Rockin in the Free World
Rockin’ in the Free World
The Top 25 Libertarian Rock Songs
In the summer of 2006, National Review published a list by John J. Miller of the top 50 conservative songs. It was a fun article that generated a great deal of discussion and criticism in the blogosphere during what must have been a slow news week. I intended to join that discussion by writing up a list of the most libertarian rock songs, without borrowing any of Miller’s choices. Now, three and a half years later, here is your libertarian countdown:
25. “Sweet Cherry Wine” by Tommy James and the Shondells. One of the ultimate pop bands of the 1960s try their hands at writing an antiwar song and knock it out of the park. The lyrics place a very libertarian emphasis on the inviolability of human life, declaring, “Only God has the right/ To decide who’s to live and die.”
24. “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle. This classic of the country rock genre tells the story of three generations of outlaws trying to make a living in defiance of the nanny state. The protagonist’s (John Lee Pettimore’s) father and grandfather make moonshine before their still burns. Because they “draft the white trash first,” Pettimore volunteers for the Army, and later applies the skills he learns flying choppers in Vietnam to smuggle cocaine into the country.
23. “Open up the Border” by Clutch. Although you should never take the lyrics to a Clutch song too seriously, the stoner rock group seems to be celebrating the numerous possibilities offered by free trade. The protagonist travels around the world trading incessantly, and the song’s metal rumble makes trade sound like an unstoppable force of nature.
22. “Big Brother” by Stevie Wonder. The song sounds sweet enough—and what doesn’t with Stevie’s mellifluous voice in the mix?—but it is actually a vituperative attack on politicians who use the disadvantaged to advance their careers with no intention of actually changing things for the better.
21. “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest. It’s no treatise on Austrian economics or the nonaggression axiom, but the good old-fashioned visceral disrespect for authority this metal classic conjures up is just what every libertarian needs sometimes.
20. “Prison Song” by System of a Down. This is one of the few songs of any genre that tackles the rapid growth of America’s prison population, due in large part to the War on Drugs. The song suggests that by imprisoning so many of our people, we are turning our whole society into a prison.
19. “Gasoline Dreams” by Outkast. Probably the closest Outkast comes to a traditional rock song with its cutting electric guitar, “Gasoline Dreams” describes a collapsed American Dream, in part ruined by the government. Andre and Big Boi rap about relatives in prison on drug offenses, hating their taxes, and young people who have rightfully lost respect for the law.
18. “Long Haired Country Boy” by Charlie Daniels. Daniels sings about a person cultural warriors on both the left and right would have you believe doesn’t exist: a pot-smoking redneck skeptical of preachers. The longhaired country boy provides for himself and only asks to be left alone—a true libertarian archetype.
17. “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” by Cat Stevens. Long before it was in annoying phone commercials, this song was featured in the 1971 dark comedy “Harold and Maude.” The film and song give the lesson that there are “a million ways to go” and each can be a path to happiness for a different person, so we should all respect individual choices.
16. “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols. No, the anarchy advocated in this early punk anthem is not some deeply pondered free-market philosophy, but still the song is a powerful call to antiauthoritarians of all stripes. Remember when Johnny Rotten waved to Ron Paul on “The Tonight Show”? Maybe his anarchism has matured after all these years.
15. “Mom and Dad” by Frank Zappa. This song was written in 1968, but it eerily anticipates the Kent State shootings of 1970. Zappa takes aim at an establishment that wantonly kills young people for protesting and looking weird. The parents also earn Zappa’s ire as they silently acquiesce to the murders and encourage their children to conform so as not to rock the boat.
14. “Going Mobile” by The Who. Set to a jaunty Pete Townshend riff, this cut off Who’s Next defines the pure freedom of travel. Most of Townshend’s lyrics concern being free of obligations and the worries of life, but he also sticks his thumb in the eye of officious government agents when he promises to make “the police and the taxman miss me.”
13. “With God on Our Side” by Bob Dylan. In his early days, Dylan wrote a number of antiwar songs; this remains one of his finest. The song details many of America’s wars, all fought in the firm belief that God supported America. Of course, believing that God supports their cause could spur America’s leaders to end war once and for all through nuclear annihilation. Dylan, however, sings that if God is truly on our side, he will “stop the next war.”
12. “The Guns of Brixton” by The Clash. This deep cut from the seminal London Calling is one of The Clash’s best blends of reggae into punk, and it minces no words about the right and necessity of self-defense, even against your own government. “When they kick at your front door/ How you gonna come/ With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?” Joe Strummer sings, leaving little doubt as to which he thought was right.
