When Punk & Reggae Fans Launched the “Rock Against Racism” Movement and Pushed Back Against Britain’s Racist Right (1976)

The UK of the late-70s was, in many unfor­tu­nate respects, like the UK (and US) of today, with far-right attacks against West Indi­an and Asian immi­grants becom­ing rou­tine, along with increased aggres­sion from the police. Enoch Powell’s inflam­ma­to­ry 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech (denounced in the papers as a naked “appeal to racial hatred) ener­gized the far-right Nation­al Front. Nazi punks and skin­heads began vio­lent cam­paigns in the mid-70s. A very hot sum­mer in 1976 saw a riot at the Not­ting­ham Car­ni­val, when police attacked the West Indi­an fes­ti­val. Car­ni­val-goers fought back, includ­ing the Clash’s Joe Strum­mer and Paul Simenon, who describe the events below.

Strum­mer was inspired to pen “White Riot,” a call to arms for white punks against the police and far right, and the band moved increas­ing­ly toward reg­gae, includ­ing a cov­er of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves.”

Into this boil­ing caul­dron stepped Eric Clap­ton to drunk­en­ly declare his sup­port for Pow­ell onstage in Birm­ing­ham and repeat­ed­ly chant the Nation­al Front slo­gan “keep Britain white!” In out­raged response, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer Clap­ton fan Red Saun­ders and oth­ers found­ed Rock Against Racism, pub­lish­ing a let­ter in the NME to recruit peo­ple to join the cause. The short note addressed Clap­ton’s glar­ing hypocrisy direct­ly: “Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist.”

The let­ter artic­u­lat­ed the dis­gust felt by thou­sands around the coun­try. Paul Fur­ness, work­ing as a med­ical records clerk in Leeds at the time, found the anti-racist dec­la­ra­tion “pos­i­tive” and “life affirm­ing,” as he says in the short film at the top. He helped orga­nize the first Rock Against Racism car­ni­val in 1978 and was amazed “that there were thou­sands and thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple descend­ing on Lon­don. The excite­ment of it, just this real­iza­tion…. That you can change things, that you can could actu­al­ly make a dif­fer­ence.”

Cre­at­ed with the Anti-Nazi League, the April 1978 Rock Against Racism Car­ni­val in London’s Vic­to­ria Park was the moment “punk became a pop­ulist move­ment to be reck­oned with,” writes Ian Fort­nam at Clas­sic Rock. (Learn more in the doc­u­men­tary above.) “Nev­er before had so many peo­ple been mobi­lized for that sort of cause,” head­lin­er Tom Robin­son remem­bers. “It was our Wood­stock.” The Clash were there—you can hear their per­for­mance just above. It was, writes Fort­nam, “their finest hour”:

The Clash were on fire, feed­ing off of an ecsta­t­ic audi­ence and pre­mier­ing as yet unrecord­ed mate­r­i­al (even­tu­al­ly released on Give ‘Em Enough Rope the fol­low­ing Novem­ber) like Tom­my Gun and The Last Gang In Town. The show was a rev­e­la­tion.

The Rock Against Racism Car­ni­val brought togeth­er punk and reg­gae bands, and fans of both, start­ing a tra­di­tion of mul­ti-racial line­ups at RAR con­certs into the 80s that fea­tured X‑Ray Specs, the Ruts, the Slits, Gen­er­a­tion X, Elvis Costel­lo, Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Misty in Roots, among many oth­ers. “When you saw a band like ours jam­ming with Tom Robin­son or Elvis Costel­lo,” says singer Poko of Misty in Roots, who played more RAR shows than any oth­er band, “it showed that if you love music we can all live togeth­er.”

