Soundtrack to Watergate: Ziggy, Cheech, and Chong Hold Their Heads High

The music that accompanied the downfall of a president


There was a lot of anxiety on Main Street during the Watergate scandal. We will be posting music ads that appeared in the Voice from the period that started with the bungled burglary in June 1972 and ended in August 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned from office in the face of near-certain impeachment due to his self-dealing, corrupt practices, and obstruction of justice.

Those were heady times. The rock was classic — we just didn’t know it yet. And even as it was becoming canonical, it was also progressing. Or at least morphing into the technical virtuosity that characterized Prog rock.

We’ll start with a passel of ads from the early days of the scandal that brought Nixon down. Released one month before five men broke into the Democratic National headquarters in the Watergate Complex, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street set the musical tone for the coming national nightmare: two discs of warped, dirty Americana.

In support of Exile, the Stones had embarked on a 50-date American tour that made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The week before the Watergate break-in, 60 Stones fans were arrested outside the band’s San Diego show, while police used tear gas on hundreds more. Two nights after the inept burglars were caught in the act, the Stones were trashing the Playboy Mansion, in Chicago.

Although they were not as huge as the Stones, Argent had a major top-10 hit around the globe with “Hold Your Head Up.” We’re not sure, though, just what those surrealistic objects beyond that particular Door of Perception in their ad might be. Not pillows at least — Jefferson Airplane took care of that way back in 1967.

Bill Graham’s Fillmore East had had a brief but storied history: Located at 105 Second Avenue, it hosted all the legends of the era — Hendrix, the Doors, Miles Davis, the Bonzo Dog Band — before closing its doors in June 1971. Today, the space — a block from the Village Voice offices — is home to a bank.

Hits don’t get much more massive than “Lean on Me” — the Bill Withers classic topped the charts in June 1972. Just months earlier, Withers had won a Grammy for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and in July the R&B singer was scheduled to play a weeklong residency at the Bitter End.

Those with more highbrow tastes could attend a Mozart and Bach fest. (Nixon was a Bach fan, which writer Tom Carson touched on in his brilliant Voice obituary of the disgraced president: “ ‘Do you know why Bach is better than Brahms?’ the grizzled, not-a-­crook former president demanded of a star­tled Gary Hart not too many years ago, when they were seated together at a state funeral. ‘Bach is tougher than Brahms.’ ”)

If you wanted an evening of avant-garde inspiration, the New School was celebrating John Cage’s 60th birthday.

The Grateful Dead were also in town (well, actually, across the Hudson at Roosevelt Stadium). Nixon was gearing up for a final, typically dirty political campaign spearheaded by the minions of the CRP — Committee to Re-Elect the President — which became more popularly known as CREEP.

Jerry Garcia and the rest of the Dead wanted the youth of America to use their newly acquired right to vote, hopefully to turn Nixon out of office in November. That wouldn’t exactly work out.

Cheech and Chong were concerned with different numbers when they released their second album, Big Bambú, which reached No. 2 on the charts.

Finally, David Bowie was on his way to becoming the Man Who Fell to Earth. Released on the eve of the Watergate break-in, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was Bowie’s breakthrough: By 1974, the British showman would be big enough to inspire a look-alike contest … and Richard Nixon would be out of office.