How Britain’s Nazi punk bands became a gateway drug for US white supremacy
On Sunday August 13, Charlottesville restaurateur Brian Ashworth watched nervously as six suspected far-Right sympathisers loitered outside his Ace Biscuit & Barbecue establishment having just eaten inside. Although cordial enough during their meal, Ashworth remained concerned about the group; the previous day’s Unite the Right rally in the Virginia city had left one person dead and 19 hurt when a speeding car was driven, apparently deliberately, into a crowd of anti-fascist counter-protestors.
Ashworth’s suspicions about the group were confirmed when one of its members suddenly raised his arm and made a Nazi salute, which was reciprocated by his friends. A row ensued as Ashworth confronted the group to demand that they leave. According to CNN’s account of the incident, there was one defining feature about the young man who made the gesture: his t-shirt was emblazoned with the logo of Skrewdriver, the British white nationalist punk band formed in 1976.
That aggressive so-called White Power Music — or “hatecore” — is popular in the US is perhaps not surprising given current political and societal tensions. Indeed, a 2012 report by the Anti-Defamation League found that White Power Music “permeates” the white supremacist movement. The music acts as a “kind of gateway drug” for people to get into the scene, according to Christian Picciolini, the former lead singer of hate band White American Youth and now reformed co-founder of peace advocacy organisation Life After Hate.
What is more surprising, however, is that bands such as Skrewdriver, formed in the Lancashire market town of Poulton-le-Fylde over 40 years ago and inactive since their singer was killed in a fatal car accident in 1993, are still among the figureheads for the vile movement.
So how did Skrewdriver come about and how have they become associated with intolerance in America in 2017? To what degree is technology and streaming to blame for giving these defunct bands a second life? And what — if anything — can be done to stem hate music’s pernicious flow?
Skrewdriver was formed by Ian Stuart Donaldson in 1976 as a non-political and non-racist punk band. The original line-up, which at one point briefly included BBC DJ Mark Radcliffe, broke up in 1979, and Donaldson reformed the band with different musicians and a different outlook in 1982. They played Oi! music — a hard, aggressive and resolutely working class iteration of punk that was a reaction against the middle class direction in which the movement had drifted. Oi! applealed to disaffected, angry youths.
While swathes of Oi! bands were not racist, many were. Chief among these was the new Skrewdriver, whose 1983 single White Power and 1984 album Hail the New Dawn left little room for ambiguity about their political beliefs.
Oi! could have fizzled out. But in the way that many subcultures do, the genre became even more popular after the government of the day tried to suffocate it. Following riots in London’s South Asian enclave of Southall in the summer of 1981 — riots involving 200 skinheads in the area for an Oi! gig at the Hambrough Tavern pub — the Thatcher government tried to ban the genre.
While many of the more popular bands on major labels stopped, smaller bands sprung up, many funded by far right groups. Roddy Moreno, singer with anti-fascist Welsh Oi! band The Oppressed, has said that “out and out Nazi bonehead bands” emerged. All Thatcher’s intervention did was push the movement further underground and to the right. Skrewdriver became cult figures.
In 1987 Donaldson founded Blood & Honour, a neo-Nazi political group and music promotion network. The group was named after one of the band’s albums, and it organised white power concerts under the Rock Against Communism banner and also distributed a propaganda magazine.
The context in which groups such as Blood & Honour and the National Front (NF) grew in the late 1970s and 1980s has chilling parallels with what has been going on in Charlottesville and other parts of America recently. Joseph Pearce, a repentant ex-high ranking NF member, told the BBC’s recent Story of Skinhead documentary what they were trying to achieve back then. “Our job was basically to disrupt the multicultural society to make it unworkable and make various different groups hate each other to such a degree that they couldn’t live together,” Pearce said.
It sounds horribly familiar. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, there were 917 organisations dedicated to “hate” in the US in 2016; that is groups that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for immutable characteristics. This is up from 457 organisations in 1999.
