Presidents Who Rock

In this feature Ultimate-Guitar takes a look at the strange and sometimes hilarious role music - rock 'n' roll, in particular - has played in political theater.

Ultimate Guitar

Since he began drawing stadium crowds during his successful bid for the U.S. presidency, Barack Obama has been called a rock star. That he has achieved this rare distinction without OD'ing, tossing a TV set out a window or demanding that brown M&Ms be removed from his dressing room truly underscores the magnitude of his celebrity.

With a BlackBerry chock full of names such as Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Billy Joel, Jay-Z, Kanye West, John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, among others (all of whom either endorsed or served as opening acts for the now 44th President of the United States), Obama has the rock world on speed-dial in a way that would make most music moguls green with envy.

But the link between presidents and musicians extends far beyond the current leader of the free world, and in this feature Ultimate-Guitar takes a look at the strange and sometimes hilarious role music - rock 'n' roll, in particular - has played in political theater.

John F. Kennedy (USA)

With his matinee idol looks and pre-Beatles mop top, Kennedy was cool -- and that rhymes with pool, which means youve got trouble in River City, mister. Years before Vampire Weekend were mere sparkles in their mothers eyes, Jack was partying in Cape Cod, Marthas Vineyard -- all the cool hangs. And he had girls -- dames they called them back then -- under his thumb, desk and everywhere else long before Mick Jagger told anyone to get off his cloud. Along with his brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford, JFK spent wild nights with Ol' Blues himself, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe. (Legend has it that Lawford and Sinatra introduced the screen siren to Kennedy, resulting in the kind of staff meetings that Bill Clinton could only dream about.)

Kennedy would eventually cut ties with both Monroe and Sinatra. With Monroe, it was to avoid a frying pan to the head from Mrs. Kennedy; in the case of Sinatra, Frankie's alleged mob ties played a major part. Let's face it: sleeping in the dog house is one thing; sleeping with the fishes is something else altogether.

Video: Marilyn Monroe sings Happy Birthday to John F. Kennedy

Richard M. Nixon (USA)

Despite his granite mug and stiff demeanor, Tricky Dick was a huge music fan and a grade C player, as evidenced on this clip

from the Jack Parr show in which he displays his not-so-blistering chops at the 88s. (Note the gap in the audio - Nixon was already prepping for the Watergate tapes, it seems.)

Although Nixon's taste ran decidedly classical, he did host one notable rocker in the White House: the King himself. On December 21, 1970, Ol' Swivel Hips and I-Am-Not-A-Crook had a sit down (during which Presley, knowing the President to be a stable and sober type, gifted Nixon with a gun), the purposes of which seemed to baffle the perpetually baffled Commander In Chief.

As it turns out, the King, decked out in a funky cape and sporting a Pootie Tang belt, wanted to obtain a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge (may the avalanche of irony begin) and to be appointed a Federal Agent at Large.

In the Elvis's drug-addled view, hippie groups like the Beatles were corrupting America's youth. Worse still, they were taking dough from hard-working U.S. of A citizens, going back to England and stirring up anti-American sentiments. (It is not known how many pharmacies Elvis consumed on this particular day, but from the loopy expression on his face, you couldve hit him with a tire iron and he wouldnt have felt a thing, In fact, he would've said, Thank you. Thankyouverymuch.)

And guess what? Even Nixon didn't buy it. He told Elvis that the singer needed to retain his credibility. (Translation: You're a freaky rock star, Elvis. You're supposed to take drugs. I, on the other hand, am supposed to be the square. Not, leave me to my double whiskey and scram!)

Here's a rare video of the meeting between President Nixon and Elvis Presley.

Gerald Ford (USA)

While it is unclear how much U.S. President Ford rocked, the man could certainly roll -- over desks, pesky ottomans and, most famously, the staircase leading to Air Force One.

Musically, he let his son Jack do the real rocking, and the younger Ford used his fleeting fame to host a luncheon in 1974 and invite former Beatle George Harrison, on tour at the time, to the White House to break bread. Or maybe it was papadum, as Harrison brought along his good friend, Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, along with keyboardist Billy Preston.

