CRIME: San Francisco’s doomed—just like L.A.

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CRIME, San Francisco's first punk rock band. Left to right: Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Ron "The Ripper" Greco, and Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark.

It was 1976 when they took the stage costumed as policemen in black uniforms. The sound of pre-recorded police sirens wailed as they began their aural assault, a clamorous, frenzied skirmish of jangly guitars, rumbling bass, and bone crunching drums. Half-snarling, the lead singer howled: “Baby you’re so repulsive, honey you’re so sick.” Welcome to the world of CRIME, the original punk rock band of San Francisco.

In September of 2018 CRIME’s guitarist Johnny Strike succumbed to cancer, dying at the age of 70. Numerous movers and shakers from the original California punk scene have given up the ghost, so in part this article is a tribute of sorts. It was Strike’s passing that prompted me to write this essay; in the year between his death and this essay’s publication, other punk notables shuffled off this mortal coil. But this is not an obituary for an individual, or more tragically, a eulogy for a group of souls linked by their creativity.

This artist and native born Californian salutes the outsiders that spawned punk rock in my state—it was the last gasp of rock in the late 20th century, and the end of the cultural dissent I was part of.

Frankie Fix (left) and Johnny Strike. Photographer unknown.

Frankie Fix (left) and Johnny Strike. Circa late 1970s. Photographer unknown.

CRIME was co-founded in 1976 by Johnny Strike (guitars, vocals) and Frankie Fix (guitars, vocals). By mid-1976 CRIME released two songs on their self-published 45 single, Hot Wire My Heart and Baby You’re So Repulsive. It was the first American, West Coast punk-rock release. When I heard Repulsive in 76, I knew their baleful guitar noise was for me. The original line-up included Strike and Fix, Ron “the Ripper” (bass), and Ricky Tractor (drums); in 1977 Tractor would be replaced by Brittley Black, then by Hank Rank. Tractor, Fix, and Black all met the choir invisible prior to Strike’s passing.

That CRIME is not hailed like other notorious big-name punk bands of yesteryear is lamentable but unsurprising. Late ’70s Punk was, if nothing else, known for its disobedient and nihilistic attitude, and CRIME wielded that posture with far too much authenticity to guarantee commercial success. In other words, they were a band after my own black heart.

Frankie Fix of CRIME at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1976. Photo/Bruce Conner (1933–2008). Conner contributed photos to the San Francisco punk magazine Search & Destroy in the late '70s. In 2017 he was given a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Conner Family Trust.

Frankie Fix of CRIME at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1976. Photo/Bruce Conner (1933–2008). Conner contributed photos to the San Francisco punk magazine Search & Destroy in the late '70s. In 2017 he was given a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Conner Family Trust.

CRIME became infamous for dressing in police uniforms and the film noir attire of hardboiled detectives—costumes that buttressed their nom de guerre.

I recall the San Francisco Hall of Justice formally requesting of the group that they abstain from wearing police uniforms; it was too close to impersonating police officers. I don’t know what actually became of that request… most likely it was simply ignored.

In 1976 CRIME, along with The Nuns, laid the groundwork for San Francisco’s punk scene. Singer and keyboardist Jennifer Miro co-founded The Nuns with Alejandro Escovedo and Jeff Olener. Along with CRIME, The Nuns became regulars at the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant that hosted punk concerts.

In 1978 The Nuns opened the show for the last Sex Pistols concert, held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. After breaking-up in ‘79 The Nuns released a self-titled album in 1980 on Posh Boy records, it remains a testament to a once brilliant scene. Miro died in 2012 from cancer—she was 54.

In June 1977, SLASH, the first punk magazine on the U.S. West coast, introduced Southern California to CRIME. Editor of the zine, Claude Bessy, aka Kickboy Face, reviewed CRIME’s first single: “Where do they come from anyway? Where have they been hiding? They look like neo-Nazi perverts, and they sound like your average terminal speed-freak nightmare. Truly dangerous anti-music. This must be the trend that is scaring everyone right now.” Then Kickboy administered the coup de grâce: “If these creatures keep it up they gonna start banning rock music all over again, which means they must be doing something right. Not too sure what it is yet (it can only be taken in very small doses, you know!) but it could be the next big menace to civilization.” [1]

Poster announcing March 16, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, with the Nuns. Artist/James Stark. Photo collage and drawing.

Poster announcing March 16, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, with the Nuns. Artist/James Stark.

In his review of CRIME’s single, Bessy gave a proper definition of punk rock; alarmingly shocking, dangersome, and somewhat incomprehensible—a far cry from today’s non-threatening groups that are marketed as “punk.”

I first saw CRIME in Nov. 1977 at the world famous Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip, a club that had fallen on hard times and was booking punk bands (for a brief time) to keep its doors open. Less than fifty scruffy punks showed up to hear CRIME and the Dils.

In its August 1977 edition SLASH had asked the band why they called themselves the “Dils,” guitarist Chip Kinman replied: “Because it does not mean anything, it’s really nothing. That’s why it’s perfect.”

Founded in ‘77 by brothers Tony and Chip Kinman, the Dils were a controversial trio even in the disputatious punk scene; they were one of the first punk bands to emerge in California.

Hailing from Carlsbad, San Diego County, California, the band was to have enormous presence and influence in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Overtly leftwing, they wrote songs like Class War, Mr. BigI Hate the Rich… real top 40 stuff. All the same, I viewed the band and their music as pure Americana, and years later my opinion would be vindicated.

Handbill announcing the Clash, Bo Diddley, and the Dils at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Feb. 9, 1978.

Handbill announcing the Clash, Bo Diddley, and the Dils at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Feb. 9, 1978.

I attended the first Clash concert in L.A. on Feb. 9, 1979. They played the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with the legendary Bo Diddley, and the Dils, who opened the show. In their heraldic battle-cry of a song, 1977, the Clash sang “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977,” and punks readily sang along, convinced they would outrun, overtake, and overthrow all of the dinosaur rock oligarchs. I’m still waiting. The Clash were well on their way to becoming rock gods themselves, as they had signed with Columbia, a major commercial record label—but I digress. Though they performed with as much fury as the Clash, the Dils disbanded in 1980.

In 1981 the Kinman brothers took another path altogether by forming the “cowpunk” band Rank and File. After that band’s demise they formed Cowboy Nation in 1996. Their mission? Keep cowboy music alive, pardner. Listen to their version of Shenandoah and tell me this all-American band fell short of their goal. Sadly, the baritone voice of guitar hero Tony Kinman fell silent when he lost his battle with cancer on May 4, 2018; he was 63-years-old. Joe Strummer, co-founder of the Clash (which crashed and burned in 1983), died of a heart attack on Dec. 22, 2002, he was 50-years-old.

Poster announcing Dec., 1977 concert with CRIME, Dils, and UXA at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing Dec., 1977 concert with CRIME, Dils, and UXA at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

While punk music was always intended as a discordant affront to polite society, the visual language of punk was no less transgressive. The foreboding graphic flyers of CRIME certainly got my attention. The band formed a relationship with photographer James Stark, who had already made his mark in the 1960s with photos of New York street life. Stark designed promotional flyers for CRIME; those leaflets fortified the punk aesthetic as well—some illustrate this article.

As an artist I began collecting California punk flyers in 1977, and over the years I built quite a collection; I also generated a few anonymous flyers myself. The graphic style of xeroxed punk leaflets exuded anger, humorous absurdity, and biting social commentary, plus, they set the standard for bad taste.

Flyers from CRIME fit right into this genre. Their leaflets thematically focused on the lawless as well as those who enforced the law. They could feature a Roy Lichtenstein-like image of someone thrusting a revolver in your face, or just as easily show cops beating a lawbreaker into submission.

Poster for Aug 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Novak, and the Avengers. James Stark created this photo collage using a still of James Cagney from the 1935 film "G-Men."

Poster for Aug 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Novak, and the Avengers. James Stark created this photo collage using a still of James Cagney from the 1935 film "G-Men."

One CRIME poster made use of a movie still showing American actor James Cagney sitting in the back of a car cradling a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun. That photo came from the 1935 Warner Bros. film “G-Men,” where Cagney played a heroic FBI agent battling criminal underworld mobsters.

One of my best-loved songs from CRIME’s roughneck repertoire is the 1978 San Francisco’s Doomed. In retrospect it’s an extraordinarily prescient anthem:

San Francisco’s doomed, just like L.A. San Francisco’s doomed, all the kids say. San Francisco’s doomed, it’s all in the air. San Francisco’s doomed, and we don’t care.

Today’s San Francisco is awash in used hypodermic needles, human feces, urine, and garbage. In fact, the amount of human excrement on the streets led the city’s Public Works department to create a “Poop Patrol” to clean-up the boulevards.

The open use of heroin is now so pervasive that narcotized junkies are commonly seen passed-out on the pavement. In May 2018 videos uploaded on YouTube showed dozens of junkies shooting-up in the Bay Area Rapid Transit station—many were unconscious. The staggering amount of used drug needles and human waste found on the city’s fetid avenues has only increased. Ah… and to think, previous generations used to sing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

However, the lyrics to San Francisco’s Doomed also included the words… “just like L.A.” In November 2018, downtown Los Angeles became a “Typhus Zone” when armies of rats feasting on mountains of uncollected garbage become bearers of typhus carrying fleas. The rodents and their fleas came in contact with the legions of homeless people sleeping on downtown L.A. streets, and presto… the city developed a typhus outbreak.

Around nine people contracted typhus in downtown Los Angeles from July through Sept., 2018. One deputy city attorney contracted the disease while working at the rat infested L.A. City Hall. Rodents took up residence at the L.A. Police Department’s downtown Central Division headquarters, and two officers were diagnosed with suspected typhus. The Democrat politicians that run the city promised to clean-up the garbage that attracts vermin (why is that so hard?), but Los Angeles—at the time of this article’s publication, still has no rat abatement program. The rat empire thrives and spreads across the sunny megalopolis of Los Angeles. Some experts even fear an outbreak of bubonic plague is close at hand.

Yeah… “doomed, just like L.A.”

CRIME played San Quentin California State Prison in Sept., 1978. Left to right: Ron 'the Ripper' Greco, Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark/Solar Lodge Records.

CRIME played San Quentin California State Prison in Sept., 1978. Left to right: Ron 'the Ripper' Greco, Frankie Fix, Hank Rank, Johnny Strike. Photo/James Stark/Solar Lodge Records.

One of the most deliciously ironic episodes in all of punk history was the Labor Day concert CRIME played at San Quentin California State Prison in 1978. The band performed in police uniforms on the prison exercise yard before some 500 inmates, as armed corrections officers watched from their guard towers and walkways. Drummer Hank Rank told the press: “We knew we’d be playing for a crowd that was really into crime.” Rank also said “the window of the cell where Sirhan Sirhan was in solitary was directly opposite where we played, and I’d like to think that our show was the worst punishment of his life.”

The Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood, California, circa late 70s. Photographer unknown.

The Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood, California, circa late 70s. Photographer unknown.

CRIME played at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood on July 3, 1978, as the supporting act for two of my favorite Los Angeles bands, the Screamers and the Weirdos.

The Screamers were an “art punk” band sans guitars that relied on synthesizers and the powerful theatrics of frontman Tomata du Plenty to paint a dystopian vision—impressions that in time, became our present. Tomata died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 52. As for the Weirdos, well… they were a deranged DaDa painting that some mistook for a wall of noise.

The Stardust had a storied history, and it began with Orrin Tucker, an American big band leader and singer who found fame in swing music during the 1930s and ’40s.

Tucker and his orchestra recorded over 70 popular records and continued performing into the ’90s. In 1975 Tucker leased an old roller skating rink on Sunset Blvd. near Western, transforming it into the fabulous Stardust Ballroom, a venue for big band music where Orrin Tucker and his orchestra were top billing.

Alas, big band music was no longer popular, and Tucker began renting out his musical palace to others; as disco seized the spotlight, the likes of a newly-minted Disco Diva named Cher played the venue. Then came the recession; millions in America lost their jobs, the Arab nations of OPEC halted oil exports to the U.S., gas rationing and long lines at gas stations became common… suddenly Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees—”I’m going nowhere, somebody help me”—sounded more like a death knell than a disco hit. That’s when punk moved in for the coup de grâce.

Poster announcing July, 1978 concert with CRIME, Weirdos, and the Screamers at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood. Design/Paul Lesperance.

Poster announcing July, 1978 concert with CRIME, Weirdos, and the Screamers at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood. Design/Paul Lesperance.

I attended the Stardust concert where CRIME, Screamers, and the Weirdos played; it was certainly evidence that Orrin Tucker’s world had long ago disappeared. I saw packs of fellow harum-scarum spiky headed punks bopping across the cracked concrete flooring of the dilapidated ballroom—bruised, sweaty, clothes torn; stark stage lighting provided the only illumination in the dark hall. It looked and sounded like the end of the world. It was a miracle someone actually filmed the CRIME scene, most likely using one those newfangled personal video cameras just introduced in the late ’70s. Viewing that film is like peering into an opaque, foggy, incomprehensible past.

The Stardust Ballroom closed its doors forever in 1982 when Orrin Tucker made his escape from L.A. and fled to Palm Springs. The once proud venue continued its decline, until finally, ignominiously, it was torn down and replaced with a Home Depot store. Such is Los Angeles, where history is disregarded and buried again and again. Orrin Tucker died on April 9, 2011 at the age of 100.

On March 23, 1978 CRIME played the Mabuhay Gardens with a band named Levi and the Rockats, who were part of the rockabilly revival movement. A few L.A. punks fancied the rough and tumble rockabilly of the 1950s, the chief attraction being a desire to return rock to its roots. I saw the Rockats perform at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 3, 1979. Oddly enough Levi and the Rockats appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in April 1979, which at the time was produced and filmed at the TAV Celebrity Theater in Hollywood, California.

 Poster announcing Aug. 31st and Sept. 1st solo CRIME concerts in 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing Aug. 31st and Sept. 1st solo CRIME concerts in 1978 at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

While the Rockats tore up the new Masque, they were far from being hair-raising or dangerous—nor were they particularly original. Punks like myself were seeking more sinister sounds, like the demented “psycho-billy” of The Cramps, who I also saw at the new Masque.

Cramps frontman Lux Interior died in 2009 from heart trouble, he was 62. Nick Knox, the bands original drummer, died in 2018 at the age of 60.

The new Masque was located in an old brick and stucco building near the intersection of Vine Street and Santa Monica Blvd. At the time, the ungentrified district built in the 1920s and ’30s was crumbling, it was a ghost of its former self—even the palm trees were wizened by L.A.’s smog.

At the intersection stood the California Surplus Mart (still standing today), where punks bought some mighty strange clothing. The only other thing of note in the area was a shabby gas station. The new Masque served as a punk venue from 1979 to 1980, I practically lived there; it had no bar, running water, toilet facilities, and no mirrored Disco ball. It was simply an empty space with a concrete floor. Today, the former punk dive is a refurbished retail space that sells house paint.

The Germs opening for the Cramps at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 1979. Pictured: frontman Darby Crash and bass player Lorna Doom. Photo/Ladd McPartland.

The Germs opening for the Cramps at the new Masque in Los Angeles, Feb. 24, 1979. Pictured: frontman Darby Crash and bass player Lorna Doom. Photo/Ladd McPartland.

Funny how you memorize a place or event. The aforementioned concert by The Cramps happened at the new Masque on a Saturday evening, Feb. 24, 1979; it included the Germs, Dead Boys, and Wall of Voodoo as support acts, but it wasn’t the cacophonous music I would remember. During the evening gig I needed a breather, and so I stepped out of the club and into the dead of night. Raucous Germs music at my back, I crossed the street to the neon glow of the gas station where three long-haired station attendants were glaring at the nightclub; it surely must have been quaking and shaking like a jackhammer.

