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Rip-off Rush

Rush Limbaugh
Kimberly Butler

Pirating Pud at the Podium: Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh now angers rock & rollers by playing their tunes and then critiquing their politics.

Anti-liberal Limbaugh is a rockin' radio pirate

By David Corn and Sam Munger

EVERY WEEKDAY MILLIONS of Americans awaiting a fix of right-wing raving switch on their radios and hear the distinctive, funky bass riff from new wave rocker Chrissie Hynde's song "My City Was Gone." Then the 1984 Pretenders tune fades, and the conservative tirades of Rush Limbaugh begin.

As Limbaugh's three-hour gabfest continues, he routinely pumps up the show with snippets of music from past and present rock artists: Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Jimi Hendrix, Blur, Depeche Mode, Bob Marley, Garbage. His aim, presumably, is to inject hipness into his conservatism. That he gets away with it so readily is proof of how depoliticized rock music has become.

A Christian Coalition-loving, family-values advocate playing T. Rex's licentious "Bang a Gong (Get It On)"? No problem. ("One of my favorites," says Limbaugh, a former DJ.) And neither does it seem to be a problem that Limbaugh, that fierce champion of property rights, has apparently expropriated Hynde's music as his theme song in violation of copyright law. He's a radio pirate.

Recently, Limbaugh discussed on air how he came to hijack Hynde's lament over the mallification of America ("My pretty countryside/Had been paved down the middle/By a government that had no pride"). Recalling the days when he was first firing up his show, Limbaugh noted that he tried a number of rock songs for his theme music. A few callers griped that a "conservative guy" should not be identified with a rock & roll sound. To "tweak" these fans, Limbaugh searched for "the hardest-pounding bass line" he could find and selected "My City Was Gone."

Was he aware he had picked the work of an animal rights activist and an ideological opponent?

He sure was. He relished that. "It was icing on the cake that it was [written by] an environmentalist, animal-rights wacko--and an anti-conservative song. ... It is anti-development, anti-capitalist. ... Here I am going to take a liberal song and make fun of [liberals] at the same time."

But Limbaugh never licensed his show's use of the song, according to Hynde and her manager, Gail Colson. Asked about Limbaugh's conscription of "My City Was Gone," several music licensing experts maintained that if a radio show adopts a recorded song as its theme, it must receive permission from the music publisher and the record label. (Labels often require approval by the artist, and Hynde, in addition, retains publishing rights to her songs.) As Kohn on Music Licensing, a prominent industry text, notes, "The making of recordings of introductory music themes ... as part of syndicated radio shows ... [requires] permission from the copyright owners."

Besides a license, Limbaugh would need permission to alter the song--which he has done by editing it to a 75-second-long instrumental excerpt. Assuming these experts are correct, Limbaugh has stolen the intellectual property of another.

Years ago, when Limbaugh was coming into phenom status, Hynde received letters from fans who were flabbergasted to discover her art associated with the Right's No. 1 mouth. At airports, people approached her and complained. Hynde, who has lived in England since 1973, was unfamiliar with the Limbaugh show. "From what I understood," she says, "I wouldn't be endorsing his show. I went to Kent State, and we burned down the R.O.T.C. building."

Clever Controversy

HYNDE ASKED COLSON to investigate. Colson says she checked and was told Hynde could do nothing to nix this use of her song. Colson seems to have received bad advice. And until this summer, neither she nor Hynde realized that the Limbaugh show was playing an edited version of the track. "If he's redoing the song, he must license it," Colson remarks. "And there is no way we have ever cleared a license or even been asked for one." (Hynde, as the publisher and writer, does receive performance royalties through ASCAP for the airplay on Limbaugh's show.)

Limbaugh did not respond to inquiries regarding "My City Was Gone."

"I'm sure if I heard this show," Hynde notes, "it would piss me off, and I would say, get my song off right away. ... He's obviously very clever. If he just played the Carpenters, it wouldn't cause any controversy. So now he plays rock, and he's bold and a rebel. I probably should have done more when people were rushing at me in the airports. But since I had not heard the show, I said, 'Oh fuck it.' That's a lazy attitude, I know. I only wanted to be a rock singer, but I am associated with speaking my mind."

Now Colson, in response to this article, has asked Hynde's label and publishing rep to research the matter. "It would be wonderful if we could get him," she says.

Few of the other musicians whose songs have been less formally recruited into Limbaugh's conservative cavalcade feel compelled to complain. We surveyed 20 such artists and asked what they thought of their discs being played by Limbaugh. Most had nothing to say. The publicist for the Wallflowers (which is led by Jakob Dylan, son of Bob) replies, "I talked to the band's management, and we've decided to pass."

A spokesperson for Garbage says the band members "have no comment either way and don't wish to say anything. They think of themselves as apolitical, and they just don't want to be in those kinds of stories." Eric Clapton, the Dave Matthews Band (fronted by a marijuana aficionado), Peter Gabriel (a human-rights activist), Stone Temple Pilots, Seal, Pearl Jam (abortion-rights proponents), Reel Big Fish and the Rolling Stones declined comment. So did Bob Seger. (When Rush played a nugget of Seger's "Fire Inside," he dedicated the day's program "to all the long-haired, maggot-infested, dope-smoking FM types.")

Last year, one musician nearly went after Limbaugh. When Joan Osborne was told Limbaugh had played her song "Right Hand Man," she was upset and considered issuing a public statement. Danny Goldberg, the president of her label, Mercury, provided Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting with a small grant to search past Limbaugh broadcasts. FAIR found that Limbaugh had indeed played the tune, but only once. Osborne decided not to howl about this one-time offense.

Is Limbaugh a hypocrite for spicing up his program with drug anthems like "Purple Haze"? Probably.

But rock music as a genre has become so content-neutral that the obvious contradictions between Limbaughism and the values expressed in the music he airs do not rate high on today's Outrage-o-Meter. After all, for years rock has been selling soda, banking services and overpriced sneakers manufactured by underpaid workers abroad. Why not right-wing rants?

"Rock music was once political and countercultural," Hynde says. "Now music is music. The whole of popular culture has gone more mainstream, and even conservatives want to be hip."

Limbaugh shows how easy that is. While Hynde may have the power to make him pay for swiping one song--hers--there's not much to inhibit Limbaugh's rampant exploitation of rock music. Rush can rock--and that's less a comment on him than on the neutered culture of rock.

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From the Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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