“And if Secretary Watt does not recant, it is my hope that he goes on a permanent surfing safari.”
—Representative Thomas J. Downey of New York
The nation’s birthday is an event that annually unites Americans from all walks of life. But when a Cabinet Secretary tried to ban one of the most beloved rock groups of all time from playing a July Fourth concert on the National Mall in 1983, Members of the people’s House mounted a vigorous—and humorous—defense of the Beach Boys’ right to perform.
Holiday concerts featuring popular American artists, managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and the Capitol Police, had already become a standard for Fourth of July celebrations held on the National Mall and Capitol Grounds. But on April 6, 1983, James Watt, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, which includes the NPS, summarily told the Washington Post that rock music would be banned from that year’s Fourth of July celebrations. In its place, Watt declared, “Now on, July Fourth will be a [traditional ceremony] for the family and for solid, clean American lives.” To headline the revamped concert, Watt landed Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton, accompanied by the U.S. Army Blues Band.
Many Americans viewed Watt’s ban as a rebuke of the Beach Boys, whose West Coast music evoked all-American pursuits—cars, surfing, and romance—and had charted more Top-40 hits than any other U.S. band. The Beach Boys had performed in D.C.’s Fourth of July concerts in 1980 and 1981, but the Interior Secretary characterized their fans who’d packed the Mall as “the wrong element.”
Watt’s decree caused immediate backlash on the floor of the House. “Mr. Speaker,” said Representative Thomas J. Downey of New York, “I was deeply troubled, as I know other Members of Congress and people all across this country are, to learn that Secretary Watt has substituted Wayne Newton for the Beach Boys.” He went on to insist that Watt had simply not heard the Beach Boys and promised to lend the Secretary his album.
One Member from the Beach Boys’ home state of California went further, incorporating Beach Boys’ lyrics into his protest speech.“‘Do you remember,’ Mr. Watt, ‘Do you remember’ those ‘Good Vibrations’ from the Fourth of July when all we did was ‘dance, dance, dance,’ all summer long to the Beach Boys in the ‘spirit of Americas?’” He added, “As any geologist in the Geological Survey could have told Secretary Watt, ‘Rock lives!’”
This was not the first time the House had weighed in on Fourth of July celebrations in the capital city. During the 97th Congress (1981–1983), Congress passed H. Con. Res. 133 authorizing the National Symphony Orchestra to headline a series of four concerts on the Capitol’s West Lawn annually. This celebration turned into the nationally televised, widely viewed “A Capitol Fourth” concert, as it is known today.
Support for the Beach Boys came from other federal quarters, too. Kansas Senator (and former Representative) Bob Dole offered the Beach Boys a charity concert in his state “now that the group seems to be available.” The White House weighed in, too. Both President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan proclaimed themselves fans of the band. “I like the Beach Boys. My children like the Beach Boys. I wouldn’t let my children go to a hard rock concert,” the First Lady emphasized in a phone call to Secretary Watt. Only a day after the announcement, President Reagan awarded Secretary Watt a plaster foot with a hole in it for “shootin’ yourself in the foot.”
Watt withered under the barrage of criticism and soon reversed his ban on rock music. Despite a chorus of invitations, the Beach Boys declined to perform out of concern that they might step on Mr. Newton’s toes. In June, they performed at Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) stadium in Washington, D.C. Later that day, at the First Family’s request, they headlined a benefit concert for the Special Olympics on the White House Lawn before ending the night helping Vice President George H. W. Bush celebrate his 59th birthday across town.
With their spirited defense on the House Floor, a few Members of Congress helped make sure the Beach Boys really got around.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 98th Cong., 1st sess. (7 April 1983): 7704-7705; “Creation of a National Institution,” A Capitol Fourth, n.d., http://www.pbs.org/capitolfourth/concert_highlights_sub2.html (accessed 11 June 2013); Washington Post, April 6, 1983; Washington Post, April 8, 1983; The (Baltimore) Sun, June 13, 1983.