News & Politics

21 Best '80s Songs Railing Against the Horrible Reagan Era

Have a listen to these protest songs when the conservative walls feel like they're closing in.

For perhaps the last decade or so, the metaphor of the inmates running the asylum has seemed to fit the GOP perfectly, what with so many conservatives saying and doing so many batshit insane things. Then came the 2014 midterms -- an election which swept more extremist Republican ideologues into Congress than even pollsters saw coming -- and suddenly, the image of a bunch of rafter-swinging, WB-cartoon-style lunatics taking over the party started to seem almost quaint. If the recent elections taught us anything, it’s that we’re not only going to need a bigger asylum, we’re going to need much, much better drugs.

Take solace in the protest music of the Reagan era, which spoke out against the hero of nearly all of today’s most insane conservative politicians. (And while you’re at it, have a look at this list of things about President Reagan that conservatives would rather you forget.) Here are 21 political songs to help you get through the coming Republican Congressional era.

1) "My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg)" - The Ramones (1985): Written in protest of President “Bonzo” Reagan’s 1985 stop at Bitburg Cemetery in Germany, where roughly 50 of the 2,000 interred are Nazi soldiers. The unpopularity of the visit wasn’t helped by Reagan’s insistence that the SS dead "were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps." Joey Ramone accused the president of “sort of shit[ting] on everybody,” and asked, “How can you forget six million people being gassed and roasted?”

Fun Fact:Though it’s easy to imagine the song pitting Joey against Johnny and/or Dee Dee -- the former an avowed conservative and the both purportedly avid collectors of Nazi memorabilia -- Joey’s brother claims the song was actually Dee Dee’s idea. In any case, for more on the incredible story that is the Ramones, check out the exceptional rockumentary “End of the Century.”

2) "Born In the U.S.A." - Bruce Springsteen (1984): Quite possibly the most misinterpreted political song in history, Bruce Springsteen’s scathing critique of America’s indifference to its veterans is probably soundtracking a monster truck rally at this very moment. Acting on a tip from clueless conservative columnist George Will, Reagan’s 1984 re-election team began using “Born in the U.S.A.” on the campaign trail, mistaking it for a patriotic anthem. If they’d paid any attention to the lyrics, they might have noticed Springsteen had instead written an attack on Reaganomics and its complete disregard for Vietnam veterans. In a 2005 NPR interview, Springsteen cited Reagan’s use of the song as the moment “when the Republicans first mastered the art of co-opting anything and everything that seemed fundamentally American.” Within just a few campaign stops, the singer’s team quickly put an end to Reagan’s unauthorized use of the song.

Fun Fact:“Born in the U.S.A.” was originally called “Vietnam,” and the original chorus was “You died in Vietnam!” Even Springsteen himself called the single “the most misunderstood song since ‘“Louie, Louie.’”

3) "Human Error” - Subhumans (1981): It’s difficult to pick a Subhumans song that isn’t overtly political and critical of the entire political machine -- it was, along with other UK anarcho-punk bands like Crass and Conflict,kind oftheir thing. But “Human Error” is particularly affecting, possibly because of its echoes of ‘80s fears about nuclear war, and its indictment of an entire world seemingly in conflict, from Belfast to Vietnam to America. Beyond that, the track is worth a listen for its distillation of reggae into wonky, brittle British punk rock and Zappa-esque noodling.

Fun Fact:Sometimes called Subhumans UK so to avoid confusion with the Canadian band of the same name, who were also highly political leftists. It’s worth noting that the Canadian Subhumans’ constantly changing roster included a future member of D.O.A., who also made this list.

4) "Fucked Up Ronnie" - D.O.A. (1984): Although always a politically charged voice in punk, this single was one of the Canadian band’s most explicit attacks on Ronald Reagan. D.O.A.'s slogan, "Talk minus action equals zero," (also the title of two of their releases) was a pretty good indicator of their commitment to anti-right-wing causes. "Fucked Up Ronnie" is another example of '80s nuclear war fears -- including Reagan's perceived eagerness to drop bombs on America's Cold War foes -- put to song.

Fun Fact:D.O.A. continues to tour today, with plans for a 2015 world tour recently announced. It's worth noting that the band isn't just one of hardcore's most seminal acts, they're sometimes credited with popularizing the name of the genre. Their second album "Hardcore '81" is cited by some as the first usage of the term in reference to their music by a North American punk band.

