‘Songs of Freedom’, RAR Reminiscences, ed. by Roger Huddle and Red Saunders, Redwords, 2016
When the photographer Syd Shelton recently published his blazing images from Rock Against Racism, I joined him on a panel in East London, along with the critic Paul Gilroy, to discuss the RAR years. Forty years later, among all the theories advanced about its origins and politics, one glaring fact about RAR is often forgotten: at its root was the shared love of music. So thinking about the performers who appeared on our stages, and the music they played there, seemed like the best way to cut through the arguments and get to the heart of RAR. To this end, we were each asked to select three tracks that epitomised the era. What follows are a few reflections on the music I chose, and on my involvement with a movement that interrogated the past, prefigured the future, and celebrated the present – as Syd’s photographs attest – with passion and style.
Track 1. Winter of ‘79 — Tom Robinson Band (1977)
There are many songs that convey the apocalyptic imagination of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain – the pervasive sense of urgency and danger, of state violence and fascist threat – but Tom Robinson’s ‘Winter of ‘79’ differs from others in treating the moment historically. Written in 1977, the song predicts an uprising in 1979 and then looks back at the insurrection from a time in the future when a world-weary activist addresses a new generation: “All you kids who just sit and whine, you should have been there back in ’79, You say we’re giving you a real hard time, you guys are really breaking my heart”. Robinson’s prophecies weren’t far off the mark: the next few years would see tanks in Belfast, bombs in London, and riots in cities up and down the country. Like many of the period’s best songs, his catch the jittery mood on the streets. You can hear it especially in ‘Long Hot Summer’, which was inspired by the Stonewall riots, and in the shifting allegiances of ‘Up Against the Wall’, where he asks his listeners: “Just whose side are you on?” Robinson wasn’t alone in his sense of foreboding, further warnings of collapse can be heard in the songs of many other bands who played for RAR: in the Clash’s ‘London Calling’, Aswad’s ‘Judgement Day’, the Ruts’ ‘Babylon’s Burning’, and, most potently perhaps, in the weird atmospherics of the Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’. On the verge of Thatcherism and the neo-liberal takeover of the world, much of the music of this pivotal moment records the sound of a country breaking apart, of old communities dying and new ones struggling to be born. Pop hadn’t yet been fully assimilated into capitalism, it was a playground the young still had largely to themselves, which meant these songs rang out like warning shots 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 link people together under the radar. Something of a graphomaniac, he wrote long letters to his fans, connecting them to one another. In the winter of 1977 I was seventeen, working in the hat and glove department of Debenhams on Oxford Street, and looking for people to share my anger with. He put me in touch with two Jewish schoolgirls from Camden who called themselves Scruf and Scruff; Karen, a stylish secretary, the daughter of East European immigrants; Alan, who was serving in the army in Northern Ireland and being tormented by other soldiers for his love of punk; and a razor-sharp Irish girl who went by the name of Anna Gram, and 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 the Irate Kate that Tom Robinson had written to her about.
Not long after this happened, I walked out of Debenhams one rainy night and made my way over to the East End where RAR were a holding a meeting. I remember being embarrassed by my boring work clothes as I descended into a basement of anarchic punks, socialists, writers, photographers and graphic designers, most of them a decade or so older than me. By the end of the evening I was so fired up by their heady talk (they discussed Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandra Kollontai and Kurt Weill as if they were old friends), that I chucked in my job and volunteered to become RAR’s first full-time worker.
Red Saunders, the man who dreamed up RAR after Eric Clapton’s racist outburst, donated desk space I could use in his Soho photographic studio. Every morning I’d walk up Great Windmill Street as elaborately painted women pushed chairs out in front of the sex shops, smoked and drank espressos, and waited for the day’s punters to slink in. At the studio, the photographers put out their paraphernalia – maybe a wind-machine for a glossy Sunday Times portrait of Kate Bush – and I’d set to answering the letters that had begun to pour in from across the country. We quickly outgrew our spot in Soho and with the money coming in – school kids’ pennies sellotaped together, the odd fiver from a supportive vicar, tenners from the anarchist bookshop stocking RAR’s innovative poster-magazine, Temporary Hoarding – we could afford a room in Clerkenwell, not far from the Marx Memorial library. Here the operation got a little more sophisticated. The RAR office became the hub and contact point for a much larger group of people and activities.
By day I’d liaise with the now elected RAR committee and the rapidly increasing number of RAR groups in the UK and abroad, communicate with bands and their managers, send out press releases, gestetner newsletters, order new badges and stickers, encourage people to write reviews and reports for Temporary Hoarding, pay bills, draw up agendas, and talk to other groups with whom we often collaborated (the campaign against the Corrie anti-abortion Bill, the Right to Work marchers, and CURB, who organised against violent bouncers). By night we’d run letter-writing sessions, often working into the dawn with a gang of volunteers – teenagers, like my sister Jo and her friends, skiving from school; shop assistants, machine operators and secretaries bunking off work. We’d all squeeze into RAR’s tiny office, sackfuls of mail strewn around the floor. From the letters flooding in it was evident that there was a nation of kids out there, bored out of their minds, and horrified by the spectre of the National Front marching on their high streets. They described living in nowhere towns and suburbs that closed down at seven o’clock, while they ached for a wider, more glamorous world which they tried to discover by listening to John Peel late into the night or reading James Baldwin under the covers by torchlight.
