Rock Against Racism: Breaking out of the Left Ghetto

As a response to growing racism and the growth of a Nazi party, British musicians founded Rock Against Racism in the 1970s. And suddenly it was cool to fight the Nazis. By Phil Butland and Rosemarie Nünning

IMG_2856Birmingham 1976. The second largest city in Britain has a relatively high proportion of residents with a migrant background. Racist incidents are not uncommon. In 1964, the Conservative Party’s Peter Griffiths ran an election campaign in the Birmingham suburb of Smethwick with the slogan: “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”. In an election where there was a clear swing to Labour elsewhere, Griffiths clearly beat his Labour opponent. Four years later, the Tory MP Enoch Powell spoke in Birmingham, promising “rivers of blood” if harsh immigration controls were not implemented. In 1976, Powell is still sitting in parliament, now for an ultra-reactionary Northern Irish party.

On August 5 1976, Eric Clapton is playing in Birmingham. The former guitarist of bands like the Yardbirds and Cream has recently released a cover version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sherriff”. Surely an excellent opportunity to celebrate black music in this multicultural city?

Clapton takes the stage. He says that the country being overrun by blacks and Powell should be Prime Minister, to prevent England becoming a “black colony”. He goes on: “get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out!” He reiterates the slogan of the fascist National Front (NF) “Keep Britain White”. Later Clapton argued that he was drunk, but he has never distanced himself from the content of these statements.

In the same year David Bowie apparently gives a Hitler salute at Victoria station. In an interview with “Playboy” magazine, Bowie says the following: “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader … Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars”. Meanwhile, electoral support for the NF is growing: they receive nearly 20% of the votes in Leicester and 5.7% in the London local elections. In Blackburn, two Nazi organizations receive 38% of the vote between them

The electoral success of the NF was accompanied by racist attacks. On June 4th, 1976 racists in London murdered the 18-year-old Gurdip Singh Chaggar. Leading NF member John Kingsley Read declares: “One down, a million to go”.

With this background, Clapton’s and Bowie’s remarks were highly incendiary. They prompted the photographer Red Saunders and others to write Clapton an open letter: “Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music… we urge support for Rock against Racism. P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!”

This letter was published in several newspapers and music magazines, leading to the formation Rock Against Racism (RAR) launched. Three months later, the first RAR concert with singer Carol Grimes was held in East London, an area where the NF was particularly active.

Saunders and Co were lucky that they started their initiative in 1976, the birth year of punk. A year later, in the week of the Queen’s silver jubilee, “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols reached number 2 in the charts (rumours have it that it easily outsold the number 1, Rod Stewart’s “I don’t want to talk about it” but was denied its rightful chart position by a worried music industry). In the song, the band calls Great Britain a “fascist regime”.

The punk attitude of “learn 3 chords and form a band” made pop music suddenly accessible for the active participation of working-class kids. Punk was also a reaction to the political situation in Britain: in 1974, a Labour government had been elected, promising to “squeeze the rich till the pips squeak”. Two years later, the same Labour government was following rigid austerity policies, thus preparing the ground for Margaret Thatcher. They attacked trade unions as unemployment rose.

Disappointment with Labour didn’t automatically pull people to the left. Punk icons Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux regularly wore swastika t-shirts. They were more interested in being outrageous than changing the world. The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” ends, not with a call for organised resistance but to “get pissed! Destroy!”.

Rock Against Racism gave punk some perspective. As RAR organiser Roger Huddle later said: “we provided hope to punk culture. Without RAR, punk would have been only about hopelessness and nihilism.”

RAR concerts brought together musicians from quite different backgrounds. Female musicians were prominent. One of the most active RAR musicians was Tom Robinson, whose song “Glad to be Gay” put gay and lesbian rights on the agenda.

RAR’s aimed to fight racism on the cultural level. In the first edition of their magazine, David Widgery wrote the following:  “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. Rock Against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.”

The magazine also contained tips for political activists. RAR offered stickers, badges and posters and made it cool to fight the Nazis. Young people from the remotest corners of Britain contacted the RAT offices asking what they could do.

RAR would not have been sustainable without the Anti Nazi League (ANL). The ANL was formed following the “Battle of Lewisham”. Lewisham in North London has a significant number of black residents and was in August 1977 the target for a Nazi demonstration. Members of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) together with local youth and old anti-fascists and trade unionists managed to break through police lines to physically stop the Nazi demo.

