Obama's Secret Record Collection

Inside the White House Record Library

Barack Obama during the Youth Inaugural Ball in Washington, DC
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Barack Obama during the Youth Inaugural Ball in Washington, DC
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When Barack Obama moved into the White House on January 20th, he gained access to five chefs, a private bowling alley – and a killer collection of classic LPs. Stored in the basement of the executive mansion is the official White House Record Library: several hundred LPs that include landmark albums in rock (Led Zeppelin IV, the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed), punk (the Ramones' Rocket to Russia, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols), cult classics (Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, the Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin) and disco. Not to mention records by Santana, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Isaac Hayes, Elton John, the Cars and Barry Manilow.

During the waning days of the Nixon administration, the RIAA, the record companies' trade group, decided the library should include sound recordings as well as books. In 1973, the organization donated close to 2,000 LPs. The bad news: The selection was dominated by the likes of Pat Boone, the Carpenters and John Denver. In 1979, legendary producer John Hammond convened a new commission to update the list for the hipper Carter administration. "They felt they needed to redress some of the oversights that might have taken place the first time around," says Boston music critic and author Bob Blumenthal, who was put in charge of adding 200 rock records to the library.

At the commission's first meeting, Blumenthal brought up Randy Newman's thorny dissection of Southern culture, Good Old Boys, to determine what restrictions the panel might face. "That was exhibit A," Blumenthal says. "And I was told, 'Oh, the president loves that album! Go ahead!' " So Blumenthal and his advisers — including Paul Nelson, then Rolling Stone's reviews editor — compiled a list to reflect "diversity in what was going on in popular music." They picked the Kinks' Arthur for its "theme of empire," and Blumenthal snuck in favorites like David Bowie's Hunky Dory.

On January 13th, 1981, the LPs — each in a sleeve with a presidential seal — were presented to Jimmy Carter at a White House ceremony. But the collection — placed in a hallway near the third-floor listening room, complete with a sound system — didn't remain upstairs long. When Ronald Reagan took office that year, the LPs were moved to the basement. Depending on the source, the reason was Nancy Reagan's distaste for shelves of vinyl, or the edgy choices themselves. A spokesman for Obama said it was too early to comment on whether the president would revive the library. But Obama may be pleased to learn that at least a few of his favorite albums — Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run — are there if he wants them on pristine slabs of vinyl.

This story is from the February 5, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1071: February 5, 2009