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OZZY PLAYED GUITAR – Bowie, Blackshirts & Blurred Lines.

When Sir Oswald Mosley set up his British Union of Fascists in 1932 he originally chose for its symbol the "fasces" of Mussolini’s party (see previous post); but this was soon superseded by the adoption of the “Flash and Circle” logo (by the way, with great wit, Mosley’s opponents christened this the “Flash in the pan”).

Now, fans of David Bowie may recognize a similarity between the BUF symbol and the one used on both the backdrop of the Ziggy Stardust tour and the cover of the Aladdin Sane album.

800px-British Union of Fascists flag.ant.svg

aladdin sane

Mere coincidence? Probably not. Growing up in Brixton and Bromley in the 1950s the young David Jones would almost certainly have been aware of the existence of Mosley and his Blackshirts.

And anyway, wasn’t Ziggy supposed to be a god-like leader, delivering a message to the masses? A message that might deliver them from the death of civilization (a recurring theme for academics and doom-mongers throughout the ‘morbid age’ between the wars). Beethoven’s stirring “Ode to Joy” blasting out of the speakers before he came on stage … the dramatic lighting … the unquestioning adoration of the crowds … all those raised arms (Give me your hands!).

Now, don’t for a moment think that I’m trying to suggest that David Bowie is some kind of closet neo-Nazi; I’ve been a lifelong fan, and you’ll notice the odd reference to Mr B’s work cropping up here and there in future posts. Indeed, many of the trinkets on my "invisible thread" have been suggested by his work (Weimar Berlin, Brel, Weil, Egon Schiele, Crowley etc.). No, I actually think the interesting point here is Bowie’s recognition of some of the parallels between the rock star and the dictator. The idolisation of the masses; the iconography of the “brand”; the theatrical performance augmented by lighting and stagecraft.

Bowie continued to flirt with the imagery of fascism, and of pre-war Berlin in particular, throughout the 70s. And—perhaps in part influenced by the amount of Class A drugs he’d been hovering up his nose—he sometimes made some extremely dubious (and no doubt knowingly provocative) statements:

“Britain is ready for a fascist leader … I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism … I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership … Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars … You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.”

“Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of his films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger. And boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those twelve years. He staged a country.”

“People aren’t very bright, you know. They say they want freedom, but when they get the chance, they pass up Nietzche and choose Hitler, because he would march into a room to speak and music and lights would come on at strategic moments. It was rather like a rock’n’roll concert. The kids would get very excited.”

And then, of course, there was the incident at Victoria Station …

bowiesalute

Having now reinvented himself as the “Thin White Duke” Bowie was returning to the UK to tour in 1976 and was photographed, in the back of an open-topped Mercedes (with more than a hint of a German staff car) giving, what was claimed by the NME as, a ‘Nazi’ salute. Now, Bowie later denied this, insisting that is was merely a wave, but in light of his previous statements regarding fascism you can see how this could be misinterpreted.

 

 

The Victoria Station Incident, as it was portrayed in the NME at the time.

The press coverage of the Victoria Station incident led the Musicians’ Union (which in the 1970s was a far more left-wing organization than it is today) to pass the following motion in November of the same year:

“When a pop star declares that he is ‘very interested in fascism’ and that ‘Britain could benefit from a fascist leader’ he is influencing public opinion through the massive audiences of young people that such pop stars have access to. Such behaviour is detrimental to the interests of the Union, since it prepares the ground for a political system in which the Trade Union movement can be smashed, as it was in Nazi Germany. This Central London Branch therefore proposes that any member who uses his professional standing or stage act or records to promote fascism should be expelled from the Union.”

  Here's a clip from Youtube - see what you think:

However, Bowie’s flirtation with fascist imagery pales into insignificance when compared with Eric Clapton’s drunken, racist rant from the same year at a gig in Birmingham. The tirade began:

“Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands. Wogs I mean, I'm looking at you …” It then descends into a torrent of racist abuse. You can see the full speech here – Clapton's Tirade

If you remember that in the mid 1970s the British far-right political party the National Front (opposed to non-white immigration, and committed to a programme of repatriation) was at its height, you can see how inflammatory such an outburst might be. It is believed that this racist rant from Clapton was one of the inspirations for the formation of the “Rock Against Racism” movement.

Now, compare Eric Clapton’s words with these lyrics from Pink Floyd’s song “In the Flesh”:

 

Are there any queers in the theatre tonight? Get them up against the wall.

There's one in the spotlight, he don't look right to me. Get him up against the wall.

That one looks Jewish! And that one's a coon!

Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?

There's one smoking a joint! And another with spots!

If I had my way, I'd have all of you shot!

 

And if we then look at the staging of this song in the film “The Wall”, Roger Waters’ 20th Century opera of angst (with Bob Geldof doing a sterling job as the lead character “Pink”) …

… you’ll see that we have an extension of the “rock star as dictator” theme that Bowie was experimenting with in his Ziggy Stardust incarnation; but Waters has certainly taken it to the extreme. The Nuremburg rally-like staging, the skinhead praetorian guard, the neo-Nazi uniforms, the crossed-hammer fascist symbol – here we’re witnessing the main character Pink’s descent into the madness of a totalitarian superstar, picking out the minorities in the audience to be taken out the back and assaulted by his faithful followers (à la Mosley).

Here we have the real message, surely? After all, it’s never really the politics that motivate those worker ants of history’s darkest moments—the card-carrying Nazis, the party faithful of the Great Terror, the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army—but rather the spectacle, the propaganda … the charisma of their glorious leader.

So, is there a place for the flirtation with such imagery in rock music? After all, these historical movements led to the deaths of millions of people in the 20th century. And what if the imagery is used just to provoke, to get a reaction? Here’s Steve Severin, from Siouxsie and the Banshees (formed in the same year as Bowie’s Victoria Station incident and Clapton’s racist tirade) talking about the Punks’ fashion statement of sporting Nazi regalia:

"The swastikas ... To us these weren't badges of intolerance, but symbols of provocation to an older generation that had to get out of the way to make room for younger voices. When it was a small movement you could use symbols like that … "

billy-idol-siouxsie-sioux

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, there’ll always be those that miss the underlying message, taking things at face value; such as the American white supremacist group “The Hammerskins”, who adopted the crossed hammers fascist symbol from The Wall as the logo for their far from ironic promotion of “white power rock music”.

And I do wonder how Roger Waters explained that particular scene in the film to his mate Eric Clapton when the guitarist joined him on his first solo project “The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking”.

I think though, on reflection, it’s worth the gamble of young, impassioned (though sometimes immature/intoxicated) artists flirting with images and ideas that might offend; certainly if it means that by doing so they continue to shout with unique voices, and offer us new and exciting views of the world. Here’s the thing - we don’t have to agree with them. After all, isn’t art supposed to provoke a reaction? To make us question these things? Isn’t rock music supposed to be rebellious and dangerous? What’s the alternative—an homogenized, anaemic popular culture, churning out innocuous and censored rehashings of the same old songs, the same old films … oh, hold on! Has anyone got Cowell’s number?

Abyssinia!

 

To discover more about the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust check out Simon Goddard’s excellent book "Ziggyology".

BUF symbol image via Wikimedia Commons

NME image source The Musicians' Union: A Social History

Siouxsie Sioux & Billy Idol image source theselvedgeyard.files.wordpress.com

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