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Black Sky Thinking

Why We're Investigating Extreme Politics in Underground Music
Dylan Miller , November 26th, 2018 12:12

With the far right in ascendence across the globe, there's never been a more necessary time to investigate fascist and racist infiltration, current and historical, into the underground culture we love. In an introductory essay to a new Quietus series, Dylan Miller explains why we're doing it

For over 10 years now this website has championed underground music, art and culture which seeks to challenge its audience, provoke thought and subvert mainstream ideas. Part of our purpose is to celebrate artists who have left a unique stamp on the world through uncompromising vision and determination, artists like The Fall, Sunn O))), Coil, Throbbing Gristle, Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Gnaw Their Tongues, Dragged Into Sunlight, Death Grips, Fat White Family and The Body. Whilst sonically dissimilar, all these bands share a disregard for convention and a sincere desire to push artistic and intellectual boundaries.

Artistic transgression and subversion are vital elements of any socially progressive culture, but mindlessly pushing against the boundaries of what is considered acceptable, artistically, politically, or socially, is not necessarily progress.

In his excellent book England’s Hidden Reverse (2015), David Keenan argues: “to take morality so seriously you have to pick it apart yourself in order to rebuild it in the face of the truth of existence, in all its horror and beauty, is intensely moral”. To push limits of expression in such a way that boundaries are questioned and moral lines are overstepped (either intentionally or by sheer accident and experimentation) is a moral endeavour. But, through this process of picking apart the fabric of morality, the more positive and vital elements of our communities may, if we are not vigilant, be exposed to the threat of entryism – infiltration and appropriation – by those whose motives and beliefs are regressive and altogether more sinister.

Underground culture has frequently utilised the aesthetics and imagery of fascist or extremist ideologies as a means to subvert, satirise or mirror social, cultural and political trends. In the immediate post-war period we witnessed this in the biker gangs of the 50s, who openly flaunted swastikas and iron crosses brought home from WWII by their fathers, wearing them as an act of generational rebellion and, perhaps, twisted patriotism. They simultaneously celebrated the Allied victory over the Nazis whilst shocking the ‘straight,’ law-abiding citizens they sought to differentiate themselves from, and challenging the dour post-war values they sought to liberate themselves from.

Gradually – culture moved slowly in those days – these underground, potentially dangerous acts of social defiance manifested themselves in the new pop culture. Many have interpreted the wave David Bowie made outside Victoria Station on returning from Sweden in 1976 as a Nazi salute, while his coke-fuelled fascination with fascism rose to the surface on that year’s Station To Station, a record peppered with references to Nietzsche and the occultist Aleister Crowley. “I believe Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader. After all, Fascism is really nationalism” Bowie told a journalist that year, while musing to another that Hitler was “one of the first rock stars”. Bowie, to his credit, was publicly contrite the following year: “I have made my two or three glib, theatrical observations on English society and the only thing I can now counter with is to state that I am NOT a fascist.”

At that point, racism was part of mainstream culture. Later in 1976, Eric Clapton drunkenly declared his support for anti-immigrant firebrand Enoch Powell to an audience in Birmingham, who probably wanted to hear him yell “Laaaaylaaaaa”, rather than “get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out" and "keep Britain white". That year, a shit one for Britain, which was plunging fast into and social and economic doldrums, saw a surge of support for the Far Right, in the shape of the National Front, and the formation of Rock Against Racism as a response from the musical underground.

But not everyone got the message. High street punks, following the lead of Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious, adopted the Nazi swastika as a symbolic rejection of the suburban society they wanted no part of. In Manchester, Joy Division’s Hitler Youth stylings and references to Rudolph Hess – not to mention the fact they were named after a concentration camp brothel from the novel House Of Dolls – can, perhaps generously, be read as clumsy, yet powerful attempts to find beauty in the macabre and to hold a mirror up to Britain’s own psychic ills. In London, Throbbing Gristle brought extreme performance art to the music scene and invented “industrial” music, creating the blueprint for four decades, and counting, of electronic noise outfits. TG’s logo cleverly merged Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists lightning bolt with Bowie’s glam fash-flash from the cover of 1973’s Aladdin Sane. TG called their Martello Street studio the Death Factory, an overt reference to the Nazis’ wartime death camps and titled tracks ‘Zyklon B Zombie’ (a reference to the gas used to exterminate their victims) and ‘Subhuman’. Initially oblique, the reasoning behind their extreme references were gradually made explicit: an attempt to expose the hypocrisies of politicians and the conservative media, and to draw parallels between the mundane brutalities of day-to-day life and the horrors that mankind so often inflicts upon itself.

Following in TG’s wake came a grimly-determined race to the bottom, as the early 1980s experimental noise scene entirely blurred, or perhaps simply erased, the lines between provocative art and outright political incitement. Whitehouse, Sutcliffe Jugend, Death in June and others sought to out-outrage audiences, and each other, with visual and lyrical preoccupations with far right politics, serial killers, rape and sadism. The deliberate obfuscation of motive was a standard technique for generating mystique amongst many of these groups – did they really want to move in with the Moors Murderers and bring about a new Holocaust, or did they just like shouting about it? Many of these early noiseboys, now older and perhaps wiser, put it down to youthful indiscretion; some have chosen to maintain their tired mystique, while others remain defiantly unapologetic.

In America Boyd Rice, aka American noise artist Non, still supported by Mute Records, has spoken publicly about amongst other things, his Social Darwinism, his misogyny and his unusual beliefs about rape and, over four decades, surrounded himself with a wretched pantheon that includes Tom Metzger (leader of US neo-Nazi organisation White Aryan Resistance), Bob Heick (founder of American Front, another White Nationalist order), Charles Manson (whom he visited in prison on a number of occasions) and Michael Moynihan, of neo-folk/martial band Blood Axis, himself for many years an intellectual influencer for America’s new right.

In Europe, cryptic references to the ‘metapolitical’ fascism of European New Right ideologues like Julius Evola, Alan de Benoist and Aleksandr Dugin are de rigeur for the neo-folk/martial post industrial music popularised by Death in June, whose only core member Douglas Pearce is, shall we say, unguarded in his vituperation of racial diversity and multiculturalism – greatest hits include “The West’s liberalism will be its death” and “Britain imported millions of unskilled labourers from the colonies for that kind of work and look what a huge success that was”. Former DIJ member Tony Wakeford was at one time a British National Front activist (though he recanted his racist past in 2007), while his follow up groups Above the Ruins and Sol Invictus have included members – like Gary Smith and Ian Read – with direct links to right-wing extremism. It’s hardly surprising then that convicted National Action activist Claudia Patatas should be seen photographed, a beaming fan, alongside Pearce, or that a member of the murderous American neo-nazi organisation Atomwaffen Division, is seen sporting a striking Death In June totenkopf T Shirt.

In Scandinavia during the early 1990s, young Black Metallers prioritised the visceral impact of their look and their music over intellectual considerations. And, within the largely equal-opportunities misanthropy central to the ethos of the scene, a vein of explicitly National Socialist Black Metal emerged. Its poster boy was, and still is, Varg Vikernes of Burzum, whose beliefs that “true Norwegian culture” was being eroded by Judeo-Christian values were backed up with a series of notorious church burnings. Having served 14 years for the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, Vikernes now lives in France, spreading far right propaganda via his ‘Thulean Perspective’ YouTube channel. Countless National Socialist black metal bands have since sprung up across the globe, and as with the noise and neofolk scenes before it, it’s perhaps no surprise that fans of a musical aesthetic which thrives on darkness, misanthropy and sonic brutality, should be drawn to the outer edges of politics and occultism. Membership of organisations like the crypto-nazi-satanic Order Of Nine Angles have grown dramatically as a result.

The latter’s infiltration of the UK underground music will be the the subject of the first in an irregular series of features examining the ways in which extremist political ideas have entered (predominantly) underground music cultures. Looking at bands, albums, labels and movements the articles will attempt to understand, and present clearly, the motives of the players involved, the ideologies they address, the historical contexts within which they were formed and the problems that they may raise today.

We hope to discover why some people think it acceptable to wear a Burzum or Death in June t-shirt in public, when they would never dream of wearing of wearing the slogans of a White Nationalist organisation, or a far right political party; and we hope to understand why it might have been OK for Siouxsie Sioux to wear a swastika armband in 1976, but Christine and the Queens probably wouldn’t get away with it now (nor, presumably, would she want to).

Fear not, this isn’t the birth of a new, conservative era for the Quietus. We aren’t going to fall into the kneejerk-triggered traps that state that artists should be held responsible for the actions of their fans, or that participation in ‘negative’, misanthropic music scenes leads one to acts of violence. Real world atrocities are the result of a multitude of inter-related social, economic and psychological factors – culture can, of course, play a part in shaping and influencing events, normalising certain destructive attitudes and beliefs for example, but we know from years of experience that listening to heavy metal won’t make you a satanic murderer, that listening to Marilyn Manson didn’t cause the Columbine school shootings, and that rap, grime and drill aren’t the cause of gang violence.

But, what (if any) responsibility do we have to police our musical and cultural scenes? What responsibility do artists have to police their fanbase? Are an artist's personality defects, behavioural flaws or political beliefs reason enough not to at least explore their work?

There is an argument to be made that music scenes and artistic communities are self-policing, that the majority of small underground and experimental scenes are populated by reasonable people, that arseholes are usually pushed out simply because nobody wants to be around them. Following this logic, any attempts at political entryism by, say, a far right element would simply be excluded or ignored. Sadly, however, history has shown that this is an idealised, romantic vision of the cultural underground and arseholes, especially arseholes with bands or a following, are always amongst us, along with the same bigotry and ignorance that exist in the wider world.

Our task is not an easy one. At a time when the notion of objective truth is regularly called into question and the Orwellian practice of ‘doublethink’ is becoming an everyday reality, separating ‘difficult’ or ‘provocative’ art from genuinely anti-democratic far right sentiments becomes an increasingly difficult task. The xenophobic rhetoric of the far right filters down into the underground just as ideas emerging from the underground influence mainstream politics and culture.

Boyd Rice and Douglas Pearce might be brushed off as hipster pranksters using confrontational, dadaist or situationist methods to achieve their artistic ends, in part because underground culture audiences – who are, predominantly, good people – find it hard to accept that people like them mingle with people like us. The same blend of ignorance and denial means wearing a Burzum or Death In June T-shirt can be considered a harmless, edgier-than-thou exercise in naughty provocation, rather than the end result of an exchange that involves paying economic and cultural capital to people who would likely do many of us harm if so empowered.

The times have changed. Playing into the myth of harmless artistic provocation in the name of cultural libertarianism is simply feeding a beast that would remove many of our own personal, social and cultural freedoms. As music fans and supporters of underground cultures in all their raging complexity and beautiful diversity, we have a duty, and an imperative, to question, reappraise and, where necessary, hold to account, the artists who we listen to and support.