The service station men eyed me suspiciously and raised their eyebrows at my severe short hair, black leather motorcycle boots splattered with Day-Glo green paint, and my black boiler suit coveralls stenciled with large white letters reading “Satisfied Die.” Nodding towards the club, one squinty-eyed attendant asked me, “What’s going on over there?” With the caterwauling of the Germs hanging in the air, I answered “It’s a concert.” The three scowled at me incredulously and with a raspy voice one growled: “That doesn’t sound like any concert I’ve ever heard.” That cinematic moment described the atmosphere around the new Masque, as well as the public view of the punk bizarros walking amongst them.

Poster announcing Feb. 16, 1978 concert with CRIME, Novak, and Tuxedo Moon at The Keystone in Berkeley, California. Artist unknown.

Poster announcing Feb. 16, 1978 concert with CRIME, Novak, and Tuxedo Moon at The Keystone in Berkeley, California. Artist unknown.

In March of 1979 CRIME embarked on their “Fun Bus Tour.” Once again they would bring their music to the polluted megalopolis of Los Angeles. On the eve of the bus trip, someone filmed the bon voyage party that took place somewhere in the Bay area. The shindig was a typical affair, with besotted punk youth waiting for the end of the world—the latest album by synth-noise terror band Chrome, Half Machine Lip Moves, was blaring away in the background.

Those attending the soirée included Margot Olavarria, original bassist of the Go-Go’s when they were still a punk band, and Terry Graham, drummer for the Bags. After the party almost everyone piled onto a bus to invade Southern California, where CRIME would play three clubs, the Troubadour, Squeeze’s Place, Madame Wong’s (just before CRIME arrived, that venue banned them), and a final gig at the Vanguard Gallery.

In late ’70s Lost Angeles, terrified music venues had largely closed their doors to punk bands, I never figured out why. With our black leather jackets, razor blade earrings, weird haircuts colored red, blue, or green, chain belts, bondage gear, combat boots, spiky bracelets, and bad attitudes, we were such an adorable coterie. Sure, on occasion we would riot inside a venue, letting loose a barrage of beer bottles, even hurl fireworks, patrons and furniture out of broken windows—but on the whole we were quite civil and genteel. Reacting to venues closing their doors to us, L.A.’s punk partisans went deeper underground, renting abandoned spaces and other hole in the wall dives for fly-by-night concerts.

Poster announcing May 12, 1979 concert with CRIME and The Mutants at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing May 12, 1979 concert with CRIME and The Mutants at Mabuhay Gardens. Artist/James Stark.

At some point during the LA Fun Bus Tour, CRIME was interviewed by the so-called “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” Rodney Bingenheimer, whose “Rodney on the ROQ” show was broadcast on Pasadena’s then fledgling rock station, KROQ.

To be blunt, I never cared much for Rodney. Foppish and obsessed with celebrities, he was also painfully timid—making him almost childlike. That aside, I credit him for almost single-handedly putting punk before a national radio audience in the U.S. During the late ’70s not a single radio station in the country would broadcast the punk rock Bingenheimer regularly beamed over the airwaves. Listeners to his show would hear the likes of local L.A. bands like the Flesh Eaters, DeadBeats, Alley Cats, Eyes, X, and many others. In that context Bingenheimer awkwardly interviewed CRIME.

As I recall, the most featherbrained comment from Bingenheimer in the interview was his saying punks “had a lot in common” with law enforcement officers—because, he averred—punks and cops both liked violence and they wore black leather jackets.

He also made jest that CRIME dressed like cops, whereas “new-wave” darlings The Police did not. Years later, after Bingenheimer helped turn KROQ into a radio leviathan, the big-wigs at the station unceremoniously fired him in 2017. He almost immediately joined Little Steven’s SiriusXM’s Underground Garage show, hosting a weekly broadcast I have yet to hear.

Poster announcing CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, June 24, 1978. Artist/James Stark.

Poster announcing CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, June 24, 1978. Artist/James Stark.

One last note regarding the Fun Bus Tour party. Darby Crash of the Germs dropped in with a dead ringer for Lorna Doom, bass player of the Germs. Both sported black leather jackets and black armbands emblazoned with the band’s blue circle logo (armbands were a punk anti-fashion thing at the time). An ardent Germs fan, I attended their last concert at the Starwood nightclub in West Hollywood on Dec. 3, 1980. Four days later Crash committed suicide at the age of 22, intentionally overdosing on heroin and effectively ending the Germs. Lorna Doom would die of cancer on Jan. 16, 2019, she was 61.

There are those who say Crash was a “genius.” Though he displayed flashes of brilliance, anyone who uses heroin is far from being an Einstein. Crash’s suicide was a tragically stupid act. And speaking of tragedies, in 2006 the bandmates of Crash made the grotesque error of reactivating the Germs, replacing their deceased boy wonder frontman with an actor named Shane West, perhaps best known for playing a doctor on the medical TV show, ER. The faux Germs willingly transformed what was once the most authentically fierce and nihilistic punk band, into a postmodern simulacrum of rebellion—starring a TV actor.

The imitation Germs followed in the footsteps of those who defiled the legacy of the renowned 60s band, the Doors; Jim Morrison, legendary lead singer and songwriter of that band died in 1971. In 2002, former members of the Doors Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, reformed the group as “The Doors of the 21st Century.” They replaced Morrison with Ian Robert Astbury, singer for the post-punk band, The Cult. Yeah, that worked as well as the ersatz Germs. In 2005 the surviving Doors drummer John Densmore, along with the Morrison estate, won a permanent court injunction preventing anyone from using “The Doors” as a band name. “The Doors of the 21st Century” changed their name to “Manzarek-Krieger”—that band ceased to exist when Manzarek died of cancer on May 20, 2013 at the age of 74.

Poster announcing "Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers," held at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. March 1978.

Poster announcing "Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers," held at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. March 1978.

If a new wave soothsayer had warned CRIME to “Beware the Ides of March,” they probably wouldn’t have listened. I don’t remember who organized the March 1978 “Punks Against Black Lung: A Benefit Concert for Striking Coal Workers,” but it was a huge event at the Mabuhay Gardens that garnered national attention—at least in punk circles. Someone had the bright idea of raising funds for the miners, convincing a number of bands to play a two evening gig at the Mabuhay.

The circumstances that inspired the benefit revolved around the 1977-1978 national coal strike in the United States. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) negotiated a contract with the coal companies; a good portion of mine workers rejected the contract, and so militant workers conducted a work stoppage without union authorization—a “wildcat strike.” After 110-days, the bitter labor action ended on March 19, 1978… the eve of the Mabuhay benefit concert.

CRIME was asked to play, but they refused. The press quoted the band as having said, “Mine workers are just assholes who drive around in Cadillacs.” The band claimed they were misquoted, but months later guitarist Frankie Fix told the Berkeley Barb newspaper the miners “would never go dig for an extra week so we could get out our new record.” [2] When it came to his assessment that coal miners didn’t give a fig about punk rock, Fix was absolutely correct; but then, no one cared about punk rock except the punks.

Somehow the miners benefit show went on without CRIME—fourteen punk bands like Negative Trend, the Nuns, and Tuxedo Moon ended up playing the two evening concert that took place on March 20-21, the door price per night? $4.50 (wow, the good ‘ol days). Search & Destroy Magazine filmed the benefit, and captured the beautiful noise and artlessness of UXA, Dils, Avengers, Sleepers, and the Mutants on film.

Handbill for the Sept. 11, 1978 "Nix on 6—Save the Homos Benefit" concert at the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco.

Handbill for the Sept. 11, 1978 "Nix on 6—Save the Homos Benefit" concert at the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco.

Before you start bellyaching about CRIME being politically incorrect creeps, consider this. Six months after refusing to play the miners gig, CRIME headlined a Sept. 11, 1978 benefit concert at Mabuhay Gardens in opposition to the Briggs Initiative. Officially known as California Proposition 6, the initiative sought to ban gays and lesbians from working in the state’s public schools.

CRIME’s drummer Hank Rank told the press the following about Prop. 6. “This Briggs issue hits closer to home than the miners’ benefit. People have always suppressed us as individuals and as a band. We’re against suppression of any kind, and we think Briggs and his supporters are ghouls for bringing this dead issue to life. Who cares about sexual preference any more, anyway?” Frankie Fix told the press; “It’s 1978, I can’t believe we’re even talking about being gay. It’s like how black people used to be talked about and discriminated against. People are real slow. We’re all sexual beings and that’s all there is to it.” [2]

CRIME had an unlikely ally in their opposition to the Briggs Initiative. Former state Governor and soon to be US President, Ronald Reagan, also opposed the measure. The Briggs Initiative was defeated by voters in Nov. 1978.

Poster announcing Feb. 2, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. with VKTMS and Situations. Photo/James Stark.

Poster announcing Feb. 2, 1977 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco. with VKTMS and Situations. Photo/James Stark.

I could go on telling true CRIME stories, but I’d have to write a book instead of an essay. CRIME and the other uncontaminated bands of punk’s initial detonation were like proverbial canaries in a coal mine, but few heard the caged birds singing. Listening to the strains of today’s “alternative sounds”—pop, hip hop, rap, I know those canaries kicked the bucket a long time ago. Bernie Sanders producing a campaign video with the moronic Cardi B only proves my point. Today’s commercial music is entirely disposable. A cursory glance at the Billboard Hot 100 makes you wish the music industry really was dead, but it’s a reanimated corpse that just keeps shambling along.

The left leaning news magazine The Week, published an article on Aug. 31, 2019 titled “The coming death of just about every rock legend.” Detailing the moribund state of rock, the piece opened with the following words, “Rock music isn’t dead, but it’s barely hanging on.” That was the exact message punks delivered to the world over 40-years-ago, albeit with slightly more force, along the lines of: “We’ve come to bury rock, not to praise it.” Glad to see everyone’s caught up.

Do you think a genre of music like rock can’t fade away and take flight from public memory? Tell me, where is American Big band music today? Born in the early 1910s from the world of jazz, it completely dominated popular music in the 20s, 30s, and 40s (it’s zenith), and remained influential in the 50s and 60s. Then suddenly, full stop—it became passé. What does your average millennial know about Big band music? Do they prize Orrin Tucker and his orchestra?

Do you think I exaggerate about the demise of rock ‘n roll? Mike Kaplan, program director for ALT 92.3 (WNYL-FM), the ONLY “contemporary rock station” in New York City said the following: “We don’t even say the word ‘rock’ on the radio station—we’re New York’s new alternative.” He went on to blather, ”I don’t think there’s a big win in using the word ‘rock’ today. The raw, guitar-rock sound is really… I don’t want to say it’s done, but…” This station is in New York City of all places. CBGB? Fuhgeddaboudit. And those phenomenal New York rock bands like the Ramones, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Television, the Dictators, the Misfits, and the Patti Smith Group? Just odds and ends to be swept away. In Kaplan’s words; “If there’s anything polarizing that I see in music, it’s a no-go.” So, that’s the future of rock, eh?

Poster announcing Halloween, 1978 CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco with Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, and Dead Kennedys. Design/James Stark.

Poster announcing 1978 Halloween CRIME concert at Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, with Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, Dead Kennedys, and the Next. Design/James Stark.

Speaking personally—and I know this will upset my contemporaries who still flail and wail about in their punk uniforms like it’s the 1977 Summer of Hate, but I view punk as a moment frozen in time. It was an anomaly from the late 1970s and early ’80s that grew from a particular set of circumstances; it eventually entered the annals of history. You can make history, but you can’t relive or alter it, and you assuredly cannot superimpose it over other conditions as a solution.

In ‘77 punk was a jagged stone violently thrown into a placid body of water; we’ve been watching the ripples slowly dissipating on the pond’s surface ever since.

Examining the lyrics of CRIME and other punk bands from the period, one quickly realizes the millennial “woke” crowd of today would decry the words as politically incorrect—triggering anxiety about sexism, racism and ’sensory overload.’

The noose on free expression draws ever tighter.

As a point of personal privilege—I can’t imagine people at a FEAR concert reacting with “jazz hands.”

If you were caught on the streets of Los Angeles in 1977 with blue hair, you would likely have been pummeled by an angry crowd of normals. In present-day Los Angeles… the normals have blue hair.

It has been said that “the moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.” I have no more interest in dressing up in ’80s punk gear than I do in wearing a black turtleneck sweater, donning a beret, and carrying bongos in the hope people will think I’m a ’50s beatnik. Back in my late ’70s punk heyday, I didn’t envision a future of endlessly replayed songs by domesticated house pets like Green Day and Billy Idol—but that’s where we’re at presently. Long ago punk became just another set of ossified rules; one might as well go to a Grateful Dead revival concert.

CRIME and many of their compatriots are dead, literally, and so with them punk itself. Yet the spirit of punk, ephemeral and wraith-like, lingers—waiting to infect. All the motives we had for throwing ourselves into punk, a rejection of conformity and a thirst for creativity and radical inventiveness—still exist. All that’s needed is a new skin and the necessary accoutrements. Punk was much more than a black leather jacket, a beat-up electric guitar, and a weird haircut; it demanded untamed freedom and creativity, a philosophy to be applied to all human endeavor.

I just hope the virus finds those who have not been inoculated.

———————————– # ———————————–

Ibid.
[1]  SLASH Magazine. Vol. 1 #2 June 1977
[2] Berkeley Barb. Sept. 8-14, 1978.

The Ice Cream Follies: PECAN RESIST!

Screen shot from Ben & Jerry's "Pecan Resist" video advertisement, featuring package design by Favianna Rodriquez.

Screen shot from Ben & Jerry's "Pecan Resist" video advertisement, featuring package design by Favianna Rodriquez.

Yes, this is a turning point. President Trump is finished. The walls are closing in. Impeachment is just around the corner. No, I’m not ranting about the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian collusion investigation, I’m talking about Ben & Jerry’s new ice cream flavor… Pecan Resist. No, I’m not kidding.

Believe it or not, Ben & Jerry’s launched Pecan Resist on October 30, 2018, in the First Amendment Room of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. That apparently is what the National Press Club thinks the First Amendment is for—marketing and product placement. That’s the first lesson of the ice cream follies.

The second lesson is that everything in the Trump era has become politicized, even a frozen dessert. At the National Press Club, Ben & Jerry’s let all consumers know that their Pecan Resist flavor will help “lick injustice and champion those fighting to create a more just and equitable nation for us all.” Good grief, this essentially means that “Pecan Resist” equals “We Can Resist.”

Just in case you missed the point, Ben & Jerry’s clarified their marketing campaign: “The company cannot be silent in the face of President Trump’s policies that attack and attempt to roll back decades of progress on racial and gender equity, climate change, LGBTQ rights and refugee and immigrant rights – all issues that have been at the core of the company’s social mission for 40 years.” So buy our ice cream, it’s for the revolution, don’t cha know.

Oct. 30, 2018 Twitter post announcing Ben & Jerry's launch of "Pecan Resist."

Oct. 30, 2018 Twitter post announcing Ben & Jerry's launch of "Pecan Resist."

But why am I writing about ice cream, and what does any of this have to do with art? Because, as the Press Release from Ben & Jerry’s notes; “The Pecan Resist campaign graphics and pint design were developed by Bay Area artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez.” In the Press Release for Pecan Resist, Rodriguez made the following statement:

“As an artist, I know well the power of culture and I recognize when a business is using its platform to push for love, justice and a green planet. Let’s declare our resistance, march in the streets, and elect a new generation of change makers.”

Hmm, I remember a time when the left would NEVER have collaborated with a multinational corporation, let alone take its money. That would have made one complicit with monopoly capitalism. But now that the left has changed its rulebook by throwing the white working class under the bus, they might as well violate their rules against teaming up with huge and powerful corporations.

