Rock-and-roll is the most American of art forms, so let’s celebrate this Independence Day by indulging in our favorite American traditions: cracking beers, firing up barbecues, and cranking classic rock anthems loud enough to drown out even the most spectacular of firework displays.
The following fifteen radio staples encompass rock’s panoramic take on life, liberty, and the pursuit of awesomeness. They’re not always pretty, and they’re not all by native residents. Still, what’s great about America is also what’s great about rock-and-roll: everyone is welcome! Just be cool, play hard, and kick out the jams, Uncle Sam!
“Living in the USA” – Steve Miller (1969)
Lyrical Fireworks: “I see a yellow man, a brown man / a white man, a red man / Lookin’ for Uncle Sam / to give you a helpin’ hand / But everybody’s kickin’ sand”
Although the Steve Miller Band emerged from San Francisco’s late-’60s psychedelic onslaught that also begat Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, and the Grateful Dead, this is one group that has always seemed to be connected directly to America’s heartland. That down-home ethos likely stems from Steve Miller himself hailing from Wisconsin and the group’s second-in-command, Boz Scaggs, growing up in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.
“Living in the USA” niftily sums up the Steve Miller Band’s blend of laid-back roots rock and acid-blasted foundation shaking. It ambles into a cool groove and consists of words dominated by the phrase, “Doot doo doo doo doo doot doot.” Given its 1969 vintage, some of the lyrics sock it to America as a “plastic land,” but, hey man, that’s cool. We’re all just living in the U.S.A. Doot doo doo doo doo doot doot and all that. Man.
“The Americans” – Byron MacGregor (1973)
Lyrical Fireworks: “This Canadian thinks it’s time to speak up for the Americans as the most generous and possibly the least appreciated people on all the Earth!”
“The Americans” is a three-minute, 47-second spoken word track by veteran Canadian news commentator Byron MacGregor, then 73, in which he socks it to his fellow Canucks and other foreign bodies for slagging Uncle Sam so relentlessly and self-righteously during the Vietnam War era.
The track consists of MacGregor passionately and without a smile pointing out the achievements and automatic charitable actions of the nation to his south. An instrumental “America the Beautiful” swells beneath MacGregor, courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Here’s the thing: “The Americans” was a huge hit single. It got spun multiple times a day between pop hits on music radio stations, reached #4 on the Billboard chart, and rapidly moved more than three-and-a-half million copies. MacGregor, putting his money where his golden-toned mouth was, donated all his proceeds to the American Red Cross.
“The Heart of Rock & Roll” – Huey Lewis and the News (1984)
Lyrical Fireworks: “DC, San Antone and the Liberty Town, Boston and Baton Rouge / Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too / Everywhere there’s music, real live music, bands with a million styles /But It’s still that some old rock and roll music / that really really, really drives ’em wild!”
Huey Lewis and the News guide us through a scene-by-scene musical tour of the U.S.A. on “The Heart of Rock & Roll.” As tends to happen even in songs by a band like the News that’s so tightly connected to San Francisco, the immediate focus falls on our two megalopolis culture capitals.
New York, Huey sings, is where “when they play that music / Oooh! That modern music / they play it with a lot of style;” and L.A., as Huey continues, is where “when they play that music / that hard rock music / they play it with a lot of flash.” Either way, Huey assures us, “It’s still that same old back beat rhythm / that really, really kicks ’em in the [FOUR BIG DRUM BEATS].”
As a peak-’80s pop rock confection complete with all the cheeseball trappings that entails, “The Heart of Rock & Roll” remains an eminently pleasant toe-tapper and there’s no doubting the sincerity of anyone involved. Goofy songs you can dance to with your grandma at a wedding are a rich American tradition in themselves, and this one, just like the words say, “is still bea-tin’… (in Cleveland!)”
“Catch Me Now I’m Falling” – The Kinks (1979)
Lyrical Fireworks: “I remember when you were down / And you needed a helping hand / I came to feed you / But now that I need you / You won’t give me a second glance / Now I’m calling all citizens from all over the world / This is Captain America calling / I bailed you out when you were down on your knees / So will you catch me now I’m falling?”
While Superman is the subject of another track on the Kinks’ 1979 Low Budget LP, “Catch Me” depicts Captain America broadcasting a distress message from what might be a bombed-out bunker or behind a stack of bodies on a battlefield. Ol’ Cap is desperately reaching out to former allies for help, and the more nobody responds, the louder he reminds anybody who’s out there of all he’s done for them.
