Music To Impeach the President By

I like to picture Woodward and Bernstein in the fall of ’73, having a beer to celebrate another hard-fought article, the juke box blaring “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I also like picturing Katharine Graham in a floral moo moo, mixing a martini to the rhythm of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”

I love picturing custodians at the U.S. Capitol finally getting to mop the floor of a hearing room one evening, one sneaking a transistor radio in to keep the crew working at a clip, “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got)” echoing off the marble. I even like picturing Pat Nixon snapping her fingers to “Sweet Gypsy Rose.”

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Todd Rundgren.

I can practically hear Peter Rodino of the House Judiciary Committee, re-reading testimony in his suburban New Jersey home, hollering at his teenagers, “Turn that crap down!” in reference to “Smoke On the Water.”

One thing is crystal clear – as clear as Russell Thompkins Junior’s falsetto. The Top 40 music of the Watergate Era was better than it is now. Hands down. You could even say it was the best era of pop music ever.

I know I’m not the only person who credits the music of his childhood with a certain magic. There will never be a moment like walking barefoot through a patch of clover while Denny Laine’s delicious guitar starts the epic “Band On the Run” on WFIL of Philly for the first of several times on any given day in the summer of ’74.

I heard it all anew during last month’s impeachment debate. I couldn’t bear the cross-examinations, so I started listening to Spotify while reading live-streams. Naturally I wondered if the Watergate hearings could possibly have been this dumb (They weren’t.), but I wasn’t about to follow two impeachments at once, so I conjured the Top 40 playlists of ’72-’74.

All of the above-mentioned were Top 40 Hits between the break-in in June of ’72 and the resignation in August of ’74, with lots of AM and FM radio play. Stevie Wonder, War, Barry White, Elton John and Paul Simon were the Ariana Grandes and Taylor Swifts of those years.

It’s easy to be a connoisseur with the benefit of hindsight, to look back at a period 10 or 20 (or, oh God, almost 50) years later and cherry-pick the best music. For every record that Nick Drake or Television or Gil-Scott Heron sold, Tony Orlando and Dawn sold many times more. For every time I play The Tumbleweed Connection for friends until they admit that they feel the genius of Elton John, I have to change the station in the car because, well, “Crocodile Rock.”

And yet, the hits of this period were better than any other period. Taken at face value, the pop music of the early 70s was astonishingly diverse in its genres, including lots of tributes to past decades. It’s like the generation raised on the post-war love of everything new, new, new had suddenly had enough.

Folk, jazz, and blues, sure, but also ragtime and country swing were all vehicles for hit songs. “Do the Locomotion” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” both made weird comebacks. Record-buying teenagers and the radio-listening public, which was just about everyone, were apparently pretty damn open-minded.

The_Stylistics_on_Soul_Train_1974

The Stylistics on Soul Train, 1974.

Inter-racial love, often tragic, was a common theme to write songs about. For a time of political upheaval, the music was surprisingly sincere and innocent, and unabashedly loopy.

The music biz, like all other media, was primitive in its ability to cater to subcultures. Radio was starting to re-segregate the races, but at least it hadn’t settled into its 80s slump of heavy-handed record companies over-producing lots of stuff that all sounded like the same few genres – and a phony iteration of them at that.

In the 70s a bunch of potheads with handlebar mustaches had a shot at a distribution deal if their songs were quality. The public, which is fickle, got behind some novelty tunes such as “The Streak,” but also rewarded lots of top shelf artists for their adventurousness, and made their music timeless.

We who were kids in the 70s, came of age in the 80s, and got deep into the subcultures of the 90s took it as an article of faith that the monolithic nature of media was the enemy of free thought. We believed that a Kurt Cobain or a David Foster Wallace should have to answer for any commercial success they might enjoy, since commerce was corrupt, and already – more insidiously still – starting to figure out how to package “alternative” aesthetics.

It was around this time that Tarantino showed up with his soundtracks full of early 70s pop and soul – these curiosities from our childhoods that somehow sounded so good. (It’s funny now to think that Reservoir Dogs, which used “Stuck in the Middle With You” so memorably, is now older by far than Steelers Wheel was in 1992, when the film came out.)

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Stealer’s Wheel.

Which brings me back to Watergate. We grew up believing that the monolithic “media” was the great nemesis. We cheered when the Internet came along and hastened the fracturing of all the media markets. You could listen to better music any time you wanted. Have access to better TV any time. And you didn’t have to listen to David Brinkley anymore. It felt amazing. We ended up with a landscape where people had far greater choice over what media they tune into, but we never fully thought through the downside of so many people getting their news from political operatives who would make E. Howard Hunt blush.

Recently I watched The Seventies episode about Watergate. (It gets the dirty job done in less than an hour – I recommend it.) It’s painful to remember that that series first aired on CNN in 2015, and one of my few critiques of that series is its over-reliance on newscasters. It seems at times like a sad homage to the era when newspeople commanded some respect. Where objective truth mattered at least a little. And this was before You Know Who.

D.T. is about as serious a president as Shirley MacLaine would be if everyone on the Left got behind her and then refused to admit that we’d made a mistake, and Walter Cronkite would have called bullshit on us. Lest we forget, one of the biggest first strikes against the media as we knew it growing up was the Fox Network in the 90s. The same company that brought us The Simpsons and In Living Color went on to align itself with the radical wing of the Republican Party. Fox’s enduring ability to cast itself as the anti-establishment truth-tellers decades after it’s already become the establishment is the number one story in American media of the past generation. And here we are.

So, you could argue that there’s a meaningful correlation between the quality of Top 40 music and the ability of a credible press to do its job and call out corruption. If there’s just one media mountain, and we all more or less agree on what the standard is for climbing it, then the good stuff – the good reporting, the reasoned columnists, the best song-writing, and best guitar players – will find a place on it.

But that’s overthinking it. Just listen. You can find the playlist I made just for impeachment on Spotify: Songs of the Watergate Years.

So get mad. Get even. Get funky. But don’t lose your sense of humor, and don’t stop believing in Higher Ground. We are better than all this, and our music can and should be this good all the time:

 

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