Here’s a surprise for Ms. Rodriguez, there is no Ben & Jerry’s. It’s a fully owned subsidiary of the British-Dutch transnational corporation, Unilever. The largest consumer goods company in the world, it owns over 400 brands and has assets that totaled $70.278 billion in 2017. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield founded their ice cream company in 1978, but their business became just another corporate acquisition for Unilever, which purchased the company in 2000.

The products still say “Ben & Jerry’s,” but Cohen and Greenfield do not hold board or management positions in the Unilever Ben & Jerry’s. In a 2017 interview, Greenfield described their current role in Ben & Jerry’s: “We have no responsibility, no authority, and very little influence.” The New York Times in 2000 reported that Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s for around $326 million in cash.

On October 23, 2018, Reuters reported that the Unilever Ben & Jerry’s spent lots of money buying ads on Facebook ahead of the Nov. 6, 2018 midterm elections in the U.S.  According to Reuters, the company “spent more than $401,000 since May on various ads, including one supporting a Florida ballot measure that would let felons vote” (incidentally, that ballot measure won). Wow… that could inspire a brand new Ben & Jerry’s flavor. Two scoops of “Felons Truffle Kerfuffle” anyone? Or maybe “Faux Russian Collusion Cookie Core” would be more fitting?

Book-cover for April 1, 2007 edition of "Yo! Whatever Happened To Peace?" The cover also served as a stencil.

April 1, 2007 edition of "Yo! Whatever Happened To Peace?" The book-cover also served as a stencil.

It seems like a million years ago, but on Saturday, July 28th, 2007, I spoke at an artist’s forum with Favianna Rodriguez that celebrated the official Los Angeles debut of the newly published art book, Yo! What Happened to Peace? The book was a collection of hand-made prints created by over 120 artists in opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq—it included works by Rodriguez and yours truly. The forum, held at the Continental Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, was a lively evening of art, music and dialogue well attended by over 500 people.

Since then Ms. Rodriguez has made quite a name for herself in the Oakland Bay Area and beyond. Her colorful graphic print works offer a decidedly left-wing feminist view on the issues of immigration, gender, economic inequality, LGBTQ rights, and climate change—all with a laser focus on women of color. Ms. Rodriguez, to put it mildly, has ardently embraced identity politics. Thus, her works have brought her acclaim and celebrity from like-minded people. Obviously her works were favored by Unilever.

Altogether now, let’s recite the following in our best Borg Collective drone voice, “You will be assimilated—resistance is futile.”

"I'm a Slut. I Vote." Favianna Rodriquez. Digital Print 2012. Offered by Rodriguez as a free download.

"I'm a Slut. I Vote." Favianna Rodriquez. Digital Print 2012. Offered by Rodriguez as a free download.

‘Scuse me while this cisgendered lug does some art-splaining. I began to question the political approach of Rodriguez when she printed a series of militant silkscreen prints promoting women’s rights. On June 8, 2012 Ms. Rodriguez announced that these posters would be available as free downloads so that they could be “shared far and wide.” She called her suite of prints, the “pussy-power, poontang-celebrating, patriarchy-defeating, slut-positive posters.”

Mind you, having created a fair amount of provocative art myself, I appreciate the role of angry aesthetics, and I’m most certainly in favor of advancing women’s rights. However, these particular posters by Rodriguez utterly fail as visual arguments in favor of a noble cause. They will undoubtably appeal to small circles of seasoned radical feminists, but their surly, confrontational nature will send everyone else running. It should be obvious to most people that the great majority of American women will not appreciate being called a slut.

"Yo Pussy Power." Favianna Rodriguez. Digital Print 2012. Offered by Rodriguez as a free download.

"Yo Pussy Power." Favianna Rodriguez. Digital Print 2012. Offered by Rodriguez as a free download.

Furthermore, rather than offering a rational, persuasive argument to men, the artist resorts to abuse and invective. Calling men “Misogynist, Crusty, F**k Heads” will not garner their support—but it will most definitely turn them away. In other words, these posters comprise a monumental propaganda disaster. Conservatives will point at the “slut” themed posters and rightly say “that’s today’s left,” and they won’t even have to bother parodying the posters.

The same can also be said for the Pecan Resist package design. Normal people associate ice cream with fun, parties, festive occasions, and the like. But these days it seems “no fun” has become the mantra of a stern, stridently politically correct, and very humorless left.

With Pecan Resist you are transported to a street protest where three angry looking women are scowling, most likely because you’re not carrying a “F**k Trump” placard. The outraged “sisters” are presumably shouting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, (insert grievance here), Has Got To Go!” Unilever even created an animated ad using the Pecan Resist art (yes, there’s a YouTube campaign), presenting one of the cartoon women breathing fire—along with stock footage of marching irate protestors. Ah, such joy, it just makes you want to eat ice cream, doesn’t it?

But “inclusivity” only goes so far—sorry vegans, there isn’t a non-dairy Pecan Resist.  And as for “intersectionality” being the tool that guides the pseudo-politics of a faddish left, ponder the following. What can be said about the brilliant minds behind the Pecan Resist marketing campaign who are totally ignorant of the fact that up to 75% of African Americans and Native Americans, and 90% of Asian Americans, are lactose intolerant? And these geniuses want to combat racism.

Not surprisingly, the Pecan Resist video isn’t doing so well. On the day of its Oct. 30, 2018 launch, it received hundreds of negative comments, so many in fact that Unilever was forced to disable comments altogether in order to avoid embarrassment. I did manage to jot down a few barbs before they disappeared; “You couldn’t resist the urge to lose business, could you” and “Politics in ice cream? Get woke, go broke” pretty much summed up the feedback.

There were 14 up-votes and a whopping 952 down-votes registered when the company disabled comments. But wait, it gets even better. On the official Ben & Jerry’s website product page for Pecan Resist, the “Ratings & Reviews” section has been removed. That section exists for every other flavor at the bottom of each page, and it’s where customers leave extensive comments and rate their favorite flavor. Oh well, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!”

Another new Ben & Jerry’s flavor could very well be, “Culture Wars Cheesecake Cataclysm.”

Ms. Rodriguez’ twitter announcement about her art gracing Ben & Jerry’s latest product didn’t fare any better; many of the comments were pretty icy: “it’s only 1/1024th cocoa but identifies as chocolate” and “Ah yes, using the political climate to promote your personal capitalism. Amazingly capitalist regime of you” were typical retorts. But then there were the truly injurious snubs, like “You went to the Jim Carey (sic) school of art I see.”

In its Press Release for the launch of Pecan Resist, the Unilever Ben & Jerry’s announced that it was donating $25,000 each to four groups “focused on freedom, belonging, community, and justice.” One of those groups is the Women’s March, described as having a commitment to “harnessing the political power of diverse women.” In fact the Press Release features a group photo that includes artist Favianna Rodriquez standing next to the co-chair of the Women’s March, the Palestinian-American-Muslim Linda Sarsour.

To say that Linda Sarsour is a lightning rod of controversy would be an understatement. In 2011 she tweeted that “sharia law is reasonable and once u (sic) read into the details it makes a lot of sense.” That may be so for the patriarchal Islamic extremists who use sharia to oppress women, but this is coming from an activist who supposedly defends women’s rights.

The political and economic support given to the Women’s March by Ben & Jerry’s has raised the hackles of many. Even the rabidly anti-Trump New York Post ran an article titled; “Don’t join this year’s Women’s March unless you’re good with anti-Semitism.

The progressive Huffington Post is also known as a Trump hating platform, but HuffPo published a 2016 article titled “As Long As There Is Sharia Law, Women Will Not Have Human Rights.” Written by Indian-American Muslim Deeba Abedi, the essay should make any decent minded person squirm over the atrocities committed by sharia against the basic human rights of women.

Linda Sarsour and fellow Women’s March leaders Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, have ties to Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Mr. Farrakhan needs no introduction, he’s a hardened anti-Semite with a very long history of preaching hate against Jews, Whites, and Gays. But then comes his most recent perfidious exploit.

The Mehr News Agency, one of the official news agencies of Iran, reported that Louis Farrakhan visited the country on Nov. 4, 2018 as the Islamic Republic celebrated the 39th anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. That’s when, for 444 days, radical Islamists held 50 U.S. diplomates and embassy staff hostage. Farrakhan’s solidarity visit was also timed to protest President Trump’s Nov. 5th renewal of sanctions against the Islamic regime. Farrakhan led an auditorium of law students gathered at the University of Tehran in chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi.

In 2015 Mr. Farrakhan invited Sarsour, Mallory, and Perez to participate in the Nation of Islam organized “Justice Or Else” rally in Washington, D.C. Sarsour was a keynote speaker at the gathering. If any of you progressives out there doubt the reactionary nature of Farrakhan, then watch and listen to this video of his speech to a Nation of Islam gathering in 1993. He boasted that the Nation of Islam murdered Malcolm X, saying “we dealt with him the way a nation deals with a traitor.” Since Ms. Rodriguez issued a silkscreen poster of Malcolm X in 2010, perhaps she would considered reissuing the print using the Farrakhan quote?

In September 2018, Linda Sarsour addressed the Islamic Society of North America conference where she lectured Muslim Americans for being “complicit” in the murder of Palestinians. She told her audience they must never “humanize the oppressor,” meaning of course, all Israeli Jews. We know what happens when a people are dehumanized—every crime against them can be justified.

Which brings me to another Women’s March leader, the 69-year-old Palestinian Rasmea Yousef Odeh. She helped organize the Women’s March in the U.S. capital that took place on March 8, 2016 after Trump’s inauguration. Odeh co-wrote “Women of America: we’re going on strike. Join us so Trump will see our power,” an open letter published by The Guardian announcing the protest.

In 1969 Odeh belonged to the Marxist oriented “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” (PFLP). She planted a powerful bomb in an Israeli supermarket that killed two young men shopping for groceries—Leon Kanner, 21, and Eddie Joffe, 22. Nine other people were wounded. Odeh was sentenced to life in prison, but served 10 years before being released in a prisoner exchange. In 1995 she entered the U.S. but failed to tell U.S. authorities she had served a prison sentence for murder and terrorism; she eventually received American citizenship.

When U.S. immigration authorities discovered Odeh’s deliberate deception, she was charged with immigration fraud for lying on her visa and citizenship forms. In March of 2017, she accepted a plea bargain that stripped her of U.S. citizenship. In a final act of “resistance” on U.S. soil, in April of 2017 Odeh was the keynote speaker at the “Jewish Voice for Peace” summit in Chicago. Linda Sarsour shared the stage with Odeh, and said she was “honored and privileged to be here in this space, and honored to be on this stage with Rasmea.” In Sept., 2017, Rasmea Yousef Odeh was deported to Jordan.

Ben & Jerry’s Israel branch announced it has no intention of carrying or selling Pecan Resist. Israelis are incensed over Linda Sarsour’s support for Rasmea Yousef Odeh, and for her and other Women’s March leaders backing Louis Farrakhan. But then, Sarsour said we should never “humanize the oppressor.” For Sarsour and those who think like her, the thoughts of Israeli Jews are entirely irrelevant and never to be considered.

For those in the U.S. who insist that opposition to the Women’s March is driven by conservatives, think again. A major socialist institution in Germany, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, withdrew their Nov. 12, 2018 presentation of its Human Rights Award to the Women’s March, citing the antisemitism of the women’s organization as the reason. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung or FES), is a German political foundation with ties to the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Founded in 1863, the SPD is one of Germany’s two major political parties; it was one of the first mass organizations in the world to be influenced by Marxism. Founded in 1925 the FES promotes the peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism by electoral means. It has projects in over 100 countries and maintains fraternal ties with the Workers Party of Brazil.

Scholars and alumni of FES wrote an open letter denouncing the Women’s March, with a special focus on Linda Sarsour. You can read the entire document here. The statement in part reads: “We believe that the Women’s March USA does not meet the criteria of this award, as its organizers have repeatedly attracted attention through antisemitic statements, the trivialization of antisemitism and the exclusion of Zionists and Jews since Women’s March USA’s establishment in 2017. Women’s March USA does not constitute an inclusive alliance.” As a result the Friedrich Ebert Foundation suspended the award ceremony to “to allow an independent body to investigate the matter.”

Favianna Rodriguez, her benefactors at Unilever Ben & Jerry’s, and all those who think buying Pecan Resist actually constitutes a step towards a better society, should read the declaration composed by the left intellectuals of FES.

I can’t imagine why Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield would donate $25,000 to the Women’s March, not with Linda Sarsour at the helm. And I also can’t imagine why Favianna Rodriguez would stand with Sarsour. However, what I CAN imagine is Sarsour, her cohorts in the Islamic Society of North America, and the Palestinian people, responding with open disgust if they were ever to see Rodriguez’ “pussy power, poontang” graphics.

I’ve always maintained that artists should avoid endorsing political parties, candidates, and celebrity figures. Not because I’m a contrarian, but for the reason that I believe art and artists are better off as autonomous observers and critics. For the majority of my career I have strived for artistic and political independence, and I am entirely unencumbered because of that stance.

Conversely, with very few exceptions, when artists lambast individual political figures, they simply provide a distraction from systemic problems; which is to say, artists should battle ideas, not people.

Becoming entangled in political activism also has its pitfalls; nothing kills the spirit of art quicker than blind allegiance to political ideology. But another conundrum faces the political artist; what happens when the political ideal, alliance, or figure you promoted with your art proves to be corrupted? That’s what I think when pondering the fate of Favianna Rodriguez, she now has a millstone around her neck that is engraved with the name, Linda Sarsour.

In the 1960s postmodern thought achieved major inroads into the art world. In no small way Andy Warhol helped engineer the concept-model that contemporary artists follow today, that of business as the one true art. Warhol called it “Business Art,” where the artist is willingly transformed into a commodity to be marketed and sold. According to this purview it was not Warhol’s prints, paintings, and films that had value—they were secondary. It was his carefully constructed and marketed persona that held value. This notion has become one of the highest expressions of capitalist thought in today’s cultural milieu.

It goes without saying that Warhol’s “Business Art” is not the only model an artist can—or should—pursue. Chicano art icon Gilbert “Magú” Luján (1940-2011) knew of a different path. Toward the end of his life he told me that in the past McDonald’s wanted to use his art in advertising campaigns targeting the “Hispanic” community, and that the multinational was willing to pay him a substantial sum for the partnering. Magú firmly turned down the offer, he did not want his name associated with junk food flooding the Latino community. Millennials need to seek out and embrace those who possess this type of integrity… especially those involved in the arts.

What we see in the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream follies is a perfect example of “Business Art,” which bears similarities to “Free Enterprise Painting,” the moniker given to Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s by Nelson Rockefeller. These appellations define art that is dressed in the accouterment of rebellion, but nevertheless serves the interests of powerful elites; in essence I’m talking about the aesthetics and politics of co-optation. “Hope” and “Change” anyone?

Postmodernism conjures up, then appropriates “Resist,” giving us the “equitable tomorrow” of “Pecan Resist,” and all for only $7 a pint. The spectacle commodity society is in full bloom, and comrades, it’s eating you alive. But the last laugh is on those who are assimilated into the system they once struggled against.

– // –

UPDATE: 9/19/2019

On Sept. 16, 2019, the Women’s March announced it was cutting ties with board members Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Bob Bland—members accused of anti-Semitism. Sarsour and Mallory had refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam. On Sept. 18, 2019, the Women’s March also fired a new board member, Zahra Billoo, just two days after her appointment. Billoo, a Palestinian Muslim, had tweeted the FBI were recruiting “mentally ill young people” as “recruits to join ISIS.” She also said Israeli soldiers were “no better than ISIS.”

UPDATE: 11/27/2018

On November 19, 2018 Teresa Shook, the founder of Women’s March, denounced Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, and Carmen Perez. She accused them of allowing “anti-Semitism, anti- LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs.” Shook asked Sarsour and company to “step down.” Read Shook’s full statement here.

Gang of Four—They Fail Us Now

Gang of Four button-badge, circa 1979.

