“Rock against racism” is a phrase with which I’ve been familiar for many years now, having likely seen it emblazoned on tour posters for NOFX, Rancid and the like. Anti-racist activism and rock – especially punk – music seem likely bedfellows, in that the music is an audio assault on conservative/ authoritarian thinking and institutions – Nazis, Black Shirts, the Thatcher and Reagan administrations. Plus the alternative music scene used to serve as a club for those who didn’t feel that they quite belonged to mainstream society, a group defined by members that alluded easy social categorisation. This is still true today to an extent, although there is relatively little to distinguish the cliques and associated conformist style and behaviour that have developed in this space to those that are more of the MTV world.
When I bagged an invite to a Jewish Book Week panel discussion, “Jews in Punk”, I anticipated a relatively innocuous conversation about the links between minority groups, religious or otherwise, punctuated with the odd amusing anecdote about Gene Simmons requesting maotza ball soup backstage, or the Beastie Boys originally naming one of their most anthemic tunes “You’ve Gotta Fight For Your Right To Purim Party” (disclaimer: to my knowledge neither of these things actually happened, but wouldn’t it be great if they did?).
What I wasn’t expecting was discourse dominated by the appropriation of the swastika symbol by some of punk music’s most renowned figures.
On the panel were Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade Records, Charles Murray, an editor for the NME in the ’70s when working for the magazine actually meant something in music circles, Daniel Miller who founded and heads up Mute record label and publishing house, and the artist Toby Mott.
The panel discussion began with exploration of the links between their chosen professions and Jewish identity.
Geoff Travis’s family fit the Jewish family cookie cutter of the time: they lived in Finchley and owned a shoe shop in the East End. Despite being a very anti-social teen, Geoff forced himself into a communal situation by spending time on a kibbutz in Israel. This introduction to a socialist way of life ultimately filtered through to his business ideals; he wanted Rough Trade to “have an element of communality, be an open house that anyone could come to… Give people an equal chance to make art, and for that art to reach its highest point.” Geoff sees the Richard Branson model of doing business as anathema to him – “I’ve always wanted the artists to be successful, not the entrepreneurs.”
Charles Murray’s upbringing was one of quiet and somewhat comfortable suburban living, which he came to resent. “I grew up in net curtain land. I was down with anything that disrupted the smooth surface of bourgeois suburban complacency.” When people assume he is of the bourgeois brigade, he is equally disdainful: “They asked if I was an old Etonian – more like an old Estonian!”
Not all of Daniel Miller’s family made it out of Germany and Austria during the period of Nazi rule. “I was taught to always question authority.” This was reflected in his musical tastes; nothing was to conform or become staid. For a period Daniel felt that music had stopped evolving – and then along came the curious and hypnotic loops of German electronica. Whilst bearing few similarities in sound, Daniel regarded electronic music and punk as sharing much in principle: both aimed to evade norms.
Toby Mott is a long-time collector of not only Rock Against Racism, but also neo-Nazi punk, memorabilia – stickers, badges, posters etc. Jews are apparently the biggest collectors of such items, including names in music like Chris Stein from Blondie. Many feel it is vital that Nazi items be exhibited, so as not to let people forget the atrocities of the past; this is a powerful way of keeping alive the message, “Never again.” Collecting is also about regaining a sense of control, taking the insignia away from the perpetrators of old and thereby draining them of the fear and terror they used to embody.
Wedding Jewishness and careers associated with punk is more understandable in the British punk context. While the London punk scene was always highly political, influenced as it was by Marxism and often geared towards confronting the National Front, NYC’s brand of punk tended to avoid serious issues – or at least approached them in a more fleeting and playful way. The Ramones were cartoon characters compared to their trans-Atlantic brethren.
This political bent of British punk has been a bit of a double-edged sword, with neo-Nazi punks swarming the scene as well as those with socialist sympathies. Yet interestingly swastikas have been adorned by members of both camps within the genre.
And so the discussion took a controversial turn, as both panel and audience members debated punk and the swastika.
Siouxsie and Sid Vicious are just two of many prominent figures in the punk movement to publicly wear the swastika. They did this in order to be provocative, yes, but is it anti-semitic?
Siouxsie’s case is not helped by the fact that the song Love in A Void originally included the line too many Jews for my liking – and let’s ignore for a moment how catchy Hong Kong Garden is, and recognise the hugely racially-insensitive lyrics!
Junk floats on polluted water/ An old custom to sell your daughter / Would you like number 23? / Leave your yens on the counter please… Slanted eyes meet a new sunrise/ A race of bodies small in size…
At one point in the discussion, a lady in the audience with an indiscernible accent called out, “Can we stop picking on Siouxsie?” It turns out that she, an Israeli punk, had herself donned a swastika and rejected the notion that it could necessarily be used in a game of Spot the Anti-Semite. We the audience were then reminded of the Siouxsie and the Banshees song Israel.
Shattered fragments of the past / Meet in veins on the stained glass / Like the lifeline in your palm / Red and green reflects the scene / Of a long-forgotten dream…
I’m still not certain where I stand on the acceptability of punks using the swastika. Given its sinister connotations, you’d think one would give it a wide birth? Or is it understandable that punks have used it to shock, in order to get across a more productive message, shattering the “smooth surface of bourgeois suburban complacency” with jagged-edged words, chords and clothes? Hell, punk was never meant to be polite.
If I have to offer my opinion on the matter, I’d say it’s for the afflicted community to decide how to handle the swastika. Whether it’s Jews in the Diaspora collecting to document the past, or Israelis wearing the symbol in a show of strength and rejection of victimhood, there is an underlying aim to transform something that was so harmful to Jews into something constructive for Jews. As for Siouxsie, I think she should have displayed a little more sensitivity.