Would you sit there in your bedroom every night with your headphones on, falling asleep to Hitler’s speeches? Most people wouldn’t, and neither would I – but if you listen to a band with unsavoury views, you’re polluting your mind with the beliefs they espouse. Maybe they’re not expressed overtly – maybe it’s subtle and you wouldn’t know it if it wasn’t there – but you wouldn’t really want to take the risk, would you? Especially when you know that music literally rewires your brain when you hear it. You’d better be damn sure you know what shape your brain will end up in after you’ve played their album 4,000 times.
Everyone’s being going on about Magma. Cardiacs fans, Foetus fans, fans of music generally. Magma Magma Magma. So, when I saw their BBC 1974 mp3 for just a pound at Amazon last week, I bought it and gave it a listen. It was very good.
Then, as I clicked on YouTube links in search of my next purchase, I noticed some arguments in the comments section and started to feel a bit sick. I ran a Google search, and didn’t like what I found.
It wasn’t that they’d been accused of being Nazis – a lot of bands I like have faced all sorts of accusations – but because of how they’d chosen to react to those accusations.
Let’s first of all consider other acts who have courted controversy, such as Laibach:
This is an act from Slovenia who called themselves “Laibach” after the temporary name the Nazis gave to Ljubljana when they occupied it. The band’s artwork is influenced by anti-Nazi photomontage artist John Heartfield. One of their videos features men in uniforms pushing shopping trolleys around. You could say that their subversive, ironic use of the very imagery that caused such suffering in their own country is exactly the same as this:
I don’t think anybody alive would accuse Mel Brooks of being a fascist.
Let’s remind ourselves here: the Nazis were unlike any enemy we had ever faced. They weren’t just technically advanced, “civilised” people, they were just like us: so culturally similar, half the British royal family was German. Yet, in the middle of this bloody, brutal conflict, they inflicted horrors that made Ed Gein seem like basically a nice guy. I thought I knew about the Nazis – we were taught about the concentration camps in school – but just a couple of years ago I visited the Imperial War Museum, and had to stumble out of one exhibit, nauseated and gasping for air. I had no idea that human beings were capable of such evil! This was the barbarity of Vlad the Impaler, done on a mass scale, recently.
How do you cope with that knowledge? Even removed by hundreds of miles and sixty years of history, I felt sick for hours.
Satirising the things and people we fear the most diminishes their power over us. It goes back hundreds – even thousands – of years. That explains the popularity of the dozens of “Hitler” parodies on YouTube, and explains why bands like Laibach might be moved to dress up in the clothes of their demons as if to say “See? They’re just silly! There’s nothing to be afraid of!”, if only to still their own nightmares.
Even far away from Occupied Europe, the shared emotional scars of WWII have left their mark on many a band. My own favourite act, Foetus, used to juxtapose Nazi and Communist imagery, presumably (as with Laibach) to make the point that both ideologies are dangerous and evil. (The death toll under Stalin’s regime is estimated at up to 60 million people.)
While Thirlwell never shied away from the controversy of his self-made artwork, he was quick to emphatically disassociate himself from any offensive viewpoints. As he said in an interview:
Two Gun Mathilda: “Like Hauss-on-Fah‘ – I shall assume you’re not racist…?”
JG Thirlwell: “I mean – God! – that’s so insulting. For God’s sake! Me of all people! But you know that right? […] I would totally turn my back on that. I push the envelope, you know? But people don’t get it.”
See, that’s how I’d expect people to react. Normal, regular people are massively insulted by accusations of fascism because it’s the most horrible thing they can imagine. It embodies everything that disgusts them, and everything they hate.
Occasionally, these accusations arise because, like the ill-fated and rather stupid Kula Shaker, they have the really bright idea of trying to reclaim the swastika. On the face of it, that’s fair: prior to the 1930s, it was the Hindu symbol of Brahma and Vishnu, the Buddhist symbol of eternity, and the Jainist symbol of the seventh Jina. It was used in ancient Greek and Celtic art, in pre-Christian Europe, and by certain Native American tribes.
In an interview with the NME, Crispian Mills said:
“I love the swastika. It’s a brilliant image, it symbolises peace and the sun and illumination – it’s everywhere in India. I’d love to have great big flaming swastikas onstage just for the f*** of it. It’s like, that was Hitler, don’t let him steal something like that from you.”
