Musicians will always take stand against far right says leading author
"Rock Against Racism worked so well because its message was simple and inclusive: if you oppose racism then you’re on board, no matter where you’re from or what music you make."
Dorian Lynskey, author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute
Perhaps it was inevitable that anti-racism would be the political flag that the punk generation rallied around. The fast-rising National Front was a tangible threat in the late 70s and many punk bands had black members or friends. But Rock Against Racism (RAR) was born in a spirit of spontaneity and the trigger wasn’t a bovver-booted neo-Nazi but a blues-loving rock star.
When Eric Clapton submitted his audience at the Birmingham Odeon on 5 August 1976 to a drunken rant about immigration, a group of friends wrote an angry letter to Britain’s national music papers, expressing their ambition to “organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison in music”. This was also a period when some punk bands played dangerous games with Nazi imagery and David Bowie briefly toyed with fascist rhetoric, as if it had no connection to actual racist violence on the streets of Britain.
The ringleaders of this new movement were two veterans of 1960s protests, writer Dave Widgery and photographer Red Saunders. Saunders saw Rock Against Racism as an alliance of disparate outsiders. “The train came into the platform and milling around were all these extraordinary people: Rastas, punks, lefties, all disenchanted odd people with no particular home, and the doors opened and they all stepped on board and off we went.”
RAR’s strategy was to use music to attract young people to the anti-racist cause. In the first issue of their magazine, Temporary Hoarding, Widgery declared: “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.”
Many bands fitted the bill. RAR’s massive open-air concert in Hackney’s Victoria Park in April 1978 featured The Clash, the Ruts, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69, Generation X, Steel Pulse and the Tom Robinson Band. Widgery called it punk’s answer to Woodstock. RAR certainly wasn’t the only factor but its vigorous campaigning, which complimented that of the newborn Anti-Nazi League, was one of the reasons that the National Front’s vote collapsed in the 1979 election.
RAR worked so well because its message was simple and inclusive: if you oppose racism then you’re on board, no matter where you’re from or what music you make. What they didn’t expect was that multiracial bands, a rarity in 1976, would become a part of the pop landscape, spearheaded by Coventry’s the Specials. Just seeing the black and white members standing together on stage sent a powerful message and the Specials, among many others, wrote angry, moving songs about the racist violence that was all too common during that turbulent period.
RAR’s activities waned as the NF did but every time the far right has threatened to rise again, musicians have been there. In the early 90s, artists such as the Manic Street Preachers, the Levellers, Chumbawamba and Credit to the Nation joined forces to support the relaunched Anti-Nazi League. In 2002, Love Music Hate Racism was founded to revive the work of RAR. At their Victoria Park concert to mark the 30th anniversary of RAR’s punk Woodstock, members of the Clash, X-Ray Spex and Sham 69 returned to mingle with new bands of all races and genres.
The mere existence of LMHR proves that the battle isn’t yet won. The BNP have sporadic electoral victories while mainstream parties regularly deploy dog-whistle rhetoric about immigration, but it’s now a given that musicians will take a stand to rally support and inspire action. And it all began with one drunk rock star’s rant and a group of passionately principled friends who decided that it could not be ignored.