Readers recommend playlist: your songs about iron and steel

A reader forges a playlist of songs involving metal in their lyrics or title, with hits from Jethro Tull, Blondie and Bob Marley

Here is this week’s playlist – songs picked by reader Marco den Ouden (who runs the Marconium website) from your suggestions after last week’s callout. Read more about how our weekly readers recommend series works at the end of the piece.

Iron is the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Not surprisingly then, it has been used as an industrial metal since ancient times. But pure iron is a soft metal ... in practice, it is almost always mixed with carbon to produce steel.

The YouTube playlist.

Although knife-like implements date back at least 2.5m years, it wasn’t until the bronze age that knives were forged from metal, and mass production of swords to equip armies started in the 13th century BC. Tenpole Tudor sing this weapon’s praises and begin our playlist with Swords of a Thousand Men: “Hoorah, Hoorah, Hoorah, Yea!”

Bronze horseshoes have been dated from 400BC and the first ones incorporating iron date from ancient Rome. It was apparently when a blacksmith became archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century that they acquired cultural significance as talismans of good luck. Caracol’s Horseshoe Woman personifies that.

Steel production was commercialised with the invention of the Bessemer process in the 1850s and further developed with the open-hearth furnace in the 1860s – leading directly to the second industrial revolution. The development of steel rails spurred the growth of the modern railroad; in those early days, track was laid by hand and the prowess of steel-driving men such as John Henry was celebrated in song. Several versions of this classic were suggested. I liked the one by Harry Belafonte.

The romance of the rail had locomotives fondly called “iron horses” and singers such as Arlo Guthrie have eulogised rail in song: “The sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel” is from Guthrie’s City of New Orleans.

Modern steel production also brought the production of modern guns. A band appropriately called the Steeldrivers ask whether this weapon really deserves its sobriquet of Peacemaker. Sung from the point of view of the gun, it laments that “I coulda’ been a hammer or a railroad spike. I coulda’ been a train rollin’ through the night.” But until the “lion lays down with the lamb, I’m a cool 3lbs of cold blue steel. I shoot even deader than the way I feel.”

Indeed, as long as there are those like Blondie’s gang plotting the heist of an armoured car (“25 tons of hardened steel”), guns remain a necessity to keep the peace. The Hardest Part of their plan is figuring out how to get to the “big man of steel behind the steering wheel”.

A steely eyed Debbie Harry of Blondie.
A steely eyed Debbie Harry of Blondie. Photograph: Images Press/Getty Images

The skyscraper was another revolution propelled by modern steel production. In New York, the men of the high steel were a special breed. In Steel Monkey, Jethro Tull sings the praises of these fearless men.

With the advent of the second world war, men went off to fight and women were needed to work in the factories, building ships and planes. They were celebrated in song and film as the iconic Rosie the Riveter. The Four Vagabonds sing this tribute to the feminist icon.

After the war, a Swiss engineer revolutionised the production process. Instead of blowing air through pig iron to create steel, he blew pure oxygen. This simple change reduced capital costs and smelting time, increasing labour productivity by a factor of 1,000. And the industrial prowess of Asia grew as China rose from insignificant player to producing over half of all the steel made today. So even as worldwide production tripled in the last 50 years, these changes led to a drastic decline in the west. In the following decades, there were dozens of songs written on the subject, often referencing the staggering decline in employment rates in the industry – and plenty were nominated. They include Big Country’s Steeltown, Mischief Brew’s Jobs in Steeltown and Bruce Springsteen’s history of Youngstown, Ohio, one of the towns hardest hit by the steel employment crisis.

The most disturbing song about this era is undoubtedly Pete Atkin’s story of a skilled machinist who, discarded after 40 years, maintains his dignity: “The hands on his chest flared more brightly than his name for a Technicolor second as he rolled into the flame.” Suicide by blast furnace. The Carnations on the Roof are the flowers on the roof of the car that leads his funeral procession.

But rather than end on such a downer, let’s note that iron and steel have been and remain symbols of toughness and strength in popular lore. The iron man triathlon ; the man of steel; the iron man. We close with an upbeat reggae number from Bob Marley, who is on the run but vows to be tough as Iron like a Lion in Zion.

Note: not all songs appear on the Spotify playlist because some are unavailable on the service.

New theme: how to join in

The new theme will be announced at 8pm (GMT) on Thursday 1 December. You have until 11pm on 5 December to submit nominations.

Here’s a reminder of some of the guidelines for RR:

  • If you have a good theme idea, or if you’d like to volunteer to compile a playlist from readers’ suggestions and write a blog about it, please email
  • There is a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are “zedded”, at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of “zedded”, “donds” and other strange words used by RR regulars.
  • Many RR regulars also congregate at the ’Spill blog.


Marco den Ouden

The GuardianTramp

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