By the end of his transmission, the embittered Captain spews: “I was the one who always bailed you out / of your depressions and your difficulties / I never thought that you would let me down / But the next time you’ve in trouble / better not come to me!”
Kinks’ kingpin Ray Davies cheekily paints the States as a clobbered and bedraggled superhero—one whose name is already perfect. “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” provides a snarky but not insincere of even unappreciative view of our national character. It’s also got a Stonesy riff and a call-and-response chorus as mighty as Captain America’s shield itself.
“Abraham, Martin, and John” – Dion (1968)
Lyrical Fireworks: “Didn’t you love the things that they stood for? / Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me? / And we’ll be free … Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby? / Can you tell me where he’s gone? I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill / With Abraham, Martin and John”
1968 stands as one of the single most tumultuous, divisive, terrifying, and soul-wounding periods in United States history. The Vietnam War raged, youth turned against parents, an ugly presidential election pitted Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey and segregationist George Wallace, and the nation, still not recovered from the assassination of John F. Kennedy five years earlier, suddenly had to endure the murders of civil rights crusader Martin Luther King and idealistic White House hopeful (and JFK’s brother) Robert Kennedy.
Musical balm then came by way of an unexpected healer: 1950s Bronx doo-wop star Dion DiMucci, who paid tribute to America’s most iconic fallen agents of social change with “Abraham, Martin, and John.” Woeful, wistful, and impossible not to be moved by, Dion’s instant anthem hit #4 in the U.S. and $1 in Canada, ultimately selling more than one million records.
“Abraham, Martin, and John” also quickly proved to be a popular cover, generating hit versions by Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and comedian Moms Mabley who, at 75 in 1969, became the oldest person to ever score a Top 40 song. One memorable non-hit take on “Abraham, Martin, and John” dropped in 1970 by Leonard Nimoy.
“We’re an American Band” – Grand Funk Railroad (1973)
Lyrical Fireworks: “We’re an American band / We’re an American band /We’re comin’ to your town / We’ll help you party it down / We’re an American band”
The heartland’s hard rock equivalent of an M-80 firecracker going off in a Budweiser keg, “We’re an American Band” represents Grand Funk Railroad simultaneously declaring the totality of their intentions (“We’re coming to your town / we’ll help you party down!”) and boasting about how groupies in every port attend to their every need (“Now these fine ladies, they had a plan / They was out to meet the boys in the band / They said, ‘Come on. dudes, let’s get it on!’ / And we proceeded to tear that hotel down!”)
As such, “We’re an American Band” is a masterpiece of dumb fun and an ideal accompaniment to carefree Fourth of July (mis)adventures. In fact, no song has ever come close to approximating Grand Funk’s crystallization of uniquely U.S.-based knuckleheaded glory outside of “America, F—k Yeah!” from Team America: World Police.
“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” – John Mellencamp (1985)
Lyrical Fireworks: “They come from the cities / and they come from the smaller towns / Beat up cars with guitars and drummers / Goin crack boom bam … Voices from nowhere / and voices from the larger towns / Filled our head full of dreams / Turned the world upside down”
John Mellencamp’s salute to the radio hit-makers and their immortal contributions to the soundtrack of our collective consciousness is a stellar retro rave-up. The former Johnny Cougar recounts the faith and courage it took for rock and soul’s pioneers to hit those open American highways in hope that someone would hear their songs.
Mellencamp’s shout-outs to 1960s musical greats not only prove that America offered a one-of-a-kind opportunity for a vast variety of voices, but just how brilliantly eclectic AM radio once was. Imagine hearing all these artists in a row: Frankie Lyman, Bobby Fuller, Mitch Ryder, Jackie Wilson, the Shangri La’s, the Young Rascals, Martha Reeves and James Brown.
As with Huey Lewis and the News’s more scene-centric than artist-specific “The Heart of Rock & Roll” from the previous summer and the Kink’s not-quite-hit “Rock ’n’ Roll Cities” from the following year, “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” reminds us of what once was, and what, through social media and streaming services, we can now both recreate and ignite anew anywhere and everywhere, any time we’re so inspired.
/ “Living in America” – James Brown (1985)
Lyrical Fireworks: “You may not be lookin’ for the promised land / but you might find it anyway / Under one of those old familiar names like / New Orleans, Detroit City, Dallas / Pittsburgh P.A, New York City / Kansas, Atlanta, Chicago and L. A.”
