More than 70 years since Woody Guthrie pasted the sticker reading “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar, a hate-filled musician tried to do with a gun what he had failed to do with six strings.
It’s not hard to imagine why Wade Michael Page, the alleged shooter in Sunday’s massacre of six Milwaukee-area Sikhs, hadn’t managed to rally more Americans to his neo-Nazi cause by playing in white-supremacist punk and heavy-metal bands with names like End Apathy and Blue Eyed Devils. Even fans of punk and metal tend to be turned off by three-minute slabs of tuneless bluster whose lyrics preach violence in the name of the so-called Aryan race. Still, historically, neo-Nazis have chosen punk and metal rather than, say, disco or showtunes to preach their message.
Punk and metal are a bit like violent video games: largely but not exclusively the province of angry males under 30, who tend to binge on it to the exclusion of school, family and basic personal hygiene. But for every teenage hesher who takes out his frustrations with girls and his parents by trying to thrash like Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, the journey from that relatively innocent pastime to gunning down non-white fellow citizens is a mysterious one. Or, as Mark E. Smith of U.K. post-punks the Fall once sang, “Who makes the Nazis?”
Smith should know, being from England, the place where music and racism collided so spectacularly in the late 1970s. As punk rock’s back-to-basics ethic inspired hordes of young musicians to give up their dreams of 20-minute keyboard solos and just learn three chords, bands like the Buzzcocks and the Clash performed in a concert series called Rock Against Racism. The Clash’s early single White Riot (“White riot, I wanna riot, white riot, a riot of my own”), intended in solidarity with the Caribbean immigrants rioting in Notting Hill in 1976, was misconstrued as a racist call to action.
Meanwhile, punks like the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious or the Stooges’ Ron Asheton wore Nazi symbols as a provocation or, at best a declaration of their postmodern numbness; yet to ascribe a political motive to such lumpen gestures is giving their authors entirely too much credit.
Still, the disaffected followers of punk appealed to the far-right British National Party who attempted to recruit members from their ranks. Not long after Rock Against Racism, the BNP and members of the skinhead band Skrewdriver, a group that sang at first about the usual punk topics – boredom, anger, more boredom – adopted an anti-immigrant stance and launched the misleadingly-named Rock Against Communism, a front for racist musical groups and a valuable recruiting tool for the then-aging BNP.
Skrewdriver were far from successful by music-industry standards: They couldn’t play very many gigs, since once venue owners realized the nature of their music, the shows were often cancelled; record labels and record stores refused to handle their products; and publicity was out of the question. For the far-right, however, bands like Skrewdriver were their most important recruiting tool, developing mail-order networks sending cassettes and Nazi-themed merchandise to countries such as Germany, where the sale or posession of anything pro-Nazi was banned, musical or otherwise.
Nazi-rock made it to Europe and America in the early 1980s, as white-supremacist movements that aimed to attract vulnerable young men like Page reluctantly embraced Britain’s racist skinhead culture. In Sweden, one group with skinhead connections even found itself on the charts; Ultima Thule (named after a term for “northern lands” popularized via Nazi mythology) were signed to a major label and at one point had three albums in the Swedish top 20 chart simultaneously.
One of the most influential musicians in the new wave of hate-rock was George Burdi, the son of working-class parents from a Toronto suburb. Burdi founded the band RaHoWa (short for Racial Holy War), which became one of the most successful white-supremacist bands of the 1990s, but it was his work developing the band’s independent record label, Resistance Records, that made Burdi one of the most powerful figures in the white-supremacist movement at the time. By 1997, when Resistance’s Detroit-area headquarters was raided on suspicion of tax evasion, the company and distributor was estimated to be pulling in $300,000 a year in sales.
Following a prison stint, Burdi gave up the label, forming a mixed-race group and renouncing white supremacy itself; Resistance fell into the hands of other white supremacists who bungled its operations. While racist groups still pass out CDs of white-power music to teenagers as a recruiting tool, the business appears to be more disorganized than ever. Racist rock festivals do happen, such as the Hammerfest event Page performed at in 2000, but they seem to be intermittent. Like so many of the white-supremacist movement’s major figures, from Ku Klux Klansman David Duke to National Alliance founder William Pierce, the most powerful lure used to reel in young converts couldn’t deliver sustained success.
NOT SO GREATEST HITS
Streetfight (1977; 1986)
When Skrewdriver were just another British punk band, Streetfight was a pounding anthem for football hooligans. When they rerecorded it in 1986, it became a call to violence against “the Reds” by those with “white power.”
Proud & Strong (1995)
“Straight-edge” punks preached purity of body by rejecting drugs and alcohol. White supremacists extended the purity to race. The Swedes claimed they weren’t racists, but this song’s anti-immigrant subtext is unavoidable.
Might Is Right (1995)
Critics of ’80s thrash heroes Slayer’s Auschwitz-themed song Angel of Death might feel a bit silly after listening to these idiots. With only one explicit jab at “Semites” and their supposed hoards of gold, the feebly thrashy Might Is Right manages to be ten times as offensive as Angel, and nowhere near as listenable.