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Music

10 brilliant songs about US Presidents

@TomTaylorFO

It was the novelist Kurt Vonnegut who once wrote: “There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.” This is a notion that seems as true of the good presidents as it does of the band and as such these strange heroes and villains have been fodder for a great many cutting songs over the years. 

The transformative potential of music is a well-documented attribute. It can be transformative on a personal level; in the space between two headphones, the confines of a bedroom or the car radio, music is at our private beck and call to brighten days in one way or another. But it can also make a bold communicative statement. 

Below, we have curated five brilliant tracks that tackle POTUS in a range of different ways, from the satirical stylings of Randy Newman to the punk ways of the Ramones, and naturally, the eternal thorn in the side of the White House, Bob Dylan. 

10 brilliant songs about US Presidents:

Prince – ‘Ronnie, Talk To Russia’

The 1981 song arrived amid the Cold War, when the world was worried we were on the brink of nuclear destruction. Given the daunting perilous situation, Prince broke his silence and used his voice to beg President Reagan to listen to Russia’s demands.

On the track, he sings: “Ronnie, talk to Russia before it’s too late, Before they blow up the world, You go to the zoo, but you can’t feed guerrillas, Can’t feed guerrillas, Left-wing guerrillas, You can go to the zoo, but don’t feed guerrillas, Who want to blow up the world”.

It remains the only overtly political song in his back catalogue, and while it doesn’t confirm his deep-held beliefs beyond the Cold War, it shows that he did hold an interest in global ongoings.

Elvis Costello – ‘Eisenhower Blues’

While Elvis Costello isn’t even American, he did write ‘Eisenhower Blues’ in 1986 from the perspective of a poor man who was feeling the pressures of life under President Eisenhowew’s regime throughout the ’50s. It appeared on a concept album by Costello titled King of America, which used the cultural and political fabric of the States as its theme.

The protagonist is all out of luck, and Elvis sings on the track, “I ain’t got a dime, ain’t got a cent, Ain’t got no money to pay my rent, She wants some clothes, she wants some shoes, I’m telling you people I don’t know what to do, Oh I got the Eisenhower Blues, Talking about me and you and what on earth are we gonna do?”

Manic Street Preachers – ‘The Love Of Richard Nixon’

Considering the Manic Street Preachers are an extremely left-wing band, their 2004 song ‘The Love Of Richard Nixon’ came as a surprise and didn’t come from a place of hatred. The track is sympathetic to the former Republican leader and highlights the positive achievements from his time in office which Watergate ultimately overshadowed.

Nicky Wire told Repeat Fanzine: “The main thrust of the song is the idea of being tarnished with a certain part of your life forever. With us, people might think of Richey’s disappearance or 4 REAL. With Nixon, people will always associate him with Watergate and being a crook, not the fact that he was the first president to go to China to build up relations. Or the way he de-escalated the arms race with the Soviet Union – quite admirable things.”

He added: “There’s always been a ridiculousness to Manic Street Preachers. Not humour, not funny-ha ha, but a question of ‘Do they really mean it?’ But there’s probably more empathy [with Nixon] than I should admit. Nixon wasn’t a good president, but he wasn’t George W Bush. He was a brilliant man, and not all Republican presidents have been.”

Public Enemy – ‘State Of The Union (STFU)’

Public Enemy’s most renowned song is ‘Fight The Power’, and they were never afraid to say exactly what they thought of those who had the authority to control the masses.

Over three decades into their journey, they still use their voice to represent those who don’t have the presence to be heard. In 2019, they shared the anti-Trump protest song, ‘State Of The Union (STFU)’.

Explaining the track, Chuck D said: “Our collective voices keep getting louder. The rest of the planet is on our side. But it’s not enough to talk about change. You have to show up and demand change. Folks gotta vote like their lives depend on it, ’cause it does.”

Green Day – ‘American Idiot’

America was in a strange place in 2004, and Green Day went back to their anti-establishment punk roots to rally against President George W. Bush during his re-election campaign by releasing the visceral, ‘American Idiot’, which attacked his voters.

While Bush was successful in the election, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong felt compelled to say what was on his mind and lambast a healthy portion of the population as “idiots” falling for a “Redneck agenda”.

Explaining the song, Armstrong said: “It’s about the confusion of where we’re at right now. My education was punk rock – what the Dead Kennedys said, what Operation Ivy said. It was attacking America, but it was American at the same time.”

Neil Young – ‘Let’s Impeach The President’

Neil Young is an artist whose political views have flickered over the years, and he publically expressed support behind President Reagan. However, by the time that President George W. Bush had made it to office, nobody could accuse him of supporting the Republican regime following the release of his track ‘Let’s Impeach The President’.

