The Robins: Riot in Cell Block Number 9 (1954)
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, perhaps the most prolific Rhythm’n’Blues and Rock’n’Roll authors of the early days (Hound Dog, Kansas City, Jailhouse Rock, Stand By Me and many more) wrote Riot in Cell Block Number 9 from the point of view of an inmate. The Robins’ version (who went #1 in the R’n’B chart) begins with sirens and gun shots:
On July second, 1953, I was serving time for armed robbery.
‘Bout four in the morning I was sleepin’ in my cell,
I heard a whistle blow, then I heard somebody yell:
There’s a riot goin’ on, there’s a riot goin’ on, there’s a riot goin’ on up in cell block number nine.
The riot is furious, but in the end the law prevails.
The ninety-second hour, the tear gas got our men.
We’re all back in our cells, but every now and then
There’s a riot goin’ on up in cell block number nine.
There are many cover versions of this tune. The Beach Boys reworked it for their 1971 song Student Demonstration Time☊. It was also performed by Johnny Cash, Dr Feelgood♾, Johnny Winter and The Blues Brothers☊ (because it fit perfectly with their own fiction). But, as it often happens, the original is hard to beat. It isn’t just great music: it’s a precious example of how close Soul, R’n’B, Rock’n’Roll and Jazz really were.
Sly & The Family Stone: There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)
The title track of one of the truly influential albums of the 1970s lasts zero seconds (or four, in some versions), and it consists of silence. From Wikipedia:
For many years it was speculated that this cryptic track listing and the title of the album referred to a July 27, 1970 riot in Chicago, Illinois for which Sly & the Family Stone had been blamed. The band was to play a free show in Grant Park (Chicago) but the crowd became restless before the band began and started rioting. Over a hundred people were injured, including several police officers, and the reason given to the press was that the band was late and/or refused to perform. However in 1997 Sly Stone said that the There’s a Riot Goin’ On track had no running time simply because “I felt there should be no riots.”
The Wailers: Burnin’ and Lootin’ (1973)
Then, of course, some people seem to have better reasons to riot:
This morning I woke up in a curfew; O God, I was a prisoner, too. Could not recognize the faces standing over me; they were all dressed in uniforms of brutality. How many rivers do we have to cross, before we can talk to the boss? All that we got, it seems we have lost, we must have really paid the cost. (That’s why we gonna be) Burnin’ and lootin’ tonight.
But Marley being Marley, his songs always have an universal appeal. And if you’ve lost your job, you’re caught in the economic crunch or you simply feel that where you live your opinion is not considered, you can certainly use this song. Which is not a happy-go-riot tune. The second chorus goes:
Weeping and wailin’ tonight (Who can stop the tears?)
Weeping and wailin’ tonight (We’ve been suffering these long, long years!)
Weeping and wailin’ tonight.
Musically, this is deep Roots Reggae at its best: physical, spiritual and political (Burnin’ is the last album with the original Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer). If I’ll ever riot again in my life, this will be my soundtrack of choice.
Dr Dre: The Day The Niggaz Took Over (1992)
Let’s jump in off in Compton so I gots ta get my loot on and come up on me some furniture or sometin’. Got a VCR in the back of my car that I ganked from the Slauson Swap Meet, and motherfuckers better not try to stop me cuz they will see that I can’t be stopped, cuz I’ma cock my Glock and pop til they all drop.
The song, that features RBX, Snoop Dogg and Dat Nigga Daz (and samples of the LA uprising documentary Birth of a Nation 4x29x92), includes many snippets of news on the riots, during which 55 people were killed and over 2,000 people were injured. It’s just one of many songs (film, video, literature, etc.) about the biggest american racial uprise of the past 30 years.
MC5: Motor City Is Burning (1969)
Detroit in the 1960s was quite a rebellious city: very industrial and racially divided, it was the scene of many riots. John Lee Hooker, a Detroit resident, wrote Motor City is Burning☊ in 1967, out of shock and fear:
Oh, the motor city’s burnin’, it ain’t nothing in the world that I can do.
Well, fire bomb fallin’ all around me and soldiers standin’ everywhere.
I could hear the people screaming, sirens fill the air.
I don’t know, I don’t know what the trouble is, this mornin’,
I just can’t stay around to find it out. Takin’ my wife an my family
And little Johnny Lee is clearin’ out. I just hope, people, it’ll never happen to you.
But then, in ’69, protopunk Detroit band MC5 included it in one of the most influential albums ever, Kick Out The Jams. They seemed to know what the trouble was:
Your mama, papa don’t know what the trouble is
You see, they don’t know what it’s all about
I said, your mama, papa don’t know what the trouble is, baby
They just can’t see what it’s all about
I get the news, read the newspapers, baby, baby?
You just get out there in the street and check it out.
Now, I guess it’s true, I’d just like to strike a match for freedom myself.
I may be a white boy, but I can be bad, too.
The Clash: White Riot (1977)
Let’s face it: riots can be sad and brutal affairs, but they can also be fun. Similarly, rebellion can be troubling for some, but for me it’s certainly a sign of healthy social dynamics. Obviously, in a problematic multi-racial society (such as the UK’s in the 70s), minorities seem to have more reason to rebel. But do they?
Black people gotta lot a problems, but they don’t mind throwing a brick.
White people go to school, where they teach you how to be thick.
An’ everybody’s doing just what they’re told to, an’ nobody wants to go to jail!
White riot, I wanna riot! White riot – a riot of my own!
The Clash’s first single, a real punk anthem (while the band’s later material is much more sophisticated, at least musically), White Riot is both a political and teenage song: The Beastie Boys’ (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)♾ is right around the corner.
Sonic Youth: Teenage Riot (1988)
This song has one of the greatest titles in the history of Rock’n’Roll. But is it really about rioting? There are three riot references in the lyrics. The first is very cryptic:
Teenage riot in a public station, gonna fight and tear it up in a hypernation for you.
The second is a bit clearer:
It better work out, I hope it works out my way, ’cause it’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head.
Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now.
The third is a great punk/indie line:
We’re off the streets now, and back on the road, on the riot trail.*
One of the singles off their 1988 Daydream Nation album, Teenage Riot has a videoclip, with (involuntary) cameos by a number of artists, including Johnny Thunders, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Sun Ra, Henry Rollins, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, the Butthole Surfers and Kiss.
*Sonic Youth really walked (drove, flew, crawled) that trail for a very long time, often sleeping in unusual homes. Thurston Moore co-edited Abby Banks’ photobook Punkhouse: Interiors in Anarchy: “Punkhouse features anarchist warehouses, feminist collectives, tree houses, workshops, artists’ studios, self-sufficient farms, hobo squats, community centers, basement bike shops, speakeasies, and all varieties of communal living spaces.”
U2: Sunday Bloody Sunday♾ (1983) Although not exactly about a riot (the song recalls the 1972 massacre of 26 northern Irish protesters by British soldiers), this is considered to be a very militant song by U2 fans, and a very smart commercial move by others, including me.
99 Posse: Curre Curre Guaglio’☊ (1993) Full disclosure: I produced the music for this album by neapolitan Rap/Reggae outfit 99 Posse. But its title track (which translates Run, Man, Run) is still the song of choice of italian student demonstrations today, precisely for its references to rioting (there is a non-Google english translation of the lyrics at the bottom of this page).