2020 marked the 45th anniversary of the official end to one of the most influential wars in modern history.
The Vietnam War reached its apex during the 60s and it corresponded with, and inspired, the political mobilisation of the youth, the rise of counter-culture, sea changes concerning attitudes towards sex and women, and growing social divisions over race, gender and politics. Music proved paramount in reflecting the zeitgeist amidst a war that many felt to be unjust: this list seeks to display the ten songs that characterised the conflict.
#10: 'War' - Edwin Starr (1970)
To kick things off, we have one of the most iconic anti-war songs in ‘War’ by Edwin Starr. Though the sentiment isn’t groundbreaking - “(War, huh) yeah! (What is it good for?) absolutely nothing”- it’s all in the delivery for this psychedelic funk and soul number. Starr’s charisma shines through wonderfully in his ad-libs, and his performance with the backing vocalists is astounding - it’s remarkable to think it’s a cover as Starr really makes this track his own.
#9: 'Get Together' - The Youngbloods (1967)
Next we have a track that was indicative of the ‘Flower Power’ movement in 1967’s ‘Get Together’. Themes of unity, harmony and peace radiate from this song, and it’s no coincidence that this proves to represent the sentiment of those who disagreed with the Vietnam War effort and the social divisions and conflicts rife within the decade. The vocals at the verses are brilliantly delicate and vulnerable, with the chorus yearning yet rousing, especially with lyrics that call for people to “try to love one another right now”. The outro is the terrific exclamation mark for a tune that desires solidarity en masse.
#8: 'The End' - The Doors (1967)
Okay, I may be cheating with this entry, as Apocalypse Now inspired this pick. However, no one can deny that this song suits the sight of napalm bombs going off during the film’s opening scene. The Doors have now come to characterise classic rock for good reason, and their debut is especially emblematic of 1967's youth culture, with its provocative and vibrant music mirrored the ever growing boldness of the contemporary youth population. The tense closer to that album, ‘The End’, possesses Jim Morrison’s most impactful lyrical and vocal performance and Robby Krieger’s most ominous guitar leads. Its tone and sentiment corresponds with the attitude many had for the war effort a year later, since the Tet Offensive was the turning point that made many realise that the USA were embroiled in an unwinnable war. If this track wasn’t one that embodied the war at the time, retrospectively its resigned undertones definitely defines those involved in the war post 1968.
#7: 'For What It's Worth' - Buffalo Springfield (1966)
From one track that has an ominous introduction to another: Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ has long been considered an anti-war song due to its lyricism, however, it was actually inspired by a rally lead singer Stephen Stills came across in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, its eerie backdrop and lyrics are suited for both representing the confusion and chaos of '60s America, and the violence a Vietnamese civilian was exposed to during the Guerrilla warfare between the Vietcong and US soldiers: “There’s something happening in here/ But what it is ain’t exactly clear/ Children, what’s that sound? Everybody, look what’s going down”.
#6: ‘Search and Destroy’ - Iggy Pop & The Stooges (1973)
The stunning opener to the seminal LP Raw Power (1973) makes no compromises with its allusions to the warfare in Vietnam. Although this was released at the twilight of the conflict, the unforgiving ferocity of the track superbly evokes the destruction and turmoil the soldiers experienced. Iggy Pop’s vocals are exceptional in their indignance, and the band’s performance is exhilarating in its punkish energy - especially at the last third of the song, when James Williamson’s guitar gets increasingly pronounced and distorted. Iggy Pop’s mix of the song, with its loud, messy production emulating the sound of war, is particularly powerful also.
#5: ‘Gimme Shelter’ - The Rolling Stones (1969)
One of the greatest album openers of all time and probably the best non-single track the Stones have ever produced in their career, ‘Gimme Shelter’ rightfully takes its place as an essential to any war soundtrack, let alone one about Vietnam itself. This track is amazing from start to finish. Keith Richards’ bare yet groovy guitar along with the guiro and ominous vocalisations, evoke a Mad Max dystopia, and Mick Jagger’s sturdy vocal delivery compliments the soundscape wonderfully as well as Merry Clayton’s superb, shrill backing vocals. It’s truly the archetypal war song.
#4: 'All Along the Watchtower' - Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
Probably Jimi Hendrix’s most famous song in his short yet illustrious catalogue, this track makes the list because it was not only was released during the war’s apex, but it is indicative of the harder rock sound that many artists, like The Beatles on their White Album reverted to at this point. Hendrix’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s folky ‘All Along the Watchtower’ epitomises this shift, as his electric guitar runs the show in his version - it sings. Hendrix’s unparalleled confidence on the mic and in his six-string prowess is something to behold. It transforms the lyrics and tone of the original, and ever since Hendrix died Dylan has been compelled to play this song electrified.
#3: 'Street Fighting Man' - The Rolling Stones (1968)
The Stones get a second entry on this list because this raga rock, psychedelic number depicts a sentiment concerning the war that artists seldom did. A song inspired by an anti-war protest that Jagger attended in London, considers the perspective of someone at the ground level - much like ‘For What It’s Worth’, however, rather than capturing the confusion a spectator may experience it instead portrays the anger (“Hey! Said my name is called disturbance”), disappointment (“Cause in sleepy London Town/ There’s just no place for street fighting man, no”) and resignation (“Well, then what can a poor boy do/ Except to sing for a rock 'n' roll band?”). Not to mention this track is musically superb, with Brian Jones’ tanpura and its closing passage being particularly impressive.
#2: 'We Gotta Get Out of This Place' - The Animals (1965)
After an initial listen, it won’t take long to realise why this proved to be such a favourite among those out in Vietnam. The ominous bassline from Chas Chandler sets the tone and this song never looks back. Eric Burden’s powerful, defiant vocals, especially at the pre-chorus and chorus are a dream, and the “yeah!” backing vocals help provide the appropriate levels of aggression too. The chorus, of course, is infectious and rousing - understandable how it resonated with those in the conflict given its titular refrain.
#1: ‘Fortunate Son’ - Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
This is the quintessential Vietnam War track. John Fogerty and co. tackle the concept of fighting for one’s country, making a track unrelenting in pace and unforgiving in sentiment. Fogerty succinctly and cleverly depicts the various sections of society from the economically privileged, to the politically connected, to the most patriotic citizens. Although its overarching theme - the poor suffering the most during conflict begun by the rich - has been well established in war discourse, the execution is breathtaking, summed up wonderfully with the hook: “It ain’t me, It ain’t me/ I ain’t no fortunate one, no”. It’s the exemplary war song.
Image: Michael Putland/Getty Images
Image: Michael Putland/Getty Images