On first glance, rock ’n’ roll music isn’t very conservative. It doesn’t fare much better on second or third glance (or listen), either. Neil Young has a new song called “Let’s Impeach the President.” Last year, the Rolling Stones made news with “Sweet Neo Con,” another anti-Bush ditty. For conservatives who enjoy rock, it isn’t hard to agree with the opinion Johnny Cash expressed in “The One on the Right Is on the Left”: “Don’t go mixin’ politics with the folk songs of our land / Just work on harmony and diction / Play your banjo well / And if you have political convictions, keep them to yourself.” In other words: Shut up and sing.
But some rock songs really are conservative — and there are more of them than you might think. Last year, I asked readers of National Review Online to nominate conservative rock songs. Hundreds of suggestions poured in. I’ve sifted through them all, downloaded scores of mp3s, and puzzled over a lot of lyrics. What follows is a list of the 50 greatest conservative rock songs of all time, as determined by me and a few others. The result is of course arbitrary, though we did apply a handful of criteria.
What makes a great conservative rock song? The lyrics must convey a conservative idea or sentiment, such as skepticism of government or support for traditional values. And, to be sure, it must be a great rock song. We’re biased in favor of songs that are already popular, but have tossed in a few little-known gems. In several cases, the musicians are outspoken liberals. Others are notorious libertines. For the purposes of this list, however, we don’t hold any of this against them. Finally, it would have been easy to include half a dozen songs by both the Kinks and Rush, but we’ve made an effort to cast a wide net. Who ever said diversity isn’t a conservative principle?
So here are NR’s top 50 conservative rock songs of all time. Go ahead and quibble with the rankings, complain about what we put on, and send us outraged letters and e-mails about what we left off. In the end, though, we hope you’ll admit that it’s a pretty cool playlist for your iPod.
1. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by The Who.
The conservative movement is full of disillusioned revolutionaries; this could be their theme song, an oath that swears off naïve idealism once and for all. “There’s nothing in the streets / Looks any different to me / And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye. . . . Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.” The instantly recognizable synthesizer intro, Pete Townshend’s ringing guitar, Keith Moon’s pounding drums, and Roger Daltrey’s wailing vocals make this one of the most explosive rock anthems ever recorded — the best number by a big band, and a classic for conservatives.
2. “Taxman,” by The Beatles.
A George Harrison masterpiece with a famous guitar riff (which was actually played by Paul McCartney): “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street / If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat / If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat / If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.” The song closes with a humorous jab at death taxes: “Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes.”
3. “Sympathy for the Devil,” by The Rolling Stones.
Don’t be misled by the title; this song is The Screwtape Letters of rock. The devil is a tempter who leans hard on moral relativism — he will try to make you think that “every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners saints.” What’s more, he is the sinister inspiration for the cruelties of Bolshevism: “I stuck around St. Petersburg / When I saw it was a time for a change / Killed the czar and his ministers / Anastasia screamed in vain.”
4. “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
A tribute to the region of America that liberals love to loathe, taking a shot at Neil Young’s Canadian arrogance along the way: “A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
5. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” by The Beach Boys.
Pro-abstinence and pro-marriage: “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true / Baby then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do / We could be married / And then we’d be happy.”
6. “Gloria,” by U2.
Just because a rock song is about faith doesn’t mean that it’s conservative. But what about a rock song that’s about faith and whose chorus is in Latin? That’s beautifully reactionary: “Gloria / In te domine / Gloria / Exultate.”
7. “Revolution,” by The Beatles.
“You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world . . . Don’t you know you can count me out?” What’s more, Communism isn’t even cool: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” (Someone tell the Che Guevara crowd.)
8. “Bodies,” by The Sex Pistols.
Violent and vulgar, but also a searing anti-abortion anthem by the quintessential punk band: “It’s not an animal / It’s an abortion.”
9. “Don’t Tread on Me,” by Metallica.
A head-banging tribute to the doctrine of peace through strength, written in response to the first Gulf War: “So be it / Threaten no more / To secure peace is to prepare for war.”
10. “20th Century Man,” by The Kinks.
“You keep all your smart modern writers / Give me William Shakespeare / You keep all your smart modern painters / I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, da Vinci, and Gainsborough. . . . I was born in a welfare state / Ruled by bureaucracy / Controlled by civil servants / And people dressed in grey / Got no privacy got no liberty / ’Cause the 20th-century people / Took it all away from me.”
11. “The Trees,” by Rush.
