In May 1976, two families of Asian immigrants from Malawi – UK passport-holders – were put up in a hotel while social workers decided what to do with their children. The Sun ran it as a front page story: ‘Scandal of £600 a week Asians’. The Mirror followed up by condemning a ‘New Flood of Asians into Britain’. The Express warned that 145,000 further migrants might follow. Supporters of the National Front rushed to Gatwick to chant: ‘Don’t unpack, you must go back.’ In local elections on 6 May (the same day as the Mirror’s story), the Front’s 168 candidates secured an average vote of 8.9 per cent. During a Commons debate in July, John Stokes, the Conservative MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge, a former admirer of General Franco and a supporter of the Monday Club, pointed to the growing constituency for the National Front and insisted that ‘a date must soon be fixed beyond which no further immigration can be allowed. The young immigrants who have just come here will have to return to their homelands and their families.’
Racism seemed to be gaining a presence not just in politics but in pop culture too. That same month, May 1976, David Bowie was photographed at Victoria Station on his return to Britain after two years in North America. Standing in an open-topped Mercedes, he appeared to give his fans some kind of open-handed, straight-armed – possibly fascist – salute. Soon afterwards he gave an interview to Playboy magazine: ‘I believe very strongly in fascism,’ he said. ‘Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.’ In August, Eric Clapton took a break from a performance in Birmingham to demand the repatriation of Britain’s immigrant and black population. ‘You should all just leave,’ he said to members of his audience. ‘Not just leave the hall, leave our country … I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man. I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch’s our man … We should send them all back.’
Among those troubled by Clapton’s remarks was the photographer David (‘Red’) Saunders. A great bear of a man with a red rockabilly quiff, a veteran of numerous agit-prop actors’ groups, Saunders was also a former mod and a Clapton fan. He drafted a letter to the music press and persuaded six friends to sign it. ‘What’s going on, Eric?’ Saunders wrote. ‘Come on you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B?’ The letter called for volunteers to support ‘a rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music’. It would be called Rock Against Racism. ‘P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’
In Walls Come Tumbling Down, an oral history of the campaign, Daniel Rachel describes what happened next. Several hundred people – music fans, young Jewish punks, even the future broadcaster Rod Liddle, then at school in Middlesbrough – wrote back to Saunders, pledging their support for his initiative. An informal organising committee began to meet at Saunders’s studio on Great Windmill Street in Soho. Most of them were his friends; they included a group of designers and writers connected with Socialist Worker. Among them were Ruth Gregory, a former fine art student who had also worked for the communist press in Australia; the photographer Syd Shelton; and David Widgery, an East End doctor and contributor to the 1960s counterculture magazine Oz. Others joined in, including Kate Webb, who, when she attended her first RAR meeting, was 17 years old and working in the hat and glove department at Debenhams. Fired up by the way the older campaigners dropped such names as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandra Kollontai and Kurt Weill into the conversation, Webb left her job and became RAR’s first full-time worker, based in an office near the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell.
The first Rock Against Racism gig took place at the Princess Alice pub in Forest Gate in October 1976, with the blues singer Carol Grimes. To advertise the concert, RAR supporters spraypainted an image onto a plain white sheet, photographed it, and then reduced the image to a flier. In their enthusiasm, they forgot to include the time of the gig. Security was put on by the Royal Group of Docks Shop Stewards Committee. Widgery remembers the dockers arriving with a bulky Adidas bag and a cheery ‘Not to worry, the tools are here.’ A second gig followed in December at the Royal College of Art.
The RAR performers came largely from two milieux: black reggae and ska musicians, and white artists from the growing punk scene. Rachel quotes Brinsley Forde of the newly formed reggae band Aswad to give a sense of the pressures that black musicians felt at the time. After one gig in Liverpool, he and another member of the band were invited to a club, where theirs were the only black faces among several hundred people. A group of white men were staring at them and Forde could feel his heart beating faster. He was sure they were going to be attacked. ‘We might have struck out at those people,’ Forde remembers, ‘just out of fear.’ Then one of the men asked if he was in Aswad. Yes, Forde answered. The man turned to his friends and grinned: ‘I told you.’ Finally Forde could relax.
