Episode #5: Anti-Nixon Songs of the 70s
EPISODE OVERVIEW: There was much to protest in the 1970s and President Richard Nixon was at the heart of it. Songwriters of various genres wrote songs that were inspired by Nixon’s actions and his policies. Why don’t we have protests songs anymore? Look no further than the way country music treated one of its rising stars, The Dixie Chicks, in 2003 when Natalie Maines declared to a London crowd that the band was ashamed that President George W. Bush, is from their home state of Texas as Bush justified the invasion of Iraq. We might also consider social media. A tweet or a video provides an instant outlet — and gets an instant response — for an artist’s political views or critique of the government.
PLAYLIST (in order)
“Mexico” by Jefferson Airplane (1970)
“Ohio” by Crosby Stills Nash & Young (1970)
“Watergate Blues” by Tom T. Hall (1973)
“H20Gate Blues” by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (1974)
“You Haven’t Done Nothin’” by Stevie Wonder (1974)
“We Beg Your Pardon America” by Gil Scott-Heron (1975)
“Young Americans” by David Bowie (1975)
01:25 Vice-President Spiro Agnew gave a speech in Las Vegas, Nevada to tell the Republicans who wanted to spend $100 on a table that pop music and movies were turning Baby Boomers into a nation of drug addicts. The Richard Nixon administration gave the Federal Communications Commission a push in the direction of keeping “drug music” off of the airwaves and out of the impressionable ears of America’s youth.0
03:30 Amy makes the point that name-checking Nixon was not just taking advantage of an easy target. He invited this criticism by involving himself in the discussion about what was and was not “appropriate” for radio airplay.
04:18 “White Rabbit” and its songwriter, Grace Slick, become a target of the pre-Reagan “don’t do drugs” crowd. Was the song about drugs? Yes. Operation Intercept, the nationwide border inspection program, was not just about drugs, though. It was about criminalizing hippies and African Americans, while pushing Mexico around a little bit, too.
05:00 Grace Slick wrote “Mexico,” which praised marijuana but did not praise King Richard, who Slick believed was overstepping his boundaries as president. This was not a hit for Jefferson Airplane (but there is some good bass playing from Jack Casady.)
06:46 A different anti-Nixon song would get the radio play that “Mexico” would never approach. “Ohio” by Crosby Stills Nash & Young was a response to the Kent State shootings in Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970. Amy gives a mini history lesson on Nixon’s campaign promise in 1968 to scale back US involvement in Vietnam. Instead, he started secretly bombing Cambodia in May 1969 and announced it on April 30, 1970 because troops were being moved there and it was a little harder to hide that.
08:57 Amy discusses the least one would need to know about the protests on the campus of Kent State (which were not all peaceful) that led up to the Ohio National Guard opening fire on unarmed students on May 4. Chrissie Hynde, who formed the band, The Pretenders, later in the 70s was a freshman at Kent State and on campus when the shootings occurred.
Here are some of the photos of this horrific scene:
11:50 Amy plays an interview with Douglas Wrentmore, one of the students who was shot, as he lay in his hospital bed answering questions from reporters. Wrentmore confirmed that he was there to protest the bombings in Cambodia and that he did not think the ROTC should be on campus.
13:30 “Ohio” was made very quickly and, even though some stations would not play it, many of the students appreciated that CSN&Y was using its platform to speak for them. Many people blamed the students for the shootings. Neil Young wrote the song after viewing the photo spread in Life magazine. “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming…Four dead in Ohio.” Amy plays a clip from “Ohio.”
17:14 Some not-so-bright guys who wanted to get Nixon re-elected in 1972 burgled The Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. They were caught but Nixon denied knowing a thing about it. He was easily re-elected but journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein of The Washington Post kept pursuing leads, even after Nixon was re-elected.
18:23 Remember “Harper Valley PTA?” That was evidence of Tom T. Hall’s songwriting prowess. He also wrote “Watergate Blues,” which is a nice narrative on the 1972 election and Watergate. It wasn’t a radio hit but he played it a lot in live shows. A couple of the best lines of the song: “The USA bought a new used car” and “Nobody knows what this country has lost.” Amy plays a clip of “Watergate Blues.”
20:55 Amy is happy to finally get to introduce Gil Scott-Heron, poetic genius and some say father of hip hop, into the podcast. He, along with Brian Jackson, recorded his own observations on the Watergate mess and called his “H20gate Blues.” It is worth the listen if only to hear Gil imitate a 1970s phone dialing and then say, “I am sorry the government you have elected is inoperative.” It is actually worth listening for more than that, which is why Amy lets this recoding play a little bit longer than she normally would. It’s a history listen.
26:00 Americans were weary of politics by 1974. Stevie Wonder took a much more subtle shot at Nixon with the funkified, “You Haven’t Done Nothin”. The Jacksons provide the “doo da wops” in the background. Stevie believed that Americans might want to consider the lyrics to important songs if they liked a song that was not so “heavy.” Amy plays a clip of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”
30:00 A perusal of the Top 10 the week that “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” was #5 on the Billboard pop chart proves Stevie’s point. There were not many heavy-hitting songs in the Top 10. (Cheech and Chong, though!)
30:35 Richard Nixon finally resigned on August 8, 1974 and Amy plays a clip of the speech. It is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is how Nixon never apologized for the mess he made and said he was quitting because he lost the support of Congress. Also, he was going to be impeached, which he did not mention in his speech.
32:10 Gerald Ford who was never elected to vice-president or president pardoned Nixon, which further pissed off people who saw Ford as part of the whole corrupt governmental system. Gil Scott-Heron is back with a spoken word recording called, “We Beg Your Pardon America.” Amy plays the part where he says,“The pardon you gave this time was not yours to give.”
35:50 David Bowie wrote “Young Americans” a few days after Nixon resigned. Bowie asked some questions about post-Nixon America, such as will we remember how we got here? (Also, the correct lyrics at the beginning of the song is “We pulled in behind the BRIDGE” not “FRIDGE.”)
39:50 Amy offers two theories about why we don’t have protest songs anymore. One is The Dixie Chick Theory, which is the theory that you will be punished if you express your political beliefs, and the other is that social media offers an instant opportunity to express your beliefs. Amy thinks that protest songs are still important because they are history.
SOURCES USED TO CREATE THIS EPISODE
Doyle, Jack. “White Rabbit: Grace Slick: 1960s-1970s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, December 31, 2015.
Hoffman, David. “How Neil Young Came to Write Ohio After Kent State.” YouTube.com. August 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FzYEn_gevw&t=77s
Lynskey, Dorian. “Neil Young’s Ohio—The Greatest Protest Record.” The Guardian. May 6, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/may/06/ohio-neil-young-kent-state-shootings
Naughton, James N. “Agnew Assails Songs and Films That Promote Drug Culture.” The New York Times. September 15, 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/09/15/archives/article-6-no-title.html