Ronald Reagan in music
Ronald Reagan in music refers to songs, albums and bands that refer to Ronald Wilson Reagan, particularly during his two terms as president of the United States. While references to Reagan appear in pop music, his presence in song lyrics and on album covers is often associated with the hardcore punk counter-culture of the 1980s.
Ronald Reagan became a subject in song during the era of protests against the Vietnam War while he served as governor of California (1967-1975). Folk singer Phil Ochs makes mention of Reagan on his 1966 album Phil Ochs in Concert during the introduction to the song "Ringing of Revolution" when he speculates a future where the last of the bourgeoisie are besieged in a mansion atop a hill. Ochs jokes:
Ochs' satire highlights the blurry line between actors and politicians and poking fun at Reagan for following in George Murphy footsteps: Murphy, like Reagan, had been a movie actor and became president of the Screen Actors Guild, then went on to be a Republican U.S. Senator. Reagan succeeded Murphy as Guild president where he worked as an informant for the FBI during the Hollywood blacklist period. Two decades later, Reagan ran for office and became California's governor.
Tom Lehrer made a similar comparison in his song "George Murphy," which opens, "Hollywood's often tried to mix show-business with politics, from Helen Gahagan to Ronald Reagan." In the live version on the album That Was the Year That Was (1965), Lehrer raises inflection on Reagan's name, as if he cannot believe Reagan's entry into the political realm, the future governor's prior political participation having been limited to political committees and speeches such as those given in support of Barry Goldwater.
Reagan's impact on music during his presidency
Popular and folk music
After Reagan's election as U.S. president in 1980, many pop music artists responded in their song lyrics.
In 1981 British synthpoppers Heaven 17 critiqued Reagan in their song, "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang". In the same year, Bryan Adams in his song One Good Reason stated "I'm getting pretty nervous now that Ronny's in the office." The following year on his album Controversy, Prince referenced Reagan in two songs. First was a plea to Reagan called "Ronnie Talk to Russia":
- Ronnie, talk to Russia before it's too late
- Before it's too late, before it's too late
- Ronnie, talk to Russia before it's too late
- Before they blow up the world
And in the more chilling "Annie Christian", the Antichrist:
- ... killed John Lennon
- Shot him down cold
- She tried to kill Reagan
- Everybody say "Gun Control!"
Folk musician Joe Glazer released the album Jellybean Blues in 1982, followed by a second volume two years later, packed with songs about the president. Also in 1982, the Valentine Brothers' "Money's Too Tight (to Mention)" reached No.41 ion the US charts. Three years later Britain's Simply Red had a bigger hit with it on their quintuple-platinum album Picture Book. The song had worldwide success reaching No.13 in the UK and No.2 in the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart with lyrics about Reaganomics:
- We talk about Reaganomics
- Oh lord down in the Congress,
- They're passing all kinds of bills,
- From down Capitol Hill - (we've tried them)
- We're talking 'bout the dollar bill,
- And that old man that's over the hill,
- Now what are we all to do,
- When money's got a hold on you?
In the last chorus the lyrics change to ask:
- Did the Earth move for you Nancy?
Bob Dylan filled his 1983 album Infidels with songs protesting the Reagan Era, and the lead track "Jokerman" alludes to a charismatic Antichrist-like figure that is Reagan himself. That same year Pink Floyd's song "The Fletcher Memorial Home" likens Reagan to corrupt leaders throughout history:
In 1984 John Fogerty alluded to Reagan for his single "The Old Man Down the Road", and the group Frankie Goes to Hollywood traced Reagan's career to a dreamed future when Jesus Christ would return only after a nuclear apocalypse in the song "Two Tribes". Don Henley's song "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" protested against the U.S. involvement with the Contras in Nicaragua and chastised Americans for wanting to dance while sales of guns and drugs are going on at the behest of the CIA. Other songs protesting America's role in the Iran-Contra affair include "Nicaragua" by Bruce Cockburn and "Please Forgive Us" by 10,000 Maniacs.
