Rock Against Racism, The Defining Tracks of a Moment (1976-1981) – Autograph Gallery
These are my notes for an event at Autograph BP Gallery in Shoreditch, East London, 4.11.2015, marking Syd Shelton’s exhibition of photographs from the RAR movement. The other panel members were Syd and Paul Gilroy. We played three records each and then talked about why we’d picked what were not necessarily the best songs, but ones that said something particular about the times. The event was chaired by Mark Sealy, Autograph BP’s director.
- Winter of ‘79 — TRB (written in 1977)
I chose this because of the way it captures the apocalyptic imagination of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain – the sense of urgency and danger, of state violence and fascist threat, of the postwar settlement breaking apart. There were tanks in Belfast, bomb threats in London, and soon riots in cities up and down the country. Many of Robinson’s songs reflect the jittery feeling on the streets at the time. You can hear this especially in ‘Long Hot Summer’, which was inspired by the Stonewall riots, and in ‘Up Against the Wall’. This was the spirit of the time and there are similar warnings of imminent catastrophe in the Clash’s ‘London Calling’, the Ruts’s ‘Babylon’s Burning,’ and in the weird atmospherics of the Specials’s ‘Ghost Town’. It’s the sound of things falling apart, the sound of warning signals fired across a radio that no one in authority was listening to.
Tom was the first person who made me think about how you could build a network under the radar and turn it into something strong and effective – even when cultural gatekeepers like Melvyn Bragg and the South Bank Show told you that no one was interested in RAR and they were planning a programme on Eric Clapton instead. Something of a graphomaniac, he wrote long letters to his fans, connecting them to one another. I was then 17, working in Debenhams on Oxford Street and looking for people to share my anger with. He put me in touch with two Jewish schoolgirls from Camden Town who went by the names of Scruf and Scruff; Karen, a stylish secretary, the daughter of Czech immigrants; Alan, who was serving in the army in Northern Ireland, alienated from the other soldiers around him, and an Irish girl calling herself, Anna Gram, who lived on the estate behind my mum and dad’s house in Clapham. Anna approached me on the tube one day – my badges giving out a signal — demanding to know if I was that Irate Kate that Tom Robinson had written to her about.
Not long after I gave up the Debenhams job to became RAR’s first full time worker; making connections was an important part of what we did there, too. The people Tom put me in touch with and soon a bunch of other willing helpers – kids skiving off school, shop workers and secretaries bunking off work – would gather at RAR’s tiny office in Clerkenwell Close (this was before we were firebombed, and moved out to a shop front in Cable Street). In all-night letter-writing sessions, we sent out the message, linking together RAR supporters who had contacted us with stories about the racism they experienced in school or at work. They sent in their loose change and SAE’s in return for badges and dayglo stickers. A nation of kids horrified by the spectre of the National Front and bored out of their minds, living in nowhere towns and suburbs that closed down at 7pm, trying to discover the world out there by listening to John Peel late into the night or reading bits of James Baldwin with a torch under the covers.
We told them: here are the addresses of other music fans in your area, set up a RAR group, put on a gig, get out a fanzine, and challenge the local NF. We told them anyone could do it and wrote step-by-step Gig Guides showing them how. And in RAR’s magazine, Temporary Hoarding, The Mekons — stalwarts of Leeds RAR group, one of 80 or so in the UK — wrote an article explaining how to build your own PA, while The Au Pairs described how they recorded their first single by borrowing their mum and dad’s holiday money. The explosion of punk and reggae meant that there were groups all over the country hungry for gigs. And there was massive energy and frustration everywhere you turned, which RAR tapped into and transformed into action.
On stage, the TRB often dressed like the schoolkids they sang about – “sullen, unhealthy and mean” – and Tom had 302.0 stenciled on his shirt: the code for homosexuality in the World Health Organisation’s classification of diseases (something he’d been alerted to by Paul Furness, a key RAR activist, who worked in the Records Office of Leeds General Infirmary). One of the characteristics that marked Robinson out from many of his contemporaries was that along with his displays of insolence, he also understood, instinctively, the importance of bringing people together, of building alliances.
It was not enough to complain about discrimination against gays if you ignored what was happening to your “brothers in Brixton, backs to the wall”. Homophobia, racism and sexism – he made it clear these things were all part of the same problem, and we would sink or swim together – as David Widgery wrote: “No Us Without Them”. This is why Robinson was so important to RAR, which was about routing racism, but also a much broader cultural politics. He understood how to express and channel anger, but he was also hugely charismatic and convivial — something you can see in Syd’s great shot of him at the first RAR carnival in Victoria Park in 1978. Tom is facing the audience, back to the camera, his arms wide open, embracing the crowd.
2. Oh Bondage Up Yours — X-Ray Spex (1978)
There were many women who started to appear in pop at this time, in particular the girl bands like the Slits and the Raincoats, or women who fronted groups such as the Au Pairs or the Selector. But many of these were tribal, slotting into the already established indie or ska scenes. Poly Styrene, though, couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Part Somali, part Scottish-Irish, she was like the advance party for the new self that was going to reinvent Britain. And her music was equally sui generis. I think she captured the spirit of the time like no one else
Poly got started, as many others did, after seeing a shambolic, end-of-the-pier Pistols gig, and deciding that anyone could do that. The basic Punk DNA — an egalitarian anyone can do it, and the more the merrier or rowdier. It’s in direct opposition to today’s sanitised X Factor competitions and commercialization, where the singer is a puppet and the winner takes all.
