In 1974, David Bowie asserted, “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars…quite as good as Jagger…he staged a country.” With this statement, Bowie commented on how similar the showmanship of fascist leaders and rock stars could be. Many other artists made a similar commentary, often joined by criticism from a more detached perspective, an unfortunately large body of pro-fascist songs, and many songs viewing other trends through the lens of fascism.
Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh” takes the idea of the rock star-audience relationship’s similarity to the fascist dictator-audience relationship to the extreme. It comments on how similar the dynamics of the crowd and communal feeling could be. Pink Floyd was far from the first band to make such a commentary. In 1976, the Residents’ album Third Reich and Roll, made some similar commentary, featuring Dick Clark dressed in a Gestapo uniform on the cover. It skewered catchy sixties pop songs, with the message that they simply made people complacent and controllable. However, Pink’s transformation, additionally, brings forward the potentially dangerous effect that fans’ adoration could have on the psyche of a rock star.
In 1977, David Bowie said, “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader,” and was caught trying to smuggle Nazi paraphernalia across the Soviet-Polish border. He later claimed regret at these incidents and stated that he wasn’t himself, strung out on cocaine and having become more his “Thin White Duke” character than himself. However, even before this his music had included songs lyrically inspired by Nietzsche’s Übermensch and the occult such as “Quicksand” and “The Superman.” While these songs express some of the ideas, which form the intellectual inspiration for fascism, the Thin White Duke’s characterization provides a latent criticism of fascism. As Bowie’s primary mouthpiece for this mindset, and the numb, emotionless singer of passionate love songs, he highlights – if inadvertently – the emptiness of fascism as an ideology.
In response to the, at worse ambiguous, picture David Bowie painted and the positive depiction many skinhead artists of fascism, the punk-era inspired some of rock’s most thoroughly antifascist works. The Jam’s “Down in a Tube Station at Midnight” attacks extremism through depicting the fear its victims feel, even in a non-dictatorial state. Similarly, the Clash’s “Clampdown” and Elvis Costello’s “Night Rally” and “Less Than Zero,” which reminds listeners of Oswald Mosley and the British fascists’ popularity during the 1930s, arouse the fear of a slow creep towards fascism. The latter more adventurously used fascist imagery as a lens to look at relationships in the song “Two Little Hitlers,” even once planning to name the album Armed Forces, “Emotional Fascism.” In other songs such as “Oliver’s Army,” Costello made implicit connections between British overseas actions and occupations and fascism. Although this could make him seem slightly paranoid with his perception of fascism, it surely seems preferable to give the ideology its due fear rather than make irresponsible comments like Bowie.
– Robert Kaminski, host of Footnotes, Thursdays 11pm-midnight on WGTB