Monday, 17 April 2017

Number 9
14 January 1978
The Sex Pistols reflect on the human race

Pop music and the Holocaust

At the end of the day, you have to admit that the ability of pop music to address the enormity and singularity of the Holocaust is somewhat limited. Thankfully, very few pop musicians have felt the need to address the Holocaust in song. Dylan's "With God on our Side" references the Germans murdering six million "in the ovens they fried". This is an unusually direct image for Dylan, is historically inaccurate in that not all the victims were cremated and is only there to provide a rhyme for "side". A weak verse in a weak song. Captain Beefheart's "Dachau Blues" is a slightly better reflection on the seismic event; "those poor mad man six million lose". "Zyklon B Zombie" by Throbbing Gristle is suitably grisly. There are few others worthy of note. The Sex Pistols' contribution is called "Belsen Was a Gas".

It may perhaps be expected that Sid Vicious would not produce a sensitive reflection on this terrible event. And he doesn't. Vicious wrote the music and probably the title for The Sex Pistols song "Belsen Was a Gas" while Johnny Rotten probably contributed the lyrics. The song most likely started as a joke, being a piss poor pun on the German's method of execution combined with the hippy expression for things being really great. See, for instance, Marc Bolan's song "Life's a Gas" from 1971 which may have provided the direct inspiration for Vicious' "joke".

One of the main aims of the original punks was to epater les hippies. The punks were angry that the hippy dream of the sixties had failed to deliver a world of bohemian excitement, adventure and venues that stayed open after 10.30. Throwing nihilism and negativity in the face of peace and love, the more spiteful and childish the punks could be, the better they liked it. Celebrating the nazis was as spiteful and childish as it could get. So, Siouxsie and the Banshees wore swastika armbands and sang "too many jews for my liking". Adam and the Ants sang about "Deutscher Girls". "Nazi Baby" sang The Vibrators. The Damned took their name from Visconti's film about the nazis. Warsaw (later Joy Division and then New Order, both nazi inspired names) said "you all forgot Rudolf Hess" and used nazi iconography on their first record. The Ramones in "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World" declared they were a nazi schatze (sweetheart). Admittedly some of this was satirical in intent but it is also the case that many punk groups chose not to go down this route of cheap shock tactics.

Rotten lyrics

By 1978, most, if not all, of the punk groups had abandoned nazi references. The Sex Pistols appear to have introduced "Belsen Was a Gas" into their set list for their December 1977 British tour and retained it for their January 1978 US tour after other punks had abandoned such outrage. By this time, the Pistols' notoriety was established but perhaps they felt under pressure to continue being outrageous. Or perhaps Rotten was looking for a deeper meaning than mere outrage prompted by the lyrics.

After a simplistic expression of some elements of nazi offences ("in the open graves where the jews all lay") combined with an attempt to convey holiday camp style references ("wrote their postcards to those held dear"), it is the repeated refrain of "be a man, kill someone, be a man, kill yourself" that I think provides the song's ultimate meaning for Rotten and the justification for continuing to listen to otherwise puerile offence.

The best performed and best recorded version of "Belsen Was a Gas" is that from the Winterland Ballroom on 14 January 1978. This was the final concert of The Sex Pistols 1978 US tour and their last concert as a group until 1996. It seems likely that Rotten knew he would be leaving the group and his performance during the concert seems to indicate as much. Perhaps this knowledge fired up his performance, seeking to emulate the last stand of Iggy and the Stooges as captured on the "Metallic KO" audio verite. Or perhaps he was inspired by playing at the Winterland Ballroom.
Winterland, yesterday
The Winterland Ballroom was a large venue in San Francisco famous for hosting concerts by almost all leading rock groups of the 1970s and particularly associated with American hippy groups coming out of the 1960s such as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. With their shows of excessive length incorporating drawn-out instrumental noodling, these sort of groups were most hated by the punks.
The Pistols US tour was directly targeted at the cities, venues and audiences most likely to be made up of fans of US 1970s rock in an act of deliberate provocation. Rather than play in the supposedly more cosmopolitan northern cities such as New York and Detroit (the very cities whose music had been so inspirational to the punks), the Pistols played in places like Baton Rouge, Dallas, Memphis and San Francisco (ironically mirroring their UK concerts where they often played in places like Cromer and Penzance rather than many big cities). 
Example of Pistols' US tour incongruity

As the tour progressed, the Pistols' "interaction" with their audience became steadily more antagonistic, as captured in Lech Kowalski's film "D.O.A.". At some venues, the group were almost face to face with the crowd resulting in physical assaults by the audience on the group and vice versa. At the larger Winterland venue, the band were relatively safe from punches, although plenty of objects were thrown at them. As a consequence, on a purely musical level, they were able to give their best performance of the tour.