Gang of Four button-badge, circa 1979.

This essay is a contradictory tale of brilliance and entropy, inspiration and disillusionment. It is a story about a once dazzling rock band I discovered in 1978, a group I formerly thought to be indispensable. My commentary refers to the punk, funk, political, rhythm machine from the UK known as Gang of Four.

Politically speaking, what I loved most about the band was this, their onslaughts were aimed at institutions and systemic failures, never individuals.

During the 70’s and 80’s there was an endless cast of real life brutes and reprobate politicos to be identified, but the band never spoke their names. Instead they targeted the debased social situations we accepted, the ruin we internalized and embraced, and our gullibility as we traversed boundless media landscapes of deception and manipulation. The poetry of their words and rhythms were an attempt to crack open ideological facades; what more can an artist do?

Given the abysmal state of public discourse today, their laudable stance of long ago was really extraordinary, and paralleled my own belief that ideas should be fought rather than people. Yet, the newfangled Gang of Four in 2018 have abandoned their former attitude, and have now disparaged by name a famous American individual using graphics and a musical cudgel. However, before Quietus sacks the Gang of Four, please first allow me to praise the past glories of the British rockers.

"Vehemently criticize the monstrous deeds of the anti-Party clique of the 'Gang of Four' in trying to wrest power from the Party." Chinese propaganda poster, 1978. Credit: International Institute of Social History/Stefan Landsberger.

"Vehemently criticize the monstrous deeds of the anti-Party clique of the 'Gang of Four' in trying to wrest power from the Party." Chinese propaganda poster, 1978. Credit: International Institute of Social History/Stefan Landsberger.

I couldn’t help but notice the death of Chairman Mao on Sept. 9, 1976; he died just two days after my 22nd birthday. Mao’s demise threw China into turmoil. The Chinese Communist Party was split between “moderates” who wanted to develop the economy and radicals who wanted to further Mao’s revolution.

The leader of the radicals was Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. In October of 1976 the moderates staged a bloodless coup, arresting Qing and three other party members. Dubbed the “Gang of Four” they were tried and convicted of anti-party activities, receiving life imprisonment or lengthy prison sentences.

Along comes 1977 and four young men in Leeds, England needed a name for the band they just formed. “Despairing Working Class Blokes” might have sufficed but instead they choose Gang of Four. It was unquestionably the perfect name for a coterie of young proles determined to make left-wing political music you could dance to. I was immediately won over by the group’s jagged, distorted sound, and their subversive lyrics that undermined conceptions of leisure activity, mass media, and the limits and excesses of political power.

Still from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 silent film "Modern Times."

Still from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 silent film "Modern Times."

I can metaphorically describe their sound. It was the imagined noise of the leviathan Factory Machine from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 silent film Modern Times. That hellish engine drove Chaplin insane with its repetitive cadence; it swallowed him whole and crushed him in its tremendous cogs. The grinding, pulverizing, hammering cacophony of such a dynamo found its equivalency in the steamroller drumming and frangible guitar playing of Gang of Four.

When performing, the four never cracked a smile. Singer Jon King ran about the stage in a state of confusion, stopping only for panicky, exaggerated bouts of spastic dancing. Guitarist Andy Gill blankly stared at the audience while furiously strumming at his guitar, only to pluck a string one out of ten times. Dave Allen turned his bass guitar into a jackhammer, while drummer Hugo Burnham pummeled and clobbered everyone into line with the most disciplined, precision drumming I have ever heard in rock music.

Gang of Four, circa 1978. Photographer unknown. Clockwise from top left: Andy Gill, Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham.

Gang of Four, circa 1978. Photographer unknown. Clockwise from top left: Andy Gill, Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham.

Above all else where the lyrics. Fashioned from imbecilic news headlines, advertising jingles, and bourgeois moral codes, they were Situationist barbs that caused the listener to question the nature of… well, everything about hyper-consumerist society. From the commodification of sex, to favored opinions and even alienation being the result of systemic conditioning.

This may sound frightfully boring except that Gang of Four were not a faction of glassy-eyed Leninists browbeating you with Marxist jargon, they were a dance band—not a funky dance band, but a dance band in a funk. And while they cheerlessly delivered their woebegone, crestfallen messages, their austere but infectious beats made you tap your feet and move your body.

In 1977 I was already deeply involved in the Los Angeles punk scene when I read about the Gang of Four in the English music press. I promptly bought the band’s debut single when it was released in October, 1978. The 7” vinyl record presented three difficult songs that would forewarn of the Gang’s future output; Damaged Goods, Armalite Rifle, and Love Like Anthrax. In fact two of those songs appeared on the band’s premiere 1979 album, ironically titled Entertainment!

The title song Damaged Goods had a double meaning, the obvious one a story of failed romance, but the innuendo was how to extricate oneself from a fruitless political situation. “Damaged goods, send them back. I can’t work, I can’t achieve, send me back. Open the till, give me the change you said would do me good. Refund the cost, you said you’re cheap but you’re too much!”

Cover art for premiere single “Damaged Goods.” 1978

Cover art for premiere single “Damaged Goods.” 1978

Armalite Rifle was about the armed conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British Crown in the 1970s. Specifically the song focuses on the Armalite AR-18, a select-fire rifle that was used by the British police and the IRA. “Armalite rifle, police and IRA. Armalite rifle, use it everyday. A child could carry it, do it no harm. Armalite rifle… and the holy Trinity, used against you… like Irish jokes on the BBC.” The jab at the British Broadcasting Corporation was one of many cutting remarks the band leveled at media over the years. As one might imagine, the song Armalite Rifle had a driving martial quality to it. One could say the song was pacifistic. You might well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Love Like Anthrax was an anti-love song I used to play when I wanted to frighten my hippie friends. A whirlpool of churning feedback and caustic lyrics, most everyone I played it to in 1978 would wrinkle their nose in disapproval. “And I feel like a beetle on its back. And there’s no way for me to get up. Love will get you like a case of anthrax. And that’s something I don’t want to catch.” As singer Jon King intoned the dour ode, guitarist Andy Gill recited a deadpan monologue on the ubiquity of love songs in pop music. “I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love, we just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.”

Cover art for premiere album “Entertainment!” 1979

Cover art for premiere album “Entertainment!” 1979

In the summer of 1979 I saw the Gang of Four perform at the world famous Whiskey A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip. That may sound romantic, but it wasn’t. Yeah, it was a real warm welcome from the people of Los Angeles; there were only 50 slack-jawed people in the dark shabby club watching the amazing performance. The boys blazed through At Home He’s a Tourist, Armalite Rifle, and the rest of the songs from their just released Entertainment! album, but when a sweaty Hugo Burnham stepped out from behind his drum set to sing the feminist descant It’s Her Factory, the world stopped.

“Item: Daily press, views to suppress. Subject: Story on the front page… suffering from suffrage. Title: Unsung heroine of Britain, position to attain, housewife heroine, addicts to their homes. It’s her factory, it’s a duty.” Dave Allen’s bass line penetrated the thickest of skulls, Jon King’s stark melodica playing gave an etherial bent to the dirge. “Paternalist, journalist… he gives them, sympathy… because they’re not men, scrubbing floors they’re close to the earth, in a man’s world, they’re not men, in a man’s world, because they’re not men.” In the background King wailed, “It’s a factory!”

I was thunderstruck… most of us were; the song ended abruptly with the words, “A little, of a lot, keeps them happy. Avoid the answers, but keep them snappy. That’s all.” While the crowd was inordinately small, that didn’t vex the band, who gave a momentous performance.

I should note that in 1979 the BBC’s music television program Top of the Pops, censored At Home He’s a Tourist for being too risqué. “Down on the disco floor, they make their profit, from the things they sell, to help you cob off, and the rubbers you hide, in your top left pocket.” The BBC wanted the word “rubbers” replaced with the word “rubbish.” The band refused to sing a censored version of their song and so walked out of the performance.

Back cover art for the album “Solid Gold.” 1981

Back cover art for the album “Solid Gold.” 1981

Fast forward to 1981 when Gang of Four released their mirthfully titled second album, Solid Gold, an arresting collection of danceable diatribes. All the songs were imposing, but Paralysed stood out for its disconsolate air and plodding lilt. “Blinkered, paralysed, flat on my back. They say our world is built with endeavor, that every man is for himself, wealth is for the one that wants it, paradise, if you can earn it. History is the reason… I’m washed up.” The song dies, then starts again. “My ambitions come to nothing, what I wanted now just seems a waste of time. I can’t make out what has gone wrong. I was good at what I did. The crows come home to roost, and I’m the dupe.”

That same year the group released the single, To Hell With Poverty!, a song with the energy of an out of control train about to run off the tracks; the compelling lyrics contain a double meaning from the boys. “In my arms, we shall begin, we’re not on the rocks, well there’s no charge. In this land, right now, some are insane… and they’re in charge. To hell with poverty, we’ll get drunk on cheap wine. To hell with poverty. The cheque arrives, it’s in the post again. To hell with poverty. The cheque arrives, it’s in the post again.”

Meaning? The worker declares his resistance, takes his pay, and squanders it on cheap plonk, all the while believing he’s rebelling. This parable of a song got me through rough times in the early 1980s and it continues to resonate. It’s especially applicable for today’s booshwa rebels à la mode.

Cover art for the single “To Hell With Poverty!” 1981

Cover art for the single “To Hell With Poverty!” 1981

The flip side to To Hell With Poverty! was the song Capital, It Fails Us Now. I will never forget playing it for a friend of mine, who at the time was the news director of an independent radio station in Los Angeles.

He didn’t think much of punk music; as a jazz aficionado he endlessly regaled me with stories on the majesty of Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago and the like.

My pal knew jazz, a form I fell in love with as a 15-year-old when I first heard John Coltrane play My Favorite Things. But my amigo did listen attentively to the Gang of Four song; he pricked up his ears at the deadpan vocals delivered by Jon King: “The moment I was born, I opened my eyes. I reached out, for my credit card. Oh no, I left it in my other suit! Capital, it fails us now. Comrade let us seize the time. On the first day of my life, I opened my eyes. Guess where, the superstore. Surrounded by luxury goods, I need a freezer, I need a hi-fi. No credit, no goods. Call my bank, I said. They say we’re bankrupt.”

When the song ended my colleague turned to me and said exuberantly, “Vallen, that song is a Marxist critique of society!” Since I loved to playfully rib my friend I befuddled him with: “No, you’re wrong. The band is saying that Capital, the treatise on communism written by Karl Marx, has failed us!” Given the dark sarcasm of the Gang of Four, whose to say my “alternative facts” were wrong?

Cover art for the single “I Love a Man in a Uniform.” 1981

Cover art for the single “I Love a Man in a Uniform.” 1981

In 1981 Gang of Four released their song I Love A Man In A Uniform. The next year it was released in the United States. The song took on alienation, sexism, and militarism in one fell swoop: “The good life was so elusive. Handouts, they got me down. I had to regain my self-respect, so I got into camouflage. The girls they love to see you shoot. I love a man in a uniform. I love a man in a uniform.”

In 1982 the BBC banned the song from the airwaves, saying it was inappropriate to broadcast when Britain’s armed forces were fighting Argentina in the Falkland Islands war. In the U.S. the song received considerable radio airplay, even from stations that never played punk music. The song was more upbeat than most Gang of Four numbers, but something about it was amiss. I was perplexed by the public’s reaction; the song was thought to be a sexy dance party song—and a pro-military one at that. Yobs especially fixed on the line The girls they love to see you shoot. I always thought the Gang of Four erred in the making of this song, artists doing political works must always strive for absolute clarity.

Cover art for the album “Songs Of The Free.” 1982

Cover art for the album “Songs Of The Free.” 1982

In September 1982 I saw the Gang of Four in concert at the Country Club in Reseda, California. It was part of the band’s “Songs of the Free” tour in the U.S. to promote the album of the same name.

The group nearly filled the 1,000 person venue in sunny Southern Cal. Naturally, the evening’s fare would come from the Songs Of The Free album. Call Me Up was served with an extra helping of scornful derision; the irony was so thick you could cut it with a knife: “Children of the pleasure culture, who must be grateful for what we’ve got. Happy smiles in sunny climes. So don’t upset the ice-cream cart. Having fun is my reason for living. Give me a break!”

I had the feeling the songs from that night were written just for us mutant Angelenos packed into that nowheresville club. Life, It’s A Shame said it all: “Talk of corruption is to preach insurrection. Elected to power men suspend self-interest. You and I, we are satellites, it’s a shame. You and I, we are satellites, it’s a shame. Life! Making money is making sense. Making money is making sense. It’s a shame.” Some of us will always remember that concert, it was matchless, the perfect encapsulation of where society stood at the end of the 20th century.

The Country Club, now forgotten, began as a venue for country western music in 1980. However, the owner soon started to book punk bands and the place garnered a reputation as an alternative performance space. During this period I saw the Jamaican dub poet and musician, Mutabaruka; he scorched the place with his fiery political reggae music. But all good things must come to an end; in the late 1990s the Country Club shuttered its doors for good. Reflecting the colossal shift in demographics taking place all over Southern California, the space reopened as a Spanish language Church for newly arrived Latinos.

I must point out that it’s almost useless to look up Gang of Four lyrics online. Popular lyric archives have mangled the group’s lyrics to the extent that one begins to think it’s a conspiracy of some kind. Found everywhere on the internet, including on Youtube, these wildly inaccurate transcriptions radically gut the meaning of the quartet’s songs. A case in point would be the lyrics of the song, Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time, which addresses authoritarianism.

“He’s become nostalgic, wants to own tomorrow. Discipline, is his passion. Now,  he says there’s none. Outside the trains don’t run on time. He believes it’s no coincidence. He thinks some blood will drag him down. Home, it’s no castle. He wants his wife to run, and fetch. Order, he’s obsessed with order, order.” The incorrect lyrics found all over the internet read: “Keeping up nostalgic, want to own tomorrow. Discipline, is his passion. Now, is enough. Outside the trains don’t run on time. He believes it’s not coincidence. He thinks the blood will run them down. Hold, it’s no castle. It’s once it’s white to run and fetch. Order his obsession, order, order.”

The original song lyric was stripped of its pro-Woman message. The only reliable transcriptions of the group’s lyrics are found printed on the record sleeves of the original vinyl records. Ah, the digital age! And you don’t believe in “fake news”?

Bassist Dave Allen left in 1981, beginning the never ending “musical chairs” of new band members. Drummer Hugo Burnham and lead singer songwriter Jon King left in 1983. I lost interest in the group and totally ignored their sans Allen/Burnham disco sounding fifth album, Hard, save for the ever so slightly redemptive Woman Town. American music journalist Robert Christgau wasted no words, “This record is damn near dead on its feet.”

For me the band’s tenuous last hurrah was their fifth studio album, the 1991 Mall; it was released as President George Herbert Walker Bush unleashed Operation Desert Shield on Iraq that same year. With songs like World Falls Apart, Cadillac, and FMUSA, the band attempted to mix memories of the Vietnam war with missives about the growing conflagration in Iraq. Not being a fancier of saccharine love songs, I found the decidedly non-sugar-coated and ethereal Satellite the most memorable song in the collection. While I leaned towards liking the album, it didn’t hold me spellbound like the band’s previous offerings. After Mall my love affair with the group was on hold.

Many lifetimes later, I heard that guitarist Andy Gill—the last remaining original member of the group, had become the “frontman” for a reconstituted Gang of Four, and that the band had released an album titled What Happens Next.

The new Gang of Four were a little too reconstituted for me, they had become a simulacrum. In fact, What Happens Next was a mud pool of computerized synth doodles enveloping humdrum vocals and lyrics. Despite being mud, when thrown, it would stick to nothing. If Gill had released this recording under his own name that would have been one thing, but he messed around with the legacy of Gang of Four, and that’s quite another matter.

