PUNK ROCK AND ANTI-RACISM – or,
DEATH IN JUNE NOT MYSTERIOUS
The hoary debate about punk rock and politics was recently given a boost by the publication of Punk Rock: So What? edited by Roger Sabin. (1 ) The editor’s essay ‘I Won’t Let That Dago By: Rethinking Punk and Racism’ is one of several pieces that raises the issue of punk politics directly. Claiming that there is a consensus about British punk rock of the seventies being ‘essentially solid with the anti-racist cause’, Sabin sees a punk alliance with the organisations Rock Against Racism (RAR) and the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) as providing the capstone of this myth. Sabin deflates what he sees as the fable of punk anti-racism by trotting out a few examples of unsavoury lyrics and media sound bites.
While Sabin suggests that some of the bands who played RAR benefits suffered from unconscious racist blind spots (Joy Division, Sham 69, the Art Attacks, and Adam and the Ants), his article would have been more illuminating if he’d examined the relationship between musicians who have been accused of expressing racist and/or fascist views and SWP front groups as well as the effect (if any) this anti-racist organisation had on the subsequent development of those who supported it. (2 ) Since bands with managers were able to appear at RAR events without having any contact with the organisation, I will deal with an example of this type of “non-connection” before moving onto more complex interactions between punk rockers and Trotskyism. Edwin Pouncey who fronted the Art Attacks in the late-seventies was horrified to discover that Sabin considered his band’s song Arabs In ‘Arrads to be racist: “I didn’t write the lyrics to that song, they were by our drummer John Haney. But all our songs were little stories, they weren’t necessarily written from our point of view. We certainly never shopped in Harrods, so it didn’t bother us who went there. We played Arabs In ‘Arrads for RAR and no one complained about it. RAR phoned us up and asked us to play, our manager dealt with them. He thought it was a good idea to do RAR, we didn’t have any problems with them, they paid our manager and he split the money between us.” (3 )
On the late-seventies punk scene the Art Attacks were not considered to have an image problem – indeed, since their bass player Marion Fudger worked for the feminist paper Spare Rib, they could even be seen as having a certain political cache. However, RAR was not averse to putting on bands that could draw a crowd but were considered politically suspect by the music press. The official RAR publication Temporary Hoarding ran a Lucy Toothpaste interview with Adam and the Ants, a band that Sabin takes to task for their song Puerto Rican. The feature is accompanied by a picture of the band playing a benefit for RAR on 17 June 1978. Despite allowing the Ants to play RAR benefits, the organisation nevertheless shows considerable hostility towards them: “Adam and the Ants phoned us up to say they wanted to play gigs for Rock Against Racism. This didn’t seem to fit in with the accusations their reviewers are always making that this band have an unhealthy interest in the Nazis. Well, we don’t believe what we read in the music press either, but we decided to interrogate – I mean, interview – them, anyway….” (4 ) The interview kicked off with the band being asked why they wanted to play RAR gigs. Drummer Dave Barbarossa explained:
“It’s in my interest, isn’t it! I’m a darkie! How can they call us a Nazi band when we’ve got a coloured drummer! I’ve got a jewish mother and the other side of my family is black. I mean surely I must be the most anti-Nazi and anti-racist bloke! If the National Front ever get in power I’ll be kicked out of the country right away. I wouldn’t go around supporting people who wrote songs in favour of Nazism. I’ve got a kid and wife you know. I’ve got a lot to worry about if they get in. That’s why doing these gigs are good for the band because it’s important to do this just to clear the air…
RAR: Well you’ve made it clear that you personally don’t believe in fascism. But the whole Nazi thing is often treated as though it had a sort of sordid glamour about it, which might appeal to people who are fed up and frustrated and think it sounds more exciting than boring everyday life. Don’t you think that doing songs like these might encourage that?
DAVE: The blokes I went to school with are all in the National Front now, they’ve told me to my face, and I’ve been beaten up by the NF, my brother has, because I live in Wood Green – and if I thought I was playing in a group that was furthering – bringing out their fantasies and making them a reality – or sort of helping the National Front, I’d leave. Fucking hell. They’re just humorous songs, they’re really funny, you can laugh at Nazism in those songs, instead of being frightened…
(RAR) Dave says the songs make fun of Nazism. But then Adam lets the cat out of the bag (and it is a tom cat). He finds little German girls appealing. Perhaps he finds the concentration camps appalling – but you wouldn’t know it from the song…
(DAVE): I’m not a politician cos I can’t get it together to think – the moment I start thinking about politics all these things start coming up, and I wonder how they got there in the first place. And so the only thing we can do is play these gigs and raise some money for you and support you publicly….
