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The FBI and Musicians: John Lennon, N.W.A., NIN and More Acts with Reports

By Ryan Book, The Music Times | May 11, 2015 04:09 PM EDT

John Lennon appeared on The Dick Cavett Show on this date more than forty years ago and made a bold prediction: The FBI were keeping a close eye on him. This might sound like a typical conspiracy theory of the early '70s, except that it was totally true...either an indication that the FBI was predictable or it just wasn't very good at the secrecy thing. Lennon had all of the makings for a good FBI target: He had a record with drugs, he was vocally against the Vietnam War, and his political leanings were just right of being a godless communist. He wasn't the first, nor would he be the last, to gather attention from the Bureau. Here are another lot of otherwise harmless musicians that would get lengthy files in Washington D.C., from Elvis Presley to N.W.A. 

Woody Guthrie et al

Woody Guthrie's guitar famously had the words "this machine kills fascists on a sticker on its front. One would think that the United States, clearly the black-and-white good guys during the Cold War, would be pleased with such sentiments...after all, it was Nikita Khrushchev and his gang that represented the fascists, wasn't it? Unsurprisingly, real history played out little differently, and American folk musician Guthrie was proudly enrolled in the Communist Party despite it being under constant fire from the federal government. If you haven't heard it a million times by now: "This Land Is Your Land" isn't a patriotic anthem. The FBI had kept a file on the performer since 1941, as well as Pete Seeger and many of the folkies to follow in his footsteps. Although the report centered around his column in the openly Communist People's World magazine, the bureau went as far as it could to find dirt on Guthrie, including collecting testimony from those who served with him in the Navy.

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley was perhaps the most famous person to ever serve in the United States military, beating even george Washington himself. The performer's willing attitude toward required service during the '50s made him the image of patriotism, but his sheer celebrity more-or-less required that the FBI keep a file on him nonetheless. There were a litany of complaints brought to the bureau's attention by sketchy sources, such as churches declaring him to be "a definite danger to the security of the United States," with his violent hip thrusts being cited as the obvious weapon of mass destruction. That said, the FBI took any chance it could to blackmail celebrities—because J. Edgar Hoover was one of the greatest trolls in history—and, whatever they had on Presley, it inspired him to offer his services as a snitch on The Beatles, Jane Fonda and...The Smothers Brothers?

MC5

If any music genre should inspire fear in the federal government, it should obviously be the punk movement—after all, they encouraged disbanding government and otherwise being raucous, for fun and profit. Even before punk was really a thing, the FBI had a file on its activity. We're sure that The Stooges have a file describing Iggy Pop as "an obvious intellect in the argument for socialism" or something, but the bureau was more interested in the less appreciated MC5. The band is regarded as one of the most explosive live acts of all time, whether that be smashing instruments or bringing rifles onstage, but was even better known for its affiliation with the White Panther Party, a caucasian left-wing organization assisting the Black Panther Party. The band has become legendary for coming about as close as possible to performing in an actual war zone, carrying out an eight-hour set outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when many of the other performers didn't show up. It's marked as one of the worst cases of civil disobedience in American history, and there was MC5, just standing in the middle, waiting for the world to see. Video from the more peaceful moments below:

N.W.A.

If you're an agency that spends a decent amount of time spying, the worst thing you can do, probably, is let the party you've been watching that you're do so. Such was the case when the bureau decided to let N.W.A. know that it didn't much care for the song "F*ck The Police," similar to how the Oklahoma City Thunder probably doesn't appreciate Lil B's song "F*ck Kevin Durant" (except the NBA franchise has kept it's cool and ignored the issue, rather than promote it further). Assistant director Milt Ahlericht wrote the hip-hop group to say "music plays a significant role in society, and I wanted you to be aware of the FBI's position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community." Surely even Ice Cube stopped scowling when he read that. To get an idea how seriously the band, and the nation, took the FBI's threats, you can now see the actual letter in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Nine Inch Nails

The late '80s was a time where it was popular for the FBI to seek out band with three-letter acronym names that began with "N." Trent Reznor and his collective Nine Inch Nails was the next band to get attention after N.W.A. No one will be surprised to learn that it was the band's direction in music videos that got it in trouble...after all, "Closer" is a bizarre trip full of monkeys tied to crosses and sides of meat, while "Happiness in Slavery" induces nausea with its imagery of a man being sexually tortured by a chair. But no, neither of these videos got Reznor in trouble on a major scale, as they hadn't come out yet. Instead the government came after him for "Down In It," a song that NIN fans know to be one of the band's most innocuous singles. The video featured cameras tied to helium balloons shooting Reznor from above, to correlate with its "I was up above it, now I'm down in it" lyrics. One of those balloons got loose however and flew 200 miles, where a farmer believed he had found a snuff film, leading to an FBI investigation. Imagine what they thought when the videos actually started getting scary.

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