Music’s great vaccine divide: the rockers who refuse to get the jab

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·8 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The Offspring's Pete Parada, who claims he's been fired by the band for refusing to take a Covid vaccine - Getty
The Offspring's Pete Parada, who claims he's been fired by the band for refusing to take a Covid vaccine - Getty

The end, we are told, is in sight. Yet the issue of Covid-19 vaccines continues to tear the music world apart. Earlier this week The Offspring’s drummer Pete Parada said he’d been ousted from the American pop-punk group on the eve of a vast world tour because he’d refused to get jabbed. Guitar legend Eric Clapton has said he won’t perform at any venue that requires proof of vaccination as an entry requirement. And Foo Fighters’ recent US comeback gig was disrupted by anti-vax protestors after attendees were obliged to show Covid passports at the door.

You’d perhaps expect the music industry to pull together after 18 months of enforced inactivity. But it appears that things are heading in the opposite direction: there’s a growing schism emerging between musicians, fans and promoters who believe universal vaccinations are the best way to combat the deadly pandemic and those who don’t. And there’s no middle ground. Like those Foo Fighters fans, you’re either in or out. The volume is slowly being ratcheted up in the great vaccine debate.

The Offspring’s Parada said he declined to get the jab after his doctor advised him against it due to an immune system disorder. Parada suffers from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which he said puts him at greater risk for side effects from a vaccination. “Since I am unable to comply with what is increasingly becoming an industry mandate, it has recently been decided that I am unsafe to be around, in the studio, and on tour,” the drummer wrote in a lengthy social media statement.

But while Parada’s reason for not getting jabbed is medical, he added – crucially ­– that he is supportive of anyone who refuses to be vaccinated for any number of reasons, from fear of side effects to distrust of establishment. “I do not find it ethical or wise to allow those with the most power (government, corporations, organizations, employers) to dictate medical procedures to those with the least power,” he wrote. His posts on Instagram and Twitter received thousands of supportive comments, with many people deeming his ousting as a “disgrace” and “devastating” and others backing his ‘pro-choice’ stance.

Indeed when it comes to vaccinations, there is a significant and entrenched pro-choice movement in the music world. Just ask Billy Joe Agan, the owner of Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, California. When Agan innocently announced that his punk, metal and alternative music venue would require patrons to provide proof of vaccination and sign on to a contract-tracing list in order to enter, the backlash was instant. “You can stop calling yourself punk now,” was one typical comment from a put-out punter, according to the SFGATE website.

There was similar outrage among some Foo Fighters fans due to the vaccine door policy at their comeback gig. One fan with the Twitter handle La Haine thought the policy so unfair that he announced he was consigning every Foos album and playlist to the “bin”. (Agan has dealt with the situation with humour. The Eli’s website now features the strapline: “Not punk since 2021.”)

So why are vaccines so un-rock ’n’ roll to so many people? Largely, because people don’t like being told what to do. Artists are libertarians. They support personal rights and freedoms. Fans, too. As Parada suggests, there’s an inherent distrust of The Man and big corporations. Add to this the occasional dollop of ‘Big Pharma’ conspiracy theory and it’s easy to see why the anti-vax movement is popular in the music eco-system. Former Stone Roses frontman and famous anti-vaxxer Ian Brown encapsulated such a position neatly in a song last year called Little Seed Big Tree. It included the lyric: “Dr Evil and his needle/…A false vaccine like a bad dream.” It’s hardly I Am The Resurrection, but at least Brown was unequivocal in making his point.

Music has always played a role in anti-vaccination protests. In March 1885, a vast demonstration took place in Leicester when up to 80,000 people marched against laws that required mandatory vaccinations against smallpox. The procession, which came to be known as the Great Leicester Demonstration, was accompanied by no fewer than four bands. According to contemporaneous reports in the Evening Post, there were distinct (if a touch morbid) festival vibes to the jamboree: the streets were festooned with “the most extraordinary display of flags [and] bannerets”, effigies of medical experts were hung from gibbets, there was a mock funeral cortege, and unvaccinated children were paraded on ponies and in carriages as the music played.