Imagine for a moment that the psychedelic rock band The Doors, in the wake of Jim Morrison’s death, continued to tour and record new albums, and then… oh wait, that actually happened.

After Morrison’s death, band members Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger wanted to tour and record under the Doors name—they also wanted to sell the rights to Doors songs for use in advertising. But drummer John Densmore, understanding Morrison to be the irreplaceable heart and soul of the Doors, fought and won a lengthy court battle preventing use of the name “The Doors.”

As the last original member of the Gang of Four, there’s a lesson for Andy Gill waiting in the “strange days” of The Doors… you too are replaceable, and in a time to come there may very well be a Gang of Four with no original members. Nevertheless, not even the improprieties of Gil can torpedo the legacy of those early works by the real Gang of Four.

Cover art for “Complicit.” 2018

Cover art for “Complicit.” 2018

Which brings me to the Washington Post, you know, where “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” On April 5, 2018 they published an article titled, Ivanka Trump is featured on the cover of a punk band’s new ‘Complicit’ album. Now guess who that unspecified “punk” band might be. Yup, its Andy Gill’s ersatz Gang of Four, otherwise known as the Gang of One. It’s illuminating that the Washington Post has written so little on the original Gang of Four over the decades. A puny concert review they published in 1979 was not only indicative of mainstream press coverage of the band, it was hilarious in its cluelessness:

“The Gang of Four, the London band that opened the show, had one leaden foot stuck in the punk tradition and the other dangling in concept art. The band tried to fuse disparate musical elements—ominous and militia-like, drums, dissonant and choppy fragments, and toneless chanted vocals—into something new and compelling. At their best, in “At Home He’s a Tourist,” they were riveting. At their worst, they sounded like a Metroliner derailing in Union Station. Mostly they were perplexing.”

Perplexing eh? Ah! But now the Washington Post just loves the Gang of Four, because… you know, the racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamaphobic, orange Cheeto nightmare, warmongering Nazi dotard Trump!

Andy Gill made a curious statement to Pitchfork.com regarding Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have), which is of course the second track on the Complicit EP. It was an atypical comment from Gill about the media:

“When we think of ‘the media’ everyone has lots of ideas about what we mean. It could be social media, where hundreds of memes crisscross the world; informing, misinforming, beginning or reinforcing ideas that may last a lifetime and beyond. Ideas about Jews, Muslims, or, say, the World Trade Center or perhaps, the criminality of certain American politicians. And then there is the receding traditional media with disappearing jobs like ‘journalists’ and ‘fact checkers.’ That’s the media the Trump family despise.”

Gill’s comment can only be read as a frontal attack on President Trump, as well as a full-throated defense of traditional media. That will surely thrill Trump’s detractors (which is obviously the point), but Gill’s remark is inconsistent. The Gang of Four have a history of lyrically zeroing in on the ways media have created unhealthy social-political landscapes, and otherwise adversely bending and shaping public consciousness.

When I saw the Gang of Four at the Country Club in 1983, fifty corporations owned 90% of all media in the United States. By 1993 that number had fallen to twenty. Today, as the Gang of Four inflicts Complicit upon the world, there are only six corporations in control of America’s media. That means just six companies hold sway over 90% of newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movies, and music in the U.S., including distribution outlets. Put another way, a tiny minority has a stranglehold over the news and culture consumed by Americans, but Andy Gill wants you to worry about Trump hating the media.

Gill’s mention of the “journalists” and “fact checkers” of the “traditional media” is a laugh. Is he speaking of how the “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, helped take America—and the world—to war in Iraq in 2003? The paper published repeated headlines and reports about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction and having connections to al-Qaeda. It was all based upon lies and fabrications provided to NYT reporter Judith Miller by Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi, who was heavily funded by the CIA and the US government. So Gill, your “traditional media” was nothing but a mouthpiece for the war mongers. And the “fact checkers,” well… they were simply on an endless vacation.

Or maybe Gill was talking about the traditional media in 2011, when President Obama decided to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi by bombing Libya. The Prez said he didn’t need Congressional approval, because it wasn’t a war, it was a “kinetic military action.” He said the War Powers Act didn’t apply. But the war effort required Cheerleaders, so the traditional media with its journalists and fact checkers stepped in to convince everyone a democratic uprising was underway. The democratic “rebels” turned out to be mostly Islamic fanatics, and after they murdered Gaddafi Libya didn’t become a Jeffersonian Republic, it became a bug light for al-Qaeda and ISIS. The “fact checkers”? They’re duteously counting the Libyan refugees flooding into Europe.

Over the years the Gang of Four cultivated a reputation as radical provocateurs, conceivably for the theatrics of it. Finding an article about the band that doesn’t refer to their “Marxist” “Socialist” or “left-wing” leanings is not an easy task. But at this point, their Complicit publicity stunt points in another direction. In their present Gang of Four 2.0 form they have become political opportunists. Don’t be surprised if you see Andy Gill wearing an “I’m With Her” T-shirt.

In 1988 Noam Chomsky wrote a book tilted Manufacturing Consent. He argued that mainstream media proved to be “effective & powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function.” Wow, that sounds like a Gang of Four lyric! For years leftists accused “corporate media” of being a threat to democracy by actively “manufacturing consent” with broadcasts and articles. In the late 1980s the American left referred to journalists as “stenographers to power.” Left-wing journalist David Barsamian used that phrase to title his 1992 book on “media and propaganda.

Of course all of this ceased when Mr. Trump invented his own variant of the terms “manufacturing consent” and “stenographers to power.” Vulgarian that he is, Trump just calls it “Fake News.” Now the left is backpedaling, no more criticizing the propaganda functions of the corporate media, no, it’s time to take your place on the barricades because “Trump is deliberately undermining the First Amendment!” You’re liable to find Andy Gill atop one of those barricades, and if you’re nice he might sell you a copy of Complicit.

"You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" Gang of Four have run out of luck.

"You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?" It seems Gang of Four have run out of luck.

Even the rebooted Gang of Four are peddling bargain-basement Russophobia these days; the cover art for Complicit displays the Russian translation of the title in parentheses (замешанная). The EP contains four songs, Lucky, Ivanka (Things You Can’t Have), I’m a Liar, and Lucky (10 O’Clock Chemical Remix). I dared a listen to Lucky, released in advance as a slick marketing trick, except, cleverness has nothing to do with it if what you’re selling is subpar. Forgive me but, to the ears of this once hard-core Gang of Four fan, Lucky is unlistenable.

SPIN had an April 4, 2018 review of the Gang’s new effort that is likely the only honest critique you’ll find on the internet. It reads in part:

“Unfortunately, Lucky, the first single, is really not very good at all. With some squelchy bass, brittle fuzz-tone guitar, and a tepid vocal from whatever lead singer Andy Gill is working with these days, it sounds more like dance punk revival also-rans (and recent Gang of Four manifestation) the Faint than any of the Gang’s classic era material. But we’re posting it anyway, just because of that awesome cover art. I guess you could say we’re… Complicit.”

So there’s your standard of criticism when it comes to today’s music. SPIN could not have been more honest had they written: “The song is execrable but we’ll promote it despite our better judgement since it’s against Trump. Oh yes, and we’re Complicit.” True enough, scheming right along with the Washington Post, Newsweek, and the slippery mucky mucks of the DNC.

I have read comments from people who have never heard of Gang of Four, or from those who are marginally familiar with their music but don’t care for it. These types have said they will buy Complicit, not because they have been swept off their feet by the Gang of Four, but because they hate Trump. Congrats boys, I don’t think you’ve ever attracted such a following before. Funny, you used to critique commodification, but now apparently you fully embrace it.

Then there are those open-minded, supposed aficionados of Gang of Four, who insist Andy Gill’s Complicit is not a case of “jumping on the bandwagon to cash in on being anti-Trump.” They’ll also buy Complicit, pointing to Entertainment! and Solid Gold as proof that Andy Gill “has been consistent for over forty years,” as if all the fuss over the decades has been about Mr. Gill. Don’t ignore the fact that the band that created those albums exists in memory only.

It has been reported in certain quarters that Complicit will be released on April 20, 2018. Workers, remember, you can declare YOUR resistance by taking your pay and squandering it on cheap plonk! In the meantime, if you hear the words “Making money is making sense. It’s a shame” rattling around in your head, there may be hope for you yet.

The Truth About Babylon Berlin

The mystery train of Babylon Berlin. Photo: © Sky 1

The mystery train of Babylon Berlin. Photo: © Sky 1

In the dead of night in 1929, a Steam Locomotive roars down the tracks to Berlin from somewhere in Russia. The mysterious train carries hidden cargo, tons of gold and a huge amount of deadly poison phosgene gas. But who are the senders and who are the recipients? Disparate forces and individuals in Berlin—monarchists, mobsters, social democrats, trotskyists and stalinists—all at odds with one another and aware of the secret transport, are absolutely desperate to get their hands on it. Their nefarious plots to capture the train and its payload form just one underpinning of the new German TV series, Babylon Berlin.

Never before have I written a review of a television show, and wouldn’t you know it, my first attempt is almost as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. But then, Babylon Berlin is not your typical idiot box entertainment. So please enjoy my first, and possibly last stab at such criticism.

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch). Photo: © Sky 1

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch). Photo: © Sky 1

I have always had a passion for the art produced in Germany during the Weimar years (1919-1933), so I was thrilled to discover Babylon Berlin would depict that tumultuous period. This essay gives my view of the show thus far, its strong points and foibles, with a spotlight on the art and politics of the period.

The TV series has multiple characters and plot lines, and a few anachronisms I’ll write off to artistic license. The narrative of this detective noir period piece is engaging enough that you don’t need to know the actual history behind the drama’s backdrop—but it certainly helps. My essay is not a timeline for the show, and though long and detailed, I will not be covering everything presented in the series. However, my article will contain major “spoilers.”

The main character of Babylon Berlin is Inspector Gereon Rath (played by Volker Bruch). A man in his early thirties, Gereon is a well-mannered member of the Cologne police force. A combat veteran of WWI, he quietly suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and secretly self-medicates when high stress situations cause him to tremble uncontrollably.

For that purpose he is most likely using the cough syrup containing heroin then produced by Bayer, Germany’s chemical and pharmaceutical company. Perfectly legal at the time, heroin based medicinals were widely used as a painkiller throughout the country. Rath is also a man struggling with his Catholic faith, both for the loss of his brother Anno on the battlefield, and for his ongoing affair with his brother’s wife Helga Rath.

Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth). Photo: © Sky 1

Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth). Photo: © Sky 1

Engelbert Rath, a senior official at the Cologne police force, transferred his son Gereon from the Cologne police to the Alexanderplatz police HQ in Berlin, also known as the Rote Burg (Red Castle) for its red walls.

Gereon is partnered with vice squad leader, Bruno Wolter (played by Peter Kurth). A gruff, 44-year-old bear of a man and fellow veteran of the Great War, Bruno is a loyal friend and colleague—provided you’re on his side.

Engelbert has a clandestine mission for his son Gereon: hunt down the underworld pornographers who are blackmailing politicians with surreptitiously shot film of them engaged in sadomasochistic acts. It is suggested that the Lord Mayor of Cologne, Dr. Adenauer, is one of the victims of the extortionists. To preserve the stability of the government, and because Adenauer is a family friend, Engelbert wants Gereon to find and destroy the incriminating film.

Mayor Konrad Adenauer in 1929 with a map of Cologne. Photographer unknown.

Mayor Konrad Adenauer in 1929 with a map of Cologne. Photographer unknown.

Konrad Adenauer was in fact an actual historic figure. A devout Catholic, he was not only the Mayor of Cologne during the Weimar years, but at the close of WWII was a co-founder and leader of the center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU, the same party of Germany’s current Chancellor Angela Merkel).

Adenauer was also the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) from 1949 to 1963.

Before Babylon Berlin was shown on German TV, series producer Stefan Arndt explained the plot to Bild-Zeitung. Despite knowing the actual story, the tabloid published a sensationalist piece around the question, “Is it really necessary to make the father of the Federal Republic a sadomasochist?” It should go without saying that the real Adenauer was never blackmailed for being a sadomasochist. The controversy went nowhere when the TV series eventually showed Mayor Adenauer to be completely innocent.

The digital recreation of Berlin's Alexanderplatz from Babylon Berlin.

The digital recreation of Berlin's Alexanderplatz from Babylon Berlin.

The characters, events, fashion, political movements, street names, even the buildings in Babylon Berlin are rooted in historical reality. The realistic digital recreation of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz is one such example. It evoked the hustle and bustle of the modern metropolis that was Berlin in 1929; but one has to make exception for the fact that two of the buildings depicted in the scene had not yet been built. The Alexanderhaus would be constructed in 1930 and Jonass & CO erected in 1934. Chalk it up to artistic license.

There is some bending of the truth in Babylon Berlin, the digital Alexanderplatz is a good example. Another is the hijacked train so central to the story, a German DRB Class 52 steam locomotive, which would not be built until 1942. Other examples exist, but I’ll let you find them. This brings to mind the often quoted but horribly misunderstood words of Pablo Picasso, who once quipped, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth—at least the truth that is given us to understand.”

Much of the outdoor shots in Babylon Berlin were filmed at Studio Babelsberg. Filming took place on Neue Berliner Straße (New Berlin Street) part of the studio’s Metropolitan Backlot. A modular set of four streets with different architectural styles, nearly the entire set is comprised of false front buildings. The Babylon Berlin set included a façade of the Moka Efti nightclub on a broad paved avenue with modernist style buildings. Around the corner was a recreation of the drab slums where working class people would have lived, replete with cobblestone streets. Actor Volker Bruch called the set “a chameleon.”

"Hausvogteiplatz" Rudolf Schlichter, watercolor 1926.

"Hausvogteiplatz" Rudolf Schlichter, watercolor 1926.

Viewing Babylon Berlin is like watching German Expressionist paintings come to life; the 1926 watercolor Hausvogteiplatz by artist Rudolf Schlichter is one such work. The title refers to an underground railway station in the central locality of Mitte, Berlin. Schlichter placed a gallows in his cityscape, a prescient statement on the doomed city. In 1937 the Nazis declared him a “degenerate” artist and in 1939 they forbade him from painting.

"Sie Repräsentiert" (She represents) Jeanne Mammen. Watercolor & pencil, 1928.

"Sie Repräsentiert" (She represents) Jeanne Mammen. Watercolor & pencil, 1928.

Jeanne Mammen was involved in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement so many German artists were a part of at the time. It was a rejection of Expressionist idealism and a turn towards social and political engagement. Mammen was known for drawings in pencil, pen, ink, and watercolor washes that focused on women; in retrospect her drawings of bohemian women in Berlin’s cafes, including lesbian nightclubs, seem most remembered.

Sie Repräsentiert (She represents) was a 1928 drawing of women in a lesbian night spot; published in the pages of the weekly satirical magazine, Simplicissmus, the editors were actually the ones to title the drawing. They attached the following text; “Daddy’s a state prosecutor, Mummy sits in the state parliament, I’m the only one in the whole family with a private life!”

Mammen once said, “I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others. Unfortunately one was seen…” And those who saw her were the Nazis. Reading their scathing denunciations after her last public exhibit in 1933, Mammen made a choice. She entered into self-imposed isolation, what Germans called “internal exile.” She withdrew to her studio and worked there in absolute secrecy, never to exhibit, publish, or speak of her art. Miraculously, the Nazis never came after Mammen. She survived the war, and died in 1976 at the age of 86.

"Prosit Neujahr" (Happy New Year) Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, January 1926. Often referred to as BIZ, this publication was the first mass marketed illustrated news magazine in Germany. By 1928 it was the largest weekly in European circulation, selling nearly 2 million copies per issue. "Prosit Neujahr" (Happy New Year) Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, January 1926. Often referred to as BIZ, this publication was the first mass marketed illustrated news magazine in Germany. By 1928 it was the largest weekly in European circulation, selling nearly 2 million copies per issue.

