Rock stars might spend most of their time touring, but there’s no place like home. Especially, it seems, if that home is the USA, which has provided the subject to more classic rock songs than you can shake a stick at. Whether they’re dealing a cynical swipe at the government or extolling the virtues of the Star Spangled Banner and being as patriotic as proud Americans, there are few American artists that don’t have at least one tribute to the homeland in their catalog. Here, we look at 10 of the best classic rocks songs about America of all time.
10. Chuck Berry – Back In The U.S.A.
Chuck Berry rose to fame a decade before the civil rights movement began to take hold. It was during a time he was still playing segregated audiences, and still struggling to get the same kind of airplay his white peers, most of whom owed every lick and every riff in their catalog to him, were enjoying. Still, it didn’t make him bitter, and on Back In The U.S.A., he delivers a masterclass in simple, honest-to-goodness patriotism.
9. Neil Young – Rockin’ in the Free World
Like Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A, Rockin’ in the Free World is a song that could never knowingly be described as nationalistic. Written at the time of the first Gulf War, it expresses Neil Young’s attitude to the George H.W. Bush administration in a way that’s very far from flattering. It’s not a complete downer though, as evidenced by the reference to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign slogan, “Keep hope alive”. That still doesn’t mean Donald Trump had any right co-opting it for his 2016 presidential campaign though.
8. KISS – Rockin’ in the U.S. A
Bestrocklist.com describes Rockin’ in the U.S.A. as one of the most patriotic songs of all time. They aren’t wrong. Unlike songs like Born in the U.S.A or Rockin’ in the Free World, there are no hidden messages, no sly digs, and certainly, nothing that’s going to offend the masses. It’s a straight-up hymn to the joys of coming home from tour and finding yourself in the good old U.S. of A. They might have flown “real close to heaven,” but there’s “nowhere else I’d rather stay” but in the U.S.A.
7. Don McLean – American Pie
As Society of Rock says, American Pie is one of the most iconic songs ever written. People have spent decades studying its lyrics and trying to work out its meaning, but beyond knowing “the day that music died” was inspired by the plane crash that killed Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper, we’re still none the wiser. Maybe we should just take Don McLean at his word when he describes the lyrics as “beyond analysis. They’re poetry.”
6. John Mellencamp – R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
John Mellencamp hated drum machines and synthesizers and resented the wave of British bands that were dominating the charts in the early 1980s. His response to the problem was R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., an upbeat, Motown-influenced piece of America-centric rock and roll that speaks about the unifying powers of music.
5. Grand Funk Railroad – We’re An American Band
There was never any doubt that Grand Funk Railroad were an American band. Their music wasn’t particularly clever, but it sold out stadiums faster than even the Beatles managed. The critics hated them, but ultimately, critics don’t buy records, fans do, and the fans liked their brand of dumb-rock enough to send each of their 6 albums gold. When they finally managed to score a No.1 single, it was with We’re An American Band, a song as American as apple pie. In case there was still any doubt as to their province, the sight of singer Mark Farner riding a horse and a motorcycle, both while shirtless, in the video was enough to clear things up.
4. James Brown – Living in America
James Brown may have been a complicated man, but there’s nothing difficult about Living in America. It’s a song about how much Brown loves living in America – nothing more, nothing less. There’s very little subtly, absolutely no nuance, and far too much strutting to be seemly – in other words, it’s glorious.
3. Simon and Garfunkel – America
Simon and Garfunkel’s America doesn’t rock and it doesn’t roll. It meanders, drifting through themes and stories and places with a grace and elegance that’s almost breathtaking. Deeply personal and yet somehow universal, it’s one of the most exquisite songs to have ever graced the radio… not to mention the many, many commercials and films that have commandeered it.
2. Bruce Springsteen – Born In The U.S.A.
Yes, it’s a protest song, and no, we don’t care. It might not be a song about America, the greatest country in the world, but it is a song about America. As Louder Sound says, Born in the USA endures because it is entirely emblematic of the country it’s singing about: battle-worn, conflicted, weary, and wounded. You’ve still got to love it though. If the Star Spangled Banner ever gets retired, this is the song that definitely won’t, but certainly should, replace it.
1. Jimi Hendrix – The Star Spangled Banner
When Jimi Hendrix took to the stage at Woodstock, he didn’t just perform, he made history. His feedback-drenched rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, wasn’t just good, it was legendary. This wasn’t Hendrix trying to be clever (he didn’t need to try), and it wasn’t him making some kind of big political statement. It was simply a beautiful, beautiful thing. 50 years on, it still stands as one of the greatest live performances of any song, ever.