5) “99 Luftballons (99 Red Balloons)" - Nena (1983): Released in the midst of the Cold War, this song imagined a nuclear war that ends with cities being reduced to dust. Originally recorded in German, the band later released an English version that also became a hit. The original German version of the song did well in America and Australia, while the English version fared better in Ireland, the UK and Canada. Oddly, the English version isn’t a direct translation of the German track, although the anti-war stance of both songs remains intact.

Fun Fact:Nena -- which, by the way, is the name of the band and its lead singer -- are often referred to as one-hit wonders, and the song did climb to the top of the charts in several countries. In the U.S., however, it only made it as far as number two.  

6) "Ronnie Talk to Russia" - Prince (1981) : Essentially, an open letter to President Reagan requesting that he put an end to the Cold War “before it’s too late.” Although one of the lesser known tracks from “Controversy,” it’s as catchy as anything else on the album, with lots of synths and big harmonized vocals. Sounds a little like a song from “Rocky Horror Picture Show” as imagined by Prince.

Fun Fact:Prince writes about sociopolitical topics a lot, although he’s rarely spoken of as a political songwriter. On 1987’s "Sign o' the Times,” he sang about drugs, AIDS, nuclear war and Reagan’s heavily criticized Star Wars defense initiative. There are too many political Prince songs to name, but “Race,” “Uptown,” “Dreamer” and “Hello” all feature political and social commentary.

7) “The Message” - Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1982): Endlessly sampled and infinitely imitated, it’s hard to downplay the significance of this seminal hip-hop classic, one of rap’s first socially conscious -- and more lyrically complex -- hits. “The Message” never mentioned Reagan by name, but it didn’t have to: rapper Melle Mel painted a bleak picture of inner city blight, poverty, inequality, and death that tacitly implicated the entire American power structure. It is a thoughtful and damning deconstruction of the myth of the American dream that manages, even now, to be one of the best get downs in hip-hop history. It’s also the starting point for conscious hip-hop, which led to rappers from Chuck D to KRS-One to Common. Check out the song’s music video, linked above, for gritty scenes of a pre-Disneyfied, very non-artisanal 1980s New York City.

Fun Fact:Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first rap inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Among the innumerable examples of “The Message”’s influence in pop culture are Genesis’s 1983 international hit “Mama,” and the 2006 film “Happy Feet,” which features a CGI penguin rapping the song’s chorus.

Extra Fun Fact:It’s hard to talk about Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel without mentioning the duo’s “White Lines,” a critique of ‘80s decadence and inequity seen through the prism of the decade’s hard drug of choice, cocaine. The song features a sample from “Cavern” by post-punks Liquid, Liquid, making it a testament to hip-hop’s early willingness to explore and engage new sonic terrains.

8) “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” - Dead Kennedys (1981): Not so much an original song as a repurposing of one of the band’s most enduring classics, “California Über Alles.” The first recording had been a jab at then-California Governor Jerry Brown, whom the band realized was a far less deserving target than the man they called “Emperor Ronald Reagan.” Following the president’s election, lead singer Jello Biafra retrofitted the track with new lyrics that called out Regan for everything from racism to religious totalitarianism.

Fun Fact:The song was again modified in 2004 to serve as a critique of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Kali-Fornia Über Alles 21st Century" also went after Enron, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and FOX News.

9) “Reaganomics” - D.R.I. (1983): Short, and not exactly sweet, D.R.I.’s criticism of Reagan’s economic policies clocks in at just 42 brief seconds. The lyrics are also uncomplicated and straight to the point, consisting solely of four lines repeated. ("Reaganomics killing me / Reaganomics killing me / Reaganomics killing me / Reaganomics killing you.")

Fun Fact:D.R.I. stands for “Dirty Rotten Imbeciles,” a name given to the band by the annoyed father of two of its members. He apparently hated the band’s music, and wasn’t too keen on the fact that their practice space was located in his home.