(RAR conclusion addressed to the reader rather than the band) So now you know.”
While RAR were happy to take the money raised by Adam and the Ants, the organisation clearly felt nothing but contempt for the band, so it is perhaps not surprising that the alliance between this mismatched pairing didn’t last long. (5 ) RAR enjoyed a longer term relationship with “political” punk band Crisis who not only journeyed to many parts of the UK to play RAR benefits, but also did a tour of Norway organised by this SWP front. The close relationship between Crisis and RAR was facilitated by the fact that the punk group’s bassist Tony Wakeford was a dues-paying member of the Socialist Workers Party. Equally fortuitously, rhythm guitarist Doug Pearce belonged to the International Marxist Group (Tariq Ali’s operation) which helped the band to get Anti-Nazi League gigs, since IMG members worked themselves into positions of power within this broadly based alliance. Wakeford’s political affiliations served to secure yet more gigs connected to the Right To Work campaign (another SWP front) which with the lure of new wave rock music had no trouble attracting punks to events that might be viewed as conflicting with the subculture’s anti-work ethos.
Despite their anti-fascist activism – reflected in lyrics such as: “search and destroy, search and destroy the Nazis, the National Front, smash the National Front, annihilate, annihilate, annihilate” and “I am a militant, I am a picket, I fought at Lewisham, I fought at Grunwick” (6 ) – Crisis eventually became disillusioned with Trotskyism. At the time Doug Pearce bewailed: “But what I wish was that the left would see us on their side instead of the enemy. I mean we feel more alienated at their gigs than ordinary ones. They don’t give us any credit and the money we get they don’t even donate in our name! The left in general are really weird, they’re still scared of punk, and that’s why a lot of progress hasn’t been made.” (7 ) Wakeford speaking about the Crisis-ANL-RAR alliance many years later spat: “It ended because we were used by political parties, whose very nature, especially near the top, were full of self-seeking people. The stories are legend and it is too boring to go into. We got fucked.” (8 )
There appear to have been two interrelated problems in the relationship Crisis developed with organisations such as RAR. Despite their membership of Trotskyist groups, the lyrics Pearce and Wakeford wrote all too often show them sliding into anarchism – “I don’t need your flag and I won’t kiss it, I don’t need your law, you can stick it up your arse…” from Militant; “Don’t rebel you won’t get thanked, you’ll just get run over by a tank, don’t wanna buy the Morning Star, just be a boss in your big black car..” from Back In The USSR; and “We hate all the coppers and they’re just a bunch of Nazis, SPG, SPG…” from SPG. These anarchic tendencies were even more obvious in the way Pearce (with back up from Wakeford) ran the group – remaining staunchly “independent” and refusing to deal with managers or major record labels against the wishes of other band members. In the eighties, anarchist bands were to run campaigns against major record labels, whereas Trotskyists would sign the biggest deal they could get in the interests of putting their message across to the broadest possible audience. Despite the lip service they paid to Trotskyism, Pearce and Wakeford were in practice closer to Proudhonian anarchism.
The inability of Crisis to tow the party line was a problem for the SWPers who organised many of their RAR concerts, but it would have been resolved more readily if Wakeford had not been a “comrade” (blame was inevitably deflected from him). Incompatibility combined with the undisciplined nature of the band and their friends – who got in fights with fascists, rival punk gangs and even each other – created tensions. These pressures often resulted in the band being treated shabbily, for example not having their expenses fully covered and not being thanked for their work. There were even instances when the band turned up to do a RAR concert only to find that the PA they’d been promised had failed to materialise, or else the equipment was faulty (in one instance this resulted in Doug Pearce being hospitalised after receiving a serious electric shock).
There is a notion that explains a great deal not only about punk rock in general and Crisis in particular, but also the subsequent evolution of both Pearce and Wakeford. – and that is a hankering after “authenticity”. The motive force in everything Pearce and Wakeford have done as “adults” is not politics but aesthetics. It was an aesthetic desire for “authenticity” that led them to join Trotskyist groups despite the fact that they were dandies. Pearce, in particular, has always behaved as though it is possible to live differently in this world – a prima donna act in which he pretends to have risen above capitalism while the commodity economy is still intact – and all of anarchism is evident in this aesthetic pose. Aesthetically (and therefore politically) Crisis were much closer to anarchist noise merchants such as Crass than later “Trotskyist” bands from the Redskins to Blaggers ITA (whose bolshevism was an outgrowth of Bakuninism, whereas both Pearce and the Crass are much closer to the anarchism of Proudhon). Crisis wanted to be “real” and utilised politics as a short cut to realising what is ultimately an aesthetic position. In chasing the chimera of personal authenticity rather than the reality of revolutionary transformation, Pearce and Wakeford came to believe their political posturing was sincere. This fanatical but nonetheless deluded self-belief in a political mission was the basis on which Crisis sold themselves to their fans (some of whom were actually attracted by the hilarious gap between what Pearce and Wakeford believed about themselves and what they actually represented). Given the inability of the aesthetically driven Crisis to deliver on what they’d declared as their political positions, it is hardly surprising that the dominant members of the band ended up breaking with RAR and ultimately conventional Trotskyism.
