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15 Rock & Roll Rebels

For these 15 revolutionaries, the only place to be was on the outside looking in.

Deep down, the bad boys are quite often the sensitive ones – the ones who feel the world’s pain. They don’t “do what everybody else does” because they don’t understand why things have to be that way. And they often welcome the ostracism they get in return: “If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it,” as the socially conscious songwriter (and major Clash fan) Billy Bragg once sang. Here are 15 true revolutionaries, for whom the only place to be was on the outside looking in.

[Editor’s Note: A version of this list was originally published June 3, 2013]

Kurt Cobain

When Nirvana agreed to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone #628 on April 16, 1992, Kurt Cobain wore a T-shirt that read “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” In his short life, the bandleader made it his duty to challenge beliefs – both his fans’ and his own. As a student, he befriended a gay kid and claimed to enjoy the abuse he took from classmates who believed he must be gay himself. Later, when he became famous, his band proudly advocated LGBT rights to an audience that was not always sympathetic. Success was an unsolvable puzzle for Cobain, who’d earned a soapbox from which he could preach about social issues – bullying, reproductive rights – that were meaningful to him. Yet he detested the fact that his band had emerged from the underground as a major-label rock group. “The worst crime is faking it,” he once said, and he considered himself guilty.

Victor Jara

The love and justice songs of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara were apparently so threatening to the military leaders who staged the nation’s 1973 coup that they had to murder him. After beginning his career in the theater, Jara took up songwriting as his country endured the social convulsions of the Sixties. He supported the Socialist presidential candidate Salvador Allende, who was overthrown from office by the Chilean right wing and later died under mysterious circumstances. Taken prisoner with thousands of others in a stadium that now bears his name, Jara was tortured; after they broke his hands, guards mocked the singer, ordering him to play guitar. Defiant, he sang a political anthem that translates as “We Will Win.” For his insubordination, Jara was machine-gunned to death, his body dumped on a street outside Santiago. A few months later, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs headlined a benefit in Jara’s name in New York.

Jerry Lee Lewis

Like his cousin, the TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Lee Lewis was raised in a proper religious home. Sent to study at Southwest Bible Institute, the budding young entertainer was tossed out for performing a boogie-woogie version of a gospel standard. That set the tone for a life on the fault line between sin and redemption. His biggest hits, “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” were sometimes banned for their not-so-subtle sexual innuendo. Lewis’ career hit a deep freeze after news broke of his secret marriage to Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old cousin. One of the original unruly rock & rollers, “The Killer” turned his back on the sound in the late Sixties, remaking himself as a country singer. “If I’m going to Hell,” he once said, “I’m going there playing the piano.”

Public Enemy

The stentorian voice of Chuck D and the sonic mayhem of his bandmates earned Public Enemy just the reaction they were aiming for: as they approached, polite society crossed the street to avoid them. Their landmark song “Fight the Power” was a key to Spike Lee’s feature-film breakthrough, Do the Right Thing, and it confirmed Public Enemy’s complete disdain for mainstream American culture, dismissing the iconic heroes Elvis Presley and John Wayne in a single swipe. The first single from their 1988 album ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back‘ was “Rebel Without a Pause,” which, to Chuck D, epitomized the kind of musical riot the band hoped to incite: “I could die tomorrow,” he said when he heard Hank Shocklee’s wild final mix. Harnessing his unpredictable sidekick, Flavor Fav, has made Chuck’s role feel like the band’s “camp counselor” over the years, as he said at the band’s recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

Marilyn Manson

Speaking on behalf of every misunderstood kid ever to attend grade school, the former Brian Warner crafted a persona and career for himself that celebrated weirdness by embellishing it to outlandish proportions. His stage name alone – a combination of Marilyn Monroe and the mass murderer Charles Manson – was conceived for maximum shock effect. With ghoulish pancake makeup and contact lenses that made him look like the undead, Manson presented himself as the “Antichrist Superstar.” After the 1999 school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, the theatrical rocker was forced to defend himself against charges that his music had inspired the murderers (who, it turned out, weren’t fans). He emerged from that incident as an unlikely voice of reason, expressing the hope that such “irresponsible finger-pointing doesn’t create more discrimination against kids who look different.”

Steve Earle

A hardcore country traditionalist, Steve Earle has spent his career bucking the Nashville establishment and upholding the left-wing values of the old Greenwich Village folk scene. Praising his favorite songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, he called him “the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” After 9/11 Earle became a polarizing figure over his song “John Walker’s Blues,” which sought to humanize John Walker Lindh, the American who fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Earle’s songs have expressed his support for anti-war protesters, the Occupy Wall Street movement and his opposition to the death penalty (see “Ellis Unit One” for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack). “I’m my daddy’s worst fears realized,” Earle sang in 1990, when he was struggling with a major drug addiction, on the song “The Other Kind.” “There are those that break and bend/I’m the other kind.”

The Clash

“If you ain’t thinking about man and God and law,” as The Clash‘s Joe Strummer once said, “then you ain’t thinkin’ about nothing.” Unlike their inspiration, the Sex Pistols, whose early gigs motivated Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones to form their band, The Clash passed over nihilism in favor of political activism.  Their debut single, “White Riot,” is sometimes misinterpreted as a call for a race war; in fact, Strummer was urging U.K. youth to rise up against the ruling class, as he’d seen black activists do. The band’s viewpoint went global with their artistic breakthroughs, ‘London Calling‘ (“Spanish Bombs”) and especially the 1980 triple album ‘Sandinista!‘, which was named for the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. “You grow up and you calm down and you’re working for the clampdown,” the band sang, imploring their listeners not to lose the idealism of youth. Strummer maintained it until his premature death in 2002 at age 50.

Sex Pistols

When they were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 on the superhuman strength of their lone studio album, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,’ the Englishmen snubbed the ceremony. “We’re not coming,” the band wrote in what looked like a ransom note. “We’re not your monkeys.” Though they helped shape the punk world that rejected the hippie counterculture they’d grown up in, the Sex Pistols were definitively “anti-establishment,” as the previous counterculture was often described. “I am the Antichrist/I am an anarchist,” Johnny Rotten famously declared to open “Anarchy in the U.K.“; on “God Save the Queen,” he dismissed the Queen Mother, England’s most sacred cow, as “no human being.” Added bonus: He was once discovered wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words “I hate” scrawled above the band name. When the Pistols screeched to a halt onstage in San Francisco, a mere three years after Rotten joined, he left with a leering question: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Johnny Cash

Though his mama told him not to play with guns, he shot a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” His first band, while serving in the Air Force in Germany, was called the Barbarians. More than any other country artist, Johnny Cash understood the predicament of the outlaw; his prison concerts at Folsom and San Quentin helped underscore the notion that the inmates weren’t all monsters, but men who’d simply made bad decisions. His infamous “middle finger” photo, taken at San Quentin by rock photographer (and fellow rebel) Jim Marshall came in response to a request to pose for a shot for the warden. Years later, when Cash was in the midst of a career revival engineered by producer Rick Rubin, they ran an ad in Billboard that featured the photo and a feisty caption thanking “the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.”