Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)


10 times musicians have stood up to 'the man'


Music and protest have always been two sides of the same coin. Whether it’s the 19th-century spirituals of Charles Tindley or the anarchist punk anthems of Pussy Riot, music and musicians offer us both bandages to heal and weapons with which to carry on the fight.

Perhaps we turn to musicians in times of injustice because music is such a good form of communication; it can turn complex political ideas and embedded social traumas into something accessible and, what’s more, something we can hum along or even dance to. Take Woody Guthrie for example, whose guitar – emblazoned with the words ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ – did all the speaking for him.

But perhaps it’s also that musicians are excellent reflections of society and the values that a given society upholds. The countercultural musicians of the ’60s and ’70s are the perfect example of this. Take Bob Dylan for example, who became a symbol of protest, uniting segregated Americans at a time when it was sorely needed. Or what about The Beatles, whose early commercial success gave way to a dismissal of the consumerism and materialism that had defined the ’50s and early ’60s.

Here, we’ve selected ten moments when musicians stood up to the man, by which, of course, we mean the establishment: institutions and organisations that define the cultural norms of a period. Some of these stories happened over 50 years ago; some of them happened just this week. However, they are all united by the fact they were motivated by a desire to change the world in some way, a need to stand up and be counted.

10 times musicians have fought back:

Neil Young boycotts Spotify (2022)

Let’s start with a story that’s in the news at the moment. Last week, Neil Young wrote an open letter to his management in which he demanded that his music be pulled from Spotify. The since-deleted letter asserted that the Spotify affiliated podcast The Joe Rogan Experience is deliberately spreading “false information about vaccines”. Not wanting to participate in this sort of conspiracy-mongering, Young concluded his letter with the ultimatum: “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

The streaming platform removed all of Young’s music on Wednesday, January 26th. Since then, more and more musicians have been coming out in support of Young, including Joni Mitchell, who has announced she will also be removing her discography from Spotify, as have Crazy Horse and E-Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. In the last week, Spotify has lost more than $2billion in market value, suggesting that the musicians may still hold the cards after all.

The Beatles refuse to play to segregated audiences (1964)

In 1964, during their first tour of the US, The Beatles made a decision that ultimately led to a huge leap forward in the fight against racial injustice. With thousands of audience members waiting in their seats, The Beatles announced that they would not be performing their concert at the Gator Bowle in Jacksonville, Florida. Why? Because the concert’s organisers had segregated the audience members on entry.

In an act of solidarity with the US civil rights movement, the Liverpool four-piece threatened to walk. Upon entering the stage, John Lennon said: “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now.” The standoff eventually led to the segregated audiences being allowed to merge together, marking a huge victory both for The Beatles and for the fight for equality.

Janis Joplin tells police officers to F*ck off (1969)

Halfway through her performance in Tampa, Florida, Janis Joplin found herself surrounded by police officers. They were worried that the excitement running through the sizable crowd might spill over into something a lot more dangerous. They turned on the lights and approached Joplin to ask her if she wouldn’t mind assisting them in their attempts to quell the crowd. With a microphone in one hand and a cigarette in another, she stared at them blankly for a moment before issuing a frank “fuck off!”

The officers promptly left the stage and returned to the swirling, churning crowd. With Joplin’s insults ringing in their ears, they waited until the show was over and then marched into her dressing room unannounced, put her in a pair of handcuffs, and drove her down to the station, where she spent the night in a cold cell.

Paul Simon makes Graceland with South African musicians (1984)

In the 1980s, Paul Simon joined the cultural boycott of South Africa alongside the likes of Elton John, The Beach Boys, Queen, and Rod Stewart. However, in 1984, he travelled to South Africa, playing with a plethora of South African musicians to create Graceland. The album caused a great deal of controversy and saw Simon accused of breaking the boycott for his own gain.

The group criticising him was the Artists United Against Apartheid, which released protest songs intended to shame artists performing within South Africa, especially at Sun City, a venue that offered famous acts millions to perform to segregated audiences. While the group included some of the biggest names in music, (Beach Boys, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Cher and Queen), its efforts would untimely fail when it transpired that these same acts were themselves performing at Sun City, while donating money to charities to emphasise their stance against apartheid and crush any negative publicity. Meanwhile, Simon travelled to South Africa to create an album with South African musicians, in an act that sought to change South Africa from the inside rather than placing limits on how far its culture could travel.