The music

"Belsen Was a Gas" is a simple song with a three chord verse creating tension by starting with a perfect fifth (B) followed by a perfect fourth (A) then a minor sixth (C) before resolving into the root chord (E assuming one is playing it in E) and alternating with the fourth (A). This alternation will form the chorus and the chorus doubles as a repeated refrain to bring the song to a close. It is also what provides spring to the song.

The song begins with a squeal of feedback as Steve Jones turns his guitar up and a crack on the snare drum before the whole group crash into the music. Vicious' bass playing is both present and relatively in tune and in time (a rarity) and there is a disciplined intensity to the playing ("disciplined intensity" might be a good descriptor for Steve Jones and Paul Cook's playing throughout The Sex Pistols' live career). Jones does stray from the correct chords quite often but the dissonance this creates actually adds to the tension and the violence of the performance. One of the verses is played muted allowing the focus to be on Rotten venting his spleen. Jones allows himself occasional flourishes early on but as the song races to its conclusion he concentrates on his chord work. Because of Vicious' unpredictable bass playing, it is Paul Cook's job to keep the band in time, something he excels at, steering the group to a sudden finish.

The recording

The recording from Winterland crackles with electricity. The notes ring out and the space is filled with sound. It is a two minute assault with silence at the beginning and end. The crowd noise that follows is there to prove that this actually happened, in front of an audience. It is crucial to the recording as otherwise the band are just attacking a mirror or an empty room. This assault has a target and the target is the audience.

Johnny Rotten vs the human race

There are three verses (actually only two sets of lyrics as Rotten repeats the first verse as the third). Rotten mangles the lyrics which begin to make no sense. Following the first "be a man" lyric, he resorts to a demented laugh which he pursues throughout the verse becoming more deranged as it goes on before repeating "be a man". His tone of delivery is mocking and sarcastic. He sings the title of the song before casting his eyes out over the audience, steadying himself, and then delivers the coup de grace.

Here in the belly of the beast, the origin and HQ of the despised hippies, those sixties idealists who failed to deliver on any of their promises, this is Rotten's chance to give the metaphorical V-sign. In the home of peace and love, singing his silly song about the nazis and the jews, offending refined sensibilities and taste, mocking the sorts of laidback dudes that listened to The Band and The Eagles, letting off a stink bomb in class, the Greatest Living Englishman raises his game and elects to go after a bigger and broader target. Culturally and historically aware, Rotten understands that the crimes of the nazis, while specific to them, are also resonant of humanity's wider inhumanity. The Catholic within him looks at failed promises, disappointed hope, cruelty, lack of empathy, neglect, opposition, contempt, fear, hatred, dehumanisation and ultimately genocide and concludes that the judgment is death, and self-annihilation the solution. The generations that failed him at school, that delivered a lack of opportunities and hope, the hippies that did not deliver a better world, the monsters that seek to exterminate an entire race. Into the dustbin of history with them.

This scared and confused young boy articulates his frustration in a refrain of beautiful, improvised economy and directness. Other recordings show Rotten varying the order in which his commands are given, and diverting into asides such as "join our army" and "a real man", suggesting that this is not a strict written order but a variety of things he shouts depending on each performance. At Winterland, as his group is coming to an end and while thousands are listening, Rotten nails it perfectly and succinctly.

What response is appropriate in the face of the Holocaust? None? Any? Who knows. Certainly we are each accountable for our own reaction to this watershed event. For his part, Rotten demands the apocalypse, delivering nothing less than the end of the self.

                        "Be a man
                        Kill someone
                        Kill yourself
                        Be a man
                        Be someone
                        Kill someone
                        Be a man                  
                        Kill yourself"

The arrogance of the 70s Me Generation, the assertion that I exist, pay attention to me. The self-actualisation inherent in doing your own thing. Masculine vanity exhibiting itself in violence. Do you think you are a real man? Check out those nazis. They knew how to get things done. Think you are a real man? Prove it by the ultimate act. Kill someone. Want to go one better than that? Be a man, kill yourself.

The End

So extreme, so final is this song and performance that recorded music should have ended here. In fact, even the Pistols concert did not end at this point, continuing for another 8 songs. One wonders how they felt they had to keep going after they achieved perfection. But of course, they did not have the opportunity to listen back to the recording. Because what recordings, and great recordings in particular, give us is that capturing of a moment that can be relived and repeated and the emotions experienced anew again (if you can repeat a new experience). Whether it happened in an upstairs room in 1927 or in front of thousands in 1978, the recordings preserve the spirit, the atmosphere, the intent and the skill of the participants.

I have written about 9 recordings in this sequence. There is space for a tenth. What would you put there?

Hear Rotten vs the World here

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