Despite their disillusionment with leftism and popular fronts, when Pearce and Wakeford formed a new band called Death In June (DIJ) their first gig was a benefit for Workers Against Racism (a cat’s paw of the Revolutionary Communist Party) at Central London Polytechnic towards the end of 1981. At this stage, anyone puzzled by the para-military uniforms and fascist symbolism utilised by DIJ was offered reassurance along the lines of: “When we first formed we were investigating fascism, no bones about that. It’s interesting to see what this tainted ideology which has been so powerful had to say in the beginning.” (9 ) The fact that DIJ had publicly affirmed their support for anti-racism by playing a WAR benefit appeared to confirm this. While the lyrical content of songs such as Till The Living Flesh Is Burned betrayed an unhealthy interest in Nazism, for a time it seemed possible that DIJ had an anti-fascist agenda. However, interviews with Doug Pearce dating from the mid-eighties onwards make it clear that if DIJ set out with the intention of demystifying fascism, they were nonetheless confused about the issues involved.
This is what Pearce had to say about the Night of the Long Knives to the music paper Sounds in 1985: “Our interest doesn’t come from killing all opposition, as it’s been interpreted, but from identification with or understanding of the leftist elements of the SA which were purged, or murdered by the SS. That day is extremely important in human history… They were planning execution or overthrow of Hitler, so he wouldn’t be around. We’d be living in a completely different world, I should imagine… It’s fascinating that a few people held the destiny of the world and mankind in their hands for those few hours and let it slip, and it could’ve gone either way.” (10 ) It is clear from this that Pearce lacks not only any understanding of politics and history, but plain common sense. Since the brownshirts represented the “left-wing” within National Socialism, they were necessarily fascists. It is the nature of fascist movements to expand or collapse. If Hitler had been replaced as head of the German state by another Nazi leader in 1934 it would have made little difference to “the world” and “mankind” – since resentment about the Versailles treaty was one of the things that brought the Nazis to power and was leading inextricably to war. Likewise, the culture of anti-semitism that had poisoned much of Europe for hundreds of years was exploited by the Nazis for propaganda purposes and the entire National Socialist leadership was eager to take this racism to a murderous conclusion.
What is going on beneath Pearce’s meaningless bluff about “the destiny of the world” is so obvious that it hardly needs explaining: the Trotskyist myth of betrayal is being attached to National Socialism with Hitler becoming Stalin and Ernst Rohm becoming Trotsky. As if to notify the world that his conversion to “left”-fascism is complete, Pearce raved elsewhere: “At the start of the eighties, Tony and I were involved in radical left politics and beneath it history students. In search of a political view for the future we came across National Bolshevism which is closely connected with the SA hierarchy. People like Gregor Strasser and Ernst Röhm who were later known as ‘second revolutionaries’ attracted our attention.” (11 )
However, being a firm believer in contradictions, Pearce has offered other explanations for his interest in fascism when it has been broached via the issue of his enthusiasm for dressing up in Nazi uniforms: “The question did arise but they (the music press) approached it from the right angle, the fetishistic side, the attraction within of a uniform, there’s a certain kind of appeal, a sexual power to the thing.” (12 ) This is a rather hackneyed tactic. Pearce defends his interest in Nazi uniforms on the basis that it is a manifestation of his sexuality. If Pearce merely dressed up in fascist togs at home, one would certainly think of him as sad but he would attract less criticism than he does by projecting this “fetish” in public. Being gay does not justify a liking for the garb of fascist oppressors. A distinction needs to be made here between commoditised sexual fetishism and gay liberation. The so called pink pound and the commercialisation of sex do not threaten capitalism, they buttress it, whereas the struggle for human emancipation from the commodity economy – which must necessarily include gay liberation – attacks the sexual fetishisation of oppression and its master Profit.
