robbie Robertson wrote about a fictional character in the America South as the Confederate soldiers neared defeat. “When I first went down South, I remember that a quite common expression would be, ‘Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again,’” he said later. “At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, ‘God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.’”
Key lyric:Like my father before me, I will work the land/And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand/He was just 18, proud and brave/But a Yankee laid him in his grave.

The Pogues – ‘A Pair Of Brown Eyes’

War: WWI
The message: Centred around a WWI veteran drunkenly retelling his war stories in the pub, Shane MacGowan wrote of a former soldier whose love had got him through the horrors of battle, only to return home and find his partner was no longer waiting for him.
Key lyric:In blood and death ‘neath a screaming sky/I lay down on the ground/And the arms and legs of other men were scattered all around/Some cursed, some prayed, some prayed then cursed/Then prayed and bled some more/And the only thing that I could see/Was a pair of brown eyes that was looking at me.

Kate Bush – ‘Army Dreamers’

War: Unspecified
The message: Kate Bush has denied the song is about any one specific war, but was meant to portray the grief of a mother who had lost her son. “I’m not slagging off the Army, it’s just so sad that there are kids who have no O-levels and nothing to do but become soldiers, and it’s not really what they want,” she explained in 1980. “That’s what frightens me.”
Key lyric:But he never even made it to his twenties/What a waste, army dreamers.

System Of A Down – ‘B.Y.O.B.’

War: Iraq War
The message: The title, whose letters could also be an acronym for “bring your own booze”, implies the second Iraq War was a bit of fun for the US – an idea reinforced by the song’s lyrics.
Key lyric:Everybody’s going to the party, have a real good time/Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine.

Miguel – ‘City Of Angels’

War: The threat of nuclear war in 2018
The message: The song imagines nuclear bombs raining down on Los Angeles while Miguel is off shacking up with a lady. “You see us on the brink of nuclear war over Twitter,” he told Q. “Or the rise of the far right in Germany and France. So my whole mindset for the album is: what are we supposed to do caught in the middle of this? We’re at the brink of complete war and complete pleasure, at all times, every day.”
Key lyric:Fighter jets over my city/Cool contrails in the sky/It’s breaking news all over TV/We were hit by surprise.

Rancid – ‘Civilian Ways’

War: Iraq War
The message: Rancid’s Tim Armstrong wrote the track about his brother’s time serving in Iraq and the fear soldiers like him feel, not knowing if they’ll make it home. “I feel like the song is also for me and other family members who have to watch the news every night and hear about the dead soldiers in a place we will never know but where our family’s blood may spill,” Armstrong once wrote on the band’s MySpace.
Key lyric:I hold the cold steel of my rifle as I dream of foreign lands/And I promise myself I will cherish every moment I can/But there’s ghosts that follow me around everywhere I am.

Anohni – ‘Drone Bomb Me’

War: Afghanistan War
The message: “It’s a love song from the perspective of a girl in Afghanistan, say a nine-year-old girl, whose family’s been killed by a drone bomb,” Anohni told Annie Mac. “She is kind of looking up at the sky and she’s gotten herself to a place where she just wants to be killed by a drone bomb too.”
Key lyric:Blow my head off, explode my crystal guts/Lay my purple on the grass.

Green Day – ‘Holiday’

War: Iraq War
The message: As on ‘American Idiot’ as a whole, Green Day criticise the Bush administration’s decision to re-enter Iraq, accusing them of doing so for oil.
Key lyric:Sieg Heil to the president gas man/Bombs away is your punishment.

New Order – ‘Love Vigilantes’

War: Vietnam War
The message: Bernard Sumner tapped into the tragedy of war in an unexpected way. “It was about a soldier that came back and his wife was sent a telegram to say that he was dead,” he told GQ. “You can take the ending one way or another. He’s either dead and he’s come back as a ghost and he sees her or he’s not dead and the telegram was a mistake. But his wife’s got it and killed herself.”
Key lyric:Then I looked into her hand/And I saw the telegram/That said that I was a brave, brave man/But that I was dead.

PJ Harvey – ‘On Battleship Hill’

War: WWI
The message: “One of the conflicts that affected me a great deal was the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War,” PJ Harvey told NPR upon its release. “Something about the dreadful mismanagement and the shocking waste, needless waste, I thought about it a lot and it really affected me, because to me it had such resonance with the wars that are going on today.”
Key lyric:On Battleship Hill I hear the wind/Say, ‘Cruel nature has won again.’

R.E.M. – ‘Orange Crush’

War: Vietnam War
The message: The song refers to Agent Orange, the chemical used by the US to remove leaves from trees in the Vietnamese jungle to help the army progress in the war. Michael Stipe has described the track as “a composite and fictional narrative in the first person, drawn from different stories I heard growing up around Army bases. This song is about the Vietnam War and the impact on soldiers returning to a country that wrongly blamed them for the war.”
Key lyric:I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my orange crush/I’ve had my fun and now it’s time/To serve your conscience overseas.

Patti Smith – ‘Radio Baghdad’

War: Iraq War
The message: Patti Smith improvised the 12-minute track, in which she sung of a mother singing a lullaby to her children as the US army dropped bombs around them.
Key lyric:You sent your lights, your bombs/You sent them down on our city, shock and awe/Like some crazy TV show/They’re robbing the cradle of civilisation.

L7 – ‘Wargasm’

War: Gulf War
The message: Donita Sparks told Melody Maker she saw the Gulf War as a “cover-up” for the savings and loans crisis of 1986 to 1995, suggesting the TV coverage of the conflict kept news about the trouble from being broadcast. ‘Wargasm’ dealt with Americans’ consumption of the war through their TV sets, likening their obsession with the images to sex.
Key lyric:Masturbate, watch it on TV/Crocodile tears for the refugee/Wargasm, wargasm, one two three/Smutty bloody pictures, ecstasy.

The Doors – ‘The Unknown Soldier’

War: Vietnam War
The message: Jim Morrison wrote about the normalisation of war via images of dead soldiers being broadcast on TV or printed in newspapers that ordinary families watched or read as they sat down to start their days.
Key lyric:Breakfast where the news is read/Television children fed/Unborn living, living dead.

David Bowie – ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’

War: General war
The message: “It’s about the way that soldiers are trained to kill other soldiers, how they have to do it so heartlessly,” Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone. “‘How Does the Grass Grow’ is part of a chant that they’re taught as they plunge their bayonets into a dummy.”
Key lyric:The girls would fill with blood and the grass will be green again/Remember the dead, they were so great, some of them.



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