In ‘Oh Bondage’, Poly moves between two voices: the masochist “Bind me, Tie me”, and the refusenik “Up Yours!”. She begins by talking in an excruciatingly coy voice: “Some people say that little girls should be seen and not heard”, then yells “but I say, Oh Bondage, Up Yours”, and the music kicks in. It was like a declaration of war: women weren’t going to put up with it any longer. Poly was here to tell us she had something to say and she was going to be heard. But her sense of herself as a performer also says a lot about punk. She didn’t think of herself as a tortured artist writing about her own suffering, but as someone who was playing with ideas and words, or sending things up. So at the Victoria Park RAR carnival, she dressed in a tweedy twinset suit combined with brightly coloured headscarf and socks – as if in pastiche of Margaret Thatcher.
Punk is often tagged as angry and nihilistic, and there are endless arguments about its origins and purity – were you early enough on the scene, were you authentically British or singing in an American drawl? – but in fact, its main mode was either reportage of under-reported places and behaviours (another band who played for RAR, the Members, do this brilliantly in ‘Sound of the Suburbs’), or parody: mocking the idiocies of racism, sexism, homophobia. There was also a nice line in skewering capitalist alienation – the Clash did it in ‘Lost in the Supermarket’, and X-Ray Spex in songs like ‘Warrior in Woolworths’, or the sweetly melancholic, ‘GermFree Adolescents’.
And when Poly sang about ‘Identity’ she wasn’t talking about her own, but the idea of it as something manufactured: “Did you do it before you read about it?”, she mocks. There’s a sophistication here that much of pop lacks now and which many of the RAR bands, particularly those who played for RAR and RAS (Rock Against Sexism), also had: bands like the Gang of 4, the Mekons and the Au Pairs.
RAS was set up by Lucy Toothpaste (who was on the RAR organizing committee, along with Syd, Ruth Gregory, Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, David Widgery, Robert Galvin, John Dennis, Wayne Minter, and I) with the aim of challenging sexism in the music business. And that meant challenging the bands, too. In the Au Paris interview Lucy and I conducted for Temporary Hoarding (reproduced in Syd’s book), and in another we worked on with the Gang of 4, she’s particularly interested in power and aggression in pop – what it means, whether it’s necessary, how the musician-audience dynamic works, how a woman controls the stage.
If you look at the statement made recently by Grimes (“I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized”) you can see that the problems RAS posed haven’t shifted that much, not least because Grimes still feels she has to answer that ‘man-hater’ tag which fierce women always get stuck with. Much of the anti-racism RAR was arguing for has become second nature in Britain today, but RAS’s demands have proved more elusive, perhaps because of the way feminism continually flares and then falls out of fashion, having to remake itself all over again.
3. Sonny’s Lettah — Linton Kwesi Johnson (1979)
This is an example of the reportage record. It is news from the front line, conveying what it felt like to be an immigrant in the UK. RAR supporters had seen how thuggishly the police behaved at Wood Green, Lewisham, Southall, and at a succession of anti-NF demos, and these had been widely reported. But this LKJ song described something the TV and newspapers weren’t talking about: attacks on individual black people – the casual, everyday assaults and insults meted out on the streets and in the back of police vans. ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ is about SUS — the stop and search tactics the police started to deploy at this time under the cover of a nineteenth century law: the 1824 Vagrancy Act. It reveals a commonplace cycle of state violence, self-defence, then criminalization.
The singer, Sonny, finds his innocent brother, Jim, picked up by the police and roughly handled (“Jim start to wriggle and the police start to giggle”). Sonny responds angrily and the incident ends with Jim charged with SUS, and Sonny charged with murder. The whole thing is told in the form of a letter sent from Brixton Prison to the brothers’ mother back home in Caribbean. The song is also interesting because of the way it contrasts the respect and tenderness shown to Sonny’s mother with the brutality of the British police when someone challenges them. ‘Fight Dem Back’, LKJ sang in another song, and “We don’t rock against racism, we fight against it”.
The question of respect in the midst of disobedience and insurrection was something that the black community kept insisting on. Black people were not, as the police said, or as politicians or the press reported, aliens or savages, but people with cultures and histories that demanded respect. For many alienated white kids this was a new idea. If black people had a culture, what was white culture? What was whiteness? It made legible to them something that had previously been invisible. At the RAR Carnvial in Victoria Park the Clash sang a furious version of ‘White Riot’, their response to this realisation. But values of culture and respect injected something new into the punk spirit. The moment when black and white musicians came together at the end of a RAR gig was nearly always achieved with a reggae jam, something celebratory and uplifting. As the band who played more than any other RAR gigs, Misty in Roots sang: ‘People Unite’ — a sentiment unavailable in the disaffected vernacular of punk.