How the Vietnam War Shaped Classic Rock–And How Classic Rock Shaped the War

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mick­ey Mouse In Viet­nam: The Under­ground Anti-War Ani­ma­tion from 1968, Co-Cre­at­ed by Mil­ton Glaser

How Fleet­wood Mac Makes A Song: A Video Essay Explor­ing the “Son­ic Paint­ings” on the Clas­sic Album, Rumours

Kind of Blue: How Miles Davis Changed Jazz

How Talk­ing Heads and Bri­an Eno Wrote “Once in a Life­time”: Cut­ting Edge, Strange & Utter­ly Bril­liant

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 and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (5)
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  • Bayley says:

    I real­ly enjoyed the video with­in this so we could real­ly see the sim­i­lar­i­ties. I went to school for audio engi­neer­ing and I real­ly enjoyed this!

  • Daniel Thaler says:

    You are REALLY WAAY over the top with all of this. Yes, there were some songs that were def­i­nite­ly about the Viet Nam war. How the hell do you know what Jimi Hen­drix was think­ing about when he wrote and per­formed cer­tain songs? I can’t believe you’re try­ing to intel­lec­tu­al­ize a 60’s music descrip­tion to fit your ass a nine “the­sis.” The main thing going on that influ­enced 60’s music was dru­u­u­ugs man. Dru­u­u­u­ugs. Psy­chdel­ic dru­u­u­ugs. Any sort of drug. Pick one. Total­ly new expe­ri­ence for peo­ple. It was cool to be against the war, or any­thing for that mat­ter. Most peo­ple were just too spaced out to have any sort of geo polit­i­cal under­stand­ing of any­thing. If the peo­ple involved in it looked like their par­ents it had to be evil, and worse than that a drag.

  • William Delamar says:

    Hav­ing lived through that time I agree with the music cit­ed and how it was relat­ed to the time. I do think the Doors,“The End” and movie Apoc­a­lypse Now cap­tured the absolute depraved col­lec­tive insan­i­ty at that time.
    To me Viet­nam is a his­tor­i­cal les­son. It hap­pened in Ger­many, it hap­pened in Amer­i­ca with Viet­nam, and it is hap­pen­ing today with our gov­ern­ment. There are oth­er exam­ples.
    Look­ing away and not acknowl­edg­ing the truth allows col­lec­tive insan­i­ty like this to hap­pen.

  • William Delamar says:

    How old are you? Were you in Viet­nam?

  • William Delamar says:

    The kids on the streets at the time cou­pled with the media that pre­sent­ed the news from Viet­nam were the rea­son the war end­ed.
    Yes, plen­ty of drugs were around. There were also activ­i­ty on most cam­pus­es with meet­ings, march­es, and peo­ple putting them­selves out to express their objec­tions to the war. It did get vio­lent at times. Peo­ple under­stood the dis­con­nect between the val­ues of Amer­i­can that should be and stood up to a gov­ern­ment mak­ing a very poor choice
    I don’t think any­one doubt­ed the state­ment that Jimi Hen­drix was mak­ing about Amer­i­ca with his ren­di­tion of the Star Span­gled Ban­ner. We col­lec­tive­ly saw the moral decay insti­gat­ed by this war, so I would be sur­prised if some­one that lived through that ques­tioned his motive at all. The war reached home for those that didn’t go to Viet­nam as they watched Wal­ter Cronkite and their mul­ti­ple friends com­ing home in cas­kets or dam­aged beyond recog­ni­tion.
    Doing a shift in the kill or be killed jun­gle and always nev­er know­ing if you would feel a bay­o­net and final moments was often fol­lowed by an evening of extreme self-med­icat­ing try­ing to for­get that there would be anoth­er day and day after that.

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