Who put the Oy in Oi? Surprise is the default reaction, and sometimes even disapproval, when I mention the Jews in Punk panel I am moderating for London’s Jewish Book Week. And no wonder. Punks and Jews really are a contradiction in terms. Orthodox Judaism means following a body of rules as closely as possible, whereas punk is the reverse.
But being a first-generation Brit, first-wave punk and Jewish in a time still closely touched by the second world war did have its conundrums. Witness an incident at my New Year’s Eve party 1976/77, held in my basement flat in Ladbroke Grove in west London. The reggae soundsystem had started playing, rather late, when my friend Viv Albertine, the guitar player of the Slits, turned up with her pal Sid Vicious. Not yet a Sex Pistol, poor Sid’s insecurities were camouflaged by black leather and a large swastika. When he walked in, the Rastas took one look and started packing up the speakers. Sid was no nazi: his dying love was a Jewess, Nancy Spungen. But understanding the price of style, Sid and Viv left for a less sensitive gathering.
A lucky break for me, as the Rastas saved me from one of those ghastly confrontations I avoided where possible. Being of refugee German Jewish descent, I saw concentration camp numbers on the arms of my parents’ friends. Swastikas made me feel sick, even though I told myself they were an ancient Aryan symbol and that punks just wore them to piss off their parents. It was hardly worth debating, anyway, as the pat response was always that they were simply cool and anti-establishment; genuine believers in the swastika rarely gave their true identities away. The swastika also caused an argument between two Jewish manager/theorists of punk, the Pistols’ Malcolm McLaren, and his friend, the Clash‘s svengali, Bernie Rhodes. Fast-talking McLaren embraced being what my late mother called “a disgrace to the race”.
Activist, artist and punk chronicler Caroline Coon recalls rehearsals for the 100 Club’s first punk festival in 1976. Malcolm started handing out swastika armbands he’d had made. Siouxsie of the Banshees put one on right away and some of the Pistols seemed ready to follow suit. Aghast, Rhodes blurted out that if anyone wore swastikas onstage, they couldn’t use the Clash’s instruments as planned. The Clash backed him up. The gig went on. No swastikas.
The subverted symbol might not have been of much concern, had it not been for the growing reach of the National Front, which at that time of social crisis was gaining traction and used punk for youth recruitment.
Writing for Sounds, the punk rock weekly, I infiltrated a National Front fundraiser gig by the band Skrewdriver, and wound up in a Holborn pub with a leather-clad NF spokesman, eager to recruit girls. Blithely he ranted against immigrants, Jews and the “coffee- coloured morons” who would soon ruin England. When he asked me for a date, I had to say: “Maybe not a good idea. I’m Jewish.” A beat. “Oh, well, we can always make an exception,” he replied cheerfully. Which made it sweeter when he wrote to me, complaining that after the article was published, the Front had kicked him out.
So the NF united Jews in opposition, and located us on barricades alongside our fellow tribal Brits. Despite its general whiteness, punk’s bond with reggae made it the first artistic expression of the new multicultural society. Having been the main “other” in WASPy England for so long, maybe Jews were finally one British tribe among many.