I can see why he’d say that, and even sympathise with the idea of taking back a symbol for good that had been corrupted, but it was still the ultimate symbol of unimaginable horror for many people who were still alive and had lived through it. In response to a deluge of criticism, Crispian Mills issued the following statement:
“I think there is no better example of my naivete and insensitivity than the swastika comments . . . my comments derive from my long interest in Indian culture, from which the swastika has its origins . . . I apologise to those who have been offended by my comment and humbly ask that they accept that I am completely against the Nazis, their crimes and any other latter-day form of totalitarianism. For the record I have never been an anti-semite especially as my dear grandmother was Jewish . . . I loathe totalitarianism, far right thinking, oppression of all forms, denial of human rights and all things that would limit the free spirit of humankind. I stand for peace, love, generosity and learning.”
That, again, is exactly how I would expect anyone accused of being a Nazi sympathiser to react. Again, JG Thirlwell realised the inherent dangers of using offensive emblems, as he described in an interview with Seconds, before he stopped using such imagery altogether:
“I’m conscious of being insensitive. I’m not going to walk down that Hasidic street in Williamsburg with a swastika t-shirt. They don’t understand the sense of irony in the image.”
Kula Shaker didn’t deserve to have their careers ended because of their ill-thought-out naivete; they deserved to have it ended because their records were f***ing terrible.
So there, I’ve stated that I think that authors of really bad art “deserve” to have nobody buy their products, so does that intrinsically entwine quality of art with the virtue of its creator?
There’s a reason I will never knowingly watch a Roman Polanski film, and again it’s not because of the crime he was accused of committing but because of his response. I think we all know that he admitted drugging, raping and sodomising a 13 year-old girl, and that he fled the country while released on bail. Instead of vehemently protesting his innocence, he just pointed out that the girl in question doesn’t want to pursue a trial – to which the (now woman) in question responded that she is sick of being reminded of the traumatic incident and wants to finally move on with her life.
As you might expect, Polanski’s friends in Hollywood rallied round him, but their public defence of him didn’t hinge – as you’d expect – on the accusations being false and it all being some huge, horrible mistake. No, instead, the headlines were filled with them gushing about what a “great artist” the man is. I’ll let the blog Jezebel (which I don’t normally read) articulate my feelings towards Whoopi Goldberg on the issue.
There’s no controversy here: he did it, he admitted it, and the only reason he gets to keep working is because people are still buying his products and supporting him financially and personally with no excuse beyond that they want to see his movies. Like OJ Simpson very nearly found out, if you’re popular enough, you’re quite literally above the law. The conclusion that we draw from this is that if you’re famous enough, you can literally get away with anything and people will still love you. There are no vile depths to which you can descend for which you cannot be forgiven, even without being sorry.
Roman Polanski might make the greatest films in the history of cinema – I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I can live without them and not feel any the poorer. Hitler’s writing and art might also be beyond reproach for all I know, but I don’t need that s*** in my house.
A few months back I linked to a piece in the Independent about a Nazi artifact – a lampshade – that drove its owners mad. Having something representative of so much hate and evil and suffering was just not something they could bear to live with. It was like a haunting, burying its way into their psyche, and its very presence contaminated everything it touched.
It’s with this in mind, even before reading that article, that I’ve always tended to vet the artists I enjoy. I’m spending so much time with their output, sometimes listening to an album three or four times in a day, that I really don’t want to be taking in something that might secretly be filling my brain with vicious propaganda. Most of the time, I find out that my favourite musician or actor is a selfish, vain, egotistical jerk – and really, that’s fine by me, so long as they’re not … well, Mel Gibson. When I find out that my favourite artist is a fairly decent person, I enjoy their work more. I want to support them and encourage them and wish them well in every area of their lives. As for Mel Gibson, I just can’t watch him any more or take him seriously in any way. I even tried watching a film with him in quite recently and all I could think about was his famous rants: it had distracted me to the point where any enjoyment of his output whatsoever was impossible.
Not that I’m suggesting that murder or rape is comparable to screaming vicious obscenities down a telephone or expressing pro-Nazi sympathies, but it crosses a line that you do not cross. It’s something so distasteful, so frightening and unpardonable to most people that the natural reaction is to try to move as far away from it as possible. You don’t want to be seen to support it or condone it, which again is why most people are very quick to clear up any possible misinterpretations as fast as they can.
“I’m good at my art” is never good enough.
