Should I trash my entire collection of David Bowie recordings because I abhor the fascist comments he made over 30 years ago? In part 2 of an article examining British rock stars’ fascination with Nazi imagery, we’ll take a look at three English superstars who’ve have made some mighty disturbing comments over the years.
The innately-suave Bryan Ferry, leader of the popular U.K. band Roxy Music, used to refer to his West London recording studio as “The Führerbunker,” which was the name of Hitler’s Berlin bunker. He once told German newspaper Welt am Sonntag: “The Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves. The way in which the Nazis stage-managed and presented themselves, my gentleman! I’m talking about Leni Riefenstahl films and Albert Speer’s buildings and the mass rallies and the flags – simply fantastic.” At the time of the interview, Ferry had been contracted by British retailer Marks and Spencer (founded by Russian Jewish refugee Michael Marks) to model its “Autograph” menswear line. England’s Jewish community was appalled by his comments and demanded the House of Commons make a motion urging people to boycott M&S and refuse to buy Ferry’s albums. He responded with a statement: “I apologize unreservedly for any offense caused by my comments on Nazi iconography, which were solely made from an art history perspective. I, like every right-minded individual, find the Nazi regime, and all it stood for, evil and abhorrent.” Despite his mea culpa, Marks and Spencer cut all ties with him. That’s some heavy karma for a fashionista like Bryan.
While guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton never extolled the tenets of Nazism per se, he’s certainly expressed some very fascist views. In a drunken rant during a concert in Birmingham, England, in August 1976, he voiced his support of Britain’s conservative minister Enoch Powell, who had denounced the country’s anti-discrimination legislation and liberal immigration policy. Clapton told the audience: “Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. F..king wogs, man. F..king Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back.” Booze notwithstanding, what motivates a seemingly normal person to lash out like this? Admittedly, England was a mess in the ’70s. It’s a fascist’s nature to seek scapegoats during times of trouble. Clapton clearly took a lesson from their book, and vented his wrath on the immigrants.
His outrageous diatribe helped mobilize the creation of Rock Against Racism (today known as Love Music Hate Racism), an organization spearheaded by British photographer Red Saunders, Roger Huddle and members of Kartoon Klowns. Clapton later apologized, saying his remarks were meant as a joke, and that he was ignorant of politics at that time. Yet, in 2007, he told a reporter that he is still a fan of Enoch Powell, whom he does not consider a racist.
And finally, there’s The Thin White Duke, David Bowie, who may have taken the “white” thing a bit too far. In April 1976, he was traveling by rail when customs officials at the Poland/Russia border held up the train for several hours while they seized his collection of Nazi books and memorabilia. Bowie claimed he was using the material as research for a possible film project about Nazi PR meister Joseph Goebbels. A worthy try on his part, but it’s hard to believe that claim after reading his comments in the press decades ago. In an interview conducted by Cameron Crowe for the September 1976 issue of Playboy, Bowie declared, “Britain is ready for a fascist leader…After all, fascism is really nationalism.” He went on to say, “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars” and “You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.” To quote a Bowie song, this bordered on rock and roll suicide.
I was, and still am, a huge Bowie fan, and only recently learned of his dabbling in fascism. Of course, he eventually apologized for his statements, blaming his outlandish behavior on his preoccupation with the occult, excessive cocaine use, and his fascination with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who coined the term Übermensch (super-man) – a word used by Hitler to describe his Aryan master race. (Nietzsche himself was not anti-Semitic and deplored German nationalism.) Bowie told an interviewer, “I have made my two or three glib, theatrical observations on English society and the only thing I can now counter with is to state that I am NOT a fascist.”
So, what are we to make of these rockers and their interest in Third Reich nostalgia? A number of my close family members are Jewish. Should I feel a sense of guilt about admiring some of the performers cited in this article — many of whom have long inspired me with their music and fashion? I want to believe these people were merely acting up (often with the aid of chemicals), experimenting with shocking, subversive personae, and flipping the finger to mainstream society – as most rockers are destined to do. I admit I’m conflicted.
A hundred years before the birth of rock and roll, German composer Richard Wagner was all the rage in Europe, with his soaring, richly orchestrated operas. He was an anti-Semite, harshly critical of Jewish artistic contributions to German culture. Many years later Adolph Hitler would embrace Wagner’s music as the perfect soundtrack to his nationalist movement. Woody Allen once joked, “I just can’t listen to any more Wagner, you know…I’m starting to get the urge to conquer Poland.” His music was extremely controversial among Jews and was completely banned in Israel for many years. However, in recent decades many Jews have come to recognize that it’s possible to distinguish between the racist nature of Richard Wagner and the beauty of his creation. In 1981, Zubin Mehta performed parts of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as an encore at a concert in Tel Aviv. Many audience members walked out, but most stayed till the end. In 2000, Holocaust survivor Mendi Rodan conducted Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, and in August 2001 Daniel Barenboim conducted a concert in Tel Aviv that included an excerpt form Tristan und Isolde. While Wagner’s music still incites controversy in Israel, his works are broadcast on government-owned radio and television stations.
A very liberal friend of mine once trashed all of her Van Morrison CDs when it was rumored he planned to perform at George Bush’s 2001 inauguration (he didn’t). Should I, a staunch proponent of civil liberties, burn my beloved collection of Bowie and Clapton LPs because I loathe the views they expressed three decades ago? No. Because, despite what many artists would like to believe, they’re imperfect humans like everybody else — not “gods,” as the Clapton graffiti adorning a London train station once declared.
When it comes to accepting or banishing British rockers for their fascination with Nazi imagery and ideology, I leave it to you to come to your own conclusions.
© Dana Spiardi, Aug 26, 2013