The 10 Best History Lessons In Rock

Rush: French Revolution 101 (Image credit: Fin Costello\/Redferns)

If you thought all rock songs were about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, then think again. Tired of all the usual clichés, some rockers have taken it upon themselves to broaden our knowledge by putting history lessons to song. Here are 10 tracks designed to increase your cultural cachet…

10. Hiroshima Mon Amour – Alcatrazz (1983)

Taking its title from a 1959 classic of French cinema, this rather pompous song from US band Alcatrazz’s 1983 album, No Parole From Rock’n’Roll, unpacks the horror of the US dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima in 1945. Featuring guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen’s note-crammed solos and vocalist Graham Bonnet’s histrionic vocals to the max, it’s an interesting musical snapshot, if an acquired taste.

9. A Great Day For Freedom – Pink Floyd (1994)

Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour’s 1994 tune from The Division Bell is a bittersweet reflection on the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and whether things did, in fact change for the better. Over a typically beautiful and movingly cinematic musical landscape, Gilmour shows he’s not so sure, though he happily ends the number by finding salvation in love, portraying his hope with a gorgeous, soaring guitar solo at the song’s climax.

8. Alexander The Great – Iron Maiden (1986)

Of course you’re spoilt for choice when it come to metal legends Iron Maiden and their historical output. But we’ve gone for this eight-minute monster from 1986’s Somewhere In Time. Bassist Steve Harris’s lyric acts as a great crib sheet for any youngster studying the legendary Greek leader’s exploits for their exams. “At the age of 19, he became the Macedon king, and he swore to free all of Asia Minor”. All this over a typically sweeping musical vista, all galloping bass and soaring vocal delivery. Simply epic!

7. Spanish Bombs – The Clash (1979)

An unashamedly poppy song from the reformed punks’ classic 1979 album, London Calling. The jaunty vocal melody counterpoints an interesting lyrical comparison between the British holidaying experience in 1970s Spain and the Spanish Civil War that took place 40 years earlier. “Spanish weeks in my disco casino, the freedom fighters died upon the hill,” sings Joe Strummer in his trademark raw style, while Mick Jones offers a perfect melodic response throughout an undeniably great song.

6. Bastille Day – Rush (1975)

A number from the early days of the Canadian experimental metallers that takes a literal lyrical look at the events leading up to the French revolution of 1789. Featuring a memorable speedy riff from Alex Lifeson and a suitably hysterical vocal performance from Geddy Lee, this is one of Rush’s more straightahead rockers, and it really hits the spot. “La guillotine will claim her bloody prize,” explains Lee. He knows his history, that boy!

5. Boston Tea Party – Sensational Alex Harvey Band (1976)

The Scottish rockers investigate the 1773 US political protest that escalated into full-scale revolution. Tea being imported into America by Britain was subject to tax, but those paying the tax had no representation in the British parliament. To mark their displeasure, protestors chucked a shipment of tea into the harbor in Boston. Cue musical inspiration! Riding on a rippling piano line, and driven by Harvey’s ragged yet melodic vocal touch, this became one of SAHB’s biggest UK hits.

4. Angel of Death - Slayer (1986)

The most notorious song from the US thrash metal band’s most famous album, 1986’s Reign In Blood, Angel Of Death tells the sordid tale of Nazi physician Josef Mengele, who conducted medical experiments on prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Running at a suitably frantic pace, the song takes an unflinching look at one of history’s most awful events. Written by guitarist Jeff Hanneman, the song was castigated by many as sympathetic to the Nazis, though lines such as “Pathetic harmless victims, left to die, rancid Angel of Death” suggest otherwise.

3. Catherine Howard’s Fate – Blackmore’s Night (1982)

Taken from 1999’s Under A Violet Moon album, this track offers a first person monologue as the fifth wife of English king Henry VIII pleads against a death sentence “because I loved more than one man.” The lyric is faithful to history, as the 19-year-old Queen was beheaded in 1542 on the grounds of treason through the act of adultery. The song is a typically medieval-sounding piece of acoustic whimsy from the former Rainbow and Deep Purple guitarist. Pleasant, if odd.

2. Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1971)


This is Neil Young’s heartfelt musical response to the Kent State Shooting of May 4, 1970, when four students protesting against US involvement in a campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War were shot dead, and nine more were injured. Recorded live in LA after just a few takes, the immediacy of the band performance matches the raw emotions of the moment perfectly, especially the haunting repeated mantra of “four dead in Ohio.”

1. Dallas 1pm - Saxon (1980)

UK metal veterans Saxon have written some guff in their time, but this is a genuinely superb song capturing the moment in Dallas in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was killed and America went into shock. Based around an unforgettable riff and featuring moving live radio commentary on the attack from the time in a moody mid-section, this is a perfect re-telling of a seismic event set to undeniably great music.

Howard Johnson is a music writer based in France. The editor of Rock Candy magazine, he's also written for Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, RAW, Q, MoJo and Japanese rock magazine Burrn!, and is a French football correspondent for World Soccer mag. He has also written a book on AC/DC, Get Your Jumbo Jet Out Of My Airport.