"Prosit Neujahr" (Happy New Year) Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, January 1926. Often referred to as BIZ, this publication was the first mass marketed illustrated news magazine in Germany. By 1928 it was the largest weekly in European circulation, selling nearly 2 million copies per issue.

There is some gratuitous sex and violence in Babylon Berlin, which at first had me thinking the show would be just another titillating TV sensation. But the attention paid to costumes, architecture, historic events and other details kept me watching, and it paid off. Aside from being an over the top noir thriller with a labyrinthine plot, the series also serves as a basic primer on the Weimar years.

A modest political understanding of the Weimar Republic years will help you figure out the historic setting of Babylon Berlin, which is why I wrote this essay.

As WWI drew to a close, support for Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany collapsed; at the time his Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff were in practice running a military dictatorship. In 1918 the anti-monarchist November Revolution broke out, the Kaiser abdicated, and a left-leaning provisional government filled the vacuum.

Then the Spartacist uprising, led by the just founded Communist Party of Germany (KPD), tried to overthrow the government, which in turn unleashed the pro-monarchist army and the right-wing Freikorps (Free Corps) paramilitary to crush the uprising. The Weimar coalition government was founded on Feb. 6, 1919, and on June 23, 1919, it signed the Versailles Treaty, formally ending WWI.

Freikorps paramilitary unit on the streets of Berlin, 1919.

Freikorps paramilitary unit on the streets of Berlin, 1919.

The Versailles Treaty banned armored vehicles, heavy artillery, submarines and military aircraft of any kind being possessed by Germany’s Reichswehr (the armed forces—”Reich” meaning empire or realm, and “wehr” meaning defense). The Reichswehr was limited to 100,000 men and prohibited from manufacturing and stockpiling chemical weapons.

To the monarchists, militarists, and extreme rightists, those in the Weimar government became known as the “November criminals” for “stabbing the German army in the back” and for signing the Versailles Treaty. Yet the Weimar state was reliant upon the pro-monarchist armed forces and their counter-revolutionary Freikorps allies for security.

Confused yet? History isn’t nearly as serpentine and convoluted as Babylon Berlin’s narrative, so stop fidgeting and pay attention, I’m setting the stage for the drama. The TV series traces the tensions between the weak Social Democracy of Weimar and the reactionary generals of the Reichswehr that sought its downfall.

Official logo of the Der Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet).

Official logo of the Der Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet).

The TV series focuses attention on the little known Schwarze Reichswehr (Black Reichswehr), a shadow military the pro-monarchist generals set up to circumvent the Versailles Treaty and illegally rearm Germany. The Black Reichswehr was allied to multiple paramilitary units like the Freikorps, Der Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), and Die Organisation Consul (Organization Consul or OC).

By 1919 there were 103 Freikorps formations and by 1923 an estimated 1.5 million men had participated in them. [1] In open violation of the Versailles Treaty, Steel Helmet alone had 500,000 men under arms by 1930. The OC assassinated the Weimar government Minister of Finance Matthias Erzberger in 1921, and the Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau in 1922. These types of paramilitaries would eventually join with the fledgling fighting force of the Nazi Party, the SA or Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment).

This 1933 John Heartfield photomontage for Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or "Worker's Illustrated Paper") attacks Fritz Thyssen, the caption reads: "Instrument in God's hand? Toy in Thyssen's hand!"

This 1933 John Heartfield photomontage for Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or "Worker's Illustrated Paper") attacks Fritz Thyssen, the caption reads: "Instrument in God's hand? Toy in Thyssen's hand!"

In episode 1 of Babylon Berlin a train is hijacked by followers of Leon Trotsky before it reaches Berlin, they want to send its cargo of gold to their exiled leader in Turkey in order to finance the overthrow of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

In a separate plot unbeknownst to the rebel communists, industrialist Alfred Nyssen (played by Lars Eidinger), financed the smuggling of phosgene gas into Germany on the same train in order to rearm his Black Reichswehr accomplices.

Nyssen is a stand-in for the historical figure Fritz Thyssen, who with fellow industrialists Friedrich Flick, Günther Quandt, Gustav and Alfried Krupp, and others, were the billionaires plotting against the Weimar Republic. They would later become the financial backbone of the looming Hitler regime.

The fictional hijacking in Babylon Berlin aside, history shows us that Trotsky (the founder of the Soviet Red Army) was expelled from the Russian Communist Party by Stalin and sent into exile. He ended up living in Turkey on the island of Prinkipoin before traveling to Mexico in 1937 where he and his wife lived for a short time with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Eventually a Stalinist assassin armed with an ice axe attacked Trotsky in his home in Mexico on June 7, 1940; he died from his wounds the next day.

Alexei Kardakov (Ivan Shvedoff) with Sorokina. Photo: © Sky 1

Alexei Kardakov (Ivan Shvedoff) with Sorokina. Photo: © Sky 1

The hijackers in episode 1 are a fictitious secret Trotskyist cell in Berlin called “Red Fortress,” led by Alexei Kardakov (played by Ivan Shvedoff). They run a subversive printshop where they hold meetings and print revolutionary propaganda.

In one scene they are printing flyers that read: “Workers! May 1: Step out and fight for a Fourth International and the World Revolution! ‘Stalin is the gravedigger of the revolution.’ - Leon Trotsky” (anachronism alert: the Trotskyist Fourth International would not be founded until 1938).

In the TV series Kardakov lives above ground as a violinist, and gets word of the gold from his lover Lana Nikoros, a popular Kabarett singer in Berlin (played by Severija Janusauskaite). But things are never as they appear.

Countess Svetlana Sorokina. Photo: © Sky 1

Countess Svetlana Sorokina. Photo: © Sky 1

Nikoros is the backwards spelling of Sorokina, it is an alias for the mysterious Countess Svetlana Sorokina, seducer and betrayer of communists, monarchists, and social democrats alike. It’s not even known if the enigmatic Sorokina is actually a Countess, the only certainty is that she’s after the gold cargo on the train, the “Sorokin gold,” the untold wealth of the Russian oligarch Sorokin family.

In episode 2 of Babylon Berlin, Nikoros/Svetlana has a self-serving plan to take the “Sorokin gold” from the Trotskyists, she betrays Kardakov to the Soviet diplomat in Berlin, Colonel Trochin (played by Russian actor Denis Burgazliev). Trochin is an official in Stalin’s secret police, members of which he sends to murder the Trotskyists of the “Red Fortress” as they work in their printshop.

Kardakov witnesses the massacre and narrowly escapes to become one of the most abused characters in film history; at various moments in the TV series he’s shot, falls out a window from a great height into a pool of water, dislocates his ankle, is stabbed, and is exposed to poison gas. None of this was meant to be comedic, but sheesh!

History gives us a slightly different picture. The Soviet ambassador to Germany from 1923 to 1930 was Nikolay Krestinsky, a leading communist that ran afoul of Joseph Stalin by being an admirer of Trotsky. In a move most likely to get Krestinsky out of the way, Stalin sent him to Berlin as ambassador. It’s implausible that a man close to Trotsky would see to the murder of his fellow Trotskyists. In the end Krestinsky returned to Moscow where he was arrested, given a sham trial during the Stalinist Great Purge, and executed in 1938.

Still from the 1927 film "Berlin: Symphony of a Great City" by Walter Ruttmann.

Still from the 1927 film "Berlin: Symphony of a Great City" by Walter Ruttmann.

The opening train scene made me think me of the short 1927 film by Walter Ruttmann, Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City). His film showed the approach to Berlin through the window of a fast moving Steam Locomotive—dizzying shots of villages, bridges, transmission towers, factories, blurred by speed and interspersed with shots of the train’s mechanical components at work.

The Futurist spectacle praised modern technology, but when the train pulled into the station, the sights, sounds, and people of the city became the focus. “Symphony” is a visual chronicle of 1927 Berlin, and I’m sure the makers of Babylon Berlin examined the film again and again. Ruttmann was also the cinematographer for German film classics like Fritz Lang’s 1924 Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, and Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

Animated films made by Walter Ruttmann in the early 1920s were used in the credits of Babylon Berlin.

Animated films made by Walter Ruttmann in the early 1920s were used in the credits of Babylon Berlin.

Viewers of Babylon Berlin may think the animated closing credits are current digital studio productions. They look contemporary, but they are in fact excerpts from silent animated films Ruttmann created in the early 1920s.

From his four-part series titled Lichtspiel Opus (Play of Light Opus), segments from his Opus II (1923) and Opus IV (1925) run under the credits while clips of the show’s soundtrack are played. Ruttmann created his works by applying oil paint with a brush directly on a glass pane set up beneath an animation camera. An image was painted, filmed, altered, filmed again—repeating the entire process frame by frame until the film’s completion. Ruttmann was apparently the first to create animation in this manner.

Walter Ruttmann circa 1927, photographer unknown.

Walter Ruttmann circa 1927, photographer unknown.

Unlike many of his compatriots in the arts, Ruttmann didn’t leave Germany when the Nazis took power, despite the fact that the film studios he worked for had been taken over by the Nazis. He helped edit Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 The Triumph of the Will, and was put to work directing propaganda films.

While producing one such film on the frontline with Russia in 1944, he was seriously wounded and died in a Berlin hospital from his injuries. His career begs an important question; how does an avant-garde artist come to work with brutal totalitarians? I think this unanswered question, one of many posed in Babylon Berlin, is the reason why Walter Ruttmann’s works were included in the series.

There isn’t a better artwork to illustrate my article on the Babylon Berlin TV series than Weimarer Fasching (Weimar Carnival), a painting created by Horst Naumann (1908-1990). It could have been commissioned by producers of the show, though it was painted between the years 1928 and 1929. It offers a kaleidoscopic view of Weimar Germany, juxtaposing the acceptable with the intolerable. There’s a line of Kabarett dancers in top hats, and the man who was on his way to becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, Max Schmeling. But the painting also contains sinister images.

"Weimarer Fasching" (Weimar Carnival). Horst Naumann, 1928-29. Oil on canvas.

"Weimarer Fasching" (Weimar Carnival). Horst Naumann, 1928-29. Oil on canvas.

Paul von Hindenburg is depicted, at the time of the painting he was Reich President, but in 1933 he would appoint Adolf Hitler chancellor. Over Hindenburg’s shoulder there’s a graveyard, under him, the gaping maw of a bank vault, to his right there’s a Zeppelin airship, the type used to drop bombs during the Great War. At top left there’s a fleet of French biplanes, at the bottom of the painting a soldier in a gas mask slogs across a battlefield strewn with tanks. But it’s the central figure that commands our attention; a soldier wearing a red jacket, monocle, and a swastika embellished steel helmet. He’s probably in the Freikorps, who, to identify their units, would paint an identifying symbol on their helmets before entering a street fight. This is one of the earliest German paintings depicting a swastika that I know of.

Naumann was a painter and graphic designer who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden until 1927; Otto Dix was one of his professors. In 1927 Naumann joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and soon after started painting Weimar Carnival. In 1929 he joined the KPD’s Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists. In 1931 he worked at a commercial printing company designing billboards, postcards, brochures, and posters. In 1934 the Nazis arrested him and sent him to a detention center for left-wing political prisoners. In 1939 he was press-ganged into the Nazi army to work in a labor battalion. After the war Horst Naumann became famous for his numerous stamp and poster designs, with his posters for German Zoos being most remembered.

Babylon Berlin depiction of May 1, 1929. Blutmai (Bloody May) Photo: © Sky 1

Babylon Berlin depiction of May 1, 1929. Blutmai (Bloody May) Photo: © Sky 1

Episode 4 of Babylon Berlin shows scenes right out of a history book as Gereon and Bruno are caught up in violent demonstrations. May 1, 1929, Blutmai (Bloody May) was a real life event in German history where 33 civilians were shot and killed by a security force of up to 13,000 armed police unleashed by the Weimar government. The episode shows Gereon, Bruno, and a squadron of police carrying out a door to door raid on the civilian population to confiscate firearms; it is a prescient scene.

In 1928 the Weimar government passed strict gun control laws for “the maintenance of public security and order.” Citizens were required to register, and or surrender their guns to the police or face jail time. It should go without saying that these laws would have disastrous consequences; when Hitler took power in 1933 the German people were already largely disarmed. [2]

May 1, 1929. Bloody May. Historic photo of Berlin police with bolt-action Mauser 98 rifles patrolling the streets. Photographer unknown.

May 1, 1929. Bloody May. Historic photo of Berlin police with bolt-action Mauser 98 rifles patrolling the streets. Photographer unknown.

The actual history of Bloody May shows that the Weimar government in 1928 lifted the ban on public speeches given by Adolf Hitler.

Not surprisingly Hitler then gave a speech in Berlin and a riot ensued. The government responded by banning all public political speeches and rallies, including the International Workers Day demonstration planned by the German Communist Party.

Virtually on the eve of May Day, April 29, 1929, Der Abend (The Evening), the late edition of the Social Democratic Party newspaper Vorwärts (Forward), featured a headline that read, “200 dead on May 1? Communists prepare for crimes.” It was of course propaganda designed to discourage people from attending May Day, but it was also a way to slander the KPD.

"200 dead on May 1?" Front cover propaganda headline of Der Abend, April 29, 1929.

"200 dead on May 1?" Front cover propaganda headline of Der Abend, April 29, 1929.

That very edition of Der Abend appeared in episode 5 of Babylon Berlin during the scene of an emergency meeting between Berlin officials—Police Chief Karl Zörgiebel, Mayor Gustav Böß, and head of the Political Police, August Benda (all of them Social Democrats).

The Chief of police throws the edition of Der Abend on a table and asserts, “Our own party organ says 200 dead!” To which Benda replies, “That is false information.” That the creators of the TV series would use a duplicate copy of the May Day 1929 edition of Der Abend, shows how far they went in recreating the ambience of the Weimar years.

John Heartfield created this self-portrait photomontage showing him scissoring off the head of Berlin Police Commissioner Karl Zörgiebel. Published in Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or "Worker's Illustrated Paper") in 1929.

John Heartfield created this self-portrait photomontage showing him scissoring off the head of Berlin Police Commissioner Karl Zörgiebel. Published in Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or "Worker's Illustrated Paper") in 1929.

May 1, 1929 proved fatal to the Weimar government. After the mass killing, the injuring of 200, the arrests of more than 1,200 people, and states of emergency declared in the working class districts of Neukölln and Wedding, a deep chasm opened up between the social democrats and the hard left.

The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) resolved to fight the “social fascism” of the Social Democratic Party. Ultimately, disunity on the left gave the fascist right an opportunity to march into power in 1933.

One painting that depicts the divided Germany of the period is the 1932 oil painting Die antifaschistische Jugend (The antifascist Youth) by Carl Lauterbach.

There’s not much information about the painting but it’s likely a portrait of young members of the Roter Frontkämpferbund (Alliance of Red Front-Fighters), a militia founded to fight enemy political rivals of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

Around this time Lauterbach began to paint exclusively in black and white, because in his words the Nazis took away the colors of joy. In Babylon Berlin the type of young men Lauterbach painted would be among the militants shown battling the police during Berlin’s 1929 Bloody May.

