Friday 7 October 2016

40 years since the birth of Rock Against Racism: rebel music that broke down fear

Leeds Carnival 1981 (Pic: John Sturrock)

Leeds Carnival 1981 (Pic: John Sturrock)

Forty years ago this month music fans fought back against racist comments from top musicians by launching an anti-racist movement in music. One of the founders of  Rock Against Racism, Red Saunders, spoke to Ken Olende about what happened

From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine September-October 2016, issue 17. Email UAF to ask for printed copies

In the summer of 1976 the fascist National Front (NF) was growing and there was a general rise in racism across Britain. But it was a rant from guitarist Eric Clapton who had just had a hit with a cover of Bob Marley’s “I shot the Sheriff” that got Rock Against Racism started. How did that happen?

We were sitting around in my photographic studio in Great Windmill Street, Soho, in the August 1976. I was in a radical theatre group called Kartoon Klowns and that was where we rehearsed.

Someone came in all angry with the new issue of  Melody Maker and said “Have you seen this about Eric Clapton?”.

During a concert in Birmingham he’d said that he supported top racist Enoch Powell and foreigners should get out of the country.

What we read was terrible, but since then I’ve heard a tape of what he said. It was far worse. He said, “Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!” He kept going on about “wogs”.

I was shocked. I was a fan. I’d bought the albums and I’d seen him play.

The same summer David Bowie said in an interview with Playboy magazine, “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership…Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars…You’ve got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up.”

Yes. I think Bowie was out of his head at the time but we had to stamp on him. He couldn’t get away with that stuff. At least he later retracted it and went on to make a donation to the Anti Nazi League. But I don’t believe Clapton ever apologised for what he said.

I’d been in political theatre groups since 1964, performing about racism and apartheid and against war.

Leeds Carnival 1981 (Pic: John Sturrock)

Leeds Carnival 1981 (Pic: John Sturrock)

I was a mod. I was really into black music—more R&B than the blues. In the 1960s I used to work at the Marquee Club collecting empty glasses. You hardly got paid anything, but it got you free entry. You could meet the musicians, We had a wonderful evening in the pub once with the blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon.

When I was an apprentice photographer one of my closest friends was a Caribbean motorcycle dispatch rider.

There was that whole sixties progressive anti-racist angle. We thought Clapton was part of that. That’s why it was such a shock to hear him coming out with the foulest rubbish. That’s why we exploded when we heard about it.

I don’t want to try and get inside his head to work out how he could say that while he was playing that music, but people have muddled, mixed up, alienated ideas.

I’ve never been one for writing letters, but after a day of thinking I sat down and wrote a letter. It was signed by me and my friend the graphic designer Roger Huddle and some of the theatre group.

We sent it to all the music press—like Black Echoes, NME, Melody Maker, Sounds—and the socialist press—including the Morning Star and Socialist Worker. We got letter of the week in Melody Maker—they sent me an album token. We’d put a PO Box number and to our complete amazement, within a few weeks we had 400 or 500 replies.

It was completely bonkers, but we thought, “Now we’ve got to do something”. Don’t ever think writing letters is a waste of time. Rock Against Racism wouldn’t have happened without that.

We decided we’d better put on a gig. I was doing a lot of photographs for the music press then. At that time pub rock was a big thing and I was a fan—bands like Bees Make Honey and Ace. They were exactly what the name says—they played rock in pubs.

The first gig we did was with Carol Grimes. She was pub rock. In fact she was benefit rock. She did more benefits than anyone I knew. She’d say she was a blues singer.

Roger Huddle said we need to do gigs in east London where the NF were. So we booked the Princess Alice pub in Forest Gate. We got some socialists from the dockers union to do security. I remember putting up the banner onstage. The banners came from the other side of our sixties background. Agitation. We loved artists from Alexander Rodchenko and Andy Warhol.

So the gig was a success and it snowballed quickly.

That October, I was asked by NME to do some pictures of punk rock. I said, “What’s that?” It was the ICA, in central London, which was an art venue, so I didn’t know what to expect. The Clash were on and it was incredible. They were wearing amazing clothes. I went backstage and met them. Before long we’d be asking them to play for us.

It very quickly became our thing to mix up the bands. We had to have black bands on stage. That was a more important priority than having black people in the audience because we were fighting racism among white people.

But putting the black and white bands together broke down the fear. One of the most wonderful gigs we did was at Hackney Town Hall.

We had the reggae band the Cimarons on with the punk act Generation X. Everyone jammed together at the end. It became the blueprint.

We got letters from all over. They’d say something like, “I’m Tommy and I live in Aberystwyth and we’ve got an NF teacher. I hate racism and I like RAR. Can you please help us?” I’d write back and say, “That’s fantastic Tommy. You are RAR Aberystwyth. We’ve got nothing to give you. All the luck!” We sent those letters all over.

In the big cites we found some brilliant people, like Paul Furness who set up Leeds RAR club. That was an area where the Nazi National Front were really strong. Then you had Manchester where I met a wonderful working class woman in Hulme.

