When Punk & Reggae Fans Launched the “Rock Against Racism”

Source: Open Culture, June 17th, 2020

The UK of the late-70s was, in many unfortunate respects, like the UK (and US) of today, with far-right attacks against West Indian and Asian immigrants becoming routine, along with increased aggression from the police. Enoch Powell’s inflammatory 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech (denounced in the papers as a naked “appeal to racial hatred) energized the far-right National Front. Nazi punks and skinheads began violent campaigns in the mid-70s. A very hot summer in 1976 saw a riot at the Nottingham Carnival, when police attacked the West Indian festival. Carnival-goers fought back, including the Clash’s Joe Strummer and Paul Simenon, who describe the events below.

Strummer was inspired to pen “White Riot,” a call to arms for white punks against the police and far right, and the band moved increasingly toward reggae, including a cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves.”

Into this boiling cauldron stepped Eric Clapton to drunkenly declare his support for Powell onstage in Birmingham and repeatedly chant the National Front slogan “keep Britain white!” In outraged response, photographer and former Clapton fan Red Saunders and others founded Rock Against Racism, publishing a letter in the NME to recruit people to join the cause. The short note addressed Clapton’s glaring hypocrisy directly: “Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist.” The letter articulated the disgust felt by thousands around the country. Paul Furness, working as a medical records clerk in Leeds at the time, found the anti-racist declaration “positive” and “life affirming,” as he says in the short film at the top. He helped organize the first Rock Against Racism carnival in 1978 and was amazed “that there were thousands and thousands and thousands of people descending on London. The excitement of it, just this realization…. That you can change things, that you can could actually make a difference.”

Created with the Anti-Nazi League, the April 1978 Rock Against Racism Carnival in London’s Victoria Park was the moment “punk became a populist movement to be reckoned with,” writes Ian Fortnam at Classic Rock. (Learn more in the documentary above.) “Never before had so many people been mobilized for that sort of cause,” headliner Tom Robinson remembers. “It was our Woodstock.” The Clash were there—you can hear their performance just above. It was, writes Fortnam, “their finest hour”:

The Clash were on fire, feeding off of an ecstatic audience and premiering as yet unrecorded material (eventually released on Give ‘Em Enough Rope the following November) like Tommy Gun and The Last Gang In Town. The show was a revelation.

The Rock Against Racism Carnival brought together punk and reggae bands, and fans of both, starting a tradition of multi-racial lineups at RAR concerts into the 80s that featured X-Ray Specs, the Ruts, the Slits, Generation X, Elvis Costello, Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Misty in Roots, among many others. “When you saw a band like ours jamming with Tom Robinson or Elvis Costello,” says singer Poko of Misty in Roots, who played more RAR shows than any other band, “it showed that if you love music we can all live together.” That message resonated throughout the country and the sound systems of the streets. At the first Carnival, Fortnam writes, “phalanxes of police held back counter-demonstrating skinheads” while an estimated 80,000 people marched through the streets chanting “Black and white unite and fight, smash the National Front.” Rock Against Racism became a massive movement that did create unity and pushed back successfully against far-right attacks. But it wasn’t only about the politics, as photographer Syd Shelton recalls below. It was also a fight for what British punk would become—the music of fascism and the far right or a synthesis of sounds and rhythms from the former Empire and its former colonies.

Related Content: “Stay Free: The Story of the Clash” Narrated by Public Enemy’s Chuck D: A New 8-Episode Podcast London Calling: A New Museum Exhibition Celebrates The Clash’s Iconic Album The Clash Play Their Final Show (San Bernardino, 1983) Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.