One moment in the saga of huge-hearted Philly hometown hero Rocky Balboa battling the robotic Soviet killing machine Ivan Drago actually transcends the movie’s erstwhile goofiness (remember Paulie’s sexy robot maid?) and transforms the ridiculous into the sublime: when James Brown, flashily bedecked in the colors of Old Glory, opens up the big Las Vegas fight by belting out “Living in America.”
As Rocky IV’s director, Stallone achieves wit and nuance during this funny, exciting, and just a little bit enjoyably uncomfortable film sequence, and the Godfather of Soul more than rises to the occasion.
“Living in America” is both raucous and gritty, a soaring endorsement of the titular nation’s possibilities that’s not devoid of self-aware irony regarding how often those ideals fall short. JB’s vocals rock on par with any of his other greatest hits, and his Famous Flames band delivers nothing short of a rollicking inferno. God bless “Living in America.”
“America” – Simon and Garfunkel (1968)
Lyrical Fireworks: “’Kathy,’ I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh / ‘Michigan seems like a dream to me now’ / It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw / I’ve come to look for America … ‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping / I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why / Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all gone to look for America”
The vast Open Road symbolizes America’s promise perhaps more perfectly than any monument or memorial ever could. And as anyone who’s ever traveled the United States’ seemingly infinite intertwining of highways, byways, roadside attractions, and exits great and small, a crucial chapter on that path to enlightenment as endless scenery rolls by involves undergoing an extreme existential crisis.
Simon and Garfunkel devastatingly nail that exact moment in the haunting, heartfelt “America.” The song’s two young protagonists are traversing never-ending thoroughfares with no knowable destination in mind. The narrator has already covered a vast expanse of landscape by way of his thumb and generous motorists back when it was cool to do so (those were the times).
Still, looking out at all that sky and all those lives careening to and fro in all those vehicles all around him, the song’s hero finally breaks, confessing how overwhelmed he feels and how desperate he gets in failing to explain it. Kathy, his companion, snoozes through the moment. It doesn’t matter. The road keeps going and the bus rolls ever onward.
Here in America, at least once, we’ve all been there.
“Back in the U.S.A.” – Chuck Berry (1959)
Lyrical Fireworks: “New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you / Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge / Let alone just to be at my home back in ol’ St. Lou / Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway? / From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay / You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A.”
A blast of pure red-white-and-blue joy, Chuck Berry composed “Back in the USA” after returning from a tour of Australia where he was moved by the plight of the continent’s Aboriginal people.
On top of that, Chuck also missed familiar American pleasures, such “Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café / Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day / Yeah, and a jukebox jumping with records like in the U.S.A!”
Chuck Berry fanatics the Beatles’ goosed their idol (along with those ultimate all-Americans the Beach Boys) in 1968 with their cockeyed parody, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” A decade later, Linda Ronstadt scored her own hit with a buoyant cover of the original.
“American Girl” – Tom Petty (1977)
Lyrical Fireworks: “Well she was an American girl / Raised on promises / She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there / Was a little more to life somewhere else / After all it was a great big world / with lots of places to run to”
More a universal snapshot of wanderlust inspired by a broken heart than anything overtly U.S.-centric, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” has nonetheless long functioned as an anthem for American girls and their admirers both as a classic rock radio mainstay and for its amusingly sinister use during The Silence of the Lambs.
One flipside equivalent of “American Girl” is “American Woman” by Canadian rockers the Guess Who. The blazing, monster-riffed 1970 smash decries its symbolic U.S. female as a predator to be feared and avoided, even pointing out social crises via words such as “I don’t want you war machine / I don’t want your ghetto scene.”
“American Pie” – Don McLean (1971)
Lyrical Fireworks: “When the jester sang for the king and queen / in a coat he borrowed from James Dean / and a voice that came from you and me/ Oh, and while the king was looking down / the jester stole his thorny crown / the courtroom was adjourned / no verdict was returned”
Don McLean’s eight-minute epic “American Pie” brilliantly splays out at alternate history of U.S. culture as embodied by rock-and-roll. McLean spins his epic through cryptic, albeit obviously loaded, lyrics and a beguiling melody that surrounds an irresistible sing-along chorus.
Overtly inspired by the February 3, 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, “American Pie” first sets up an idyllic, if melancholy, early-rock-era teenage milieu. The song then documents society’s enlightenment, radicalization, and ultimate apocalyptic spiral over the course of the ensuing 1960s, as reflected by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, Woodstock, Charles Manson, and the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert that ended with a fan fatality at the stab-happy hands of some beer-and-acid-enflamed Hell’s Angels.
