James Watt annoyed plenty of environmentalists as Ronald Reagan’s outspoken secretary of the interior from 1981 to 1983. But their protests paled next to the howls from rock fans on April 6, 1983, when Watt indirectly banned the Beach Boys from that year’s July 4 concert on the Washington Mall.
Watt, without mentioning the Boys by name, unabashedly announced that all rock bands attracted ”the wrong element” and opted for a ”wholesome” program with Wayne Newton. ”We’re not going to encourage drug abuse and alcoholism,” Watt sniffed, ”as was done in the past.”
The aging but perpetually upbeat Beach Boys, who had played at previous Fourth celebrations, insisted that they were wholesome: Mike Love cracked, ”We sing about patriotic themes — like ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.”’ To his amazement, Watt found himself overnight not just controversial but the most reviled man in Washington. The White House was swamped with protesting phone calls, and even Nancy Reagan called Watt on the carpet, saying she herself was a Beach Boys mega-fan.
Watt admits now that he hadn’t even heard of the Beach Boys at the time. ”If it wasn’t ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,”’ he says, ”I didn’t recognize the song.”
The Beach Boys were eventually invited to play, but, ironically, they couldn’t accept: The controversy had given them such a huge boost in popularity that they were booked in Atlantic City on the Fourth. Watt, by contrast, was forced to resign in October 1983, after he described one of his advisory committees as ”a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.”
Today the Beach Boys, having weathered the drowning of Dennis Wilson late that year and legal battles over Brian Wilson’s ability to manage his affairs, are still a perennial concert draw. Watt, now 55, is a visiting professor of political science at the University of Wyoming, and is often introduced as ”The Man Who Had the Courage to Ban the Beach Boys.” And though he didn’t, specifically, he wonders, ”Do I try to correct the record or do I take the applause?” He says, ”I take the applause!”
Time Capsule: April 6, 1983
John Le Carre’s The Little Drummer Girl beat its way up the best-seller list, while 60 Minutes was TV’s top watch. Michael Jackson and ”Billie Jean” moonwalked on the air; Robert Duvall twanged Tender Mercies on screen.