I had been an intern for the Massachussetts Democratic State Committee when I was in college during the Mondale/Ferraro campaign in 1984 and a precinct leader for in Los Angeles for the Dukakis campaign in 1988, but my first hard-core activism experience was when I got involved with Clinic Defense at the end of the 1980s. Operation Rescue was trying to blockade women’s clinics, and I was part of the wave of stalwart folks who would get up on a Saturday morning at 4AM for a game of cat and mouse as we tried to outrace anti-choice zealots all around Los Angeles.
I remember the first time I entered the pitched Abortion Rights battle. We arrived at a clinic in Whittier to a full-out melee between the opposing forces. Our people at formed a line with arms linked and were holding the doors and keeping the clinic open while the Operation Rescue people were on the ground, pushing up against our legs in an attempt to break our line. Two large men were pushing against me. In retaliation, I found myself positioning my kneecaps against their spines so that the more they pushed against me the more they would hurt themselves. We were all causing each other a tremendous amount of discomfort. I decided to up the ante when someone handed me an empty Sparkletts bottle. I began banging it loudly and rhythmically as close to these men’s ears as possible.
Later on, I was horrified at what I’d allowed myself to become; at how easy it was for me to give in to a kind of primal aggression against an enemy. As much as I saw myself as part of a noble struggle to protect women’s rights, I had allowed myself to behave as violently as the people who fought to take them away. I had to find another way to participate.
Our leadership insisted that we chant. As a result, we were all fairly hoarse an hour or two after arriving at a clinic, while the Operation Rescue folks, who sung, managed to keep their voices throughout the day. That’s when I started writing funny lyrics to songs. Our opponents would sing “What A Mighty God We Serve,” so I got our group to respond with “What A Hearty Brunch We Serve.” I noticed that when we sang, especially when we sang something satirical, the level of aggression seemed to diminish. We were able to wither our opponents with our humor. We had turned our righteous anger into righteous joy.
One year, during Easter, I brought a Unitarian church choir of men sporting bunny ears and the women, Easter Bonnets, to the clinic we were defending. We sang “Easter Blockade” to the tune of “Easter Parade.” My most successful lyric was to the tune of “The Flintstones Theme”:
The Clinic (To the tune of "The Flintstones") When you're at the clinic, There's a lot of crazy folks to see. Ancient as the Bible Is their sexist ideology. Witness how they spend their days and nights Finding ways to trample women's rights. Meet them at the Clinic For a Down on your Knees Time Arrest Me Please Time We'll have a Straight Old Time!
I found myself working with The Brills, a group of street theater performers, to bring humor to the proceedings, which some in the leadership of Clinic Defense frowned on. They were very concerned that the media see us as deadly serious about our cause. I gradually drifted away from the Clinic Defense Movement, and around the same time, Operation Rescue stopped targeting Los Angeles Clinics.
Bill Clinton was elected and I stopped being an activist for awhile. It was another 6 years before I drifted back into the Movement. I joined the Los Angeles chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. I became the chair of its Endorsement Committee and eventually its secretary. I marched and protested on a number of urgent issues. I felt that I was having an impact. But I kept looking for an opportunity to inject some creativity into my activism.
That opportunity came in 2000. I became active in helping to plan D2K, the Democratic Convention Protests for that summer. I decided that it was time to start writing song parodies on the various issues we would be protesting about. I was not yet aware of the Billionaires, but I guess I was tapping into the zeitgeist and writing songs from the point of view of those in power that lampooned their policies. I wrote the lyrics to “Missile Defense,” “Maquiladora,” “The Merger,” and “Piece of the Forest.”
I sang these over the phone to a friend of mine in the Rainforest Action Network. She told me about her friend Andrew Boyd who was heading a group called “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” who should hear my stuff. I called him and sang him my song parodies. He asked me if I could write a theme song for The Billionaires. I set it to “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.”
When The Billionaires arrived in Los Angeles for the Democratic Convention Protests, I was awaiting them with a marching band and choir. Our motto was “Leftist Political Protest with Production Values!” We passed out lyric sheets at every event at which we performed. We got such an enthusiastic response that after the convention ended, we began to get requests that we perform at other events. We would alter our name to suit the issue that was being raised: For the Police Brutality March that October, we were the Billionaires for Private Prison Profits, and we sung “Prison Cells.” For the protests against the Keck Biotech Institute that the Pfitzer students were waging, we became the Billionaires for Biotech Bonanzas and sang “My D.N.A.” And then, when we started our annual tradition of Sweatshop Christmas Caroling with Sweatshop Watch in front of stores that sell goods manufactured with Child Labor, we were the Billionaires for Greater Global Greed, singing “Toys For The World.”
