“You need to take part. You need to fully be in life, and to not be afraid to say ‘hey, this is wrong’. Even if you risk somebody looking at you in the eye and telling you different. …
Otherwise, it’s a bit of a wuss of a life, isn’t it?”
A Jazz singer and recording artist, born in Lewisham, as Carol puts it ‘at a time when bombs were falling from the skies: there were no Bananas, and radio was the music and the word’. Throughout her career, Carol has played concerts in support of political
campaigns, including Rock Against Racism’s first concert in 1976.
Physical Resistance: Eric Clapton, Enoch Powell & Anti-Fascism
Taken from: thequietus.com
By: Karl Smith, January 29th, 2013
In an extract from his posthumously published anti-fascist history, Physical Resistance, Dave Hann recounts the events that lead to the birth of Rock Against Racism and pushed anti-fascism into the mainstream.
Dave Hann, anti-fascist, and writer pieced together a collective history of anti-fascism that also re-defines political activity as participation in street protest rather than adhering to a party line. That history is Physical Resistance: assembled from his manuscript and completed following his death in 2009.
Physical Resistance is part of a culture of resistance, which has always included music and never more so than in the late 1970s:
One, two, three and a bit, the National Front is a load of shit…
1976 was a busy year for anti-fascists. Rock Against Racism (RAR) was launched in the autumn. The story is a well-known one but bears repeating. In August, Eric Clapton interrupted his set at the Birmingham Odeon to advise his fans to ‘Vote for Enoch Powell’ and ‘stop Britain becoming a black colony.’ In case his audience didn’t get the full implications of his message, Clapton expanded: ‘Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out’ and repeated the phrase ‘Keep Britain White’. His outburst prompted the photographer, Red Saunders, to write to the New Musical Express, Sounds, Melody Maker and the Socialist Worker to remind the guitarist ‘Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist.’ Saunders concluded his letter with the declaration: ‘We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism.’
Clapton was unrepentant. He told Melody Maker the following week that Powell ‘was the only bloke telling the truth, for the good of the country.’ Maybe he was hoping that being a rock star would immunise him from public opprobrium. After all, Rod Stewart had made similar remarks without provoking too much in the way of public disapproval and David Bowie, whilst in a drug-induced haze, had declared that Britain was ready for a fascist leader and had ridden around Victoria Station in an open top Mercedes giving a Nazi salute. The Bowie incidents did create a brief furore in the press but the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement had failed to muster any meaningful response. Clapton’s outburst was the tipping point. The growing anti-racist sentiment of a younger generation challenged both the casual and the politicised racism of their elders. Hundreds of letters supporting Saunders flooded into the papers. Within months, Rock Against Racism (RAR) was born.
Blues singer Carol Grimes topped the bill at the first RAR gig at the Princess Alice pub, East London, on 10 December 1976. On the door were a group of dockers organised by Mickey Fenn, Eddie Prevost and Bob Light from the Royal Group of Docks Shop Stewards Committee. Fenn and Prevost had left the Communist Party in 1972 and later joined Light in the International Socialists. Stewarding RAR events were to become an important activity for anti-fascists. Hundreds of gigs followed the one at The Princess Alice. The RAR movement was sustained by the energy and effervescence of the punk rock explosion. Punks loudly rejected the self-indulgent musings of the earlier generation of aging rock stars. Their opposition to the musical establishment was part of a wholesale political rejection of an old order. RAR platforms reflected the anti-racism of punk and brought together bands that wrote songs about disenchantment of a white working class with reggae musicians whose lyrics expressed the desire for freedom of African peoples. The manifesto set out in the first issue of RAR’s magazine, Temporary Hoarding, demonstrated the optimism of the movement’s founders, including Ruth Gregory, Roger Huddle, Red Saunders, Syd Shelton and Dave Widgery. It expressed their belief in the power of music to create political change:
We want rebel music, street music. Music that breaks down people’s fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is.
Rock against racism.
