The Red Armies and Pop

What is the result in the UK of an unelectable opposition party? On notable occasions in the recent past it has meant dissent has been expressed through non-parliamentary means. Examples of unopposed, monolithic governments are Italy's string of nearly forty-eight Social Democratic parties leading up to Berlusconi, the Centre-Left's dominance in seventies Germany or, closer to home, Thatcher's Conservative party and its offspring in the UK. The results were, respectively, the BR, the R.A.F and Militant (whose crowning achievement was the Poll Tax Riots).

I've always had a slightly childish fascination with revolutionary factions. I put this down to having gone to a boarding school. There were even occasional small, extremely polite "riots" when I was in attendance. Lindsay Anderson's movie "If" was banned. I ended up becoming fixated on Paris 1968 without really caring to explore the fact that when gnostic revolutions happened in the real world, and an "elect" faction gained power, there was invariably a protracted period of violent suppression. Whether it was John of Leiden and the Anabaptists, Robespierre and the Jacobins, Lenin, Mao or Pol Pot sometimes millions of entirely innocent people end up being senselessly murdered.

My idle fascination is certainly echoed in the critical discourse around Pop music. Music critics can be the laziest kind of pseudo-socialists. Are we really engaged in Gramsci's "War of Position", a long and complex cultural and ideological struggle to overthrow the existing hegemony? My arse. Socialism is usually nothing more than a default "safe" position for the media liberal, Citizen Smiths who for the sake of their career would never risk being seen as anything else.

On the contrary if we bloodless critics examine the interconnections between music itself and radical Socialist dissent, both activities at the praxis of action, there are many "revolving doors" - potentially permeable portals. It is to the musicians credit that it is rare for them to pass through them.


David Stubbs is appositely succinct when he discusses the futile, violent insurrectionists the Baader-Meinhof gang (or Red Army Faction, the R.A.F.) in his highly entertaining book "Future Days". Succinct because, frankly, there was little crossover with Krautrock. Inevitably though in the soup-stew of radical youth there were a few points of contact. Uwe Nettelback of Faust had worked briefly alongside Ulrike Meinhof' at the "konkret" journal which in its later years, deprived of financial backing carried nude ladies to help sales. Meinhof too, constantly on the run from the police was alleged to have spent a night at one of the Amon Düül communes.

Stefan Aust's "The Baader Meinhof Complex" reveals that Gudrun Ensslin, likewise looking for somewhere to crash when in Hamburg in October 1971 had a base in an apartment on the Heeburg in the Poppenbüttel area which belonged to a mysterious "well-known musician" who she had approached after a concert. The group stayed there as he went off on tour. Perhaps this was someone from the historically neglected group Ton Steine Scherben who had strong links to the Red Army Faction before they resorted to violence?

More plausible, especially given the fact that among the 75 LPs Andreas Baader kept at Stammheim high-security prison, the one on the turntable when he committed suicide being Eric Clapton's There's One In Every Crowd (1975), was Baader and Meinhof's supposed meeting with Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green. In 1970 the blues-rockers visited Munich and were invited along to the High-Fish commune. This event has gone down in Fleetwood Mac history as the moment at which Green lost his mind. Ada Wilson's recent book "The Red Army Faction Blues" spins fiction from this event.

If there's a fork in the road between hippie idealism and violent dissent Uschi Obermaier who organised the aforementioned High-Fish Commune (a pun on the German word for shark) could be seen to embody it. He was not only a member of Berlin's Kommune 1 but also of Munich's Amon Düül community. Kommune 1 were notorious for their planning of a humorous Custard pudding attack on visiting US President Hubert Humphrey. This was intercepted by the police who thought they were plotting a real bomb attack before, discovering the real extent of their weaponary, charges were dropped.

A very similar threshold was reached, but then crossed by the Baader-Meinhof gang when Baader and Enssilin set a Frankfurt Department store alight in response to a viciously satirical article about a fire in a Brussels Department store. The gist of the article was to equate the Belgian tragedy with the American Imperialist Capitalist's carpet bombing in Vietnam. Baader clearly didn't get the joke.

The early NDW kept its faith with radical socialism in a more brazen manner than Krautrock. This excellent LP Juri Gargarin by Kosmonautetraum (1982) is not alone in its embrace of Soviet iconography. D.A.F's Die Kleinen und Die Bösen (1980) and also Abwärts' Amok Koma (both brilliantly spiky NDW classics) are both festooned with it.

In a similar trouble-making gesture in the mid-eighties I had three magnificent Soviet posters with their Pop-art graphics on my school study's wall. One of an American in a gas mask, poisoning the world with the fumes from a noxious test-tube, is still in my basement somewhere.

