Richard B. Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute think tank, does not look like your stereotypical right-wing extremist. With his slicked-back hair (long on top, buzzed at the sides) and suave suits, the man who coined the term “alt-right” in 2008 appears more like a corporate executive or a model from GQ. Yet, we have seen this look before in another time and place. Did not Adolf Hitler wear expensive tailored suits and his hair greased back and cropped, too? Did not that image of sartorial superiority inform his minions who’s the boss? Within the world of pop music, this look also had its time in the spotlight: during the early 1980s when the New Romantic subculture wore variations on this sophisticated, attention-demanding attire.
When not cosplaying as pirates, Incroyables, and designer aliens, the New Romantic dandies often wore suits, coats, and hairstyles circa World War II. Check out selected videos from Spandau Ballet, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, and Ultravox to find the fashion sources of Spencer’s “fashy” look. The man Mother Jones described as a “dapper white nationalist” is also the marketing face of the alt-right, a movement that takes its branding cues not from “bonehead” skinheads or corpse-painted black metalheads but from the aspirant retrofuturists of ‘80s British pop music.
When Spencer was asked about his music tastes at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017, he responded, “Depeche Mode is the official band of the alt-right”, adding later that the band has a “bit of a fascist element”, that they have “already written all the anthems the #Altright needs”, and that their 1984 song “People are People” —despite its lyrical plea for racial tolerance—is actually about “racial differences”. “That’s pretty ridiculous,” the band’s representative responded, disavowing any association between Depeche Mode and the movement.
Singer Dave Gahan, a resident in the US since the ‘90s, was already on record regarding the rise of the right, characterizing Donald Trump as “cruel, heartless, and promoting fear” and satirizing movements like the alt-right as fascist in the band’s 2017 song and video “Where’s the Revolution”. When journalist Olivia Nuzzi posted Spencer’s endorsement of the band on Twitter, fans also reacted, sharing quotes from “People are People” as rebuttals and re-posting the viral clip of Spencer getting punched by a masked man on a Washington street on Trump’s inauguration day.
Besides alarming and alerting Depeche Mode’s passionate fan base about the co-option of its beloved band, Spencer’s declaration brought into focus how desperately he was seeking some art for alt’s sake, some culture to supplement the politics. In ‘80s British pop music, he found what he was looking for, acts like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet providing sights and sounds to satisfy the alt-right’s nostalgic yearning for a conservative utopia that never existed. These bands facilitate indulgence in retrofuturistic fantasies, their videos awash with scenes of luxurious and lavish lifestyles, their images of wealth, beauty, and mobility transporting us back to the idealized future promised and projected by Reagan and Thatcherism.
Some, like Depeche Mode with 1983’s “Everything Counts” — (“in large amounts”)—, Pet Shop Boys with 1985’s “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)”, and Heaven 17 with 1981’s “I’m Your Money”, are clearly being ironic. Irony, for alt-righters, though, is a rhetorical device ignored or deployed at their convenience, depending on which best serves their purposes at the time. Heaven 17, perhaps cognizant that their songs might be misconstrued or misused by some, showed their “true” colors in the 1981 song “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang”, which uses the language of pop to censure both the forces of the new right and (possibly) those peers flirting too closely with them.
Recently, too, even though Depeche Mode’s Gahan forcefully objected to Spencer cozying up to his band, calling him “an educated cunt”, the singer did concede that “Over the years there’s been a number of times when things of ours have been misinterpreted—either our imagery, or something where people are not quite reading between the lines.”
Were These Bands Flirting with Fascism?
To understand the lure of ’80s synthpop to this century’s alt-right, one can find explanatory evidence in the coded expressions of two key influential forerunners: Kraftwerk and David Bowie. Neither of these artists was definitively fascist in identity, though both played with sounds and visions evoking—or associated with—European fascist history and art. For the alt-right, such flirtations are tantamount to an invitation to co-opt.
Formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in Düsseldorf in 1970, Kraftwerk (translation: power station) participated in a West German avant-garde art scene whose musical exponents had little interest in the sentimental “schlager” pop or blues-based rock surrounding them. More inspired by Stockhausen than the Stones, the power duo became, as Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore asserts, “the godfathers” of electronic music. Pioneers and innovators of what would later mutate into synthpop, Kraftwerk developed a sound remote from Anglo-American norms but in tune with their national identity. Whereas most rock was rooted in the blues, soul, and swing of prior African-American music, the ” Krautrock ” style celebrated mechanical rigidity in its synthesizer and drum machine sounds, clipped Germanic language interventions, and “man-machine” imagery. For onlookers from the far political right, Kraftwerk projected a European Aryan ideal satisfying their cultural fantasies.
Critic Lester Bangs appeared to think as much when he titled his interview with the band “Kraftwerk: The Final Solution to the Music Problem?” in 1975. Describing them as “anti-emotional,” Bangs, a fan, spoke of the whiteness of Kraftwerk’s sound, suggesting it was revolutionary in nature. Most German bands still adopted English language names and aped Anglo-American rock tropes, Hütter reminded him, complaining of how his generation and nation had been “robbed of their culture…putting an American head on it.” By mythologizing Germany’s past, present, and future, Kraftwerk, he said, aimed to “create a Central European identity.”
This identity was fully realized in 1974’s “Autobahn”, the band’s ode to the comforts of driving one’s car on the federal motorway system constructed (mostly) after Hitler took control of Germany in 1933. The album’s cover art underscores the national pride evident in the title track, the featured autobahn—dotted with a Mercedes and Volkswagen—unfolding into rolling green hills with the sun breaking through the trees. This merging of the industrial with the pastoral is presented like a retrofuturistic David Hockney painting, its bland perfection suggesting an imagined past and future.
Whereas Kraftwerk flirted cautiously with Germanic traditions that interacted with the era of the Third Reich, Bowie was not so reticent in engaging with that past or associating Kraftwerk with it. Indeed, in an interview in April 1976, he assessed the band as coming “close to a neo-Nazi kind of thing”, the interviewer Ben Edmunds responding by referring to their “fascist drone”. Adopting and adapting their sound, Bowie also developed his latest persona, the Thin White Duke, an emotionless Aryan type molded from Nazi central casting. As with Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and other roles before, Bowie inhabited his new caricature like a method actor, taking it beyond the stage.
Whether intending to advocate, warn, or just shock, the notoriously a-political artist began espousing the virtues of fascism, proposing it as a potential solution to Britain’s mid-‘70s socio-economic woes. The appeals were aesthetic and political, Bowie/Thin White Duke stated in one interview that “Adoph Hitler was one of the first rock stars”. Nor was this a one-off incident. On his Isolar tour promoting Station to Station, released in 1976, the artist was detained at the Russia/Poland border when Nazi books and paraphernalia were discovered in his possessions. Such dalliances came to a head in May 1976, when Bowie arrived at London Victoria Station in an open-top Mercedes, waving to his gathered fans in a manner that to some looked suspiciously like Seig Heil salutes. This incident—alongside Eric Clapton’s racist rant at a Birmingham concert a few months later—is often cited as prompting jazz musician Red Saunders to form Rock Against Racism.
Bowie later sought to distance himself from these embarrassing events, like Clapton, offering up a multitude of excuses for his shocking behavior. One excuse – that he had become obsessed with the Nazis’ preoccupations with the occult and conspiracy theories – no doubt endeared him further to onlookers from the far right, who by now were eyeing Bowie and his Teutonic interests as potential fodder for political co-option.
Europhilia Finds a Subculture
Among Bowie’s admirers on the extreme right was Joe Pearce, head of the Youth National Front and editor of its Bulldog magazine, and Eddy Morrison, the NF’s regional organizer, who, according to historian Matthew Worley, was a “David Bowie fan who endeavored to find Aryan—or at least European—roots for pop music”. Both enthused over the new “white European dance music” that bore the influential marks of Kraftwerk and Bowie. With artists like Ultravox, the Human League, and Tthe Normal, avant-garde synthesizer music developed into synthpop, while some, like Spandau Ballet, Visage, and Depeche Mode, even chose monikers to emphasize a continental European rather than an Anglo-American identity the very inverse of what many European bands had done prior to Kraftwerk. Morrison picked up on the connections between Bowie and the new acts, noting their “strains of classical and traditional Aryan music”. Before long, these bands were featured in the National Front’s Spearhead magazine, hailed as the figurehead artists of neo-Nazi culture.
