Inside rock’s dangerous flirtation with anti-Semitism

Sid Vicious (wearing his regrettable T-shirt) with Nancy Spungen in 1979
Sid Vicious (wearing his regrettable T-shirt) with Nancy Spungen in 1979

In his memoir, Buzzin’: The Nine Lives Of A Happy Monday, published earlier this month, Mark ‘Bez’ Berry treated his readers to his thoughts about the political class. Even the most honourable participant, he writes, is a "puppet" of ‘the banking system, and the International Monetary Fund, and Masonic forces", as well as ‘dark, unknown figures behind [multinational] corporations’. Apparently content to allow these dog-whistles to stand, he also claims to be "keeping some of [his] more controversial views to [himself]" likely for the sake of his lucrative public image.

In the same book, the group’s singer, Shaun Ryder, reveals that "some of the things [Berry] believes I tend to believe are just too far gone." Certainly, what seems to be a flirtation with anti-Semitism soon progresses to coffee back at his place with the revelation that Bez spent £350 on a series of books by the author Joseph Gregory Hallett containing, he writes, "proof" - the word is placed in italics – "about how the Rothschilds usurped the Bank of England and the breeding rights of the royal family".

A rudimentary online search revealed information that has apparently eluded the book’s publishers, White Rabbit. According to the advocacy group Hope Not Hate, Hallett has ‘a long history of toxic conspiracy theories and antisemitism’, has "shared social media posts that promote the blood libel, the ancient smear that Jewish people drink the blood of children, and has alleged that 'Crypto-Jews… are in place in Governments to sabotage their Governments in favour of the Jewish Administrators'". (Approached by the Telegraph, White Rabbit declined to comment on the matter.)

As well as condemning feminism as a "female paedophile movement", Hallett promotes the idea that terror attacks at the Manchester Arena, the Bataclan in Paris, and at two mosques in Christchurch, were hoaxes. He also believes himself to be the rightful King of England. Bez himself describes the author’s work as "an incredible read… all on quality paper with hand-stitched binding and a ribbon for a bookmark".

Of course, in rock’n’roll, cranks are gonna crank. In what is an emotive and immediate art form, few will be surprised that a man who found fame shaking the maracas while gurning like a camel chewing a toffee apple might not be fully briefed about the etymology of an ancient hatred. But whether it’s the perils of the slippery slope, or else the kind of full moon fever that rides into town with each new millennium, there does seem to be rather a lot of this stuff about at the moment.

Bez in 2018 - Getty
Bez in 2018 - Getty

“With comments like that, even if [Bez is] not thinking of the Jews, he’s only one step away,” says Keith Kahn-Harris, the author of the books What Does A Jew Look Like? and Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism And The Limits Of Diversity. “Because that discourse has a long history, particularly when he mentions the Masonic forces. Jews and Masons were often thought of together in that kind of demonology. This kind of discourse dates back to the late 18th Century.”

Doubtless, unconscious anti-Semitism in music was given a boost by the madness of a global pandemic. Taken in isolation, comments by the Stone Roses singer Ian Brown (who believes the virus was “planned to make us all digital slaves”) and the rapper Wiz Khalifa (who tweeted ‘Corona? 5G? Or both?’) sound like the witterings of mad people. But to address the first query in good faith: planned by whom exactly? Because, whether intentional or not, if one isn’t careful, all this talk of transnational overlords – and of the Great Replacement Theory, of microchips, and of the unseen hand of the ‘globalists’ – leads us, sooner or later, to “the Jews”.

It’s like one minute you’re a lauded singer-songwriter, and the next you’re sounding like the host of a fringe YouTube channel. “Who’s making the money behind this cage? Government just keeps on lying, everyone is so sad,” barked Van Morrison on this year’s album What’s It Gonna Take? To which you might think, ‘Fine, it’s just a guy who’s lost his rhyming dictionary’. Just last year, though, Van the Man was also warning that They Own The Media. Before this, in “the oldest story that’s ever been told”, he was complaining about having been “sold out for a few shekels”.

Van Morrison in 2021 - Bradley Quinn
Van Morrison in 2021 - Bradley Quinn

Writing in the New England Jewish Ledger, Melissa Langsam Braunstein quoted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as saying that “the lyrics by this rock legend [Morrison] are deeply distressing. While the word Jew doesn’t appear, its mind-set is set in conspiracy mode.” "That,’ Braunstein writes of Cooper's claim, ‘also signals a problem. People who believe in one conspiracy are more likely to believe in others, and any time conspiracy theories gain traction in a particular culture, anti-Semitism does, too.’

“I’m not saying that all conspiracy theories are antisemitic, but [antisemitism] does provide coherence to what are fundamentally pretty incoherent ideas,” Keith Kahn-Harris tells me. “But the trouble is that it’s so deeply embedded that a lot of people don’t know where it comes from… it’s just so deep in the bedrock of the Western world [that] it’s always there. It’s always a possibility.”

To be charitable, of course, sometimes the motivation is simply to push the envelope. Despite causing a heck of a kerfuffle with their concentration-camp-themed audio nasty Angel Of Death, few believed that Slayer were anti-Semites. Somehow clumsier still, the ridiculous sight of Mick Jagger cavorting onstage in a T-shirt emblazoned with a swastika, in Texas in 1978, can likely be explained as an excruciating attempt to copy the worst aspects of punk. Similarly, David Bowie later disavowed his claim to “believe strongly in fascism” by saying that in 1977 he was lost in a diet of drugs, occultism and Frederik Nietzsche. Then there's Sid Vicious, whose walk through a Jewish area in France wearing his swastika T-shirt is perhaps even harder to explain.

