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10 Protest Songs from the 1980s

protest songs from the 1980s

Screenshot of the video 99 Luftballoon one of the protest songs from the 1980s

Discover 10 protest songs from the 1980s from 99 Luftballoons by Nena to Bastards of Young by The Replacements.

The protest songs of Generation X explored war in the Falklands, violence in Northern Ireland, apartheid, and nuclear war. Also, unemployment, environmental disaster, poverty, and greed. Here are 10 of those songs.

1.  99 Red Balloons

99 Luftballons came out in 1983. It’s by the German band Nena and it’s about simple red balloons triggering a nuclear war. I’ve always wondered if the French film we all saw in grade school, The Red Balloon, served as some inspiration for the song. I loved that film and I love 99 Luftballons. Most Poignant Line:

Ninety-nine dreams I have had
Every one a red balloon
Now it’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty
In this dust that was a city

2.  Telegraph Road by Dire Straits

Telegraph Road is a song by the British band Dire Straits. At more than 14 minutes long, it is one of the longest songs of my generation. It came out in 1982, and it’s about Detroit. Most Poignant Line:

Used to like to go to work but they shut it all down
I got a right to go to work, no work here to be found
Yeah and they say we’re gonna have to pay what’s owed
We’re gonna have to reap from the seed that’s sowed

3.  Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits

Brothers in Arms, also by Dire Straits, was released in 1985. It’s about the Falklands War and was banned by the BBC in the United Kingdom. Most Poignant Line:

Now the sun’s gone to hell
And the moon’s riding high
Let me bid you farewell
Every man has to die

But it’s written in the starlight
And every line on your palm
We’re fools to make war
On our brothers in arms

4.  Army Dreamers by Kate Bush

Army Dreamers is an anti-war song that came out in 1980. Although I never cared for the video, the lyrics were memorable. They tell the story of a mother’s grief after her son dies during military maneuvers. Most Poignant Line:

Our little army boy
Is coming home from B.F.P.O.
I’ve a bunch of purple flowers
To decorate a mammy’s hero.

Mourning in the aerodrome,
The weather warmer, he is colder.
Four men in uniform
To carry home my little soldier.

I came across a blog post by the Accidental Activist. He asks, “Where are the Kate Bushes of today?”

5.  Bastards of Young by The Replacements

If Generation X had a rock anthem this might be it. Most Poignant Line:

Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung
Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled
It beats pickin’ cotton and waitin’ to be forgotten
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
We are the sons of no one, bastards of young
The daughters and the sons…

6.  My Hometown by Bruce Springsteen

This song is on the 1984 Born in the USA album. The title song was also a protest song, but this one I found easier to relate to. Most Poignant Line:

They’re closing down the textile mill ‘cross the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
To my hometown…

7.  Belfast Child by Simple Minds

While U2 had a lot of great protest songs, I decided to pick the one you may not have thought about in a long time. Belfast Child by Simple Minds came out in 1989. It’s a song about Irish war. Most Poignant Line:

Brothers, sisters where are you now
As I look for you right through the crowd
All my life here I’ve spent
With my faith in God the Church and the Government
But there’s sadness abound
Some day soon they’re gonna pull the old town down

Protest Songs of the 1980s

Protest Songs of the 1980s

8.  Channel Z by The B-52s

Channel Z by the B-52s was released in 1989. It’s packed full of references to Carter, Reagan, environmental pollution and Oliver North.  Most Poignant Line:

I want the world to change for me! Gotta get away
Away from Z—Living on the edge of Z
Space junk—laser bombs—ozone holes
Better put up my umbrella!
Giant stacks blowin’ smoke
Politicrits pushin’ dope

All I know—we’ve got to change what’s happening
Something good could happen
I feel light has got to come through—and I need it
Something big and lovely

9.  The End of the Innocence by Don Henley

Although many people think this 1989 song by Don Henley is about divorce, it’s actually a metaphor for farmers who struggled under Reagan’s policies. Most Poignant Line:

O’ beautiful, for spacious skies
But now those skies are threatening
They’re beating plowshares into swords
For this tired old man that we elected king
Armchair warriors often fail
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers clean up all details
Since daddy had to lie

But I know a place where we can go
And wash away this sin
We’ll sit and watch the clouds roll by
And the tall grass wave in the wind

Just lay your head back on the ground
And let your hair spill all around me
Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

10.  Help Save The Youth of America by Billy Bragg

This song by Billy Bragg was written in 1985, but it could have been written today.

Most Poignant Line:

And the fate of the great United States
Is entwined in the fate of us all…
And the cities of Europe have burned before
And they may yet burn again
And if they do I hope you understand
That Washington will burn with them
Omaha will burn with them
Los Alamos will burn with them

What protest songs from the 1980s do you remember? Other notable Generation X anthems include Weeping by Bright Blue, which was about apartheid; Subdivisions by Rush and If A Tree Falls by Bruce Cockburn.

Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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  1. Simon Beck

    The German word “Luftballon” simply means (air-) balloon. The colour isn’t mentioned at all, at least not in the original German-language song. The word “red” was added to the English lyrics to make them scan (and possibly also to imply the anti-establishment idea of socialism or Communism). So, probably nothing to do with the movie “The Red Balloon”.

    • Jennifer

      Very interesting! Thank you for clarifying. Maybe the Red Balloon was inspiration for the video, which was full of balloons. Either way – I appreciate the comment very much.

  2. jennifer

    @Steve – Another one that applies to today. Like Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun.

  3. Anonymous

    Feel the pain. Talk about it.
    If you’re a worried man, than shout about it.
    Open hearts – feel about it.
    Open minds – think about it.
    Everyone – read about it.
    Everyone – scream about it!
    Everyone, everyone, read about it, read about it.
    Read in the books in the cranies and the nooks there are books read.
    Time to eat all your words, swallow your pride.
    Open your eyes.
    High time we made a stand and shook up the views of the common man.
    – “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” Tears for Fears.
    (Steve Lackmeyer)

  4. jennifer

    @Tlachtga It’s confounding and the weight of disappointment is warranted. This isn’t the way it was suppose to be. It’s like 32 is the new 22, except it isn’t. Your story is all too familiar. And, I agree about that song. Those words to Bastards of Young helped me in 1990 when the only job I could get after college was the same job I got during a summer after my sophomore year. With my degree in political science, all I could do was 1) Be a secretary on a cancer ward or 2) Tape coupons to paper so Hertz could microfische them. It was a nightmare. But, eventually I did find a decent job. We thought this situation was temporary and/or only applicable to Gen X. But, now, younger Gen Xers and Gen Y have it even worse than those of us born in the 60s. It’s awful. I am so sorry. But, you’re strong. It takes guts to do data entry when you have a degree in education. Bless you!! xoxo, jen

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