Belsen Was a Gas
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"Belsen Was a Gas" is a highly controversial song by the British punk rock band the Sex Pistols. The song is about one of the Nazi concentration camps in Nazi Germany, Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated by British troops in 1945.
ASCAP credits the songwriters as John Beverly, Paul Cook, Steve Jones, John Lydon but Sid Vicious is often credited with having written the song while in his earlier band the Flowers of Romance, as a sheet of handwritten lyrics purported to be in his hand appears in Jon Savage's book England's Dreaming. He is supposed to have written it as a joke; in an interview he claimed that when writing the song he was trying to be ironic. Its title is a pun on the Zyklon B gas used in many camps; "Belsen was a Gas", "a gas" being 1960s/1970s street slang for "great". In fact, there were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, as it was not one of the extermination camps; most of the around 37,000 deaths there were due to typhus or starvation.
The darkly humorous lyrics were designed to offend that generation then in charge of running the country who had grown up during World War II, and for whom the Holocaust was an extremely sensitive subject, with the Belsen concentration camp holding a particular place of horror in the older British generation's psyche because of Nazi propaganda films, which had portrayed the camp in the early stages of the Nazi regime (particularly for the foreign press) as being a well-run camp for Jewish families trying to emigrate from Nazi Germany (something seized upon by Nazi apologists within the UK such as Oswald Mosley).
The song was another attempt by the group to outrage that generation they believed were responsible for many of the ills within Britain at that time by writing about highly sensitive or controversial subject matter. Sid Vicious often wore a swastika shirt for the shock value, and in keeping with the musical Cabaret's style of dress for members of the Kit-Kat Club adopted by members of the Bromley Contingent. Cabaret was popular among the early punk rock movement, because many saw similarities in the decline and degeneracy of 1970s Britain to the last chaotic years of the Weimar Republic that this musical was set in.
John Lydon would later indicate that he felt with this song, the group's shock tactics crossed the line into gratuitous bad taste. In an interview conducted for Q magazine in 1996 he stated "[the song] was a very nasty, silly little thing... that should've ended up on the cutting room floor". He also took the opportunity to claim responsibility for the lyrics.
Many of these describe a grotesque, sarcastic version of what occurred. The opening lines are:
- Belsen was a gas, I heard the other day
- In the open graves where the Jews all lay
- "Life is fun and I wish you were here"
- They wrote on postcards to those held dear.
The song appears in two versions on The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle album, first a live version from the Sex Pistols' last concert (San Francisco, January 14, 1978), then in an altered studio version with Ronnie Biggs on vocals. Biggs insisted on altering the lyrics – he later claimed as he had read the published diary of Anne Frank, Belsen's most famous victim – with an additional verse. The second verse describes some of the treatment Jews received:
- Dentists searched their teeth for gold
- Frisk the Jews for banknotes fold
- When they found out what they'd got,
- "Line them up and shoot the lot".
For whatever reason, the version with Biggs is also altered in its musical composition. In the original version done with Rotten, the main theme is a power chord riff that goes D, C, D, E♭ (plays with "Belsen was a gas, I heard the other day"). When rerecorded for the Biggs version, that theme is drastically altered to D, C, B♭, C, a much more conventional progression. Thus, the tension of the original version (from the use of an E♭ chord in a song based in D) is quite deflated.
The Biggs remake also ends with a saxophone solo, the first on a Pistols record. The original, on the other hand, ends with Johnny Rotten haranguing the listener to "Be a man / Kill a man / Be someone / Kill someone / Be a man / Kill yourself!" as the music abruptly stops. There is a brief, shocked hush before the audience applauds. Of this version of the song, Lester Bangs wrote, "It's one of the most frightening things I've ever heard. You wonder exactly what you might be affirming by listening to this over and over again. On one level Johnny Rotten/Lydon is an insect buzzing atop the massed ruins of a civilization leveled by itself, which I suppose justifies him right there, on another level he's just another trafficker in cheap nihilism with all that it includes—cheap racism, sexism, etc. I'm still not comfortable with 'Bodies.' But then I never was, which may be the point. But then I wonder if he is. After which I cease to wonder at anything beyond the power of this music."
Both versions of the song are credited to Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious as composers (even though the lyrics for the second version were rewritten by Ronnie Biggs). On most versions of the album, the live version is listed in Gothic script as "Einmal Belsen war vortrefflich" and Biggs' version is "Einmal Belsen war wirklich vortrefflich"; these grammatically erroneous German titles translate more or less as "Once, Belsen was brilliant" and "Once, Belsen was really brilliant". The first UK sleeve gave the titles as "Belsen Was a Gas" and "Belsen Vos a Gassa".
Public Image Ltd performed the song in concert from 1978 to 1979 in a set that mostly featured work from the band's first album, Public Image: First Issue. At the King's Hall in Manchester in 1979 Lydon introduces the song as 'the next one is sarcasm, in case you get it wrong'. On a recording of the December 1978 Rainbow Theatre concert he responds to crowd complaints by saying 'if you make as much fuss about the next fucking bus you've got to wait for, you might be better off, know what I mean?'
The song was played by Sex Pistols at the Crystal Palace Silver Jubilee show in 2002 when they played all of their catalogue in one night. When Sex Pistols reformed for a reunion tour of the U.S. in 2003, after the start of the Iraq War, they performed an adapted version of the song, called "Baghdad Was a Blast", as an attack on President George W. Bush's policies in the region. At the first of the band's Brixton Academy shows in November 2007, the song was performed in a further adapted version, this time as "Brixton Was a Blast".
The second version with Ronnie Biggs was originally slated to be a single, but after the airplay and record shop ban on the earlier single, "No One Is Innocent" (due to Biggs being the lead vocalist), this idea was dropped.
Sid Vicious, the composer of the song, performed and released a version on his only solo album, Sid Sings. Following the best-known official version by the Sex Pistols, Vicious's is yet again a live recording, introduced on the album as "[written] by Sid Vicious!".
Cover versions of the song have been performed and recorded live and in studio by numerous bands, including British punk group the Exploited who played theirs as early as 1983. Chaos UK also covered the song.
The demo version
The lost demo version of the song has since been discovered during a recent move from Virgin Records to Universal Music Catalogue. It was included in a Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols box set that was released on September 24, 2012. A different version of the song – titled simply "Belsen Was a Gas Demo 2" – was released as part of a single box on April 19, 2014.
- "Dachau Blues", a 1969 song from one of John Lydon's favourite albums - Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart.
- "15 April 1945: British troops liberate Bergen-Belsen". On This Day. bbc.co.uk. 1945-04-15. Retrieved 2010-01-01.
- Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, Cassell: 2000
- "Notes on Pil's metal box". Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung. Fodderstompf.com. 1980.
- The correct German word order would be Einmal war Belsen, different from the English word order.
- Public Image Ltd, King's Hall Manchester, 23/ 2/ 1979, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLF4sB1FV1A
- Public Image Ltd, 26/ 12/ 1978, London, Rainbow Theatre https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fazXuUH8S7Y