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Basslines and Protest Signs

Basslines & Protest Signs Part 13: Rock Against Racism

Photo: Sarah Wylde

A couple of weeks ago we delved into the violently awful waters that were the right wing National Front-inspired factions of the 1970s and ’80s British punk scene, led by all-round fuckwits Skrewdriver. And god knows it’s true — there were some shitty elements in that scene. But here’s the great news: They were in the minority. Not only that but the very best bands turned out to be on the side of good.

In 1976, in direct response to racist attacks that were becoming commonplace on the streets of the United Kingdom, photographer Red Saunders and his friends/colleagues Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford, and Pete Bruno (among others) came up with the idea of putting on a concert which they called Rock Against Racism. It all became far more popular than they could have envisaged, picking up steam from that first concert and pretty much becoming a full-on movement.

And boy was it necessary. Back then fear of immigration was also on the rise, as the public believed the hysterical headlines in the notoriously diabolical British tabloid papers. Things were rough because supposedly “foreigners were taking our jobs.” The National Health Service would inevitably be stretched to breaking point, leading to the nightmare of an American-style insurance system. And according to the literal “haters” it would all be the fault of the foreigners who “don’t belong ’ere.” Total bullshit, of course. But people are easily led when they’re scared. Just look at Germany in the ’40s.

So it was that environment of irrational fear and hatred that made the Rock Against Racism concerts and movement vital. Weirdly enough, Eric Clapton was the unwitting driving force for the first concert, thanks to a disgraceful comment he made while drunk and onstage in Birmingham, England in ’76. Clapton made a statement supporting minister Enoch Powell of the Conservative Party, a wretched creature famous for a particularly poisonous speech which is generally referred to as “Rivers of Blood…”

“For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they found themselves made strangers in their own country. They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition, their plans and prospects for the future defeated; at work they found that employers hesitated to apply to the immigrant worker the standards of discipline and competence required of the native-born worker; they began to hear, as time went by, more and more voices which told them that they were now the unwanted.” Enoch Powell

Photo: Alex Marshall

The naive fell for it but anyone should’ve been able to see that Powell was playing on the fears of the British people — in much the same way the tabloids were and are, as Nigel Farage is doing in Britain now, and as Trump is doing here in the States. Same shit, different day.

But somehow that appealed to Clapton, who back then told the Birmingham crowd that Britain was in danger of becoming “overcrowded” and a “black colony”. Ironic, when considering that Clapton and his bands Cream and the Yardbirds pretty much stole their careers from the black blues artists who came before them. It’s worth looking up the full Clapton speech, by the way. It really is fucking ugly and surprising to those that think of him as a quiet, intellectual musician. He’s apologized since (he actually said “I have black friends and I dated a black woman”) but it’s tough to look past it. Still, he did inspire Rock Against Racism.

Photo: Helge Overas

The first gig took place in November ’76 at the Princess Alice pub, London. Performers were singer/songwriter Carol Grimes and reggae band Matumbi. Before long, there were about 200 RAR organized groups in the UK, with some bands (Gang of Four, The Mekons, The Ruts, The “English” Beat) helping to organize events as well as performing at them.

The whole thing became much bigger in April ’78 when RAR worked with the Anti Nazi League to put on a Carnival In London, which saw 10,000 participants march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, Hackney in the East End of London. That was the backyard for the National Front, and it was clearly the intention of RAR and the ANL to take this right to the enemy and shove it down their rotten throats.

Performers included The Clash, reggae band Steel Pulse, the Tom Robinson Band, X-Ray Spex, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, and punk-folkie Patrick Fitzgerald. That September, another 10,000 marched from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park in Brixton for a carnival that featured reggae band Aswad, Elvis Costello, and Stiff Little Fingers.

Between the two London events, Manchester hosted a RAR carnival that saw performances by the Buzzcocks, The Fall, Steel Pulse, and more. In 1979, the Militant Entertainment Tour took in most of the UK, with forty acts involved including The Piranhas, Stiff Little Fingers, The Mekons, Alex Harvey, Gang of Four, The Ruts, Angelic Upstarts, Aswad, UK Subs, and John Cooper Clarke.

The legacy of the Rock Against Racism movement remains strong today. Punks know that when racism and fascism rear their ugly heads, when it looks like the right is energized and racism is being normalized and legitimized, they need to take action. In 2002, a bunch of incensed fans took the RAR phrase “Love Music Hate Racism” and formed a new group with that name. A London concert featured Mick Jones of The Clash, the Buzzcocks, and The Libertines.

And here in the States in 2004, inspired by RAR and the Rock Against Reagan campaign in the ’80s, Fat Mike of NOFX started Rock Against Bush. That’s where we’ll pick up next time.

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