When Donald Trump finished his blustery acceptance speech at the Republican conventions, rock and roll from 1969-70 filled the convention hall. Among millions of other Americans, I was perplexed by the choice of tracks. But now I think I get it.
There’s a long history of weird and often inappropriate songs being used as campaign theme songs.
For years, the Democrats used Franklin Roosevelt’s theme song, “Happy Days are Here Again,” regardless of the fit with the occasion. The last time it was featured was the catastrophic 1968 convention in Chicago, as antiwar protesters were gassed and beaten in the streets by police.
Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in 1984, seemingly unaware of the song’s grim lyric. The Boss told him to cease and desist, though it might have been better to let him keep playing it through the campaign.
Four years later, George Bush the First appropriated Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at the convention. Woody was spinning in his grave. The Republicans omitted the verse…
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
When Pete Seeger sang it at Barack Obama’s inauguration, the verse was restored.
The same year, Michael Dukakis featured Neil Diamond’s cumbersome epic ballad “Coming to America.” His campaign was equally cumbersome, and people tuned out for the later verses.
Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” echoed from Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech through to election night. For those of us who watched that campaign, the song is forever linked to Bill and Hillary.
But when we come to 2016, Trump’s song selection puts all of these to shame.
As the balloons dropped in Cleveland, the opening strains of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” rang out. Really? TV commentators immediately began commenting on the “odd choice of music” (Judy Woodruff). At first, I was annoyed that he would dare appropriate a classic Stones song for his angry, bigoted campaign. Then I started thinking about the message.
“You can’t always get what you want.” Right. “You’ll find, you get what you need…” OK, so you’re saying that neither you nor Hillary are what we want, but we’ll have to settle for what we need. Thanks for telling us, Donald, but I’m not sure that really helps you. Because, honestly, you are not what we need.
It was weird watching the balloons drop as Mick sang about standing in line behind Mr. Jimi, who said one word to him, and that was “dead.” And then thinking about the central place the song had at the disastrous Altamont festival, which wasn’t much worse in tone than the Republican convention. (Read about it in my pal Joel Selvin’s new book, “Altamont.”)
But then a second song filled the air, louder and more insistent: Free’s “All Right Now.”
The song was a minor hit in the summer of 1970, thanks mostly to a catchy, thrashing guitar hook. I used to play it, loud, driving around my mom’s car with friends, windows rolled down, hoping people would look askance at our slightly rowdy selves. It sometimes worked.
The lyrics of “All Right Now” are something else entirely. It’s a song about a really bad date. A guy pursues an attractive girl, talks her into going home with him, and he proclaims his love for her, to which she pretty much says “are you kidding me?” and leaves. This is what Trump wants us to think about as he leaves the stage in Cleveland?
In retrospect, I suspect that some clever convention planner who didn’t particularly like Trump told him “Hey, Mr. Trump, these are two great old songs that everybody loves, let’s use them!” And Donald said “Great idea!” and the planner is still laughing about it.
The two songs are perfect.
Read about our music and our lives in 1969-70 in Some Way Outa Here.