This was a break from the traditional strategy of the left, which had tried to avoid direct confrontation, preferring to call on the state to ban Nazi rallies, or to organise counter-demonstrations at the same time as a Nazi march but at a quite different location.

The ANL pointed out the importance of demonstrations for the Nazis, in their ultimate aim of building a street movement that terrorised migrants, trade unionists, leftists, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities. In the words of Hitler’s propaganda minister Goebbels, such demonstrations “transformed a person from a little worm into a part of a large dragon.”

At the same time, the ANL was clear that the Nazis could not be stopped by a small but militant vanguard but by a mass movement. For this reason it stressed the singularity of the fight against organised fascists rather than racism as a whole. Even people who may have harboured racial prejudices were accepted in the fight against the Nazis. Thus members and voters of the Labour party were encouraged to join the ANL, despite the rotten role of the Labour government.

This made the ANL a huge organisation. Its members included football manager Brian Clough, boxer Henry Cooper, and MPs such as Neil Kinnock, later leader of the Labour Party. From the beginning, the ANL worked closely with RAR. The importance of building a broad organisation became clear when press and politicians attacked the ANL as being a group of left hooligans, no better than the Nazis. It was difficult for these attacks to gain traction amongst people whose favourite football player or musician was also an ANL member.

For the ANL it was important to break out of the left-wing ghetto, and to attract musicians with a much more problematic fan base. Musicians such as Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, a working-class ban who had won some unwanted support from young Nazis. After receiving death threats Sham 69 were forced to pull out of the 1978 RAR carnival in East London. Pursey, however, remained, sang with the reggae group Aswad and gave an inspiring speech against racism from the stage.

Such collaborations between black and white musicians was a conscious strategy of RAR. Each carnival was headlined by a black reggae group, even when more famous punk bands were on the bill. This was the atmosphere which caused Bob Marley, who was living in London at the time, to write songs like “Punky Reggae Party”. Punk bands like the Clash similarly covered reggae songs like “Police and Thieves” and “Armagideon Time”.

RAR and the ANL produced significant results. In the 1979 parliamentary elections, the National Front stood on only half the possible seats, and got 0.6% of the vote. Later at a court hearing, NF leader Martin Webster testified that he was well on the way to becoming prime minister, then suddenly the ANL was everywhere and knocking hell out of the NF. This made it impossible for the NF to bring people onto the street and was the most significant factor in their demise.

In 1981, RAR organised one last festival. In the previous five years, they had organised concerts and festivals with punks like the Clash, reggae artists like Steel Pulse, the new ska bands like The Specials and old rockers like Alex Harvey. These musicians – and their fans – made a significant contribution towards pushing back the Nazis.

Since then, music and politics have come together on different occasions. This has been sometimes t the huge credit of the artist involved – such as Rage Against The Machine’s support for the anti-capitalist protests in Seattle, or Steven Van Zandt’s Artists Against Apartheid. In 2002, the initiative “Love Music Hate Racism” was formed in the tradition of RAR, organising concerts against a new fascist threat.

Other unions of music and politics have been more dubious. Live Aid and Live 8 may have temporarily given some respite to starving people in Africa, but only at the cost of giving a platform to tax dodger Bono to praise George W Bush and Tony Blair, who were at least partly responsible for the misery in the first place.

The final word on RAR goes to Gurinder Chadha. Now she is a successful director, famous for films like “Bend it like Beckham”. In the 1970s, she was a schoolkid living above her parent’s corner shop in London. The family was in permanent fear of racist thugs attacking the shop. In 1978 Gurinder sneaked off to a RAR carnival where she saw a park full of people. At this moment she understood something.

“It was an incredibly emotional moment because, for the first time, I felt surrounded by people on my side. That was when I thought that something had changed in Britain for ever. Before RAR, there was no sense that it wasn’t OK to be racist. But with RAR, we got to see that there were others willing to speak out against racism and talk about a different kind of Britain.”

Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League were also the model for the initiative Rock Gegen Rechts, which successfully organised against the NPD in Germany from 1979.

Given the disturbing street marches organized Nazis and racists in recent months, their attacks on refugees and the drift to the right by the mainstream parties, we can learn much from the history of Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League. The left needs to build a new anti-nazi movement which is as broad as it is deep. This should be accompanied by a cultural movement which shows why it’s not OK to be a racist.

This article originally appeared in German in the Winter 2015 edition of marx21 magazine