The Pop Presidents: Nixon

nixon

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.

For many, the name “Nixon” is synonymous with short, blunt, and highly descriptive words; however, the two short words “rock” and “god” are often left off of the list of Nixon descriptors – which is a mistake. When a man gifts us “Stairway to Heaven,” his face should at least be considered for inclusion on the Mount Rushmore of Rock and Roll.

President Richard Milhous Nixon was a recording star in his own right[1]; and, it’s easy to allow the reverberations from the release of his own tapes to overshadow the hand his administration had in the release of some of the modern era’s seminal albums. By the end of his presidency, Richard Nixon had unified much of the country around a common enemy, and it’s hard to imagine the coalescence of the country’s rage without albums like Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin IV, and Innervisions providing the soundtrack.

Honorable Mentions: Pearl, Janis Joplin; Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis, Elvis Presley; Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin; In the Court of King Crimson, King Crimson; After the Gold Rush, Neil Young; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John; Trout Mask Replica, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band; Dusty in Memphis, Dusty Springfield; Let’s Get It On, Marvin Gaye.

  1. #1 Record – Big Star, June, 1972.

Like President Richard Nixon, Big Star’s work is still influencing contemporary society. However, unlike Nixon, Big Star doesn’t get their fair share of credit. If Big Star had been signed to a solvent and competent record label, their inclusion in Nixon’s top ten would probably be a given. As it is, like the number five album on this list, the unfortunate reality is that far too few people are aware of one of the biggest influences on the alternative music scene of the 80s and, hence, the 90s. However, even without the factor of influence, Big Star’s debut album is still worthy of inclusion on this list; it’s not a stretch to claim that #1 Record may very well be the pinnacle of power-pop.

  1. Blue – Joni Mitchell, June, 1971.

Joni Mitchell laid so nakedly bare her pain and tumult on Blue, it’s almost impossible (at least for those who can feel) to not want to weep along with her crumbling meadow of a voice. Add in the dimension of the early 70s cultural angst, and Joni Mitchell helped shape the template for folk-rock as a pop culture touchstone.

  1. The Band – The Band, September, 1969.

The Band carried their masterful domination of roots rock from the administration of President Johnson and into the presidential zeitgeist of Richard Milhous Nixon’s administration. Without missing an artistic beat, The Band released their second album, often referred to as “The Brown Album,” in 1969 and perfected the praiseful lament of classic Americana.

  1. Exile on Main Street –  The Rolling Stones, May, 1972.

Taking a page from Tricky Dick, the Rolling Stones demonstrated that illegal activities needn’t be a deterrent to productivity[2]. To avoid the authority’s displeasure about the band’s failure to pay taxes, the Rolling Stones fled England, tracks in hand, and continued recording Exile on Main Street in Paris. Recording was finally completed in Los Angeles in early 1972; nearly four years after work on the album had begun. Many of the recording sessions were fueled by heroin and other assorted drugs. Regardless of how one wants to interpret the events swirling around the recording of Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones cemented their already considerable mark on rock history with one of the greatest blues/gospel-tinged rock and roll records of all time.

  1. Abbey Road – Beatles, September, 1969.

The Beatles saved one of their best efforts for Nixon, and then pretty much “promptly” called it a day[3]. So, thanks, President Nixon?

  1. Five Leaves Left – Nick Drake, September, 1969.

If a list of albums that were woefully underappreciated at the time of release was compiled[4], chances are, Five Leaves Left would occupy the number one spot – top three, no doubt. The fact that this still relatively unknown album sits at number five on this list should prompt any readers who were previously unfamiliar with Nick Drake to furrow their brow and then unfurrow that brow as they, sitting and listening in silence, marvel at one the most beautiful albums ever recorded. Beyond his artistry, like Big Star, Nick Drake is often included as a major influence by many of the musicians who win Grammys.

  1. Bitches Brew – Miles Davis, April, 1970.

Mile Davis’ Bitches Brew is as controversial and polarizing as is the President whose administration this brilliant, genre-obliterating album took flight during. People tend to either passionately love Bitches Brew, or they despise the album for, as they believe, ruining jazz. The fact that it sits at number four on the list for one of the most musically gifted administrations in history should tell you which side of the fight my laces are strapped. Davis’ heart-skipping trumpet is the warranted centerpiece, but Bitches Brew’s rhythm sections are astoundingly innovative.

  1. Led Zeppelin IV – Led Zeppelin, November, 1971.

“Stairway to Heaven.” That’s it. That’s all the justification Led Zeppelin IV needs. But, if you’re one of those people who allow things like plagiarism to affect your opinion, the album also contains “Black Dog” and “When the Levee Breaks.” Regardless, even the sticklers for ethics grudgingly admit that Led Zep IV or Zoso or Untitled or whatever you call it reflects the artistic pinnacle of one of the most important rock bands of all time.

  1. The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd, March, 1973.

The commercial and critical success of The Dark Side of the Moon is pretty much impossible to deny[5]. Its place as one of the catalysts for many of the youth of the early 70s reaction to President Nixon is also hard to deny, or overlook. With lyrics that contain the themes of greed, conflict, and death, Dark Side of the Moon gave voice to many as they navigated their emotional responses to the Nixon shaped world around them. That, and the album goes great with The Wizard of Oz.

  1. At Fillmore East – Allman Brothers Band, July, 1971.

When the greatest Southern-rock band of all time plays blues classics written by the likes of Blind Willie McTell and T-Bone Walker; tears into soon to be classics penned by members (themselves) of the greatest Southern-rock band of all time; feeds off the energy of a live audience drenched with provocative blues sweat; and turns a famed NYC music venue into a deep, sticky South dive bar; well, you get an album that beats out The Dark Side of the Moon for the number one slot. President Nixon had a Southern strategy indeed.


 

[1] His resume also includes “producer.” A true auteur.

[2] Although, for the sake of the kids, I feel the need to point out that the album took an unusually long time to record, and the producers had to rely on session musicians to fill in for the oft incapacitated band members.

[3] I know, I know. Let It Be was released after Abbey Road. But, did you know that Let It Be was recorded first?

[4] I didn’t search, but I’m assuming several lists like this exist. If Five Leaves Left is missing from any of those lists, please disregard the list.

[5] Why would anyone want to?

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