• Remembering when The Beach Boys were the most controversial thing on the National Mall on July 4th
• That time Ronald Reagan stood up for Rock n’ Roll
• The Malling of America was a best-selling book in 1985. Just a trivia fact
It appears to some that, with a speech at the Lincoln Memorial, a flyover of military jets, and an expanded fireworks display (read warfare simulation), our current president wants to turn the Washington, DC, celebration of Independence Day into Incompetent President’s Day.
The controversy stirred up over this reminded me that 34 years ago, I got sent to cover the annual celebration on the National Mall. It was a night not to remember, in contrast to what some people may today be trying hard to forget.
Why did ABC Radio News want me and my mic there? Good question. In part, because the Beach Boys were controversial, believe it or not. They had played on the Mall on July 4th in 1980, ’81 and ’82. But in April of 1983, a wacko member of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, Interior Secretary James Watt – who was an anti-environmentalist – announced that no more rock bands would ever appear on the Mall because they attracted “the wrong element.” (And you thought President Trump pioneered the bizzaro cabinet concept!)
After Vice President George Bush and First Lady Nancy Reagan came to the defense of the Beach Boys, President Reagan overturned Watts’ ban. But the band had already booked another gig.
All was forgiven when the Beach Boys returned in 1984 to the Mall on the Fourth. Why wasn’t I sent to that event? Beats me. I might have been on another assignment or on vacation. Nonetheless, the following year someone decided the 1985 concert and fireworks were still newsworthy enough to send The Reporter on the Road down.
What a snooze.
The lineup included the Four Tops, Katrina and the Waves, Joan Jett and Jimmy Page, late of Led Zeppelin. The Beach Boys first played in Philadelphia in the afternoon, with Page sitting in on Chuck Berry’s “Lucille.” You can see that here, courtesy of MTV:
Then they either took a train, as MTV’s Alan Hunter says in that clip, or flew (American Airlines was a sponsor) to Washington. All I remember is being on a bus from a hotel to the Mall with the band and interviewing Page while we crawled through traffic. He wasn’t a great interview, as I recall, and finding a good soundbite wasn’t easy.
The weather was brutally hot and humid, and then a huge thunderstorm delayed the concert. I did get a chance to talk with Joan Jett, a much better interview, and get a photo of her and me.
I was wearing the ugliest Hawaiian shirt I could find, in keeping with the beach-y theme. The K-Mart shirt was made of the most plastic-intensive polyester fibers a lab ever concocted. If lighting had struck, I would have melted from the outside in.
The concert was mediocre at best. I grew up loving the Beach Boys and surf music, but by that time they were falling apart like a cheap suit and their greatest hits performances were rote, and to me, just sad. I did my best to file reports that sounded enthusiastic and patriotic but I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel, the AC and the cold shower.
Interestingly, there seems to be no rock n’ roll scheduled for the 2019 celebration, only military bands. One can be thankful, I guess, that the president didn’t invite Kanye West, Kid Rock and Ted Nugent to jam with him.