Anti-Richard Nixon Songs: How Rock Helped Topple a President
The Aug. 8, 1974 anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation tends to recall the depth of hatred he stirred in young people, especially those afraid of being drafted into the Vietnam War. These intense feelings were reflected in the era’s rock music, which often called Nixon out by name.
When Nixon was first elected in 1968, he promised that the U.S. “shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” But it would be almost five years before the last American soldier left. As protests against the war swept the country, reaction by law enforcement was swift and harsh. In May 1970, at Ohio’s Kent State University, National Guardsmen killed four unarmed students during an anti-war demonstration.
Richard Nixon was nevertheless re-elected in 1972 by a landslide, only to be caught on tape in a cover-up of the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington’s Watergate complex. Faced with impeachment by the House of Representatives, Nixon left office.
That same year, Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd released “Sweet Home Alabama,” an answer song to Neil Young and others who’d criticized Dixie. “Now Watergate does not bother me,” Ronnie Van Zant sang. “Does your conscience bother you?”
Nixon certainly bothered some of the biggest names in rock, whose music helped galvanize the public to call for the president’s resignation. Long after Nixon departed the White House, musicians still referenced him as a reminder that, as James Taylor said, “things repeat themselves.”
The anti-war demonstration at Kent State turned into a massacre when Guardsmen pursued a group of tear-gassed students, opening fire with M1 rifles. Seconds later, four were dead; nine others were injured. The photograph of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller symbolized the horror of the day.
Young saw the photo on the cover of Life magazine, and picked up his guitar. A few hours later, he had written Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young‘s “Ohio,” which squarely placed the blame on the president: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio.”
CSNY went straight to the studio and recorded one of rock’s most powerful protest songs in just an hour and a half. It was the first such track Young had written, and marked a departure from the band’s sweet ballads. “For me, ‘Ohio’ was a high point of the band, a major point of validity,” David Crosby later wrote. “There we were, reacting to reality, dealing with it on the highest level we could – relevant, immediate. It named names and pointed the finger.”
‘Son of Orange County’
As the Watergate scandal grew, President Richard Nixon met with the press on Nov. 17, 1973. During a question and answer session, Nixon said, “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”
Nixon’s famous line became part of Frank Zappa’s “Son of Orange County,” recorded live in 1974 for his Roxy and Elsewhere LP. Napoleon Murphy Brock sang lead: “And in your dreams you can see yourself / As a prophet saving the world / The words from your lips (‘I am not a crook’) / I just can’t believe you are such a fool.”
“It wasn’t just breaking into the Democratic headquarters.” Zappa later told Guitar Player magazine. “What they’re trying to cover up is the fact that Nixon had decided to create a secret police. There was no legal authority to spy on U.S. citizens. He felt he had enemies everywhere […] It was all the domestic spying on political groups, people he perceived as enemies.”
David Bowie came to Philadelphia’s Sigma Studios a few days after Nixon’s resignation to record the title track of his latest album, Young Americans. Bowie hoped some of “The Sound of Philadelphia” would rub off; Sigma was where the hits of groups like the O’Jays and the Delfonics were recorded. Bowie referred to his version as “plastic soul.”
Ultimately, Bowie said that he packed his entire American experience into this one song. But he told NME the track had “no story. Just young Americans. It’s about a newlywed couple who don’t know if they really like each other. Well, they do, but they don’t know if they do or don’t. It’s a bit of a predicament.” But “Young Americans” is, in fact, much more – a cynical look at the U.S. with references to the McCarthy era, Rosa Parks, whites performing on Soul Train and a president who’d just resigned in disgrace: “Do you remember your President Nixon? / Do you remember the bills you have to pay? / Or even yesterday?”
While it’s not known whether Richard Nixon ever heard the song, his successor Gerald Ford did. Ford met Olympic racer Suzy Chaffee on a ski trip to Vail, Colo., in 1976. On the mountain top, Chaffee hoped to relax the president by giving him her headphones. “It had the song ‘Young Americans,'” Chaffee told the Rutland Herald. “It really loosened him up. He started almost dancing down the mountain. It was like he went to a whole different level of skiing.”
‘Line ‘Em Up’
Long an outspoken liberal, James Taylor has performed to support politicians like President Barack Obama, John Kerry and Elizabeth Warren. He turned his attention to Richard Nixon’s ultimate exit from the presidency on “Line ‘Em Up,” from the 1997 album Hourglass.
Taylor sets the scene: “I remember Richard Nixon back in ’74 and the final scene at the White House door / And the staff lined up to say good-bye, tiny tear in his shifty little eye / He said, ‘nobody knows me, nobody understands. / These little people were good to me, oh I’m gonna shake some hands.’”
In Long Ago and Far Away: James Taylor – His Life and Music, he said the song was “about how things repeat themselves. Nixon didn’t do us any favors; he was one of the main things that deflated the possibilities of the ‘60s. I’m referring to Nixon but I’m actually talking about his footsteps. I focused on the speech Nixon gave on the White House lawn when he resigned. And then he had to put one foot in front of the other to get to the helicopter to leave, and the way he did it was by lining up his people and saying goodbye to each one. He’s using this line of people to supposedly say this tearful goodbye, but what he’s actually doing is trying desperately to get to the helicopter and get his ass out of there!”
‘Postcards From Richard Nixon’
Fast forward more than three decades, and 2006’s “Postcards From Richard Nixon” finds John imagining the president has written to welcome them and ask for a little help: “And Richard Nixon’s on his knees / He’s sent so many overseas / He’d like to know if you and me could help him in some way / A little camouflage and glue to mask the evil that men do.”
The war, even after all of that time, still resonated with Elton John. “When I first went to America it was going on and I remember playing Kent State University about six weeks after the students were killed there and it was a really strange feeling – really odd,” John told the Guardian. “I came at the end of it really and my career started right at the end as Nixon was withdrawing the troops. People don’t seem to protest in the streets any more; they are always blogging on the Internet. They seem to do their protesting online […] You have got to get out there and be seen and be vocal, and you’ve got to do it time and time again. People have become apathetic.”