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Music History #9: "Watergate Blues"

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“Watergate Blues”
Written and performed by Tom T. Hall (1973)

The Music

Back in the early days of country music, songs were often like newspaper articles, written and sung to spread the news of some topical event. In 1973, country storyteller-songwriter Tom T. Hall revisited this idea with “Watergate Blues.” In three minutes, Hall sums up the entire 1972 election, and the subsequent break-in and wire-tapping of the Democratic National Committee that exploded into the political scandal of the century. Hall’s song was never a big hit, but it was a concert favorite during the time. (You can hear it here.)

The History

The run-up to the presidential election of 1972 was typically nasty. Democratic candidate George McGovern’s first choice running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was forced off the ticket when it was discovered that he’d had a history of depression. Republicans suggested there had been “shock therapy” involved and that was the end of Eagleton. Conservative pundits also pinned a damaging slogan on McGovern, claiming he was for “amnesty, abortion and acid” (McGovern had suggested that possession of small amounts of marijuana be treated as a misdemeanor, and that was twisted into his supposed support for “acid”).

On June 17, 1972, in Washington, D.C., five men were arrested for trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. (Watergate, often remembered as a hotel, actually included an odd variety of businesses, from a museum of paleontology to an armor repair center.) The idea for the break-in came from one of Nixon’s underlings, G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy was the type of guy who, at a party, would hold his hand directly into a candle flame for laughs. For him, burglarizing and wire-tapping were a necessary means to an end – namely, driving the Democratic party into shambles.

Though a GOP security aide was among the burglars, the Nixon camp initially denied any link to the Watergate break-in. But after a $25,000 cashier’s check, earmarked for the Nixon campaign, ended up in the account of one of the burglars, the hunt was on.

None of this affected Nixon in the voting booths, and he trounced McGovern in November 1972.

But Watergate didn’t go away. Over the next two years, relentless investigation by the FBI, a grand jury, a senate committee, a special prosecutor and two newspaper reporters revealed an undercover operation that brought down the Nixon administration.

Deep Throat

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had a secret informant on Capitol Hill. Their editor dubbed this source “Deep Throat,” as a nod to a porn movie that was controversial at the time. The reporters met Deep Throat several times in an underground parking garage in Washington, D.C., at 2 am, and got leads for their investigation. What did Deep Throat get in return? The satisfaction of protecting the justice system from presidential abuse, according to Woodward. But thirty years later, when Deep Throat’s identity was revealed as William Mark Felt, a former Deputy Director of the FBI, several books speculated that he was angling for the FBI Director’s job. The leaks did hurt Director L. Patrick Gray, a friend of Nixon’s who’d been chosen over Felt, but Felt never got the coveted position.

Whatever his motivation, Deep Throat’s tips helped Woodward and Bernstein piece together the convoluted puzzle of the Watergate break-in.

By early 1973, heads were rolling. In January, two former Nixon aides, Liddy and James McCord, were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping. Two months later, top White House staffers H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, all resigned.

“I Am Not A Crook”

The summer of 1973 featured the televised Senate Watergate hearings, a political cultural spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in America. The star of the show was folksy Democratic senator Sam Ervin. Grilling all the President’s men, and spouting lines like, “I think this is the greatest tragedy this country has ever suffered,” Ervin became the mouthpiece for America’s growing disillusionment over a corrupt government.

If Nixon never knew about the initial break-in (in one of his famous televised denials, he said, “I am not a crook”), he was actively involved in both the cover-up and trying to plug the continuous leaks of information coming from his administration. Especially after a damning testimony by White House aide Alexander Butterfield, who revealed that all of Nixon’s conversations with his staff were tape-recorded, and those tapes still existed.

From then on, Nixon’s daily life became, like Tom T. Hall’s song title, a non-stop Watergate Blues.

Nixon Resigns

Suddenly, everyone was after those tapes. Nixon didn’t want to give them up. His solution, which he presented to the American people in a televised news conference, was to release transcripts of the tapes. It was a stall that only worked for a while. In a Supreme Court ruling, Nixon was forced to hand over all the tapes to investigators. The tapes revealed in no uncertain terms the corruption of the administration.

Pressure against Nixon grew. Even staunch supporters abandoned him. The House of Representatives were poised to recommend Impeachment proceedings. Then on August 9th, 1974, Nixon resigned the presidency.

Many of his top aides went to prison. Nixon was pardoned by the next president, Gerald Ford.

http://youtu.be/lzXL7C0JQDM

The Legacy

Forty years later, some believe that Watergate marks a turning point when America lost its innocence and became cynical (though the same was said of JFK’s assassination). It helped usher in the bitter, angry, polarized politics we see now, the cause of all the paralysis in government, along with a new, aggressive attitude of the media.

But there was a positive side to Watergate. It proved that our system can work. As nasty as the whole affair became, the Constitution and the law ultimately prevailed over the excesses of corrupt politicians (despite Nixon’s pardon, 69 government officials were charged, and 48 were found guilty).

To the day he died in 1994, Nixon claimed he was innocent of any wrongdoing in Watergate.

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Pop Culture
How Phil Collins Accidentally Created the Sound That Defined 1980s Music
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Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Unless your technical knowledge of music runs deep, you may have never heard the phrase “gated reverb.” But you’ve definitely heard the effect in action: It’s that punchy snare drum sound that first gained traction in music in the 1980s. If you can play the drum beat from “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince or “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen in your head, you know what sound we’re referring to.

But that iconic element of pop might not have emerged if it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. As Vox lays out in its new video, the discovery was made in 1979 during the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (often called Melt because of its cover art). Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins was playing the drums as usual when his beats were accidentally picked up by the microphone used by audio engineers to talk to the band. That microphone wasn’t meant to record music—its heavy compressors were designed to turn down loud sounds while amplifying quiet ones. The equipment also utilized a noise gate, which meant the recorded sounds were cut off shortly after they started. The result was a bright, fleeting percussive sound unlike anything heard in popular music.

Gabriel loved the effect, and made it the signature sound on the opening track of his album. A year later, Collins featured it in his hit single “In the Air Tonight,” perhaps the most famous example of gated reverb to date.

The sound would come to define music of the 1980s and many contemporary artists continue to use it today. Get the full history of gated reverb below.

[h/t Vox]

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entertainment
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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