Henry Rollins on his favorite political albums: 'They warned of what was to come, and they were right'

Lyndsey Parker
Henry Rollins (Photo: Heidi May)

“I’m coming to you as someone whose life was changed by music, and it’s punk rock that really formulated the person who’s croaking into the phone to you right now,” punk icon, radio DJ, newspaper columnist, actor, and all-round rock ‘n’ roll Renaissance man Henry Rollins tells Yahoo Entertainment with his usual neck-vein-throbbing enthusiasm.

Rollins can now add another title to his résumé: Sound of Vinyl curator. The Sound of Vinyl, which launched this month in the U.S., is a personalized service that helps music fanatics discover and purchase vinyl records from a catalog of more than 20,000 titles — and among SoV’s appointed vinyl experts are Don Was, Ahmet Zappa, and Rollins, who seemingly has at least 20,000 albums’ worth of deep music trivia filed away in his close-cropped skull.

To give an example of Rollins’s expertise and excitement for the SoV project, Yahoo assigned him a timely task: We asked him to recommend his favorite political albums. Below, he gushes about his picks, always making the political personal.

“These are records that really addressed what I was going through [as a kid], the ones that just hit me in the teeth — the ones I could have written … were I more talented,” he jokes. “I have a real human attachment to these records, because they genuinely warned me of what was to come. And they were right.”

The Clash, The Clash

“This would be kind of the first record where I went, ‘OK, this is a political thing. It’s not a Van Halen record.’ Because I was new to punk rock around the time that record came out. I was buying some records here and there, but with ‘Career Opportunities’ and the chorus — ‘Career opportunities, the one that never knock/Every job they offer you is to keep you on the dock’ — when I heard Joe Strummer put those words to melody, I realized he was talking about me and the adult world that I would soon be facing. I was graduating from high school, and I was about to go into the minimum-wage working world, since I had no real interest in college, and I just didn’t have a career path at all. I just realized, ‘Well, this is going to be like the jobs I had in the summer, but every day.’ And soon enough, I’m working somewhere with an apron on, doing whatever every damn day, and suddenly my life is a Bruce Springsteen lyric. I am a Bob Seger song. I was that guy, and I was that song.

“Living in the city with racial tension, you hear ‘White Riot’ and you go, ‘OK, I understand that song.’ I even understood when the Clash covered Junior Murvin’s ‘Police and Thieves’; they do such a beautiful cover. When all my friends dropped the skateboards and picked up instruments — that would be all the early Dischord bands, Minor Threat, the Teen Idols, Fugazi; those are my friends, those are people I grew up with — there was the song ‘Garageland.’ We all practiced in garages and basements, and I wasn’t in a band, so I just hung out. So when Joe Strummer says, ‘I’m going to stay in the garage all night,’ I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I am too, with my dumb friends.’

“That record spoke to me differently than any rock album had, where [other albums are] like cars and girls and mystical journeys with mountaintops and fairies and gremlins or whatever. That, and the Sex Pistols album, which to me had more anger and intensity. But I didn’t have a queen, so ‘God Save the Queen’” was cool, but I didn’t have a problem with the queen.

“So it was really that Clash record that really made me question authority, question any established structure. I was in high school when I heard that, and that record, I was going to a prep school with a uniform and a bunch of ex-military yelling at me every day: ‘Get up!’ I’d stand up. Your parents paid good money to have teachers yell at you for all of high school, and that’s what I went through. I was terrified of them, and I was kind of submissive in the face of yelling power. Once professor Joe Strummer got to me, I started going to Saturday detention, because I started pushing back. The Clash album pulled the scales away from my eyes and I went, ‘Wait a minute, screw the lot of you,’ I turned into a real pain in the ass because of that record. I became smart.

“It was punk rock that gave me the courage to mouth off to my teachers, who were obviously wrong. It was punk rock that gave me that, but it was Joe Strummer and the first Clash album that made me start realizing that the adult world is intensely and innately political.”

Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables

“Jello Biafra is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I met him in 1980 at a Dead Kennedys show in San Francisco. He’s just a wise guy, he’s smart, and he reads everything and can quote it back to you. He’s also a political troublemaker. The Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables record is so hectic, like lyrically he’s trying to get something to light on fire, like he’s trying to cause unrest. It’s intense. I mean, the music is great, but when you read the lyrics, it is like a blueprint for a citywide riot.

