The 1990s Story Behind ‘Killing In The Name’

This is the 4th and final week of the Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade‘. But stay tuned for next week’s article focused on sexism in the Scottish Music Scene and Wednesday 28th July’s article; ‘The Instagram Subculture Centred on Living in the Past‘.

After an evening of drinking, two black men proceeded to drive through two different states in the USA before being tracked down by police for breaking the law. Both men were maltreated by officers attending the scene. One man had an officer kneeling on his neck whilst another was beaten with a police baton over 50 times. At both locations, a bystander began to record. These recordings sent shockwaves through the world. You see, one man was Rodney King, the other George Floyd, and one year was 1991, the other 2020, yet the most hard-hitting difference; only one walked out alive…and that was 29 years earlier.

King reportedly suffered brain damage, skull fractures, broken bones, kidney failure and emotional trauma, all of which had been recorded on tape from a salesman across the road. This later aired on a local TV Station. Inevitably sparking worldwide outrage, there was none more so than in the year that followed, where three officers involved were acquitted of assault. Riots flooded the nation, particularly in King’s city of LA and became known as the ‘LA riots’. 

In 1992, as the streets of LA blazed in horror and fury, a Los Angeles band were cooking up a storm for their self-titled debut album ‘Rage Against The Machine’. At this point the band’s lead guitarist, Tom Morello, took a strong riff that he had discovered while teaching one of his students a drop D tuning to his band. This, combined with the cathartic passion from frontman Zack de la Rocha, ‘Killing in the Name’ was birthed, taking inspiration from King’s systemic sufferings. 

At this time, Zack thrust his fascination with the power of speech into action, further motivated by his admiration for activists such as Malcolm X. It seemed there was no time more critical to vocalise his beliefs than during one of LA’s most profound moments. From this came arguably the most poignant repeated lines of an epic rock song: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” Here, he alludes to the brutal, institutional corruption and racism that went hand in hand throughout the USA and, more importantly—still does. 

Rage Against The Machine are the first band on this list whose sole musical purpose and existence can be credited to being radical. It’s still equally as important to note that their musical talent is not weakened by this but instead strengthened, working in almost a symbiotic relationship with each other. The band has a whole catalogue not shy of rap infused metal consisting of bellows of social injustices. All in the dirtiest, most raw and furious fashion you could only expect from a band with ‘rage’ in their title. 

There’s a sort of ironic hypocrisy in the fact that the song never charted in its home country, the origin place of the societal issues that inspired the song, but instead earning a spot at number 25 in the UK in 1993 after a live appearance on a tv show called Yoof. From then on, RATM performed notoriously temper-filled concerts worldwide, most often ending in riot cops and the burning of an American flag. A bold statement that resulted in complete and utter musical and political mayhem— but it gave them sort of an edge. 

“A little dose of anarchy for the Christmas Holidays is good for the soul,” Morello told BBC Radio 6 Music in 2009. This statement was in response to a campaign started that year by Jon Morter, an English Dj, to get RATM’s Killing in the Name to the Christmas number one spot against X-Factor winner Joe McElderry. This campaign’s motivation was to make a point that commercial and cheesy pop singles are not what the nation wants, and, spoiler, he was right as the campaign was successful. RATM had achieved UK Christmas Number One. 

In the run-up, the members spoke in a BBC interview in response to how they’d feel if they achieved the number one spot, frontman De la Rocha said: “It would be kind of a wonderful statement. I think that it says something about the real tensions that people are experiencing all over the UK and the United States as well,” through a fuzzy mic in a studio, he continued, “I think that people would love to hear a song that reflects some of the tensions that they’re experiencing in their daily lives.”

When asked if RATM felt that this was a rage against the manufactured pop business, Morello took hold of the mic and said: “I think it’s tapped into the silent majority of the people in the UK that are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another and they want to take back their own charts,” it was here that his voice started to raise with a heightened passion that confirmed the honesty in his speech, “and we are honoured that they’ve chosen our song to be the rebel anthem to try and topple the X-factor monopoly.” 

There was a humble yet heartfelt passion in the band’s interview. Unlike many artists in the industry, there seemed to be no sign of hypocrisy due to the campaign’s proceeds going toward help for homeless shelters.

Morello finally turns to Jon and says: “It’s a real liberating musical revolution that people are on. I think that it’s an excellent lesson for people that whether it’s in a small matter like who’s at the top of the charts or bigger matters like war and peace and economic inequality — when people band together and make their voices heard, they can completely overturn the system as it is.” 

Like U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, this 1992 essential moment-capturing epic has continued relevancy, probably today more than ever. The YouTube comment sections of this song are flooded with statements from 2020 like “This band is so needed right now,” and “I get the message now,” and this is 29 years on from the song’s initial incident for political inspiration. RATM didn’t just speak to their nation, but to multiple — especially the UK, holding a strong affinity with the politically charged punk scene over a decade before them. Morello told BBC Radio 6 Music: “Your country has a great, rich history of cutting-edge, exciting rebel music— whether that’s early Stones and The Who, or The Clash and the Sex Pistols, or Prodigy and Muse.” 

Two black men broke the law one night. One lay battered senseless on the road, the other begged for air, the one organic source that should not be deprived of us from anything but time itself and almost 30 years after the first, one didn’t make it out alive. Institutional racism is more than a sign of its times. In fact, it only seems to have worsened with it. Having more artists like Rage Against The Machine today are the voices for the changes that can be made tomorrow. 

