Rock is meant to shake things up. Underneath the rebellious attitude, the look, and the notoriety of rock stars are souls and hearts screaming for change in the world. Occasionally, this manifests as historic moments in rock, birthing hits that forever shift the course of history one way or another. So here are five of the rock songs that have transcended the charts and made their way into the history books.
Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2
Whilst younger generations might primarily know U2 as one of the world’s greatest live stadium performers, older people know that no list of world-changing rock songs would be complete without at least one from the band. And out of all the overtly political anthems that they’ve released over the years, one song stands out. A feature by Lottoland explains how Sunday Bloody Sunday shone a global light on the then-ongoing violence in Northern Ireland. Produced 11 years after the “Bloody Sunday” incident on which the song was based, every lyric and note is meant to give the listener a glimpse of war-torn Ireland in the ’70s, which sparked conversations about the country’s issues around the world.
Looking For Freedom – David Hasselhoff
While the song is more pop than rock, there’s nothing quite as rock n’ roll as how Looking For Freedom inspired West Germans in 1989 to tear down the Berlin Wall. Although Hasselhoff‘s song was actually about a son in the shadow of his rich dad, it had the perfect upbeat attitude and lyrics to be taken out of context and adopted into the struggle of West and East Germans against the wall. Hasselhoff has since embraced his role in the fall of the wall and now works to preserve what remains of it as a historical reminder of the era.
Thunderstruck – AC/DC
You might want to sit down for this one. In 2016, scientists found out that playing Thunderstruck while preparing a cancer drug called camphothecin made its particles spring up and down, which allowed medical researchers to coat the particles in plasma shells to extend the drug’s effect. “The overcoating resulted in a markedly slower release of the drug, and this effect correlated positively with the plasma polymer coating times, ranging from twofold up to more than 100-fold,” explains University of South Australia professor Nico Voelcker. In simple terms, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck was used to improve the effectiveness of a cancer drug.
Panama – Van Halen
Much like many Van Halen songs, Panama is about a car. This however didn’t stop the U.S. military from using the song to draw out former Panama dictator General Manuel Noriega when he was forced to seek political asylum at the Vatican Embassy. After 10 days of sonic, glam rock warfare, the Vatican ambassador had had enough and kicked the general out.
(Sing If You’re) Glad To Be Gay – Tom Robinson Band
This song was produced in an era of open homophobia and institutionalised sexism. The Tom Robinson Band wrote it in response to how the British Police consistently persecuted gays during the mid ’70s. Police regularly raided known gay bars and clubs in and around London to harass, beat, and arrest paying customers — just because they were gay (or happened to be in the bars). This laid the foundation for Glad To Be Gay to become an anti-prejudice anthem that sparked positive changes to how queer people were treated and perceived in both the UK and the U.S.
This list merely scrapes the tip of the iceberg that is world-changing rock — songs that are proof of how positive music can tilt political balances, communicate with global audiences, and even advance medical science. There are thousands more that deserve a listen, and even more causes to make great rock songs about.
Feature by Keith Skilling