15 Rock & Roll Rebels
Deep down, the bad boys are quite often the sensitive ones – the ones who feel the world’s pain. They don’t “do what everybody else does” because they don’t understand why things have to be that way. And they often welcome the ostracism they get in return: “If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it,” as the socially conscious songwriter (and major Clash fan) Billy Bragg once sang. Here are 15 true revolutionaries, for whom the only place to be was on the outside looking in.
[Editor’s Note: A version of this list was originally published June 3, 2013]
Plastic People of the Universe
The members of Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe took rebel music as a matter of life and death. Born out of the suppression of the Prague Spring uprising in 1968, the band was forced underground by the hardline Czech government. Named for a Frank Zappa song, the Plastic People revered the Velvet Underground. In 1976, they met with the writer and emerging political leader Vaclav Havel, just before bandmembers were arrested as dissidents. Their resistance energized Havel, who told his colleagues, "We're never going to get anywhere unless we put our butts on the line like these kids have." Worn out by fighting the powers that be, the Plastic People shut down in 1988, one year before Havel led the Velvet Revolution – named, some claim, for the American band that inspired a bunch of Czech hippies to take a stand.
Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti was so committed to his political beliefs that he created his own republic and declared its independence from the state. An advocate of Black Power, Kuti called his style of music Afrobeat. Rejecting his "slave" middle name, Ransome, he renamed himself Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with his middle name translating as "he who carries death in his pouch." After releasing his 1977 album 'Zombie,' which called out the thuggish Nigerian military, the bandleader's commune, the Kalakuta Republic, was attacked by a thousand soldiers. Kuti's complex was burned, the leader and his colleagues were beaten, and Fela's mother was thrown from a window, sustaining fatal injuries. The singer's response was to deliver her casket to the general's barracks in Lagos. One of his subsequent albums was called Coffin for Head of State.
"I want to bite the hand that feeds me," sang Elvis Costello on his punky protest song "Radio Radio," which the angry young man was strictly forbidden to play when he was invited to perform on Saturday Night Live. Replacing the Sex Pistols (who were having visa problems) on the show, the bespectacled singer cut off his band after a few lines of "Less Than Zero" and led them into the verboten song. His subsequent ban from SNL wasn't lifted for more than a decade. "My ultimate vocation in life is to be an irritant," he once said. Originally considered a member of punk's second wave, Costello has confounded fans by writing and performing in many different styles, from country to chamber music. He also ran counter to punk's nihilistic tendencies by singing a memorable version of Nick Lowe's hippie throwback tune, "(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
"Kick out the jams!" That was the rallying cry of the late Sixties, when the counterculture shed its passivity for political action in the streets. The band that coined the phrase, Detroit's MC5, was a hard-driving rock group whose members shared a love of the period's chaotic free jazz. When they began performing, one writer said their sound was like "a catastrophic force of nature the band was barely able to control." Inspired by the Black Panthers, the band's manager, John Sinclair, was instrumental in founding the sympathetic White Panther Party, and he had the band bring unloaded rifles onstage in a display of militancy. During the Vietnam protest that was marred by police brutality at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the band was the only act of several scheduled to perform; they played for eight hours. The band, led by singer Rob Tyner and guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred "Sonic" Smith, burned out early, after the disappointing commercial performances of their first three albums. But their legacy as radical rockers and punk progenitors lives on.
Bob Marley sang "Rebel Music," but the real rebel in the Wailers was the late, towering Peter Tosh. "Get up, stand up/Stand up for your rights": That universally recognized chant was co-written by Tosh. He had a unique way with language – in his world, an oppressor was a "downpressor," and when Island Records mogul Chris Blackwell declined to release Tosh's first solo album, the singer took to calling the Englishman who'd signed the group "Whiteworst." Tosh's beliefs were evident in the titles of his albums: "Equal Right," "No Nuclear War," "Legalize It." After advocating for the latter by lighting up a spliff onstage in front of government leaders in Jamaica, he was apprehended by police and beaten in custody. Never one to turn the other cheek, Tosh was murdered during a house robbery in 1987. "I'm like a stepping razor," he warned in one lyric. "I'm dangerous."
Sinead O'Connor will forever be remembered for shredding a photo of Pope John Paul II on the October 3, 1992 episode of Saturday Night Live. She did it to protest the Catholic church's long suppression of evidence of sexual abuse among clergymen; the song she sang was Bob Marley's "War." She shouted the same lyrics two weeks later at a Bob Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden, where she was nearly drowned out by a jeering crowd. "Don't let the bastards get you down," Kris Kristofferson told her. "I'm not down," she replied. O'Connor has made a career of kicking against establishment notions, starting with her trademark shaved head, a direct statement about the objectification of women. In support of gay rights, she once said, "I'm three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay." And she drew the ire of Frank Sinatra when she refused to perform at a New Jersey venue if they played the National Anthem before the show. "I don't do anything in order to cause trouble," she said. "It just so happens that what I do naturally causes trouble."
When Nirvana agreed to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone #628 on April 16, 1992, Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt that read "Corporate Magazines Still Suck." In his short life, the bandleader made it his duty to challenge beliefs – both his fans' and his own. As a student, he befriended a gay kid and claimed to enjoy the abuse he took from classmates who believed he must be gay himself. Later, when he became famous, his band proudly advocated LGBT rights to an audience that was not always sympathetic. Success was an unsolvable puzzle for Cobain, who'd earned a soapbox from which he could preach about social issues – bullying, reproductive rights – that were meaningful to him. Yet he detested the fact that his band had emerged from the underground as a major-label rock group. "The worst crime is faking it," he once said, and he considered himself guilty.