Thousands of people got involved in RAR. One who threw his hat into the ring was John Baine, now better known as Attila the Stockbroker:
I went to Kent University in the mid-Seventies, just at the beginning of punk. I got involved in Rock Against Racism. RAR had been formed to counter a shift to the right in the music scene, which was epitomised by some rather crass and reactionary comments made by David Bowie and Eric Clapton. Coupled with this was the worrying rise of the National Front, which by the mid to late Seventies was beginning to look really dangerous. I was also involved in the music itself as a punk bass player before I became Attila the Stockbroker in 1980. A group of us got together at Kent University and started up a local RAR group. We organised gigs, we sold badges and stickers and ordered loads of copies of the RAR fanzine Temporary Hoarding.
It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of RAR. It did more than swell the ranks of anti-fascists. A few key RAR organisers were International Socialists, soon to re-name themselves the Socialist Workers Party. The relationship between RAR and SWP helped the Trotskyist movement to become an increasingly important force in the battle against the NF. Local anti-fascist committees were also growing in number and membership throughout 1976. The launch of one in Brighton was attended by 70 people. Tony Greenstein describes its political composition:
It was chaired by Rod Fitch, a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in Brighton Kemptown for Militant and the Labour Party and it used to meet at the Labour Club, 179 Lewes Road, in the basement. I was one of those who was in the far left, direct action, part of the opposition in the anti-fascist committee, along with the SWP/IS and students and IMG as it was then. There were trade union delegates and a couple of people from AJEX, who we didn’t get on with. The Anti- Fascist Committee leafleted the whole of Brighton.
Differences and divisions in the anti-fascist movement over the acceptable forms of resistance, peacefully opposing the NF or physically stopping them, did not disappear with the optimism of RAR or the growth of the local committees. Both strategies were pursued as the movement continued to expand. Fascist violence, such as the involvement of NF supporters in racist attacks in East London towards the end of 1976, increased the militancy of anti-fascists.
On Saturday 23 April 1977, the NF tried their hand at intimidating The North Londoners that lived in and around Green Lanes. They assembled at Ducketts Common to march to Palmers Green. The pattern of opposition will be familiar. Religious leaders, local dignitaries, supported by members of the CP held a counter-protest while the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party, the International Marxist Group, Labour left-wingers, anarchists, members of the Indian Workers Association and local youth from the West Indian, Turkish and Greek communities assembled away from the official rally. In numbers equal to those that listened to the speeches, they lay in wait for the NF. When the NF reached the junction of Westbury Avenue and Wood Green’s High Road, the march came under sustained attack. It was subjected to a barrage of missiles, including marine flares, paint bombs, flour, eggs, rotten fruit and every single shoe from the racks outside Freeman Hardy and Willis. Fights broke out. The march, protected by a large-scale police operation including the Special Patrol Group (SPG), buckled but did not break. Eventually, those fighting to stop the NF were cordoned off. The shaken NFers regrouped and continued with their march to be harried the rest of the way by the remnants of the militant opposition. There were 81 arrests, of which 74 were anti-fascists.
Physical Resistance: A Hundred Years of Anti-Fascism is out now, published by Zero Books
The great Rock Against Racism show plays it again
It marked the marriage of music with politics and spawned a generation of political activists. Thirty years after Rock Against Racism, in a more cynical and apathetic age, some of the musicians who were there at the start will reiterate their message to huge crowds once again.
The original demonstration saw 80,000 people march from London’s Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in east London for a chaotic but hugely well-received open-air gig. As the Clash took to the stage in 1978, joining forces with acts such as the Tom Robinson Band and Steel Pulse, they could hardly have guessed that they would be groundbreakers for increasingly bloated benefit concerts that followed, including Live Aid.
A handful of veterans from the first gigs will take to the stage again today in front of an expected crowd of more than 100,000 people. The line-up will see former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, ex-Sham 69 frontman Jimmy Pursey, and Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), part of the original line-up, joined by Jerry Dammers, formerly of the Specials, as well as new acts such as Hard-Fi, the View and Jay Sean.