RAR became a network before we knew what a network was. We told these kids: here are the addresses of other music fans in your area, set up a RAR group, design a poster, put on a gig, write your own fanzine, and challenge the local National Front. We told them anyone could do it and wrote step-by-step Gig Guides showing them how. And in Temporary Hoarding, the Mekons published an article explaining how to build your own PA system, 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 bands 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.
As well as organising our own gigs, tours and carnivals, RAR took a stall round the country when the TRB went out on the road. The band dressed like the school kids they sang about, “sullen, unhealthy and mean”, and Tom had 302.0 stencilled on his shirt. This was 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 insolence and irony in songs like ‘Glad to be Gay’ (“The British police are the best in the world…”), he also understood, instinctively, the importance of bringing people together. 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”. Racism, sexism and homophobia – these things were all part of the same problem, and we would sink or swim together. For RAR, too, solidarity was the watchword. As David Widgery, the East End doctor who wrote so passionately for Temporary Hoarding, argued in an article on colonialism: “there’s no us without them“. This is why Robinson was so important to RAR, a movement dedicated to routing racism, but also to exploring 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. Tom is facing the audience, back to the camera, his arms wide open, as if to embrace the crowd.
Track 2. Oh Bondage, Up Yours! — X-Ray Spex (1978)
This was the moment when women got bored of being fans or groupies and started taking to the stage. There were all-girl bands like the Slits, the Raincoats, 15 16 17, and the Bodysnatchers; women who fronted otherwise male groups such as The Selector; or mixed groups such as the Au Pairs. Many of these were tribal, slotting into the already-established indie, ska or lovers rock scenes. But X-Ray Spex’s singer, Poly Styrene, 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 idiosyncratic. 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 she’d like to have a go herself. That was the basic Punk DNA — an egalitarian anyone-can-do-it, but you had to have swagger, an attitude that boasted: “This is me. Now show me what you can do.”
In ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’, 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 out, “but I say, Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”, and the music kicks in. It was a declaration of war: and whether you read this as a women saying she was tired of the sexist shit and wasn’t going to take it any longer, or more broadly as a cry against all the ties that bind, 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 the aesthetic of punk. As she indicated repeatedly in interview, 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, sending up clichés and unexamined dogma. So when X-Ray Spex played at the first RAR carnival, Poly appeared sartorially resplendent in a tweed twinset, as if in pastiche of Margaret Thatcher. But she took over the archetypal English look and made it her own by combining her tweeds with an African headscarf and brightly-coloured socks.
Punk has often been characterised as angry or nihilistic, and there are still endless arguments about its origins and purity: were you early enough on the scene, were you authentically English or, as John Lydon accused others, singing in an American drawl, imitating Jamaican patois? In fact, like some of the best reggae, its main mode was reportage of under-reported lives and places. RAR acts like The Members vividly evoked ‘The Sound of the Suburbs’, Steel Pulse, who also played the first RAR carnival, announced a ‘Handsworth Revolution’, while John Cooper Clarke, appearing at the Northern RAR Carnival in Manchester, was scathing about the misery and tedium of much everyday life: “The bloody train is bloody late, You bloody wait you bloody wait, You’re bloody lost and bloody found, Stuck in fucking chicken town”. But as I said, anger wasn’t the only mode; there was parody, too. The Clash had a nice line in skewering capitalist commodification in songs like ‘Lost in the Supermarket‘, as did the Gang of Four in ‘Damaged Goods‘ (“I can’t work, I can’t achieve, Send me back”), and X-Ray Spex in ‘Warrior in Woolworths’, or the sweetly melancholic, ‘GermFree Adolescents’. Other bands dragged up in the clothes of the oppressor: Robinson sometimes appeared on stage dressed as a policeman, while Steel Pulse, in an electric performance, donned long white robes for their protest song ‘Ku Klux Klan’.
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 was evident among many of the bands who played for RAR and RAS (Rock Against Sexism): groups like the Gang of Four, the Mekons and the Au Pairs. RAS was the brainchild of another Temporary Hoarding writer, Lucy Toothpaste. She was also a member of the RAR committee alongside Syd, Red, Widgery, TH editors and designers, Ruth Gregory and Roger Huddle; photographer and banner-maker, Robert Galvin; myself, John Dennis and Wayne Minter – who both joined me at the RAR office. RAR had been keen to put women on our stages but Lucy rightly saw this wasn’t enough: the aim of RAS was to challenge sexism throughout the music industry. And this meant challenging the bands, too. In the Au Pairs interview she and I conducted for TH, and in another we worked on with the Gang of Four, she’s particularly interested in ideas of power, in dissecting the aggression that then characterised so much music, asking: what did it mean, was it necessary, and how might a woman utilise the power invested in her when she walked up to the microphone and took control of the stage?