When we performed at the Counter-Inaugural event, in the spirit of speaking truth to power, we renamed ourselves “Billionaires For Bush,” and are most well-known by that moniker.
I wanted to make an album of this music. I found a guy who owned a company that manufactured ribbon microphones who would let us record at his facility for free (in exchange for some samples of our various instruments recorded by his microphones). We recorded “Billionaires for Bush (& More)” in spring of 2001.
artwork by Terry Guy
This was at a time when I was a struggling artist barely making ends meet. I wasn’t able to donate money to so many of the causes I believed in. I made the CD available to a bunch of these organizations. They could pay the CD burning cost of $1 and then sell it for $10 and keep the balance of the money. I went on KPFK, the local Pacifica Station one morning during their fund drive, and they played songs from the CD and I did my Billionaires bit. In two hours, they’d received one hundred-seventy six $50 donations from people wanting our CDs.
My friend Roger Hanna (the graphic artist who designed the Stay The Course CD cover and booklet) had the brilliant idea that we make a version of the CD with just instrumental tracks so that people all over the country could perform these songs even if they didn’t have a marching band at their disposal. We started doing the same thing. It can be a logistical challenge to contract a large ensemble of musicians for a free protest gig!
While many of the people who came out in 2000 to be part of the Billionaires became quiescent in the ensuing years, our Los Angeles group of singers and dancers continued performing at rallies, teach-ins, conferences and protests. Typically, I’d write a lyric for whatever cause we Billionaires were offering the opposing viewpoint to. Barry Manilow’s hit “Mandy” became “Sandy” about Sanford Weill, the CEO of Citigroup:
Sandy (to the tune of "Mandy" by Barry Manilow) Cutting trees and clearing soil, Building pipes to carry oil, Dirtying the air, Nuclear testing, Citigroup is there, Always investing. Oh Sandy, You can sleep through the night without caring, Cause you're there at the top. Oh Sandy, You've been trashing the planet we're sharing, And we need you to stop! Oh Sandy. Propping up corrupt regimes, Squelching democratic dreams, Profiting from pain, But they never sweat it, Citigroup is there, Advancing the credit. Oh Sandy, You can sleep through the night without caring, Cause you're there at the top. Oh Sandy, You've been trashing the planet we're sharing, And we need you to stop! Oh Sandy.
And then, a few weeks later, I changed it to “We’re Oxy” for a protest against Occidental Oil:
We're Oxy (to the tune of "Mandy" by Barry Manilow) Cutting trees that hold the soil. Building pipes that carry oil. Stealing people's lands - We're mean sons of bitches. Taking in our hands Colombia's riches. We're Oxy, We can sleep without tossing and turning Cause we're there at the top, Yeah, Oxy, We get fat from the gas you keep burning, And we never will stop, Oh, Oxy. Propping up corrupt regimes, Crushing democratic dreams, Profiting from pain Is what we most cherish. If we stand to gain, The U'wa can perish, We're Oxy, We can sleep without tossing and turning Cause we're there at the top, Yeah, Oxy, We get fat from the gas you keep burning, And we never will stop, Oh, Oxy.
Finally, the song became “We’re Enron” which we finally recorded when we reissued our album of parodies in 2004 (as Here Come The Billionaires).
My initial theme song for the group became “Billionaires for Bush And More,” then “Billionaires For Bush’s War” (a version for Afghanistan and then one for Iraq) and ultimately, “Billionaires For Bush (and Cheney)”. I’m shameless in my willingness to write new lyrics for any tune we’re already using.
In the fall of 2003, I was part of a series of phone conferences with Andrew Boyd and a few others to plan the 2004 campaign. We decided that we would not be Billionaires for Bush & [opponent’s name here]. As we were no longer being funded by United For A Fair Economy (a non-profit), we could be as partisan as we liked, and using our humor to motivate people to send George Bush packing was a worthy goal.
I wanted to move beyond parodies to create a repertoire of original, signature tunes for our group. Instead of parodying actual songs, I would produce a series of homages to various genres and seek to make them as authentic as possible. I wrote all the songs in February of that year – in March we recorded them.