But today’s Love Music Hate Racism carnival, with its various stages and dozens of acts, is a world away from the event that started it all, according to Robinson, who headed the bill back in 1978.
“At the park, the gig was a ramshackle affair,” he said. “Rock Against Racism operated completely outside the showbiz establishment. The whole thing was being run on a shoestring. There wasn’t even a dressing room or any backstage area – we all had to change on the wooden steps leading up to the stage. What mattered was the fact that we all took part in that astonishing celebration of music, fun, justice and the politics of tolerance.”
Pursey said: “The whole point back in 1978 was to show that politics and music can really make a difference. Today’s thing is completely different; it’s more a celebration of what in fact has been brought about in the 30 years since – that we’re all understanding we have an English tongue more than we are British.”
He added: “It will be an incredible moment for me on Sunday because I went through so many years of people smashing up our gigs. The National Front was trying to destroy my ideal because it didn’t suit theirs.”
The Clash’s Paul Simonon, who will play today with The Good, the Bad & the Queen, added that racism is a recurring issue for each generation of young people. “There’s a growing-up experience for each generation of young people and when they become teenagers racism becomes more of an important issue,” he said.
Though David Bowie and Eric Clapton have long since made clear their commitment to racial equality, music historians say the event grew, in part, out of comments made by the two musicians in the 1970s. Bowie was quoted in 1976 saying, “Britain could benefit from a fascist leader”; the same year Clapton told an audience in Birmingham that the politician Enoch Powell – infamous for his “rivers of blood” speech opposing mass immigration – was right and Britain was “overcrowded”.
Jerry Dammers, founder of the Specials and a long-standing anti-racism activist, warned yesterday that while it may not be as obvious as it once was, racism still needs to be stamped out. “The BNP don’t march anymore, but they give the appearance of being more respectable – by wearing suits – and in some ways, they are more dangerous. They have this veneer of respectability and as mainstream politicians, they are quite successful at stirring up a lot of hysteria about immigration in the media. The BNP are like weeds in the garden. They keep coming back, and you have to keep weeding them out.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Johnson, Ian Johnston, and Paul Bignell
On stage – Then and now
Rock Against Racism
Victoria Park, London, Sunday 30 April
The Clash (briefly joined by Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, for a rendition of ‘White Riot’)
Forest Gate: scene of Rock Against Racism’s first gig
MONDAY, 12 DECEMBER 2016
We have just passed the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Rock Against Racism, and its first gig at the Princess Alice pub, on Romford/Woodgrange Roads.
Princess Alice – venue of first ever Rock Against Racism gig with Carol Grimes
A recently published book: Reminiscences of RAR – Rocking against racism 1976 – 1982 tells the tale and celebrates the remarkable story of the organisation that so successfully fused politics with popular culture and helped mobilise youth against the rising tide of racism in Britain, at the time.
The book features over 60 sets of personal recollections from people and the roles they played within the organisation. We rely on and are incredibly grateful for, a small number of these for what follows – an account of yet another important part Forest Gate has played within the history of popular music and modern political culture within the UK (see footnote for details of the book).
Racism was on the rise in Britain in the mid-1970’s. The National Front vote was increasing and their thugs tried to terrorise Black and Asian communities by provocatively marching through them, protected by the police, as they chanted threatening, intimidating and racist abuse at their targets of hate.
There was resistance from left groups, and brutality and fights were not uncommon. A number of Asian and demonstrators/defenders were badly injured, and some killed in protecting Black and Asian communities and their rights to a peaceful life in their chosen town and country of settlement.
Then, in the summer of 1976 at a gig in Birmingham, a drunken Eric Clapton – dubbed by many at the time as “God” because of his guitar supremity – roamed about the stage, calling for Black and Asian immigrants to “Go home”, in extremely racist terms. He also proclaimed that “Enoch was right” (the reference to Tory politician Enoch Powell who in 1968 had said that unless the “tide of immigration” was halted Britain would be drowned in “rivers of blood” ).
Clapton had recently revived his flagging career with an enormous hit with Bob Marley’s Who shot the sheriff, which to Marley was a revolutionary song.
