The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Neil Young & When Musicians Lose Their Moral Compass
Nick MacWilliam , July 30th, 2014 11:00

After Neil Young came close to breaking the cultural boycott of Israel recently, Nick MacWilliam looks at some other occasions of musicians throwing ethics to the wind

When Neil Young last week announced the cancellation of a concert in Tel Aviv following Israel's bombing of Gaza, a lot of people asked why he had planned to play there in the first place. The singer released a statement saying that "it is with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we must cancel our one and only Israeli concert due to tensions which have rendered the event unsafe at this time," while his spokesman said that "we did not want to put people in Gaza rocket range at unnecessary risk".

Over five decades, Young has remained politically engaged through his music, addressing themes such as the shooting of unarmed Vietnam War protestors ('Ohio'), the colonisation of the Americas ('Cortez The Killer') and US military expansionism under George W. Bush ('Let's Impeach The President'). The fact that throughout his career Young has advocated liberal views makes it all the more surprising that he would disregard the cultural boycott of Israel which has been running since 2004.

Roger Waters certainly wasn't down with Young's willingness to perform in Israel. "Woody Guthrie would turn in his grave", he wrote on his Facebook page, referring to the original bard of protest music, a man who has inspired pretty much all politically-minded musicians to ever strum an acoustic guitar. "Neil Young!" Waters said. "Your songs have always been redolent of love and humanity and compassion for your fellow man and woman. I find it hard to believe that you would turn your back on the indigenous people of Palestine."

But while Young's decision to play in Israel may have dismayed the singer's liberal fans, he would hardly be the first supposedly principled musician to have abandoned their conscience due to commercial considerations. Music history is littered with instances of stars turning to the dark side and exhibiting serious derailments in their moral compass.

Elton John

Elton John has been widely applauded for his work promoting AIDS awareness, but during the 1980s his compassion for those facing discrimination didn't extend as far as black South Africans. In October 1983, at the height of apartheid and with Nelson Mandela twenty years into his prison sentence, John played the Sun City casino resort in spite of the global campaign against the racist system that saw white minority rule dominate the country's black population. Sun City exploited a legal loophole over gambling licenses thanks to its location in Bophuthatswana, a region which had been declared an independent state by the South African government.

Despite the fact that no foreign country recognised Bophuthatswana as separate from South Africa was seemingly irrelevant, for it provided performers, including Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath, Queen (who had the gall to play at Mandela's 90th birthday concert in London in 2008) and Frank Sinatra, with a ready-made excuse for overriding the international cultural boycott against apartheid. The concerts were hugely popular, as white South Africans were able to see big names that rarely played in the politically isolated country, netting massive fees for the headliners.

Ten years later, in 1993, Elton John again played Sun City. Mandela was now a free man but the first post-apartheid elections wouldn't take place until the following year. John and concert promoters downplayed the singer's earlier appearances in South Africa, citing the 'independent' state of Bophuthatswana and allowing the singer to deny having been an active participant in the brutal and repressive system of apartheid. John, however, seems to have been unaffected by the whole furore or, if he was, the promise of further swelling his bulging bank account was enough to alleviate any concerns. In 2010, he again faced accusations of supporting apartheid, not in South Africa this time, but by playing a series of concerts in Israel.

The Police

The environment draws musicians to rally to its protection like wasps to a particularly sticky pot of jam. Peak-green came with the immense Live Earth concerts in 2007, a series of stadium events preaching environmental awareness through the tried and tested medium of rock, pop and R&B. Everyone who was anyone was involved in Al Gore's mega ego tri... campaign to ensure the planet's stability for future generations. There was, however, one particularly large elephant in the room or, rather, it was crossing the parched landscape in search of long dried-up waterholes. In staging a worldwide event of unparalleled size, with concerts across every continent, Live Earth was contributing massively to the very problem it sought to highlight. The event's carbon footprint was estimated at 75,000 tonnes, while performers flew the equivalent of nine times round the planet to get to the shows. For TV audiences, with our nine-to-fives and rising utility bills, it was hard not to feel a little aggrieved at being told we shouldn't take the one holiday a year we could afford while Madonna, the Chili Peppers and everyone else flew around in aeroplanes made out of champagne and seal cubs.

With so many international artists involved, it would perhaps be harsh to single out one in particular. However, while this section could be devoted to all who participated in Live Earth without getting to the venue on horseback, the case of The Police, featuring arch eco-warrior Sting, seems worthy of special mention. In a Live Earth interview at New Jersey's Giants Stadium, Sting humbly acknowledged that he and his wife Trudie Styler weren't solely responsible for safeguarding the planet, saying that, "We've been fighting this struggle for twenty years and it's nice to see that other people are in the struggle too". After Trudie had pointed out the negative effects of globalisation on small communities, Sting dispensed his advice. "I think we can all make concrete baby steps, something small," he said, as Jon Bon Jovi wailed away in the background. He then gave the example of his daughter turning out the lights when she leaves a room.