The New Romantics pursued heroic identities, a few flirting with Third Reich symbolism. Spandau Ballet, for example, tinkered with the cult of the body in “Muscle Bound”, dropping references to burning books and hard labor into its obtuse lyrics. The Skids, initially a guitar-based punk act, leaned into a more synth-oriented sound for their 1979 sophomore album, Days in Europa. Besides the suggestive title, its original cover art featured a blond-haired female crowning a muscular European champion, evoking Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and the Leni Riefenstahl propaganda films that celebrated them.
Lead singer Richard Jobson later admitted that the band had gotten caught up with the shock and style effects of such imagery—as many of his musical peers had. Within contemporary genres from synthpop to post-punk, positive punk, goth, and industrial, a common pursuit of intrepid archetypes led many back to 1930s Germany, creating what Jobson called a “fascist fetish thing” across British music in the early ‘80s.
Individually, none of these bands or fans had much effect in establishing a cultural staging post. En masse, though, the New Romantics came to represent a movement of sounds, sights, and aesthetics distinct from most rock forerunners. Aware of the existence of restless youth seeking fantasy fulfillment after the recent reality checks of punk, nightclub doorman Steve Strange and DJ Rusty Egan sought to unite this disparate pack of dreamers under one London roof. First, in 1978, they offered “Bowie Nights” at Billy’s nightclub in Soho, then “Club for Heroes” at Blitz in Covent Garden. Here, the connections between Kraftwerk, Bowie, and the new synthpop came into view as the New Romantics coalesced into a discernible and spectacular subculture. Bowie became aware of these tribal disciples, too, visiting the Blitz Club in search of extras for his 1980 “Ashes to Ashes” video. According to Boy George, then working the coat check post at Blitz, when Bowie arrived, he was treated like a messiah, with everyone present scrambling to be amongst the four chosen ones.
Although tacitly a-political, at the heart of the New Romantics was the same competitive go-getter spirit that elevated the yuppies of the Thatcher/Reagan epoch into mythology. Their combination of street savvy, individual reinvention, and ambition are traits still revered and romanticized by the alt-right today. Any inconvenient truths defacing their perfect portraits of the European ideal—i.e. the drug-taking, gender-bending, and sexual fluidity—are excised from memory, a recurring strategy in their co-option process. Thus, while a band like Depeche Mode brought black-based “blue-eyed” soul to their synthpop and wrote songs empathizing with those discriminated against and against those discriminating, Richard Spencer only sees “one of the fashiest 80s electropop bands”, a cultural product amenable and flexible to his Europeanist and retrofuturist yearnings.
Bangs, Lester. “Kraftwerk: The Final Solution To The Music Problem?” New Musical Express. 6 September 1975.
“Blitzed: The 80s Blitz Kids Story”. Flixhouse. Video.
Edmonds, Ben. “Bowie Meets The Press: Plastic Man or Godhead of the Seventies?” Circus. 27 April 1976
Jantine. “Golden years: David Bowie and the Third Reich”. Medium. 14 April 2018.
Newman, Jason. “Depeche Mode Reject Alt-Right Leader’s Band Praise”. Rolling Stone. 23 February 2017.
Nuzzi, Olivia. “Richard Spencer, Apparently Too Much for Conservatives, Gets Booted From CPAC”. New York Magazine. 23 February 2017.
O’Neil, Luke. “Updated: Depeche Mode Reveals How Much They Really Hate Superfan Richard Spencer”. Esquire. 23 February 2017.
Potter, Jordan. “How Kraftwerk defined the 1980s with ‘The Man-Machine'”. Far Out Magazine. 19 May 2022.
Spaeth, Ryu. “Why does the alt-right like Depeche Mode?” The New Republic. 23 February 2017.
Worley, Matthew. No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984. Cambridge University Press. 2017.