While the story of David Bowie’s flirtation with fascism and fascist imagery in the 1970s has been oft-told and discussed in subsequent years, its is worth placing in the context of the Musicians’ Union’s politics of the time and to examine the response of the Union to it.
To shorten a very long story, Bowie, as the “Cracked Actor” documentary confirms was in the midst of assorted addiction problems was quoted in Playboy magazine as saying:
“Britain is ready for a fascist leader… I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership…Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars…You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.”
This was followed by his return to the UK in 1976 when, arriving at Victoria Station, he was accused of making a Nazi salute when waving to fans. While this something Bowie has denied, in the context of the previous quotes and his admission of interest in fascist ideas, it was hardly surprising that it was interpreted in this way. Judge for yourself from this clip from the time:
and consider the way it was reported at the time: in the case by Tony Stewart of the NME:
This, in the context of fellow superstar, Eric Clapton’s contemporary and far less subtle racial incitement, resulted in, at least in some quarters, outrage among fellow musicians. This was visible within the discussions at subsequent meetings of the Central London Branch of the Musicians’ Union.
This coincided with a time when the branch itself was highly politicised, with active members reflecting a wide range of leftist groupings, including the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of England (of which Branch Executive member Cornelius Cardew was a member) and the Trotskyite Workers’ Revolutionary Party (who included another Committee member, Maggie Nicols among their ranks), so their righteous condemnation of Bowie (who was not named, but not entirely anonymous) was unsurprising.
At a meeting on the 14th September 1976 Cardew moved that any members of the Union expressing fascist sympathies be expelled from the Union – though this was not carried, the Branch meeting vote resulting in a 12-12 tie.
“This branch deplores the publicity recently given to the activities and Nazi style gimmickry of a certain artiste and his idea that this country needs a right wing dictatorship. Such ideas prepare the way for political situations in which the Trade Union movement can be destroyed, as it was in Nazi germany. The spreading of such ideas must be considered as detrimental to the interests of the Union and any necessary steps should be taken to prevent such ideas from gaining credence in the community. We propose, therefore, that any member who openly promotes fascism or fascist ideas in his/ her act or recorded performance should be expelled from the Union.”
A further motion, however, was passed by 15 votes to 2, at the next meeting of the branch on the 18th November 1976, stating that:
“When a pop star declare that he is ‘very interested in fascism’ and that ‘britain could benefit from a fascist leader’ he is influencing public opinion through the massive audiences of young people that such pop stars have access to. Such behaviour is detrimental to the interests of the Union,since it prepares the ground for a political system in which the Trade Union movement can be smashed, as it was in Nazi Germany. This Central London Branch therefore proposes that any member who uses his professional standing or stage act or records to promote fascism should be expelled from the Union.”
Further amendments were made to this motion, which expanded its scope still further: “pop stars” became musicians; “his” became “his or hers” and “fascism” was extended to “fascism or any other undemocratic party or political system.”
While these resolutions perhaps said more about the political leanings of the Central London branch and the racial politics of London at the time, they were, nevertheless important for two reasons when viewed in a wider context.
Firstly, this along, with the Union’s actions in opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa (and Minority Rule in Rhodesia), helped clear lingering suspicions (a legacy of the restrictions placed by the Union on foreign musicians working in the UK) that the Musicians’ Union itself was a racist organisation.
Secondly, it coincided with (and became part of) a much wider response from the musical community to the problem of racism in 1970s’ Britain. The increasing support for the National Front and Clapton’s comments were the catalyst for the Rock Against Racism movement, which began with a letter to the NME of 11th September, 1976, setting out its objectives and is perhaps best remembered for its collaboration with the Anti-Nazi League, to host the Carnival Against The Nazis in London’s Victoria Park almost two years later (30th April 1978).
The subsequent work of both organisations (notably further Carnivals, demonstrations and flyering / postering) were causes to which the Unions (and the MU) were able to lend their support, though inevitably, their success in both raising awareness and being partly responsible for the failure of the National Front in 1979 General Election, was not achieved without further internecine feuding among the left, with the strong involvement of the Socialist Workers’ Party in both the ANL and RAR being a point of contention.
Nevertheless, in 1976 both within the Musicians’ Union, among musicians and more widely in British society, was the point at which rock star royalty could no longer go unchallenged when espousing fascist or racist ideals. Interestingly, this article points out that Clapton has never publicly denied making the comments nor withdrawn (in fact, he has reasserted) his support for Enoch Powell, the MP whose “rivers of blood” speech against mass immigration, was partially behind his rant (recreated here).
Bowie, on the other hand, has made several attempts to recant his position, telling Melody Maker in 1977 that it was a wave not a salute and that his flirtation with fascism was a result of his being “out of my mind, totally, completely crazed” at the time.