These noble sentiments were made to look somewhat insincere just a year later when The Police came top of a list of musicians with the largest carbon footprint. This was produced not only from the band's retinue, which, according to Trudie Styler, consisted of a mind-boggling 750 people, but also from the sheer size of their reunion world tour. In an NME interview, John Buckly of the website said, "At the Live Earth concert in New Jersey where The Police played, the biggest contribution to carbon emissions wasn't from the concert itself, it was the fans. The Police played lots of big stadiums - they need to be careful over where they play, and make sure it's near public transport."

Given the singer's history of campaigning for indigenous rights and environmental protection, many people took this as another example of the hypocrisy attached to wealth and fame. "I'm a rock star, I have a pretty heavy global footprint, so I have to do something larger," Sting had said at Live Earth. Fortunately for him, as the owner of several homes, in London, Wiltshire, New York, Malibu, Tuscany and elsewhere, there are an awful lot of light switches to be turned off.

John Denver

In 1985, the Australian journalist David Bradbury entered Chile to make a clandestine film (the Oscar-nominated Chile: Hasta Cuando?) about the human rights abuses and forced disappearances that were still taking place after more than a decade of military rule. Foreign news crews were largely banned from the country, lest they draw attention to ongoing abuses at a time when General Pinochet was a firm ally of London and Washington, but Bradbury was able to gain permission to film under the pretext of covering the Viña del Mar music festival.

It was here that Bradbury met John Denver, the US folk singer whose tireless campaigning on behalf of environmental awareness, the AIDS crisis, homelessness and world poverty made him a darling of liberal circles. Denver's desire to bridge Cold War hostilities saw him play large-scale concerts in the Soviet Union and later in communist China. He was also a vocal critic of the National Rifle Association, oil drilling in the Arctic and the economic and foreign policies of the Reagan administration.

The wide-ranging scope of Denver's activism only serves to heighten the surprise of seeing him acting as an apologist for the abuses of the Pinochet regime. Denver is relaxed at first, offering platitudes over Chile, before Bradbury adopts a more direct tone. "People say there's political oppression going on and people being tortured while you're singing," says Bradbury. Denver slips into denial mode. "I don't believe that's true. I think that music is never a torture." He then appoints himself spokesperson for the Chilean people. "My sense from talking to the people here is that they're much happier than they've been for a long, long time. Things are improving in many ways and they're happy about that."

Seeing as he was performing at a festival supported by the military authorities and which couldn't go ahead without their consent, Denver was always likely to encounter such views. Even so, the international campaign against Pinochet was by then well-established and the regime had been widely accused of repression and extrajudicial killings. Few musicians would seem less likely to endorse fascist dictators responsible for thousands of deaths than liberal poster-boy John Denver. But Bradbury got it on film. If he hadn't, it would be hard to believe it were true (go to 8:36 of the video above).

Bruce Springsteen

An epic, 40-year music career has made Bruce Springsteen, probably more than any other musician, the go-to reference for cultural representation of North American working class values. The poetic narrative of his music has long embraced the collective social experience, focusing on the marginalised and those who have been left behind in the nation's rise to global superpower. Springsteen's lyrical eloquence is offset by a masculine charisma that surges through his music with the force of a bull. Symbolic of the blue-collar ideals with which large numbers of his compatriots identify, Springsteen is an idol to millions of normal Americans.

So when it was announced that the singer's 2009 Greatest Hits album would be released in the US and Canada exclusively through the Wal-Mart chain, many people were puzzled by this apparent abandonment of everything Springsteen represented. Few companies have caused as much harm to the traditional American way of life as Wal-Mart, whose wealth is put into context by the presence of four members of the Walton family in the top 15 of Forbes' 2014 list of the world's richest people. In building this immense fortune, Wal-Mart has displayed scant regard for the millions of people negatively affected by its dominance. It decimates independent businesses, pollutes the environment and exploits its global workforce of over two million people with meagre wages and poor working conditions. A 2006 Berkeley study found that on average Wal-Mart paid its employees around 12-14% less than other sector workers. Any attempts to form unions in order to address grievances are ruthlessly quashed, the would-be union members often finding themselves in need of new employment.

Springsteen's decision to collaborate with the corporate behemoth went down badly with many fans. Following a public backlash at this selling-out, the singer acknowledged that he regretted the move. "It was a mistake," he said in a New York Times interview. "We were in the middle of doing a lot of things, it just kind of came down and really, we didn't vet it the way we usually do." Yet it was hard to believe that Springsteen would have been unaware of Wal-Mart's litany of unethical practices. The admission of folly may have been made in genuine repentance, but it didn't change the fact that the only way for fans to buy the album was through Wal-Mart, which in turn would have no doubt paid the Boss a pretty penny for exclusive selling rights.

Unsurprisingly given the company's influence over public consumer habits, Springsteen is not the only musician to have forsaken their principles in order to collude in maintaining Wal-Mart's hegemony. In 2012, 'punk' band Green Day agreed for their album trilogy ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tre! to be watered-down so as to comply with Wal-Mart policy on explicit content. The group had previously refused to compromise their artistic edge by allowing the sale of censored album versions that suited the company's family image. While the original uncut versions were available elsewhere, Green Day compounded their utter lack of punk credentials by releasing lead single 'Oh Love' exclusively through Wal-Mart. Although it had probably already been clear for some time, Springsteen and Green Day's involvement with the chain proved conclusively that authenticity comes a distant second to profit.