As evidenced in this photo, it was a day of big lapels and big hair. Harrison gamely put on a WIN button (Ford's motto at the time was Whip Inflation Now) while Ford put on a IHNIWTPA button (which stands for I Have No Idea Who These People Are).

Jimmy Carter (USA)

The 39th President of the United States is actually a distant cousin of Elvis Presley, so right out of the gate he boasts more rocker cred than most folks.

Before he became president, Carter was a successful peanut farmer, but while in office, he played host to one of his musical heroes and a fan of a different crop altogether, Willie Nelson.

Legend has it that Nelson, on one of his visits to the White House, made his way to the roof and sparked up what he called a big fat Austin torpedo -- that's code speak for a giant freakin' joint. Apparently, the Secret Service turned a blind eye. Or maybe they passed the Dutchie on the left hand side. We can only assume there was nothing in their training manuals for this kind of thing.

Years later, Carter and Nelson took their show on the road and played a concert to honor Nobel Peace Prize winners (of which Carter was a recipient). Check out Jimmy's skillful harmonica playing on "Georgia on My Mind". Just think: If the whole politics thing never worked out, he could've made a decent harp player for his distant cuz.

Ronald Reagan (USA)

Reagan might have been a serviceable B actor in his day, but when it came to music, the U.S.'s 40th President had literally no feel whatsoever. Check out this clip in which Reagan, welcoming the King of Self-Deification, Michael Jackson, reads from a script just handed to him. His writers, desperate for the prez to look down with the kids, worked in many Jacko song titles that you're waiting for Reagan to break into Vincent Price's Thriller rap. Hey, at least he didn't moonwalk.

A year later, while campaigning in New Jersey for a second term, Reagan shamelessly tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen's lyrics from the song Born in the U.S.A. to somehow reflect his own warped view of patriotism.

(Apparently, the President's speechwriters were either clueless or neglected to tell Reagan that the song was a bitter anti-war screed.) Springsteen would issue a harsh rebuke of the president for his nutty mangling of the song's message. Reagan later issued an apology, admitting that he had stopped listening to Springsteen after he wrote that song about being wrapped up like a douche.'

Boris Yeltsin (Russia)

Russian President Boris Yeltsin left his mark on the music world in so many indelible ways (telling Run-DMC to get with the rock-rap thing? That was him!), one would need several chapters to list them all. As the first popularly elected President of the Soviet Republic, he won plaudits for casting himself as a democrat, but it was in dancing where he truly excelled -- and make no mistake, the big bear of a man never missed an excuse to show off his happy feat. That he might have been under the influence of vodka, whiskey, bourbon, Scotch, gin, Coors Lite or that old standby, grain alcohol, could be one reason for his passion for random dancing. That he was simply one crazy footloose dude is a more widely held opinion.

Check out this clip, in which Good Time Boris whips into dance fever for no apparent reason at all -- he doesn't even let the absence of music break-a his stride.

Yeltsin's ascendancy to absolute (Absolut?) Lord Of The Dance status, however, is best displayed in this video in which he rocks the sure-shot to Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Talk about unbridled zeal. Or something.

It is said that, had the Cold War not already ended, this one heartstring-tugging moment in time could have affected what world leaders struggled for years to achieve. And in its own unique -- OK, its downright idiotic -- way, it does make us feel that we are One. (Warning: The audio is LOUD, so turn down your volume before viewing. And should you feel the need to get all old-school and do your own Peanut Butter Jelly Time dance, hey, we totally understand. Really.)

Vladamir Putin (Russia)

We all knew that Russian's second president and current prime minister was hardcore when it came to martial arts and anything else involving taking his shirt off, but hardcore rap -- who would thunk it?

During a recent appearance on a Russian hip-hop TV show, Putin boasted of his rap roots: how he taught Jam Master J to scratch; how he once bitch-slapped Vanilla Ice for gross, unforgivable lameness; and how 50 Cent is a big pussy for only getting shot nine times. Where I come from, Putin said, you ain't street unless you get capped 12, 13 times at least.

