17 songs about U.S. presidents
Commonly acknowledged as ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, it’s hardly surprising that United States presidents tend to attain a level of cultural crossover above and beyond that of their international counterparts. From Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to John F. Kennedy, to Richard Nixon’s surprising ability behind the piano, to Barack Obama’s smooth crooning, music has been a big part of that. Sure, UK politicians have dabbled – from Tony Blair riding the Britpop phenomenon to Jeremy Corbyn appearing on the cover of Kerrang! magazine – but none have had the audacity of, say, Bill Clinton showcasing his sublime saxophone skills.
The inherently outsider sounds and proud protest-music tradition of rock and metal has meant we’ve rarely seen eye-to-eye with The Man. Much as the Reagan administration (and many conservative bodies before them) condemned the long-haired loose-living of rockers, so too have bands hit out at the likes of Donald Trump for wrongly appropriating their work for campaign purposes. Looking back across 17 of rock music’s greatest presidentially-influenced tracks, however, we found some fascinating subtleties in the various issues tackled and stories told…
Clutch – Abraham Lincoln
From name-checking George W. Bush’s Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice in The Mob Goes Wild, to riffing on Ry Cooder’s John Lee Hooker For President with How To Shake Hands, political imagery has frequently worked its way into the abstract lyricism of Clutch frontman Neil Fallon. This cut from 2009’s Strange Cousins From The West is a surprisingly straightforward lament on the assassination of 16th POTUS Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Residing within screaming distance of Washington D.C., Neil has an “ingrained” political perspective. “I see myself as an observer,” he told Kerrang! in 2018. “The United States is a big-ass country, and there are 300 million different opinions. There’s definitely something to be said for just being a boring president who’s willing to listen to both sides.”
The Ramones – Bonzo Goes To Bitburg
As the Cold War wound towards its overdue end, then-President Ronald Reagan paid a visit to West Germany in 1985 to hail its role as an important, democratic ally on the frontier of Communist threat. During said visit, however, he laid a wreath and gave a public address in the military cemetery at Bitburg as a tribute to the victims of Naziism. The problem? Of the 2,000 dead interred there, some 49 were members of the Waffen-SS: Nazi combat soldiers responsible for brutal atrocities. The Bonzo Goes To Bitburg slogan was coined by protesters at the time (bizarrely referencing Bonzo, a chimpanzee TV star of the 1950s) and was appropriated for this Ramones single of the same year, notable for its combination of slapstick imagery and relatively sombre tone. Fittingly, years later, Reagan’s Republican party successor Donald Trump would see his scrawled rebuttal to impeachment proceedings (‘I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO…’) converted into its very own Ramones-style song.
Suicidal Tendencies – I Shot The Devil
Originally titled I Shot Reagan, and still beginning with that uber-controversial lyric, the third track from Suicidal Tendencies’ self-titled 1983 debut didn’t exactly beat around the bush with its unequivocal politics – setting the standard for crossover thrashers (from Stormtroopers Of Death to Iron Reagan) for years to come. The ex-silver screen star turned politician might’ve been a poster boy for much of middle-America in the decadent ’80s, but he was an enemy to those living on the fringe. ‘Rot in heaven, you’re too bad for hell,’ frontman Mike Muir rages with evocative simplicity. ‘Rot in heaven, ’cause you’re forgiven in hell.’ Rumour persists that the FBI actually had to get in touch with the band to have the song’s title changed. With execution this incendiary, we’re not surprised.
NOFX – Reagan Sucks
Just in case anyone had missed the fact that POTUS #40 wasn’t the great hero he was cracked up to be, Californian punk jesters NOFX made the point sledgehammer blunt with the simply-titled Reagan Sucks. A cast-off from their 45 Or 46 Songs That Weren’t Good Enough To Go On Our Other Records compilation, there’s actually some unexpected poignancy here as Fat Mike remembers how powerful bad politicians could be in uniting the punk movement, reminiscing for those days of shared indignation. ‘Heard it first from Reagan youth / Dead Kennedys and D.I. too / Wanna burn the effigy / From DRI to MDC / Guess what nostalgia sucks / But I miss the days of Reagan punk / We all shared the same enemy…’
Manic Street Preachers – The Love Of Richard Nixon
In office from January 1969 until his resignation following the Watergate scandal in 1974, the 37th President Of The United States Richard Nixon presided over one of the most volatile periods in modern American politics. With a dismal record on civil rights, the Vietnam war and those clandestine dirty deeds that ultimately undid him, Nixon was arguably the States’ most vilified premier until Trump. It seemed strange, then, when Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers released this twisted ode some 30 years after he’d left office and just weeks before George W. Bush would win his second term. Manics guitarist Nicky Wire explained in a fanzine interview at the time that they empathised with Nixon, and his struggles to come out from the shadow of his beloved predecessor John F. Kennedy in the same way they had struggled to escape comparisons to revered Oxford alt.rockers Radiohead. Historical figures tend to be viewed in black and white, but there’s more fascination in exploring their many shades of grey.
