These Alarming Men – Flirtations with Fascism in British Pop

Phil Collins has voted Conservative.

Ian Curtis voted Conservative.

Geri Halliwell praised Margaret Thatcher.

Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley is a Tory.

Nobody cares.

Not really.

Nobody has ever suggested that you shouldn’t listen to their music because of their political leanings…not real people in the real world, maybe a few of the more, um, “interesting” characters on Twitter but nobody actually pays any attention to those people, or they shouldn’t.

The reason why nobody really cares about musicians (or any other creative) holding particular mainstream political views is because…it’s not actually all that important.  Certainly it doesn’t make someone a bad person, or a bad artist (whatever that might be) if they hold political opinions that differ from your own.  Most rational people understand that it is perfectly possible to disagree with a persons political opinions and still have other things in common.  I have friends from across the political spectrum from libertarians to socialists, Tory voters, Labour members, Greens and S.N.P supporters…I agree with all of them on some things and disagree with them all on other things, occasionally there is even common ground between them all.

Funny that.

It’s almost as if politics isn’t the same as supporting a football team and requires an ability to be rational, to compromise and to be open to new information that may lead to a change in your opinion.

However, there is one strand of political thinking that unifies everyone in opposition to it…fascism. Rightly, any declaration of support for racist politics will bring your career to an end, certainly as a mainstream artist.  Nobody with a belief in the principle that we should not judge people based on immutable characteristics wants to support someone who actively promotes a belief system built on the opposite of that.

At least, that’s what we would like to think.

The truth is though that their have been occasions when pop stars have offered up some genuinely distasteful and disturbing views but have managed to cling on to their careers and, over time, seen those “lapses” in judgement airbrushed from their histories.

In 1977 Chiswick records released the debut album (“All Skrewed Up”) by a band calling themselves Skrewdriver.  A collection of thirteen songs that seemed, largely, to have been inspired by British rhythm and blues music…specifically the sort of music that the likes of the Rolling Stones and The Who had delivered to their audiences in the early stages of their careers.  At times they even sounded a bit like The Jam, especially on “Government Action”.  The influence of punk was also writ large over the album and, interestingly, members of the band had been in attendance at one of the Sex Pistols gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester.  It was the sound of seventies, council estate Britain…frustration, boredom and poverty infuse nearly every song.  It’s all over in under half an hour.

Skrewdriver’s lead singer and songwriter, Ian Stuart Donaldson, had formed a covers band called Tumbling Dice with some of his school friends and it was from this gang of Poulton boys that the original line-up of the band came.  Up until this point it is a familiar and unremarkable tale of working class kids looking to find a way out of their dead end lives and towns.  What makes Skrewdriver worthy of closer scrutiny lies not in the innocence of their debut album but in what came next.

The band had already developed a reputation for violence at their live gigs and shortly after “All Skrewed Up” they disbanded over disagreements about songwriting credits and publishing deals.  That should have been that…a footnote in the history of British punk.  But Donaldson had other ideas, he wanted to be remembered and so Skrewdriver returned but this time without the original members and with a brand new sound and vision.

Tapping into the anger, frustration and violence that he had witnessed while touring the country and under the influence of the openly racist National Front, Donaldson reinvented Skrewdriver as the voice of the far right.  Out went the punk melodies and punk by numbers lyrics and in came the aggressive, brutal and brutish sound of “Oi” and lyrics that celebrated far right political ideology.  Skrewdriver, and Donaldson himself, were openly and defiantly racist.  Nationalists and not patriots.  Between 1982 and 1993 Skrewdriver delivered nine albums that were ugly, nasty and dangerous.  As if his work with Skrewdriver wasn’t evidence enough of his position as a far right extremist Donaldson also produced albums with his rockabilly outfit…The Klansmen.  A hero to those who follow and support the far right Donaldson died in a car crash in 1993.

Skrewdriver though are just the best known of these far right extremist musicians, across Europe and the rest of the world, there is a network of record labels and bands who release music inspired by Donaldson and who look to use their gigs as recruitment stalls for the sorts of damaged individuals who are susceptible to the hateful message of the likes of the KKK, Aryan Nations, BNP and Combat 18…to name just a few.

Because bands like Skrewdriver exist, largely, in the shadows it is easy to ignore them or to dismiss them.  What is more difficult to ignore, or to explain, are those musicians who, for whatever reasons, align themselves with far right politics…no matter how briefly.

