Oldies for the Troops

Top 40 golden oldies written about, for, and by soldiers

Vietnam was obviously the main subject threading through pop tuness of the first rock and roll generation, as Korea and those WWII fighting songs were but a distant memory. But even as the country began to split over the subject, several classic songs emerged that told the stories of those caught in the middle: the soldiers themselves, and their loved ones. Here's a list of Top 40 hits that examined life for the average grunt.

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"Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree," Tony Orlando & Dawn


Forget the fact that this huge (and polarizing) 1974 hit was actually written about a convicted criminal. Fans certainly forgot fast enough, which is why it instead became a jaunty little anthem for vets returning home from 'Nam. How much impact did this simple, gimmicky number have on modern American life? Well, every time you see a yellow ribbon magnet -- or a commemorative colored ribbon of any kind, like pink for breast cancer victims -- you can thank Tony and his everpresent backup duo (and an assist credit to the military march "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"). All soldiers need to be reminded of "what is and isn't mine."

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"Sky Pilot," The Animals

It's a common misconception, for those who've only listened out of the corner of their ear, that this epic is about the Air Force. Actually, it's about chaplains -- "sky pilot" being a common nickname for them in the Army, at least at that time. The last great Animals single, it showcases Eric Burdon's psychedelic urges to their best effect, climaxing in a fantastic aerial shootout of sorts. God's servant may be troubled by what he's sending these kids off to do, as evidenced by the way "Thou Shalt Not Kill" echoes in his mind. But despite its origin, the song actually lets the listener make up his own mind on questions of morality... this is nothing more than an excellent portrait.

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"Soldier Boy," The Shirelles

It gets no simpler than this... a pledge of devotion by a lovesick girl to the boy forced to leave her behind. But then again, simplicity was (is?) at the very heart of what makes great rock and roll, and the queens of the girl-group sound were the perfect Everygirls to record it. No brazen Wall of Sound shenanigans here, just a loping, sweetly sincere promise. Dramatic? No (apart from the martial drum rolls that open and close the song). Adorable? You bet. Touching? Yes. Necessary, for a man suddenly whisked away from the girl he loves? Definitely.
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"Ballad Of The Green Berets," SSgt Barry Sadler

Yes, he was a real Staff Sergeant in the Army (a medic), and a real Green Beret who saw plenty of action: this song slammed into #1 riding on a large wave of Vietnam-protest-backlash backlash. Nevertheless, he made his point, and the result is a true Top 40 anomaly -- a flat-out military march, barely sweetened by pop at all. It also echoes similar themes of other military songs, including the widowed wife at home and the young son encouraged to fight in his father's footsteps. Unlike most other such anthems, however, the exclusivity of his special unit is also leaned hard upon: "One hundred men will test today. But only three win the Green Beret." 

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"Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town," Kenny Rogers and the First Edition

Getting a gun and putting his wife (girlfriend?) in the ground may not be the kind of advertisement veteran's organizations are looking for when they talk about the effects of combat. But this, Kenny's first big country-sounding hit, written by Mel Tillis, is really about the loss of manhood -- the singer is paralyzed, not the man he used to be, and watching his faithless woman head out to town without him. This leaves him defensive ("It wasn't me that started that old crazy Asian war / but I was proud to go and do my patriotic chore"), and, yes, angry. One of those tragically ordinary and seemingly blameless situations that country is built around, in other words.
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"Galveston," Glen Campbell

The classic example of a Top 40 hit whose lyrical aspirations are too obscure to be recognized by most listeners, and also a classic example of "countrypolitan" pop from master songwriter Jimmy Webb, this smash early-Seventies hit is not so much about the Texas island. If anything, it's a manifestation of everything our hero's left behind, up to and including his girl. He's apparently been stationed overseas a long time -- he remembers the age she was when he left -- and amid the cannon fire (cannons?) it's that town he holds on to in his mind. The humanity of any country's soldier was never expressed so expertly as "I am so afraid of dying / Before I dry the tears she's crying."
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"To Susan On The West Coast Waiting," Donovan

It's pretty easy to figure out where this folkie comes down on the subject of war; he'd already covered Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier," after all, a song which more or less blames soldiers for blindly going wherever they're told. But especially in the age of the Draft, lots of kids often found themselves suddenly far, far away from everything they loved, and if this particular grunt feels that "our fathers have painfully lost their way," he mires his protest in the best English poetic traditions, wistfully longing for a day "when Kings will know and love can grow," and assuring his love that "You're here with me like I'm there with you."

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"Last Train To Clarksville," The Monkees

What? Those Monkees? Yep. Turns out the songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, writer of many Monkees hits, had two things in mind when crafting the group's first smash: one, to rewrite the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" (they'd heard it "wrong" the first time, and therefore found a different melody in it) and to write a song about a draftee heading off to war. Don't believe it? Just remember the big hook: "...And I don't know if I'm ever coming home." Unless you think the singer's asking to see the girl one last time, only to give her the brush-off, although that somehow seems even darker. Clarksville, TN, was a popular train depot for soldiers heading to nearby Fort Campbell, but Boyce-Hart swear that, at least, was a coincidence.
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"Yellow River," Christie

A definite anomaly for the times: a soldier's song with a happy ending. This nearly-forgotten AM nugget by an utterly forgotten band is upbeat, even cheerful, and it makes sense for once, because he's "got [his] papers and got [his] pay." He's going home. And although "cannon fire still lingers" in his mind (cannons?) he's about to be past it all, summing up that relief only truly felt and understood by the conquering hero -- "I'm so glad to be alive." Rivers named Yellow don't exist in England, where this group hailed from, although there are a number in the US, but it seems a moot point. Yellow River is, more than anything, a state of mind. (Originally offered to and eventually recorded by the Tremeloes, as well.)
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"Navy Blue," Diane Renay

Sure, it's about a thousand times sillier than most of the songs on this list, and even as a product of a sillier time (i.e., the girl-group craze) it can't touch the Shirelles. But let's give the fleet some love, too, huh? Not to mention the girls (and guys) they leave back home. Co-written and produced by Bob Crewe, the mastermind behind the Four Seasons, it suggests some unpleasant things about the man in question, who apparently joined up just to see the world. But back in 1964, that seemed like about the worst thing that could happen. And just why does he want to travel before making Diane an honest woman?!