Ironically, Clapton owed almost all of his fame to his reworking of Black music – Blues, some Rhythm ‘n Blues, and Reggae.
He was not alone among rock idols in expressing such appalling sentiments. David Bowie on another occasion – probably drug-fuelled – strutted around Heathrow airport in Nazi dress, and later proclaimed an admiration for fascism and Adolph Hitler – sentiments he quickly later repudiated.
Appalled at this turn of events, a small number of Socialist Worker Party activists wrote to all the music and left press condemning the racism of some of pop culture’s heroes. The PS to the letter concluded: “Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you”
The results were remarkable, as large numbers of shocked pop music aficionados joined forces with political activists, committed to a better future, and formed: Rock Against Racism.
This is the story of its opening Princess Alice gig, through the words of some of them.
The extracts from the book, reproduced below, are from the following key people:
Roger Huddle: one of the three most influential early figures in RAR. He was a print worker and is today one of the two editors of the book.
|Red (left) and Roger,
||in Hackney in 1980
Red Saunders: the author of the letter to the music and Left press, following the Clapton outrage that proved to be the catalyst that leads to the establishment of RAR. The other co-editor of the book.
Steve Cedar: a student activist from the North East London Polytechnic (in Stratford), in the SWP at the time.
Carol Grimes: the headline act at the Princess Alice gig. Her first band was The Race, a Blues and Folk based band, played mainly in London. She is still singing, writing and performing.
Bob Light: lived in Plaistow at the time and worked in the Royal Docks – which he described as a “war zone”, because of a number or pro-Enoch Powell demonstrations and racists sentiments displayed.
The Princess Alice tale
We held the first RAR gig at The Princess Alice in East London on 12 November 1976, with Carol Grimes and the London Boogie Band… It was very important that we pitched our propaganda with a very high visual language. Dave King, a brilliant designer, who Red knew through the Sunday Times colour magazine was asked to design a logo and the RAR star was born. Later he also designed the Anti Nazi League (ANL) arrow.
||photo of Carol Grimes
the headline act
of the first RAR gig
at the Alice
The first gig we did was with Carol Grimes. She was pub rock. In fact she was benefit rock. She did more benefits than anyone I knew. She’d say she was a Blues singer. Roger Huddle said we need to do gigs in east London, where the NF were. So we booked the Princess Alice pub in Forest Gate. We’d organised things before, so we weren’t frightened. We got some socialists from the dockers’ union to do the security. I remember putting up the banner onstage. The banners came from the other side of our sixties background – Agitation. We loved artists from Alexander Rocdchenko and Andy Warhol.
So, the gig was a success, and it snowballed quickly.
The Princess Alice, an unremarkable pub in Forest Gate, E7, an unremarkable district of East London, was the venue for the first Rock Against Racism concert, organised by 3 or 4 unremarkable lefties from the area, myself included, perhaps in terms of musical tastes, the most unremarkable of all.
I fucking hated racism in all its forms, and even I, whose only social activity at the time was selling papers and going to the pub, had heard of Eric Clapton’s disgusting comments about foreigners touching his wife and David Bowie’s irresponsible antics at London Airport, dressed in Nazi gear and seig-heiling from a limousine. He, at least had the dignity to admit that he was being a tosser at the time. …
So, I was very proud to be part of the organisation of the first-ever RAR concert in that pub. To be honest, I don’t remember very much about the concert. I remember the rubbish lighting and the rubbish sound system, but the reggae band was good and Carol Grimes topped the bill and sang some great classic rock.
I spent most of the time with a pint in my hand and an eye on the cash till, and reckon about 200 people came to the event, a great success, seeing as the posters advertising it were hand printed on a stencilling machine in our living room in Plaistow, as everything was in those days, from demos to public meetings.
|Cover of the first edition of
the magazine of the movement
We also made a heavy profit with more than enough to pay for the drinks we bought for the bands (cans of light ale and cheap whiskey, I remember it very clearly) and that’s where my memory becomes sharper.