The song appeared on his 2006 album, Living With War, and featured snippets from Bush’s speeches. Commenting on the track, Young said: “A political song about something that’s so wrong that the only way to point out how wrong it is is by doing a song that’s wrong – smashing and pounding away at it. A lot of people criticised it as a crappy song that it was such a terrible melody. You want a melody that pisses people off, that’s so stupid and repetitive that it aggravates people.”

‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’ by Ramones

The punk poet John Cooper Clarke once said of the Ramones, “They understood that it was better to have clever lyrics about moronic subjects than the other way round.” The flipside to this, of course, is that politics is sometimes handled best with a pinch of absurdity and that is what made Joey Ramone’s wild ways all the more befitting when he did venture into stiff-upper-lipped insanity of the White House. 

The song ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’ focuses on when on the auspicious date of May 5th 1985, when President Ronald Reagan laid a wreath at a cemetery where 49 Nazis were buried. Naturally, it caused a media uproar.

“What Reagan did was fucked up,” said the Jewish Joey. “Everybody told him not to go, all his people told him not to go, and he went anyway. How can you fuckin’ forgive the Holocaust?” Joey was determined to blast both berserk barrels, even if it did upset his conservative bandmate Johnny and, truly, that is what punk is all about.

‘Abraham, Martin & John’ by Marvin Gaye

Although originally recorded by Dion, Marvin Gaye’s soaring vocals elevated this ode to freedom fighters to the next level. As ever with his sugared yet acerbic style, he makes it clear that bliss doesn’t have to be ignorant.

The song was originally written by Dick Holler in 1968 and soon found itself entering the realm of being a staple as it wove its way into the Civil Rights Movement. Touching upon the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, in the wake of the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, it juxtaposed a sweet melody with atrocious realities with a cutting effect. 

If the rhythm section and production is the idealised view of the land of the free, then the rumbling bassline and unfurling hard truths of the subtle lyrics represented the true stifling and violent charge for the continued pursuit of happiness for everyone. 

‘Murder Most Foul’ by Bob Dylan

Whether it has been protestors picketing his property and calling for him to join them in direct action, critical lambasting’s of his born-again Christian phase or playing through pain as his hand recovered from a motorbike accident, it is clear that Dylan has braved hardships in his career and his noble battle through them is proof that he did it all for the love of music.

In 2020, as he approached his 80th year, he turned in yet another masterpiece. ‘Murder Most Foul’ was an embodiment of his entire career, from his profound sense of place within society, to the simple deliverance of music, and lastly his absolute love of the art form. 

He centres the salvation of music around the great atrocity of the J.F.K. assassination in a way that is uncompromising without ever being cynical. As ever, his lyrics are boldly unflinching, but he avoids being gratuitous about the day the President was “shot down like a dog in broad daylight”. 

The seminal last line to this song – “Play, ‘The Blood-stained Banner; play, ‘Murder Most Foul’ – contains all his wit and daring to deliver a career-long message of hope and comfort in creativity. 

‘He Was a Friend of Mine’ by The Byrds

‘He Was a Friend of Mine’ is an old traditional folk track of unknown origin in which the loss of a friend is lamented. The Byrds, however, played their own twist on the track and delivered up a homage to J.F.K. 

The touching track was elevated by the historical origins of the old anthem. When the chaos was fresh it helped to colour it with both poignant personal and historical context. As lead guitarist Jim McGuinn said: “I wrote the song the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I suppose you could say it’s one of the earliest Byrds songs. The arrangement used was as I’d always sung it. I just thought it was a good idea to include it on the Turn! Turn! Turn! album.”

‘Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man)’ by Randy Newman

Randy Newman hasn’t acquired the nickname The Dean of Satire without good reason. Throughout his career, he has held a whimsical mirror to the world in a display of wit and immense songwriting talent. However, he has rarely been as direct as he was with ‘Mr President (Have Pity on the Working Man)’ from his masterful 1974 record Good Old Boys.

Although on the surface it might seem like it relates to the Richard Nixon regime, his neo-liberal policies have continued to unspool and cause widening social disparities. Thus, Newman has recently joked: “’Mr. President’ is a song I wrote back in the Pleistocene Era. But it’s become relevant again”.

For the song, he takes on his classically postmodernist approach and couple and almost Ragtime melody with his acerbic satirical lyrics that declare: “Maybe you only think about yourself/ Too late to run, too late to cry now/ The time has come for us to say good-bye now/ Mr. President, have pity on the working man”.