Why are there so few right-wing rock stars?

An NME writer suggests that it's thanks to the influence of Britain's music press.

It's a curious fact that, in public at least, there are very few right-wing rock stars. Some, like Phil Collins, who made good on his promise to leave the country if Labour won the 2005 General Election, vote Tory for tax reasons. Some, like Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley, who was rumoured to be seeking a Conservative electoral seat, espouse pro-Thatcherite views because it reminds them of the time in the 1980s when they were still having hits, rather than slogging round the revival circuit playing august rock venues like Lowestoft's Marina Theatre.

Collins and Hadley are very much in the minority, however. Rock music's default political stance is a version of libertarianism - a lot of rock stars like to imagine themselves as outlaw figures at odds with the strictures of workaday society, and a small state means, like, less hassle from The Man, man.

In Britain at least, the long-term guardian of rock music's conscience - and occasional antagonist - was the music press, principally the weekly New Musical Express. Founded in 1952 as a tabloid for musicians advertising the latest harmonicas or guitar strings, by the time it reached its peak of influence in the mid-'70s, the NME was providing a steady wage and a willing audience to a whole generation of troublemakers and dissidents who'd learned their craft writing for the underground press.

NME was owned by the International Publishing Company, part of packaging company Reed International, publishers of Woman and Home, Horse and Hound and magazines about fishing, football and kid's comics. The staff of the NME gleefully exploited their position to take the values, ideals and interests of the hippy underground - amplified rock music, drugs, sex, astrology, radical politics - and sneak them into the mainstream through IPC's distribution network.

At its peak in the 1970s, the magazine was bought by a quarter of a million people weekly, but IPC estimated that it was read by four times as many - most NME readers being impoverished students or sixth formers who pass on the paper to friends when they'd finished with it. The values and causes that they discovered through the pages of the NME - along, of course, with the vibrant soundtrack - permeated way beyond the pages of a weekly rock newspaper into the wider culture.

Writing in 1980, the cultural commentator Peter York expressed amazement at what he found in the pages of a magazine sold alongside Shoot!, Bunty or the Sun in WH Smiths. "Peter York wrote a piece on NME for Harpers and Queen," remembers Tony Parsons, one of the many household names who got his break writing for the paper, "and he said 'you wouldn't believe the stuff that's in this paper: politics, drugs'. And this was true. There were people coming to work who'd had just fallen out of a drug den with Keith Richards."

At a time when the TUC conference ended with a round of (female) strippers, or when Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? was the only gay character on television, the NME advocated feminism and gay rights. It ran passionate cover stories about nuclear disarmament or green politics way before they were mainstream political issues. It advocated relaxing British marijuana laws and covered music festivals long before either became acceptable middle-class pastimes.

After a drunken concert appearance by Eric Clapton in August 1976 where the guitarist repeatedly shouted the National Front's slogan "Keep Britain White" and called for action to be taken to "get the coons out", it was on the letters pages of the NME that the Rock Against Racism movement coalesced. In the 1980s, during Neil Kinnock's latter period as leader of the Labour party, no daily newspaper would give him even the smallest piece of positive coverage: NME put him on the cover twice, once, to their publisher's chagrin, the week before the 1987 general election.

NME writers attended early meetings of the Red Wedge movement, rubbing shoulders with future New Labour architects like Peter Mandelson and Phillip Gould, who noticed how powerful rock music could be when it came to trying to court the youth vote. The result was Britain's first rock'n'roll premier, the first British Prime Minister who'd grown up reading the NME every week. The ignominy of the Blair years aside Britain is a more accepting, more tolerant and more liberal place than it was forty years ago. The persistent influence of the New Musical Express, sixty years old next month, did much to make it that way.

Pat Long's book "The History of The NME" is published on 12 March by Portico. For more information click here

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge