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Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and the alarming rise of the Covid conspiracy rock star

Eric Clapton and Van Morrison onstage
(Image credit: Van Morrison/Eric Clapton: Neil Lupin/Getty Images | Virus: Geralt/Pixabay )

Nothing riles a privileged multi-millionaire rock star like the threat of The Man clamping down on their freedom. Eric Clapton has announced that he will bravely take a stand against the UK government’s decision to implement a vaccine passport system for gigs and nightclubs by not playing any.

“I wish to say that I will not perform on any stage where there is a discriminated audience,” proclaimed the man who is so anti-discrimination that he once said “Keep Britain white” and suggested that all “foreigners” should be deported from the UK midway through one of his own gigs. “Unless there is provision made for all people to attend, I reserve the right to cancel the show.”

It’s strange that a 76-year-old who spent decades off his wanger on whatever untrialled drugs were shoved under his hooter is taking a righteous stand against something scientifically designed to minimise the chances of catching a virus that has been a factor in the deaths of four million people worldwide.

But no, it seems our septuagenarian freedom fighter copped a couple of bad doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, the second of which caused pain and numbness in his extremities but, crucially, didn’t cause him to keel over and die. “But the propaganda said the vaccine was safe for everyone,” he sniffed.

Ah, “the propaganda”. While it’s churlish to feel bad for an elderly man having a rough time of it, that old Numbhand is couching his experiences in the language of the conspiracy theorist undercuts any sympathy. The fact that his statement emerged via Telegram, a networking and social platform beloved of right wing extremists and don’t-take-the-red-pill fanatics suggested that Clapton might have spent a fair bit of the last 18 months fashioning elaborate headgear out of protective Bacofoil. 

He’s not the only pensionable truth-warrior huffing like a walrus in a health farm at the state of things. Rock has a COVID conspiracy problem. In 2020, while the pandemic was in full swing, Clapton’s old mucker Van Morrison released a single called No More Lockdown. “No more government overreach/No more fascist police disturbing our peace,” he mumbled with all the revolutionary fervour of a man tugging himself off over the Daily Mail financial pages. Yes, this was a protest against social distancing by someone who is to sociability what the average pot of apricot yoghurt is to long distance running.

That sheeple-bomb was just an aperitif for Van’s 28-song Latest Record Project: Vol. 1, which is essentially a shopping list of grievances about everything from the shadowy cabal that owns the media (They Own The Media) to the sinister forces that are wreaking havoc on a sleepwalking populace (pretty much everything else). “Fight the pseudoscience and speak up,” frothed Van. Pseudoscience? Propaganda? You say “potato”, I say “genetically engineered tuber designed to download the contents of your brain and send them straight to Elon Musk’s iCloud.” And yes, Eric Clapton appears on one song

These two creaking relics are just the tip of the Rock Stars Who Have Said Dumb Shit About COVID iceberg. A steady stream of musicians of declining cultural relevance have served up zinger after conspiracy-based zinger over the past 18 months.

“The pandemic planned and executed to make us digital slaves,” tweeted former Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown last year, before dropping a song titled Little Seed Big Tree, which managed to bring “5G radiation” and “Doctor Evil with a needle” into the equation. Brown and former Verve singer Richard Ashcroft have both pulled out of festivals due to proof-of-vaccination entry requirements - the latter dubbed Sheffield’s Tramlines event a “Government Experiment” (he neglected to add “… as a way of looking to get a struggling live industry back on its feet”).

And then there’s Morrissey. Oh god, there’s always Morrissey. “Con-vid,” is how this great Speaker Of Truth described the pandemic, likening life under lockdown to slavery. Yes Moz, not being able to go to the cinema to see The Fast And The Furious 9 is exactly like being kidnapped and forcibly transported to work on a plantation on another continent. And don’t even get us started on Right Said Fred.

It’s not just British musicians whose best days are long behind them that have been spouting this QAnon-adjacent bullshittery. Life Of Agony singer Mina Caputo claimed the disease “was created in a lab”, despite zero evidence to back it up. Ted Nugent, who seems to be half man and half demented human dogwhistle these days, called it “a scammy pandemic”, shortly before getting a nasty bout of the non-scammy variant and wheezily back-pedalling. Iced Earth guitarist-turned-would-be-overthrower-of-government Jon Schaffer claimed it all was just “a psychological warfare campaign on the people more than it is a serious pandemic.” What happened to that guy anyway? He’s been awfully quiet recently.

But the U OK Hun? Award goes to former Fear Factory bassist Christian Olde Wolbers, who went full conspiro-nut crazy on Facebook: “KILLING Anti-Commie protestors, this is the main reason they INTENTIONALLY released the BIOLOGICAL WEAPON Covid-19 that was CREATED in a laboratory in Whu Han [sic] China. Change my mind.” Jesus. Things are really messed up when Jon Schaffer isn’t the craziest person in the last two paragraphs.

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COVID denial and its wing-ding spin-offs have become a badge of honour for musicians who believe that either a) rock’n’roll still has the clout to speak truth to power, or b) Bill Gates really is secretly implanting tiny robots into our bloodstream in order to get us to buy all those unsold Microsoft Zune players he’s had in a warehouse since 2008. Either way, it’d be interesting to know what Adam Schlesinger from the Fountains Of Wayne or The Stranglers’ Dave Greenfield or John Prine think about it, except we’ll never find out seeing as they’ve been killed by a disease that Ted Nugent says doesn’t exist.

The frustrating thing is that there are a handful of valid points buried in the boggle-eyed ranting. When Van Morrison says that the live music industry has been ruined by the pandemic and that governments have done nothing to help, he’s right - though refusing to play gigs because of proof-of-vaccination requirements isn’t going to help anybody. 

Similarly, the subject of vaccine passports is a complicated and emotive one that at least warrants discussion. Just not by a bunch of paranoid halfwits who confuse being able to string a few notes together with a working understanding of virology.

From the Paul Is Dead! mob to the Elvis Is Alive! crowd, rock’n’roll has always had its own in-house industrial-conspiracy complex. These are mostly harmless, unless you’re an 86-year-old Elvis Presley living incognito in Fucknuckle, West Virginia and your cover’s about to be blown. This is different - it’s a bunch of wealthy celebrities peddling dangerous misinformation to people who probably don’t have the same access to high-end health care if they get banjaxed by a potentially lethal virus.

Yet just like the Dead Elvis crowd, rock’s COVID conspiracists are so intractable in their belief that they’re right that it just makes you want to hop on the next spaceship with Jeff Bezos and go find a planet which contains something approaching intelligent life.

Still buying the anti-vaxx line? The next time you find yourself in hospital with a highly contagious and potentially lethal virus, shoo away the doctors, send back the oxygen tank and ask for the bloke who sang Wonderful Tonight instead. Who needs science when you’ve got Eric Clapton?