Why they're rocking against racism again

Musicians are back on the march. A new generation of pop stars has joined forces with punk survivors to fight against far-right political groups. Terry Kirby and Louise Jury report
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The Independent Culture

It was the rebel yell of the Seventies generation, a protest against the monarchy, against the establishment and against prevailing standards of taste and decency, but the power of punk was also harnessed against a more sinister foe in Rock Against Racism, a mass musical counterblast to the creeping curse of fascism.

Thousands turned out in support when the Clash, the Buzzcocks and the Tom Robinson Band used their celebrity to highlight the activities of the National Front and British National Party (BNP).

Now, nearly three decades later, musicians are stepping into the anti-racism fray again. Modern-day stars are joining survivors of the punk era to tackle once again the influence of right-wing and fascist groups in a new movement, Love Music, Hate Racism (LMHR).

With the British National Party planning to field more candidates than ever before in June's local authority elections, LMHR is gearing up its campaign with concerts and other events that mirror the actions of Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s.

In the biggest gig of its kind so far this year, the Buzzcocks appeared last week at an LMHR benefit at the Astoria in London attended by 2,000 people. Miss Black America and the Others also supported the event, which ended with the Clash legend and Rock Against Racism veteran Mick Jones, joining the Libertines on stage for the final four numbers.

LMHR, which has helped to organise more than 60 events in the past year, now plans a weekly Rock Against Racism night at London's Borderline club, featuring up-and-coming young bands.

The campaign has won the support of young black artists such as Ms Dynamite, together with DJs and dance acts who are following in the footsteps of reggae groups such as Steel Pulse and Misty In Roots, which backed the movement of the Seventies.

Steve Diggle, of the Buzzcocks, said of last week's show: "I think it was a good idea for us to play because we formed a kind of link between the 1970s - having played for Rock Against Racism in Manchester in 1978 - and the present day.

"Racism is still a big issue out there - particularly in the kind of deprived areas of the North-west, where we come from - and rock music is a very powerful medium for getting this kind of important message across. It was a really special feeling to be there with all these other bands for that joint purpose.''

LMHR is anxious that the current generation of young people, a large portion of whom have taken little interest in conventional politics, should be made aware of the BNP's activities.

Some see the current climate as similar to the situation prevailing when Rock Against Racism began in late 1976.

A somewhat inebriated Eric Clapton, then considered very much part of the old guard, at a concert in Birmingham, told the audience that the politician Enoch Powell - infamous for his "rivers of blood" speech opposing mass immigration - was right and that Britain was "overcrowded".

The comments were regarded as a betrayal of the black music to which Clapton, among many musicians, owed his livelihood. (Although he was not alone in illiberal views: in 1976 David Bowie suggested "Britain could benefit from a fascist leader".)

After Clapton's comment, an outraged music photographer, Red Saunders, collected the signatures of a number of leftwing musicians for a letter to the New Musical Express, house journal of the emerging punk scene, as well as Melody Maker and Socialist Worker.

It announced the formation of the new group to fight racism, saying: "Come on Eric, you've been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff and 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'n'B?''

The pay-off line was a dig at Clapton's soft-rock version of Bob Marley's iconic rebel song: "Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure wasn't you."

There were 140 replies to the NME letter and Rock Against Racism was born. A sheepish Clapton was later reported to have explained that he was angry because an "Arab" had felt his wife's bottom.

RAR was enthusiastically embraced by the younger generation of musicians, particularly the political wing of the emerging punk rock movement, led by the Clash and the Tom Robinson Band.

Robinson, now a presenter on BBC Radio 6, whose band played dozens of small gigs under the Rock Against Racism banner, said: "Rock Against Racism was a fantastic grassroots movement and like the rest of punk it had great slogans, great artwork and images and collectable badges.''

He accepts that there is a need for the new version of the movement, but believes the times are very different now.

"We all thought it was the end of the world," he said. "You had the fag end of the Labour government, strikes and counter-strikes and the Jubilee [of 1977] polarised everyone. And there was an absolute feeling of us and them across the music scene over punk.

