There are a handful of popular songs that have become cliche and shorthand for filmmakers wishing to take us back to the trauma of the Vietnam War: Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Edwin Starr’s “War,” to name two. Yet at the same time, while classic rock lives forever, memories or lessons of Vietnam have not. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” originally was a comment on the Sunset Strip Curfew (anti-war) riots, but now its meaning is open ended enough to suit any potentially violent protest.
In Polyphonic’s two-part series, cleverly titled “How the Vietnam War Shaped Classic Rock” for the first half and “How Classic Rock Shaped the Vietnam War” for the second, Noah Lefevre performs a needed reevaluation on dozens of rock and soul songs, placing them back in their historical context and showing how the power and message of music evolved as the war descended into chaos and defeat.
The Vietnam War dragged on so long that music and culture were both vastly different by the time Saigon fell and the Americans pulled out. Polyphonic begins with the first line of protest, the American folk singers in Greenwich Village, in particular Phil Ochs and his apprentice Bob Dylan. Folk was the traditional way that protest reached the American public--it needed a singer and a guitar and nothing more--but Dylan would provide the bridge that rock music needed, as he straddled both camps for a while (and Ochs did not).
However, as Lefevre astutely points out, the troops themselves weren’t listening to folk. They were like anybody else their age at that time and listening to rock and r’n’b. Their top of their pops, circa 1965, was The Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” (originally about small town alienation, but perfect for being stuck thousands of miles from home) and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking.”
Things changed as the war escalated in 1966 and the first soldiers returned home, many of whom would join in the protest movement.
And while on one hand psychedelic drugs powered the Summer of Love, advancements in tech powered the images of the war that now got beamed into all our television sets. The war was dirtier, messier, and more horrific than most people imagined, and music responded in two ways. One was to bounce outside that reality and proclaim peace the answer, as John Lennon and Yoko Ono did, squaring off against the government and radicalized youth alike. The other was to create a music sound that tried to match the madness. Jimi Hendrix managed it several times, including “Machine Gun” and his infamous rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” But King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” were even darker. And then there was Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Going On, which is neither peacenik nor horrorshow. Instead it's a sigh of melancholy and sadness, taking in man’s cycle of violence towards itself and to the earth.
Polyphonic really stepped it up in these two mini docs, gaining access to high quality archival footage. There’s plenty more to learn and hear in them, so click play.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.