Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published September 18th 2020
Remembering the War through Music
September 2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Moratorium Walks against the Vietnam War across Australia. While the War did not officially end for another few years, the fact so many Australians – and it was a lot – protested meant that the tide had really turned. People no longer just wanted the war to end, they were now prepared to get out and make a statement.
Adelaide Moratorium March (State Library of South Australia PRG-1561-4-F17-3)
But the war would stick in the consciousness of people for many years to come. The plight of returned veterans was something that many wanted to ignore, just like they wanted to forget the war. Fast forward ten years: the 1980s, the era of greed, after punk had had its day and while arena rock was rearing its bloated head, when the New Romantics and heavy metal dominated the playlists of teenagers. But it was also the era of songs that were designed to change the world – 'Do They Know It's Christmas? by Band Aid was probably the best – and protest songs.
That brings us to this. Time had given enough distance to start looking at the Vietnam War. Movies especially examined it; Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, even First Blood all looked at the war and its aftermath amongst many others. But music also came in here.
So, these are songs released in the 1980s about the Vietnam War. Four rules: 1) 1980s! 2) Vietnam War theme is prominent. 3) No cover versions. 4) I have to actually like the song.
This list has some meaning to me, so nothing too jovial. Just great music. That's all. But I will say that, as one who revels in writing, the lyrics on display here are very well done. Using words to their fullest power. This is songwriting.
Simple. Let's get on to this list.
'Still In Saigon' by The Charlie Daniels Band (1982)
An incredible and well-known (especially at the time) song. To be honest, my impression of Charlie Daniels has always been clouded (in a good way) by this song. I pictured US country music singers as pro-war, but Daniels always stood out because of this very anti-war and rock sounding track. And it is a great song.
'Goodnight Saigon' by Billy Joel (1982)
This song sends a chill up my spine when those rousing choral voices join in to give meat to the song. Looking back at Vietnam and the men who fought there, the subdued verses are like walking through the jungle and the explosive choruses are like a sudden firefight. So well done.
'I Was Only 19 (A Walk In The Green Light)' by Redgum (1983)
In Australia, this is the anti-Vietnam War song from the 1980s, about a vet who is struggling, even at the sounds of helicopters. A stunning song, and so damn powerful. I saw Redgum live in the late 80s, and having the whole crowd sing along to every single lyric (me included) was just amazing. And so incredibly moving.
'Walking On A Thin Line' by Huey Lewis And The News (1983)
When I got the Sports album, this song confused me. It took a few years for me to understand what it is actually about. A returned vet is struggling with life back in the post-war world, feeling like he could snap at any moment. Incredible track.
'Front Line' by Stevie Wonder (1983)
A Vietnam vet lost his leg in the war and struggled back home. This incredible guitar-led track from Original Musiquarium Volume I (a greatest hits album) is so different to a lot of Wonder's 1980s output that it stands out in a good way. A very good way.
'Born In The U.S.A.' by Bruce Springsteen (1984)
From the classic album of the same name, this is probably not only one of the best known Vietnam songs of the 1980s, but also one of the most misinterpreted songs ever. I have spoken about this song at length in the past. It is a superb song, and it tells the plight of a returned veteran so starkly. Just… yeah. Just great.
'19' by Paul Hardcastle (1985)
An interesting song, more a sound collage of drum loops, synthesised music, bits from documentaries, news reports, and anything else, with some female backing vocals, thrown together to be a stunning anti-war song. The fact that it did so well on charts showed how innovative it was as a piece of music, and how much this topic had struck the zeitgeist.
'Disposable Heroes' by Metallica (1986)
I have a friend who is a Metallica fanatic (he even defends the St Anger album) and he told me this was not about Vietnam but all wars. However, considering when it was written and the mood of the time, and that I heard Lars Ulrich mention Vietnam in an interview, it is here. Why? Because it is a truly great song, one of Metallica's great deep cuts, of which they have quite a number.
'Orange Crush' by R.E.M. (1988)
It took me years to learn this was about Vietnam (I reckon it was the early 2010s), specifically about Michael Stipe's father who had fought in the War. I guess there were hints – the Orange in the title relates to agent orange. An upbeat sounding song about quite a depressing topic. Welcome to the age of irony…
'Copperhead Road' by Steve Earle (1988)
Another song about a returned vet, who grows marijuana on his return. This is such a great song, though, and many people think it is just about running bootleg liquor. No, it's deeper than that. And there's another song on the album (also named Copperhead Road) contrasting the way veterans from World War 2 were treated with Vietnam vets. Earle is under-rated as a songwriter.
10 songs about the Vietnam War from the viewpoint of the 1980s. The fact that some vets are still having issues 30-odd years later is a sad indictment on the world, I think.
Hope you enjoyed the music.
Aerial view of Washington's Vietnam War Memorial Wall