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Music

From the mysterious to the maddening: 5 times musicians caused FBI investigations

@TomTaylorFO

The FBI appears to be the only organisation on the planet that has welcomed more well-manicured arseholes to their ranks than every one of Hugh Heffner’s pool parties. Glib remarks aside, there is no doubting the vital work that the American investigative and intelligence agencies put in, but there is also no doubting that their respective histories have been hamstrung by some truly exceptionally bizarre incidents.

In fact, there are some incidents in their chequered histories, that make the following Kurt Vonnegut quote hit with a sudden reality-inducing shudder. “True terror,” he wrote, “is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” 

Their involvement in the music industry might prove the most farcical realm of them all. After all, there is nothing quite like rock ‘n’ roll to make some fuddy-duddies look drastically out of touch. The liberating counterculture movement was a force that freaked out the conservative authorities and as they tried to keep a lid on the subversive force arising before them, some truly baffling investigations ensued.  

Below we have curated a list of the times that the FBI or CIA stepped into the world of music. From the mysterious to the downright maddening, these are the times that music fought the law, and the law lost the plot.

5 times musicians were investigated by the FBI:

The strange case of ‘Louie, Louie’ by The Kingsmen

If teenagers love one thing more than a bit of iconoclasm, then it’s the sort that comes with a federal stamp of disapproval. On the surface, ‘Louie, Louie’ might currently reside as that slurring 1960s garage rock song your uncle sings at a wedding, but beyond the groove, catchy riff, and scream-along chorus, the FBI ensured that the track entered the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history, by subjecting it to an 18-month investigation and sealing its fate as the most misunderstood song ever recorded.

The whys and wherefores of the song’s slack-jawed sound are all answered by the shoddy recording process that the youngsters had to go through to get their single pressed. It sounds unintelligible because that’s what $50 and a shady producer gets you. However, the FBI thought there must surely be more to it than meets the eye, and because the lyrics couldn’t be understood, J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies believed the youth were in revolt and there was some sort of subversive Soviet code hidden in the sonic jangling. 

Thus, Hoover responded by deploying FBI agents to tirelessly listen to the song over and over for 18-months at various different speeds and frequencies. The conclusion that the FBI reached following their investigation, which also involved a spy ghosting the young band when they embarked on a tour, was that there was simply no knowing what the hell they were trying to say. 

Remarkably, it would seem that nobody bothered to consult the lyric sheet at any point. Everything was written in ink by Richard Berry in 1957 based on a Latin song named ‘El Loco Cha Cha’, but Berry sold the rights to Flip Records Label for $750 dollars in order to buy an engagement ring. The investigation itself ensured that the song became a hit as red tape attracted the masses, in yet another prime example of the costly toll of tying the knot, and the inadvertent hype that banning something brings about.

The counterculture drug lord behind ‘Kid Charlemagne’ by Steely Dan

In 1963, the patent for LSD expired. This single admin oversight essentially spun out the counterculture movement in all of its mind-bending phosphorescence, as acid dyed the streets for three legal years. The opening verse of the Steely Dan epic ‘Kid Charlemagne’ draws attention to the psychedelic gold rush brewing in California, as Donald Fagen sings: “On the hill the stuff was laced with kerosene, but yours was kitchen clean.”

There was only one place in the San Francisco valley where you could get acid of that purity — enter the protagonist of the song, the famed LSD chemist Owsley Stanley: the premiere acid man of the east coast. Augustus Owsley Stanley III, to give him his full name, was an American audio engineer by day and a clandestine chemist also by day, night and sometimes morning. Despite being waylaid by trips, his audio experiments proved so vital to the sound of the Grateful Dead that he was essentially a member of the band, building their wall of sound. 

During his time on the acid run, it is believed that Stanley produced at least five million doses of some of the finest wall shifting tabs to ever grace the market. The musical Heisenberg basked in the good times of legality as he, his girlfriend Melissa Cargill, a skilled chemist and scion of the uber-wealthy Cargill-Macmillan family, and a leg-man dubbed Scully, brewed up LSD in a Californian basement. When it was labelled illegal in 1966 they simply moved on to a new HQ in Colorado.

This lasted until 1970 when Stanley was finally arrested along with 19 members of ‘The Deads’ retinue. Questions about why it took so long to bring down the rather open kingpin have often been asked with many conspiracies musing whether the intentions were to let the disruptive anti-establishment gang essentially succumb to a bad trip on their own accord, so to speak.