10) “Land of Confusion” - Genesis (1986): Though mildly political from a lyrical standpoint -- with a focus on trying to make the world a better, less tumultuous place -- the video for this song (which definitely scared us all as little kids, right?) was pointedly anti-Reagan. It was also, notably, filled with puppet versions of nearly every 1980s world leader and celebrity. It opens with Ronald and Nancy and a gorilla -- guessing that’s a Bonzo reference -- in bed, then follows Reagan’s bizarre dreams, in which he imagines himself alternately as a superhero and a cowboy. The whole thing ends with Reagan waking and, bumbler that he is, accidentally nuking the world. It’s a perfect artifact from the Cold War years.

Fun Fact:Phil Collins is usually identified as conservative and a Tory supporter, a charge he denies. In a 2010 interview, he claimed he was actually apolitical, stating that he’d only voted “once in [his] life,” which seems like maybe not the best admission to make. Said Collins, “Nobody ever asked me if I was Tory or Labour. The truth is that I don't believe in any of them.”

11) “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” - Public Enemy (1989): “I got a letter from the government / The other day / I opened and read it / It said they were suckers.” A stinging and prophetic indictment of the U.S.’s criminal justice system, which today houses 2.3 million Americans -- or roughly 3% of the country’s population. The song, which tells the story of a jailbreak, linked prison with slavery and the oppression of African-Americans. Public Enemy pulled off the astounding feat of pushing both lyrical and musical boundaries, and still emerged as critical and audience favorites.

Fun Fact:Another song from the same album titled “Rebel Without a Pause,” takes aim more directly at Regan, and includes the line “impeach the president.”

12 and 12.5) “All She Wants to Do is Dance” (1985) / “The End of the Innocence” (1989) - Don Henley: Though often regarded as ‘80s shmaltz -- and if we’re being honest, it’s easy to hear why -- Henley’s output from the era is actually far more political than might be immediately apparent. “All She Wants to Do is Dance” bemoans America’s focus on frivolousness and self-indulgence as their government makes a mess of the world. While “The End of the Innocence” mourns the loss of Boomer idealism “for this tired old man that we elected king.” Meaning Reagan, of course. Henley’s earnest use of his musical bully pulpit for social good was lost on most Americans, who just heard gauzy soft rock anthems from the guy who’d co-written “Hotel California.”

Fun Fact:Henley apparently has a zero tolerance for conservative politicians using his songs, going so far as to sue California Senate candidate Chuck DeVore in 2010 for copyright infringement. Devore used parodies of Henley’s "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" (rechristened “All She Wants to Do is Tax”) and "The Boys of Summer" (renamed "Hope of November") in two campaign ads. The two sides settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

13) “Right Wing Pigeons” - Dead Milkmen (1984): Punk's perennial pranksters take on the entire right wing, whom they accused of being “sent here to destroy the human race.” The song speaks to Reagan in particular, saying, “The man in the White House who just don't care / He starves little kids and he dyes his hair.”

Fun Fact:Although it’s been many years since “Punk Rock Girl,” Dead Milkmen’s biggest hit -- and the only song from the band to make it into heavy rotation on MTV -- the members continue onward. Their most recent album, “Pretty Music for Pretty People,” came out in October 2014.

14) “Allentown” – Billy Joel (1982): Billy Joel’s ode to the working class laments the loss of manufacturing jobs and the dire economic straits of those left to deal with the demise of industry. The picture painted by the singer-songwriter is a grim portrait of joblessness and burnt-out industrial towns: “Well we're living here in Allentown / And they're closing all the factories down / Out in Bethlehem they're killing time / Filling out forms / Standing in line.”

Fun Fact:The song was originally about Levittown, New York, one of the most famous post-World War II American suburbs and the place where Billy Joel grew up. The decision was made to change the subject of the song to Allentown after Joel took a trip to Pennsylvania that inspired new lyrics.

15) "I Shot the Devil" - Suicidal Tendencies (1983): When a song opens with the lead singer screaming, “I shot Reagan,” it gives you a pretty good sense of what you’re in for. From there, it’s a hardcore blast of rapid fire drumming and rat-a-tat vocals, with singer Mike Muir rattling off the names of various famous people he’s shot (all of whom were actually assassinated or the victims of assassination attempts). Reagan, however, gets name checked more than anyone else.

Fun Fact:A longstanding rumor holds that the original title of the song, “I Shot Reagan,” was changed after the band received a visit from an FBI agent who, um, encouraged them to alter the name.

