10 Killer Tracks: Gun Control in Rock-N-Roll?

by Peter Wendel
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GunsInRockHeaderMain_edited-FinalGuns, guns and more guns. They’re on everybody’s mind these days as the world becomes an increasingly violent and volatile place.

Gun-toting terrorists have surfaced on Main Street, America. Police departments across the country are reeling from allegations of racially charged deadly force. Mass shootings – like the slaughter of 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 – have become our new “normal.”

From where I’m standing, it looks like the perfect storm is gathering on the horizon. Gun sales are brisk, to say the least. Assault rifles and handguns are flying off the racks. The American obsession with firearms is running hotter than ever.

GunsInRockFeatured SongMango_edited-2Hell, things have gotten so out of hand, the President has exercised executive action to ensure modest common-sense gun-control measures. Of course, the NRA is absolutely apoplectic over the move. But people are dying. First-graders are being shot en masse. Inner-city gun violence claims scores of victims every single day. We must do better by our children.

Solutions to our gun-related issues haven’t come easy. Just ask our crackerjack elected officials in Congress who have been paralyzed on the issue of how to handle the country’s gun violence for years on end (much to the glee of the NRA). So what to do now?

I’ve found that every now and again during times of crisis, it helps to look into the crystal ball of rock-n-roll to see what wisdom it imparts – and to lighten the mood ever so slightly.

To that end, I’ve assembled a list of rock’s most relevant and powerful songs about guns. These are tracks that target our love affair with firearms and the violence and havoc they enable.

The songs that made the cut meander from the deadly serious, like Jimi’s “Machine Gun” and Neil Young’s “Ohio” to the darkly humorous, like Cracker’s “Can I Take My Gun To Heaven?” and “Frankie’s Gun” by The Felice Brothers. There’s a little something for everyone.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to throw on your bullet-proof vest.

Editor’s Note: Please vote for your favorite track at the bottom of this post.

Lynyrd Skynyrd
One More From The Road (1976)

You won’t hear this one at any NRA rallies. And hell, the good ol’ Southern boys of Skynyrd liked guns (think “Gimme Back My Bullets,” for example). This kickass piece of social commentary – lightened by a little dark humor – speaks for itself:

Hand guns are made for killin’
They ain’t no good for nothin’ else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself

The song decries the easy accessibility and low cost of the Saturday Night Special.

FACT: The United States has the highest gun-ownership rate in the world – an average of 88 guns per every 100 citizens. After America comes Yemen, which has the significantly lower rate of 54.8 guns per 100 people.

HendrixElectricladylandMACHINE GUN
Jimi Hendrix
Band of Gypsys (1970)

“Machine Gun” is anti-war, anti-gun and anti-conflict. It’s Jimi’s haunting, guitar-scratching take on the ravages of war – released just as the United States ramped up its campaign in Vietnam.

Hendrix could make his guitar sound like pretty much anything, including machine-gun fire, helicopter gunships, bomb explosions and the wails and cries of the fallen. From his guitar, came all the horrific sounds of war.

Jimi started playing “Machine Gun” live in 1969 as war protests were exploding on college campuses from coast to coast. The track was released on the album, Band Of Gypsys, in March 1970 – just weeks before the National Guard shot down four student war-protesters at Kent State University in Ohio (see “Ohio” by CSN&Y below).

During live performances, Jimi would dedicate the song to “the soldiers” – those fighting at home for peace and those on the ground fighting the war in Vietnam.

Hendrix assumes the role of a soldier amid the foggy horror of war:

Machine gun, tearin’ my body all apart
Evil man make me kill you
Evil man make you kill me
Evil man make me kill you
Even though we’re only families apart
Well, I pick up my axe and fight like a farmer
But your bullets still knock me down to the ground

BobGeldof SongMango.comI DON’T LIKE MONDAYS
Boomtown Rats
The Fine Art Of Surfacing (1979)

This one sees into the future. Irish singer-songwriter Bob Geldof tells the story of a gruesome, senseless act of gun violence perpetrated by a 16-year-old girl. Today it sounds almost mundane, but in ’79, it was anything but. The song reached No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for four weeks during the summer of ’79.

From Wikipedia:

According to Geldof, he wrote the song after reading a telex report at Georgia State University’s campus radio station, WRAS, on the shooting spree of 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer, who fired at children in a school playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California, USA on 29 January 1979, killing two adults and injuring eight children and one police officer. Spencer showed no remorse for her crime and her full explanation for her actions was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day”.

Geldof’s lyrics reflect the senselessness of it all:

And he can see no reasons
‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die?

