Belsen Was a Gas
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"Belsen Was a Gas" is a 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.
According to the ASCAP, credited songwriters are John Beverley (Sid Vicious), Paul Cook, Steve Jones, and John Lydon. However, Vicious is generally accepted to have written the song while in his earlier band the Flowers of Romance. Its title is a pun on the Zyklon B gas used in many camps, referencing "a gas" or "gasser" as 1950s-1970s street slang for a fun time. 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 song's darkly humorous lyrics were meant to irritate the generation the group believed were responsible for many of the political and social problems in Britain at that time. Lydon would later indicate that he felt that this song 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".
Different versions and performances
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, 14 January 1978), then in an altered studio version with Ronnie Biggs on vocals. Biggs insisted on adding an additional verse; he later said because he had read the published diary of Anne Frank. 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.
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. Biggs did not receive writing credit for the revised lyrics. The Biggs version was originally slated to be a single, but after an airplay and record shop ban on the earlier Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle single, "No One Is Innocent" (due to Biggs being the lead vocalist), this idea was dropped. The Biggs remake also ends with a saxophone solo, the first on a Pistols record.
The original version 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. 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."
On most versions of the album, the live version is listed in grammatically-incorrect German, using Gothic script, as "Einmal Belsen war vortrefflich" and Biggs' version is "Einmal Belsen war wirklich vortrefflich". The first UK sleeve gave the titles as "Belsen Was a Gas" and "Belsen Vos a Gassa".
The song was played by The Sex Pistols at the Crystal Palace Silver Jubilee show in 2002 when they played all of their catalogue in one night. When The 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".
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 Kings Hall in Manchester in 1979 John Lydon introduces the song by saying '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?'
Vicious performed and released a version on his solo album, Sid Sings, 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 was rediscovered 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 24 September 2012. This demo version features very faint, reverbed vocals. A different version of the song – titled simply "Belsen Was a Gas Demo 2" – was released as part of a single box on 19 April 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. 1945-04-15. Retrieved 2010-01-01.
- Savage, John (2005). England's Dreaming. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0571227201.
- Room, Adrian (2001-06-30). Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable (17th ed.). Cassell. ISBN 0304353817.
- "The Oldest Swindlers In Town". Q Magazine (117): 92. June 1996. ISSN 0955-4955.
- Bangs, Lester (1987-10-12). Marcus, Greil (ed.). Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock'N'Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'N'Roll. Knopf. ISBN 9780679720454.
- Public Image Ltd live at Kings Hall, Manchester, 1979-02-23
- Public Image Ltd live at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 1978-12-26
- "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (box set)". Sex Pistols Official.