Image Source “Rage Against the Machine @ Christiania 1993” by pellesten is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The 1960s Story Behind ‘Fortunate Son’

Welcome to the first track and week 1 of my Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade’. If you haven’t already, please check out the first article of the entire Music, Fashion and Politics: The Holy Trinity Project, ‘Music and Politics: An Abiding Affair’, that was published last Wednesday. This week we’ll be looking at the story behind Creedences’ iconic ‘Fortunate Son’ track that was both a ‘middle-finger’ and a ‘pat on the back’ for an entire nation.

On November 6th 2014, John Fogerty of the decade-defining band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, took to the stage at the White House to perform a unique rendition of his generational anthem—‘Fortunate Son’. This was part of a Salute to the Troops concert that was broadcast ahead of Veteran’s Day. Despite the obvious sincere intentions, the performance didn’t quite do the message of this instantly recognisable protest song justice. Shrouded in awkwardness from the very first thud of the overly sped-up drumbeat, it would not be unfair to say that the iconic song’s sparkle had been dulled.

This performance was a fresh, meaty steak awaiting the appetite of music critics who would not hold back from ravaging the overbearing timbre or its lacklustre energy. Despite this, the prominent viewer awkwardness lay elsewhere in the planes of something far less complex that lingers beneath not just a critic but a music lover’s nose: the meaning behind the song.

“It ain’t me”, Fogerty proclaims in this 1969 rock epic and immediately grabs the attention of a whole fervent generation. Though the song became a massive anthem for anti-war campaigning, it has always conveyed something more than that. It was more of an evocative symbol of a counterculture’s objection to U.S military involvement in Vietnam. A chance to unite and defend the troops in an attempt to protect those who were mainly of lower and working classes from fighting in a war that very few had a clear understanding of.

It’s not a song that is so much anti-war as it is anti-classist, criticising the system and political policies within the war: “The way I feel is we should make darn sure that when we’re going to have a war when we’re going to send our troops, it better be for a very good reason,” Fogerty explains in an interview with journalist, Dan Rather in 2016.

In the earlier years of America’s intervention in the Vietnam war, a vast majority of the nation whose support silenced the minority of those who questioned it. Still, as the decade progressed, voices of the quiet grew louder and, by the end, almost deafening. The nation began to lose faith in a victory, and with this came rising tensions and uncertainty as half a million troops stormed the jungles, from only a few thousand in the years previous.

It’s important to note that anti-war sentiment— although existing throughout the entire decade— had reached new heights in the later years, with the challenging of American tradition from university students and hippies forming a significant, youth- based movement. Despite this, in a speech on November 3rd 1969, Nixon declared that there was “a great silent majority” of people in support of the war and proceeded to call critics “unpatriotic elitists”. This ignited a flame in Creedence’s frontman, Fogerty, and in poetic retaliation, ‘Fortunate Son’ came to be— amplifying the voices of the many, not the few.

“It was written during the Nixon era, and well, let’s say I was very non-supportive of Mr Nixon,” Fogerty told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1993. “…the whole idea of being born wealthy or being born powerful seemed to be really coming to the fore in the late-sixties confrontation of cultures.” As a former military man himself, Fogerty’s anthem really insisted on highlighting the divide between rich and poor. War to the elite was merely a concept that they were willing to support, yet lower classes had to suffer the consequences of elitist decisions.

Fogerty’s irrepressible, raspy vocals against the backdrop of the tinny yet powerful guitar riff declaring sentiments that meant not only to him but to a whole generation makes it incredibly difficult to believe that the song was written in just 20 minutes. Yet, he claims that the thought process had been going on for a long time: “I didn’t know it would start, ‘Some folks are born…’— that came from nowhere. But the thought process had been going on for a long time.” He noted in his 2015 biography, titled after the very same song.

So that was precisely what made the Veteran’s Day performance so uncomfortable besides some artificial, musical blunders. It was simply the politics behind the song and the message that Fogerty was aiming to portray. There was a sort of un- comfortable irony in the fact that the famous lines “It ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son” were being echoed to a crowd of people in splendour. Their jewellery reflecting off of the stage lights as the tacky background of the White House lit up.

It has to be said that unlike most other protest songs of the time, such as those of Bob Dylan’s or Woody Guthrie’s, ‘Fortunate Son’ is the purest form of nitty-gritty, upbeat rock and roll. Because of this, there is inevitably room for misinterpretation. For some people, the melody subtracts from the message, almost getting lost in translation and spiralling out of context. Perhaps the 2014 audience can be forgiven for head-banging in their own hypocrisy but not one individual’s actions in more recent days.

In early September 2020, John Fogerty, in a baseball cap with protruding grey hairs, posted a video to his 1.2 million Facebook followers, addressing his discontent with then-President Donald Trump for using ‘Fortunate Son’ for his political rallies. Fogerty goes on to explain the meaning behind the song to his audience before stating: “The very first lines of fortunate son are ‘Some folks are born made to wave the flag, ooh, they’re red, white and blue. But when the band plays hail to the chief, they point the cannon at you’.”

“That is exactly what happened recently in Lafayette Park when the president decided to take a walk across the park, he cleared out the area using federal troops so that he could stand in front of St. John’s Church with a Bible,” Fogerty then went on to claim that it was a song that he could have written now and found it “confusing” that the president decided to use his song for his own political gain “when in fact, it seemed like he is probably the fortunate son.”

Regardless of the countless misinterpretations, the song’s message will continue on for those who dare to listen closely enough, valuing the song’s position in the context it was intended. Almost certainly, this will transport you into a world of long hair, long trousers and a longing for peace on Earth.

Photo Source: “Creedence Clearwater Revival, CCR – Willy & The Poor Boys” by Piano Piano! is licensed under CC BY 2.0