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

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