But Putin did lay down some positive messages for Russia's youth, stating that hip-hop can actually work as a cure for alcoholism, drug addiction and violence.

"I do not think that the 'top-rock' or 'floor-rock' break dance technique is compatible with alcohol or drugs," Putin said, speaking of problems that are rampant among the country's youth.

And with that, he whipped off his shirt and did some mad-yo head spinning. Like we said, the man's hardcore.

George Bush Sr. (USA)

The man doesn't rock. Never did. Never will. He didn't even know enough to take Bono's phone call during the Zoo TV concert tour.

Bill Clinton (USA)

Second only to JFK, Bill Clinton was a president who truly knew how to live the rock star life: he ate more Big Macs than Elvis, had groupies stashed away in every corner of the White House and he even played peacemaker amongst musicians - Fleetwood Mac reunited to play his inauguration.

Most importantly, however, Bubba knows a thing or two about blowing -- the sax, that is. As a teenager, he studied the licks of John Coltrane and Stan Getz, and for a time he even considered a career in music. But politics beckoned, and wouldn't you just know it? - the dude up and got himself elected as the 42nd President of the United States.

Even so, music was coursing through his veins, and an opportunity to bust out his brass always met with the same result: Mission Accomplished.

And the man can sing, too! Check him out dueting with 16-year old Israeli phenomena Liel on a positively stirring rendition of John Lennon's Imagine.

Let's see any of the Bush clan top that!

George Bush Jr. (USA)

Speaking of the Bushes, when it came to rocking, it appears they were born with both left feet and tin ears. True, the younger Bush did have a sit down with Bono to discuss aid to Africa (angering other members of U2, who openly loathed Bush 43), but when it came time to stepping, the best he could do was a lame attempt at Livin' La Vida Loca with the stupendously awful Ricky Martin.

Bush Jr would later remark that it was a real gas sharing the stage with Ricky Ricardo. Can you say, Epic Fail!?

Dmitry Medvedev (Russia)

Scores of world leaders have had their visages immortalized in rock, but how many can say they own a copy Deep Purple's 1970 hard rock classic In Rock -- and on vinyl, no less?

Answer: Russia's current president, Dmitry Medvedev.

As a child, Medvedev was an obsessive music collector, making tapes of groups likes Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and his beloved Deep Purple at a time when records of this nature were still verboten in the then Soviet Republic. "The quality was awful, he said of the copies he was able to obtain, but my interest colossal.

At some point Medvedev must've gotten his hands on a turntable (not two, and no microphone, we can assume), because in a recent interview he stated that , "vinyl really sounds better than CDs." Hey -- he's a purist. Makes him so much cooler.

Now that Western music is freely available in Russia, Medvedev can indulge his love of hard rock and heavy metal to his heart's content. And he even got a chance to hang with his heroes, Deep Purple (Mach VII or VIII -- who's counting?), during a recent concert in Russia. While we're not sure if he jammed with the band on Highway Star, he did pose for a picture. (Hint: He's the happy-go-lucky guy in the middle.)

Andry Rajoelina (Madagascar)

When the people of Madagascar decided they needed a new president (the twice-elected Marc Ravalomanana was ousted), they knew they needed a fresh face. Somebody with bold, new ideas. Somebody who would move the African island's economy forward in ways not bound by tradition.

They needed a DJ.

That's right: Andry Rajoelina, who at 34 is not only Madagascar's youngest president, is also a disc jockey, having gotten his start spinning wax at private clubs and parties.

While it is true that he comes from a well-heeled family, was private educated and ran a successful advertising agency, it is his mixmaster throwdowns that are already the stuff of legend.

How many presidents do you know can mash up the Ohio Players with Dolly Parton, throw in a little Phoenix, back it all the way down to The Archies and ramp it up to The Prodigy?

Only one prodigy: Andry Rajoelina.

