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Rock Against Racism

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Rock Against Racism brought punk and reggae bands together as a weapon against the far-right. In 1978, race relations in Britain were in crisis. The National Front was gathering power and immigrants lived in fear of violence. But that year also saw the rise of a campaign aimed at halting the tide of hatred with music - a grassroots movement culminating in a march across London and an open-air concert in the East End.

On 30 April 1978, a crowd gathered in Victoria Park in London's East End. They had come from all over the country - 42 coaches from Glasgow, 15 from Sheffield, an entire trainload from Manchester - marching across London from Trafalgar Square to attend a special all-day concert headlined by Tom Robinson and the Clash. The day had been organised by 'Rock Against Racism', a grassroots political movement that used music to campaign against the looming electoral threat of the National Front.


Rock Against Racism radicalised a generation, it showed that music could do more than just entertain: it could make a difference. By demonstrating the power of music to effect change it inspired Live Aid and its supporters claim it helped destroy the National Front. It was the triumphant climax to a story that began two years earlier, following one hot August night in Birmingham.


It was 5 August 1976 and Eric Clapton was drunk, angry and on stage at the Birmingham Odeon. 'Enoch was right,' he told the audience, 'I think we should send them all back.' Britain was, he complained, in danger of becoming 'a black colony' and a vote for controversial Tory politician Enoch Powell whom he described as a prophet was needed to 'keep Britain white'. Although the irony was possibly lost on Clapton, the Odeon in Birmingham is on New Street, minutes from the Midland Hotel where eight years earlier Powell had made his infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech. But if the coincidence was curious, the hypocrisy was breathtaking: Clapton's career was based on appropriating black music, and he had recently had a hit with Bob Marley's 'I Shot the Sheriff'.

The Wailers - I Shot The Sheriff

Eric Clapton - I Shot The Sheriff

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David Bowie

In usual circumstances his comments would have been merely ill advised, but it was the social and political context which made Clapton's intervention so chilling. The National Front had won 40 per cent of the votes in the spring elections in Blackburn. One month earlier an Asian teenager, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, had been murdered by a gang of white youths in Southall. 'One down - a million to go' was the response to the killing from John Kingsley Read of the National Front. Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux were sporting swastikas as fashion statements. David Bowie, who three months earlier had been photographed apparently giving a Nazi salute in Victoria Station, told Cameron Crowe in the September 1976 edition of Playboy '... yes I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that's hanging foul in the air... is a right-wing totally dictatorial tyranny...' In that same interview Bowie claimed that 'Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.' This was Britain then in the sweltering summer of 1976, and in that context Clapton's comments were potentially incendiary.


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John Enoch Powell, MBE (16 June 1912 – 8 February 1998), was a British politician. He served as a Conservative Member of Parliament (1950–1974) and was Minister of Health (1960–1963) then Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP (1974–1987).

Powell attracted widespread attention for his "Rivers of Blood" speech, delivered on 20 April 1968 to the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre. In it, Powell criticised the rates of immigration into the UK, especially from the New Commonwealth, and opposed the anti-discrimination legislation Race Relations Bill. The speech drew sharp criticism from some of Powell's own party members and The Times, with Conservative Party leader Edward Heath dismissing Powell a day after the speech from his position as Shadow Defence Secretary.

In the aftermath of the speech, several polls suggested that 67 to 82 per cent of the UK population agreed with Powell's opinions. His supporters claimed that the large public following that Powell attracted helped the Conservatives to win the 1970 general election, and perhaps cost them the February 1974 general election, when Powell turned his back on the Conservatives by endorsing a vote for Labour, which returned as a minority government.

Enoch Powell 1968 Warning

Powell was returned to the House of Commons in October 1974 as the Ulster Unionist Party MP for the Northern Ireland constituency of South Down. He represented the constituency until he was defeated at the 1987 general election. 

