Preview: Kula Shaker, Japan 2008

Rock is supposed to be about freedom and expression, but over the years it has become increasingly subject to a creeping campaign of political correctness and self-censorship, especially in the UK, where stars can expect a bumpy ride if they don’t keep to a certain liberal or left-wing tone in their lyrics and public statements.

Right now the name in the news is Morrissey, who is at the center of a media storm about "racism" after comments he made criticizing Britain's high rate of immigration and multicultural society. Ten years ago, however, it was talented Britpop psychedelic rockers Kula Shaker who bore the brunt of a media campaign that finally led to the band splitting up two years later.

Now reformed, Kula Shaker are striving to rebuild the following they achieved with their impressive 1996 debut album K. After reuniting in 2004 and releasing their third album Strangefolk in August this year, they tour Japan in January 2008.

Ironically – unlike Morrissey or Eric Clapton, whose drunken onstage tirade against immigrants in 1976 helped lead to the formation of the left-wing musical pressure group Rock Against Racism – Kula Shaker’s problems, in part, arose from the group being too multicultural for its own good.

Singer, guitarist, and main songwriter Crispian Mills, the privileged son of a famous acting family, which includes mother Hayley Mills and grandfather Sir John Mills, has a deep, long-standing fascination for Indian culture, something that is also evident from the band's musical style. Indeed in 1996 they became the first group to take a song sung entirely in Sanskrit into the UK top ten when Govinda, a prayer to Krishna set to sitar-esque rock, reached number seven in the charts.

With such a background, there should have been no problem when Mills expressed his love for an ancient, holy Hindu symbol that had been temporarily misused by an Austrian politician in the early years of the 20th century.

"I LOVE the swastika!" he enthused in an interview with the NME music weekly in March 1997. "It symbolizes peace and the sun and illumination – it’s everywhere in India. I’d LOVE to have great big flaming swastikas onstage just for the f**k of it. It's like, that was Hitler, don't let him steal something like that from you. I mean the Nazis studied the Vedas, the Scriptures, the Holy Grail, but they were just using it as a power trip."

But rather than his comments being taken at face value, the mention of a symbol co-opted by racist extremists in the context of the heavily politicized world of UK rock, led to a campaign that saw previous interviews and former associations sifted for any crumbs of evidence to support allegations that Mills was a closet fascist, and insinuations that he had 'flirted' with Nazism.

In true Stalinist show trial fashion, he was even forced to make a humiliating public apology for his comments in a letter to Britain's influential Independent newspaper in a futile attempt to prevent damage to the band’s career. The full effect of the controversy was seen two years later in the extremely disappointing sales of the band’s second album, Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts.

Nowadays, Mills likes to distance himself from what was an extremely unpleasant experience, attributing vaguer reasons for the band’s demise.

"You can weather all the problems that you have with your label or your managers, or even being sued and having a nightmare with the press, so long as you have a passion for your music," he told The Independent in September. "I just lost sight of what we were supposed to do musically and without that you haven’t got your lifeline to the next chapter."

Before the storm blew up the band won rave reviews for their music, resulting in them winning "British Breakthrough Act" at the 1997 BRIT Awards. But the reason they have been able to bounce back – almost all Japanese dates have sold out – is because the band has always had a lot of quality, both in terms of live performances and in a body of songs rich in the aural hues of the 1960s.

On the new album the Yardbird licks of recent single Second Sight and the early Pink Floydian whimsy of Dr. Kitt sit alongside the Dylanesque snarl of Out on the Highway and the hippie excess of Song of Love/ Narayana. But, just in case anyone thinks they are still too far to the right, the lyrics of Great Dictator of the Free World show them attacking US President George Bush on everything from the war in Iraq and Guantanamo to oil drilling in Alaska.

In the politically oversensitive world of the UK music industry, being 'on message' in this way can only help their career, but, here in Japan, a country with its own tradition of venerating the swastika in the form of the Buddhist 'manji,' Kula Shaker are unlikely to run into any serious trouble over ancient Hindu symbols.

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
7th December, 2007
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