"You have to remember this was a time when the National Front were staging marches through areas heavily populated with immigrants and sending out their manifestos with those of all the main parties.

"We had a Jewish lead guitarist and I was openly gay, so fighting that kind of prejudice was very important to us.''

Robinson sees the issues today as being more diffuse than in the 1970s. "It is still very important, of course, but its difficult to draw exact parallels," he said. "Now we have to deal with things like anti-white racism and attacks on Islamic centres, post-September 11. What we do reflects the zeitgeist of the times.''

For Pete Doherty, singer and guitarist with the Libertines, the matter is as clear cut as it was for Robinson in the 1970s.

He said: "The BNP is on the rise like never before and it's a threat to us all. They have more councillors across Britain than ever. In 2003 they averaged about 17 per cent in local elections and they are ready to field candidates for the European parliament.

"I don't think you have to be a particularly developed human being, intellectually or spiritually, to despise racism. It may be easy to become complacent but we need to encourage people to fight racism, whether with words or actions.''

However, such campaigns are never easy. Robinson remembers that there were divisions behind the scenes in the 70s. The late Ian Dury, a man whose credibility has never been called into question, was distinctly sniffy about the initiative.

"[Dury] thought his music should be for everybody, that you could not be proscriptive about it,"said Robinson.

"He thought Rock Against Racism was a bit dilettant. And Bob Geldof sneered at us a bit for preaching socialist values and being signed up to the big record labels."

Yet at the movement's peak, in April 1978, 100,000 people marched the six miles from Trafalgar Square to London's East End - where the National Front had terrified local ethnic minority communities - finishing with a Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park, Hackney, which was headlined by X-Ray Spex, the Clash, Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson. Within a few years, however, the movement was fizzling out as the power of the National Front appeared to dwindle and the dawning of the Thatcher era propelled other issues, such as mass unemployment, the miners' strike and the poll tax, to the top of protesters' lists. The next musical generation embraced the Two-Tone movement of multi-racial bands such as the Specials and the hedonism of the New Romantic movement.

Music still had its political moments, whether with the Red Wedge movement, spearheaded by Billy Bragg to encourage young voters to take part in the 1987 general election, or, as Robinson recalls, in the achievements of Bob Geldof in utilising the power of rock music to raise money for the famine victims of Ethiopia with his Band Aid project.

It has, however, taken a new rise of the right for the anti-racism campaigners to return to music to support their cause. The Anti-Nazi League, to which Rock Against Racism was aligned, was relaunched in 1992 to counteract a revival of the extreme right in countries from France to Austria.

The organisers warned then: "For the first time in a generation, Nazis in Europe are making significant advances...[And] against a background of unemployment and growing social decay, Nazi organisations like the British National Party are making a concerted bid to gain a fresh toehold in political life in Britain." It subsequently sponsored a number of music events, but established LMHR to create a new link with the industry only last year.

By then, the growing success of the British National Party in north-west England, the climate of antipathy towards many Muslim people in the wake of 11 September, and the hysteria about illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers whipped up in some sections of the media, had made clear the need for further campaigning, and new forms of reaching audiences. Last month, many of the musicians joined politicians, actors and other activists in a new national coalition, Unite Against Fascism, to bring together those who want to stop the BNP in this year's European and local elections.

Robinson believes it is right that pop stars, from whichever generation, should take such action. "We should make a stand. When Ms Dynamite speaks about opposing the war, people listen," he said. But he acknowledged that to do so risked ridicule or worse from those suspicious of celebrity endorsement for any cause. "It is a doubled-edged sword when musicians do become political and you are damned when you do and damned when you don't."

Robinson quoted Bono, the U2 singer and passionate campaigner against the evils of Third World debt, to explain why he believed people in the industry should speak out. "If people think I am a prick for speaking out anyway," Bono has said, "I'd rather be a prick in a good cause."

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