“That record hit me — like, it kind of scared me — because I knew him. It was a bit much for me, like ‘Let’s Lynch the Landlord’ or whatever. I’m like, ‘Why? What are you doing? You’re an anarchist, I’m kind of nervous around you!’ He tripped me out with that record, and it kind of blew my mind. It was like politics with a fuse that you’re supposed to light, and I didn’t want to light it. It was a bit much for my young mind to get itself around. Jello is like an intellectual terrorist, and he was one of the first people who made me understand the power of an idea. I joined Black Flag soon after I heard that record.’

“We’re both kind of old men now, but Jello’s mind is still looking to blow things up. He’s a truly cerebral cat, and the power of the idea has never left him. I think Jello lit up a lot of young minds with Fresh Fruit. It’s one of those ‘This changed how I thought about things’ kinds of records.”

Stiff Little Fingers, Inflammable Material

“You get perhaps a better understanding [of this album] if you read about the troubles in, or have ever been to, Northern Ireland. This record came to America as an import item, so only people who actually worked for a living like me could afford it, and all my lazier friends would listen to my copy. We thought the music was so intense, and Jake Burns’s vocal sounded like he ripped his throat out or drank acid, and then stepped up to the mic. You could tell he was angry, and the music was urgent. The beginning of the song ‘Suspect Device’ is just one of the most hectic things I had ever heard. I was like, ‘Man, this guy is not fooling around! What does he mean? We’ve got to look this up.’

“He talks about a lot of futility that any young person might feel, but if you go to Northern Ireland, you just see it, and you see it in the older people. I’ve been there a lot of times now, and I’ve done like documentary work there; I got to know it quite a bit. I’ve interviewed ex-IRA members, and I have a different idea of it than when I was young, and now I see what Stiff Little Fingers was getting at.

“Back then, those songs that I didn’t understand, I just uploaded as a streetwise political point of view, because it was talking about depression and being nowhere and feelings of futility, which any young person feels anywhere. But if you’re a young person climbing out of the troubles in Northern Ireland, it would be very understandable if your outlook was the posterboard for ‘bleak.’ Because what in your life has shown you that there’s any light at the end of the tunnel? There’s really been nothing, except your parents telling you the sickest stories about things blowing up and killing kids. I mean, it’s a topic. … You just don’t even bring it up when you’re there.

“The Stiff Little Fingers record came to us in America as an interesting foreign item, because we didn’t understand the idea of a suspect device. At the end of that song where he goes, ‘I’m going to blow up in their face,’ it’s really assaultive, it’s like a serious threat that came from some kind of life experience that I had not experienced. I might have said, as a stupid youth, ‘I’ll kick your ass,’ but that is nothing like, ‘I’m going to blow up in their face.’ That was so much more like, ‘He means business. He’s in touch with an anger that I do not understand. I’ve never been that mad.’ At that time, I’d had no life experience that pissed me off that much. And you could tell, with the Stiff Little Fingers guys, that that was their childhood.

“That record was a masterpiece; it’s a perfect album. It was a perfect encapsulation of what those people were going through at that time, what they had been through in decades before. For a young, angry, pissed-off American like me, it augmented my already bleak thoughts about my future. It is a totally political record, but it has enough real-world blues-ness to it, where you can kind of get the best of both worlds.”

Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

“This is a political record that’s coming from a different experience. It’s not a scrawny, freckled Irish kid. It’s an African-American male relating the African-American experience to anyone who will listen. And who should listen to that record? Every white person born after a certain year. The disconnect between white America and black America is regrettable, because we’re paying for it every day in blood and money and a lack of progress. It is so distinctly different, the two, that you might as well have them be two other planets.

“I said this to Russell Simmons many years ago: ‘I’m going to give you a great compliment; feel free to agree with me. I think hip-hop is the most transformative art form of our time, giving young, white America a basic idea of the black American experience. And you are one of the ground-floor people of that.’ He leaned over, shook my hand, and said, ‘Of course, you’re right.’

“How are you going to understand what a black guy’s going through? Well, maybe this record helped. It can make you understand the anger, the humiliation, the pain. I think that’s why you see so many million Public Enemy records sold, because a lot of people said, ‘I do want to understand.’ There’s a lot of white people buying those records, because Public Enemy had something to say that is really valid. And those records lose no speed whatsoever, because sadly, what ails America keeps ailing America.

Yo! Bum Rush the Show is a great rap album, but Nation of Millions was the record to warm you up for Fear of a Black Planet, where he really lays it down. It speaks to the entire struggle of nonwhite people and nonrich people in this country. The songs address so much of the black experience, and not only are the lyrics straight, but it’s just some of the best music you’ll ever hear.