The MC5 protest the Vietnam War (1968)

The MC5 captured the countercultural movement at its most intense phase. Having soaked up the Marxism of the Black Panthers, Fred Hampton, and beat generation poets like Alan Ginsberg, the MC5 decided to perform a concert as part of the protests against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The controversial conflict coincided with a moment of political transformation in America’s youth, leading to countless draft-burnings and demonstrations.

The MC5’s concert came at a moment of incredible tension. The year before, 1967, had seen the police brutality and bloodshed of the Detroit riots. The spring of 1968, meanwhile, had witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King. It’s no wonder then, that the MC5’s infamous eight-hour concert ended in a huge riot, in which the police violently attacked protesters.

Taylor Swift re-records all of her albums (2021)

In 2005, a fresh-faced singer-songwriter called Taylor Swift signed to major label Big Machine Records. In 2018, after a long series of hits, including ‘Love Story’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’, the contract expired, at which point she signed to Universal.

However, news stories quickly emerged that Big Machine had sold the rights to Swift’s pre-Universal albums to a private equity group called Ithaca Holdings, who then sold them to another company, Shamrock Holdings for a whopping $300 million. Swift, it should be noted, has claimed that the owner of Ithaca, Scooter Bruan, was a bully. To get her own back and to stop him from earning money from her work, the singer decided to re-record her early albums, taking ownership of the masters in the process.

Pussy Riot bring punk to the Russian church (2011)

Pussy Riot is a name that has become practically synonymous with anti-establishment protests in recent years. The anarcho-feminist punk group was founded in 2011 in Moscow, gaining global notoriety after five members of the group held a performance inside the city’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in protest of The Church’s support of Vladimir Putin.

The group were condemned by the Orthodox clergy, and, a year later, two of the group’s members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were arrested and charged with hooliganism. A third member of the protest punk group, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was arrested days later. They were all denied bail and held in custody until their trial began, at which point they were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. Each was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Following their release, they carried on what they’d started, leading to further arrests, one poisoning, and a censorship order that labelled Pussy Riot’s members as foreign agents.

The Sex Pistols appear on Today with Bill Grundy (1976)

Punk characterised itself as the antithesis of all things that mainstream culture felt to be sacred. Whether that was Pink Floyd or the conservatism at the heart of the BBC, punk group’s like The Sex Pistols had no time for it. It was this that motivated Johnny Rotten and the gang to storm onto live television and cause absolute chaos.

With something as simple as saying the word “shit” on live TV, the Sex Pistols threw a grenade into the heart of middle England – showing the world that Britain’s youth would no longer stand for the unbearable mediocrity that its culture seemed determined to uphold. The breakdown of relations between Grundy, Rotten, and his companions caused an uproar, with countless media describing the actions of punk enthusiasts in terms of moral panic. “If pop is the modern opium of the masses,” one commentator wrote, “then Punk Rock is raw heroin.”

John & Yoko have a lie-in (1969)

March 25th, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono invited the international press into their suite at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel as they attempted to use their honeymoon in a bid to raise awareness for world peace. Rather than trying to shy away from the limelight, they decided to use it to achieve something that was far bigger than themselves.

Many regard the bed-in as an attempt to put pressure on the ruling politicians of the era – specifically US President Richard Nixon, who had been elected under the promise that he would put an end to the Vietnam War. At the time of Lennon and Ono’s protest, however, the Paris talks between Vietnamnamese and American officials had reached a stalemate. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until 1975 that the war officially ended. As Lennon noted at the time: “In Paris, the Vietnam peace talks have got about as far as sorting out the shape of the table they are going to sit around. Those talks have been going on for months. In one week in bed, we achieved a lot more.”

The KLF burn a million quid (1994)

As one of the most controversial groups in the history of music, it’s no surprise that The KLF have found their way onto this list. After their infamous BRIT Awards 1992 performance, during which they fired machine guns filled with blanks at the audience, the infamous electronic group decided to do something arguably even more shocking,

in 1994, The KLF piled their earnings into a bonfire and set it alight – burning a sum of £1million in an act that sent shockwaves around the world. The event was held on the Scottish island of Jura and was later turned into the appropriately titled film: Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid. The pile of cash took over an hour to burn. The motivation behind the stunt remains complex, but many regard it as an act of defiance against the fundamentally capitalist rationale of art. As Bill Drummond, the brain behind The KLF wrote at the time: “The K Foundation have no particular regard for their financial security, but their relationship to that million is more complex. Cauty and Drummond tend to dismiss their past work. The million may have come from a critically-acclaimed music career, but to them, by now much of it seemed like a failure. Perhaps burning the money is a purgative.”