Betcha didn’t know that Adolf Hitler is on the cover of The Beatles’ most revered album.
That’s right. When art director Robert Fraser and designers Jann Haworth and Sir Peter Blake began working with the band to conceptualize the cover art for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” they told each Beatle to compile a list of people they admired. Their idea was to create life size cardboard models of these characters and place them in the background, as an “audience” behind the Pepper band. The affable Ringo forfeited his choices to the others, who settled on such diverse characters as Shirley Temple, Carl Jung, and Lenny Bruce. The ever sardonic John Lennon suggested two historical figures bound to cause controversy: Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler. Excluding JC from the cover was a no-brainer: John’s 1966 “Beatles are bigger than Christ” remark had already caused enough of a brouhaha. But convincing him to forgo Hitler took some persuading. The designers went so far as to create and place a cardboard model of the Nazi leader on the set. A picture from a March 30, 1967, photo session clearly shows a non-uniformed Hitler standing to the right of hand-waving writer Stephen Crane. In fact, Der Führer remained in the final shot, unseen, hidden behind Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller, who stands directly behind Ringo.
What was John thinking? Sure, he loved black humor, but this clearly crossed the boundaries of satire. I guess the bigger question is: Why have so many British artists had a fascination with Hitler, with Nazi fashion and, in some cases, with fascist philosophy? It’s intrigued me for years. In this two-part article I’ll attempt to provide some insight — hopefully, without appearing to excuse, justify or make light of truly bad behavior.
Let’s start with the Nazi uniform itself – one of the Third Reich’s greatest works of propaganda. Its dashing look was designed to attract followers and instill fear in the enemy. It conveyed German power, pride, and superiority. Quite simply, it was a “bad ass” uniform. Perhaps that’s one reason so many British rock rebels have donned Nazi garb through the years. Or is there more to it than that? Were they merely mocking Hitler? According to journalist Nigel Farndale, in a column that appeared in the January 2005 issue of The Telegraph following the uproar over photos of Prince Harry in full Nazi regalia: “Dressing up as Nazis…belongs to a long British comedy tradition dating back to [British sitcoms] Dad’s Army, ‘Allo ‘Allo, and Fawlty Towers and, before them, to Charlie Chaplin.”
Oh, now I get it. Combine British tradition with mind-altering drugs and machismo posturing and you get stage-strutting rock stars sporting SS attire of all types. Led Zeppelin guitar god Jimmy Page Nazi-fied himself during at least one 1977 concert, wearing knee-high jack boots, black shirt and pants, a white scarf, sunglasses, and an SS officers cap, complete with the Nazi “death head” insignia. According to über-groupie Pamela Des Barres, who spent many a night with Page, his fetish extended beyond the stage; she said he liked to visit transvestite clubs dressed in full Nazi regalia.
Rolling Stones bad boy Keith Richards’ motto is “keep it dark,” and that philosophy applies to his fashion sense, as well. British blues singer Terry Reid described the guitarist’s attire following the wedding of Mick and Bianca Jagger in 1971: “By and by we could hear a clanking noise growing ever louder. It was coming down the corridor towards us. Clanking and rattling; very weird. All of a sudden it stopped right outside. The door swung open, and everyone did a double take. A man stood on the threshold. He was in full Nazi uniform. He seemed to be standing to attention, all SS tunic, with an Iron Cross or two dangling round his neck, and black jackboots. It was Keith.” Mr. Richards’ penchant for Nazi fashion began early: In 1965 he appeared with the Stones on the Ed Sullivan show, wearing a German Panzer Division tunic.
Even the less rebellious Mick Jagger, now Sir Mick, was once spotted wearing a swastika t-shirt. But former Rolling Stone Brian Jones went much further. He loved to play dress-up and probably thought he looked quite fetching in his form-fitting Nazi garb.
Supposedly, his then-girlfriend, Italian-German actress Anita Pallenberg, persuaded him to don the uniform in 1966 for the cover of Danish magazine Børge. It’s worth noting that Anita was just as scary as many Nazis. It was probably her idea to have him crush the doll with his foot.
In a January 1967 interview with music journalist Keith Altham, Brian defended himself, saying: “Really, I mean with all that long hair in a Nazi uniform, couldn’t people see that it was a satirical thing? How can anyone be offended when I’m on their side? I’m not a Nazi sympathizer.” Yet, sources say the long gone Jones slipped into his SS gear on more than one occasion. I can just picture him swooning over himself in the mirror.
But it was Who drummer Keith “the loon” Moon who played the Hitler role to the hilt, sometimes staying in character for days on end, according to his ex-wife Kim. He loved to visit pubs and restaurants decked out in full Nazi attire, often accompanied by sidekick Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The two created quite a disturbance with their alcohol-charged “heil Hitlering” and boot heel-clicking. In an extraordinary display of bad taste, he even paraded around London’s Jewish neighborhoods in the get-up.
There’s no evidence that Moon embraced Nazi ideals — or any ideals, for that matter. Booze-related delirium turned him into a class clown gone berserk. He was convinced an Indian couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Singh, was living in his head, spurring his destructive behavior. Whether or not they commanded him to dress like Hitler, we’ll never know. He died from his excesses in 1978.