In summer 1977, RAR started its own fanzine, Temporary Hoarding, in which Widgery over the course of several articles explained what they stood for. Rock Against Racism wasn’t a single-issue campaign demanding, say, an apology from Clapton: it was against racism in the music scene, which encompassed phenomena as various as the wearing of the swastika by punk bands, the attempt by supporters of the National Front or British Movement to recruit young punks and skinheads, and even the division of musical genres by race (punk, metal, soul and reggae). In its boldest moments, Rock Against Racism grasped that music couldn’t be separated from everything else, and proposed to confront racism in electoral politics and in state institutions. ‘Racism is about Jubilee mugs and Rule Britannia and how we won the war,’ Widgery wrote.
The problem is not just the new fascists from the old slime, a master race whose idea of heroism is ambushing single blacks in darkened streets. These private attacks whose intention, to cow and to brutalise, won’t work if the community they seek to terrorise instead organises itself. But when the state backs up racialism, it’s different. Outwardly respectable but inside fired with the same mentality and the same fears, the bigger danger is the racist magistrates with their cold sneering authority, the immigration men who mock an Asian mother as she gives birth to a dead child on their office floor, policemen for whom answering back is a crime and every black kid with pride is a challenge.
In August 1977, there were violent clashes between the left and the National Front in Lewisham. The press blamed both sides equally and demanded an end to political demonstrations. Particular emphasis was put on the Socialist Workers Party, which had called for the National Front to be driven off the streets. Michael Foot, on Labour’s left since the 1930s, insisted that ‘the most ineffective way of fighting the fascists is to behave like them.’ The Liberal Party called for a prohibition on marches by ‘extreme left-wing organisations’, a message taken up by the prime minister, Jim Callaghan, who let it be known that he was considering a ban.
But before the Lewisham protests, the national secretary of the SWP, Jim Nichol, had made efforts to institute some sort of anti-fascist alliance, which would be pitched to the largest parties on the British left: Labour and the Communist Party. At first he was rebuffed. But by the end of 1977, the SWP had recruited various politicians and celebrities to an Anti-Nazi League. They included Peter Hain, an anti-apartheid activist who was now working for the postal workers’ union and had recently joined the Labour Party; Neil Kinnock, an up-and-coming Welsh MP from the party’s far left; and the actress Miriam Karlin, famous for playing a bolshie shop steward in the BBC sitcom The Rag Trade. Nichol’s second big idea was to approach Rock Against Racism to propose a joint carnival. He envisaged the occasion as no more than a couple of bands playing from the back of a truck, but the Rock Against Racism collective was excited and took the idea over. As Widgery remembers, ‘RAR’s unannounced ambition was to turn the event into the biggest piece of revolutionary street theatre London had ever seen.’
The first Rock Against Racism Carnival was held in Victoria Park on 30 April 1978; it was RAR’s breakthrough moment. The organisers had hoped ten thousand people would attend, but in the event a hundred thousand came to hear bands including X-Ray Spex, the Clash and Steel Pulse. It all kicked off with a march from Trafalgar Square through the East End to Victoria Park, led by giant papier-mâché models of Adolf Hitler and the National Front’s Martin Webster. The route passed Brick Lane, scene of recurring clashes between the Front and the local Bengali population. Red Saunders was the compère. He had grown enormous sideburns, and wore a hat covered in badges and a ‘Mr Oligarchy’ cape. The punk singer-songwriter Patrik Fitzgerald came on stage with an acoustic guitar. He withdrew, howled down by the crowd. ‘If you hate the NF as much as you hate me,’ he said, ‘they don’t stand a chance.’ The next act, X-Ray Spex, had an easier time of it. The band’s Somali-British singer, Poly Styrene, wore tweeds and an African headscarf as she sang ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours.’