Before there was Rush Limbaugh, there was Rush, a Canadian band whose lyrics are often libertarian. What happens in a forest when equal rights become equal outcomes? “The trees are all kept equal / By hatchet, axe, and saw.”
12. “Neighborhood Bully,” by Bob Dylan.
A pro-Israel song released in 1983, two years after the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, this ironic number could be a theme song for the Bush Doctrine: “He destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad / The bombs were meant for him / He was supposed to feel bad / He’s the neighborhood bully.”
13. “My City Was Gone,” by The Pretenders.
Virtually every conservative knows the bass line, which supplies the theme music for Limbaugh’s radio show. But the lyrics also display a Jane Jacobs sensibility against central planning and a conservative’s dissatisfaction with rapid change: “I went back to Ohio / But my pretty countryside / Had been paved down the middle / By a government that had no pride.”
14. “Right Here, Right Now,” by Jesus Jones.
The words are vague, but they’re also about the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War: “I was alive and I waited for this. . . . Watching the world wake up from history.”
15. “I Fought the Law,” by The Crickets.
The original law-and-order classic, made famous in 1965 by The Bobby Fuller Four and covered by just about everyone since then.
16. “Get Over It,” by The Eagles.
Against the culture of grievance: “The big, bad world doesn’t owe you a thing.” There’s also this nice line: “I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass.”
17. “Stay Together for the Kids,” by Blink 182.
A eulogy for family values by an alt-rock band whose members were raised in a generation without enough of them: “So here’s your holiday / Hope you enjoy it this time / You gave it all away. . . . It’s not right.”
18. “Cult of Personality,” by Living Colour.
A hard-rocking critique of state power, whacking Mussolini, Stalin, and even JFK: “I exploit you, still you love me / I tell you one and one makes three / I’m the cult of personality.”
19. “Kicks,” by Paul Revere and the Raiders.
An anti-drug song that is also anti-utopian: “Well, you think you’re gonna find yourself a little piece of paradise / But it ain’t happened yet, so girl you better think twice.”
20. “Rock the Casbah,” by The Clash.
After 9/11, American radio stations were urged not to play this 1982 song, one of the biggest hits by a seminal punk band, because it was seen as too provocative. Meanwhile, British Forces Broadcasting Service (the radio station for British troops serving in Iraq) has said that this is one of its most requested tunes.
21. “Heroes,” by David Bowie.
A Cold War love song about a man and a woman divided by the Berlin Wall. No moral equivalence here: “I can remember / Standing / By the wall / And the guns / Shot above our heads / And we kissed / As though nothing could fall / And the shame / Was on the other side / Oh we can beat them / For ever and ever.”
22. “Red Barchetta,” by Rush.
In a time of “the Motor Law,” presumably legislated by green extremists, the singer describes family reunion and the thrill of driving a fast car — an act that is his “weekly crime.”
23. “Brick,” by Ben Folds Five.
Written from the perspective of a man who takes his young girlfriend to an abortion clinic, this song describes the emotional scars of “reproductive freedom”: “Now she’s feeling more alone / Than she ever has before. . . . As weeks went by / It showed that she was not fine.”
24. “Der Kommissar,” by After the Fire.
On the misery of East German life: “Don’t turn around, uh-oh / Der Kommissar’s in town, uh-oh / He’s got the power / And you’re so weak / And your frustration / Will not let you speak.” Also a hit song for Falco, who wrote it.
25. “The Battle of Evermore,” by Led Zeppelin.
The lyrics are straight out of Robert Plant’s Middle Earth period — there are lines about “ring wraiths” and “magic runes” — but for a song released in 1971, it’s hard to miss the Cold War metaphor: “The tyrant’s face is red.”
26. “Capitalism,” by Oingo Boingo.
“There’s nothing wrong with Capitalism / There’s nothing wrong with free enterprise. . . . You’re just a middle class, socialist brat / From a suburban family and you never really had to work.”
27. “Obvious Song,” by Joe Jackson.
For property rights and economic development, and against liberal hypocrisy: “There was a man in the jungle / Trying to make ends meet / Found himself one day with an axe in his hand / When a voice said ‘Buddy can you spare that tree / We gotta save the world — starting with your land’ / It was a rock ’n’ roll millionaire from the USA / Doing three to the gallon in a big white car / And he sang and he sang ’til he polluted the air / And he blew a lot of smoke from a Cuban cigar.”
28. “Janie’s Got a Gun,” by Aerosmith.
How the right to bear arms can protect women from sexual predators: “What did her daddy do? / It’s Janie’s last I.O.U. / She had to take him down easy / And put a bullet in his brain / She said ’cause nobody believes me / The man was such a sleaze / He ain’t never gonna be the same.”
29. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Iron Maiden.
A heavy-metal classic inspired by a literary classic. How many other rock songs quote directly from Samuel Taylor Coleridge?
30. “You Can’t Be Too Strong,” by Graham Parker.
Although it’s not explicitly pro-life, this tune describes the horror of abortion with bracing honesty: “Did they tear it out with talons of steel, and give you a shot so that you wouldn’t feel?”
31. “Small Town,” by John Mellencamp.
A Burkean rocker: “No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from / I cannot forget the people who love me.”
32. “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” by The Georgia Satellites.
An outstanding vocal performance, with lyrics that affirm old-time sexual mores: “She said no huggy, no kissy until I get a wedding vow.”
33. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by The Rolling Stones.
You can “[go] down to the demonstration” and vent your frustration, but you must understand that there’s no such thing as a perfect society — there are merely decent and free ones.
34. “Godzilla,” by Blue öyster Cult.
A 1977 classic about a big green monster — and more: “History shows again and again / How nature points up the folly of men.”
35. “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Written as an anti–Vietnam War song, this tune nevertheless is pessimistic about activism and takes a dim view of both Communism and liberalism: “Five-year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains . . .”
36. “Government Cheese,” by The Rainmakers.
A protest song against the welfare state by a Kansas City band that deserved more success than it got. The first line: “Give a man a free house and he’ll bust out the windows.”
37. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” by The Band.
Despite its sins, the American South always has been about more than racism — this song captures its pride and tradition.
38. “I Can’t Drive 55,” by Sammy Hagar.
A rocker’s objection to the nanny state. (See also Hagar’s pro-America song “VOA.”)
39. “Property Line,” by The Marshall Tucker Band.
The secret to happiness, according to these southern-rock heavyweights, is life, liberty, and property: “Well my idea of a good time / Is walkin’ my property line / And knowin’ the mud on my boots is mine.”
40. “Wake Up Little Susie,” by The Everly Brothers.
A smash hit in 1957, back when high-school social pressures were rather different from what they have become: “We fell asleep, our goose is cooked, our reputation is shot.”
41. “The Icicle Melts,” by The Cranberries.
A pro-life tune sung by Irish warbler Dolores O’Riordan: “I don’t know what’s happening to people today / When a child, he was taken away . . . ’Cause nine months is too long.”
42. “Everybody’s a Victim,” by The Proclaimers.
Best known for their smash hit “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” this Scottish band also recorded a catchy song about the problem of suspending moral judgment: “It doesn’t matter what I do / You have to say it’s all right . . . Everybody’s a victim / We’re becoming like the USA.”
43. “Wonderful,” by Everclear.
A child’s take on divorce: “I don’t wanna hear you say / That I will understand someday / No, no, no, no / I don’t wanna hear you say / You both have grown in a different way / No, no, no, no / I don’t wanna meet your friends / And I don’t wanna start over again / I just want my life to be the same / Just like it used to be.”
44. “Two Sisters,” by The Kinks.
Why the “drudgery of being wed” is more rewarding than bohemian life.
45. “Taxman, Mr. Thief,” by Cheap Trick.
An anti-tax protest song: “You work hard, you went hungry / Now the taxman is out to get you. . . . He hates you, he loves money.”
46. “Wind of Change,” by The Scorpions.
A German hard-rock group’s optimistic power ballad about the end of the Cold War and national reunification: “The world is closing in / Did you ever think / That we could be so close, like brothers / The future’s in the air / I can feel it everywhere / Blowing with the wind of change.”
47. “One,” by Creed. Against racial preferences: “Society blind by color / Why hold down one to raise another / Discrimination now on both sides / Seeds of hate blossom further.”
48. “Why Don’t You Get a Job,” by The Offspring.
The lyrics aren’t exactly Shakespearean, but they’re refreshingly blunt and they capture a motive force behind welfare reform.
49. “Abortion,” by Kid Rock.
A plaintive song sung by a man who confronts his unborn child’s abortion: “I know your brothers and your sister and your mother too / Man I wish you could see them too.”
50. “Stand By Your Man,” by Tammy Wynette.
Hillary trashed it — isn’t that enough? If you’re worried that Wynette’s original is too country, then check out the cover version by Motörhead.