Controversy tends to follow musicians around, especially musicians who are celebrities on the largest stages. Perhaps it is something to do with the sheer amount of attention that is sometimes cast upon one particular person, which is, of course, not natural or even healthy. Musicians and other artists have a specific drive – especially when starting their careers – to want to be at the centre of attention, they crave it, to some extent.
Speaking objectively, there must be some slight sense of narcissism or ego-centricity to knowingly place yourself on a stage where many are watching, regardless of whether it is in the name of art or not. Having said that, the attention can get magnified tenfold, depending on the success of a particular artist. Whether it is desired or not, this magnification can cause further detrimental effects on the artist. We all know the stories; drugs, affairs, strange outfits, the smashing of hotel rooms, abusive behaviour, and the lot. But what happens when a controversy appears in the shape of political scandal and abhorrent racist comments?
There have been various cases in the past, and for some strange reason, 1976 was a year for political controversy among rock stars, with a number of political outbursts tending to take shape in the form of fascist comments. It was around the time when David Bowie rolled his ghostly ‘Thin White Duke’ character out from his seminal amnesiac Station to Station album. During an interview with a Swedish newspaper, Bowie uttered the regrettable words, “I believe Britain could benefit from a fascist leader”. In addition, Bowie was also seen allegedly doing the Nazi salute from a car model that Hitler drove as well. However, he protested this as an image taken out of context, as a picture was snapped of him in mid-motion. Context is everything.
In the same year of 1976, British Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s anti-multicultural views had taken a stranglehold of swathes of the country. His rhetoric of anti-immigration policies and fierce nationalism struck a chord with a generation who were sick of the abject poverty around them. But while many found themselves being drawn to the incendiary but inclusive genre of punk and all it had to offer, others were proving themselves to be out of touch with reality.
During a concert in that same year, a drunken Eric Clapton went on a rant about “dark-skinned immigrants” and, in giving credence to the politician’s rhetoric, suggested that Powell was correct in his flagrantly fascist stance. You may be thinking; how bad could Eric Clapton’s comments really have been? Well, pretty damn, terrible.
“Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out,” exclaimed Clapton to his captive audience. “Get the w*gs out. Get the c**ns out. Keep Britain white,” he added. While it has been made abundantly clear in the statements that followed the comments that Clapton definitely had a few too many drinks during the concert, that doesn’t forgive the way he outrageously expressed his ignorant racist viewpoint. He began his remarks in the worst possible way, by addressing the audience: “Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands. So where are you? Well, wherever you are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country. I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country.”
He added: “Listen to me, man! I think we should send them all back.”
Aside from being a deeply ugly and violently insulting thing to say, one steeped in both fury and ignorance, the worst part is that Eric Clapton considers himself a blues musician. It makes it all grossly hypocritical, showing a level of racist ignorance beyond belief. His work with Cream, other bands and his solo work – even his pop songs – are all steeped in the blues traditions. In the 1960s, Clapton led the way for integrating the blues that Black Americans had made with such soul into the new pop landscape that The Beatles had created. He wasn’t the only one, either. Across the board, the musicians of the day heavily leant on the sounds that emanated from the Delta blues. To put it simply, even in 2021, he continues the heritage of Black American music, profiting off of it to a more than princely sum.
While Clapton would undoubtedly rock the world of his fans by revealing his racist standpoint, thankfully his comments would spur the ‘Rock Against Racism’ movement, the punk retaliation to not only Powell and his incendiary rhetoric of division but to rock stars like Clapton using their privileged position to heap further misery on the oppressed. As a mark of his realisation, Clapton donated heavily to the cause and continues to make financial contributions to this day — make of that what you will.
Of course, with time passing by, Clapton has recognised in himself the shame that few have had the time to come to terms with. As an act of damage limitation, the musician has since expressed great regret for the racist comments he belched out. “I was so ashamed of who I was, a kind of semi-racist, which didn’t make sense,” he said. Clapton had surrounded himself in Black culture, but in one instance he proved that with the correct populist attitude and the full force of the right-wing, anybody can be swept up in dangerous nationalism.
However, as the tropes often follow a pattern, Clapton continued his efforts in a way that could only make society roll its eyes in embarrassment. He continued: “Half of my friends were black, I dated a black woman, and I championed black music,” in comments that will make the majority of those reading shudder.
Clapton is sober now and continues to contribute to programmes fighting against racism, but that didn’t stop him from releasing an anti-lockdown song with Van Morrison in 2020, proving that though he may have put notions of a fascist British regime behind him, he is still more than happy to place himself as the controversial rock star of old. As time passes by, he will only seem more appropriate for that (thankfully) bygone age.