Ever since its inception in 1908, the FBI has been suspicious of the zany world of pop and rock. Plenty of musicians – or, as they no doubt call them at the bureau, “no-good bohemian, love-making, drug-sucking, long-haired commies!” – have been placed under scrutiny by the American authorities over the years for the subversive ways. Some of the names won’t surprise you – it’s no secret NWA and Tupac were followed by the Feds, for instance. But did you know Elvis, The Monkees, Frank Sinatra, Trent Reznor and more were also the subject of investigations over the years? Here’s 18 musicians put under the eye of the law…
Public enemy #1 to the buttoned-down Republicans at the Bureau, John Lennon was vocal in his opposition to Vietnam, spoke out against British military intervention in Northern Ireland, and gave numerous interviews to anti-war advocates throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, earning him a FBI tail. Hey, whatever gets you out of bed in the morning. Or doesn’t, in John's case.
With a relatively tame 34-page file, the FBI began investigating Jimi Hendrix following a drug charge in Toronto in 1969. The Feds' dossier claimed that the guitarist lined his bandanas with LSD tabs, which would gradually dissolve over the course of his marathon sets, launching Hendrix into psychedelic outer space. Trippy.
Predictably, NWA’s iconic anti-authority anthem ‘Fuck Tha Police’ ruffled some feathers over at the Bureau. Forever fretting over the impressionable minds of America’s youth, the FBI sent a letter accusing the rappers of "violence against and disrespect" for law enforcement.
Eight years after the death of Ol Dirty Bastard, the FBI revealed the extent of the rapper's pretty naughty past. At the time of his death ODB was being investigated in connection with three murders and a shootout with police. The file also contained allegations of crimes committed by the WTC, including "drugs, illegal guns, weapon possession and carjacking". If you talk the talk...
Four men with bowl haircuts and matching outfits doesn't exactly scream "threat to national security". Nevertheless, in April 2011 the FBI released a file on The Monkees in which an agent investigating a 1967 Monkees concert reported of "four young men who dress as beatnik types using a device that displayed ‘subliminal’, ‘left wing’ and ‘anti-US’ images about the war in Vietnam".
J Edgar Hoover and his men were particularly interested in the dangerously arousing nature of Elvis Presley’s music. One outraged letter from the King's jam-packed file read: “[Elvis’s] actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth. One eyewitness described his actions as 'sexual self-gratification on stage”. Elvis: so sexy it was practically criminal.
The Feds opened a file on self-styled anti-fascist folkie Woody Guthrie in 1941 after he began penning a weekly column, ‘Woody Sez’, in commie newspaper, People’s World. The FBI file was later revealed to be rammed with tip-offs from informants who had served with Guthrie during his Navy Service.
Frank ‘The Voice’ Sinatra was very much more Frank ‘The Racketeering Extortionist’ over at FBI HQ. In his staggering 1,300 page file were details on old Frankie's much-feted mob connections, his arrest for adultery and how he avoided WWII drafting due to mental instability and a perforated eardrum.
In 1969, the FBI had The Lizard King himself Jim Morrisson up on charges of lewd and lascivious behaviour, indecent exposure, open profanity and drunkenness. That's one hell of a Saturday night. It was following an incident at a Miami concert where Jim was alleged to have shouted ‘Do you want to see my cock?’, before duly introducing 'Little Jim' to the audience.
Yep - Liberace was also placed under watch by the US powers that be for his subversive ways. The bejewelled pianist's 400-page file mostly contained FBI reports investigating the theft of Lib's jewellery, worth an estimated $24,065. Lib did bling like the Sintine chapel does indoor decor.
In 2004, Yusuf Islam - formally known as Cat Stevens - was detained by FBI officials when attempting to fly from London to Washington, before being banned altogether from entering US. Apparently it was a case of mistaken identity and had nothing at all to do with Cat's 'Islam-y' 'probably-has-a-pilot's-license' name, obvs. Random selection my ass.
According to FBI files, Tupac was receiving death threats from the Jewish Defence League months before he was shot in 1996. The files suggests that the pro-Israeli domestic organisation had “been extorting money from various rap-music stars via death threats.”
In the years leading up to his tragic suicide in 1976, Phil Ochs was drinking heavily and convinced he was being followed by the FBI; claims dismissed as paranoid delusions by his closest friend (Ochs had also requested Colonel Sanders be his next manager). Turns out, he was right: the FBI had nearly 500 documents on the folk singer, investigating his affiliation with leftist protesters.
Psychedelic rockers Jefferson Airplane were at the forefront of the hippie movement that swept the States in the early '60s. They even hailed from San Francisco, which was essentially ground zero for peace and love. That alone would have been enough to put them on the Fed’s radar, though their open support of the anti-Nixon 'Youth International Party' certainly didn't help matters.
Jefferson Airplane lead singer Grace Slick earned her own separate, special file after allegedly plotting to dose President Nixon with 600 micrograms of LSD at a White House party. Considering the famously paranoid President was already a total nutbag, it's uncertain anyone would have actually noticed the difference.
The suits in Washington DC were highly suspicious when it came to all the good vibes, stellar acid and radical ‘new left’ thinking coming out of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the birthplace of hippie counter-culture. The Grateful Dead in particular were in the FBI’s crosshairs due to their central role in LSD culture, and also placed under watch.
Proof that in the 1970s even a single puff of a spliff could land you on the Feds' shit-list, from 1977 and 1990 the FBI built a 33-page file on John Denver of all people, practically the nicest man since Jesus. Also shocking is that the aggressively lovely singer received countless death threats.
Nine Inch Nails were filming their 1989 music video for ‘Down In It’ - depicting Trent Reznor falling off a building and dying - when a balloon-camera designed for aerial shots floated away and landed in a distant corn field. The FBI, who received the footage from a farmer, believed it to be a snuff film and only called off the investigation once they discovered Reznor was alive.