L7 – Dispatch From Mar-A-Lago
During their original run from 1985 to 2001, Los Angeles punk-rockers L7 were notorious for their provocative, political and subversively humorous outlook. Following their 2014 reformation, 2017 saw the release of their first single of the 21st century picking up right where they’d left off. Motivated by the obnoxious misogyny of Donald Trump, they imagined a scene where his infamous Mar-a-Lago golf-club and resort was under attack while he tweets a ‘dispatch’ from his ‘golden throne’. Unafraid to tackle the inevitable trolls, they hold nothing back in depicting the outrage and absurdity of current politics. ‘Little blue birds blowing up my phone,’ they spit. ‘Mogul’s in deep shit, he’s all alone / It’s not good, a riot in fact / The whole friggin’ country club is under attack!’
Misfits – Bullet
‘President’s bullet-ridden body in the street / Ride, Johnny ride / Kennedy’s shattered head hits concrete / Ride, Johnny ride…’ The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas at 12:30pm CST on November 22, 1963 is regarded by many as the pivotal moment in 20th century American history. Only 15 years on, fledging New Jersey horror-punks Misfits were coming to grips with their gruesome powers. Trying their damnedest to press people’s buttons they deploy outrageously gory imagery recounting the beloved leader’s murder here, and genuinely distasteful sexually-explicit overtures directed at his widow Jacqueline: ‘Texas is the reason that the president’s dead / You gotta suck, suck, Jackie suck…’ Given their continued notoriety more than four decades down the line, it’s hard to argue that Bullet didn’t hit its mark.
Saxon – Dallas 1pm
Deploying their own more respectful, distanced perspective, Barnsley NWOBHM legends Saxon painted the same scene with the sombre significance it warranted on the closing track of 1980’s Strong Arm Of The Law. ‘Open the case,’ sings Biff Byford, briefly assuming the perspective of the assassin. ‘Assemble the gun / Laid out ready / For the President’s run / The world was shocked that fateful day / A young man’s life was blown away, away.’ Conspiracy theories still abound over whether the convicted lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald or some other group was responsible for the hit. Including three quick-fire shots in their recording, they were evidently unsure about the mainstream narrative and whether Oswald was able to reload his bolt-action rifle with superhuman speed or – as conspiracy theorists have contended – there were three separate shooters, with the president triangulated in their sights.
Public Enemy – State Of The Union (STFU)
Right from their emergence from the fledgling New York hip-hop underground back in 1985, Long Island collective Public Enemy were known for their social awareness and willingness to mix up political themes and cutting-edge sounds. Those long-standing foundations looked to be on unsteady ground in March 2020, when rumour had it iconic hype man Flava Flav walked out over the band’s decision to perform free of charge at a rally for righteous Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. They clarified matters a few months later with this unbending call-to-arms against the Trump administration. “Our collective voices keep getting louder,” stressed mainman Chuck D on release. “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.”
Sum 41 – 45 (A Matter Of Time)
Never exactly renowned as a political punk outfit, Canadian quintet Sum 41 ruffled a few right-leaning fans’ feathers with the fourth single from 2019’s Order In Decline. Named 45 after Donald Trump (the 45th President Of The United States), the track finds frontman Deryck Whibley venting his frustrations not only at the ex-POTUS himself, but at the fires of discord and division his time at the top helped stoke. ‘You’re something to few but nothing to me,’ he sings. ‘Someone so twisted and sick as can be / It wasn’t the plan, we gave it a shot / You’ve proven a real man is something you’re not.’ Sometimes it’s impossible (or, indeed, immoral) to stay quiet on something so offensive. “I tried to change the words to go somewhere else with it, but I had nothing and it didn’t make any sense any other way,” Deryck told K!. “It was just bad, so I let it come out.”
Brujeria – Viva Presidente Trump!
It’s hard to imagine that Brujeria put quite as much soul-searching into their Trump track. Having long since established their image as members of the murderous Mexican drug cartels, the ‘anonymous’ extreme metal supergroup (really featuring members of Napalm Death, Carcass and At The Gates) appeared to ‘embrace’ the Trump presidency with this 2016 single. True to form, though, they were actually suggesting that his hostile policies towards America’s southern neighbours would be the perfect excuse to spark a full-on war. ‘Ja, yo si quiero que llegue a ser presidente gabacho,’ they sing. ‘Porque él quiere ver guerra, igual que nosotros / Yo si quiero que gane el presidente trumpudo / Porque si el lo empieza, a huevo, nosotros lo acabamos!’ (‘I actually want him to be president gabacho, because he wants war and so do we. I want the Trump president to win because if he starts something, we’ll finish it.’) The album art with a machete embedded in Trump’s head probably gave their intentions away, in fairness.
