Originally published in slightly different form on July 1, 2013, on our companion blog, The Midnight Tracker.
Among my great memories of the mid-’80s are the politically-tinged protest songs so often heard on WORT-FM, then and now the intensely local, intensely progressive radio station in Madison, Wisconsin.
There was “If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” Bruce Cockburn’s lament for the plight of Guatemalan refugees in Mexico.
There was “World Destruction,” a fierce, desperate, bleak view of the future from John Lydon and Afrika Bambaataa working together as Time Zone.
There was “Five Minutes,” the hip-hop tune that used snippets of Ronald Reagan’s radio gaffe to satirize Reagan’s policies, with Jerry Harrison and Bootsy Collins and pals billing themselves as Bonzo Goes To Washington.
Those songs shared a sense of anger, and rightly so, given the world in 1984.
There was one more that year, another call for action. It was no less urgent.
But unlike the others, “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special A.K.A. was a joyful noise, a ska song written in England by Jerry Dammers, its rhythms partly inspired by South African music.
Unlike the others, it expressed hope.
Hope that the anti-apartheid activist would be freed from prison after what was then “21 years in captivity.” Hope that came to pass in the decade that followed the release of “Free Nelson Mandela” in 1984. Apartheid was ended. The song became an anthem. Mandela was elected South Africa’s president, served for five years, then remained active in the cause until retiring.
Nelson Mandela has been much in the news, much in our thoughts since summer, gravely ill. Today, he died. He was 95.
But he long ago passed into legend, one of the giants of our time.
“Free Nelson Mandela (instrumental)” and “Free Nelson Mandela (LP version),” the Special A.K.A., from “Free Nelson Mandela: The Special Remix,” 1984. It’s out of print. This is Side 2 of the 12-inch American release on Chrysalis. It runs 8:20.
I’ve had it since 1984. Tonight, it emerges again from that not-so-long-ago time.
Please visit our companion blog, The Midnight Tracker, for more vintage vinyl, one side at a time.