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There's A Riot Goin' On: The Songs That Rise From The Rubble Of Civil Unrest

Fire crews try to extinguish a huge fire in Croydon during last week's riots in London.
Fire crews try to extinguish a huge fire in Croydon during last week's riots in London.
Now that the dust is settling after a week of violence on the streets of London and other major English cities, the riots of August 2011 are likely to be dissected and analyzed for years to come.

Looking at previous riots, however, the analyses and interpretations that seem to reverberate most strongly in the public consciousness are those contained in the songs these events inspired.

It’s hard to say whether the anger and rage that manifested itself on Britain’s streets last week will ever be harnessed and channeled into more creative pursuits, but it would not be surprising if the past week will someday be commemorated in music (perhaps even composed on looted instruments).

For the time being, however, here’s a personal playlist of the five best songs about or inspired by riots of the past.

It’s by no means a comprehensive list, so please feel free to post your own in the comments section below. As this is a very anglocentric selection of tunes, we’d be particularly interested in hearing about songs that were inspired by famous riots and civic disturbances in non-English-speaking countries.

5. MC5 -- "Motor City Is Burning"

The notorious 1967 riots in Detroit ripped through the heart of the city and left dozens dead and thousands of buildings destroyed.

The disturbances had a catastrophic effect on the industrial city’s economy and Detroit is still feeling its impact more than four decades later.

Not surprisingly, the tumultuous events of 1967 have been immortalized in several songs by the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, David Bowie and Detroit resident John Lee Hooker.

However, it is probably MC5’s cover of Hooker’s “Motor City Is Burning” that had the biggest cultural impact.

As bona fide progenitors of punk, MC5 took the anger that raged on the streets of Detroit and put it into their music, thereby helping to spawn a mass cultural movement that still resonates to this day.

4. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young -- "Ohio"

Of course, looking back at the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, civic unrest and violent disorder seemed to be the order of the day.

Sly and the Family Stone summed up the social mood with “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” -- their dark and brooding response to the question Marvin Gaye had posed with his own consciousness-raising album “What’s Going On.”

In those days, it seemed that practically every popular musician worth his or her salt had to make some sort of social comment.

Of the myriad songs of revolt from that period, however, the real standout tune is Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio.”

It is based on an incident when four students at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration were killed by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. The event sparked a student strike that shut universities across the country, and was a major factor in the loss of public support for American involvement in Vietnam.

The song Neil Young wrote immediately after the shootings went on to became an anthem for the American counterculture.

3. The Ruts -- "Babylon’s Burning"

The events of the past week have drawn obvious comparisons with the Brixton riots in 1981.

The Brixton mayhem has been ingrained in the cultural consciousness thanks to the fact that it is frequently associated with the music of bands from that era such as The Beat, The Jam, and, especially, The Clash, whose “Guns of Brixton,” “White Riot,” and “London’s Burning” are often thought to have been inspired by the 1981 riots, even though these songs actually preceded the violence in Brixton. (Funnily enough, one of the few tunes to be directly inspired by the Brixton riots was Eddy Grant’s somewhat anaemic, albeit catchy, "Electric Avenue.")

It’s hardly surprising that these groups have come to be so closely associated with Brixton as they captured the mood that existed at that time in urban Britain, where a potent mix of racial tensions, socioeconomic problems, and heavy-handed policing was inevitably going to explode at some point.

With songs like "Jah War" and "Babylon’s Burning," The Ruts are another band that come to mind when one recalls the edgy atmosphere of the late 1970s and early 1980s in the British Isles.

But it is probably the latter tune which now seems to be the most prophetic.

2. Sublime -- "April 29, 1992"

Like the events in Brixton 1981, the LA riots of 1992 have also garnered an impressive number of cultural references.

Naturally, there have been plenty of songs about LA 1992, and artists as diverse as Ice Cube and Tom Petty have all had something to say about the violence that swept through Los Angeles.

For my money, though, it is Sublime’s track which perhaps came closest to articulating the simmering rage of LA’s under classes that boiled over so spectacularly in 1992.

Looking at the recent events in London, the song’s lyrics still have a depressingly familiar ring to them nearly 20 years later:

April [29]th, 1992,
There was a riot on the streets,
Tell me where were you?
You were sittin' home watchin' your TV,
While I was participatin' in some anarchy.

First spot we hit it was my liqour store.
I finally got all that alcohol I can't afford.
With red lights flashin' time to retire,
And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire.

Next stop we hit it was the music shop,
It only took one brick to make that window drop.
Finally we got our own p.a.
Where do you think I got this guitar that you're hearing today?

1. Arctic Monkeys -- "Riot Van"

It’s still too early to say what sort of cultural impact the most recent wave of British street violence will have, but it’s a safe guess that the Arctic Monkeys will feature on any future soundtracks people might compile of the events that engulfed London, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities in August 2011.

When the band first exploded on the scene on 2005 with "I Bet that You Look Good on the Dancefloor," 19-year-old singer and lyricist Alex Turner was rightly praised for his incisive, often depressing, vignettes of disaffected urban youth.

The lyrics of "Riot Van," however, sound particularly poignant now:

"Have you been drinking son, you don't look old enough to me"
"I'm sorry officer, is there a certain age you're supposed to be? Cause nobody told me..."
And up rolls a riot van
And these lads just wind the coppers up
They ask why they don't catch proper crooks
They get their address and their names took
But they couldn't care less
It’s hard to find any excuses for the mindless, destructive violence of the rioters in England last week, but a quick listen to the Arctic Monkeys serves to remind us that there are probably plenty of reasons why it happened.

-- Coilin O‘Connor

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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