Green Day – American Idiot
Green Day were another of those ’90s proto-pop-punk outfits who’d largely avoided politics in favour of picking at the more personal angst of life in suburbia – until they couldn’t stay quiet any longer. Although 2000’s Minority suggested a willingness to stand up to the establishment, it wasn’t until the arrival of George W. Bush and the post-9/11 era that they went the whole hog with American Idiot. Alongside fellow single Holiday, the track flew in the face of the populist fear, xenophobia and naked jingoism of the time, begging listeners not to become the sort of easily-manipulated knee-jerk reactionaries the warmongering White House wanted to rule over. Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong has since stressed that the song was never intended just as an indictment of the second Bush administration, and was an observation on the sort of America-first sentiment that marred much of the 20th and early-21st centuries. The point was proven when they even-more-fittingly recycled the track to call out Trump and his red-capped supporters as the band confirmed their endorsement of now-president Joe Biden.
Titus Andronicus – A More Perfect Union
The opening track to The Monitor – the Civil War-themed second album from New Jersey punk rockers Titus Andronicus – is a seven-minute-plus epic that pulsates with the muddied righteousness of the Union forces marching south in the mid-19th century. Beginning with a recording of Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum address (condemning the practice of slavery in the United States well before he took office in 1861) and concluding with an excerpt from William Lloyd Garrison’s similarly-themed article for The Liberator, the song actually deals with the frustrations of living in modern-day New Jersey but is alive with understanding of the events that have led to the here and now. ‘If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher / As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.’ Rousing stuff.
Ministry – N.W.O.
‘I’m in love without the tears of regret / Open fire ’cause I love it to death / Sky high with a heartache of stone / You’ll never see me ’cause I’m always alone…’ The New World Order is a popular conspiracy theory which hypothesises that the world is being taken over by a secretly (but rapidly) emerging totalitarian conglomeration of governments, which isn’t immediately evident from the lyrics to this 1992 Ministry classic. A master of subversion, frontman Al Jourgensen raged against then-President George H. W. Bush with lyrics that sometimes sound like a twisted love song, but should be read as an indictment of the blind ‘patriotism’ that allows corrupt leaders to go about their business unchecked. Al would continue in the same vein during the tenure of George junior with the phenomenal trilogy of the even more politicised 2000s albums Houses of the Molé, Rio Grande Blood and The Last Sucker.
Pearl Jam – Brain Of J
‘Who’s got the brain of JFK?’ asks the lead single to Pearl Jam’s 1998 album Yield. It’s a mystery that’s vexed conspiracy theorists for years, with the president’s body having been transported for autopsy at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland rather than being fully examined at the Dallas Parkland Hospital where it was first received. Doctors at Parkland had seemed to suggest that the bullet wound was at the front of the head, contradicting the evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible, while the final report at Bethesda supported his conviction, triggering years of doubt. The subject was clearly at the forefront of the band’s mind given the album’s making-of documentary was also titled Single Video Theory – a play on the 1964 Warren Commission’s ‘single bullet theory’ that one shot had caused multiple wounds, doubts about which have persisted ever since.
The Offspring – Kill The President
‘In a world without leaders,’ asks Dexter Holland on the 11th track of The Offspring’s self-titled 1989 debut. ‘Who would start all our wars? / The world that you’re saving / Will always be yours!’ While not attacking any specific leader, the succinctly-titled Kill The President was an unbending critique of the imbalanced structures of western democracy, where the representatives of the people are so often responsible for the suffering of those same people they’re supposed to represent. At the tail end of the Reagan administration, the self-satisfied American right were duly outraged, with conservative commentator Wally George destroying one of the only 5,000 original copies produced on his TV show Hot Seat in 1992. The track was left off the 2001 and 2017 reissues of the album, and is not available through traditional streaming services, with the band keen to avoid legal complications for themselves and their then-label Nitro.
Wasted Youth – Reagan's In
‘Reagan’s in, we’re going for good / We’ll fight and kill the best we could / No-one cares if we die / Reinstate the draft and tell us lies…’ The 63-second title-track to the 1981 debut from Los Angeles hardcore punks Wasted Youth (still billed as ‘LA’s wasted Youth’ here) felt like a pre-emptive strike at the very beginning of Reagan’s presidency. Where many of their contemporaries – like Minor Threat and Fugazi man Ian MacKaye – specifically avoided immortalising his name in their music, Wasted Youth didn’t hold back in their pessimistic forecast of warmongering and a Vietnam-alike military draft that could well decimate their generation’s (wasted) youth. The record is perhaps best-known for its artwork by now-legendary album illustrator Pushead (Brian Schroeder), depicting Reagan with the WY logo carved in his forehead, in the style of legendary cult-leader Charles Manson with the swastika carved into his. Provocation at its most pertinent.
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