And the whole thing built up over a couple of years. And you can’t talk about it all without talking about the anti-Nazi demonstration in Lewisham a year later and the launch of the Anti Nazi League (ANL). Until that we’d been small and local. After that it went really national. But really that’s a story that deserves to be told in more detail, so I’ll save it for another day.

When we decided to have a Carnival in 1978 that was a whole new adventure. We thought it had to be in the heart of NF territory—that’s why we held it in Victoria Park in east London.

Some people like Dave Widgery felt we didn’t need the ANL, but I thought it was important. If there was a carnival, who was leafleting the local factory? Who was booking the coaches? Who was getting trade union money? Suddenly we had money and that let us book huge venues. Where are you going to get £10,000 to book the PA?

At first we were expecting 10,000 but we got closer to 100,000. We marched from Trafalgar Square. The police said no one would do that. My favourite moment was at the Blade Bone pub on Bethnal Green Road which was a big NF haunt at the time. They came out and were all Sieg Heiling as we went past. But we just went on going past for 10 minutes, 20 minutes—thousands and thousands strong—so the fascists lost spirit and went back inside.

But the old Jewish lady from the tobacconist stayed to watch all the time we went by—so pleased to see us.

What can someone who is 17 now and wants to fight racism learn from RAR?

It’s up to them. But I still support the old 1960s slogan, “All power to the imagination”. You’ve got to do it yourself with your own culture. It’s got to be bottom up and DIY. Punk was great for that.

We beat the NF out on the streets and with the power of culture.

This resistance is in our history and our tradition. But it is really hidden. That’s why I’ve been doing a series of photos recreating hidden bits of our history. I call them Hidden to remind people, we’re not mad for thinking things can change.

If people want to know more they should get Reminiscences of RAR, the book that I’m putting out with Roger Huddle (see advert opposite). But also look at Syd Shelton’s book of photographs Rock Against Racism (Autograph, £30) and read Daniel Rachel’s new book, Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge (Autograph, £25) that has all the details and all the dates.  

It started with a letter

This is the letter Red and his friends sent that kicked off Rock Against Racism.

‘When we read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, we nearly puked. Come on Eric… you’ve been taking too much of the Daily Express stuff and you know you can’t handle it.  Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without Blues and R&B?

You’ve got to fight the racist poison otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and the money men who ripped off rock culture with their cheque books…

We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism.

Ps: Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’.

RAR logoRAR logo

The RAR star soon appeared on everything—posters and badges. I think badges are so important. Show what you think on the tube.

Have an argument even though that’s frightening. You might get your head whacked in, but it works

As soon as the response started coming in to the letter I went “We need a logo”,  before thinking about a magazine or a manifesto.

I was a freelance photographer for the Sunday Times magazine, which David King designed. He was one of the top designers in the country and a good anti-racist.

He came up with that star. And a year or two later he came back with the Anti Nazi League arrow.

Temporary Hoarding number 6Temporary Hoarding: Our “fanzine”

We thought it was important to have some kind of publication to say what we were about. Now as the punk rock movement grew all these fanzines appeared.

I’d seen the most famous one, called Sniffin Glue. We mixed that with Chinese wall posters that I knew about. These were newspapers designed to be pasted on a wall. They were a temporary hoarding, just intended to last for a bit.

So that’s what we based our magazine on and why we called it Temporary Hoarding. And quite often we literally designed it as a poster so you could paste it on a wall. We wanted lots of visual images.

The left is too wordy sometimes.

To this day, if I go to an anti-racist rally or a trade union meeting and there are nine speakers on the platform, I think, “Give me a break! Put on two speakers and a DJ, please.”

We wanted to do something that looked good and got our message across quickly.

Luckily we had a lot of people who were very good at visual images. Ruth Gregory and Syd Shelton were earning their living as graphic designers. So was Roger Huddle. I was a photographer. David Widgery was writing for Oz.

There was no internet. We relied on posters and stickers. The city was covered in posters.

On top of that we relied on the music press. Journalists such as Vivien Goldman would always tell people what were up to. And the NME’s editor Neil Spencer was a supporter.

Cover of Reminiscnces of RARReminiscences of RAR
Rocking Against Racism 1976-1979
Edited by Roger Huddle and Red Saunders

For six years—from 1976-1981-—RAR was at the centre of a cultural movement against racism and the NF.  From 1978 it was partnered with both the Anti Nazi League and School Kids Against the Nazis.

This book brings together the reminiscences of activists and supporters during the period. From many backgrounds and ages, musician and audience, Punk and Rasta, street fighter and pogo dancer, united with a single aim—to Rock Against Racism.

£14.99 paperback 144 pages. Published this November by Redwords,
Distributed by Turnaround,
Available from Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE, 020 7637 1848,

search this site

Find out more

Britain First factsheet
EDL factleet
EDL unmasked

Latest stories

follow us…

RSS icon facebook buttontwitter button

support us

Action diary

  • No upcoming events
AEC v1.0.4