“I think Chuck D, who is a longtime buddy of mine, is one of the most astonishingly intelligent people. He should be on a campus when he’s not onstage, because he’s a damn professor. He was at his artistic [peak] — expository, explanatory, historical — on Nation of Millions. It is an educational tool for getting someone from one place to another, and I think Chuck has been instrumental in making America a better place.”

Crass, The Feeding of the 5000

“This is that record that comes with the foldout booklet of everything in like 0.8 type, where you have to get a magnifying glass to read it — and it’s super-boring when you do because it’s over-your-head and quite congested. My more serious friends in the all-eight-of-us D.C. punk rock scene had that record. It was a record you were supposed to like — because, you know, it’s Crass, man! You have to like it! I’m one of the people who actually did like it.

“My best friend, Ian McKay, his younger brother, Alec McKay, had this record and played it all the time. By hanging out with Alec, because I was homeless for a while, I was living in his room, and he always played it. I read that massive, football-field-sized foldout book thing, and I started to understand where these anarchists are coming from. They’re into a Thatcher-Reagan anger, really speaking to what’s going on in Britain, which was very bleak. It’s enough punk rock and enough anger and futility expressed in it where I saw myself in it.

“It’s a record where I was proud of myself, because I kind of earned my affection for it. I played it a lot of times, and it grew on me because I toughed it out. It’s a tough record to get, a tough nut to crack, because it’s not very musical. It’s a news broadcast with an angry band kind of scraping away behind it. It’s so reactionary, where I must say — maybe I’m old and have lapsed into conformity — but I was reading the lyrics and I don’t necessarily disagree with some of it, but a lot of it I read back now and it’s a bit kind of thick-skulled and not completely thought through. As a guy who’s almost 60, I can see that now, but I admire the anger and the fact that they made the records themselves.

“Ironically, Crass eventually started pressing records, and they pressed the first Black Flag record in the U.K., which was a single. It was done by the Crass people, which I always thought was really cool.”

The Stooges, Raw Power
MC5, Kick Out the Jams

“I would like to put in a caveat that overtly political music … well, it doesn’t exactly leave me cold, but it’s not usually something that grooves to me. It’s like a lecture with a backbeat, so if it’s too political, while I might respect it and dig it, I can’t play it all that often, because it just feels like marching orders to me. I don’t have a ton of political music favorites. So to me, a great Vietnam War album is Raw Power, because the lyrics are talking about napalm, firefight, ‘Search and Destroy’ — that’s all Vietnam era, and when you do some researching, you see how close to the Vietnam War every Stooges member was. To me, it’s political in a way that’s not necessarily wearing it on a posterboard or jumping into your face. I kind of dig that.

“Iggy Pop was talking about how there’s nothing to do, because all your friends are out in Vietnam getting killed. ‘1969’ is about Midwestern boredom — but why? Because the neighborhood is empty of young people; it’s just girls and draft dodgers. The quarterback went to Vietnam. All your friends went to Vietnam. The first three Stooges albums are Vietnam War-era records, and the MC5 addressed it directly and indirectly. I think a lot of the records of that time have references to what was going on, which makes them somewhat political. The MC5 definitely were with the White Panther movement thing they were doing, but they weren’t political song to song; they always had the big Motown love ballads in there too.

“Because of Vietnam giving you the Stooges and the MC5 and all the great Haight-Ashbury scene bands, a ton of other bands said, ‘Well, screw you too!’ and they went into the garage and made great music. It’s logical to wonder if this [Trump-era] conflict could give you the next Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine. It’s a logical question.

“But I don’t know if music is the vehicle for that anymore in this modern age. If it’s 1964 and you’re young, you’re Bob Dylan, and you don’t like the war, you pick up a guitar. If you don’t like racism, you pick up a guitar and you get together with Joan Baez, and you go out there and change the world. I’m all for that. But now it’s more like, ‘I’m angry about what the president said, so I’m going to blog about it!’ Or ‘By golly, I’m going to tweet that right now!’ Or, ‘That guy said it better than me, so I’m going to retweet him!’ I don’t know if it’s ‘I’m going to go write a song,’ whereas maybe in 1967, it was ‘I’m going to write an album!’

“So to answer the age-old question, in bad times, will we get good music? And will we get great music out of this administration, with the rise of the alt-right, and the crassness of white power groups who now exist in broad daylight instead of hiding under rocks? I don’t know if we will get another Zach de la Rocha or another Chuck D. … But music has been a refuge and a place of expression for people for a long time.”

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