Roger Waters protesting at an Israeli separation barrier on the West Bank, in 2006 - AFP
Roger Waters protesting at an Israeli separation barrier on the West Bank, in 2006 - AFP

Others, though, aren’t looking for a way out. As a supporter of the Palestinian led Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, which supports economic sanctions against Israel, Roger Waters has walked the journey from legitimate grievance to near-obsession. As a recent guest on Joe Rogan’s Podcast, the former Pink Floyd band-leader’s view that “the Israelis now [seem] to have a policy of murdering so many of them [Palestinians] that they are absolutely trying to create another intifada, so they can make it an armed conflict… [and] just kill them all” was hardly untypical of his increasingly heightened tone. A full compendium of Waters’ comments on this subject would take me a month.

As far back as 2013, Keith Kahn-Harris himself wrote that ‘there is something about the Israeli-Palestine conflict that sucks people in and brings out the worst in them. In Waters’ case it is his penchant for grand gestures and narratives, which work brilliantly in the musical sphere but can easily tip over into the boorish and hackneyed in the political.”

And then there are those who don’t seem to have a wider cause at all. Eschewing dog-whistles and obfuscation, earlier this month Kanye West tweeted that he was ‘going death [sic] con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE’, before adding, confusingly, that he wasn’t ‘Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also’. As well as this, in a post on Instagram, he accused producer Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs of being controlled by ‘the Jewish people’.

The problem isn’t confined to the United States, either. In 2020, the London rapper Wiley was banished from Twitter after describing Jews as (among other things) "cowards" and "snakes". It emerged that the cause of his outburst was a dispute with his former manager, who is Jewish. "I'm not racist, you know. I'm a businessman," Wiley said in his subsequent apology. "My thing should have stayed between me and my manager, I get that."

Although easy to overstate, hip hop and anti-Semitism is a story with a sinuous history. In 1989, Professor Griff, from Public Enemy, told the NME that “if the Palestinians took up arms, went to Israel and killed all the Jews, it’d be alright”. Appearing to pick up the beat, two years later, Ice Cube lamented the dissolution of his group N____z Wit Attitudes by claiming (in the track No Vaseline) that fellow member MC Ren had “let a Jew break up my crew”. The Jew in question was NWA’s manager, the late Jerry Heller.

Such vulgar tropes began with a kernel of truth. Excluded from many established avenues of commerce and employment, in the first half of the 20th Century a noticeable number of American Jews moved west to find work, and to establish companies, in the emerging fields of popular entertainment. By the 21st Century, however, a geographical shift that bore resemblance to African-Americans leaving the rural south for the industrialised cities of the Midwest had metastasized to the point where the rapper Lupe Fiasco thought it reasonable to issue the couplet, “Artists getting robbed for their publishing, by dirty Jewish execs who think that it’s alms from the covenant”. In other words: Jews control the entertainment industry.

“In the music [business], Jews have often been the middle-men, or women sometimes, rather than artists,” Keith Kahn-Harris tells me. “So Jews have been songwriters: [Jerome] Lieber and [Michael] Stoller, Neil Sedaka, or Randy Newman – some of them performed a bit as well. And some of them have been managers, like Brian Epstein and Sharon Osbourne, whose dad was Don Arden. And that’s where some of the roots of the difficult situation with African-Americans have come from. Because Jews were often the first point of contact with the music industry.”

But, he adds later, “while I’m sure that some Jewish managers were sharks, no one talks about [Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel] Tom Parker as being innately Dutch”.

In his essay The Music Industry’s Long History of Dividing Blacks and Jews, the author Justin Joffe quotes the African-American cultural academic Cornel West as saying that “black anti-Semitism is a form of underdog resentment and envy, directed at another underdog who has made it in American society. The remarkable upward mobility of American Jews – rooted chiefly in a history and culture that place a premium on higher education and self-organisation – easily lends itself to the myths of Jewish unity and homogeneity that have gained currency among other groups, especially among relatively unorganised groups like black Americans.”

Skinheads at a Skrewdriver concert in Stockholm, 1987 - TT News Agency
Skinheads at a Skrewdriver concert in Stockholm, 1987 - TT News Agency

In the great unifier that is music, though, there are similarities. Alongside records by artists of colour – one thinks of Gil Scott Heron’s Whitey On The Moon, or Black Man by Stevie Wonder – there stands a less celebrated, but still significant, contingent of Jewish performers punching up in protest. On The Brews, the American punk rock group NOFX subverted an entire genre by writing a skinhead-style stomp that celebrates Semitic traditions. More radical still, with tracks such as Hail The Jew Dawn and Our Blame Is Goyim Glee, Jewdriver, from Oakland, harvested a following in Germany by re-purposing the sound of the Nazi Oi! group Skrewdriver.

“Jews today are very public and very willing to fight about anti-Semitism in a way that wasn’t true 30 or 40 years ago,” says Keith Kahn-Harris. “[Back] then, things were more, ‘Keep your head down a bit’.”

Some artists have even managed to escape the rabbit holes in which others apparently seem lost. As a subscriber to a madcap notion that (in some readings at least) contains anti-Semitic undertones, Matt Bellamy, the singer and guitarist with Muse, once believed that the World Trade Center attacks were an inside job. But in an interview this summer with the writer Dorian Lynskey, the now 44-year old had some good advice for anyone tempted to believe that the fate of the planet rests in the hands of a faceless cabal.

“It’s a distraction from the really pressing issues,” he said. “It makes people feel engaged with topics that really are going nowhere. In terms of human psychology, there’s comfort that maybe human beings somewhere, even if they’re evil, are in control, when in fact the truth is far more frightening. There are no humans in control and it’s all a bunch of chaos."