So, back to Magma, and the accusations of fascism that have dogged Christian Vander. As posted on a progressive rock forum I found during my Google search:
‘See this quote from Daevid Allen:”The fact that Christian Vander had swastika flags all over his bedroom and pictures of Hitler and would leap up and do kind of imitation Hitler speeches in the middle of his drum solo didn’t seem to faze him all that much. It fazed everybody else. But Giorgio just loved the music, and loved the cultural impact of the music.”The question is: were these just aspects of an excentric persona Vander built for himself or were signs of a genuine ideological orientation of his? I assume the first answer is the true one, but we’ll probably never know for sure.”‘
That he’d flirt with that imagery at all is cause for pause, but “we’ll never know for sure”? I’d want to know for damn sure before listening to another note, and it had better be the right answer! Bearing in mind the statements that other bands had made – it’s all a misunderstanding, we emphatically oppose totalitarian beliefs – I was fully expecting a similarly comprehensive rebuttal of the accusations.
Instead we got this:
“Those who think they can judge a work of art by first putting the character of its author on trial, will judge everyone that way. Their world will only be infected with ruin, dullness and misery. We want to feel life through music. To give in to endless arguments, based on personal prejudices about the right to existence of this artist or that artist, will not detain us from this task.”
That wasn’t from Christian Vander, but from Stella Vander. From what I could see, he didn’t directly respond to the comments, but let his wife defend him, purely on the basis of his musical aptitude. This followed this blog post, and from the same blog, the further comment from Stella Vander:
“I’d like to remind you of what might actually be worth talking about when it comes to MAGMA. And that’s life. Life is what is at the heart of Christian’s music. It might be worth it to discuss the determination of a man wounded by life, named Christian Vander, revulsed by human cupidity, by men’s lack of respect for their Earth and the energy they spend destroying it. Life is a struggle if you want to stand strong, and Christian has chosen Music, instead of weapons, despite the temptation in the face of a weighing inertia only awakened by money, just like certain musicians who, since then, have become useless and lifeless. Yes, MAGMA is a war chant, and you’d have to be deaf not to hear that, but it supports a new kind of war, as new as MAGMA’s music, a spiritual war. MAGMA doesn’t serve reheated versions of what already is! And no interpretation by so and so or what’s his name is going to decrypt this music, because so and so don’t speak Kobaian anymore than you do. So trust your heart and your feelings, they can be trusted, since you are touched and moved by the Music, since it speaks to you directly, since you’re on a quest for something new that’s never existed.”
None of that reads to me as “I loathe totalitarianism, far right thinking, oppression of all forms, denial of human rights and all things that would limit the free spirit of humankind”, as Crispian Mills put it. I call “deflective bulls***”, or as a member of that progressive rock forum put it:
“But even if it *is* just an aspect of an eccentric persona, how can he justify creating a persona that trivialises the death and humilation of millions of people….especially when the persona is created, at least in some small part, to generate profit?”
I couldn’t find an answer. I could find a quote from the band saying that the accusations were “baseless”, but no flat-out denials, and certainly no assertions that the imagery had been used ironically, with the opposite intention than that of evoking totalitarian beliefs.
It’s left me in an uncomfortable position, and I felt I had only one option. I wasn’t going to join in what the band describes as a “witch hunt”, or get particularly angry about it, but it did leave me feeling sad and disappointed. Ever one to avoid knee-jerk reactions, I spent a fair amount of time searching for some authoritative quote to clear up any misunderstanding, and found none. The only defensive viewpoint was that they hadn’t confirmed that they were pro-Nazi, and that they made good records. Knowing that I couldn’t possibly enjoy listening to them any more, I just deleted the files from my Amazon folder.
Perhaps I’m completely mistaken, and Vander’s refusal to flat-out deny that just because he a. tries to convince band members that history is false and that Hitler was “right”, b. has a house full of swastikas, c. uses a Goebbels quote on their DVD cover, and d. refers to Indians and Black Africans as “primates” who will “vanish from the surface of the Earth” (interview 1970, apparently) that he’s any kind of Nazi sympathiser. I’m just going by the experience that anyone who isn’t a Nazi and even uses one swastika-like symbol or asks “why the bad guys get the best uniforms” tends to shout very loudly that they are not, at all, by any means, in any way, fascist because it is one of the worst things you can be.
I don’t need that s*** in my house.