Andrew and I agreed that there needed to be a HipHop song on the new album entitled “The Billionaires Are In The House.” I felt confident of my ability to ape any other genre of music, but for the HipHop to feel true, I would need an actual rapper to collaborate with. I began calling people in the Movement to ask if they knew any rappers committed to political rap. Someone told me about Wil b., whom they’d seen performing at an anti-War protest that I had somehow missed. I contacted him and told him what I was attempting to do. He invited me over to discuss it. I played him some of the stuff we’d done previously. I then recited my first draft of the rap to “The Billionaires Are In The House” to him – he liked what I was attempting and was amused enough by my efforts that he decided to join me. Wil took my text and started rapping it – changing a word here and there to add authenticity and create a solid flow. Wil joined our Billionaire troupe as 50 Billion.
I wanted to continue the idea of making the tracks available so that other groups could perform them. On our Billionaire website, we put up lead sheets of all the vocal arrangements and offered downloads of the karaoke (with backing vocals) and instrumental tracks (without backing vocals) so that activists could create their own Billionaire Follies group, burn a CD of the tracks and perform our songs anywhere. At the height of the 2004 campaign, there were upwards of 8 Billionaire chapters doing just this. In Tucson, they even assembled a marching band and I sent them all my brass charts from our first album.
The most successful of these groups was the New York City Billionaire Follies. When we flew east for The Billionaires Are In The House CD release party, they were waiting for us. They’d learned all the songs, and had some terrific moves worked out. They kept running with the music and were at times performing upwards of 3 times a week. They have produced a number of musical reviews with these songs, and continue to perform them with a degree of joy and professionalism that warms my heart.
In October of 2004, Wil b. and I did a one-month Billionaire HipHop and political satire tour of Florida. I did the patter between the tunes and served as Wil’s Hype Man. We would wake up on some Billionaire supporters’ sofas, drive for 4 hours to perform at a fish fry, drive for 4 more hours to perform at a Debate Watching Party and then drive for a couple more hours to our next generous host’s house. It was exhausting and also exhilarating. The most gracious reception we got was in the more conservative areas of Florida where the 30 or 40% of Liberals took to our humor like someone in the desert takes to a cool draught of water.
We befriended some constitutional lawyers who kept us appraised of all the shenanigans that the Florida Secretary of State was pulling to make sure that Bush would ‘win’ Florida again: Thousands of absentee ballots were never sent, but were instead found dumped in the bay, etc.
After we returned from Florida, Wil and I continued to collaborate with me producing tracks for him. We wrote the song for Antonio Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign. We wrote the song that the Nurses, Teachers and Firefighters rallied to in opposition to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s union-busting ballot measures in fall of 2005.
In spring of 2006, I decided it was time to record another CD of new music in anticipation of the mid-term elections. It would be entitled New Regime – the title track would be a song I did with Wil just after the 2005 inaugural. I wrote most of the songs in May and June of that year. We recorded the instrumental tracks at the very beginning of July. Our challenge was finishing the album. My engineer Paul Berolzheimer, the man who makes all of these tracks sound so very good, was working on a bunch of film projects. I too was about to start scoring a film. There was a very small window of opportunity where if I could get the vocals recorded, Paul could mix the CD in time for the election.
Due to an unfortunate studio glitch at another studio (the microphone was inadvertently facing the wrong way) the vocal tracks that I delivered to Paul had our fine singers sounding like they’d been trapped inside of a coffee can, so we had to shelve our project for the time being. I had assumed that once the Democratic Senate and Congress were elected, they’d cut off funding to continue the Iraq War and our troops would be coming home and so many of the songs I’d written for the album would be rendered obsolete. But sadly for America and the world, and happily for us satirists, that was not the case. Paul and I revisited these songs in the spring of this year (2008) and found that most of them addressed still-valid issues. I updated some of them and wrote some new material too. We brought back our singers and rerecorded our CD. It is now called Stay The Course.
I am supremely grateful to Andrew Boyd and his cohorts for creating the Billionaire concept. It has provided me a voice with which to articulate my own political perspective. I want to continue creating satirical web-based music and video along these lines.
In 1992, with the election of Bill Clinton, many of us on the Left became a bit less active because we hoped that a Democratic president would promote a Progressive agenda and we wouldn’t have to fight so hard. This was a mistake we can’t afford to make again. Even if Barack Obama is elected President this November, and the Democrats have comfortable margins in Congress and the Senate, I’m sure that the multinational corporations will still be exerting an undue influence on our political process and promulgating an agenda that is not in the interests of the vast majority of human beings and our message will continue to be needed. And so, we will continue to sing.
Clifford J. Tasner