11. “Into the Void” by Black Sabbath. Even for a legendary guitarist like Tony Iommi, who seems to be composed of nothing but awesome metal riffs, the lead-in to this song is a real bone-cruncher. After a full minute, Iommi’s sludge riff finally gives way to a faster, choppier one, and Ozzy Osbourne bursts onto the scene to tell the tale of an intrepid band of space travelers fleeing a ruined Earth for a “world where freedom waits.”
10. “Freewill” by Rush. “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” That pretty well sums up this song by the great Canadian power trio. Drummer and lyricist Neil Peart is a well-known fan of Ayn Rand, and it shows here as he encourages people to take responsibility for their own lives instead of blaming bad outcomes on fate or God.
9. “Support Your Local Emperor” by Blues Traveler. Although John Popper’s libertarian politics did not become a subject of conversation until much later in his career, this 1991 song makes them abundantly clear. Popper sings of politicians as small, vain people, constantly in need of praise despite the fact that they are completely ineffectual.
8. “Politician” by Cream. From the moment Jack Bruce’s menacing bass line hits, you know that whatever this song is about, it is evil, unsavory, and downright sleazy. The lyrics tell of a powerful politician driving around in a “big black car” seducing young women. Of course, the politician has no principles, as he supports the left but leans to the right.
6. “It’s My Life” by The Animals. Libertarianism has never been summed up in song as quickly as this: “It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want. It’s my mind, and I’ll think what I want.”
7. “Riki Tiki Tavi” by Donovan. This song by the British answer to Bob Dylan (who of course is not actually a question) begins with some undeniably upbeat guitar strumming, and although Donovan never loses his cheerful tone, he proceeds to attack every social institution in existence. He tells us, “the United Nations ain’t really united/ And the organization ain’t really organized.” Those who believe institutions like government will solve the problems in their lives are no more mature than someone who believes the fictional Riki Tiki Tavi will kill snakes.
5. “Symphony of Destruction” by Megadeth. This song is not quite as beautifully simplistic as Lord Acton’s maxim about absolute power corrupting absolutely, but it’s close. “You take a mortal man/ And put him in control/ Watch him become a god/ Watch people’s heads-a-roll,” sings Dave Mustaine as he churns out an almost perfectly simple metal riff. In the end, Mustaine envisions world powers falling and peaceful men reasserting their prerogative.
4. “Granite State Destroyer” by Scissorfight. Few people outside of New England have heard of Scissorfight—although I bet a lot of you Free Staters out there are big fans—but if you have not heard them and you are at all a fan of stoner metal, you are missing out. This song is about survivalists with the battle cry “Live free or die” in the wilderness of New Hampshire. The opening lyrics give you a pretty good idea of where they are coming from: “Weed, guns, and axes/ We don’t pay our taxes.” And it just gets better from there!
3. “Eye of the Beholder” by Metallica. Many of Metallica’s early songs have a libertarian bent, but it was never as direct as on this song from their classic 1988 album …And Justice for All. The song begins with a slowly building riff that sounds like horses galloping in from the open plains. Soon James Hetfield is imploring us “To look inside/to each his own” and hungering “after independence” to “lengthen freedom’s ring.”
2. “2112” by Rush. For this to be a list of top libertarian songs and feature only two Rush songs is pretty good, so I don’t want to hear any complaints about redundancy here. This song is over 20 minutes long and takes up the entire first side of the album of the same name. It is essentially a rock-opera version of the Ayn Rand novel Anthem except instead of a light bulb the protagonist discovers a guitar. After becoming almost instantly proficient, our hero takes his discovery to the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx, who run the society. Naturally, they declare it to be upsetting to the equality of society and smash the guitar to bits. Is the whole premise kind of hokey and ridiculous? Of course. But it is musically transfixing and emotionally moving even for all its absurdity.
1. “Political World” by Bob Dylan. It should come as no surprise that the best songwriter of the last half-century tops this list, even if he is not commonly known as a libertarian hero. The guitar plucking at the beginning of the song has a haunting quality—it gives the feeling of something being deeply wrong, but you can’t be sure exactly what. As Dylan unfurls his complaints about our overly politicized world, it becomes clear that politics has ruined everything. In this world peace is “put up against the wall,” “mercy walks the plank,” and “wisdom is thrown into jail.” Not only could the next day be your last, but even if you try to call out God’s name “you’re never sure what it is.” Politics isn’t just ruining our lives; it has corrupted our souls.
John Payne is a writer in St. Louis, Missouri, and blogs at www.rougholboy.com.