The great Rock Against Racism show plays it again

Thirty years after a mega-gig changed Britain's cultural landscape, its veterans are back for an encore. Jonathan Owen reports

It marked the marriage of music with politics and spawned a generation of political activists. Thirty years after Rock Against Racism, in a more cynical and apathetic age, some of the musicians who were there at the start will reiterate their message to a huge crowds once again.

The original demonstration saw 80,000 people march from London's Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in east London for a chaotic but hugely well-received open-air gig. As the Clash took to the stage in 1978, joining forces with acts such as the Tom Robinson Band and Steel Pulse, they could hardly have guessed that that they would be groundbreakers for increasingly bloated benefit concerts that followed, including Live Aid.

A handful of veterans from the first gigs will take to the stage again today in front of an expected crowd of more than 100,000 people. The line-up will see former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, ex-Sham 69 frontman Jimmy Pursey, and Poly Styrene (X Ray Spex), part of the original line-up, joined by Jerry Dammers, formerly of the Specials, as well as new acts such as Hard-Fi, the View and Jay Sean.

But today's Love Music Hate Racism carnival, with its various stages and dozens of acts, is a world away from the event that started it all, according to Robinson, who headed the bill back in 1978.

"At the park the gig was a ramshackle affair," he said. "Rock Against Racism operated completely outside the showbiz establishment. The whole thing was being run on a shoestring. There wasn't even a dressing room or any backstage area – we all had to change on the wooden steps leading up to the stage. What mattered was the fact that we all took part in that astonishing celebration of music, fun, justice and the politics of tolerance."

Pursey said: "The whole point back in 1978 was to show that politics and music can really make a difference. Today's thing is completely different; it's more a celebration of what in fact has been brought about in the 30 years since – that we're all understanding we have an English tongue more than we are British."

He added: "It will be an incredible moment for me on Sunday because I went through so many years of people smashing up our gigs. The National Front was trying to destroy my ideal because it didn't suit theirs."

The Clash's Paul Simonon, who will play today with The Good, the Bad & the Queen, added that racism is a recurring issue for each generation of young people. "There's a growing-up experience for each generation of young people and when they become teenagers racism becomes more of an important issue," he said.

Though David Bowie and Eric Clapton have long since made clear their commitment to racial equality, music historians say the event grew, in part, out of comments made by the two musicians in the 1970s. Bowie was quoted in 1976 saying, "Britain could benefit from a fascist leader"; the same year Clapton told an audience in Birmingham that the politician Enoch Powell – infamous for his "rivers of blood" speech opposing mass immigration – was right and Britain was "overcrowded".

Jerry Dammers, founder of the Specials and a long-standing anti-racism activist, warned yesterday that while it may not be as obvious as it once was, racism still needs to be stamped out. "The BNP don't march any more, but they give the appearance of being more respectable – by wearing suits – and in some ways they are more dangerous. They have this veneer of respectability and as mainstream politicians they are quite successful at stirring up a lot of hysteria about immigration in the media. The BNP are like weeds in the garden. They keep coming back, and you have to keep weeding them out."

Additional reporting by Andrew Johnson, Ian Johnston and Paul Bignell

On stage – Then and now

1978

Rock Against Racism

Victoria Park, London, Sunday 30 April

X-Ray Spex

Carol Grimes

Steel Pulse

The Clash (briefly joined by Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, for a rendition of 'White Riot')

Tom Robinson Band

2008

Love Music Hate Racism carnival

Victoria Park, London, Sunday 27 April



The Good, the Bad & the Queen (featuring ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon)

Jimmy Pursey (Sham 69)

Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex)

Jerry Dammers

Jay Sean

Hard-Fi

The View

Roll Deep

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee