Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom welcomed the Motor City Madman to Hampton Beach, NH on August 20, 2022 by JD Cohen
Rock n’ roll started as a youth rebellion against traditional values and a challenge to the established norms of an older generation. From Elvis to the Sex Pistols, young people have been harnessing the power of music to challenge and often terrify their elders. The danger associated with youthful rebellion of rock music didn’t last too long as it was quickly co-opted by corporate America who saw the youthful energy of music culture as a marketing tool for big profits.
However, in a small corner of the music industry, Ted Nugent is courting danger of a very different sort and using the power of rock and roll to launch his own rebellion in a time of tremendous social and political upheaval. Gene Simmons of the band KISS has said that rock and roll is dead and he may be right; but in America, rage and rebellion are still very much alive.
On Saturday night August 20th, Ted Nugent played a sold-out concert at Hampton Beach Casino. The approximately 2,000 seat Casino Ballroom first opened in 1899 and has hosted a who’s who of great comedians and rock royalty. Everyone from Janis Joplin to U2 have played there and Ted Nugent is no stranger to the venue, which he last played in 2019. For Nugent the Casino Ballroom is a welcome environment located in the Live Free or Die state of New Hampshire, but also in proximity of Boston and easily accessible to music fans throughout New England. Saturday was a beautiful warm summer day and many fans arrived early to enjoy the beach and boardwalk before the venue doors opened for the 7:00pm all seated, sold-out concert.
My first Ted Nugent concert experience was in 1979 at the New Haven Coliseum in Connecticut. The New Haven show featured Ted Nugent and fellow rock legends Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush . The concert was made infamous when rowdy fans tried to overturn a Greyhound bus outside the stadium. At the time of the concert, I was 15 years old and already a big fan of Ted Nugent’s wild man image, blistering guitar and loud, bombastic style of rock n’ roll.
A New York Times analysis of Spotify data found that the songs we listen to during our teen years set our musical taste as adults. For men, the most important period for forming musical taste is between the ages of 13 to 16. Coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s, I was exposed to generous helpings of classic rock and hard rock bands like Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osborn, Twisted Sister, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Van Halen and the “Motor City Madman”, Ted Nugent.
Around that same time, I also discovered Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, who would shape my music preferences and concert going tendencies for the rest of my life. Ultimately, I found my “tribe” among hippies and Deadheads, but I never lost my love of hard rock and heavy music. That love has only intensified as I have aged.
Nugent has influenced countless musicians with his unique style of riff heavy, guitar driven arena rock. A technically skilled musician who plays with tremendous feel, emotion and immaculate guitar tone, Nugent has also penned some of the most iconic heavy rock songs of all time including the top 40 radio hit “Cat Scratch Fever”, which opens with one of the most recognizable rock guitar lines ever recorded.
Born in Michigan in 1948 and raised in Detroit, Nugent started playing guitar when he was nine years old. He was heavily influenced by the music of the time including Motown, blues and early rock and roll. Some of Nugent’s favorite musicians and early influences include Elvis, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, the Ventures, Motown’s Funk Brothers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard, B.B. King, Freddie King as well as the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
Nugent was just 14 in 1962 when he joined The Lourds, a local band that won an opportunity to open for the Supremes and the Beau Brummels at nearby Cobo Hall. When Nugent’s family moved to Illinois in 1964, he founded The Amboy Dukes. Formed in Chicago but later based in Detroit, The Amboy Dukes were one of Michigan’s greatest hard rock bands of the 1960’s; they were also one of the few Detroit bands of that time to have a national hit single. The band served as a launching pad for Nugent who in 1975 signed with Epic Records and launched a solo career.
When I first saw Ted Nugent perform live in 1979, he was at the peak of his rock star career. With several platinum and double platinum records already under his belt and filling arenas all over the world, Nugent was a super star, touring behind his 5th solo album, the top 20 gold selling “State of Shock”. Since 1979 Ted Nugent has been touring constantly and has sold more than 40 million albums. In April Nugent released his 16-studio album, “Detroit Muscle”.
In recent years Nugent has been in the spotlight more for his controversial political views and outrageous public comments than for his music. However, Ted Nugent has always been a controversial figure, making offensive and scandalous statements pretty much from the start of his career. His inflammatory comments are too numerous to be cataloged here. In addition to his usual political targets, he’s had unkind words for many fellow musicians including Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and recently had a much publicized squabble with Joan Jett.
After the election of Barack Obama in 2008 Nugent’s political rhetoric intensified and his vitriol began to take center stage. In 2012 Nugent was kicked out of the lineup for a 2012 concert at a Fort Knox military base after threatening then-President Obama, and referring to him as a “sub-human mongrel.” He also referred to Obama as a “chimpanzee”.
Nugent has been a vocal and active supporter of Donald Trump and the MAGA agenda. He has repeatedly said that the 2020 presidential election was a fraud. Like Trump, Nugent is a narcissist fueled by negative attention. Nugent seems to relish the attacks on his unpopular opinions and attacks on him in the media reinforce his perception of himself as a rebel, an outsider and a nonconformist. But like Trump, Nugent craves the adulation of his fans and his most ardent supporters. Over the years Nugent has been using his “brand” (outdoorsman/hunter, patriot, gun enthusiast, iconoclast, conservative mouthpiece of grievance politics) to consolidate and solidify the adoration of his followers. “Can You Feel the Love” is a constant refrain you will hear from Nugent. The phrase is often used on stage in conjunction with any one of his many rants attacking his perceived enemies in ironic mockery.
I had some apprehension about attending the show at the Casino Ballroom and I knew going in that it would include plenty of political sounding off, America first propaganda, flag waving and Ted making a big show of his patriotism and right-wing agenda. All that was a given, however, what I was most interested in and curious about was whether Nugent could still play, and if he could recreate the magic with his guitar that first made me fall in love with his music back in 1979.
When I arrived, the Ballroom was already filled with middle-aged white, mostly male fans; many wearing pro Trump, pro Maga, American flag, camouflage, military and pro-gun t-shirts and hats. Long lines at the cash only merchandise counter featured as much, if not more pro-gun goods for sale than music related items.
After a paint by numbers set of patriotic country rock music by Missouri native Michael Austin, Nugent and his band took the stage promptly at 9:00pm. The show started with the Star-Spangled Banner. Nugent includes a 2:54 minute version on his new album. It’s been done before and Ted’s version isn’t particularly notable, but it drives home a point and serves to support one of the major themes of the evening. The show begins in earnest with the song “Gonzo”. It didn’t take more than a few guitar phrases to see that Nugent can deliver the goods. His playing is still fluid and effortless and the band – bassist Greg Smith and drummer Jason Hartless are tight, driving in lock step behind Nugent’s blistering leads. Mostly a vehicle to show off Nugent’s arena rock guitar chops and high-speed solos, Nugent ripped through “Gonzo” stirring the crowd to its feet.
For an old venue, the Hampton Beach Casino has great acoustics; and the band’s sound is big, powerful, and perfectly balanced in the crowded room. At maximum capacity, the front row seats are pressed right up to the very front of the stage, and most of the crowd was standing up from the start of the show until the very last notes rang out from Nugent’s 1962 vintage Byrdland guitar. The band has been playing a similar set list with some interesting variation from show to show. High octane classics “Paralyzed”, “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang”, “Free for All” and “Stormtroopin” followed, all recorded during the high point of Nugent’s early solo career.
Most songs didn’t last more than 3 or 4 minutes, but Nugent packs a lot of guitar styles, techniques, tones and textures in every song. It’s a flurry of guitar wizardry as Nugent transitions from one song to the next, almost too quickly, never really slowing down for the audience to savor and really appreciate each idea he’s putting forward. It’s a rapid-fire guitar onslaught and it comes and goes so quickly you can barely grasp what he’s doing before he’s on to the next thing. Nugent also has an ease and relaxed effortlessness to so much of his playing, even with the accelerated delivery. Nugent tosses off guitar licks and solos one after another as if there’s an endless supply he can draw from at any time during any song. Although he gives every performance nothing less than 100%, at times he seems to be speeding through the songs to get all his ideas, his hits and his message across. Nugent never slows the music down long enough to really explore new terrain and draw songs out to their full potential.
Nugent isn’t a big advocate for just letting the music do the talking. Between and during every song there’s a constant distraction of Ted’s bravado, bombast and politics. Ted made sure that there was plenty of time to address his audience and the music often seemed rushed and secondary to Nugent’s need to promote himself, his views and his right-wing agenda.
Cluster Fuck 2022 is a popular theme on this night, so are love, guns, freedom and celebration. Biden, Nancy Pelosi, the FBI, Democrats past and present and the United States government are all targets. It’s not an exaggeration to say a Ted Nugent concert feels more like a Trump rally than a rock show. The politics are given equal weight and go hand in hand with the music.
After a rant about the glory of bow hunting, “Queen of the Forest”, came next, dedicated to all the women who hunt. Although it was one of the few uninspired songs of the night, “Need you Bad” sung by bassist Greg Smith was an unexpected pleasure. Ted’s voice is still strong, and he sang well all night, but Smith’s vocals have a more pleasing and muscular classic rock feel. Combined with Nugent’s exceptional playing, Smith’s singing lead made for a more balanced delivery and a welcome break from Nugent’s constant aural blitz.
