Thursday, January 18, 2018

Nazis In Unpop Culture


A month or so ago, rock journalist Steve Knopper called me to discuss how punk music pushed back against Nazis who tried infiltrating the early anarchistic punk music scene. Fascists in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York seemed drawn to the scene's iconography, rowdiness and anti-establishment perspective. Soon after I went off to Thailand-- the Land of Smiles-- and forgot all about it. This week Steve's story, Nazi Punks F**k Off: How Black Flag, Bad Brains, and More Took Back Their Scene from White Supremacists was published by GQ. First paragraph:
Every hardcore band you loved in the '80s and beyond, from Black Flag to Minutemen to Fugazi, had one unfortunate thing in common: Nazi skinheads occasionally stormed their concerts, stomped their fans, gave Hitler salutes in lieu of applauding, and generally turned a communal experience into one full of hatred and conflict. Punk rockers had flirted with fascist imagery for shock value, with the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux wearing swastikas in public, but, as early San Francisco scenester Howie Klein, later president of Reprise Records, recalls: “Suddenly, you had people who were part of the scene who didn’t understand ‘fascist bad.’”
I watched in horror as bands, and their supporters, tried to out-do each other in outrageousness in the mid to late '70s. The idea is that if you could piss off your parents and other authority figures, you were succeeding (at something). At the time I had a punk label in San Francisco and our first signing was the most popular local band, The Nuns. Our very first release, a 3-song 7" EP-- looked vaguely Nazi-ish:

There were 3 singers-- one was Jewish, one was gay and one was an art school woman and the guitar player was from a prominent socially conscious Latino family. The song was "Decadent Jew," a live version of which from 1978 is posted above. The Jewish singer uses the N-word. At one point Bill Graham said he would manage the band if they stopped performing the song; they refused. The two other songs on the record were "Suicide Child" and "Savage." They got a lot of attention, which was the whole idea and the way to compete. The fans picked up on the vibe and were soon out-of-control, especially when the scene went from an ironic art school in-crowd joke, to a way for suburbanites to blow off some steam.
By 1980, a more violent strain of punk fans was infecting punk shows. “Pogoing became slam-dancing, now known as moshing, and some of ’em didn’t seem like they were there to enjoy the music, as much as they were there to beat up on people-- sometimes in a really chickenshit way,” says Jello Biafra, whose band, Dead Kennedys, put out a classic song about it in 1981: "Nazi Punks Fuck Off."

Many of the more conscious scene leaders, like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (from The Clash), Jello Biafra (from the Dead Kennedys), Joey and Tommy Ramone (though not Johnny or Dee Dee) were having misgivings and feeling some responsibility very early on. The bands that didn't give a shit-- or even encouraged and exploited the worst aspects (like the Sex Pistols)-- were cooler, at least in some circles.

Knopper then puts the 3 decade old movement into the context of "the era of Trump and the alt-right, Charlottesville, and 'very fine people on both sides,' [when] fighting Nazis is sadly newly relevant, and veterans of the hardcore-vs.-skinheads battles of yore are happy to help with war stories and advice." The rest of his piece is a very worthwhile oral history on how punks took back their scene, featuring, among others, Black Flag's Henry Rollins, Mike Watt from Minutemen, Darryl Jenifer of Bad Brains and Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery. I should have told Knopper to include Penelope Houston from The Avengers. Last night she surprised me with her recollection. "The Avengers broke up in mid-79. We didn't seem to attract super narrow-minded fans. I think the Nazis coming to punk gigs happened years after that, but I wasn't there. I'd made my way into more arty or folky kinds of punk: Human Hands, Monitor, B-People, Violent Femmes, after hardcore reared it's nearly shaved little head. There was one time some dudes from the suburbs came to our show at the Mabuhay and started punching people in the audience. We just stopped playing. This was in a pre-pit, pogo-esque time period. I still don't get why some people say the Avengers were the first hardcore band. We were not having it."

Darren Hill was the bass player-- and the brains behind-- the Red Rockers, a band on my label, 415 Records. They had come from Metairie, Louisiana, home of KKK Grand Wizard or Dragon (and Republican state legislator) David Duke. The Red Rockers were nothing like David Duke-- and when their first album was released they were often referred to as "the American Clash." Today Darren manages Paul Westerberg of The Replacements. I asked him to read Knopper's story and give me some input.
We knew that Nazi imagery had been adopted by some of the punk pioneers strictly for it’s shock value. That always made me uneasy but I never imagined that anyone in our scene would actually adopt their ethos.

Slam dancing had become a thing at our shows in New Orleans but it was harmless fun for the most part. Occasionally ignorant and testosterone fueled jocks would come out and misinterpret what was going on. They thought it was some kind of sport and started hurting people-- even girls.

We did a pretty good job policing it though-- stopping the show and calling them out. Ridicule and shaming was pretty effective because they were outnumbered.

It wasn’t until we hit the road that we encountered real Nazi Punks for the first time. I couldn’t believe it. This is a real thing? What in the hell are you doing at our show? Do you know what we’re about? Have you ever listened to our lyrics? We went from awareness and singing “Springtime for Hitler” in the van to the cognizance that this was real and dangerous… and very, very frightening.

By the time we returned home they had infiltrated OUR scene. The vilolence had spun up several notches and we could no longer control it-- to the point that the club we played at all the time had to ban us due to the violent element. I always believed that violence begets violence but there was no reasoning with these animals. Failed attempts and a black eye led to the realization that they were not just ignorant, they were brainwashed. We understood that we had to defend ourselves and our scene. The next time we hit the road, we took our friend out as a roadie-- the only employee we could afford at the time. He was a six-foot-four 260 pound hulk of African/Puerto Rican decent. Picture a NFL linebacker with a mohawk in a kilt. He couldn’t tune a guitar to save his life but probably saved our lives a few times. He would slowly skank across the stage while we played always keeping an eye on the crowd. If he saw any sign of trouble he would leap down into the middle of it and dance, then jump back up and resume skanking. He was actually quite graceful for such a big man. He was so intimidating yet peaceful and we never had a problem after that.

Years later, in the late 90’s, I was managing the Dropkick Murphys. There was a resurgence of the skinhead movement and they adopted the band as their own. Even though the band denounced them, there was still a huge presence at the shows. There was freightening confrontation at a Warped Tour show one year in Salt Lake City. The band’s vastly outnumbered crew stood up to a literal army of bad skins that day in what can only be described as a battle. What can I say, our guys were from Boston. Luckily there were no serious injuries and the skinheads were chased off in shame. There was a serious threat of retaliation if the band ever came back to SLC so we stayed out of the market for a while. Fortunately that dissipated over time.

Those who believe in hate cannot feel empowered and be allowed to grow. Charlottesville reminded me of this.

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At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post!
Shout out to Flipper, Sea Hags, and power pop SVT.

At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not big on punk, but I like the Red Rockers.

Now if only there was more of this going on in today's dystopian adventure.

At 10:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why have americans always had something of a Nazi fetish?


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