With the collapse of the British Empire in the decades following World War II, the UK was no longer able to siphon money and resources from the colonized lands they shamelessly called the “commonwealth.” After a prolonged period of austerity, the nation had a brief moment of respite during the Swinging Sixties, but plunged back in decline throughout the 1970s.
Seeking a scapegoat, far-right extremists seized upon the longstanding pattern of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia that had defined British policy for centuries.
In 1967, A. K. Chesterton founded the National Front (NF), a neo-fascist political party that picked up where fascist leader Oswald Mosley left off in the 1930s. Under the leadership of Martin Webster, the NF reached new heights as the party launched a relentless campaign for white supremacy through strategic use of local elections, media, and public protest.
Invariably, fascist sentiment crossed over and began to infiltrate the mainstream, perhaps most insidiously at a 1976 Eric Clapton concert. The famed rock star, who built his career on the appropriation of Black music for white audiences, decided the time had come to tell the people of Birmingham how he really felt. He asked immigrants in the audience to identify themselves, and then told them in no uncertain terms, “I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country.”
Seizing the moment, Clapton unleashed a storm of racist slurs while voicing his support for MP Enoch Powell, who notoriously delivered the incendiary “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham less than a decade earlier. Both Clapton and Powell, men of privilege, power, and means, sought to tear the working class apart to protect the status quo — a divide and conquer tactic that dates back to the very creation of race itself in the 17th-century British colony of Virginia.
“I think Enoch’s right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a Black colony. Get the foreigners out,” Clapton ranted from the stage. “Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man.”
In the moment of unveiled hatred and bigotry, Eric Clapton unknowingly set into motion Rock Against Racism (RAR), a movement of musicians and fans who staged a series of DIY concerts that would ultimately turn the tide against fascism in the UK.
After Clapton’s speech, a photographer named Red Saunders teamed up with a list of artists and performers and penned a letter to the press, calling for people to come together as RAR.
Over the next five years, Black and white artists, activists, and organizations joined forces to create a broad coalition with one mission: to defeat the National Front (NF). Rock Against Racism emerged at the dawn of punk and reggae, two potent countercultural forces that openly challenged authority. Both were born out of community and the recognition that the only way to get something done was to do it yourself — the proper attitude for a counter-fascist movement.
British photographer Syd Shelton returned to London in 1976 after a few years abroad and quickly became a fixture on the scene. He joined Rock Against Racism in 1977 and became one of the core members of the loosely-organized group. With the publication of Rock Against Racism 1976-1981, Shelton looks back at a movement of the people whose message is all the more resonant today.
“I always like to think that RAR had more in common with the Dadaists in Zurich than a political party,” Shelton tells Adam Phillips in the book. “One of the things that was great about Rock Against Racism was that it was a collaboration and an often-changing collaboration. The core group of people were all very different and had differing political views, though the unity of it all was that we were all very committed anti-racists and all loved music.”
Guns of Brixton
Rock Against Racism adopted the form of a carnival — a Caribbean tradition that Trinidadian journalist and activist Claudia Jones first brought to London in 1959 as a space for unity and understanding following the Notting Hill race riots the previous year.
Rock Against Racism organized their first major carnival as a response to the National Front making headway in the Greater London Council election. On April 30, 1978 — just one day before the next election — RAR kicked things off with a march across London from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park.
Over 100,000 revelers turned out, accompanying bands playing live on flatbed trucks that made their way through the city to the park stage, playing to a mixed crowd for the very first time. The next day the voter turnout in favor of the NF had shrunk from 17% to less than 1%, and a new model of political activism was born.
In Rock Against Racism 1976-1981, Syd Shelton delves into his archive to show not only impressive concert scenes of groundbreaking bands like the Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, Aswad, and the Specials — but photos of the people, the protests, and environment writ large.
The streets are sparse and bare, often crumbling, as though the Blitz happened a few weeks, rather than decades, ago. Although there is a decided lack of means, there is no want for creativity, community, or concern.
“In this book, I’d like people to see hope,” Shelton reveals. “I’d like them to see that Black and white youth did have a vision for a better way of living in this country and that we could actually change some things.”
Rock Against Racism 1976-1981 is published by Rare Bird Books, $60.00