35 Years Ago: The Beach Boys Face Surprising July 4 Ban
Politician James G. Watt had already carved himself a reputation for being controversial and outspoken by the time he outdid himself by taking on the Beach Boys in 1983.
President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior had been in office for two years and was known as an anti-environmentalist who once vowed to “mine more, drill more, cut more timber,” and upset many conservation bodies in the process. But Watt achieved a new height of hatred when he went after Brian Wilson’s band on April 5, 1983.
The Beach Boys had marked Independence Day at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1980, 1981 and 1982, performing to large audiences each time, and it had been expected that a fourth appearance would take place. Watt, however, had other ideas – without naming the band directly, he announced that no more rock acts would take part on July 4, saying they attracted “the wrong element.” “We’re not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism, as was done in the past,” he said.
Watch the Beach Boys Perform in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 1980
It could be argued that Watt had a point. By the early ‘80s, the Beach Boys had been struggling with both drug abuse and alcoholism for some time. Drummer Dennis Wilson (who would be dead by the end of the year) and singer Mike Love had taken out restraining orders against each other. Guitarist Carl Wilson had only just rejoined after quitting in protest against the group's reliance on catalog material. And Brian Wilson had been fired the previous November in a desperate attempt to force him to deal with his addiction issues.
In response to Watt’s claim that they’d be replaced by a “wholesome” event, the Beach Boys argued that they were indeed wholesome. “We sing about patriotic themes," Love noted. "Like ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’” They even pointed out that the Soviet Union had invited them to play in Leningrad in 1978 and the former Cold War enemy “did not feel that the group attracted the wrong element.”
It probably wasn’t the band’s comments that landed Watt in deep water; it was almost certainly the comments of his bosses. Vice President George H.W. Bush described the Beach Boys as “my friends” and added, “I like their music.” First Lady Nancy Reagan apologized to the group on behalf of the White House. The Department of the Interior was said to have received 40,000 complaint calls. On April 7, two days after Watt had introduced his ban, the president reversed it. But press coverage of the dispute had led to increased interest in the band, and they had secured another booking for July 4 that year.
By way of resolving the situation, they were instead invited to play at the White House on June 13 at an event marking the 15th anniversary of the Special Oympics. “I just wanted … to thank the Beach Boys for coming here on this very special occasion,” Reagan told the crowd. “We were looking forward to seeing them on the Fourth of July – I’m glad they got here early.”
Watch Ronald Reagan Mark a Beach Boys Appearance in 1983
Normal Beach Boys service was resumed on Independence Day 1984, by which time Watt had been presented with a plaster foot with a hole in it by his colleagues and then was forced to resign after being heard making bigoted remarks. He later admitted that he’d never even heard of the group when he banned them. “If it wasn’t ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ I didn’t recognize the song,” he said.
Responding to the fact that he wound up being introduced at speaking events as “The man who had the courage to ban the Beach Boys,” even though he hadn’t specifically done that, Watt later reflected, “Do I try to correct the record or do I take the applause? I take the applause!”