Punk and New Wave Bands, 1970s British Extremism and the Rock Against Racism Movement.
Above Photo: Members of The Clash, the Sex Pistols and Steel Pulse demonstrating outside National Front Leader Martin Webster’s house in 1977.
As mentioned in my Punk and New Wave memoir, Bombed Out!, mid–late 1970s Britain was racked with street violence, as White Nationalist groups such as the National Front demonstrated in British cities where they were violently opposed by Anti-racist groups.
As part of this opposition, ‘Rock Against Racism’ was founded in 1976 after a pissed-up Eric Clapton had made a drunken declaration of support for a former Conservative minister Enoch Powell (known for his inflammatory anti-immigration views) at a concert in Birmingham.
Clapton told his audience that England had “become overcrowded” and that they should vote for Powell to stop Britain from becoming “a black colony”. He also said that Britain should “get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out”, and then repeatedly shouted the National Front slogan “Keep Britain White”.
Because of the political and social conditions at the time (the National Front had won 40 per cent of the votes in recent elections in Blackburn and there were racist murders being committed in the UK) these comments, coming from a music icon were incendiary.
Red Saunders was a rock music photographer and political activist who heard Clapton’s comments and registered his disgust in a protest letter which was published in the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and the Socialist Worker.
Saunders and other signatories wrote: ‘Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music… we urge support for Rock against Racism. P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’
The letter urged readers wanting to join Rock Against Racism (RAR) to write to them, and within a fortnight they had received hundreds of replies.
Later, RAR received even more support when David Bowie, speaking in his persona of the ‘Thin White Duke’ was also quoted as saying: “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars” and “You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.”
Bowie later retracted and apologised for his statements, blaming them on a combination of an obsession with Occultism, Friedrich Nietzsche and his excessive drug use at the time. He said: “I have made my two or three glib, theatrical observations on English society and the only thing I can now counter with is to state that I am NOT a fascist.”
In the spring of 1978, 100,000 people marched six miles from Trafalgar Square to the East End of London for an open-air music festival in Hackney’s Victoria Park organized by RAR and the Anti-Nazi League, to protest against the growing wave of racist attacks in the UK.
The concert featured Punk, New Wave and Reggae bands The Clash, Buzzcocks, Steel Pulse, Generation X, X-Ray Spex, The Ruts, Sham 69 and the Tom Robinson Band. The Southall-based reggae band Misty In Roots led the march to Victoria Park from back of a lorry.
A second march and concert in south London featured more Punk, New Wave and Reggae bands – Stiff Little Fingers, Aswad and Elvis Costello.
Then in the autumn of the same year, an audience of 40,000 came to the Northern Carnival in Manchester, for a concert featuring New Wave band the Buzzcocks and Misty In Roots.
In 1979, a further RAR gig was held at Acklam Hall in London, featuring Crisis, The Vapors and Beggar.
The appeal of Rock Against Racism for music fans was that it had recruited the biggest names in the Punk and New Wave culture. RAR was supported by most of the innovative bands of the time – Stiff Little Fingers, Sham 69, the Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots and the Clash.
The Sex Pistols, although they were booked to play a gig in Wigan for RAR, never managed to make it on stage, but John Lydon was unequivocal in his opposition to the National Front, and the Sex Pistols’ bass player Glen Matlock had already been on the street protesting against racism with other Punk band members (see headline photo).
‘Rock against Racism made it cool to be anti-racist,’ said Professor John Street, a writer on music and politics.
Billy Bragg, then living in Barking and working as a bank messenger, said ‘I’d seen the Clash on the first night of the White Riot tour and I remember thinking that the fascists were against anybody who wanted to be different – once they had dealt with the immigrants then they would move onto the gays and then the punks; before I knew it the music I loved would be repatriated.’
Red Saunders said of the success of the RAR movement in galvanizing opposition to extremist politics in Britain, “The lesson from Rock Against Racism is that we can all intervene, make a difference and change things: nothing is inevitable.”
And that, to me, is the lasting lesson of the whole Punk and New Wave movement. It could and did change politics, points of view and also helped motivate people in dire situations in positive, life-changing ways, which I detail on a more personal level in the pages of Bombed Out!
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