LOS ANGELES—The guitar riffs come from punk rock, the lyrics from fascist ideology. Bands stake their territory with names like Aryan Rebels and Definite Hate. And when the Blue Eyed Devils sing “White Victory,” you can bet that it isn’t a love song.
This hate-filled subculture of neo-Nazi bands has been around since the early days of punk rock in the 1970s, but has edged uneasily into the spotlight following the shooting deaths of six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin by alleged gunman Wade Michael Page.
Page spent years playing bass and guitar in bands that railed against a racially integrated America. His last endeavor, End Apathy, sang of compassion as a weakness and called America a “sick society.”
“There is a whole underworld of racist bands unknown to the public,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that tracks right-wing extremism “Music is their single most important recruiting method, more than any other factor.”
Page is typical of the scene’s regulars, said Arno Michaels, a Milwaukee-based writer and peace activist with the group Life After Hate. Michaels played in white-power punk bands for years, leaving after the birth of his daughter and after seeing friends die in street clashes.
“When I got into the punk scene, I enjoyed the aggression and rebellion,” Michaels said. Wearing a Nazi swastika “created an environment where the world responded with hate and violence, which to me justified what I was doing.”
Page became involved in white-power punk after attending 2000’s Hammerfest, a fascist-punk festival hosted by the Nazi group Hammerskin in Orlando, Fla., according to an interview with Page posted on the website of Label 56, which released his albums.
In 2001, Page joined a Nazi band called Youngland that was based in Orange County, Calif., playing with the group for about two years, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“Orange County is a huge white power music scene,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the ADL. “There are a lot of white power bands and there are a lot of places they can play. It’s a hotspot.”
Exact figures for the secretive scene’s reach are difficult to come by. Potok estimates there are several hundred bands, including ones based in Europe.
Most performances are underground and unadvertised, to avoid drawing attention from authorities and to prevent adversaries from disrupting the event and attacking show-goers.
An invitation to a white-power punk show more often comes as a phone call or text message.
“Most common is they announce the event, and they say if you want info, contact X,” Pitcavage said. “If you contact X, they will contact you back if you did not raise any flags with them. They have learned the hard way to evolve.”
Then it gets more cryptic. “You make contact and are told to travel to a gas station,” Pitcavage said. “You will meet up with three generally intimidating large people covered in tattoos. Once they approve you, you will be given directions to the venue.”
Mainstream venues can be deceived into accidentally hosting neo-Nazi shows. In 2009, the Doll Hut in Anaheim openly talked to the OC Weekly about unwittingly hosting a white-power concert falsely booked as a wedding reception, and fearing violence, the venue let it run its course before publicizing the scam.
“Concerts are booked under completely false pretences,” said Aaron Flanagan, an analyst with the Center for New Community, which tracks hate groups. “They’re booked as a birthday party, as an anniversary or a showcase. Then the VFW Hall or the American Legion Hall does not realize what they got into until people show up.”
From the earliest days of punk, bands have occasionally flirted with Nazi imagery. Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ singer Siouxsie Soux wore swastika armbands for shock value.
But underneath the antagonistic mainstream punk scene, a more troubling variant took root. In the ‘70s, the fascist English political group National Front organized punk shows to recruit disaffected young men and women into its ranks. The English band Skrewdriver, one of few musically proficient bands in the scene, is largely credited as the genre’s defining act.
Other left-leaning and inclusive punk scenes fought against this ideological strain. One of hard-core’s pioneering bands was the all-black D.C. group Bad Brains, and the leftist San Francisco band Dead Kennedys fought back with a 1981 single railing against “Nazi Punks.”
“Punk is such an extreme form of music, it’s always attracted different types of extremes,” Dead Kennedys founder Jello Biafra said in an interview Tuesday.
Years ago, Biafra recalled, he was at a club when members of Britain’s National Front — a white power group — were hanging out with the road crew of a British punk band. “It creeped me out,” he said.
While openly neo-Nazi speech is often banned in Europe, the scene found a home in America, with its broad free-speech laws and history of radical-right subcultures. American white-power groups initially shunned rock music (preferring country, bluegrass and Wagner) until finally embracing its recruitment potential in the ’80s.
William Pierce, the “Turner Diaries” author and leader of the American neo-Nazi group National Alliance, bought a majority share in the fascist punk label Resistance Records in 1999, writing in the National Alliance Bulletin that “As Resistance Records regains strength, that acquisition should add an increasing number of younger members, in the 18-25 age range, to our ranks.”
Some Nazi punk groups took the Wisconsin shooting as a rallying cry. But others feel that Page’s rampage has instead cast unwanted attention on their fringe culture.
“We do not wish to profit from this tragedy financially or with publicity,” Label 56 said in a statement Tuesday. “Please do not take what Wade did as honorable or respectable and please do not think we are all like that.”
One thing that the bands don’t stand for is musical proficiency. It’s all about the attitude and ideology.
“It’s simple, infectious and streamlined and packaged to point to emotion rather than logic,” Flanagan said. “It’s about accessing anger.”