Politically conscious rock-and-roll dates back to the folk music explosion of the 1960s, when acoustic troubadours followed Bob Dylan’s lead and plugged in to power up their messages.
Political protest, of course, drove much of rock’s hippie era. Later on, punk called for explosive change, be it from the radical left (Dead Kennedys), fascist right (Skrewdriver), or absolute anarchist (Crass). Subgenres such as crust punk and power-violence are inseparable from fiercely committed political stands.
Mainstream heavy metal, for the most part, is identified more with leather and skulls than discourse on government policy and social conditions. Some exceptions: Ted Nugent certainly voices (and how!) his support of Second Amendment rights; Rush lean famously libertarian in their lyrics; and Rage Against the Machine is built on challenging conservative authority.
However, to borrow a political term, heavy metal is a “big tent.” Political statements have always existed in the music. Some have even changed the world.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of “Wind of Change,” Scorpions’ globally heartfelt ode to Soviet society’s opening up, here now are 10 heavy metal political anthems that actually made (and continue to make) a difference.
“N.W.O.” – Ministry (1992)
Ministry madman Al Jourgensen beat the 21st century protests against U.S. military intervention in Iraq by a full-decade when he issued this incendiary screed inspired by the first Gulf War. “N.W.O.” not only represented a (way) loud dissenting voice, it hit big on radio and MTV, catapulting Ministry to superstardom.
“B.Y.O.B.” – System of a Down (2005)
System of a Down is as revolutionary in their politics as their music has been to heavy metal. Beyond a deep commitment to promoting awareness of the Armenian Genocide, the group has always been outspoken against war. “B.Y.O.B.”—short for “Bring Your Own Bombs”—is SOAD’s blast against the U.S.’s post-9/11 invasion of Iraq. A few years later, SOAD singer Serj Tankian teamed with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello to form the left-wing political action group, Axis of Justice.
“Cult of Personality” – Living Colour
“Cult of Personality,” the breakthrough smash by Living Colour, addresses the danger inherent in blind faith to a leader of any stripe, be they, as the song lists off, Kennedy, Mussolini, Stalin, and/or Gandhi. LC’s popular follow-up single, “Open Letter to a Landlord,” directly addresses the now seemingly hotter-than-ever topic of urban gentrification.
“Siege of Power” – Napalm Death (1987)
Roaring past hardcore punk and rapidly radicalizing death metal, Napalm Death sounds like their name and they’ve reigned for three decades as metal’s most uncompromising political firebrands. Isolating a single Napalm Death anthem as their definitive statement on oppression and social upheaval is impossible; “Siege of Power,” from 1987’s Scum, is simply a mind-blowing place to start.
“Killing in the Name” – Rage Against the Machine (1991)
Rage Against the Machine rules as the most politically committed and outspoken mainstream metal act of all time. From their name onward, demonstrations of protests and calls to action define these rabidly anti-capitalist multiplatinum rock stars.
“Killing in the Name,” the monster hit that broke RATM worldwide, is a charge against racism and police brutality (“Some of those that burn crosses/are the same that join forces”).
Regardless of that literal content, though, the band’s brilliant playing and frontman Zack de la Rocha’s final outburst does nothing short of capturing and splattering forth the very spirit of heavy metal itself: “F—k you! I won’t do what you told me!”
“Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” – Megadeth (1990)
In 1986, Megadeth rocked humanity with the thrashtastic anti-war statement “Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?” Four years later, in “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due,” Dave Mustaine and company took on the madness of combat mounted in the name of religion.
Although largely inspired by the Catholic-vs.-Protestant “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Mustaine has stated that “Holy Wars” applies equally to the endless faith-based fighting that plagues the Middle East and, really, to any place where one human takes up arms against another based on the notion of “God’s will.”
“Disposable Heroes” – Metallica (1986)
Metallica directly delivers the heat of battle by way of the epic, sprawling “Disposable Heroes.” The song conveys the mindset of a young soldier (“twenty-one, only son”) who, in the face of machinegun fire and the madness of combat, comes to realize he’s a faceless object in an evil, heartless game played by greedy powerbrokers who pump him with lies of glory so that he’ll do their actual ungodly wet work.
In bringing such humanity to the experience of being “boots on the ground,” Metallica radically hammers home how crucial it is to challenge political and military authority—because, literally, your very life can depend on it.
“Refuse/Resist” – Sepultura (1993)
Brazilian thrash masters Sepultura came of age dealing with Latin America’s often shockingly violent political tumult. That awareness informs the band’s identity as much as their music, which ranks among the most powerful metal of the ’80s and ’90s—or ever.
“Refuse/Resist,” from 1993’s masterful Chaos A.D., represents Sepultura’s full forward charge against the powers of oppression and exploitation. The song’s lyrics describe the insanity of streets run rampant with riots, while the music rages out in a call to keep standing, keep going, keep refusing, keep resisting. In short: keep fighting the good fight.
“War Pigs” – Black Sabbath (1970)
The first overtly political heavy metal song still ranks among the very most mesmerizing and moving. Just try not to join Ozzy some time in yelling, “Oh, Lord—yeah!”
“War Pigs” plays out like a ritual wherein Black Sabbath conjures the wicked generals of the title “gathered in their masses/just like witches at black masses” and then lays bare how their unforgivable monstrousness brings “death and hatred to mankind/poisoning their brainwashed minds.”
Finally, Sabbath reveals that such unbridled evil will ultimately be swallowed by even darker, more all-encompassing evil. “Day of judgment, god is calling/on their knees the war pigs crawling/Begging mercy for their sins/Satan, laughing, spreads his wings.”
“Wind of Change” – Scorpions (1990)
Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” tops the list because of its impact on the real world.
The group’s power ballad ode to Soviet Union’s “glasnost” policy that ultimately freed millions from tyranny actually became something of a worldwide “theme song” for the fall of oppressive regimes, and an inspiration for politically divided and downtrodden people everywhere to keep working for positive change.
Inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of their native Germany, Scorpions’ perform “Wind of Change” with heartfelt, even vulnerable conviction beyond what listeners were conditioned to expect from a metal group—especially one as nonstop ass-kicking as these Teutonic titans.
That honesty touched listeners worldwide, turning “Wind of Change” into a global smash. In 1991, Scorpions even presented the platinum record they received for the single to USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of glasnost. Part of that policy included mounting the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival, where Scorpions played alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Skid Row, and Cinderella.
Twenty years later, the group performed “Wind of Change” at Gorbachev’s 80th birthday celebration.
Heavy metal, in a huge way, had once again made a radical difference—and continues to prove that it always will.