A lot of popular music artists have attempted to capture the military experience over the years, but only a small percentage of them have gotten it right in the eyes of the community. Here are the 9 that did it best:
1. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy Of Company B,” The Andrews Sisters (1941)
A fast-living jazz musician from Chicago gets drafted and winds up in the heat of the action with Bravo Company. But his CO is a music fan who uses his power and influence to get the rest of the guy’s band drafted and assigned to the same unit. They all wind up hated by their fellow soldiers because they’re the ones who play reveille every morning, never mind whether or not it’s a hip version of it. As classic a military tale as there is.
2. “Billy, Don’t be a Hero,” Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (1974)
A young patriot goes to war against his fiancees’ wishes and gets killed because he didn’t follow her sage guidance. And in the end she tears up the letter that documents his heroism because she feels like his service and sacrifice were a waste. This classic by these one-hit wonders may qualify as “bubblegum pop,” but its subject matter is super intense.
3. “Ballad of the Green Beret,” Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, U.S. Army (1966)
“Silver wings, upon his chest . . .” This song was written by author Robin Moore and SSgt. Sadler while Sadler was recovering from wounds he sustained while serving as a medic in Vietnam, a fact that kept him from getting grief from fellow soldiers for going on TV in full uniform and singing with kind of a high voice. “Ballad of the Green Beret” became a no. 1 hit — amazing considering how the American public was rapidly going south about the war in Vietnam and pro-military sentiments were already hard to find.
4. I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag, Country Joe McDonald (1968)
Country Joe was a counterculture crooner from the Bay Area who walked on stage at Woodstock after Richie Havens’ opening set basically to kill some time. He played two songs with little response from the massive crowd and walked off. He thought better of it and walked back on and did what was commonly known as “the FISH cheer” (that actually spells something else). The crowd came alive, so he launched into “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” a satire of the military-industrial complex and the impact of the war on suburbia, which was included in the “Woodstock” movie and, as a result, became a classic hit of the Vietnam era.
5. “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
Perhaps John Fogarty’s best recorded vocal performance, “Fortunate Son” hit the airwaves at a time when the Vietnam-era draft was starting to feel like class warfare and the hypocrisy of the ruling elite was revealing itself. With a driving beat, a searing guitar riff, and Forgarty singing lyrics like “I ain’t no senator’s son, no no,” the song resonated with those doing their duty while their richer and better-placed peers didn’t. “Fortunate Son” made it to no. 3 on the charts.
6. “The Star Spangled Banner (live at Woodstock),” Jimi Hendrix (1969)
Jimi Hendrix was not that well known in America when he took the stage at Woodstock on the morning of August 18, 1969. It was a Monday morning and all but several thousand of the nearly 1 million attendees had left the festival. Hendrix, an Army vet, surprised the audience (and his band) by launching into his rendition of the National Anthem, a version that many conservatives at the time criticized as unpatriotic. But history has shown it to be perhaps the most accurate musical portrayal of the state of America at the time and, beyond that, a timeless reading of the chaos of war. In 2011, the editors of Guitar World placed his rendition at number one in their list of his 100 greatest performances.
7. “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath (1970)
With an ominous air raid siren opening and lyrics like “generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses,” this track from Sabbath’s classic second album “Paranoid” was heavy metal before anyone even knew there was such a thing. And in Ozzy’s shallow metaphor lives the sentiments of millions who have gone in harm’s way since man first took up arms.
8. “99 Luftballoons,” Nena (1983)
The oldest military story ever told: 99 balloons are mistaken for UFOs, causing a general to send pilots to investigate. Finding nothing but child’s balloons, the pilots decide to put on a show and shoot them down. The display of force worries the nations along the borders and the war ministers on each side bang the drums of conflict to grab power for themselves. In the end, a 99-year war results from the otherwise harmless flight of balloons, causing devastation on all sides without a victor. (Wikipedia)
9. “Bodies,” Drowning Pool (2001)
The song that launched thousands of patrols out of the FOBs and into the dirty streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Bodies” may not have been written with the military in mind, but it’s urgent beat and overall atmosphere of brutality worked for those who answered the call after 9-11, and they adopted it as their own. Also of note is that the song was used by interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention camps in 2003, including over a 10-day period during the “questioning” of terror suspect Mohamedou Ould Slahi.