Home Penny blacks Photographs of concerts against racism in the 70s and 80s

Photographs of concerts against racism in the 70s and 80s


Over a period of eight months, Nazi Germany embarked on a massive bombing campaign known as the Blitz that reduced London to rubble. Between 1940 and 1941, some 43,000 people were killed while 1.1 million homes were destroyed, reducing many corners of the city to rubble. After the war, the nation appealed to the peoples of the colonized nations to help it rebuild, and between 1948 and 1971 around half a million people emigrated to the UK.

As London gathered momentum during the Swinging Sixties, the far right launched a coordinated attack on those who put the country back on its feet. In 1967AK. Chesterton founded the National Front, a neo-fascist political party that called for an end to non-white immigration, stripping non-white Britons of their citizenship and segregation, espousing anti-Semitic rhetoric, and opposing feminism and to LGBTQ rights. The following year, MP Enoch Powell delivered the inflammatory “Rivers of Blood” speech in Birmingham, weaponizing racism in a war against the working class.

The Rhythm, Coventry 1981

As the UK plunged into economic decline in the 1970s, the NF reached a fevered climax, playing on racism and xenophobia to gain power and influence. “It was the start of the first great recession since the war. Times were getting incredibly tough, especially for the working class,” says Australian photographer Syd Shelton, who arrived in London in 1976. “At the request of the International Monetary Fund , the Labor government and Prime Minister Jim Callaghan imposed incredibly tight cuts, and things got tougher for a lot of people, almost exactly like what’s happening now. ‘horrible scapegoating where people started pointing fingers at immigrants – – Black, Irish, Chinese – whatever the difference became a surge of political activity.’

Under Martin Webster’s leadership, the NF began campaigning for council seats while organizing marches through Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities across the UK. “They were a bunch of ragged Nazis, and their slogan was, ‘If they’re white, they’re fine. If they’re black, fire them,'” Syd says. “Just like the Nazis in Germany, they had started to get violent and they knew they would have to win street battles to build up a group of young supporters. They started staging incredibly intimidating marches through prosperous multicultural suburbs like Woodgreen and the West Midlands.”

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Carnival by Tom Robinson, 1978

Tensions came to a head on August 13, 1977, when the NF staged an “anti-aggression march” from New Cross to Lewisham in south London. The police sent 5,000 officers, including the Cavalry Division, to escort NF members through the streets and “protect” them from some 4,000 counter-demonstrators who came to protest the march. Police have armed themselves with riot shields for the first time in mainland Britain, making it clear which side they took.

Facing a standing army, the battle lines of the counter-demonstration are redrawn. “There were a lot of scores to settle with the Metropolitan Police,” Syd says. Outnumbered members of the NF quickly fled when skirmishes between protesters and police began, culminating in a massive melee known as the Battle of Lewisham. Police charged their horses into the crowd, brandishing batons at unarmed counter-protesters. Syd stood on the front line with her camera, documenting a final defeat for the NF just four miles from where Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists lost the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.

Skully Roots 1979.jpg

skully roots 1979

Although the battle was won, the war raged on as the NF continued its campaign to infiltrate the government as rampant racism became widespread. “The National Front developed an electoral strategy where it was not clear who supported them financially, but they had enough money to put candidates in most constituencies in the general election,” Syd says. “They saw they could build their party with local council elections in particular. Things were also starting to get very scary on a much more mundane level. A minstrel show was the first Saturday night TV. There was signs in the windows that said, ‘No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish. Racism was being normalized and anti-racism was a dangerous stance to take.”

The breaking point came on August 5, 1976, when Eric Clapton interrupted his concert in Birmingham to give his own speech. He asked the immigrants to identify themselves, then went on a rampage. “I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country,” he said, sprinkling racial slurs into his speech. “Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch is our man. I think Enoch is right, I think we should fire them all. Prevent Britain from becoming a black colony. White. I was into drugs, now I’m into racism. It’s a lot heavier, man.