One of the most bizarre moments of the evening came during “Come and Take It”, a song from Nugent’s latest album. Instead of singing the tune’s title as it appears on the recorded version of “Detroit Muscle”, Ted changes the words to “Fuck Joe Biden”. He has the whole crowd up on their feet chanting the chorus. At that moment the enthusiasm for expressing hatred for the President seems to eclipse the event as a rock concert. Reducing the force of the band’s music to something more akin to a full-fledged political rally, gimmicky, amateurish and ridiculous. Music at its best is transcendent and Nugent’s playing can amaze even when his subject matter and lyrics are juvenile. “Come and Take It” brought the performance to its most base and vapid.
Nugent’s audience has been cleansed of anyone who might sully his far-right safe space. Like many fan cultures in an era of rapidly widening social divisions the audience is self-selecting. Anyone uninterested or opposed to Nugent’s politics have most likely opted out of attending his shows a long time ago. Given how well the band played, the fact that Nugent has consolidated his audience and driven fans away is a shame.
Nugent ended the set with some of his best material, the classic hard rock 70’s hit “Cat Scratch Fever” and his epic guitar odyssey, “Stranglehold”. I believe “Stranglehold” is one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded and the almost 10-minute version the band played in Hampton Beach included all the hard rock ecstasy Nugent delivered on 1978’s, triple platinum Double Live Gonzo album. Finally slowing things down, Nugent delivers the song’s rumbling bass line, slow building intensity, strong vocals, buzzsaw guitar and masterful soloing in all its glory. Halfway through the song, following the climax of the first solo, Nugent screams “fuck”, almost as if he’s even impressed himself with his playing, and it’s truly a transcendent moment.
For the one-song encore, Nugent ended the night with “Great White Buffalo” from Tooth, Fang & Claw, the seventh and final studio album by the Nugent led Amboy Dukes. The song is a staple in Nugent’s live act and includes a driving guitar chorus and some wonderful soloing. But Nugent can’t resist altering the lyrics to include more Democrat bashing.
For many, Ted Nugent’s act isn’t easy to swallow. Sitting through one of his concerts these days means enduring a non-stop barrage of America first political propaganda, political attacks and gun culture machismo. Digging into Nugent’s past and the litany of insensitive and radical right-wing statements he’s made only makes the challenge that much more difficult.
In June it was reported that Ted Nugent is a lifelong member of the Oath Keepers. The organization was subpoenaed by the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack in November 2021. Eleven members of the organization, including its founder and leader Stewart Rhodes, were indicted for seditious conspiracy in January 2022
The Oath Keepers have been described as a “paramilitary organization” and a “large but loosely organized collection of militias who believe that the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights.” The group has been linked with other white supremacist and violent right-wing extremists.
It all may seem wacky and ultimately inconsequential to the music and Nugent’s tremendous talent as a guitarist. And although his comments can be shockingly prejudiced and politically extreme, by all accounts Nugent is a generous and likable person when he’s not ranting in the press or from the stage. He’s surprisingly well liked by several musicians with dramatically opposing political views. Far left leaning artists like Henry Rollins and Tom Morello, who have had personal interactions with Nugent and have talked publicly about how difficult it is to reconcile Ted Nugent the person they know and admire with the toxic and sometimes dangerous things that come out of his mouth.
However, in the current political environment, as the fractures in society grow deeper and the threat of politically motivated violence becomes more real, Ted Nugent’s grievance politics and the anti-government, right-wing agenda he’s preaching to his adoring and loyal fans must be taken seriously.
At a Donald Trump event in Austin, Texas, Nugent seemingly called for violence against the “enemies” of America, who he characterized as “the Democrats and the Marxists and the Communists”. After briefly talking about his vintage guitar, Nugent added: “So I love you people madly but I’d love you more if you went forward and just went berserk on the skulls of the Democrats and the Marxists and the Communists”.
If Gamergate and the last 10 years of escalating tensions between the left and right have taught us anything, it’s that disguising a sincere wish for violence and upheaval by dressing it up in hyperbole, humor and irony in order to confuse outsiders and make it all seem less serious is dangerous. Nugent’s comments haven’t been thinly veiled dog whistles, they have been openly misogynistic, antisemitic, racist and in support of those wanting to use violent force to overthrow the US government. His voice has only added to the chorus of right-wing extremism calling for violent attacks on our political institutions and the perceived enemies of liberty, democracy, and the American way.
Which brings us to the topic of Cancel Culture and the age-old question of separating the artist from their art. We are all lucky to live in a country where people like Ted Nugent have a right to speak their mind, no matter how unpopular and even dangerous. However, we also have a right and an obligation to use whatever platforms we have to call out people who are spreading lies, misinformation and hate, especially when they are encouraging others to act out violently.
That’s not cancel culture, that’s freedom of speech.
As far as separating the music from the musician, it’s getting harder and harder for me to separate Ted Nugent from his music. The magic isn’t gone yet, but I’m beginning to understand how it could be taken away from me, how there may come a time when Nugent’s offensive rhetoric the extreme right wing nationalism becomes inseparable from his music, just as it was on Saturday night at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom.
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