The love and justice songs of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara were apparently so threatening to the military leaders who staged the nation's 1973 coup that they had to murder him. After beginning his career in the theater, Jara took up songwriting as his country endured the social convulsions of the Sixties. He supported the Socialist presidential candidate Salvador Allende, who was overthrown from office by the Chilean right wing and later died under mysterious circumstances. Taken prisoner with thousands of others in a stadium that now bears his name, Jara was tortured; after they broke his hands, guards mocked the singer, ordering him to play guitar. Defiant, he sang a political anthem that translates as "We Will Win." For his insubordination, Jara was machine-gunned to death, his body dumped on a street outside Santiago. A few months later, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs headlined a benefit in Jara's name in New York.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Like his cousin, the TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Lee Lewis was raised in a proper religious home. Sent to study at Southwest Bible Institute, the budding young entertainer was tossed out for performing a boogie-woogie version of a gospel standard. That set the tone for a life on the fault line between sin and redemption. His biggest hits, "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," were sometimes banned for their not-so-subtle sexual innuendo. Lewis' career hit a deep freeze after news broke of his secret marriage to Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old cousin. One of the original unruly rock & rollers, "The Killer" turned his back on the sound in the late Sixties, remaking himself as a country singer. "If I'm going to Hell," he once said, "I'm going there playing the piano."
The stentorian voice of Chuck D and the sonic mayhem of his bandmates earned Public Enemy just the reaction they were aiming for: as they approached, polite society crossed the street to avoid them. Their landmark song "Fight the Power" was a key to Spike Lee's feature-film breakthrough, Do the Right Thing, and it confirmed Public Enemy's complete disdain for mainstream American culture, dismissing the iconic heroes Elvis Presley and John Wayne in a single swipe. The first single from their 1988 album 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back' was "Rebel Without a Pause," which, to Chuck D, epitomized the kind of musical riot the band hoped to incite: "I could die tomorrow," he said when he heard Hank Shocklee's wild final mix. Harnessing his unpredictable sidekick, Flavor Fav, has made Chuck's role feel like the band's "camp counselor" over the years, as he said at the band's recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Speaking on behalf of every misunderstood kid ever to attend grade school, the former Brian Warner crafted a persona and career for himself that celebrated weirdness by embellishing it to outlandish proportions. His stage name alone – a combination of Marilyn Monroe and the mass murderer Charles Manson – was conceived for maximum shock effect. With ghoulish pancake makeup and contact lenses that made him look like the undead, Manson presented himself as the "Antichrist Superstar." After the 1999 school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, the theatrical rocker was forced to defend himself against charges that his music had inspired the murderers (who, it turned out, weren't fans). He emerged from that incident as an unlikely voice of reason, expressing the hope that such "irresponsible finger-pointing doesn't create more discrimination against kids who look different."
A hardcore country traditionalist, Steve Earle has spent his career bucking the Nashville establishment and upholding the left-wing values of the old Greenwich Village folk scene. Praising his favorite songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, he called him "the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." After 9/11 Earle became a polarizing figure over his song "John Walker's Blues," which sought to humanize John Walker Lindh, the American who fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Earle's songs have expressed his support for anti-war protesters, the Occupy Wall Street movement and his opposition to the death penalty (see "Ellis Unit One" for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack). "I'm my daddy's worst fears realized," Earle sang in 1990, when he was struggling with a major drug addiction, on the song "The Other Kind." "There are those that break and bend/I'm the other kind."
"If you ain't thinking about man and God and law," as The Clash's Joe Strummer once said, "then you ain't thinkin' about nothing." Unlike their inspiration, the Sex Pistols, whose early gigs motivated Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones to form their band, The Clash passed over nihilism in favor of political activism. Their debut single, "White Riot," is sometimes misinterpreted as a call for a race war; in fact, Strummer was urging U.K. youth to rise up against the ruling class, as he'd seen black activists do. The band's viewpoint went global with their artistic breakthroughs, 'London Calling' ("Spanish Bombs") and especially the 1980 triple album 'Sandinista!', which was named for the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. "You grow up and you calm down and you're working for the clampdown," the band sang, imploring their listeners not to lose the idealism of youth. Strummer maintained it until his premature death in 2002 at age 50.
When they were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 on the superhuman strength of their lone studio album, 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols,' the Englishmen snubbed the ceremony. "We're not coming," the band wrote in what looked like a ransom note. "We're not your monkeys." Though they helped shape the punk world that rejected the hippie counterculture they'd grown up in, the Sex Pistols were definitively "anti-establishment," as the previous counterculture was often described. "I am the Antichrist/I am an anarchist," Johnny Rotten famously declared to open "Anarchy in the U.K."; on "God Save the Queen," he dismissed the Queen Mother, England's most sacred cow, as "no human being." Added bonus: He was once discovered wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words "I hate" scrawled above the band name. When the Pistols screeched to a halt onstage in San Francisco, a mere three years after Rotten joined, he left with a leering question: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
Though his mama told him not to play with guns, he shot a man in Reno "just to watch him die." His first band, while serving in the Air Force in Germany, was called the Barbarians. More than any other country artist, Johnny Cash understood the predicament of the outlaw; his prison concerts at Folsom and San Quentin helped underscore the notion that the inmates weren't all monsters, but men who'd simply made bad decisions. His infamous "middle finger" photo, taken at San Quentin by rock photographer (and fellow rebel) Jim Marshall came in response to a request to pose for a shot for the warden. Years later, when Cash was in the midst of a career revival engineered by producer Rick Rubin, they ran an ad in Billboard that featured the photo and a feisty caption thanking "the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support."