The Foo Fighters playing Lollapalooza 2021 in Chicago - Getty
The Foo Fighters playing Lollapalooza 2021 in Chicago - Getty

“A Dead Swindle – the Vaccination Death Certificate,” read a typical banner. According to the Evening Post, the protestors were condemning laws that were “destructive of personal rights, tyrannical and unjust”. Sound familiar? One hundred and thirty-six years seems to be the only thing that separates then from now.

The anti-vax songs keep on coming. While Dolly Parton delighted the pro-vaccine camp earlier this year by repurposing her biggest hit Jolene (she changed the lyrics to: ‘Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine. I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate’), there are plenty that take the opposite view. In December, Clapton and Van Morrison released the anti-lockdown song Stand and Deliver (‘Do you want to be a free man/ Or do you want to be a slave?’).

Many songs with similar sentiments are to be found on the fringes of the internet. A singer called Charlie Cheswisk has released jab parodies of pop songs. His version of RnB group En Vogue’s 1992 hit My Lovin’ (Never Gonna Get It) is called Never Gonna Get It (The Vaccine), while his Rick Astley cover is called Never Gonna Jab Me Up.

Then we have The Refusers. This Seattle group, fronted by a former Wall Street strategist called Michael Belkin, has opened for bands including the Black Keys, Kings of Leon and Alabama Shakes, according to their website. The band recently released a breezy, horn-heavy reggae song called My Body My Choice, the chorus of which urges listeners to “reject injection”. Another, older track is called Vaccine Gestapo. The Refusers say that they perform songs of “musical defiance” and that they “blast through the establishment’s twisted goals”. But their anti-vaccine stance is rooted in tragedy.

Singer Belkin has talked and written about how his infant daughter died in 1998 just hours after receiving a Hepatitis B vaccination. Her autopsy said she died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome but Belkin told the Mother Jones website in 2015 that he believes the case was brain inflammation caused by the shot. At one point in the interview, he poignantly said, “I have one dead vaccinated child, and I have two unvaccinated children who are thriving.”

Most people who question their government’s vaccination regimes are, mercifully, acting from less personal experience. They just don’t agree with the rules. Last weekend’s Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago was attended by 100,000 people a day and a vaccination passport was required to get in. An intern at the Chicago Tribune newspaper called Vashon Jordan Jr. found a thriving fake vaccination card market at the festival. Forged cards could be bought outside the site for $50 along with a single-day wristband. “I have confirmed that it does work,” Jordan wrote on Twitter.

Such flagrant breaking of the rules will have done nothing to assuage warnings from public health experts that Lollapalooza could spread “wildfires of infection” across America. Organisers of this month’s Reading and Leeds Festivals will need to be vigilant that such tactics are not repeated over here.

Publications associated with rock ’n’ roll have also not escaped anti-vax controversy. In 2005 Rolling Stone and Salon magazine ran an article by renowned vaccine sceptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. called Deadly Immunity. The article claimed that vaccines can cause autism but it was later retracted after medical journals themselves retracted research that was found to be wrong.

But for every fake ID. card merchant or misleading article, there’s a promoter doing their hardest to stop the spread. NME recently wrote about a US promoter who was charging fully-vaccinated people $18 for a ticket to a punk show, while unvaccinated people were being charged $999.99. It’s clever, sure. But it’s also discriminatory and quite possibly illegal.

So as the world tries to return to normality, it seems that the battle lines will remain drawn. For many of us, a couple of injections are a small price to pay for seeing a favourite band (assuming you’re medically able to have them), for not getting ill, and for helping to halt the spread of Covid. For others, the jabs are fundamentally against everything they stand for.

But there’s a real danger here that can’t be ignored. A surge in cases arising from unchecked crowd control could lead to more lockdowns, which could lead to another prolonged period of venues being forced to close. Anti-vaxxers should therefore be careful what they wish for. Covid jabs may be un-rock ’n’ roll. But the alternative is no rock ’n’ roll at all.