16) “Two Tribes” - Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984): An anti-nuclear song about the futility of war. Although the track wasn’t a hit in the United States, it was massive in the band’s native UK, where it was the number one song for a record-breaking nine weeks.

Fun Fact:The video for the song features actors dressed as President Reagan and Soviet politician Konstantin Chernenko duking it out in a ring as an audience -- most of them clearly having bet on the fight -- cheers them on.

17) “Reagan Is For The Rich Man” - Louisiana Red and Carey Bell (1983): The title really says it all. Blues musician Louisiana Red penned this song, with the lyrics coming straight from his heart -- he claimed he’d written the track after having been denied benefits. “I’ll be so glad when Ronald Reagan ain’t no more around,” Red sings as Bell accompanies him on harmonica. “I’d rather see him in a cowboy movie / Than any political ground.”

Not-So-Fun Fact:Like so many blues musicians, Red had a life marked by sadness and tragedy. His mother died of pneumonia just a week after he was born, and his father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan when he was five years old. Those early losses might explain why he became such an effective voice of the underdog.

18) “Reagan Youth” - Reagan Youth (1984): A song comparing 1980s young Republicans to Nazis. Reagan Youth -- both the band and the song -- was a corruption of Hitler Youth, the children’s wing of the Nazi party. Despite being very young when they began playing together -- they were still in high school when they had their first show -- Reagan Youth wrote some of the most political punk of the hardcore era.

Fun Fact:Reagan Youth’s lead singer, the late Dave Rubinstein, was adamantly anti-right-wing, and the son of Holocaust survivors. Reagan Youth was incredibly important to New York City hardocre (NYHC), the scene that also gave us Cro-Mags, Murphy’s Law and, in their earliest incarnation, the Beastie Boys.

19) "Bye Bye Ronnie" - M.D.C. (1989): As if to make clear that President Reagan is the titular Ronnie, the song opens with dialogue from Reagan’s turn as George “The Gipper” Gipp in the film “Knute Rockne, All American.” From there it shreds into a hardcore vision of Reagan being tried for war crimes -- and more specifically, the Iran-Contra affair. M.D.C. were among a number of punk bands who played the Rock Against Reagan tours in the ‘80s, which pushed back against the President’s conservative politics with protest songs.

Fun Fact:M.D.C.’s most famous release of all-time may be “John Wayne Was a Nazi,” the subject of which makes itself apparent via the title.

20) “Old Mother Reagan” - Violent Femmes (1986): It’s hard to say whether this is a takedown of Ronald Reagan himself or his first lady, Nancy Reagan. At a mere 31 seconds in length, it’s not exactly epic, but the band manages to squeeze in a litany of complaints aimed either at the President or, quite possibly, the woman whose greatest contribution to the War on Drugs was the phrase “Just say no.” In any case, the song alternately labels the Reagan in question “dumb,” “dangerous” and imagines her -- or him -- being barred from entering Heaven, presumably due to wreaking so much havoc on Earth.

Fun Fact:The band’s website relays this incredible story: “The Violent Femmes were eating dinner at Doyle's Seafood in Sydney. [Bassist Brian] Ritchie ate a live lobster served sashimi style. When [Singer Gordon] Gano saw the arms of the lobster waving around while Ritchie munched the raw flesh, he called a taxi and went back to the hotel. The next day, Gano announced he was becoming a vegetarian and has never eaten meat since then.”

21) “Hinkley Had a Vision” - The Crucifucks (1985): Although Crucifucks lead singer Doc Dart saves most of his vitriol for right-wing Christians in this song, he does get right down to brass tacks when discussing his contempt for Reagan, singing, “I wanna take the president / Chop off his head / And mail it to them / In a garbage bag.”

Fun Fact:Dart continues to be highly political, even running for Mayor of Lansing, Michigan, in 1989. He failed to win the election but did garner five percent of the vote. Dart also made news for posting controversial political statements on yard signs in the days following the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. (These included, but were not limited to, “BUSH: WHITE TRASH IMBECILE MAGGOT CORPORATE SLUT” and “U.S. TERROR IN IRAQ MAKES SEPT 11TH A TINY MIRROR IMAGE.”)


Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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