If you look at the statement made recently by Grimes (“I don’t want to be infantilised because I refuse to be sexualised”) you can see that the problems RAS highlighted haven’t gone away, not least because Grimes still feels she has to answer that ‘man-hater’ tag which independent-minded women get stuck with even today. Much of the anti-racism RAR was arguing for became second nature in Britain (at least until the rise of UKIP), 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.
Track 3. Sonny’s Lettah – Linton Kwesi Johnson (1979)
In one of the finest examples of the reportage song, Linton Kwesi Johnson brought us news from the front line, conveying just what it felt like to be an immigrant or the child of immigrants then living in Britain. 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, or dub poem, 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. Nearly forty years before the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, it revealed a commonplace cycle of police violence, followed by black people’s self-defence, then their criminalisation.
The singer, Sonny, finds his 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, immaculately produced by Dennis Bovell, is told in epistolary form, in a letter sent from Brixton Prison to the brothers’ mother back home in the Caribbean. The song is notable for the way that it contrasts the deference and respect shown to Sonny’s mother with the brutality of the British police when someone challenges their authority. To this brutality, LKJ answered with militancy. ‘Fite Dem Back’, he proposed in another song, and, more pointedly, “We don’t rock against racism, we fight against it.”
The demand for respect, even in the midst of disobedience and insurrection, was something that the black community kept insisting on. Black people were not, as the police or politicians said, or the gutter press frequently reported, aliens or savages, but people with cultures and histories of their own. And reggae musicians often extolled their culture, expressing a determination to resist those who would deny or eradicate it. Dennis Bovell’s band, Matumbi, who performed at RAR’s first official gig, made just this point in a song called ‘Black Civilisation’. For many alienated white kids this was a new idea. If black people had a culture in which they took pride, what was white culture? What was whiteness? It made legible to them something that had previously been invisible. At the first RAR carnival the Clash sang a furious version of ‘White Riot‘, their response to this sudden realisation. They were abetted in this by Jimmy Pursey, the Sham 69 singer – a band with a significant National Front following. Pursey was incredibly loyal to his largely working class supporters and reluctant to tell them what they should think. But his appearance at the carnival confronted the racism among some of his fans, a stand underlined in a song he released shortly after, ‘If the Kids are United’: “Understand him, he’ll understand you, For you are him, and he is you”.
Slowly these values of respect, and of cultural curiosity and appreciation, injected something new into the anger of punk, shifting the way that a whole generation learned to talk to, listen to and live with one another. The moment when black and white musicians came together at the end of every RAR gig was nearly always achieved with a reggae jam, something celebratory and uplifting – sentiments largely unavailable in the disaffected vernacular of punk. This coming together, and the ecstasy of the crowd at many RAR gigs and carnivals – the joy in celebrating a togetherness that politicians from Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher kept denying – was most frequently orchestrated by one of England’s finest live bands, Misty in Roots. Misty often performed with the Ruts, stable mates on their co-operatively owned Southall record label, People Unite; with the TRB; with Elvis Costello at the second RAR Carnival in Brixton; but also, crucially, with Pursey and Sham 69. And when Clarence Baker, the singer from Misty was brutally beaten by the police during the Southall riot, putting him in a coma, RAR responded with two benefit concerts at the Rainbow called Southall Kids are Innocent, at which Aswad, the Clash, the Ruts, the Members, the Pop Group and Pete Townshend all played.
The final RAR Carnival at Leeds in 1981 featured the Specials. Like The Beat and UB40, they were a mixed-race band who had come up playing through the RAR clubs. Together on stage, they embodied everything RAR stood for. And in songs like ‘Doesn’t Make it Alright’, their lyricist, Jerry Dammers, addressed head-0n the way that poverty and alienation led to prejudice and violence, telling their audience “it’s the worst excuse in the world”, but also suggesting a way out of the trap racism set for working class kids: “Just because you’re a black boy, Just because you’re a white, It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him, It doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight.”
On the thirtieth anniversary of the first RAR carnival Jimmy Pursey expressed what many people involved in RAR and the music of this critical moment felt: “We are still depressed by the government, but we are not confused by our culture. Britain is a multi-cultural society and it always will be if I have anything to do with it.” That was a decade ago. Then, in the summer of ‘16, UKIP and Farage dominated the airwaves, bigotry went unchallenged on the BBC, Britain voted to turn itself back into a parochial little country, and the blood of foreigners ran on our streets. Perhaps this winter we should be remembering the architect of punk, John Lydon, a man inspired and educated by his love of reggae, singing to us in ‘Rise’: “I could be black, I could be white”, and then repeating insistently, as if trying to instil the message: “Anger is an energy”. Forty years on from RAR, when the country is sleepwalking back into fantasies of racism and separation, we could do, once again, with some of that galvanising spirit.