"Die antifaschistische Jugend" (The antifascist Youth). Carl Lauterbach. Oil painting, 1932. "A portrait of young members of the Alliance of Red Front-Fighters, a militia founded to fight enemy political rivals of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). "

"Die antifaschistische Jugend" (The antifascist Youth). Carl Lauterbach. Oil painting, 1932. "A portrait of young members of the Alliance of Red Front-Fighters, a militia founded to fight enemy political rivals of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). "

Lauterbach was a member of the Assoziation revolutionärer bildender Künstler Deutschlands (Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists of Germany), the group of artists who belonged to the KPD. Postwar he claimed the Nazis banned his art and declared him a “degenerate artist.” Lauterbach was celebrated in his home city of Düsseldorf—the City Museum of Düsseldorf awarded an annual “Carl Lauterbach Prize for Social Graphics.” However, history does not take kindly to liars. In 2012 the City Museum of Düsseldorf posted the following:

“Contrary to his later self-portrayal as a dissident and artist of resistance, Lauterbach has been involved in about 40 exhibitions in Germany and the territories occupied by Germany between 1933 and 1943, including at the organized by the Wehrmacht art exhibition for German soldiers in Paris. Lauterbach had no professional ban nor were his pictures considered ‘degenerate.’ Since 1934 he was a member of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts.” [3]

The Reich Chamber of Fine Arts (Reichskulturkammer or RKK) was founded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Its mission was to control the cultural life of Germany. Whatever your creative field, cinema, theater, painting, literature, etc., you had to join the RKK in order to work, but first you had to have an official Ariernachweis, a Nazi certificate proving you were of the “Aryan race.” It appears that Carl Lauterbach successfully hid or denounced his red background to climb aboard the Nazi death machine.

Head of the Political Police, August Benda (Matthias Brandt). Photo: © Sky 1

Head of the Political Police, August Benda (Matthias Brandt). Photo: © Sky 1

Returning to the narrative of Babylon Berlin; ultimately Gereon Rath and Bruno Wolter report directly to the head of the Political Police, August Benda (played by Matthias Brandt).

Benda is an ardent supporter of the Weimar government. Charitable and kind-hearted with people, he’s a relentless investigator, and suspects certain people are out to overthrow the republic.

Benda is also Jewish, and with Germany rushing headlong towards a dark future, he is a marked man. He believes Bruno might be involved with the Black Reichswehr, and so he has Bruno’s assistant, Stephan Jänicke (played by Anton von Lucke), spy on the vice squad officer.

It’s ironic that the role of Benda is played by actor Matthias Brandt; here again cinema is entwined with real life. Brandt is the youngest son of Cold War politician Willy Brandt, who was the leader of the Social Democratic Party from 1964 to 1987 and served as the Chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974. Willy Brandt was a supporter of the Vietnam war and was as anti-Communist as the fictional character of August Benda.

"Clear the Way for List 1 Social Democrats." Anonymous artist. 1930. Propaganda poster for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

"Clear the Way for List 1 Social Democrats." Anonymous artist. 1930. Propaganda poster for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

A historic poster that perfectly illustrates Benda’s political position can be found in a 1930 propaganda street poster for the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The poster was issued for the German federal election of September 1930, it reads: “Clear the Way for List 1 Social Democrats.” The visual message is unmistakable, a muscular working man symbolizing the SPD elbows out Communist and Nazi party cadre, but the election results were somewhat different. The SPD remained the largest party in the Reichstag with 143 seats, but the Communists won 77 seats and the Nazis won 107. Just three years later when Hitler took control, the Nazis would ban the Social Democratic Party. It remained banned and underground until the war ended in 1945.

Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries). Photo: © Sky 1

Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries). Photo: © Sky 1

A 23-year-old woman named Charlotte Ritter (played by Liv Lisa Fries) is also one of the primary characters in Babylon Berlin. She lives with her family in Neukölln, a working class borough in the southeastern part of Berlin.

Between poverty and her dysfunctional family, her life is fairly miserable. Love for her little sister Toni and an irrepressible optimism are her only possessions. In the evenings Charlotte works as an off-the-books prostitute in the infamous Berlin dance club, the fashionable Moka Efti.

Charlotte is hired at Red Castle police HQ to catalog photographs of murder victims for the Criminal Investigation Department, headed by a man named Gennat.

Historically speaking, Ernst Gennat was the director of the Berlin Criminal Investigation Department. A brilliant criminologist, he coined the term Serienmörder (serial killer), introduced the idea of profiling, and was one of the first to insist that a crime scene must not be tampered with. Gennat solved 298 cases during his career.

The real "Buddha of Alexanderplatz," Ernst Gennat, circa late 1920s.

The real "Buddha of Alexanderplatz," Ernst Gennat, circa late 1920s.

Called the “Buddha of Alexanderplatz” by fellow officers because he weighed in at 300 pounds, the nickname carried over to the Babylon Berlin Gennat character, who was of slightly less girth. I should also mention that Charlotte Ritter’s job, that of cataloging photographs of murder victims to create a national registry of violent deaths, was an idea developed by Gennat.

History notes that Charlotte’s Neukölln was a stronghold for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In 1926 Joseph Goebbels, then a regional commander for the growing Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party), or Nazi Party (which had only 49,000 members in all of Germany at the time), staged a march into Neukölln that culminated in a bloody skirmish with communist militants. In 1926 there were little more than a few hundred Nazis in Berlin, a city Goebbels called “the reddest city in Europe besides Moscow.

Still from the 1930 film "Menschen am Sonntag.

Still from the 1930 film "Menschen am Sonntag."

Charlotte helps her destitute friend Greta Overbeck (played by Leonie Benesch) land a job as a full-time maid with the Benda family. Greta is loyal, apolitical, and very naive. She joins Jänicke and Charlotte at Berlin’s Lake Wannsee for a swim and meets Fritz and Otto, two young communists who like insulting fat cats and bankers. Greta develops romantic feelings for Fritz that will have disastrous consequences.

The scenes of Charlotte, Greta, and friends at Lake Wannsee were obviously modeled after Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) a black and white silent film created in 1930 by Curt and Robert Siodmak. The film was central to the advancement of modern cinema in Germany. Later on in the Babylon Berlin series, Charlotte is seen unaccompanied in a crowded movie house watching Menschen am Sonntag.

This historic photo is an interior shot of the real Moka Efti, showing the nightclub's Egyptian Music Salon in 1930. Photographer unknown.

This historic photo is an interior shot of the real Moka Efti, showing the nightclub's Egyptian Music Salon in 1930. Photographer unknown.

Babylon Berlin took artistic license with the Moka Efti nightclub, which was a historic cafe in Berlin named after its Greek-Italian owner Giovanni Eftimiades. It enticed Berliners with strong coffee and an “Egyptian Music Salon” where jazz played and refreshments were taken. Entertainment and perhaps a bit more had crowds flocking to the club. Despite what was shown in the TV series the real Moka Efti did not have a brothel in its basement. But it did have the latest technology, a passenger elevator called a paternoster lift. While you don’t see such a lift in the TV series Moka Efti, one appears in the Red Castle HQ. Charlotte and Gereon meet for the first time when they disembark from a paternoster and bump into one another, spilling their work files.

Edgar "the Armenian." Photo: © Sky 1

Edgar "the Armenian." Photo: © Sky 1

In the TV series Edgar “the Armenian” (played by Mišel Maticevic ), owns and runs the Moka Efti. A debonair man of few words, the Armenian is a ruthless mobster who has bribed, intimidated, blackmailed, and murdered his way to the top. His corrupt grip is felt in the police force and in the highest levels of government.

Gereon has noticed his footprint in every serious crime he’s investigated, yet, the Armenian is oddly protective of Gereon, a man he could have done away with on numerous occasions—and yes, Edgar is after the “Sorokin gold.”

I noticed something compelling about Edgar’s office in the Moka Efti nightclub, there are pictures of Armenian relatives or friends hanging on the walls. Given that the Armenian Genocide took place during WWI and the Ottoman Turks were wrapping up their butchery in 1923, this speaks volumes about Edgar’s temperament and may account for his being a patient of the mysterious Doctor Schmidt. As a native of Los Angeles, I’ll tell you that the Armenian population in my city is as high as 360,000, and so the issue of the Armenian Genocide is especially poignant. Every April 24th Armenians commemorate the victims with a huge march on the streets of L.A., marking the genocide that began in April of 1915.

In the TV series the unconventional psychologist named Doctor Schmidt (played by Jens Harzer), treats “shell shocked” WWI vets through hypnosis and drug therapy. His work touched the lives of many and as it turns out he healed the Armenian, administers to members of the Black Reichswehr, and has a keen interest in Gereon Rath. The character of Schmidt is woven through the whole of Babylon Berlin, and he plays a major role in the calamitous end of series two. One is left wondering if Schmidt is a saint or a sinner.

Lana Nikoros (Severija Janusauskaite) sings "Zu Asche zu Staub" surrounded by her Banana Skirt dancers at the Moka Efti. Photo: © Sky 1

Lana Nikoros (Severija Janusauskaite) sings "Zu Asche zu Staub" surrounded by her Banana Skirt dancers at the Moka Efti. Photo: © Sky 1

One of the highlights of the Babylon Berlin series is when Kabarett performer Nikoros (Svetlana Sorokina’s alter ego), entertains the crowd at the Moka Efti by singing the gloomful song Zu Asche zu Staub (To Ashes, to Dust). She’s in androgynous black leather drag and accompanied on stage by a wild troupe of exotic dancers dressed in banana skirts. The crowd sings along and follows the pantomime, swaying and gyrating in drunken revelry. But it was not the first time that banana skirts had been seen.

The American dancer Josephine Baker in her Banana Skirt at the Folies Bergère in Paris, 1927. Photo by Lucien Waléry.

The American dancer Josephine Baker in her Banana Skirt at the Folies Bergère in Paris, 1927. Photo by Lucien Waléry.

In real life the American dancer Josephine Baker made her way from the U.S. to Paris, France in 1925. At 19 she caused a sensation with her exotic dancing when she debuted in the Black American musical revue “La Revue Nègre.

That same year she become a star at the Folies Bergère performing her “Danse Sauvage,” a dance where she wore little more than “a costume of 16 bananas strung into a skirt.” [4]

In 1926 Baker performed her show in Berlin, and while Babylon Berlin makes no mention of her, the dancers at the Moka Efti are a tribute to her nonetheless. When the Nazis came to power Baker was banned from performing on stage in Germany—she moved back to Paris. When the Nazis invaded Paris she joined the French underground.

Josephine Baker would die in Paris on April 12, 1975 at the age of 68. The story of the legendary Baker would make a heart-stirring movie, if only there were any decent script writers, directors, and producers left in Hollywood.

American jazz swept Germany in the 1920s and set roots there. People listened to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong on the radio, the Charleston became a dance craze, and Germans formed their own jazz combos and orchestras like the Weintraubs-Syncopators. Artists noticed jazz as well. Otto Dix created two paintings that showed jazz musicians, a 1922 self-portrait titled An die Schönheit (To Beauty), and a 1928 triptych titled Metropolis, which had as its central panel a depiction of elites being entertained by a jazz combo.

Central panel of the triptych "Metropolis" by Otto Dix. Oil and tempera painting on wood. 1928.

Central panel of the triptych "Metropolis" by Otto Dix. Oil and tempera painting on wood. 1928.

Even though the majority of Americans today think jazz is out of vogue, some of us still consider it an indispensable musical form. But how does jazz have political and social implications? The answer in part is found in German history.

"Im Kabarett" (In the Cabaret). Conrad Felixmüller, Color lithograph. 1921.

"Im Kabarett" (In the Cabaret). Conrad Felixmüller, Color lithograph. 1921.

In 1933 the Nazis targeted jazz for its links to African-Americans. In 1935, to stop “racial pollution” they banned jazz being played on German radio.

In 1938 they organized the Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) exhibition to denigrate jazz as well as Jewish classical music composers like Gustave Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.

Many young Germans belonged to the Swingjugend (Swing Youth) counter-culture, where playing jazz in underground clubs was an act of defiance. Eventually the Nazis had enough, and starting in 1941 they began mass arrests of Swing Youth, sending them to concentration camps.

It is amazing how many times Babylon Berlin will send you to the internet to research something viewed in the show, take the following song for example. In the second season’s final episode, Nikoros/Svetlana resurfaces as a Russian performer in a Paris nightclub. She sings a mournful song in Russian as an old paramour enters the club. At the end of the song, in keeping with its grief-stricken lyrics, she pretends to cut her throat using a prop theatrical knife.

The song Nikoros sang was Gloomy Sunday (titled Vaskresenje in Russian). The original Gloomy Sunday however was written and performed by Hungarian pianist and composer Rezso Seress in 1933; in Hungarian the title was Szomorú vasárnap. The song was recorded by Paul Robeson in 1936 and then by Billie Holiday in 1941. Since then Gloomy Sunday has been vocalized by innumerable performers.

Who is that jazz singer at the Moka Efti? Photo: © Sky 1

Who is that jazz singer at the Moka Efti? Photo: © Sky 1

Overall the soundtrack for Babylon Berlin is possibly the biggest anachronism in the show—but truthfully, I love it. The ambient incidental music for Babylon Berlin was written by longtime collaborators Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer, one of the show’s directors. The two composed a contemporary score using electronica, strings, and piano, it is entrancing music that sounds both modern and reminiscent of the past. To me its most successful passages fuse techno with 1920s jazz; tracks like Dunkles Babel and Der Prangertag I find particularly striking.

Why it's none other than Bryan Ferry, and he's singing the song "Reason or Rhyme." Photo: © Sky 1

Why it's none other than Bryan Ferry, and he's singing the song "Reason or Rhyme." Photo: © Sky 1

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the soundtrack was the participation of the English crooner and songwriter Bryan Ferry, who is remembered by many as the frontman for the 1970s glam art rock band Roxy Music.

Prior to punk rock in 1977, misfits like myself listened to the likes of David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), and Roxy Music, which at the time included Brian Eno, who was a driving force behind the new electronic, ambient sound—some of which even influenced punk rock.

In 2012 Mr. Ferry formed the Bryan Ferry Orchestra and released The Jazz Age, a brilliant album of 1920s jazz renditions of his past hits. I have listened to this album innumerable times and I’m thrilled the songs Dance Away, Reason or Rhyme, Bitters End, Alphaville, Chance Meeting, and Bitter Sweet appear on the Babylon Berlin soundtrack. Best of all, in episode 10 of the TV show, Ferry makes a guest appearance as a jazz singer performing Reason or Rhyme at the Moka Efti.

While Ferry’s music is not actual jazz from the 1920s, it possesses its form, spirit and vitality, and the musicians of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra are no slouches either. The men of this retro-jazz ensemble have given themselves to the 1920s jazz style, and in my not so humble opinion, their music fits Babylon Berlin hand in glove. Watch the documentary The Making of ‘The Jazz Age’ to understand my enthusiasm for this music.

"Demonstration." Curt Querner, oil painting 1930. The artist (in blue) depicted himself marching in a communist demonstration with fellow artist Wilhelm Dodel. Babylon Berlin brought paintings like this to life.

"Demonstration." Curt Querner, oil painting 1930. The artist (in blue) depicted himself marching in a communist demonstration with fellow artist Wilhelm Dodel. Babylon Berlin brought paintings like this to life.

I have long complained that music in commercial films has become a hackneyed method of audience manipulation—a stupid and cheap one at that.

An example of what I’m talking about would be the music found in the 2001 “medieval adventure” film, A Knight’s Tale. Purportedly about 14th-century Europe, the soundtrack uses music from the likes of Queen (We Will Rock You), and David Bowie (Golden Years).

Yeah, because nothing says Middle Ages like rock n’ roll music. If you want just one example of the incandescent music of the medieval period, then listen to the works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Hollywood directors no doubt wither away when exposed to such divine sounds.

Filming the Moka Efti scenes for the TV series took place in an old silent film theater in Berlin-Weissensee called the Delphi. Opening in 1929, the hall had a stage, an orchestra pit, and a seating capacity of 900. It was closed in 1959 and served as a storage room until the production crew for Babylon Berlin recreated the Moka Efti dance hall in its interior. Since then the hall was renovated and today the Delphi is a performing arts house.

The German satirical writer Kurt Tucholsky, one of the most consequential  journalists of the Weimar Republic, once wrote, “Expect nothing. Today: that is your life.” He could of written those words about any of the characters found in Babylon Berlin or, about us for that matter.