Brian Eno has been ubiquitous in the news recently for his support of Jeremy Corbyn. First I heard Brian chiding the media on how electability was over-rated. Then, sadly, Brian complaining that his membership request for the Labour Party had been turned down. I must admit I was puzzled what a multi-millionaire rock musician would share with the far left. I can only assume Brian will be disinheriting his children on principle just like the multi-millionaire Banksy who last month promised if he was Prime Minister he would abolish inheritance?

Eno and Snatch's R.A.F (1977) is the b-side to his Brian's King's Lead Hat single. It is a glorious slice of lizardine funk draped with recording from german radio. This being the only clue that this was a song about the Red Army Faction and not the Royal Air Force.

The title track from Marianne Faithful's Broken English (1979) was allegedly inspired by Ulrike Meinhof. I was prepared to be cynical about Marianne's motives, just as Stubbs is about Joe Strummer wearing an R.A.F T-shirt, however if you listen closely the song it is a plea from one woman to another for sanity: "Lose your father, your husband, your mother, your children. What are you dying for? It's not my reality. What are you fighting for? It's not my security. It's just an old war. Not even a Cold War."

Ulrike did indeed lose her children. The most remarkable part of Stefan Aust's book is his calm and modest recount of how, on his own initiative, he flew to Sicily and tricked the R.A.F's associates into handing over Meinhof's two children to him. They had been scheduled by her to be sent for adoption in the Palestine. He escorted them back to their father.

In the same year, 1979, Cabaret Voltaire contributed a track Baader-Meinhof to the Fac-2 Factory sampler. Mallinder sermonising about the gang, dipping in and out of audibility: "...were they the heroes or villains..." over a twisted backing of insectoid free-form electronics.

The appeal to the Cabs seems less to do with Socialism than perhaps the murky scenario of exploitation, darkness and rebellion.

Another excellent record. Along with The Good, The Bad and The Queen (2007) baader meinhof (1996) is a Brit-Pop album that's actually worth hearing. Effectively it is a solo project by Auteurs main-man Luke Haines. The Auteurs' LPs don't do much for me - it's to do with the location of the sound as much as anything, the space the band occupy in the recording stage is all wrong. However not only are the songs all very strong here (very surprising for a concept album - think of the fluff in Tommy) but the recording is amazing, almost all close-miked and claustrophobic.

I haven't been able to figure out how the songs quite correlate to the story of the R.A.F always though I don't doubt they do.

The original SPK, the Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv, were founded in Heidelberg in 1970 by Dr Wolfgang Huber. Huber believed that mental health problems were a symptom of Capitalism. It's an interesting idea certainly: "...the system has made us sick, let us give the death blow to the system." Huber coined lots of almost funny slogans: "Either you get kidney stones or you throw stones at the centres of capital" or "Madmen to arms!" Although Huber downplays connections to the R.A.F at least in Aust's account they are present. Member Gerhard Müller leaves the SPK and joins the RAF and from 1971 onwards so did a dozen other people. Huber and his wife were eventually imprisoned in Stammheim alongside the R.A.F.

SPK, well-known to fans of Industrial music, derived their name from Huber's collective. I'll admit to finding the idea of their music hard to stomach. It's interesting isn't it how some of the strongest currents from our beloved Krautrock end up in the slightly abject Industrial realm, with Nurse With Wound, Current 93 and Throbbing Gristle? SPK were formed in Australia in 1978, and this, their second LP Leichenschrei (1982) is actually excellent. It is very heavy, dark, deep analog synth music. Sounds a little like Run The Jewels.


I found Ivan Delle Mea's Il Rosso E Diventato Giallo (1969) in Palermo, Sicily ten years ago now. It's full of Dylan-esque folky storytelling: tales of the Trombari factory, Agnelli the FIAT boss, union fights, evil accountants, mobs turning over statues, anger with the PCI Italy's Communist Party (its boss an ineffectual, reassuring Corbyn-like character called Enrico Berlinguer who wore tweed jackets and smoked a pipe): "You will see the bilious faces, the smoke stacks, the howling whistle, Esso-Extra cancer and the sky of my city and this will make sense."

Germany's R.A.F were a huge fucking nuisance, who when they weren't playing a pointless game of cat and mouse around the GDR robbing banks and hiding in squats were spending almost all of their energy, not engaged in "a cause" but in  trying to engineer the release of their own members from prison. But were they as savagely disruptive as the BR, Italy's Brigate Rosse or Red Brigades?

How can you compare their relative negative impact? While the R.A.F were responsible for 30 murders the BR were behind 14,000 acts of violence and 75 murders. The BR were far worse. This severity could be traced back to the cataclysmic condition Italian Society was in.

In Alessandro Orsini's book "Anatomy of The Red Brigades" one can find some startling figures: "Between 1955 and 1971, 9,140,000 Italians were involved in interregional migration. And for many of these families it was "an absolute disaster." The countryside emptied. Seventy percent of those who immigrated to Milan between 1953 and 1963 came from rural communities. Between 1951 and 1964, those employed in agriculture in the northwest regions fell from 25 to 15%. The drop was even more drastic in the northeast."