Pearce has consistently marketed DIJ on the basis that aesthetic fascism can be sold as pornography. The technique is simply now you see it, now you don’t, or as Pearce puts it: “Our subjects have a political significance, but in a much more oblique way, we don’t say, it’s this or it’s that, like the way Crisis did. It’s in this way we’re different.” (13 ) More accurately, DIJ are sold – and it is necessary to emphasise salesmanship since this is Pearce’s forte (he is a businessman who runs a record label which releases both his own output and that of other “artists”) – on the basis that the “group” might be politically dodgy. Contradictory messages are circulated and the fans can then spend hours wrestling with the problem of whether or not DIJ are fascists. DIJ’s game-plan for increased market penetration entails a constant slippage between the aesthetic and the political. Pearce uses symbols associated with Nazism but champions right-wing anarchism as a political creed, often articulating his free market doctrine in occult or religious terms: “I am my own religion. I am my own faith. To believe in oneself is the final cult. It’s the only real magic which really works. That’s why it’s also the most difficult.” (14 ) But given the principle of contradiction on which he works, Pearce has also claimed: “The work itself was always deemed more important than the cultivation of individual egos or personalities. Symbols are more suggestive of DIJ’s work than bland mug shots.” (15 ) Or spinning off in a slightly different direction: “My actions are instinctual. I feel sometimes I am too much a puppet of my destiny. But my path is constantly re-affirmed, so… I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing!” (16 ) In other words, drumming to the beat of commodity fetishism, making money by shifting product.
Pearce’s trick of sliding from one thing to another quickly becomes tiresome, particularly when it is premised on such a shallow manipulation of symbols. Nevertheless, done as if in earnest this con attracts an audience on the Gothic and Industrial scenes (youth subcultures). A typical example of Pearce’s sales pitch is given by former Crass fan Robert Forbes in his book Misery and Purity: A History and Personal Interpretation of Death In June where the title track of the album Brown Book is discussed as “a trap that was set and sprung.” (17 ) The title “was taken from the books of the same name which were published before WWII reporting the conditions in Nazi Germany and then after that war by the East German authorities listing Nazi and war criminals supposedly living in West Germany and their influence over that country.” Over a vocal rendition of the Nazi battle anthem The Horst Wessel are various voices taped in German, including a shout of “Achtung” (warning). Doug Pearce is allowed to explain: “No matter what I did I was accused of being this, that and the other, by the music press. I thought, alright, let’s go all out. On that album I went for contradictions… A Brownshirt is talking about a variety of matters and taking an idiotic stand on some things that were completely anti-SA and much more SS. He accused the SS of being homosexuals which is what the SA were infamous for. That speech was juxtaposed by the half-jewish grandmother saying that life was like jumping from one ice float to another, with each jump they get smaller and smaller. The end is inevitable.”
So, by juxtaposing obvious and well known Nazi symbolism with some relatively obscure anti-Nazi elements, Pearce imagines he has sprung a trap! Forbes quotes him as saying: “Some people view the name, image and words of a group on such a superficial level that misinterpretations are bound to occur. However, that happens all the time in life – there are loads of stupid people about.” (18 ) Elsewhere, Pearce defends his use of fascist imagery by saying: “Obviously people have fallen into the trap of taking it on a surface value. That is their problem.” (19 ) This cuts two ways, firstly there are those who identify with the symbolism Pearce is utilising, then there are those who oppose it. Pearce imagines he benefits both ways, since hysterical attacks upon DIJ fuel speculation that he is dodgy and thus help shift units of his product to those wanting to consume fascism as pornography. Pearce is a businessman and it is a matter of indifference to him if his fans join far-Right groups such as White Aryan Resistance or Green Anarchist – all that interests him is making money: “Too many people rely upon others to carry them – to accept their responsibilities for them. That is one of the reasons why I now work alone in DIJ. If I need help I work with other leaders. There is no room for passengers. Everyone must speak for themselves. The time for excuses is at an end.” (20 )
From the quotes that are laced through Forbes’ book it is apparent that as time has gone on, Pearce became increasingly immersed in fascist modes of thinking. What Pearce might imagine is his Great Wall Of China – a split between aesthetic and political positions – turns out on examination to be as flimsy as the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line: “DIJ unlike the past have nothing to do with conventional politics. We have nothing to tell or offer anybody in that department.” (21 ) The right-wing (individualistic) anarchism to which Pearce subscribes politically was one of the main currents that fed into ideological fascism. Rather than being separate and distinct, Pearce’s political and aesthetic positions are very closely related. Indeed, Proudhon was acclaimed as the founder of National Socialism during the Nazi occupation of France, and Pearce’s xenophobic views are very close to those of the founding father of anarchism: “I think European culture is the most important in the world and it’s threatened by other principal cultures, for example American, Soviet. Whereas it has so much to offer, we should be proud of it.” (22 )