Barack Obama (USA)

Which brings us back to Barack Obama. His knowledge of pop culture is, of course, assured. And the man knows how to throw a party, too: His inauguration celebration saw performers such as Stevie Wonder, U2, Sheryl Crow, Usher,, John Mellencamp, among many others, give it up for the incoming prez.

But can he give as good as he gets? Can he walk the walk and talk the talk? Can he lead not just by association but by example? In other words, can he rap?

The answer, a definitive Yes He Can! is on glorious display in this video.

Text by Joe Bosso Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009

111 comments sorted by best / new / date

    philwhite wrote: D Monster wrote: Obama=Socialist Obama=Communist If I work harder than you then I deserver better than you. And that is the way it should be.
    And it's totally like that right now, right? That's why you have fat cats with millions who have never done an honest day's work and poor people who work themselves to death just to put food on the table. I don't like to argue about government and politics on a guitar website but i just had to say something about that.
    so many butthurt people over a COMEDY article lets all go get pissed over what happens on SNL or MadTV now too!
    PEOPLE! Chill the hell out. It's a funny article that's all. It made no mention of policies and did not bash or show ANY political bias. The author just thinks that those presidents are "cooler". He's allowed to have an opinion on the personalities of other people.
    geez, Liberal much? If George Bush Jr. and Sr. dont rock, then why put them on here? Another left- wing hater
    josh999x wrote: Why no mention of tony blair's guitar playing? I suppose he couldn't play iron man though.
    Tony Blair is a prime minister
    Year Zero
    Actually the only president that really rocks on this list is JFK. The rest of them suck.
    I actually think George W. Bush Jr. rocked a hell of a lot more than a lot of the others on here, he's held up the metal horns (actually Texas Longhorns, but who cares?) and from a non-US point of view he was funny to watch - although alot of Americans porbably cringed. You should have just made it rulers who rocked. Tony Blair has a band, and the queen has a band named after her. Obama doesn't rock. Period. Communists as a whole don't rock.
    The ones who "rock" in this article, research their presidency, as apposed to the ones who didn't "rock" if you have a brain, you'll see the difference!
    Yo Obama I respect y'all and imma let you finish but Kanye west looks the best of all time in those glasses.
    The USA is starting to realize how bad Obama is doing though.
    saintxero wrote: Obviously Ultimate Guitar praises democrat presidents and hates on republican presidents....hmm
    Dr Funkenstein
    Former Aussie Prime Minister "Bob Hawk" once held the world record for the fastest drinking of a yardglass of beer. And as far as politicians go he was one of our best.
    Obviously Ultimate Guitar praises democrat presidents and hates on republican presidents....hmm
    Well naturally, all the Presidents listed would be from the Big Three. Russia, America and... Madagascar.
    looks like a socialist love fest. I'm no fan of bush 1 or 2 but good hell, who ever wrote this went out of their way to have an orgasm over the liberals while dismissing any one with an (R) by their name. Do I even need to get into the love fest of Communism?? why don't you quit watching Keith Oberman and just write about music!
    I am SO happy Al Gore didn't get elected right now, or this article would've been stained by one of those clips featuring his horrible wife behind the drums. Then again Al and Tipper Gore DID make their contribution to Rock & Roll by lobbying for those Parental Advisory labels we use nowadays to separate the wholesome records from the really cool ones...
    Ok lemme try to keep my cool here...BUT REALLY???!!!!...I thought "rocking" was about standing up for what you believe in, being strong, and basically giving everyone who disapproves of you a big "F*ck You!"...apparently i'm wrong; i guess it's about either being a democrat or a communist (If there's a difference between the two). How come they bash the Bushes (Both of whom i am not a big fan of) so hard in this article; they both kicked the hell out of anyone who stood in their way (that means YOU, Saddam); what can possibly be more metal than that??? What is our country coming to???!!!
    It is obviously about being silly and fun and not facts because it isn't George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. If you wouldn't have been sucking the teats of 'Hope' from Obama you would know that it is George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, therefore not Sr/Jr because they have different middle names. Glad you can overlook facts to be silly and fun.