That mes­sage res­onat­ed through­out the coun­try and the sound sys­tems of the streets. At the first Car­ni­val, Fort­nam writes, “pha­lanx­es of police held back counter-demon­strat­ing skin­heads” while an esti­mat­ed 80,000 peo­ple marched through the streets chant­i­ng “Black and white unite and fight, smash the Nation­al Front.” Rock Against Racism became a mas­sive move­ment that did cre­ate uni­ty and pushed back suc­cess­ful­ly against far-right attacks. But it wasn’t only about the pol­i­tics, as pho­tog­ra­ph­er Syd Shel­ton recalls below. It was also a fight for what British punk would become—the music of fas­cism and the far right or a syn­the­sis of sounds and rhythms from the for­mer Empire and its for­mer colonies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Stay Free: The Sto­ry of the Clash” Nar­rat­ed by Pub­lic Enemy’s Chuck D: A New 8‑Episode Pod­cast

Lon­don Call­ing: A New Muse­um Exhi­bi­tion Cel­e­brates The Clash’s Icon­ic Album

The Clash Play Their Final Show (San Bernardi­no, 1983)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Mark Boyle says:

    Jesus H Christ, how many times are you sad clowns going to keep rewrit­ing his­to­ry until you achieve your wet dream of The Clash being the most impor­tant band in the his­to­ry of his­tor­i­cal things?

    They were a minor play­er who sold far few records than the Sex Pis­tols, Boom­town Rats, Stran­glers, Ian Dury and the Block­heads, Sham 69, etc because they had only a frac­tion of the pop­u­lar­i­ty and influ­ence the NME cred­it­ed them with … or rather SWP mem­bers Tony Par­sons and Julie Birchell cred­it­ed them with week­ly because the band gave mon­ey to the Social­ist Work­ers Par­ty in return for its thugs attack­ing “com­peti­tors” (ie. oth­er punks) gigs.

    Sham 69 dis­cov­ered the hard way that Rock Against Racism was — what­ev­er its ini­tial good inten­tions — an SWP front to fleece mon­ey from the gullible. To this day there’s nev­er been any prop­er expla­na­tion about where all the mon­ey it made went, just as with the Anti-Nazi League.

    Bands like The Stran­glers boy­cotted RAR pre­cise­ly because they knew what was going on (and unlike the Clash, the Stran­glers had reg­gae bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse as their reg­u­lar sup­port act to give them a air­ing they oth­er­wise weren’t able to get out­side of Lon­don). Even the Sex Pis­tols, for all their wor­thy anti far right views, refused to touch ANL or RAR — trust Mal­colm to spot a Swin­dle when he saw one!

  • Chris says:

    We start­ed going to small relat­ed Lon­don gath­er­ings and gigs in late 76, if my old pol­i­tics addled brain serves. I vague­ly remem­ber Wedgie Benn mak­ing a speech but maybe I’m con­fus­ing him with some­one else .
    My girl­friend of the time had an old­er broth­er that I swear Wolfie Smith,from Cit­i­zen Smith was cre­at­ed from. A real SWP sol­dier in his com­bat jack­et and yes even a beret with a star badge. He actu­al­ly used to say. ’ Come the day cit­i­zen and you’ll be first against the wall.’ The oth­er clas­sic was, ’ you’re going in the book. ’
    Even at 16 it was appar­ent to me that polit­i­cal oth­ers were usurp­ing the gen­uine anger appar­ent at the unfair­ness of treat­ment of minori­ties. It was also obvi­ous that with­out some kind of action by main­ly ordi­nary peo­ple that rules and behav­iour for one, could eas­i­ly be used against all.
    44 years lat­er, even dis­count­ing Covid 19, there is an even big­ger dis­par­i­ty between those that safe­ly have and those that have but could eas­i­ly lose it. I’m not ignor­ing the have not in that but there appear to be few­er than in those times. Peo­ple gave lots of stuff these days. It appears to give them com­fort and a belief that they are not at the bot­tom and at risk.
    Some­thing has to give. But will our cur­rent 16 year olds be the cat­a­lyst?

  • John says:

    What a great arti­cle!. I am book­mark­ing it to read it over again after work. It seems like a very inter­est­ing top­ic to write about.

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