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 tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.


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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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