Music News

Death in June: Skinheads Say Band Is Racist

Death in June is a British post-punk band that has been around since 1981. According to one reviewer, "Early DIJ is basically Joy Division with trumpets," but later albums include more acoustic guitar and sound more singer/songwriter-ish. As part of a 12-date American tour, the band is playing Tuesday, December 8 at Respectable Street, which is billing the group as "neo-folk." But it has also been called something else: neo-Nazi. 

Though Death in June's lyrics aren't overtly racist or fascist, leader Douglas Pearce, who is now 59 and openly gay, makes frequent use of military-style dress and Third Reich imagery, which led to the band being banned in Switzerland in 1998 and some of its albums being banned in 2005 by Germany's Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons.

Is this use of propaganda just a reflection of Pearce's genuine interest in world history, as the musician has claimed? Or is the band truly a bunch of racist fascists? Is the whole thing just a schtick? Even if so, does it nonetheless give oxygen to real white-power types? And why should anyone care? 

The booking of the band has riled up Derek Alvarez, a 42-year-old anti-racist skinhead from Davie, who points out that white-power rock is an actual genre, epitomized by groups like Skrewdriver. Any revival of it would be a notable development in a year when racial tensions have been a constant theme in the news and the rise of ISIS is sparking anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Skinhead culture arose in working class England where poor whites and Jamaican immigrants mixed, but some people took the look and pegged it to a right-wing ideology. In the 1980s and '90s, there grew both left-wing skinhead groups —  like ANTIFA (Anti-fascist Action), SHARPs (Skinheads against Racial Prejudice) and RASH (Red and Anarchist Skinheads) — and right-wing groups like the Hammerskins, which promoted a white nationalist agenda and whose members were even associated with race-based murders. Each side had its own music. 

The lifestyle, Alvarez says, is attractive because "it's so mean and hard. You can put any type of politics on it.... Music is what fuels it." North Florida, he says, was known for racist skinheads, while South Florida was known as a "true antiracist stronghold." Though it's rare to see anyone in suspenders and Doc Martens these days, the lifestyle has never gone away, he says. In places like Philadelphia, New York, San Diego, and Oregon, skinheads still have meetings and an online presence. Alvarez is in an Oi! band called Asymmetric Combat.  

Regarding Death in June, Alvarez points out that Pearce uses a Totenkopf — a skull and crossbones image that was used by Nazi soldiers. "You can't display that shit in Germany!" because it's considered so offensive, Alvarez says. The use of neo-Nazi symbolism — "it's deliberate on their behalf," he says. Death in June is "doing more than than flirting with it."

The band's name refers to June 30, 1934, the "Night of Long Knives," when Hitler ordered the murder of about 85 Nazi soldiers he deemed a threat to his power. Pearce did not respond to an interview request sent through his website, but in the past, he's been quoted as playing down the Nazi imagery. "Obviously people have fallen into the trap of taking it on a surface value," he said. "That is their problem." On a song called "Gorilla Tactics" he mocks Switzerland's "little minds": "Their banks are filled/ With Nazi gold/ But Death in June's banned/ I've been told."

Rodney Mayo, the owner of Respectable Street, waved off criticism and did not want to comment. Death in June played the club in 2013 and drew an attentive crowd, according to a New Times review. 

Alvarez said he won't be going to the show, but wouldn't be surprised if antiracist skins showed up in protest. He wishes groups like the Anti-Defamation League would get involved, too.

In fact, "I'd like to see Anti-fascist action established as an actual political party," he muses... though he concedes that "young people are caught up in Twitter and dick pics;" they're not exactly at home crystallizing their views on Stalinism. 

Which begs the question: Does anyone care about this stuff anymore?

On that, the jury seems divided. A critic for Noisey dismissed Death in June as "a weird dad band." But according to DIJ's Facebook page, shows have been selling out. 
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Deirdra Funcheon