Millie Small - Enoch Power


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Red Saunders was a rock photographer and political activist who had been inspired and radicalised by the events of 1968 (Enoch Powell, Rivers Of Blood speech). When he heard Clapton's comments he felt compelled to register his opposition. 'I was outraged, I was a fan of the blues and had seen Clapton playing in the Sixties at the Marquee Club, I couldn't believe he could now be saying what he was.' 
Saunders decided to pen a letter of protest to the music press. In the letter, published in the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and the Socialist Worker, Saunders and other signatories including his friend Roger Huddle wrote: 
When I read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell I nearly puked.
What’s going on Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage.  So you are going to stand for MP and you think we are being colonised by black people.  Come on… you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it.
Own up half your music is black.  You’re rock music’s biggest colonist.  You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R & B?
You’ve got to fight the racist poison, otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their cheque books and plastic crap.
Rock was and still can be a real progressive culture not a package mail order stick-on nightmare of mediocre garbage.
Keep the faith, black and white unite and fight.
We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music... we urge support for Rock against Racism. 
P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!' 

Red Saunders Interview

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The letter urged those readers wanting to join Rock Against Racism to write to them. Within a fortnight there were more than 600 replies. Three months later, in November 1976, Rock Against Racism held its first ever gig, featuring Carol Grimes, in the Princess Alice pub in east London. 'We had friends who were dockers who had become anti-racist after the Powell speech,' Roger Huddle recalls, 'and they provided the security for the gig because the NF were really active in the area.'
When Paul Furness read the letter in the NME he was working as a medical records clerk at Leeds General Infirmary. 'Leeds was a dark, depressed city, there was lots of youth unemployment, the Yorkshire Ripper was still loose - so when I read the letter in the NME it was like a breath of fresh air, it was what I had been waiting for.' 
Buoyed by the enthusiastic response, RAR (Rock Against Racism) began organising concerts which would feature multiracial line-ups sharing the bill. The concerts would end with reggae bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse playing with punk bands such as the Ruts, the Slits and Generation X. 
Misty in Roots, a Southall-based reggae group played more concerts than any other band for RAR. 'Music can help bring people together,' lead singer Poko tells me. 'When you saw a band like ours jamming with Tom Robinson or Elvis Costello it showed that if you love music we can all live together.'

Misty In Roots - Oh Wicked ManArtist Name
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Misty In Roots - Oh Wicked Man


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Following success in the spring 1977 elections - where they pushed the Liberals into fourth place in nearly a quarter of constituencies - the NF were threatening to achieve an electoral breakthrough. The Anti-Nazi League - which had formed in 1977 - were keen to hold a joint demonstration with RAR in the spring of 1978 to encourage supporters to vote against the National Front in May's council elections. The Greater London Council - then Conservative-led - gave permission to use Victoria Park, which had been the rallying ground of London's Chartists in 1848. The date was set for Sunday 30 April and the plan was for a carnival in Trafalgar Square followed by an open-air concert in Victoria Park. In Beating Time, David Widgery's history of RAR, he writes that they wanted to turn the day into 'the biggest piece of revolutionary street theatre London had ever seen, a 10th anniversary tribute to the Paris events of May 1968.' By holding the concert in the East End, RAR was declaring its intention of taking the battle into the heart of where the National Front was trying to build support.

Three weeks before the carnival, two parcel bombs were delivered by the neo-Nazi organisation Column 88 to the headquarters of the Communist Party and the trade union Nupe. On 21 April, nine days before the carnival, 10-year-old Kennith Singh was stabbed to death yards from his east London home. The killers - who were never found - left eight stab wounds in the back of his head.  In Victoria Park, sodden from the rain that had lashed down all week, Anti-Nazi League activists had spent the previous night sleeping on the stage to protect it from being attacked by the National Front.

