(Pictured: Stevie Wonder at work, 1974.)
On May 17, 1973, the Senate began televised hearings into the Watergate scandal. I was in Miss Alt’s seventh-grade social studies class that spring, and I can remember watching the hearings in class. I am not sure how well anybody understood what we were seeing. The scandal had been in the headlines for only a few weeks, even though the break-in happened the previous June. A kid such as I, obsessed with radio in an era when that meant I heard a newscast every hour, was probably better informed than many of my classmates, but I wouldn’t have been up on the nuances, either.
When we look back on the Vietnam Era, pop and rock music is inextricably a part of it. When the story of Watergate is told, there’s no obvious soundtrack, although the scandal inspired several songs.
—One of the first Watergate-themed songs was David Allan Coe’s May 1973 single “How High’s the Watergate, Martha” backed by “Tricky Dickey, the Only Son of Kung Fu.” Both songs name-check prominent Watergate figures, but “How High’s the Watergate” is the much better of the two.
—Tom T. Hall’s “Watergate Blues” came out in June 1973, made it up to #16 country, and bubbled under at #101. It’s not among Hall’s best songs, although it does contain one nice line, referring to Nixon’s 1972 landslide: “The USA bought a new used car.”
—Also in the summer of 1973, Chicago DJ John Landecker recorded “Make a Date With the Watergate,” based on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Early in 1974, Landecker did another political novelty, “Press My Conference,” a break-in record featuring clips of then-current hits and the voices of other WLS personalities. (Hear them both here.)
—Don Imus cut his own Watergate break-in record, “Son of Checkers,” in 1973, which is not at YouTube.
—On impressionist David Frye’s 1973 single “Nixon Meets the Godfather,” the embattled president consults Don Corleone for advice.
—Phil Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,” released in 1974, was overtly a protest song, a rewrite of Ochs’ song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.”
—Fred Wesley and the J.B.’s put Watergate in two songs, neither of which had much to do with the scandal: the nominally anti-poverty 1973 release “You Can Have Watergate (Just Give Me Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight),” and 1974’s“Rockin’ Funky Watergate,” the entire lyric of which is the phrases “rockin’ Watergate” and “funky Watergate” over and over.
—Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” is not so much a Watergate song as it’s a general indictment of Nixon. It hit the Hot 100 during the week of the resignation in August 1974 and slow-cooked its way to a single week at #1 in November.
—Running the chart with “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” was Lynryd Skynryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” with the lines “Now Watergate does not bother me / Does your conscience bother you?”
—Frank Zappa’s “Son of Orange County,” from the 1974 live album Roxy and Elsewhere, pegged Nixon as a megalomaniac and quotes his famous line “I am not a crook.” It came out in September, almost exactly a month after Nixon went home to San Clemente.
—In 1975, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes mentioned Nixon obliquely in “Bad Luck,” although you don’t hear it on the single. On the full-length version of the song, Teddy Pendergrass testifies about how he opened his newspaper and saw that the President of the United States “was gonna give it up.” “They say they got another man to take his place / But I don’t think that he can satisfy the human race.”
—James Brown had been more slightly optimistic about Gerald Ford on “Funky President,” which peaked at #44 on the last chart of 1974.
During the 16 months when Watergate was at its peak, the pop charts were notable for their escapism. The most topical record of the times might have been “The Streak,” Ray Stevens’ #1 novelty hit. Compared to Vietnam, Watergate lagged far behind as an inspiration to artists.
Four decades later, the careful tuning of political radar makes it unlikely than an anti-Trump song could become a radio hit at all, let alone reach #1. And while we might hope that Trump will fall as Nixon did, it’s hard to be optimistic right now. In Nixon’s day, members of his own party declared that certain lines could not be crossed, which led to discussions of impeachment and Nixon’s eventual resignation. In contrast, today’s Congressional Republicans haven’t done nothin’.