By Roger Huddle, one of the main forces behind RAR in the 70s. An anniversary concert is being held in London in a few days, and another being scheduled for April in Victoria Park, where the legendary anti-Nazi festival was held in '78.
And we still want rebel music. -AB
From Socialist Worker (UK)
The 1970s moved from intense struggle between workers and bosses to bitter disillusionment with Labour, mass unemployment and defensive fights to protect services.
The year 1976 was the turning point with huge cuts in welfare spending by a Labour government under pressure from the International Monetary Fund.
As usual the crisis was being turned into an attack on working people, through unemployment, a wage freeze and racism.
The Nazi National Front (NF) saw an opportunity to grow on the back of this bitterness.
Aided by former Tory MP Enoch Powell’s racist diatribes about overcrowding and immigration, the NF, dressed in the suit of respectability, went out to capture local councils through the ballot box.
But the Nazis also set about building through the terror of racist attacks and marching through multi-racial areas. As the crisis deepened the NF made substantial gains in local councils.
The mid-1970s was a pretty dire time for popular music. The excitement and innovations of the 1960s and early 1970s had been pushed aside by the corporate music machine. Glam rock and soft disco dominated the radio.
But, underneath this gloss, young musicians who were affected by the crisis started making music that expressed their anger and desperation.
Young black musicians – encouraged by the revolutionary music and lyrics of Bob Marley – were developing a strand of ska and reggae that reflected their experience in Britain.
Meanwhile, the rigour and roots of 1960s music shifted with the growth of bands playing live in pubs. Loud and raucous, they merged rock, blues and country music along with lyrics that dealt with living in Britain not the US.
An alternative theatre and radical arts movement, aligned to the cultural experiments thrown up in the May 1968 struggles in France and in the US anti Vietnam war movement, existed outside of the mainstream and still performed and exhibited up and down the country.
It was the coming together of all these strands that made Rock Against Racism (RAR) possible. All of the original RAR crew were veterans from the struggles of the 1960s.
They took inspiration from soul, jazz and rock, as well as the graphic design and agitprop theatre developed by artists of the 1917 Russian Revolution and in Germany during the 1920s.
RAR was a clear attempt to fight the growing racism and the electoral gains of the Nazis. It began out of the imagination of Red Saunders and my involvement with the Socialist Workers Party. We were all involved in socialist politics and wanted to find ways to fight with cultural forms, images, sound, and spectacle.
In 1976 blues guitarist Eric Clapton shouted racist abuse from the stage during a gig in Birmingham, saying how Powell was right. It was this completely irresponsible act that drove Red to compose a letter of outrage to the New Musical Express.
He phoned a group of us asking if we would also sign. The last paragraph of the letter said that we were forming a group called Rock Against Racism open to everyone. And so the movement was born.
The explosion of Punk and the development of roots reggae music gave RAR the environment in which to battle.
From the beginning we wanted a DIY organisation. We wanted local bands and anti-Nazis to come together and make it impossible for Nazi ideas to get a grip. RAR slogans appeared on walls and over stages everywhere.
We put together a fanzine called Temporary Hoarding that linked the fight against the NF to what was happening in Ireland, women’s rights and young people’s sexuality.
In the first issue David Widgery proclaimed, “We want rebel music, street music, music that breaks down people’s fear of one another. Create music that knows who the real enemy is. Love music, hate racism.”
In 1977 the NF attempted to march through the London borough of Lewisham in an attempt to “reclaim the area from immigrants and blacks”. Tens of thousands of anti-Nazi activists joined locals to block the route. It was a turning point.
After the battle of Lewisham it was clear that there was a widespread desire for a united front against the Nazi threat and the Anti Nazi League was launched to focus the fight in every workplace, school, college and community.
RAR immediately become its cultural partner. The RAR star was worn alongside the red arrow of the Anti Nazi League.
RAR, along with the ANL, made it impossible for the Nazis to get a foothold anywhere. By the end of the 1970s the NF were in tatters. They were broken by the united anti-Nazi movement, the bands, the audiences at the four carnivals, the Asian youth groups and by the music.