The deportation attempt of John Lennon

When John Lennon sat on Dick Cavett’s couch in 1972, he made the revelation that left millions awestruck when he claimed that the FBI were spying on him. Silence filled homes across the nation. Most of the masses watching on were struck dumb by the thought that Lennon had finally lost it and they were watching the downfall of a deranged man.

The dossier that has since been revealed is proof of the working-class hero’s sanity and Jon Wiener is the person to thank for the documentation eventually coming to light after he waged a 25-year legal battle to win the release of the files. “A little historical background here, the ’72 election was going to be the first in which 18-year olds had the right to vote,” Wiener explained to NPR in 2000 regarding Richard Nixon’s orchestrated attack. “Before that, you had to be 21. Everybody knew that young people were the strongest anti-war constituency, so the question was, for Lennon, how could he use his power as a celebrity to get young people into the political process?”.

He continued, “And also, this is a time when kids are very alienated from, you know, mainstream politics. So to get Lennon out of the country, the strategic countermeasure is to deport Lennon so he won’t be able to take this tour that would register young voters. At the same time, they’re worried that, you know, young voters will vote against Nixon for kicking out, you know, the clever Beatle.” Thus, they quietly hatched a plan to spy on Lennon and throw him out with some drummed-up due cause. Ultimately, Lennon had the financial backing to legally fight his own corner, and the rest is history. 

The FBI investigation into the murder of living legend Trent Reznor

Any story that begins with a rural farmer spotting lights in the sky is bound to lead to a rabbit hole. When that rabbit hole leads to a federal investigation into the murder of Trent Reznor, a man still very much alive and releasing records, you know that the journey is going to be even more twisted than most. As it turns out, the lights that farmer Robert Reed witnessed were merely weather balloons tied to a Super 8 camera, but as it turns out, the mystery was just getting started. 

Reed turned the camera over to the police because several other farmers in the area had recently been charged for letting wild marijuana encroach onto the outskirts of their farms. Therefore, he had reason to believe that the weather balloons contained surveillance footage. All authorities denied such a rudimentary monitoring technique and when police developed the footage a murder investigation was soon afoot. 

When developed, the video displayed the shocking scene of two men standing over a dead body. The face of the deceased was smeared with an unknown substance and, as Detective Paul Wood told Hard Copy, the two possible assailants wore “black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

With the help of the FBI, this cult killing would soon be revealed as the shocking murder of Trent Reznor… in the music video for the band’s debut single ‘Down in It’ in 1989. The questionable substance that led to the expert FBI opinion that the body was rotting was actually cheap corn starch used by a cash-strapped make-up department to represent fake blood, and the reason the finale to the video was recorded on a floating Super 8 was because the band couldn’t afford to hire a crane, but unfortunately, the shot went wrong and the balloons blew off.

It took two years for the FBI to crack the case when an art school student responded to a flyer distribution saying that he was actually a big fan of the living musician prostrate on the floor and he recognised the surroundings from their groundbreaking video, sadly devoid of its long-lost final shot.

Meeting Jim Morrison at the airport

The tale goes that Jim Morrison had decided on the morning of the following incident to take in a Rolling Stones show at the Veterans Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona on a rock ‘n’ roll whim. He invited The Doors’ publicist and two close friends along for the ride. It was November 11th, 1969, roughly a year on from when he was banned from performing at the venue for inciting a riot that very nearly materialised. 

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The plan to watch the concert was hindered when the flight was delayed. Thereafter, trouble began to brew. Trapped in the airport there was very little for Morrison and his actor buddy Tom Baker to do but drink – a presentment that they were more than happy to oblige in. 

By the time the plane was ready to board, the pair were somewhat overly refreshed and when they finally got up in the air, the duo became proverbial misanthropissed’s and took the term ‘rowdy passengers’ to the riotous extreme. According to the Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, they began heckling the flight attendants. Like a scene from The Wolf of Wall Street, chaos unravelled as the artists showed no signs of sobering. 

In the end, the pilot had to intervene and told Morrison and Baker that he would turn the flight around and have them arrested if any more disorderly conduct continued. Seeing no point in making the other passengers suffer, he completed the flight and landed in Phoenix, where Morrison and Baker were greeted by FBI agents and placed under arrest. For a time, their antics were deemed so extreme that even the possibility of a hijacking charge was bandied about.

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