by John Ellis
One of the things that should prompt a thankful pride in all Americans is how our country’s presidents so often and so willingly reach for the hot handle of responsibility. In fact, a famous president once said, “The buck stops here.” This series, “The Pop Presidents,” seeks to honor an aspect of the last eleven president’s responsibilities that is often overlooked – presiding over the growth of pop music, specifically the genre known as Rock and Roll. Over the course of the first eleven articles, the ten best albums released under each of the eleven administrations’ oversight will be briefly discussed. In the final article of the series, the eleven presidents will be ranked based on the music released during their time in the Oval Office.
President Gerald Ford has the distinction of being the only person to hold both the office of the Vice President and President without ever winning the Electoral College. He also has the distinction of having the shortest presidency without dying while in office. Beyond those two things, his notable accomplishments included ending the Vietnam War, signing the Helsinki Accords, and pardoning President Nixon. Oh, and he oversaw an economy crumbling under high inflation and rising unemployment. Now, to be fair and contradicting the “buck stops here” intro, neither the good nor the bad can be fully placed on President Ford’s shoulders; he inherited a mess.
Of course, his accomplishments or failures as President cannot be discussed without reference to the music of Ford’s administration. Although, with a presidency that only lasted a total of 895 days, President Ford handicapped his ability to leave his mark on the realm of pop music. And he made the unfortunate decision to focus much of his artistic output on disco. With support from the burgeoning punk scene and the rise of hard rock in the form of AC/DC and Aerosmith, prog rock pushed back against disco and helped salvage Ford’s presidency. And, possibly most importantly, Bob Dylan, folk-rock’s elder statesman, gifted President Ford with one of the best albums from possibly the greatest canon by a single rock/pop musician.
Honorable Mentions: Jail Break, Thin Lizzy; 2112, Rush; Toys in the Attic, Aerosmith; Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, AC/DC; Hotel California, Eagles; Nighthawks at the Diner, Tom Waits; A Night at the Opera, Queen; Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac; Siren, Roxy Music; The Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan; Boston, Boston; Relayer, Yes.
- The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – Genesis, November, 1974.
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway only seems longer than President Ford’s time in office; it isn’t. Don’t allow the album’s length (94+ minutes) dissuade you from listening, though. Peter Gabriel’s surrealistic dreams make for an interesting and entertaining concept album.
- Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen, August, 1975.
Some people hate the Boss. Some people look down their nose at the Boss’s music. Specifically, some people scoff at any and all praise of Born to Run. Some people are idiots.
- Red Headed Stranger – Willie Nelson, May, 1975.
A country and western concept album was a bold move on the part of the Ford administration, but it proved to be a smart move. Combining the best of fire-side yarn spinning with down-home music, Willie Nelson demonstrated that country and western music needn’t be constrained by the “singles” model.
- Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd, September, 1975.
While all the albums on this list still resonate today, “Welcome to the Machine” will, at any given time, probably be the most relevant and honest critique of the music industry set to music. President Ford can take comfort that although he oversaw the cultural infection of the disco blight, his administration was also honest enough to have an album released that wove together themes of illness and the vapidity of the music industry.
- Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin, February, 1975.
Compensating for his short time in office, double albums play an integral role in President Ford’s contribution to pop music. However, Led Zeppelin didn’t enter the studio with the intention of releasing a double album. But, by virtue of the medium of vinyl having time limitations and the band’s unintentional long-windedness, LZ recorded eight songs that didn’t fit on one record but that weren’t long enough to justify a double album. The solution? Include songs from previous recording sessions that didn’t make it onto an album. Some LZ fans prefer those songs to the songs actually recorded for Physical Graffiti.
- Chronicle, Vol. 1 – Creedence Clearwater Revival, January, 1976.
Is it fair to include a greatest hits album? Well, considering that the greatest hits album in question happens to be CCR’s Chronicle, Vol. 1, I think the better question is how many people are going to be perturbed that the album isn’t ranked higher?
- Ramones – Ramones, April, 1976.
If influence was the only variable considered for this list, Ramones may very well have landed at the number one spot. This album is the first face peeking out of the dingy, infant, NYC punk scene’s door that had been opened by Patti Smith a year earlier – just in time, too. Prog rock, although contributing some great albums over the years, had begun to become bloated and comical. Arena rock was flexing its comical musical muscles. And, need I mention disco? The Ramones possibly/probably(?) saved rock from itself. Even if you don’t like punk, you should at least be grateful.
- Songs in the Key of Life – Stevie Wonder, September, 1976.
Coming off of a highly successful three album run that included Innervisions, Stevie Wonder released his masterpiece in 1976 and cemented himself as R&B’s reigning maestro. In the hands of an artist who is a mere mortal, Songs in the Key of Life would’ve probably ended up a bloated ode to narcissism. But, in the hands of Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life is 85+ minutes of silky smooth storytelling.
- Horses – Patti Smith, December, 1975.
Stepping from behind the writer’s fourth wall for this blurb, I listen to this album quite frequently; and, every time I do, I’m amazed at the freshness of Horses. This album from punk music’s mother is just a few months younger than I am, and it has aged much better than I have.
- Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan, January, 1975.
In this series, Bob Dylan has been a bridesmaid twice – during Kennedy’s and LBJ’s administrations. He finally gets his day with his most thematically painful album. Depending on whom you ask, Blood on the Tracks was either inspired by Dylan’s own tumultuous marriage or Anton Chekhov. Regardless, the album resonates on a personal level that very few albums even come close to achieving. And, it’s fitting that during the administration that presided over the rise of punk music, the number one album is a reminder from an elder statesman that not all of the old guard were guilty of masturbatory musical excess.
 William Henry Harrison served one month of his term, and then died of pneumonia. James Garfield, Zachary Taylor, and Warren G. Harding all held the office of President for less than time than Ford, too. But, unlike Ford and like Harrison, those three all died as President.
 To be clear, and to keep amateur historians at bay, Ford wasn’t technically the mastermind behind either the ending of the Vietnam War or The Helsinki Accords; Nixon was. Wouldn’t you pardon the man that was basically responsible for your most notable successes, too?
 It should be noted that regardless of his failures and successes as a president, Gerald Ford was standing up against racism before it was popular to do so. While Ford was playing football for Michigan, Georgia Tech refused to play the game if Willis Ward, an African-American, played. Ward and Ford were roommates and best friends, and Ford refused to play if Ward wasn’t allowed to play. Ward asked him to play, though.
 Pop Quiz (fill-in-the-blank) – The band _______’s influence is one of the main reasons (if not the sole reason) that flannel was the uniform of choice for grunge bands.
 Yes, I’m aware that I’ve included arena rock in the honorable mention section. Did you skip the part about Ford’s presidency being a mere 895 days in duration?
 Most R&B artists from the early 70’s through today acknowledge Wonder as the genre’s standard.
 I don’t know if “writer’s fourth wall” is correct or not. I used to be a theatre artist, and I still pretty much view everything from that perspective.