Can involvement in music really give politicians the cool credentials they seek?
Campaign harmony: the risks politicians run with music references
It’s a sad sight: a remorseful-looking Charlie Crist, former governor of Florida, making a heartfelt apology on video to the musician David Byrne for illegally using his Talking Heads song Road to Nowhere in his 2010 Senate campaign, and pledging to “respect and uphold the rights of artists, and obtain permission, or a licence, for the use of any copyrighted work.”
The video, which had to be posted to YouTube as part of Byrne’s settlement, is nothing short of humiliating and an object lesson for statesmen in treating with caution any temptation to harness the street cred of musicians to make political gains. John McCain’s bid for the White House in 2008 was another fine example, hampered by Jackson Brown, Van Halen, Heart and John Mellencamp urging him to stop using their tracks as campaign tunes. And when Britain’s new prime minister professed a fondness for a legendary indie band last year, it backfired embarrassingly. “David Cameron, stop saying that you like the Smiths,” responded their guitarist, Johnny Marr. “No you don’t, I forbid you to like it,” he said on Twitter.
Yet where an authentic love of for music exists, politicians can gain real respect. When the little-known Scottish singer-songwriter Alan McKim flew to Estonia for a showcase gig last month, his prime objective was to catch the eye of international journalists and promoters. During his performance, McKim failed to notice a smart older gentleman sitting quietly in the corner, who would go on to write a glowing review. McKim, the mystery man suggested, is an “exciting artist” who is “much more interesting than, say, David Gray, even though the chord progressions were sometimes quite similar.”
The reviewer, it turned out, was Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s president, whose presence McKim found out about only after the show. “I couldn’t stop laughing,” he said. “If that was to happen in the UK it’d be a high-security affair, but apparently it’s much more chilled out in Estonia. I suppose if anyone’s going to approve of your music in a new country you’re playing in, it might as well be the president.”
Indeed, and it proved a useful publicity fillip for McKim’s fledgling career. His label immediately bashed out a press release and the Glasgow and music press have both lapped it up, ensuring that McKim will have an interested crowd in attendance for his EP launch later this month. And Ilves’s reputation has suffered no harm as a result of helping to put Estonia’s Tallinn Music Week on the industry map. .
In fact, genuine enthusiasm and a modicum of talent can win over even the most illustrious bands. When another Baltic leader, the Latvian prime minister Ivars Godmanis, hosted a reception for the rockers Queen in 2008, it emerged in conversation that, to relax, he played the drums. One thing led to another and at the subsequent concert Godmanis took over from Roger Taylor, the band’s regular sticksman, for a version of the old Free hit All Right Now. It became the moment Godmanis is best known for internationally.
Western musicians are particularly feted in the old Eastern Bloc, where foreign rock was once so hard to get hold of, and another veteran British outfit have been given the red-carpet treatment in recent weeks. The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was a childhood fan of Deep Purple, and began a lavish reception for the band by playing one of their old tapes, then watched his 15-year-old son jam with them on guitar. “When I started listening to Deep Purple I could not imagine that I would be sitting here with you at this table like this,” mused the emotional head of state.
The premier with the closest rock star links also grew up behind the old Iron Curtain, and could certainly hold his own creatively. The poet and playwright Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia’s 10th and final president in 1989, and one of his first acts was an invitation to the experimental US rocker Frank Zappa. So revered was Zappa in Czechoslovakia that Havel then appointed him Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism, which upset some regular western dignitaries. “You can do business with the United States,” responded the US secretary of state James Baker, “or you can do business with Frank Zappa.” Zappa had previously criticised Baker’s wife.
Havel was also a fan and friend of the former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed, and they occasionally shared a stage, although Havel wisely stuck with speech; as his old contemporary Boris Yeltsin discovered, misguided musical performances can damage your credentials. In 1994, the beleaguered Russian president jumped on stage at a German festival, sang, danced and attempted to conduct a brass band. Such undignified antics hastened his departure from office, but they also earned him the support of an upstart indie band from Missouri, US.
“He was disgraced and his life was in ruins, all of Russia hated him,” said Philip Dickey, the frontman for Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, as he explained how the band came by the curious name. “I was driving home from the mall with my mom when I thought of it. It just seemed that this man had a wife and kids, and maybe a million people hated him, but there was still someone, somewhere who loved him.”
The Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has generally cultivated a more serious, macho image, so his decision to hit the stage last December also raised eyebrows. At a charity event in St Petersburg, Putin kicked off with a childlike stab at the piano then warbled through the old Fats Domino number Blueberry Hill, as confused-looking celebrities tried manfully to clap along. At least he didn’t dance.
Elsewhere the corridors of power resonate with a more confident tinkling of the ivories. The former US presidents Harry S Truman and Richard Nixon were also keen pianists; if the latter had only accompanied some passing rock bands his popularity might have improved immeasurably.
Think of musical presidents and one name generally leaps to mind: Bill Clinton, the man who brought sax appeal to the White House. That saxophone was a useful tool as Clinton courted the youth vote on the 1993 election trail – a performance on the trendy Arsenio Hall Show, behind dark sunglasses, made a particular impact – but he genuinely enjoyed a jam. When Havel took him to a Czech jazz club in 1994, the impromptu session ended up as a bootleg CD.
Clinton’s close ally across the Atlantic was less renowned for his musical prowess, but also used rock to win votes. Tony Blair played guitar in a university band called Ugly Rumours and in 1997 sailed into office on a wave of goodwill from members of the vibrant “Britpop” movement, among them Blur’s Damon Albarn and Oasis’s Noel Gallagher. Albarn quickly distanced himself from Blair’s Labour Party, but Blur’s drummer, Dave Rowntree, is now a regular Labour election candidate, albeit unsuccessfully thus far.
Several artists have helped raise the bar for political musicianship by filling auspicious cabinet positions. The singer, guitarist and songwriter Gilberto Gil climbed Brazil’s political ladder to become the minister for culture in 2003 (Gil was once in a performance troupe called Sons of Gandhi, and the great Indian leader was also musically inclined: he played the concertina). And Peter Garrett, a minister in Australia’s House of Representatives, initially found fame in the band Midnight Oil, who scored a worldwide hit with the protest song Beds are Burning in 1987.
The most successful exponent of both politics and music is probably Edward Heath. British prime minister for just one term, from 1970-74, he installed a grand piano at 10 Downing Street, conducted some of the world’s finest orchestras and recorded several classical CDs. He even moonlighted as a church and cathedral organist while he was a cabinet minister.
Was he respected by other musicians? Well, Yehudi Menuhin was a close personal friend and even wrote the foreword to Heath’s 1997 book: Music: A Joy for Life. That just about trumps Noel Gallagher.
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