During Reagan's second term as president, Sting released his anti-Cold War single "Russians" in 1985. The following year saw singer Joe Jackson admonishing the president for speaking in black-and-white terms, several songs on Jackson Browne's album Lives in the Balance pointed at U.S. foreign policy under Reagan, and The Violent Femmes featured a 29-second song "Old Mother Reagan" on their album The Blind Leading the Naked:
Old Mother Reagan and her crew, took away from me and you
I hope she goes far away, she better go far away, Y'know it ain't right
When it's all wrong, this is the Old Mother Reagan, protest song, old Mother Reagan
She's so dumb, she's so dangerous, how come...
Old Mother Reagan went to heaven, but at the pearly gates she was stopped!
The video for Land of Confusion by British band Genesis opens with a caricatured Ronald Reagan voiced by Chris Barrie, Nancy Reagan, and a chimpanzee parodying Reagan's film Bedtime for Bonzo, in bed together. The videos images of other world leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachov, and Ayatollah Khomeini, reinforce the songs's lyrics about world instability at the threat of nuclear war.
U2 criticized Reagan in "Bullet The Blue Sky" on their 1987 album The Joshua Tree. That same year INXS highlighted Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative in their similarly named song "Guns in the Sky", and R.E.M. likened Reagan to former senator Joe McCarthy:
Sharpening stones, walking on coals to improve your business acumen
Vested interest united ties, landed gentry rationalize, look who bought the myth, by jingo, buy America
Enemy sighted, enemy met, I'm addressing the realpolitik...Exhuming McCarthy (Meet me at the book burning)
Frank Zappa makes mention of Ronald Reagan, and other 1980s luminaries, in his 1987 song "Untouchables":
Okay - let's look at some mug-sheets of the suspects from the 80's
REAGAN! You're asleep! Wake up! The country's in a mess!
You're anyway out in the way, buddy
You're history - you're meat - you're through!
You're vapor - you're baloney without the mayo, buddy!
You're outta here - In fact, it's Robin Leach instead!
I don't know why.
With much of punk rock's ethos as antithesis to established authority, president Reagan became a prime pariah for punks to rally against in the United States and abroad. With Reagan's rise to power coinciding with the arrival of hardcore punk, many bands working in the genre put Reagan's face on flyers, T-shirts, and album covers, and peppered lyrics, song and album titles with his name. Some groups even named themselves after the president or events related to him, the first being the anarcho-punk band Reagan Youth who formed in Queens, New York in 1980 as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Hitler Youth. The following year a group of skate punks from Phoenix, Arizona named their band JFA, short for "Jodie Foster's Army" in tribute to the efforts of John Hinckley, Jr. to impress the movie star by attempting to assassinate president Reagan.
In 1981 Alternative Tentacles featured Reagan on the cover of the compilation album, Let Them Eat Jellybeans!, whose title refers to Reagan's favorite candy. The label was run by Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra whose band made a career out of mentioning Reagan in songs like, "Moral Majority", "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now", "Bleed for Me" and "Dear Abby".
The Sun City Girls' 1987 album Horse Cock Phepner takes its title from an alleged nickname for Ronald Reagan. The album's refraining spoken word track "Voice of America" makes mention of the president, and the album's song "Nancy" depicts then-First Lady Nancy Reagan as a sexual fetishist. Other songs deride members of the Reagan administration, including Attorney General Edwin Meese, and the band recorded an updated version of The Fugs's "CIA Man" to be about atrocities committed by the Central Intelligence Agency during Reagan's reign.
Other notable punk bands that sang about Reagan included Black Flag, The Ramones, The Clash, The Damned, The Exploited, NOFX, Suicidal Tendencies, Wasted Youth, T.S.O.L., Dayglo Abortions, D.O.A., The Fartz, The Damned, The Minutemen, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, MDC and The Crucifucks. Many of these groups, along with the Dead Kennedys, organized a series of "Rock Against Reagan" concerts and tours to infuse awareness of then-current politics into the punk subculture.
Hip-hop and sampling
As hip-hop came of age during the 1980s, many rappers inserted Reagan into their lyrics. Proto-rapper Gil Scott-Heron made Reagan the subject of his 1981 song "B-movie" as well as his 1984 single "Re-Ron" focusing on Reagan's re-election campaign:
Yes but there he is. Running again.