Every story of success has its downside. After the concert, we were tidying up and the landlord came upstairs to check on everything, when he saw the cans of beer and empty whiskey bottles and went totally apeshit. He wanted to break my head open with one of the empty bottles and take all our profits for “corkage”, a new word for me then, which meant the difference in his earnings due to the gift to the musicians. I pleaded total ignorance and made sure we got well behind Bob Light and Pete Goodwin, two of the other organisers at the great event.
We calmed him down, eventually, by me accepting a lifetime ban from The Princess Alice and appealing to his Irish origins in search for solidarity with a movement that was against racism in the British Empire, but I think the lifetime ban clinched it. So, I walked the mile home clanking with the change in a metal cash box, feeling proud to have launched my showbiz career for a worthy cause. …
I think the RAR movement opened up politics and political action to hundreds of thousands of young people who would not have been involved with the traditional politics of the left.
Carol Grimes: What follows are taken from extracts from Black Echoes and London Jazz News interview with Carol Grimes, the week after The Princess Alice gig.
|Carol Grimes, today|
Carol Grimes and the Boogie Band once again delivered a rocking set to a delighted crowd who had turned up and put their money where other put their mouths. A tight hard working seven-piece band who enjoy a good blowing, funky evening, as much as the audience, they should be seen by more people, especially as they are fronted by one of the best female blues/soul singers the country has yet produced.
The repertoire was mostly songs from her Memphis album, recorded with the Memphis Horns, and she sounded good, giving the Frederick Knight compositions a good shakedown. …
The event is worth noting as well. Instigated to set up a fund to combat racism (from whatever source), it is hoped to make it a regular event, although not necessarily in the same venue (they have plans for Ackham Hall and the Roundhouse). It is hoped also to get the services of Soul and Reggae bands, as well as rock musicians, and the success of the venture will eventually be measured by the ratio of black and white and vice versa in the audiences, one of the worthwhile grassroots objectives this could achieve.
At this gig, it was predominantly white, but that was due to the lack of advertising (Black Echoes?). I’m not sure of the role that politics takes but I’m sure that the Socialist Workers’ who got this thing on, will realise that racial harmony is far more important than any political party.
The venture deserves support from anybody who cares, as the World is in need of Love today – Fred Rath
The very first RAR gig ever – held in The Princess Alice, Forest Gate. Compared to the achievements of the epic carnivals, this was an almost absurdly small initiative. I think it is fair to say that even the imaginations of Roger and Red had not yet grasped what RAR would achieve.
|The Clash at the huge RAR gig,
||in Victoria Park, April 1978
But for most of us who lived in Newham (and I lived about a mile from The Alice), even small-scale anti-racist events threw up the problem of security. The NF considered the East End as their ‘patch’, and the BM (ed: British Movement) held their weekly covens at a different pub a couple of hundred yards up the road. At least one of the local pubs was a no-go area for anyone with more than a millimeter of hair (ed: Earl of Essex?).
I can’t recall the exact reason was made to have the first RAR gig in an unlikely and fairly inaccessible place like Forest Gate. Hackney, Camden, even Central London would have all seemed more obvious choices. But looking back, I would guess that it was Forest Gate precisely because the Nazis thought it was their own little Reich. We were taking the fight to the belly of the Beast.
I can recall going to book the pub. The Alice was not one of the regular pubs we used for meetings – it was generally too big and a bit expensive. On top of that one of the none-too-imaginative tactics, the Nazis regularly used was to frighten off a pub landlord either with a threatening phone call or a bomb threat.
So, we needed to forewarn the publican the gig might be a bit ‘warm’, to give us some guarantee that it wouldn’t be canceled. In the event, despite our fears, it turned out the landlord was an Irish Republican who told us that as long as there was no fighting actually inside his two bars, he didn’t give a fuck about the Nazis. Which seemed fair enough.
|Demonstrators/gig attendees en route
||from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, April 1978
We knew we could promise that because one big advantage theAlice had over other venues was above the function room was above the pub approached by a wide staircase with its own door to the street.
