Rock Against Racism

The story of ‘Rock Against Racism’ begins some time ago in the UK, when a white rock star, decided to politicise one of his concerts. At his Birmingham concert on 14 August 1976, “Slow Hand” launched into a drunken and racist speech or tirade to his audience. Eric Clapton of course was, at the time, probably the most well known white blues player, and was even regarded by some as perhaps the best.

Clapton is reported to have started telling the crowd that England had “become overcrowded”, that they “should get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out”, and then continued to chant the British National Front slogan, “keep Britain white”. In doing this he showed his support for the enemy of multi-racial Britain and ultra-right Conservative, former minister Enoch Powell, shouting, “Enoch’s right – we should send them all back” to stop Britain from becoming “a black colony”. Powell had become quite famous some years before in 1968, for making a speech in that same city, known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ or ‘Birmingham’ speech.

Quite a number of people saw contradictions in Clapton’s racist diatribe including a rock ‘n’ roll photographer, Red Saunders, who with others wrote a letter to NME. In it they raised one of the contradictions, that Clapton had had his biggest hit with a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘I shot the sheriff’ back in 1974. They actually wrote: “Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!” In the letter they also called for and later received much support from people to help them form a movement they called ‘Rock Against Racism’.

Rock Against Racism was aimed at fighting against the power of racism and racist ideas in popular culture and attack the right-wing, neo-Nazi National Front. It was also to counteract a growing number of racially motivated attacks in England. Through music and their activities, RAR wanted to promote racial harmony, and as such claims to be one of the first organisations to bring black and white musicians together for gigs, under the banner of ‘Love music hate racism’. By the end of the British summer of 1978, Rock Against Racism had included 36 concerts across England attended by some 250,000 youth.

Something else that garnered support for the early movement – just after Eric’s outburst – ‘The Thin White Duke’, who was at that time the current identity of David Bowie, made statements supporting fascism and that were perceived to have been supportive of Adolf Hitler, in Playboy and NME.

Allegedly he said: “Britain is ready for a fascist leader… I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.” (COME in Travis Bickle!) He was also quoted as saying: “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars” – an idea perhaps followed up by U2 with their ZooTV stage show in the 1990s – before, allegedly, making a Hitler salute while riding in a Cadillac.

Later on, Bowie claimed that a photographer had caught him in the middle of waving from the Cadillac. While Clapton has never gone back on or apologised for his remarks, Bowie said he was having a bad day and blamed it on a brief obsession with occultism, Nietzsche and excessive drug use.

The Rock Against Racism movement attracted the attention of the early Clash who unlike the Sex Pistols – Johnny Rotten had said that they weren’t all that political and that if they were it pretty much came from Malcolm McLaren – had a started to develop a more political agenda.  Joe Strummer said that through the Clash’s involvement in RAR “we’re hoping to educate any kid who comes to listen to us, just to keep ‘em from joining the National Front when things get really tough”.

At the time that ‘Rock Against Racism’ came about, of course, Punk was quickly emerging, and with it a fascination with swastikas, displayed by young punks to apparently annoy their parents. The Rock Against Racism organisers worked closely with the ANL – the Anti-Nazi League, and one of the first concerts was the Anti-Nazi League Carnival in London, headlined by the Clash. This was in the Spring of 1978, which included a march by 100,000 people from Trafalgar Square to the East End for an open-air performance by bands that included Buzzcocks, Steel Pulse, the Ruts, Generation X, the Tom Robinson Band (who were quite involved in RAR) and X-Ray Specs.

To this day RAR – Love Music Hate Racism – continues, having spread across the world including of course in Australia. One of the first RARs in Australia was at Storey Hall RMIT, on Sunday March 30, 1980. Pioneering RAR gigs in Australia included bands like No Fixed Address and Midnight Oil. In 2009 there was RoAR Scotland, about raising awareness of issues surrounding racism in Scotland and speaking out against discrimination included in the line up were Franz Ferdinand.

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