Rather than Pearce controlling the symbolism he is using, the symbolism controls him – as long ago as January 1984 he had to sack his song writing partner Tony Wakeford from DIJ for getting involved with Patrick Harrington and the Strasserite faction of the National Front. (23 ) Likewise, for Pearce all recent history revolves around Hitler: “The most influential man of this century has been Adolf Hitler! He’s shaped the world we live in today with his hate and destruction.” (24 ) Pearce has no understanding of historical causality, the hate and destruction Hitler exploited was produced by a wide range of factors that cannot be attributed to a single man. Asked why he wears the death’s head, Pearce produced a reply that was every bit as stupid as his outburst about Hitler: “I just do, that’s all. The identification for me in those elements is like total belief, that’s why I’m fascinated, y’know? I’m still searching for total belief.” (25 ) There is a stage in child development where babies who are totally dependent on the care of others believe they are omnipotent, and despite reaching middle-age Pearce is unable to dispense with this delusion. His desire to believe that a handful of men shape history reflects his inability to grow up. Since Pearce would like to be a great man, he is unable to accept that such men do not exist and that rather than being “destined” to join them, he is simply an ego-maniac. While Pearce has been doubly infantalised by his job as a pop singer and involvement in a commoditised fetish culture which places a premium on youth, this does not excuse his crass manipulation of fascist tropes to sell records. While there are commentators who have become hysterical about Pearce, the best way of dealing with his scam is to expose him for what he is – an anarchist dry goods salesman.
There is a continuity between Crisis and DIJ in terms of both imagery centred on fascism/anti-fascism and a desire for authenticity that is aesthetically driven. It is difficult to imagine Crisis ever making much of an impression without RAR to mediate their presence on the punk scene, or DIJ existing at all without Wakeford and Pearce being slowly seduced by the ideas and imagery RAR set out to oppose (a seduction that began with these two musicians learning the power of political symbolism – at least partially – through their involvement with RAR). I would stress symbols and imagery in all this, both Crisis and DIJ were aesthetically overloaded to the detriment of both their politics and their music. Although very much a product of RAR, Crisis were also in many ways an anomaly – within a punk culture that thrived on confusion about identity and political belief, Crisis were far more confused than most of their peers. The Art Attacks appear to have been unmoved by their brush with RAR, Adam and the Ants merely ruffled. In contrast to this, Wakeford and Pearce provide examples of “individuals” who were transformed by RAR, but their deep involvement produced effects at odds with the avowed intentions of those who’d set up the organisation. (26 ) That said, to properly evaluate the role RAR and anti-racism played within both the punk scene and the broader political culture of the seventies and eighties, we need further studies of people touched by and/or involved in these campaigns. It would be wrong to generalise solely on the basis of Crisis/DIJ.
In a similar vein Green Anarchist has advocated mass murder in a series of articles on what it calls irrationalism (this one from Green Anarchist # 51, Spring 98): “They cannot jail us for we do not exist. The Irrationalist is the man or woman sitting next to you in the tube train. We have sarin canisters in our pockets and hatred in our minds… It doesn’t matter what Joe and Edna Couch Potato think about it. They weren’t there, they won’t do anything to stop it, and yet the government automatons of Oklahoma are still dead and the building has been reduced to a pile of dust… The Irrationalists do not claim to act on behalf of anybody except themselves. Why should Joe and Edna couch Potato derive any benefit from what the Irrationalists do? They can either join in somewhere, or fuck off and die, it’s up to them, it’s up to you. It’s not whether you agree or disagree that counts, but what you do…” Despite vehement condemnations of this series of articles, some of it even coming from other anarchist groups, Green Anarchist have persisted with their chosen theme and as I write have recently reiterated their position in ‘The Irrationalists 71’ (Green Anarchist # 57-58 Autumn 99:, pages 15-17) “ACE and the others are so very upset about Aum Shin Rikyo. Commuters and City of London financial sector components, dedicated to turning the wheels of capitalism, rushing to work on the underground… Or perhaps they work in the media, pushing out yet more lies, bullshit, propaganda, pacifying chat shows, crap shows, soap opera for sheep to consume, all travelling on the underground. Tax payers one and all. How just and proportionate that they should breath sarin…” At the end of this article there is an advert which states: “We’re issuing Steve Booth’s Irrationalists in pamphlet form as a big ‘fuck you’ to all the so-called anarchos who can’t face the future and don’t understand what free speech is. With all the fuss they’ve kicked up, it should sell like hot cakes.”