Rock Against Racism Archives
In 1977 I dropped out of sixth form college and started working for Rock Against Racism. I was seventeen, a big fan of the Tom Robinson Band and called myself Irate Kate. I began as a volunteer but soon became RAR’s first paid worker and the youngest member of its national executive committee. After RAR imploded in the early Eighties – as political groups tend to, and, anyhow, having achieved many of it goals – Red Saunders, the chief instigator, powerhouse and propagandist behind the organisation, held most of its archives in his photographic studio. But an arson attack in 1991 destroyed all his professional documents and negatives, and with these, much of RAR’s record.
I had left RAR in 1981 as the central collective was tearing itself apart over differences about the way we should proceed: an argument about whether to become more professional and corporate, or stay outside the mainstream and return to the grassroots. The debate was inflamed, as these things usually are, by personal animosities. I had organised a benefit with UB40 at the local fleapit in Brixton and sensing RAR had run its course, I went to work in this cinema, then known as The Little Bit Ritzy. When I walked out of the RAR office I had with me a bundle of material – a minor act of kleptomania born, in part, of a desire to salvage some of RAR’s heritage as the centre unravelled. Given the fire, I’m glad I took what I did.
Today there’s a new group, who’ve nicked one of Red’s brilliantly direct and encapsulating slogans – Love Music, Hate Racism. In 2008, thirty years on from the first RAR Carnival in Victoria Park, LMHR hosted an anniversary concert there with some of the original performers who’d made it through (Tom Robinson, Paul Simonon, Jerry Dammers, Poly Styrene, Jimmy Pursey), and new acts who understood that the battle against racism needs continual reiteration and reinvention.
Despite this renewed activity, however, there is still very little in the public eye about what kind of outfit RAR was at the outset: what we meant and what we did. There is some material: a film put together by Alan Miles, a London firefighter and self-taught documentarist; a handful of people writing Phds on RAR; a book, Crisis Music: The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism by Ian Goodyer; and a website with a rather cursory RAR timeline.
None of this material, however, comes from those who were centrally involved in RAR in its first incarnation. Of these, only a few have talked and written about their participation. Red, ever the travelling salesman, has a slide-show he presents at events around the country; before he died, David Widgery, the polemicist and East End doctor, one of RAR’s leading extollers and explainers, published Beating Time: Riot’n’Race’n’Rock’n’Roll – though it’s more an account of anti-racist battles in the Seventies than an official history of RAR (here’s a further article from Widge, published in Radical America about the original Carnival); Lucy Toothpaste (aka Whitman), another key contributor to RAR’s magazine Temporary Hoarding, wrote about RAR and RAS (Rock Against Sexism – which she set up subsequently), in ’68-’78-’88: From Women’s Liberation to Feminism, 2008; in the same year there was A Riot of My Own, an exhibition of photographs, layouts and designs from Syd Shelton and Ruth Gregory, the image-makers whose incendiary graphics were at the heart of the RAR project; and from Hull RAR there’s a great a exhibition of posters put together as part of the bi-centenary celebrations of the abolition of slavery.
Then, earlier this week, prompted by the sight of a reunited Gang of Four (once a stalwart of Leeds RAR) on Jools Holland’s all-embracing BBC2 show, Later, I unearthed some of that material from the RAR office (including an interview that Lucy Toothpaste and I conducted with three of the Gang in 1979). What I intend to do now is upload some of this onto the net. There are letters from kids up and down the country and thenfrom people around the world as RAR spread internationally; copies of RAR’s clarion-calling magazine Temporary Hoarding; information about various campaigns, tours and products; and communiqués from local RAR groups (at our peak in the UK there were 52 active groups and clubs running from Ayr to Launceston, Liverpool to Newcastle, and from RAR groups abroad in the US, France, Germany, South Africa, Belgium, Holland and Australia).
If anyone who was active in RAR, who played for RAR or helped organise gigs, who has memories or stories to tell, or memorabilia to hand, please let me know. I’d like to put together a chronology of gigs, carnivals and rallies, as well as a social history of the kind of sui generis organisation RAR was – how we made it up as we went along, the energy and effort that went into our successes, the reasons for our collapse. I’ll try and put down some of my own recollections but I’ve an unreliable memory and know my view of how things were is partial. So, if anyone out there was involved in RAR in the late Seventies and early Eighties, please do get in touch.