In Trafalgar Square 10,000 people had gathered, the crowd growing as it began to make its way to east London. 'Trafalgar Square was raked with colour,' David Widgery recorded. 'Yellow ANL roundels, punk pink Rock Against Racism stars, Day-Glo flags oscillating in approval to the speeches.'
Having rained all night and morning, the sun then broke through at 1.30pm. 'I was in Victoria Park and when I introduced the first act, X-Ray Spex, there were only a few hundred people in the park,' recalls Roger Huddle, 'but by the second song the march had arrived.' Throughout the afternoon they came, punks spilling out of coaches in leather and safety pins to join vicars, hippies and trade unionists. By the evening upwards of 80,000 were in Victoria Park to see the Clash take to the stage.

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Thames Television 1978

Steel Pulse - Handsworth Revolution


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For the second Carnival, on 24 September, a similar number of people marched from Hyde Park, crossing the Thames until they arrived at Brockwell Park in Brixton for a concert featuring Aswad, Elvis Costello and Stiff Little Fingers.
In the following week's local elections the National Front failed to secure any seats and its level of support fell. In July Rock Against Racism staged a carnival in Manchester featuring Steel Pulse and the Buzzcocks. It was followed in September with a second London concert in Brixton's Brockwell Park with Stiff Little Fingers, Aswad and Elvis Costello. By the end of 1978 RAR had organised 300 local concerts and five carnivals. In the run up to the 1979 election it staged a 'Militant Entertainment Tour' featuring 40 bands at 23 concerts covering more than 2,000 miles on the road.

In the general election the NF's 303 candidates averaged just 0.6 per cent of the overall vote. There is an argument that the election of the Conservative government signalled the death knell for the National Front. Far-right parties thrive under Labour governments; the NF were strongest during the mid-Seventies, a time of great disillusionment with a Labour government seen as economically incompetent. Margaret Thatcher had already expressed her concern that Britain was being 'swamped by people of a different culture', a barely coded come-on to the extreme right. But even if some NF votes went to the Conservatives, it is not the full explanation of the drop in NF support.

'There is a danger in believing that politics is all top down,' explains Ian Goodyer, who is writing a book on RAR, 'that Thatcher just pulled the rug from under the racists' feet, but the truth is that by 1979 Rock Against Racism and the ANL had thoroughly discredited the National Front.' Before RAR, the NF had staged intimidatory marches in areas with large immigrant communities, but once RAR began to demonstrate that they could put thousands on the street in opposition to them, the NF were forced to retreat. 'We isolated them at work and we isolated them at the colleges,' claims Roger Huddle, 'and by the end of it they were a spent force mentally and politically. I don't want to overstate what we did, but I am sick to death of understating it.'

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Aswad - Hulet



On 13 August 1977, under the pretext of demonstrating against street crime, the far-right National Front (NF) organized a march from New Cross to Catford, passing through multicultural Lewisham.
Attempts to have the march banned in the High Court by the All Lewisham Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (ALCARAF) had failed. So on the morning of the 13 August 1977, hundreds of NF members began to assemble in Achilles Street in New Cross.
At the same time, thousands of local people and community leaders, including the Mayor of Lewisham and the Bishop of Southwark, came together at Ladywell Fields to hold a peaceful counter-march under the ALCARAF banner.

By midday in New Cross, huge crowds of local people and members of political organisations had gathered on Clifton Rise to block the NF’s intended route.
 Police faced forceful opposition when they attempted to clear Clifton Rise and there were violent confrontations when they tried to reroute the NF through Pagnell Street.

Later that afternoon, violent clashes continued in Lewisham town centre as counter-demonstrators clashed with police after the NF had abandoned their march and been escorted out of the area.
At that point, and for the first time on the British mainland, the police deployed the large rigid-plastic riot shields that would become such a hallmark of law and order in the 1980s.
The events of 13 August 1977 became known as the ‘Battle of Lewisham'

August 13: What Happened? (1977)

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New Cross Inn, 323 New Cross Road




  • Sarfraz Manzoor - The year rock found the power to unite - The Guardian  20 April 2008 - READ MORE

  • Remembering the Battle of Lewisham - Goldsmiths University Of London READ MORE


  • Rock Against Racism with Misty in Roots, Brindsley Forde's Aswad, The Members & Neville Staples READ MORE

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