Re-running. Re-ronning. it’s a Re-Ron....
Re-freezing the Cold War and lighting a fire under the hot one.
Banging on the war drums...and the world watching our reaction
To the 3rd World ‘cause the stakes are the Third World War.
It’s the neutron bomb for Lebanon.
He’s the gladiator invader of Grenada!
It’s millions more for El Salvador, and he’s up to his ‘keisters’ with the Sandinistas!
Would we take Fritz without Grits? We'd take Fritz the Cat.
Would we take Jesse Jackson? Hell, we'd take Michael Jackson!
Sound collage group Negativland first sampled Reagan on their 1981 album Points on the instrumental track "The Answer Is", where the music interrupted by the president stuttering, "The problem isn't being poor, the problem is, uh...the answer is..." The art rock band 3 Teens Kill 4 sampled Reagan and anecdotes about him in their 1984 song "Tell Me Something Good". In 1985 P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins and Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads teamed up as Bonzo Goes to Washington (named for Reagan's film Bedtime for Bonzo), and released a single that heavily sampled the president saying, "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that outlaws Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes," during a microphone test. Afrikaa Bambataa and John Lydon used the same sample in their 1984 video for "World Destruction" performing under the name Time Zone. The single's B-side also sampled Walter Mondale talking about Reagan.
An entire musical revue was penned by cartoonist Garry Trudeau and Elizabeth Swados, featuring the song "Rap Master Ronnie", accredited to Reathel Bean & The Doonesbury Break Crew. Hollywood actor Reathel Bean was the main performer in the revue and in 1984 the group released a 12" single featuring three versions of the song. There was also an accompanying video where Reagan and his posse of Secret Service agents go to a black DC neighborhood to rap for minority votes.
Other 80s rap songs mentioning or referencing Reagan include Project Future's "Ray-Gun-Omics", Ice-T's "Squeeze the Trigger" (1987), Biz Markie's "Nobody Beats the Biz" (1988), and Boogie Down Productions' "Stop the Violence" (1988).
Reggae and African music
The Kansas City's Grammy-nominated Blue Riddim Band, recorded the satirical track "Nancy Reagan" in 1982 about the President and his wife's misguided priorities. The song was later versioned by Ranking Roger in 1985 and by Big Youth in 2011.
- Who & who unite, for "United Nations"?
- No be there Thatcher & Argentina dey
- No be there Reagan & Libya dey
- Is-i-rael versus Lebanon
- Iran-i-oh versus Iraq-i
- East West Block versus West Block East
- No be there dem dey oh- United Nations
Many artists from different genres have continued to make note of Reagan's legacy in their lyrics, including Neil Young, Van Dyke Parks, Camper Van Beethoven, Rage Against the Machine, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, and Kanye West. In 2010, television actor Fred Armisen and ex-Scream/Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl paid tribute to their own punk rock roots in the Saturday Night Live sketch, "Crisis of Conformity", a send-up of an 80s hardcore band reuniting to play a wedding 25 years past their heyday. The lyrics are reminiscent of the Dead Kennedys' "Bleed for Me", among others:
Chicago indie label Drag City later released a Crisis of Conformity single featuring the song.
In 2012 thrash metal band Municipal Waste formed the spinoff group, Iron Reagan. The band's name pays double tribute to the 1980's with a nod to the group Iron Maiden who enjoyed heavy airplay on MTV during Reagan's presidency.
Because original songs were not commissioned for Reagan's gubernatorial or presidential campaigns, any music deemed "pro-Reagan" attained that association after his PR people appropriated it. Both in his two terms as governor and during his 1980 run for the presidency, Reagan was introduced with the pop americana standard, "California Here I Come.
During his second run for president, Reagan's campaign advisor, George Will, tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" for the campaign, writing that if "labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles, made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism.” A week after Will's writing appeared in a column, Reagan praised Springsteen in a stump speech given in Hammonton, New Jersey. Soon after Reagan's speech, Springsteen expressed discontent with the president and his policies, and "Born in the USA" was dropped from the campaign to be replaced by "God Bless the USA" by Lee Greenwood.
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