Key to the event’s success was the participation of the Clash, the rising stars of London’s punk scene. By spring 1978, the band had released just three singles, ‘White Riot’, ‘Complete Control’ and ‘Clash City Rockers’. The first was widely misunderstood, with many people assuming the song’s message was that there needed to be white – i.e. racist – riots. The left-wing composer Cornelius Cardew maintained that punk was ‘fascist … The monopoly capitalist class consciously selects for promotion the most reactionary element of culture’ – an argument he proved to his own satisfaction by noting the Clash’s use of union jacks and photographs showing police charging black rioters. But the Clash saw themselves as radicals. Joe Strummer, the band’s singer, felt it was important that they take part in the carnival. His brother, who had killed himself several years before, had been a member of the National Front: performing at the carnival was a way of atoning for the past.
The footage of the Clash’s performance, which has survived in Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s film Rude Boy, shows a band unhappy with the event’s organisers. The Clash wanted to headline. But it was RAR tradition that the final performers at any concert had to be black. RAR refused to let the Clash play last (they also laughed off the negotiating gambit of the band’s manager, Bernie Rhodes, that they would play if RAR bought a tank and sent it to the freedom fighters in Zimbabwe). They did play in the end, but when their time was up refused to leave the stage. The plug was pulled; the Clash’s Johnny Green stuck it back in. Tom Robinson was due on next. ‘I was at my wits’ end,’ Robinson told Rachel. ‘It was my favourite band stealing my set.’ Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 briefly joined the Clash to sing ‘White Riot’. Finally they departed, making way for Robinson and then Steel Pulse, who played out the evening.
A special edition of Temporary Hoarding was published for the carnival. In it, Widgery attacked Margaret Thatcher’s recent claim that white voters felt swamped by black immigration. How many politicians, he wanted to know, ‘had ever lived in the inner cities they are always deploring?’
If they did they might find that deplorable human beings are getting along with each other much better than reported. That Jamaicans like Guinness, Greeks listen to reggae, the Irish go to tandoor restaurants, we all eat doner kebabs and smoke as much dope as we can get our alien hands on.
The social historian Raphael Samuel described the carnival as ‘the most working-class demonstration I have been on … one of the very few [events] of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion’. RAR found itself in a new and unfamiliar situation – a bit like a band whose first album has gone platinum. Its supporters expected the campaign to go from success to success, and increased visibility meant that more, and more various, demands were being made on it. A benefit gig in Brighton in summer 1978 forced the organising collective to address the politics of some of the bands they supported. The Fabulous Poodles performed two numbers: ‘Convent Girls’, about a grown man driving around in pursuit of underage women, and the equally salacious ‘Tit Photographer’s Blues’. Women in the audience started heckling the band, trying to knock over the microphones. ‘You’re too narrow baby,’ the Poodles shouted back. Afterwards the RAR committee in London apologised. A contract was written which all performers were required to sign: ‘Although we are called Rock Against Racism we support liberation from other forms of oppression.’ With RAR’s support, Lucy Toothpaste set up a sister organisation, Rock Against Sexism, and another fanzine to go with it, Drastic Measures.
Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League organised a second, even bigger carnival at Brockwell Park on 24 September 1978. Red Saunders was the compère again, in a ‘more thought-out’ uniform: ‘Yellow boiler suit covered in RAR stencilled slogans with a huge stove pipe hat with the “Love Music, Hate Racism” slogan all over it. Plus shades, of course.’ For many who took part, the second carnival was every bit as exciting as the first. ‘If it is all a Trot conspiracy,’ Keith Waterhouse told the Daily Mirror, ‘tough luck on the conventional political parties who play it all so safe and down the middle that they have the popular appeal of yesterday’s gravy.’
