Marc Nash looks back at some of the bands involved in Rock Against Racism with a music video playlist...
Punk rock had very close ties with reggae. Groups like the Clash had grown up in multi-racial communities and been heavily influenced by reggae music and culture. Reggae DJs played the music before the live bands in punk clubs. Both were music of protest and in the late 1970s there was plenty in Britain to protest about. Another protest group were the far-right political party (and in true Nazi tradition street fighting thugs) The National Front. With the state of the UK economy they were beginning to make some political headway with the usual dreary simplistic argument of immigrants taking British jobs. Music turned its force on them partly due to a spark from their own industry. Eric Clapton, who seemingly was oblivious of the Afro-American blues roots of his own music, made some inflammatory anti-immigrant and racist statements from the stage during one of his gigs. David Bowie's iconography of the character of the Thin White Duke was also unfortunately timed, as he rode around in a limousine like a 1930s Fascist dictator from Mitteleuropa.
There's a very good retrospective here containing some wonderful photos, so I'm just going to present videos of some of the bands who were involved, many like Ruts and Misty in Roots who went up and down the country touring with Rock Against Racism. It's impossible to measure what effect the campaign had, but it was most definitely a battle for the hearts and minds of British youth, to stop them being won over to the National Front's cause. When the whole country swung to the right with Mrs Thatcher, the National front beset by splits and personality clashes faded away. But they were replaced by other fascist and far-right groups and of course the anti-immigrant argument is being loudly trumpeted today by mainstream politicians. Time for another Rock Against Racism? I can't quite see any of the Simon Cowell created bands carrying it off.
How many of the below bands do I possess albums of? All of them excepting Sham 69...
1) The Clash - "White Man In Hammersmith Palais"
Of all punk bands, the Clash were most heavily influenced by reggae, producing their own reggae originals and covering reggae classics. Their song "White Riot" was influenced by the 1977 Notting Hill riots when the Caribbean carnival erupted in violence at police treatment of the community.
2) Misty In Roots - "How Long Jah"
It's ironic but Misty in Roots played more RAR gigs than anybody else, yet initially they were never part of the main stage, but a sort of side act on a flat bed truck at the head of the anti-racist marches preceding the gigs. Seems just a little bit like segregation to me. But they more than most had direct experience of racial violence when their manager was beaten into a coma by the police at an anti-racist march in their home town of Southall, West London.
3) The Ruts - "Staring At The Rude Boys"
The Ruts came from Southall as well and were close band mates with Misty. Their sound was heavily influenced by reggae and like Misty they were solid supporters of the RAR campaign playing up and down the country.
4) Steel Pulse - " Handsworth Revolution"
This song preceded the Handsworth (Birmingham) riot of 1985. People could see what was happening and tried to alert us to the situation, but seems no one in authority was listening. With songs like "Klu Klux Klan" and "Drug Squad" they painted the experience of the Afro-Caribbean community in the late 1970s better than anybody.
5) Tom Robinson Band - "Winter of '79"
Tom Robinson Band were perhaps the most overtly political band that emerged from 1970s punk, fronted by a gay guitarist-singer, they sung songs for all oppressed and minority groups.
6) Sham 69 - "If The Kids Are United"
Sham 69 were a working class band who sung about beer and fighting and attracted a far-right skinhead following. It took a lot of too-ing and fro-ing to get lead singer Jimmy Pursey to agree to play a RAR gig, as he himself had received death threats. It was crucial when the band did eventually play, as it forced their fans to confront the message of the concerts and see the multi-cultural nature of the bands.
7) Aswad - "Drum And Bass Line"
Aswad were from West London and when they weren't away touring they would go to the local playing fields and play football every Sunday, the same pitches my team played at & occasionally we saw them down there.
8) Stiff Little Fingers - "Doesn't Make It All Right"
Hailing from sectarian Ulster, SLF lived in the middle of another low rent form of apartheid that separated two communities there. This is a cover of a Specials' song, one of the best anti-racist songs ever written. Check out the original version if you get the chance.
9) Elvis Costello & The Attraction - "Two Little Hitlers"
Yep Elvis played an early RAR gig, before jetting off to the US and making strange Country & Western hybrid music.
10) Au Pairs - "Steppin Out Of Line"
Another new wave band that fused rock with reggae and dub. Singer Lesley Woods gave up the music business to become a lawyer. oh well.
11) Specials - "Racist Friend"
The Specials were a living, breathing embodiment of anti-racism. A multi-ethnic band playing Caribbean influenced Ska but with lyrics pertinent to the situation out on the streets of the UK. They became best known for their excoriating comment on post 80's riot-torn Britain "Ghost Town" and "Free Nelson Mandela"
Image - Wikipedia.
Marc Nash is on Twitter as @21stCscribe
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