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The Secretary of the Interior Once Banned Rock Bands From the National Mall

James Watt, who was outed from office in the early 1980s, said the only songs he knew were ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Amazing Grace’

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan meet with the Beach Boys a few months after Reagan's Secretary of the Interior announced that rock bands attracted "the wrong element." (White House Photo/Reagan Library/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On April 6, 1983, then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt announced that no rock bands would be playing at the July 4 concert on the Washington Mall.

This came as a surprise to many, particularly Beach Boys fans. The Boys had played both the 1980 and 1981 celebrations, according to the Reading Eagle. According to Bob Cannon for Entertainment Weekly in 1993, "Watt, with mentioning the Boys by name, unabashedly announced that all rock bands attracted 'the wrong element' and opted for a 'wholesome' program with Wayne Newton. 'We’re not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism,' Watt sniffed, 'as was done in the past.'"

Watt had been a controversial figure more or less ever since his appointment to the position. In an article published a few months after he was appointed, The Washington Post referred to him as a “heavy-handed” politician whose goal was in his own words to “undo 50 years of bad government.”

Watt’s decision was met with outcry by everybody from the Boys themselves to Nancy Reagan, Cannon writes, and the White House phone lines were crowded with calls.

“After it came out that first lady Nancy Reagan was a Beach Boys fan, White House staffers awarded Watt a plaster foot with a hole in it, emblematic of having shot himself in the foot,” the Eagle records.

Lead singer Mike Love said the Beach Boys, by now a vintage act, were entirely wholesome. “We sing about patriotic themes—like ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.,’” he said.

The Beach Boys were eventually invited to play, but all the coverage of Watt’s remarks had given them a career boost, and the band was already booked elsewhere for July 4. As the secretary of the interior had wanted, Wayne Newton played what was according to the Eagle a rainy Fourth of July gathering. Although the gig was interrupted by thunderstorms, Newton played a dozen songs and made no direct reference to the controversy.

After the incident, Watt said he hadn’t known who the Beach Boys were. “If it wasn’t ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ I didn’t recognize the song,” he said. No word on what he did with the plaster statue commemorating his unwise choices.

It wasn’t the only moment in his career where his tone-deafness would have consequences. Watt was forced to resign just months later, after he made racist, sexist and ableist remarks.

As for July 4, 1983, it sounds like quite a night on the National Mall. Taking place in the midst of a thunderstorm, writes the Eagle, the fireworks were “even more spectacular” than usual: “Streaks of lightning shot through the clouds as the air bursts went off, drawing choruses of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the drenched crowd."

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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