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Misty in the Roots, 1979

In that moment, Eric Clapton exhibited a lack of self-awareness as grotesque as his bigotry. “This man built his career on black music,” says Syd of the guitarist who co-opted the blues for fame, status and wealth. “It absolutely horrified a group of people, especially a photographer named Red Saunders. He, along with the Magic Box Theater Group and others, wrote a letter to the music and leftist press calling for a grassroots movement of musicians and fans called Rock Against Racism [RAR].”

RAR emerged at a powerful time in the country’s counterculture movement, just as punk and reggae took hold, two powerful forms of rebel music in their own right. With bands like The Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, Aswad and The Specials sharing the stage, RAR brought together a black and white audience for the first time. RAR has worked with musicians, activists and organizations to successfully turn the tide against the National Front. Four decades later, Syd revisits her archives to look back on this historic movement for change in the new book, Rock Against Racism Live. 1977-1981 (Café Royal Books) and shares a wealth of hard-earned wisdom that is all the more relevant today.

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Carnival of Elvis Costello, 1978

Embracing the do-it-yourself philosophy of the time, RAR had a small committee at heart that was determined by who showed up regularly for meetings rather than a formal election process. “There were about eight or nine of us there the whole trip,” Syd says. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were ambitious and felt empowered by the explosion of an anti-racism movement. It wasn’t a horrible chore of work, it was fun, and we all wanted going to concerts and seeing all these bands. The organization had a mixture of left-wing people with quite different perspectives. Some were members of the Socialist Workers Party, some were not members of anything, but what united us was was that we all loved music and we were anti-racist.”

The first major RAR Carnival took place on 30 April 1978 at Victoria Park in east London. “The National Front had won 17% of the vote in the Greater London Council elections in that area, so we held the event the day before the next Council elections,” says Syd, who lived in Charing Cross Road in the UK. era. His mission was to organize people arriving in Trafalgar Square for the start of a mass march to the park.

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The carnival of clashes, 1978

That morning he woke up early and came downstairs, only to find that some 10,000 people had gathered and were eager to leave. Bands like Misty in Roots, The Mekons and The Piranhas boarded a fleet of flatbed trucks which took crowds seven miles through London to the park where The Clash, Steel Pulse and The Tom Robinson Band took the stage. “We wanted to do anti-racism in Woodstock, something serious. We took over London that day. People noticed it because there was music from start to finish. another in town,” recalls Syd.

“Everyone was there. When Billy Bragg was doing his book, he asked me if I had any pictures of Gays Against Nazis because he was standing near them. We couldn’t find a picture. of him, but we found a banner for the Billy said that when Tom Robinson started singing “Glad to Be Gay”, all the guys in the band started kissing, and he was like, “Wha ‘is that?’ Nazis would also be against them. Then he said, ‘This is the day my generation took sides.'”

Aswad A2.jpg


The action of the RAR had an immediate effect. “The day after the elections, the FN fell from 17% to less than 1%,” says Syd. “This led to the Edinburgh, Manchester and Brixton carnival summers; we spent the whole summer putting on these massive carnivals with big marches ahead. In five years we’ve sold something like three millions of badges, that’s how we funded most things, we also had a fanzine called temporary palisade which ran for 14 issues. “The Gig Guide provided guidance for people wanting to get involved, giving them the mechanics of producing a show so they could pick up their club in their corner of the country.

“Rock Against Racism led to the formation of the Anti-Nazi League in 1977, which aimed to defeat the National Front in elections,” Syd said. “They had massive broad support from trade unions, Labor Party politicians, football managers and famous athletes, which meant they had a certain financial clout. All the carnivals were held in conjunction with the Anti-Nazi League , and collaboration was crucial to the success of both organizations. We had our differences and they considered us the crazy fringe. Our slogan was “All the power of the imagination”, which they thought was completely fucked up, but we worked well together.

And that is the key to success. When you try to unite against a common enemy, infighting spells the end. “When people come together in solidarity and fight, we can make a difference,” says Syd. “But it’s important to recognize that there is no ultimate victory; there is only the struggle. Racism is not something you will ultimately defeat because it will be used by the right as a weapon to divide people, so you have to fight it with all your might Even though there were so many points of view in Rock Against Racism, what was important was what united us, not what divided us.

‘Rock Against Racism Live. 1977–1981’ is now available via Café Royal Books


All images courtesy of Syd Shelton