Tell me why?
I don’t like Mondays (x3)
I want to shoot
The whole day down, down, down
Shoot it all down

FACT: More mass shootings occur in the United States than in any other country in the world. Although the frequency of mass shootings varies upon their definition, it has been reported that 31 percent of public mass shootings occur in America despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population.

DavidLowery SongMango.comCAN I TAKE MY GUN TO HEAVEN?
Cracker (1992)

Frontman David Lowery prefers his gun to his woman. This one goes right to our national obsession with firearms.

So can I take my gun up to heaven?
You know she’s always been by my side
So can I take my gun up to heaven?
I’ll check it with St. Peter at the gate

FACT (ALMOST): America has a love affair with guns.

JoeStrummer SongMango.comTOMMY GUN
The Clash
Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

The Clash were always ahead of their time. Here’s Joe Strummer with his finger on the pulse of terrorism as organizations, like Baader-Meinhof and The Red Brigades, rose to prominence in the late-’70s. You can bet Strummer would have had a few choice words for ISIS. From Wikipedia:

Joe Strummer said that he got the idea for the song when he was thinking about terrorists, and how they probably enjoy reading about their killings as much as movie stars like seeing their films reviewed.

Just as Hendrix did with “Machine Gun,” The Clash mimic the sound of semi-automatic fire but instead of using the guitar, Topper Headon uses his drums.

Tommy gun
You ain’t happy unless you got one
Tommy gun
Ain’t gonna shoot the place up just for fun

HurricaneDylan SongMango.comHURRICANE
Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 (2002)

Is “Hurricane” the first rock song about “racial-profiling”?

Dylan rails as only he can about the tragedy that befell middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was wrongfully convicted of a triple-murder – based largely on faulty evidence and inconsistent eye-witness testimony.

No one doubted that he pulled the trigger
And though they could not produce the gun
The D.A. said he was the one who did the deed
And the all-white jury agreed

The Hurricane’s conviction was eventually overturned, and he was released from prison after nearly 20 years of brutal incarceration for a shooting he didn’t commit.

NeilYoung SongMango.comOHIO
Crosby Stills Nash & Young
Four Way Street (1971)

Neil Young wrote this scathing protest song just days after the Ohio National Guard shot dead four student war-protesters at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. CSN&Y recorded it on May 21st. The college-campus massacre was still very much a gaping wound when “Ohio” first hit the street in June 1970 as a single. A live version would appear on the band’s double album Four Way Street in April 1971.

The lyrics of “Ohio” can be applied to gun violence on any city street in America:

What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run 
When you know

BruceSpringsteen SongMango.com_edited-1AMERICAN SKIN (41 SHOTS)
Bruce Springsteen
High Hopes (2014)

Forty-one shots to take down one man?

Springsteen’s stark and haunting song “American Skin (41 Shots)” was inspired by the violent shooting of an unarmed man, Amadou Diallo, on February 4, 1999, by four plain-clothed New York City police officers. In all, the four cops shot 41 rounds, 19 of which hit Diallo.

As it turns, out the cops shot the wrong guy. It was a devastating case of mistaken identity. The four police officers were charged with second-degree murder in the wake of the shooting. All four were ultimately acquitted.

In March of 2004, Diallo’s parents received $3 million settlement with the city.

As we’ve seen in cities across our great nation – like Chicago, Cleveland and Ferguson – guns are dangerous even when they’re in the hands of law enforcement.

Forty-one shots, and we’ll take that ride
Across this bloody river to the other side
Forty-one shots, they cut through the night
You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule
Praying for his life

EddieMoney SongMango.com_edited-1GIMME SOME WATER
Eddie Money
Unplug It In (1992)

He’s on the run in the desert after shooting a man on the Mexican border. He’s tired and parched, and he’s ultimately caught by the law. He will be hanged for his crime. It’s a lose-lose situation for both the victim and the perp. Once you pull the trigger, it can’t be undone.

Oh geeze, if I just get loose my hands
I’d run just as fast as my legs can
But, Lord, I’ve got nowhere to run
Shouldn’t have done what I did with that there gun

Gimme some water
‘Cause I shot a man on the Mexican border
Cool, cool water

TheFeliceBrothers SongMango.comFRANKIE’S GUN
The Felice Brothers
The Felice Brothers (2008)

The lyric arc of humorously dark track centers on a tragic shooting of the song’s narrator by his friend Frankie. The gun was supposed to have blanks in it.

Bang bang bang went Frankie’s gun
He shot me down Lucille
He shot me down

I thought we might be on a roll this time Frankie
I could have swore the box said Hollywood blanks but…

FACT: According to the Daily Beast, in 2007, the United States suffered some 15,000-19,000 accidental shootings. More than 600 of those shootings proved fatal.

Which rock song makes the most powerful statement about guns?

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Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.