In these conditions where the fabric of society and family literally dissolved, BR member Adriana Faranda could remark: "I feel that the choice of the Red Brigades is the last of possible choices... I'm looking not only for organisational solidarity but for a feeling of community, of sharing, or solidarity."

Reading about the experiences of the "emblematic" Renato Curcio - a shocking life story of childhood abandonment, a "foggy black nightmare" of poverty in Milan leading to Methedrine and alcoholism in the port of Genoa, one gets an all-too-vivid picture of the environment which drove the BR - but naturally which could never excuse it.

The seventies in Italy were called the "anni piombo" of years of lead. Inevitably these currents were picked up in the musical culture. However, given the scale of the phenomenon, when between 1968 and 1973 Italy had the highest rate of unrest in Europe, there are surprisingly few traces. None of my Italian Prog music makes mention of it, preferring perhaps to frolic in elysian fields. Here though is a more mainstream disc than the Della Mea, Eugenio Finardi's Sugo (1976) on the hip Cramps label. It features "Musica Ribelle" his counter-cultural anthem also "Voglio" and "Oggi Ho Imparato A Volare" optimistic hymns for the revolutionary youth of the Italian left.

Another good example of this Italian Dylan-esque blues-rock which embraces the left-wing struggle is Neapolitan Pino Daniele's Terra Mia LP which contained bitter indictments of the social injustice in Naples.

One record which really stands out with regards to the BR is Alan Sorrenti's Figli Delle Stelle (1977), meaning "Children of the Stars". This quintessential slice of mainstream Italian Disco was a massive hit during the period when the BR had kidnapped the former Italian Christian Democratic Prime Minister Aldo Moro before, 55 days later, murdering him. It was an event which horrified Italy. The tune is a slinky, slightly mournful disco number.

Italian critic Renzo Stefane tells the song's story meaningfully here: "After the failure of the dream of revolution and social equality, all that remained was to try to subvert their lives in nightclubs, in which the identity of each day could be eclipsed. Wrapped in the shadows, the worker and the daughter of the lawyer could meet, be silently together and be in love."

Thanks to Xylitol for alerting me to this one. Crisis were a Crass/Discharge-style punk group from the UK. Strangely the emptied out sonics on this interesting record place it almost within the Post-punk continuum. Hymns of Faith (1980) is notable for "Red Brigades", rare British music commentary on Italian urban terrorism. They even have this to say about Aldo Moro's murder: "For in death the most cynical capitalist politician suddenly becomes Mr. Nice". Charming!


Finally, in this cursory roundup of grisly records I must mention the Japanese connection. The cover of Les Rallizes Denude's Yodo-go-a-go-go, a collection of live tracks recorded between 1967 and 1982, features a photo of the hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351 in 1970. The reason for this was that the band's original bass player Moriaki Wakabayashi took part as a member of Japan's Red Army Faction. Poor Moriaki flew the jet to North Korea where, initially greeted as heroes, they eventually outstayed their welcome. Thirteen years ago were desperate to return to their homeland.


These recordings all have differing relationships to left-wing terrorism. Some were created in a parallel social milieu (Amon Düül, Les Rallizes Denudes) or shared political environment (Ivan Delle Mea, Eugenio Finardi), some condone the violence (Marianne Faithful), some dare to rationalise it (Crisis, Luke Haines) some revel in its eldritch moral ambivalence (SPK, Cabaret Voltaire), at the outer limits some merely tip their hat (Brian Eno, Kosmonautetraum) or, like with the reception of Alan Sorrenti's Figli Delle Stelle its presence is explicit in a refusal of acknowledgment.

It is clear though that music is woven into the fabric. Where any of this is good music depends in some part in the way in which a wholly negative impulse, to kill and maim people in the name of a flawed idea, transforms when that energy is spent in the name of creativity. So for instance the most sympathetic recordings by Crisis and Luke Haines, by merit of their being acts of creativity, rather than violence, turns them into redeemably positive ones.

I couldn't deny having a fascination towards these macabre documents. Purchasing them as commodities over the years must be a kind of "detournement" - their being on sale surely a contradiction of Socialism? I stuck Soviet posters on my wall at school purely as a sure-fire way to irritate my housemaster and father. I get the urge to flip the bird at structures of establishment. And I get it when Jeremy Corbyn doesn't want to sing the National anthem. However, as I struggle to raise my own family in a peaceful society the line these "gnostic revolutionaries" cross becomes clearer and clearer to me. The BR and R.A.F simply weren't cool. By the same measure there is no condoning the unnecessary, invisible violence perpetrated by the state against its enemies. Two wrongs don't make a right. If you despise authority, don't replicate it.