But the event was partly overshadowed by a National Front march down Brick Lane that took place on the same day. For several months the area had been a site of conflict between left and right. In May 1978, Altab Ali, a young machinist, was murdered on his way home. In June, a crowd of several hundred skinheads ran through the area, smashing in the windows of Asian-owned shops. The following week, tens of thousands of anti-fascists marched down Brick Lane, and in July, there was a local general strike in protest against racist attacks. Over the following two months, there were repeated clashes between the Front and its enemies, and it was a point of pride on the left that the Front was unable to hold demonstrations without being opposed by much larger numbers of anti-racists.
In the run-up to the second carnival, the leaders of the Anti-Nazi League had been under pressure to make sure that significant numbers of anti-fascists spent their day at Brick Lane rather than in Brockwell Park. ‘For weeks before,’ one member of the Anti-Nazi League, Andy Strouthous, recalls, ‘lots of us were trying to make sure that Brick Lane was covered.’ As the crowds prepared to leave on the march to Brockwell Park, speakers from the ANL and the SWP got up to insist there was nothing to worry about: Brick Lane was protected. The same message was repeated from the carnival stage. But it wasn’t true: there was only a small contingent of ANL supporters in the East End. According to Steve Tilzley from Manchester, ‘The National Front marched practically unopposed through the East End and held a rally in Curtain Road, off Great Eastern Street. There had been a small, token anti-racist presence in the area to protest against their presence but they were heavily outnumbered by the Nazis and the police.’ The novelist Tariq Mehmood was at Brick Lane, where he joined an anti-racist demonstration, but they were shouted down: ‘Really, the carnival should have been diverted as a historic gesture and wiped out the fascists but the SWP didn’t seem to work like that … [They] did a terrible disservice to the struggle against racism.’
In the aftermath of Brockwell Park, Rock Against Racism decided to rechannel its energies through its local groups, of which there were now more than a hundred. ‘We don’t want to get locked into the alternative Harvey Goldsmith syndrome,’ Widgery explained. ‘Part of the reason we’ve separated from the ANL a bit is that we don’t want to go on producing bigger and bigger outdoor festivals. Some of us went through all that in the late 1960s. Instead we made a very conscious decision to try and build up RAR clubs as local get-togethers away from the whole superstar and super-profit thing.’ RAR’s Militant Entertainment Tour in 1979, advertised with the image of a giant rhino and the slogan ‘Nazis are No Fun,’ featured forty bands at 23 concerts, covering some two thousand miles on the road and culminating in a six-hour final show at Alexandra Palace. Two weeks before the 1979 general election, the Labour Party took out advertisements in the music press: ‘Don’t just rock against racism … Vote against it.’
‘Don’t just what?’ a piqued Red Saunders responded. ‘We’ve just rhinoed around the country, arguing and playing our unmistakable anti-racist message and it’s left us knackered. And seven grand in debt … OK, it seems like most of us will be putting our shaky little crosses in Labour’s box on May 4th … But no illusions. We’re looking forward to seeing Labour start to really Rock Against Racism – ending the racist immigration laws.’ Thatcher’s election victory disoriented RAR. It was no longer possible to argue that the National Front was (in its own metaphor) the ‘spearhead’ of popular racism. Mainstream forces were clearly doing more to stir up racism. Difficult as it had been to push back against the success of the far right, toppling the Conservatives was to prove even harder.
RAR organised a final carnival in Leeds in July 1981. The Specials – a black and white band which embodied RAR’s multiracial politics – were asked to headline. They ended their set with ‘Ghost Town’, a song about the destruction of industrial Britain. RAR was by now in crisis, exhausted and in a state of civil war. The Specials themselves were no less fatigued; when they came to the middle of the song, the band’s trombonist Rico Rodriguez couldn’t face playing his usual solo. Over the next few days Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding all quit the band. Yet even as RAR and its bands were collapsing, their message was more popular than ever. The week after the carnival, ‘Ghost Town’ reached number one in the charts.