Tucholsky was a Jewish member of the Social Democratic Party prone to intense criticism of its leadership. In 1926 he was temporarily the publisher of the left-leaning journal Die Weltbühne (The World Stage), a journal dedicated to art, literature, and politics. It received a brief mention in Babylon Berlin when the dissident Austrian journalist Samuel Katelbach mentioned it in passing to Gereon Rath.

Samuel Katelbach (played by Karl Markovics). Photo: © Sky 1

Samuel Katelbach (played by Karl Markovics). Photo: © Sky 1

Of all the characters in the series, Samuel Katelbach (played by Karl Markovics) seems the most cognizant of where society was going. Putting aside his disheveled looks, as an independent reporter he knew the score. I’ve met a few like him in my lifetime, they work outside the mainstream to expose the truth no one wants to hear. A few listened in Germany, but not enough. Despite its historic impact Die Weltbühne had a small readership, but would pay a heavy price. While it’s amazing the series even named the journal, it did not mention its role in exposing a secret Reichswehr airbase in Lipetsk, Soviet Russia.

In episode 11 of Babylon Berlin, August Benda sends Gereon Rath and a police photographer named Gräf on an aerial mission over Lipetsk Russia to gather intelligence on the covert airbase. The info was needed to build a case for the arrest of army Generals suspected of violating the Versailles Treaty, which forbad Germany from having military aircraft. Two pilots fly the men over the base in a Junkers Ju 52 transport plane (anachronism alert: the plane wasn’t produced until 1931). In the hair-raising scene Gräf nearly falls out of the plane while taking photos, and is saved when Gereon grabs his arm as the plane dodges anti-aircraft fire. Action movie antics aside, it is a fact that the Reichswehr did maintain an illegal airbase in Lipetsk, Russia.

Cover of "Die Weltbühne" (The World Stage), March 12, 1929.

Cover of "Die Weltbühne" (The World Stage), March 12, 1929.

Shady Dealings in the Air was the daring 1927 exposé published in Die Weltbühne that revealed the Reichswehr had indeed violated the Treaty of Versailles by operating a massive secret airbase in Soviet Russia.

History has revealed that the Reichswehr contracted with the Soviets to run the base where future German pilots, as well as Soviet pilots, would receive combat training. The Reichswehr wanted to rebuild the Luftwaffe and the Soviets wanted German technical know how.

In 1931 the Weimar government charged the publisher of Die Weltbühne, Carl von Ossietzky, with treason and espionage for revealing the Lipetsk airbase. Convicted, he served 18 months in prison before being released in a 1932 amnesty.

When the Nazis took power in 1933 Ossietzky was rearrested and sent to the Esterwegen concentration camp where he was brutally tortured. As he continued to suffer in the camp he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935. On the eve of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he was transferred to a hospital under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo—soon after he was awarded the Nobel. The Nazis forbade German papers from publishing news of the award. Carl von Ossietzky died in 1938 as a consequence of his torture.

Carl von Ossietzky, political prisoner #562, charged with treason for telling the truth. Photo taken in 1934 at Esterwegen concentration camp. Photographer unknown.

Carl von Ossietzky, political prisoner #562, charged with treason for telling the truth. Photo taken in 1934 at Esterwegen concentration camp. Photographer unknown.

Liberal viewers of Babylon Berlin may think of the characters in the series associated with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as the “good guys” and their monarchist opponents as stand-ins for today’s populists and nationalists. That viewpoint is ahistorical and ill-advised.

I will simply point out that in 1914 the marginally “socialist” SPD threw aside its principles, sided with Kaiser Wilhelm II, and voted in favor World War I. The horrific consequences are well known—18 million deaths and 23 million wounded. As a result the left-wing of the SPD abandoned the party en masse. But there is something else that may horrify liberals who believe the Weimar years were a liberatory time for women.

This may not mix well with the liberal image of daring young flappers with bob haircuts and the mythos of “new-found freedoms” for women, but an abortion ban was enshrined in paragraph 218 of the “progressive” Weimar constitution. It was primarily left-wing Germans that organized protests against the ban first added to the Criminal Code of the German Empire in 1871; the Weimar government could not, or would not, abolish paragraph 218.

"Paragraph 218" Alice Lex-Nerlinger. Acrylic spray-painting. 1931. "A blasphemous condemnation of the abortion prohibition that treated abortion as a punishable offense."

"Paragraph 218" Alice Lex-Nerlinger. Acrylic spray-painting. 1931. "A blasphemous condemnation of the abortion prohibition that treated abortion as a punishable offense."

The painter and photomontage artist Alice Lex-Nerlinger was part of Berlin’s left opposition to paragraph 218. In 1928 she became a member of the German Communist Party (KPD) and joined the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists, or “Asso” for short, an arts group open only to members of the KPD.

While a painter she was most well known for her photomontage works à la John Heartfield. In 1931 she painted Paragraph 218, a blasphemous condemnation of the abortion prohibition that treated abortion as a punishable offense.

In 1933 the Nazis banned Lex-Nerlinger from making or exhibiting her art; she destroyed her own works to avoid arrest and persecution. Paragraph 218 is one of the few works by Lex-Nerlinger to have survived the period.

In episode 13 of Babylon Berlin, Greta Overbeck agrees to meet her boyfriend Fritz one evening at a Neukölln side-street meeting hall of the Communist Party. Anxious that Fritz is late, she paces back and forth in front of the hall when Fritz’s friend Otto arrives; they greet and wait together.

The "assassination" of Fritz. Still from Babylon Berlin. Photo: © Sky 1

The "assassination" of Fritz. Still from Babylon Berlin. Photo: © Sky 1

Yards away Fritz appears on the darkened street and calls to Greta, immediately he is surrounded by men who identify themselves as police. They grab him, he breaks away and runs towards Greta and Otto—and the police shoot Fritz in the back.

Greta and Otto watch in horror as the police toss the wounded Fritz into a car and speed off. Otto clutches Greta and they run off into the night to find safety.

The same episode reveals Bruno to be a chief planner of the Reichswehr Generals’ plot to overthrow the Weimar government and restore Kaiser Wilhelm to the throne.

Major General Kurt Seegers (played by Ernst Stötzner). Photo: © Sky 1

Right: Major General Kurt Seegers (played by Ernst Stötzner). Photo: © Sky 1

Major General Kurt Seegers (played by Ernst Stötzner) and his fellow conspirators are in prison following their arrests for the Lipetsk airbase plot, but the guards are sympathizers and give Bruno easy access to the prisoners. Bruno Wolter gives his cohorts the detailed plans for the imminent “Prangertag” Putsch.

In episode 14 of Babylon Berlin, Otto meets Greta in front of the Benda family home to tell her that Fritz “didn’t make it,” and that the political police headed by her boss August Benda were responsible for his murder. Distraught, Greta said, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Walking away Otto said forebodingly “We will keep in touch,” implying the Communist Party would have a plan for retribution.

Bruno Wolter lies in wait with a scoped sniper rifle. Photo: © Sky 1

Bruno Wolter lies in wait with a scoped sniper rifle. Photo: © Sky 1

Meanwhile, Bruno is whistling Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad of Mack the Knife) as he helps initiate the planned military coup on Prangertag (the Feast of Corpus Christi). It is almost comic relief that putschist Bruno Wolter would be whistling a tune from Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but it does point out the sway left culture had in Berlin at the time. The fictional coup in Babylon Berlin seems to be modeled after the real life Küstrin Putsch of 1923.

In the TV series Bruno and his monarchist co-conspirators infiltrate a gala celebration at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in the Mitte district of Berlin. Mayor Gustav Böß as well as the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, and German Foreign Minister Gustave Stresemann (who were real life figures) are to be fêted with a command performance of The Threepenny Opera.

Bruno Wolter lies in wait with a scoped sniper rifle, hidden in the theater’s enormous crystal chandelier, but the mission goes awry and the coup is aborted. However… the plotters escape to try again another day.

"Portrait of Bertolt Brecht" Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas, 1926-27. Schlichter painted his friend Brecht during the time the playwright was working on the opera titled, "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny."

"Portrait of Bertolt Brecht" Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas, 1926-27. Schlichter painted his friend Brecht during the time the playwright was working on the opera titled, "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny."

The Threepenny Opera was actually first performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm on August 31, 1928. Written by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann with music by Kurt Weill, it was meant as a Marxist critique of capitalism.

The very title expressed Brecht’s dream that theater should only cost a worker three pennies to attend. Brecht’s 1923 play Im Dickicht der Städte (In the Jungle of Cities) was disrupted by Nazis who tossed stink bombs at the actors on stage. The 1930 premiere of his opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was likewise attacked.

When Hitler took power in 1933 the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm fell into decline and was closed in 1944. It was reopened after World War II and in 1949 Brecht and wife Helene Weigel established the Berliner Ensemble theatre company there.

In 1967 when I was 13-years-old, I purchased the first album by the psychedelic rock band, The Doors. It contained a composition that I fell in love with titled, Alabama Song. Someone older and wiser than I told me it was written by Brecht, so naturally I went to the library to find out who the guy was. I found that the song came from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny—written by Brecht and Hauptmann and set to music by Weill. Even better, the library had a phonograph record that included Lotte Lenya singing the Alabama Song. I checked the record out from the library, took it home to play on my portable record player… and almost lost my mind. This entire experience sent me on a lifetime exploration of the Weimar years and German Expressionism. Hopefully, Babylon Berlin will inspire that same sense of discovery for others.

"Die Aktion" (The Action) 1927. Artist unknown. Cover of left-wing magazine dedicated to art, politics and literature. Covers were usually woodcuts created by expressionist artists. This issue discussed the Reichswehr collaborating with Soviet Russia.

"Die Aktion" (The Action) 1927. Artist unknown. Cover of left-wing magazine dedicated to art, politics and literature. Covers were usually woodcuts created by expressionist artists. This issue discussed the Reichswehr collaborating with Soviet Russia.

In episode 15 of Babylon Berlin, Greta seeks revenge for the murder of Fritz and agrees to work with the communists to help assassinate August Benda. She lets KPD member Otto into the Benda family home and helps him install a bomb in a drawer of August’s reading room desk; it will detonate when the drawer is opened. When the deed is done Greta flees for the train station, hoping to disappear into another city. At the station she sees an angry mob demonstrating against Mayor Gustav Böß, who is on the train.

Historic accounts of the real Mayor Böß show that he was embroiled in the “Sklarek scandal,” where he was accused of taking huge bribes from three wealthy Jewish clothing suppliers, the Sklarek brothers, who were charged with defrauding the Berlin City Bank. Nazi activists used the controversy to help push their anti-Semitic politics.

The mob is made of men from the SA (short for Sturmabteilung, Storm Detachment), the original fighting force of the Nazis. This is the first glimpse of uniformed Nazis in the Babylon Berlin series. Examining the disparate social forces and tensions that created the Nazi movement, rather than simply making the Nazis an immediate focus of the series, is what makes Babylon Berlin so noteworthy. As a viewer you sense the approach of fascism, but the writers and directors of the show chose to build up unease over 15 episodes; they kept the thugs with the swastika armbands backstage to great effect.

We know the ultimate fate of the characters in Babylon Berlin, but we still have to ask who will end up being a Nazi, and why. Will it be the typist, the doctor, the maid, club owner, or politician? What makes a Nazi, and how do you recognize fascist culture and politics? Watching the characters in the series you get a sense of their indifference and lassitude, but it’s really no different than our own. Back then, who knew what terrible future awaited Germany? Which one of you crystal ball readers today would like to predict where we’re headed now?

While many characters in the series are warm and approachable, there is still something unsettling about them; I want to like these people but hesitate, not knowing who they really are. They are “normals” in outrageously abnormal times, and they seem as out of order as the Stock Market would be in late 1929; it crashed and destroyed the German economy, sending millions into the arms of the Nazis. A few characters in the TV series already have an aura of malevolence about them; the words “banality of evil” describe them well.

Fritz is a Nazi in the Sturmabteilung. Photo: © Sky 1

Fritz is a Nazi in the Sturmabteilung. Photo: © Sky 1

Henrik Handloegten, co-writer and co-director of the TV series put it most succinctly in a recent interview; “One of the main reasons to make Babylon Berlin was to show how all these Nazis did not just fall from the sky. They were human beings who reacted to German society’s changes and made their decisions accordingly.”

Returning to the TV series, Greta is shocked to see Otto in the crowd dressed in the Brownshirt uniform of the SA; she stares at the mob and is horrified to see Fritz, and he’s also wearing the SA uniform. Greta realizes that her lover Fritz and his friend Otto were Nazis masquerading as communists, and they were using her to get at August Benda. Betrayed, she runs back to the Benda home in hopes of reversing her treachery, but just as she reaches the home the bomb she helped to plant goes off, killing Benda and his little girl.

There is much more in Babylon Berlin to write about, the last episode of season two is, shall we say, explosive; however, I’ll leave that for you to discover. The series is far from perfect, but the imperfections are thankfully few. I’ll ignore the brief LaLa Land-like dreamy dance sequence; I’ll let slide Gereon Rath’s infrequent swashbuckling exploits; I’ll even overlook the scene where a central character drowns and minutes after death is brought to life with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation—a life saving technique introduced in 1950. I’ll forgive these sins against cinematic realism because Babylon Berlin otherwise examines history with honesty and passion.

The show provides a solid argument that first-rate drama can be had from exploring real life history. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to watch a film that is not crawling with cartoon characters, super-heros, and wiggling femme fatales. Perhaps Babylon Berlin represents a return to conscientious, artful cinema, I’m praying that is the case. I’d be in heaven if a straightforward film about the German Expressionist artists and their showdown with the Nazis were to be made. But then, such a film will never be created, unless of course there’s someone foolish enough to provide me with a budget to produce it.

Seven deadly sins in the Metropolis, Charlotte Ritter and Gereon Rath. Photo: © Sky 1

Seven deadly sins in the Metropolis, Charlotte Ritter and Gereon Rath. Photo: © Sky 1

The 16 episodes of the first two seasons of Babylon Berlin are available to view on Netflix in the United States. It has been verified that the series has received funding for a third season, so the show will eventually have to deal with Hitler and the Nazis taking power in 1933. Based on the 2008 crime novel Der Nasse Fisch (The Wet Fish) by German author Volker Kutscher, the TV series was written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Henrik Handloegten. The show had a budget of 40 million euros ($49 million U.S.), making it the most expensive TV series ever produced in Germany. By contrast on Feb. 13, 2018, Netflix cut a $300 million deal with American director Ryan Murphy (creator of American Horror Story) to produce films exclusively for Netflix.

I can happily say that one is much better off viewing Babylon Berlin.

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ADDENDUM:

[1] More info about the Freikorps: International Encyclopedia of the First World War.

[2] Stephen P. Halbrook: “Nazism, Firearm Registration, and the Night of the Broken Glass.” (PDF file). Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, No. 3. (2009)

[3] Article about the artist Carl Lauterbach - Painter in Twilight: RP Online. Feb. 28, 2012. German language.

[4] Josephine Baker’s official website biography

FURTHER READING:

My review of the 2010 Long Beach Opera production of “The Good Soldier Schweik” holds plenty of information about Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

My 2011 essay “Paul Fuhrmann’s ‘War Profiteer” focuses on the German Expressionist painter Paul Fuhrmann, as well as the Nazi Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937.

My 2013 “Echoes of Weimar” essay covers the works of two Weimar era artists, Barthel Gilles and Otto Dix. The article holds some surprising information about the two painters.

Excellent article on German Swing Youth and Nazi repression from the German website “20-2-40-Style-Syndicate.”

The Russian website “AirPages” offers an extensive and detailed examination of the Reichswehr secret airbase in Lipetsk, Soviet Russia.

Babylon Berlin is fairly exact in all sorts of background details, including antique firearms. The Internet Movie Firearms Database tells you what weapons appeared in the series.