I cannot remember a thing about the publicity or anything else about the actual organisation of the gig itself. But I do remember only too well that we knew the gig would be in serious need of protection. Our plan wasn’t exactly D-Day – we knew if the bad guys came we had to stop them on the stairs. If they got into the room, it would be bloody chaos, the police would be called and London’s Finest would take the chance to beat up and arrest some Lefties while letting their Fascist soul mates get away to their cars.
So, on the night, we had women and men placed on all four corners of the junction with the Alice stood on to warn us if the Nazi hordes were coming, and we had a reception committee waiting for them at the top of the stairs. Just in case that proved inadequate, we had six pick axe handles in a cricket bag and several cans of pepper spray that I had bought at a motorway service station in France.
In the event, the Nazis bottled it (I’m pleased to say they usually did) but for me, the evening developed a rhythm that would become all-too-familiar in the RAR days. You could summarise our evening under the headings of Tension, Apprehension and Frustration.
The Tension was driven by fear – the fear that the Nazis would be coming streaming up the stairs, fear that I would get seriously hurt, fear that I would let my fear get the better of me. But as the minutes and hours passed that turned to Tension – we knew we had to keep our guard, we knew we had to keep our guard, we knew we had to keep everyone on their toes, we knew we couldn’t afford to drink, we knew we couldn’t relax, we knew we couldn’t enjoy the gig.
Then, as the gig inside was turning into a glorious celebration of anti-racist fun, courtesy of Carol Grimes and her band came frustration. The frustration that we had not been able to enjoy the evening and even more frustrating that we had not been able to give the Nazis the fucking good hiding they certainly would have got.
What came next for RAR
– courtesy of Mike Symonds, who compiled a far more comprehensive timeline of RAR’s history for the book.
|The logo that supported a
– May 1977, the National Front and National Party attract a large following in local elections in London, Leicester and Blackburn.
– November 1977, launch of the Anti-Nazi League.
– April 1978, massive RAR/ANL festival in Victoria Park, when 80,000 attendees marched from Trafalgar Square to Vicky Park, in support of threatened East End communities, to see X-Ray Spex, The Tom Robinson Band and The Clash. A life and political changing moment for many there.
– June 1978, Fascist gangs run amok down Brick Lane, to terrorise the local Asian community (so very reminiscent to Battle of Cable Street, almost 40 years previously).
– September 1978, second London RAR festival, in Brockwell Park. 35,000 see Aswad, Sham 69, Misty in Roots, Elvis Costello – among others.
– The summer of 1979, the police deploy multiple thousands of officers to defend pitifully small National Front marches in a number of British cities (echoes of Cable Street, again).
– July 1980, 4 racists stab Atab Beg to death in East Ham High Street. This was followed by a number of racist attacks on pupils and teachers at Plashet school. These events prompted the foundation of the Newham Youth Movement, spearheaded by militant local Asian youth (remember, Unmesh Desai?).
– April 1981, riots in Brixton, followed later that summer by riots in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. Less serious disturbances also broke out in Bedford, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gloucester, Leeds, Leicester, Wolverhampton and elsewhere.
The book and its launch
A very successful launch event was held for the book, at Holborn’s Conway Hall on 5 December – organised, almost inevitably by Roger Huddle and Red Saunders. We were all looking a bit greyer than in those heady days, but a good time was had by all. Roger and Red have lost none of their organisational skills.
The event was a mixture of reminiscences and music, notably featuring Tom Robinson – in as fine and angry a voice as ever. A good night – down memory lane. As many of the speakers noted, the most appalling racism of those days is thankfully behind us, but the threat of racism is ever-present, as much of the post-Brexit mood has shown.
Finally – BUY THE BOOK! It’s a great read for those who remember those days and even more so for those who want to find out more about an important part of our recent political/cultural heritage.
- Reminiscences of RAR – Rocking against Racism, 1976 – 1982, published by Redwords, £15. ISBN 978-1910-885-36-9. We are grateful to the publishers, editors, and contributors for enabling us to compile this blog. We highly recommend the book to all interested in RAR, and modern political culture.