And then there’s Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister. With his mutton chops and saggy mole-ridden face, he would never be considered a man of vanity (I mean, it would take a dermatologist exactly 2 minutes to remove those marble-sized moles). Yet, when it comes to clothing and accessories, he values “the look” as much as any performer.
Says Lemmy, “From the beginning of time, the bad guys always had the best uniforms. Napoleon, the Confederates, the Nazis. They all had killer uniforms. I mean, the SS uniform is f…king brilliant! They were the rock stars of that time.” Hmmm. Despite the fact that he collects Nazi memorabilia, has an Iron Cross encrusted on his bass guitar, and frequently dons a Nazi cap (for which he was almost arrested in Germany, which forbids the wearing of Third Reich items), he maintains that he is “anti-communism, fascism, any extreme.” He says he collects Nazi paraphernalia as “a safety valve to stop that form of government ever existing again.” Okay, whatever. It’s still tasteless. I would bet my life that American rednecks do not display confederate flags as a “safety valve” against slavery ever existing again.
In the mid-1970s, Third Reich symbols became part of the uniform of the burgeoning punk rock movement. You can put some of the blame on designer and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. Imagine, a bar mitzvahed boy who spent 6 years in a private Jewish school churning out Nazi-inspired fashion! His Jewish grandmother told him, “to be bad is good, and to be good is boring.” He and his partner, now-Dame Vivienne Westwood, sold items such as swastika-embellished clothing, SS handkerchiefs, and Gestapo buddy rings in their shop called Sex. Westwood said they aimed to de-mystify the swastika. That subtle concept was lost on the likes of headline-grabbing Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, who loved Nazi gear.
Most disturbingly, the Pistols released two tasteless songs that referenced an infamous Nazi concentration camp: “Belsen is a Gas,” and “Holidays in the Sun” (I don’t wanna holiday in the sun / I wanna go to the new Belsen / I wanna see some history). In a January 25, 2005, article for The Telegraph, journalist Nigel Farndale asked former Pistols guitarist Steve Jones to explain the band’s thinking with regards to Nazi imagery. Jones replied, “We weren’t finking [he means thinking] at all. It just seemed like a good way of shocking people and having a laugh.” Seriously, who laughs at songs about concentration camps?
Punk rocker Siouxsie Sioux of The Banshees sums up the Nazi fascination this way: “It was an anti-mums and dads thing. We hated older people always harping on about Hitler – we showed him – and that smug pride. It was a way of watching someone like that go completely red-faced.” She goes on: “The culture around then, it was Monty Python, Basil Fawlty, Freddie Starr, The Producers’ Springtime For Hitler…And you know what? I have to be honest, but I do like the Nazi uniform. I shouldn’t say it, but I think it’s a very good-looking uniform…It’s almost like you feel like saying, ‘Aw, come on. Nazis — they’re brilliant.’ Political correctness becomes imprisoning. It’s very…what’s the word? It’s being very Nazi! It’s ironic, but this PC-ness is so f..cking fascist.” Now there’s a pretty convoluted take on freedom of expression.
Joy Division was another Nazi-conscious punk rock group from that era. The band’s name sprang from a 1955 novella called House of Dolls, by Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nur. (He used his prisoner number – Ka-tzetnik 135633 – in his pen name.) In his book he refers to concentration camp “Joy Divisions” (a fictitious name for actual camp brothels), in which Jewish women were kept as sex slaves for Nazi officers, guards, and favored prisoners. Supposedly, the band members’ fathers fought in World War II, and they wanted a name that referenced the audacity of the Holocaust. I fail to see the point. Furthermore, the band’s “An Ideal for Living” LP featured a drawing of a Hitler Youth member on the cover! Joy Division incited even more controversy when they renamed themselves “New Order,” a concept that was featured in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Yet, band members maintained that they never had Nazi sympathies.
I do need to point out another type of punk rock that clearly was anti-Semitic, performed by neo-Nazis and white supremacist “skinheads” who proudly publicized their fascist fanaticism. These bands are so obscure and disgusting that their names aren’t worth mentioning. Even Jello Biafra, a man with the gall to name his punk band The Dead Kennedys, deplored these haters, penning a song with the title, ”Nazi Punks F..k Off!” The Nazi skinhead punks were giving the so-called mainstream punks a bad name. Imagine that.
In part two we’ll take a look at three British A-listers who never donned Third Reich symbols, but – more disturbingly – voiced some mighty shocking views at the height of their fame.
The image below is a painting by the late artist Guy Peellaert, from Rock Dreams, the book he co-published with rock journalist Nik Cohn. It presents a series of fantasy pictures of popular rock bands and artists – often portrayed at their imaginary worst. This depiction of the Rolling Stones was probably inspired by Brian Jones’s Nazi portrait. It is NOT meant to imply that the Stones were Third Reich followers or pedophiles. As offensive as it is, I’m including it because it’s such a powerful statement of how one artist perceived rebellion and decadence run amok.
“Heil, Heil, Rock-n-Roll. What’s With Brit Rockers and the Third Reich. Part Two. Click here.
© Dana Spiardi, Aug 19, 2013