Skrewdriver ended as abruptly as it began — and as controversially. In 1992 Donaldson’s co-founder of Blood & Honour, a hard-as-nails skinhead called Nicky Crane, admitted in a TV documentary that he was leading a double life as a homosexual. Donaldson immediately disowned him, saying that nationalism was a “true cause while homosexuality is a perversion”. Both men died within months of each other a year later, Donaldson in a car accident and Crane from an Aids-related illness.
The story could have ended there. But the cult of Skrewdriver had already spread. Blood & Honour became an international movement, with two iterations in the USA.
Tony McAleer, a former skinhead and co-founder of Life After Hate, explains how people like Donaldson have become the “heroic ideal” to members of the far right. McAleer himself can relate to this; he remembers buying the first Skrewdriver single in his skinhead days when he was visiting Croydon from Canada in 1984.
“The far right is huge on the mythology front. It’s an identity to latch onto. For me, what I got from the scene was a sense of power when I felt powerless. I got a sense of acceptance and belonging when I felt unlovable. And I got a ton of attention when I felt invisible,” he says. It’s no different in America — or anywhere else, for that matter — today.
People have always used music movements to express their identity, however misguided that identity may be, McAleer argues. “I remember being a kid in England when the Bay City Rollers were huge. You walked into a girl’s bedroom and it was Scottish scarves everywhere. Young people attach themselves to music as a way of expressing themselves. They can pick a genre off the shelf and wrap themselves in it. It’s a dangerous one,” he says.
And so the warped affiliation to this lamentable British genre spread across the Atlantic. But what of the music itself? While during the analogue era White Power Music saw solid if unremarkable sales from labels such as Resistance Records, the dawn of downloading and streaming on the internet has allowed racist rockers to find a new audience. The web has no walls, and so hatecore music can — or at least could — be easily found with a laptop and a wifi connection.
In 2014 the Southern Poverty Law Centre found that Apple’s iTunes vast library contained music from at least 54 racist bands. Apple wasn’t alone. In the same year, the Noisey website reported that “nearly every major online retailer” was selling White Power Music. And just this month, the Digital Music News website found 37 white supremacist hate bands on subscription service Spotify, from Blood Red Eagle to Dark Fury. Every extra stream or download further funds hate.
The industry has started to crack down. Last week, Spotify began removing hate bands from its site following the violence in Charlottesville. Apple removed White Power Music from its iTunes service in 2014, and the company’s CEO Tim Cook last week publicly denounced bigotry and pledged money to anti-fascist causes.
But the music still exists online. Like Thatcher’s suppression of Oi! in 1981, it will simply find new ways to distribute itself.
McAleer can’t see a way to stop the music being listened to. It’s like trying to catch water in a sieve. “How do you ban music? Has that ever worked anywhere? It’s difficult. I was in England when God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols came out, and you saw what happened when they tried to ban that,” he says. The song went to number two in the charts.
One upside to the big streaming companies banning hatecore, McAleer says, is that listeners are now less likely to randomly “stumble across it”. This is clearly a good thing, although it’s unlikely that a song like Boots Go Marching In by Condemned 84 would ever have made it onto Spotify’s Party Starters playlist.
Unfortunately, the scene has a firm foothold in the US. Regular hate music festivals such as Hammerfest, put on by nationalist groups, act as both “entertainment” and a recruitment ground for neo-Nazis and skinheads. And back in Europe, there is even a female singer who performs wistful acoustic Skrewdriver cover versions.
But despite the seemingly enduring popularity of such music, there is just a suggestion that people could be turning away from hate as quickly as they are embracing it. Life After Hate, which offers people advice and solace after they leave hate groups in general and white supremacy groups in particular, used to get two calls a week from people wanting to turn their back on bigotry. According to McAleer, it now gets five calls a day.
People, perhaps, are starting to see that the presumed heroic ideals of this boneheaded scene are — like the music that soundtracks it — not so heroic at all.