…get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out…keep Britain white.

Those were the words of Eric Clapton from the stage in Birmingham in August of 1976.  That frankly filthy tirade gave birth to Rock Against Racism and plunged Clapton into the darkest corners of popular music.  He became the worst thing for any musician…unfashionable.  Of course a musician can ride out being unfashionable if they keep their own fans on side but with remarks like those Clapton found himself shunned by all and sundry.

Since then Clapton has suggested that drugs and alcohol played a part that night and in his life in general at that time to such an extent that he became “chauvinistic” and “fascistic” too.  Drugs and alcohol do make people behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise but I would suggest that the idea that they alone would see you saying such dreadful things is unlikely.

No such excuse could be offered by David Bowie who also flirted with fascism…and over a much longer period of time.  As far back as 1974, in a Playboy interview, Bowie was expressing some form of admiration for Hitler, going as far as to describe him as a rock star; “Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger…[Hitler] used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those twelve years. The world will never see his like again. He staged a country.”  It didn’t stop there of course, with Bowie being arrested at the Russian/Polish border for possession of Nazi memorabilia and then calling for a fascist leader in Britain “I believe Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader.”  Then there was the, now infamous, allegation that he gave a Nazi salute to fans who gathered to welcome him back to Britain and the suggestion that he had visited Hitler’s bunker and been photographed giving the same salute there.

Some of those incidents are well documented, others less so but what is clear is that Bowie was playing with fascist imagery and seemed to be suggesting that there were benefits to fascism.  Cocaine?  Ego?  Playing with controversy to court press interest?  Sure, it could be any one of those…possibly all of those.

During the Britpop era psychedelic, sixties, mystical rockers Kula Shaker also appeared to dabble with far right politics.  Lead singer, Crispian Mills, was heavily influenced by eastern mysticism and pointed out that the swastika was, in fact, a Hindu symbol that suggested good fortune and prosperity.  Mills described it as a “brilliant image”.  That would have been that were it not for the fact that at an earlier point in their career the band, with a different name, had played at a conference where anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists were booked to speak.  Mills issued a fairly compelling denunciation of the far right and pointed to his own families Jewish heritage but the damage was done and Kula Shaker were cast from the mainstream for a fairly lengthy period of time.

Then we have the current furore surrounding Morrissey which I have discussed at length here.  This though is just the latest in a long line of British musicians playing with, flirting with  and dancing with the far right.  The difference between Bowie, Clapton, Mills, Morrissey and Donaldson was, of course, that none of them were actually racists or fascists…or at least they were more intelligent than Donaldson and so were able to do and say what they did in a way that protected them, to some extent, from the societal shunning that he, rightly, received.

The problem for the three bona fide legends of British pop is that we, the audience, hold them to a higher standard than a boor like Donaldson.  With the likes of Skrewdriver MkII and the other far right oi bands we can just ignore them and we never have to actually confront their ideologies because they never enter our worlds.  But when Morrissey says he thinks For Britain are worthy of your vote, or when Bowie said we need a fascist leader or when Clapton uses words like “wog” or “coon” people are listening…it isn’t possible to ignore the loudest voice in the room.  With that power comes responsibility.  You need to select your words with greater care and be sure that what you are saying is more than just a random brain fart that has bubbled up in your subconscious.

Photograph by Phil Pearson

The image above offers some explanation as to why Bowie, Clapton (and Crispian Mills) were able to ride out the scandal surrounding some of their comments and why, at this moment in time, Morrissey has not…they each managed to offer some sort of an apology or explanation for their actions (some more compelling and convincing than others) but Morrissey has not.  As I suggested in my piece on Morrissey the truth is that nobody minds him holding conservative opinions, nobody even really cares if he wants to have a discussion about the impact of immigration…but you can do all of that without lurching into the arms of extremists.  How do I know?  Because someone like Douglas Murray did exactly that in his book “The Strange Death of Europe”.  Now, you don’t need to agree with everything or anything in Murray’s book but he has been able to discuss contentious issues like immigration and identity without needing to offer support to far right political parties.

Quite what the attraction of the far right has been for these artists is anyone’s guess…the iconography, the shock and awe that invoking the Nazis inspires (just think about the original punks and their use of Nazi imagery for exactly that reason) or maybe, terrifyingly, a genuine belief in the things they said at the time that they said them.


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