    I pretty sure Bush never said that. Bush isn't stupid, I have no idea why liberals think he is, they never have any proof as to why he is stupid. If you don't like his politics does that make him stupid? No. Quit drinking the Kool aid and hating Bush because "its cool and its what everyone else does". Maybe he would have been a good president if he ran around blowing tax payer dollars traveling and doing stupid stuff like Obama? Perhaps he would have been a good president if most of his policies were unconstitutional? Maybe if he was black he would have been a good president? BTW, most of that music isn't rock anyway.
    Elvis did not say those things because he was on drugs, he truly believed them having grown up in a small town and going to church regularly. Also the amount of partisanship in this article is almost that of MSNBC. Secondly saying Nixon was a bad president is understandable, however if one were to look at his actual presidential accomplishments, pulling the troops out of vietnam, something not taught in history books, one would overlook the fact that he illeagally investigated watergate. In regards to the article, I am saddened by the UG team and their decision to openly praise the "proggressives" in this country. I was hoping for a little less bias.
    lol @ the people who think those Russians are Communists, especially Putin and Medvediev.
    well, that was a wonderfully liberal article. (note to Ultimate Guitar) plz keep your political views to yourself and present musical news in an unbiased way. Thank you
    you know i love how everyone thinks its about politics... i didnt think about politics until someone mentioned it, so they MUST be hating huh? stop chuggin the hateraid and start laughing at funny things like this.
    Nixon meets Elvis was so much fun to watch haha. Did you guys know that Elvis actually brought a loaded gun into the White House as a gift? Hence, "Most Badass-ish Entertainer." The Bush family: Epic Fail xD
    "The president of the united states is not available to ME??" Wow.... he's implying that he is more important than the president. Obviously you can't call the white house and ask for george, and he knew it, it was just for show and to inspire comments like "bush doesnt rock he can't even answer bono's phone call"
    glasya wrote: I pretty sure Bush never said that. Bush isn't stupid, I have no idea why liberals think he is, they never have any proof as to why he is stupid. If you don't like his politics does that make him stupid? No. Quit drinking the Kool aid and hating Bush because "its cool and its what everyone else does". Maybe he would have been a good president if he ran around blowing tax payer dollars traveling and doing stupid stuff like Obama? Perhaps he would have been a good president if most of his policies were unconstitutional? Maybe if he was black he would have been a good president? BTW, most of that music isn't rock anyway.
    You are going to get flamed to hell and back again, but I say +1.
    "Bush Jr would later remark that it was a real gas sharing the stage with Ricky Ricardo. Can you say, Epic Fail!? " This statement alone makes it worth it. Either it is an intelligent jest of stupendous quality or the ramblings of a retard, which I will admit I tend to favor the latter. It doesn't make it not funny though. To anyone saying that politics don't belong in music. Rock on with Rage against the machine and their songs of wars in countries that most of their listeners could really care less about or Springsteen, the Beatles, or any other politically biased band. Face it, there is a reason why music is a "Liberal art" rather than a "Conservative art." Neutralism has no place in music. . . that is the only thing that there isn't room for.
    the political bias bla bla bla. lighten up Besty. politics is all up in music, listen to some Rage Against the Machine. but they shouldve left Bush off this list cuz he's weenie hahaha
    The political bias in this was horrible. I come to this website to read article about MUSIC and I end up reading something that belongs with MSNBC. Politics have NO place in music!
    Awokmyweewok wrote: What? No Andrew Jackson? The guy threw a kegger in the white house and shot a dude.
    I second your motion that he should be included.
    Crizzle wrote: Yo Obama I respect y'all and imma let you finish but Kanye west looks the best of all time in those glasses.
    I play guitar to relax and not have to think about stuff like politics. This was meant to be a silly article highlighting presidents' musical talent / connections with the music industry. Nowhere in this list is there an assesment or endorsement of any leaders' administration. Many of these comments are completely unwarranted.
    This is proof that this site is run by liberal douches. ...go praise our shitty ass president obama you ignorant fools.