The genius of “American Pie” lies in McLean’s wise and witty encoding of the saga through metaphorical wordplay. Since the song’s release, those lyrics have been analyzed, obsessed over, and interpreted in myriad ways, on par with any other major work of art the U.S. has produced. In 2013, McLean sold his original hand-written “American Pie” words for a cool $1.2 million. Their true value is, of course, priceless.
“Born in the U.S.A.” – Bruce Springsteen (1984)
Lyrical Fireworks: “Got in a little hometown jam / so they put a rifle in my hand / sent me off to a foreign land / to go and kill the yellow man … Come back home to the refinery / hiring man said “son if it was up to me” / Went down to see my V.A. man / He said ’Son, don’t you understand'”
“Born in the U.S.A” rendered permanent Bruce Springsteen’s reign as rock’s premiere lyrical chronicler of blue-collar America. Simply, sincerely, and sans bitterness or irony, “Born in the U.S.A.” chronicles the plight of Vietnam veterans by way of one soldier’s raw deal both in combat overseas, where his brother was killed, and back home, where he can’t find a job.
Genuinely patriotic in its passion and sympathy, “Born in the U.S.A.” was nonetheless misunderstood by many to be a rah-rah flag-waving anthem. Among those who didn’t get it was Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca who attempted to license the song for truck commercials. When that didn’t pan out, Chrysler mounted a rip-off ad campaign with somebody belting out, “Born in America!”
More spectacular in its misappropriation was the re-election campaign of President Ronald Reagan. When Republican strategists contacted Springsteen, an outspoken liberal, about using the song, he respectfully passed.
Regardless, the Prez went on to invoke the Boss while stumping in the Garden State, saying: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”
Shortly thereafter, Bruce in concert introduced his song “Johnny 99,” about a laid-off auto worker driven to kill over his financial woes, by stating: “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album must’ve been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.”
Remember, it’s often said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. That’s perhaps especially true when you can pump your fingerless-gloved fist and/or spazzy-dance with Courteney Cox along to it.
“U.S. Blues” – Grateful Dead (1974)
Lyrical Fireworks: “Red and white, blue suede shoes, I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do? / Gimme five, I’m still alive / ain’t no luck, I learned to duck … I’m Uncle Sam, that’s who I am / Been hidin’ out in a rock and roll band / Shake the hand that shook the hand of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan / Shine your shoes, light your fuse / Can you use them ol’ U.S. Blues?”
No matter how raggedy and far-out and West-Coast-specific the Grateful Dead may come off in popular consciousness, the mere notion and very mission of the band conveys much about our grand American experiment itself.
Fueled (however chemically) by an ambitiously spiritual and infinitely more groovy take on Manifest Destiny than what had come before, the Dead served as intrepid pioneers. They began and remained endlessly engaged in no-limits exploration and never-before-attempted alchemical wonder-working that transformed polyglot melting pots into happily unified heaps of harmonious gold.
“U.S. Blues,” the album opener from 1974’s From the Mars Hotel, represents the Dead’s cosmic nod to their country of origin. It’s a jaunty amble across a spacious playing field whose borders stretch from one corner of the universe to any and all others. The lyrics invoke archetypal Americana and when the chorus infectiously cheers, “Wave that flag / Wave it wide and high,” it seems fun and funny without being an actual joke.
All told, “U.S. Blues” is where the Dead’s skeleton mascot really earns his signature stars-and-stripes jacket and endlessly tippable Uncle Sam top hat.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” – Jimi Hendrix (1969)
Without an actual word, Jimi Hendrix’s swooping, soaring, dive-bombing electric guitar demolition and reconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner” lays bare the entirety of U.S. history, encapsulates its own revolutionary moment, and tears open a look into the country’s future that is, at once, fearsome and inspirational.
Hendrix debuted his best-known immolation of our National Anthem as the closing act of the 1969 Woodstock musical festival, where numerous delays meant he played just past daybreak on Monday morning. It was not Jimi’s first time playing the song, but on stage in the aftermath of all that had transpired over the three previous days, this version became instantly iconic.
The rebel spirit and limitless innovation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” communicates all that is great about America, while the wild and hair-raising detours the guitar god takes with the basic construct embody the perils of one body wielding such unprecedented power. In short, Jimi’s anthem is the sound of our nation itself after awakening to rock-and-roll. Long may we continue, in the only the best sense, to wail and shred and keep on jamming.