History Through the Charts

History Through the Charts

History is constantly being made around us, even when we don’t realise it. Whether it’s in the books we read or shows we watch, historical references are everywhere. So it is no surprise that history has found its way into some of the most famous pop songs of all time! 

Taking us back to the time of bell bottoms and tie-dye, the 70s was the decade that gave the world disco, and we can’t talk about disco without talking about Boney M! Boney M was one of the most famous bands of the 70s, with hits including Sunny and Daddy Cool.  The group left the 70s with a bang in 1979 with arguably their most well-known and beloved song, Rasputin. 

 

There lived a certain man in Russia long ago

He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow

 

This song depicts the life of Grigori Rasputin, a Russian peasant and self-proclaimed Holy Man who was a close friend of Tsar Nicholas II’s family and a big influence on the Russian Revolution, particularly the February Revolution of 1917. 

Moving ahead into the early 80s, the New Wave and Electronic music genres quickly dominated the charts and Sony Walkmans. 1980 was also the year when the English Alternative-Rock band, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, wrote one of the most famous and influential anti-war songs of all time: Enola Gay. 

 

Enola Gay

You should have stayed at home yesterday

Ah-ha, words can’t describe

The feeling and the way you lied

 

Enola Gay is a song about the first atomic bomb ever dropped in warfare. On the 6th of August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city, Hiroshima, changing the scope of war forever. The aircraft that transported the atomic bomb was flown by a fighter pilot named Paul Warfields Tibbets Jr, and he named the aircraft after his mother, Enola Gay. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were catastrophic and caused the deaths of an estimated 120,000 people, and signify a truly devastating period in history. 

Further into the 80s, one of the biggest rock bands in history emerged, and they remain the most successful group from Ireland. In case you haven’t guessed, the band is U2! Among some of their greatest hits, such as With or without you and New Year’s Day, U2 left their mark on history with their famous post-punk song: Sunday Bloody Sunday. 

 

And the battle’s just begun

There’s many lost, but tell me who has won?

 

Written by lead vocalist and primary lyricist Paul David Hewson, better known as Bono, Sunday Bloody Sunday is a song about the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the late 60s to the late 90s. In particular, this song chronicles an observer’s perspective of the 1972 Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland, where British soldiers shot 31 and killed 13 unarmed, peaceful protestors. 

In 1989, Billy Joel takes us on a whirlwind journey through time from the late 40s to the late 80s with his exciting (albeit exhausting) hit song: We Didn’t Start the Fire. 

 

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it

 

In total, Billy Joel wrote about 118 historical events in the 5-minute track, beginning from the year of his birth, 1949, to 1989. From referencing the events of the Cold War to world leaders and even to pop culture phenomena like Elvis Presley and ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ Billy Joel gives us a rapid-fire education on many of the important landmarks of the time. 

In 1990, the German rock band, The Scorpions, commemorated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany with their moving song titled: the Wind of Change. This song symbolises the world’s move into a brighter future with the end of the Cold War. 

 

The future’s in the air

Can feel it everywhere

Blowing with the wind of change

 

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and it divided East and West Germany for 30 years. The fall of the wall was a defining moment in history, signifying the reunification of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) as one country. This was a hugely impactful time in Cold War history as families were reunited for the first time in decades, East Berliners were allowed to travel as widely as they pleased and were allowed to express their political opinions freely without fearing punishment. 

Finally, this list would not be complete without recognising the incredible biography of one of America’s Founding Fathers told through 46 songs! Moving ahead into the 21st Century, musical genius Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the 11-time Tony-winning rap musical, Hamilton, headlining Broadway in 2015. According to a poll by Spotify in June 2021, the opening track, Alexander Hamilton, is the most listened to Hamilton song, with a total of 194 million listens. 

 

Alexander Hamilton

My name is Alexander Hamilton

And there’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait, just you wait

 

Alexander Hamilton was one of the seven principal Founding Fathers, among others including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton is largely known for fighting the American Revolutionary War, drafting the Constitution and serving as the first Secretary of the treasurer in the United States. Lin-Manual Miranda, however, explored aspects of the lesser-known events of his life, such as his immigration from the West Indies to the US, his family life, marriage and affairs. 

There are hundreds of incredible songs about historical events and there are surely hundreds more to come as time progresses, giving the world a creative and meaningful outlet to reflect on the past. 

 

References

https://www.smoothradio.com/features/the-story-of/rasputin-boney-m-lyrics-video-who/ 

https://crooked.com/podcast-series/wind-of-change/

https://www.linmanuel.com/project/hamilton/

https://genius.com/Billy-joel-we-didnt-start-the-fire-lyrics

https://www.songfacts.com/facts/omd/enola-gay

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/u2-sunday-bloody-sunday-50th-anniversary-massacre-1292600/

Image: 

https://unsplash.com/photos/RZmiDOpv1lM