2. A second book – this time mainly of photographs has recently been published on RAR, which is highly recommended: Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism, published by Autograph, £20.
- Were you at the Princess Alice gig? Do you have any mementos of either it or the whole Rock Against Racism movement, if so, a website is being established that would love to hear from you: http://www.rockagainstracism.uk. It is under construction, but contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Don Letts, DJ
Pioneering musician, filmmaker and DJ Don Letts made his name playing reggae to the emerging punk scene in London the mid-1970s.
Britain in the 1970s was a very different place to what it is today – and the way the music scene was divided on racial lines is just one example of how much more polarised things were.
“At that time black people were still struggling to find a place for themselves in British society,” says Don.
“Our parents’ generation – who had mostly arrived in the 1950s – had desperately tried to fit into white society by trying to ‘act white’.
“In the process, they’d found nothing but rejection. Many young black people, including myself, decided that we weren’t going to follow that route.
“There was quite a lot of racial tension as I was growing up. We had Enoch Powell with his ‘rivers of blood’ speech and we had the National Front with their swastikas.
“In west London, where I lived, ‘KBW’ was painted in big letters on the walls all over the place – it stood for ‘Keep Britain White’. And on top of that, we had the police on our backs too.
“Being young and black in the early 1970s was like being part of a lost tribe. Many of us rejected the idea of trying to ‘fit in’ and became influenced by some of the radical figures in the US civil rights movement.
“We wanted to create something that reflected that pride in being black – and the British reggae scene developed out of this background.
“For most young people, music is a laboratory in which we invent ourselves. Creating our own music was one of the first steps towards us trying to find our own identity.
“It was a recognition that being black and British meant that we lived different lives to those back in Jamaica. Though we loved it, the music from there didn’t completely fit our circumstances.”
The process of trying to create a distinctive black and British identity gave rise to a somewhat short lived British reggae scene, with acts such as Aswad, Steel Pulse, Matumbi, and a hybrid of soul and reggae that was known as “lover’s rock”.
“The reggae sound system scene that I was around in the early-1970s was mainly black,” says Don. “But I don’t think too much should be read into that. No one set out to make reggae an exclusively black music, but we were kind of forced into these musical ghettos. The reggae scene wasn’t hostile to white people.”
Britain already had a tradition of white kids gravitating towards black music – a tradition established well before the 1970s. It started with a fascination with early R’n’B in the 1950s and 1960s, and continued with ska and rocksteady in the 1960s.
“The difference in the 1970s was that this music was no longer being imported from 3,000 miles away – the people next door were propelling it,” says Don. “In 1976 I took John Lydon [who would later be the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten] and Joe Strummer [who became the front man for The Clash] down to a reggae sound system night.
“They were some of the first white faces to be seen in the club. The white rockers tended to be a little apprehensive at first, but they got quite a lot of respect just for going through the door of the club.
“And you could hear the influence of reggae on the early punk bands – in the heavy basslines, in the rebellious lyrics, and in the idea of songs as musical reportage.
“The feeling that black people were contributing something was a very important element in the making of an integrated music scene. What we got out of coming together with punk was exposure – and a chance to get paid!”
The idea of creating a hybrid music scene wasn’t always automatic, and sometimes there had to be arguments about it.
“I fought to get Bob Marley to recognise the significance of punk,” recalls Don. “He was quite reluctant initially, but eventually he got it. That’s when he recorded his tribute, Punky Reggae Party.”
The background of economic recession, mass unemployment and the threat posed by racist police and the fascist National Front were eloquently summed up by Johnny Rotten in two words – “No future”.
But according to Don, those pressures had the effect of giving black and white teenagers a common experience and common will to fight back:
“The rebellious nature of both reggae and punk provided the soundtrack for so many of the battles of that time. I suppose that is why people still want to talk, listen and dance to them today.”
Misty In Roots were part of the emerging reggae scene in the mid-1970s and played a major role in the anti-racist movement in Southall, west London. Founder member Poko remembers how their music became part of the struggle.
