The Meaning Behind the Protest Rock Song “Zombie” by the Cranberries

In the 1990s, the Cranberries were one of the biggest bands in music. With hits like “Linger” and others, the group was a constant on the airwaves. “It was different [compared] to everything else we had done to that point… With “Zombie,” at the time we had moved to a smaller rehearsal space and it was so cold in this room that Dolores [O’Riordan] brought in this song and you kind of always remember how cold it was,” Noel Hogan, co-founder of the Irish-born band the Cranberries, said, “She got to playing and said, ‘This is a track I have.’

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“We were doing what we would have normally done, the same kind of style. But she said, ‘No, this one is an angry song. I want the sound to be heavier.’ I think that’s why it stands out to us. It was the first time we had gone from the ‘Dreams’ or ‘Linger’ sound to this heavier, harder sound. I don’t think any of us had any idea that any of these songs were going to be as big as they were.

“To us, they were just songs in the set that we liked. You know, you play them and you get this amazing reaction from the crowd and it’s amazing that, I guess 30 years later and these songs are still on the radio constantly.”

So, with that as the backdrop, let’s dive into more of the history and the meaning of the rock protest song, “Zombie,” by the Cranberries.

The Troubles

In Ireland, from the 1960s until the late 20th century, there was a conflict in which 3,500 died, thousands were injured and more than 10,000 bomb attacks took place. With this as the backdrop, O’Riordan was inspired to write. Specifically, she wrote the song about the deaths of three-year-old Johnathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Perry. Both had died in bombings. The two young boys had gone into town to buy Mother’s Day cards on a busy street when the bomb went off.

“There were a lot of bombs going off in London and I remember this one time a child was killed when a bomb was put in a rubbish bin – that’s why there’s that line in the song, A child is slowly taken,'” said O’Riordan in 2017, a year before she died at age 46 on January 15, 2018. “We were on a tour bus and I was near the location where it happened, so it really struck me hard – I was quite young, but I remember being devastated about the innocent children being pulled into that kind of thing. So I suppose that’s why I was saying, ‘It’s not me’ – that even though I’m Irish it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it. Because being Irish, it was quite hard, especially in the UK when there was so much tension.”

O’Riordan

The Cranberries’ lead singer said she was pushed by “a feeling” to write the song and it came to her “subconsciously” while the band was touring in 1993. She wrote the song on an acoustic guitar and when the band returned home, she continued to hone it. “I remember being in my flat,” she said, “coming up with the chorus, which was catchy and anthemic.” She explained that the hook and the chorus “came out really fast.” And then the verses came “quite easily.” O’Riordan added, “It was the most aggressive song we’d written.”

To wit, the song, which came out at the height of the grunge rock era, features some of the sounds and flavors of the genre: sludgy electric guitars, brooding lyrics, and righteous, angry delivery.

Protest

In 1994, O’Riordan said of the song that she was upset that bombings and warfare were being undertaken in the name of Ireland. “The [Irish Republican Army] is not me. I’m not the IRA. The Cranberries are not the IRA. My family is not. When it says in the song, It’s not me, it’s not my family, that’s what I’m saying. It’s not Ireland, it’s some idiots living in the past.”

While the song was a huge hit around the world, there were some that criticized the band. In fact, prior to the song’s release, Island Records pushed the band not to release the song. O’Riordan was even reportedly given a $1-million check to work on another song, but she ripped it up.

“Dolores was a very small, fragile person, but very opinionated,” said the band’s former manager. “Her belief was that she was an international artist and she wanted to break the rest of the world, and ‘Zombie’ was part of that evolution. She felt the need to expand beyond ‘I love you, you love me’ and write about what was happening in Ireland at the time.”

While the record company wasn’t initially behind it, the band was finally able to release it and the song exploded. Some believe the release of the song led to the IRA’s ceasefire announcement on August 31, 1994, though the single was released a few weeks after that news. When the song came out, the band became internationally known.

Zombies

The title of the song and its chorus is likely a reference to mindless troops, just following what the authorities say, killing or harming with no personal thought on the matter. Others believe that the zombies might be the many dead in Ireland who continue to haunt the region with their memories.

The message combined with the singer’s warbling voice created both a great deal of tension and reason to take notice of the track.

Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence caused such silence
Who are we mistaken?

But you see, it’s not me
It’s not my family
In your head, in your head, they are fighting
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head, in your head, they are crying

In your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie
What’s in your head, in your head?
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie-ie, oh

The War in Iraq

In 2003, with officials knowing the power of the song, and as the war in Iraq waged on after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the British Government, and the Independent Television Commission released a statement that said, certain “sensitive material” would be removed from the airwaves, including “Zombie.” Even MTV Europe complied. And in 2006, CBS censored the song during a performance on the show American Rock Star Supernova with people internally speculating the media company didn’t want to offend people during the Iraq war.

Performance

After the song was released in 1994 just a month ahead of the band’s album, No Need to Argue, the track hit No. 1 on the charts in Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, and more. It also hit No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. The song won Best Song at the 1995 MTV Europe Music Awards, as well. Today, it remains the Cranberries’ most popular track.

Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images

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