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Tue 11 May 2021

Nathan O’Hagan catalogues the surprising conservatism of many radical musicians

Since its inception, rock ‘n’ roll has been synonymous with, if not defined by, the idea of youthful rebellion. From Elvis giving middle America heart attacks with his pelvis shaking on the Sullivan show, to the Sex Pistols provoking British viewers to kick in their TV screens with their profanity-ridden appearance on the Bill Grundy Today show, it was meant to be something that shocked parents, teachers and authority figures in general. 

But, despite this seemingly central tenet, there has always been a strain of conservatism amongst those who created the music. 

As frontman of The Who, Roger Daltrey was synonymous with the concept of youthful rebellion. More recently, though, Daltrey has been outspoken in his support for Brexit, having previously said that he would “… never forgive the Labour Government for their immigration policy.” We’re a long way from “hope I die before I get old”.

Daltrey is not the only iconic rocker who has been vocal in his support for Brexit. Four decades after his band’s appearance on the Grundy show, John Lydon appeared on another chat show, Good Morning Britain, to tell Piers Morgan, when asked for his views on Brexit: “the working class have spoken. I’m one of them, and I’m with them.”

Morgan failed to point out that Lydon’s affinity with working-class Brits might be misplaced, given that his musical income is supplemented with a large property development portfolio, and that he resides in an upscale suburb of Los Angeles. Those same people who kicked in their screens all those years before no doubt applauded him this time around. 

Much has been said about Morrissey’s shift to the right in recent years but, while he’s still open in his hatred for the Conservative Party, his vocal and increasing support for far-right figures such as Anne Marie Waters and ‘Tommy Robinson’ is shocking even from a man whose views on race have long been questionable, to say the least. 

Less surprising is the apparent tendency towards conservatism amongst 1970s prog rockers. Given that prog rock was largely the preserve of posh public school boys, it seems like a pretty natural fit – the likes of Phil ‘I’ll Emigrate If Labour Win The Election’ Collins and Rick Wakeman being prime examples. 


Reaganite Ramones

In the case of American rock ‘n’ roll right-wingers, the dichotomy between the artist and their politics is often even more evident. Elvis Presley was often circumspect when it came to publicly revealing his political affiliations, often demurring in interviews when pressed. He was, however, more public in his support for both conservative Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Richard Nixon.

And, ironically, some of America’s edgiest counter-culture musical icons are, politically, anything but. 

The Ramones were at the very forefront of the punk rock movement stateside – part of the legendary CBGB’s New York scene. Few bands embodied the counter-culture sprit more than The Ramones. However, guitarist Johnny Ramone was always a staunch Republican. Almost evangelical in his love of Ronald Reagan the greatest president of my lifetime,” Johnny once said “I figure people drift toward liberalism at a young age, and I always hope that they change when they see how the world really is.” Johnny often clashed with bandmate Joey, a moderate Democrat. 

Queens Of The Stone Age frontman, Josh Homme, is another incongruously conservative rocker. “I’m very socially liberal, but politically very conservative… I don’t think the government knows what to do with your money better than you do… I’m a fallen libertarian. In America, the land of the free, almost every civil liberty has been taken away,” being just a few of the statements he’s made during various interviews. 

Homme, however, looks like Michael Stipe in comparison to his Eagles Of Death Metal bandmate Jesse Hughes. Hughes, the drug hoovering, hedonistic frontman, is also a longstanding and vocal proponent of gun ownership. In the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks at the Bataclan in Paris, while his band was performing, Hughes made several horrendous remarks on social media and in interviews, which most reasonable people would mitigate with the knowledge that Hughes was clearly suffering from the effects of PTSD.

However, Hughes’ outspoken conservatism long predates these comments, which included many ludicrous assertions and accusations, including joining the tin-foil-hat brigade in questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in America, as well as accusing security at the Bataclan of being involved in the attack. He also echoed future President Donald Trump by accusing Muslims of celebrating in the streets following the 9/11 attacks, despite not possessing a shred of evidence. He then went on to repeat many of his assertions regarding the Bataclan attack, after initially issuing an apology and retraction. 

Of all the conservative rock stars, perhaps the most bemusing is Iggy Pop. The artist formerly known as James Osterhaus was, like Johnny Ramone, a vocal supporter of Reagan. “I’ve been waiting for someone who could communicate the joys of liberty as compared to the joys of equality,” he said. Pop, or ‘Sweaty Lunatic Iggy Pop’ as Alan Partridge once called him, even wrote a song called ‘I Am A Conservative‘. It’s hard to imagine the man who spent most of his career semi-naked and mutilating himself with broken bottles onstage entering a ballot booth and putting his mark next to the party of social conservatism.


Far-right Fandom

On top of all this, there is no shortage of liberal/left-wing bands that have unwittingly attracted a right-wing following.

The National Front unsuccessfully tried to co-opt the punk movement, after misunderstanding the intent and meaning of songs like White Riot by The Clash and Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK. They were given short shrift by the punks, which led to leading far-right figure, Colin Jordan, describing Johnny Rotten as a “white n*gger”, which must have been a proud moment for Rotten.

Not long after, similar attempts were made to influence the ska scene. Bands like Madness and The Specials often clashed with neo-Nazi skinheads at their gigs, in the same way punks like Sham 69 had. Most of the above bands became regulars at ‘Rock Against Racism’ gigs, yet continued to attract a racist element for many years, despite their personal ideologies being completely at odds with them.

The hardcore scene of the early 1980s was the closest that American came to this scenario. Musically, the hardcore scene made the UK punk scene look like prog. Blasting out short, fast, aggressive songs, frequently clocking in at under a minute, bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat naturally attracted an aggressive, slam-dancing crowd, mainly comprising young white men.

But, very early on, a much darker element was drawn in by this frenetic music. All over the States, neo-Nazis would appear at their gigs, turning the moshpits, which were always abrasive but ultimately supportive places, into scenes of genuine violence. The similarities in style, with American punks often sporting the same shaven-headed look as fascists, often made it hard to tell the different elements apart – the only distinguishing feature often being different coloured shoelaces that various factions sometimes took to wearing.

Of course, figures like Henry Rollins and Ian Mackaye were never going to be passive in their resistance to any encroaching fascist element at their shows. Violent clashes at gigs weren’t uncommon, both between rival sections of the crowd, as well as between crowd and artists. The Dead Kennedy’s 1981 classic Nazi Punks Fuck Off made it clear where they and other bands stood. And yet, much like the ska and punk bands in Britain, many American hardcore bands have never truly ridden themselves of their right-wing following. 

That said, at least the large majority of fans were always safe in the knowledge that, even if some of the audience weren’t, the band members themselves were on their side politically. So while they may have suffered the odd racist elbow to the face, they never suffered that unique disappointment when you find out someone you idolise perhaps isn’t quite the person you hoped they were. 

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