Southall was a mixed community of whites, African-Caribbeans and Asians that coexisted in peaceful way. Our band helped set up a community organisation called People Unite to help give cultural and political expression to that.
As the punk movement developed we found that many of them had a love for reggae. Some of them had been around the skinhead thing before punk and had already got into rocksteady and reggae.
So the RAR idea of putting all these different types of music together appealed to us. Misty always had something to say about the world.
At that time industry in Southall was being run down and factories were being closed – black people were always the first to be laid-off.
We couldn’t help but reflect that in songs like “Food, Clothes And Shelter” and “Ghetto Of The City”.
But in 1979 things changed. The National Front (NF) decided to have an election meeting in the town hall, and the police resolved to protect them.
The police deliberately stoked-up trouble, and when it broke out they were ready. The police went around mercilessly beating people. They killed anti-Nazi protester Blair Peach and they raided the People Unite headquarters.
They smashed up everything inside and clubbed our manager Clarence Baker so badly that he too almost died. Our keyboard player and drummer were jailed after the raid and the whole thing almost finished our band. But we refused to be cowed.
For the people of Southall it was something that could never be forgotten. We had all been involved in an uprising, the police had bloodied us, and they were still there terrorising us long after the protest had finished.
But among the fear, there was also a sense of unity. The whole thing raised the consciousness of the young Asians in particular. And there is still a connection to 1979 to this day.
Across Southall, there are Asian-run reggae sound systems – a tradition that started not long after the uprising. A lot of Asian kids began to relate to the spirit of resistance that you find in reggae.
That spirit is still required to fight racism and injustice today, which is why we are playing the 30th anniversary RAR gig.
Carol Grimes, Blues singer
Carol Grimes is a jazz and blues singer who played at the very first Rock Against Racism gig. She told Socialist Worker how she got involved.
At the time of the first RAR Gig I was living in Westbourne Grove in west London, very close to the famous Mangrove restaurant. The Mangrove was a gathering place for the Caribbean community and was perpetually under attack from the police.
I could see first hand the way the police treated black people was appalling. I saw them bullying my friend Frank Critchlow, who ran the Mangrove.
I was so angry about it all that I spoke out in an interview with a magazine. And that brought Red Saunders to my door. We were both angry about the way that some high profile musicians were supporting Enoch Powell, and worse.
To me and to many other people this was a chance to say, “This is what London is – it’s young, and it’s black and white together.”
At those early gigs we were putting black and white bands on together. So I was there singing blues, Aswad and Misty In Roots were doing reggae, the punks were doing their thing.
It made the idea of black, brown and white united something real – and that together we could tell the fascists to “fuck off”.
People who had gone along because they were into reggae came away thinking that punk had something to say. People who had come to hear my blues went away having being exposed to reggae.
The whole RAR thing did more than just challenge racism. It said that music didn’t have to be commercial in order to be successful.
But there are still battles to be fought. One of my daughter’s Bangladeshi friends came with her to one of my gigs the other week. He was wearing a T-shirt, with the words “I am not a terrorist”.
I wept because I thought why should this young man feel that he has something to apologise for? He’s as upset by the bomb attacks on London as anyone else. Why should he be made to feel that he is somehow responsible?
Kate Webb, RAR team
Kate Webb worked in the RAR office from 1977 and was, at 18 years old, the youngest elected member of RAR’s national committee.
My strongest memory of those times was the sense of urgency and crisis – and the collective way in which RAR sought to address it.
These tensions were reflected in the music of the time, which often had quite an apocalyptic imagination – I’m thinking of records like The Clash’s “London’s Burning” and the Tom Robinson Band’s “Winter of 79”.
Another thing that stays with me is RAR’s “do it yourself” attitude. Across the country, in places I’d never heard of, we’d get letters from people who were putting on gigs in community centres and church halls.
And, unlike some of the music-based campaigns that followed RAR, we said to people, ”Don’t just give us money, get out there and start changing the world yourself”.