Rock Against Racism

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All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting till you’re dead.

This verse from The Specials song “Do the Dog” expresses both the diversity and the divisions of late 1970s musical youth culture.

The book and exhibition of photographer Syd Shelton’s work, Rock Against Racism, are a brilliant visual representation and record of this culture.

Society was polarising in the late 1970s. The decline of the workers’ movement and the splintering of the 1968 generation met with the rise of Thatcher and the beginnings of neoliberalism.

Enoch Powell’s “warning” about immigration echoed through the 1970s, feeding racists and fascists, most notably the National Front.

The Anti Nazi League was formed after the battle of Lewisham in August 1977, when a National Front march was broken by anti-fascists. It was a genuine mass movement with affiliations from Labour Party branches, union branches, trades councils and shop stewards committees.

Related to it was Rock Against Racism, an attempt to tap into and organise anti-racist feeling at a cultural level, especially among the young. Shelton was its unofficial photographer.

The free exhibition at Rivington Place, London, is worth a trip before it closes in early December. It contains iconic images of the gigs and open-air concerts that Rock Against Racism staged, from their first in the Princess Alice pub in 1976, to the end of the decade, as well as many original posters and editions of the fanzine, Temporary Hoarding.

The pictures are of Rastas, punks and skins, a potent illustration of the period.

Shelton says that his pictures are “stills from life”. His style, using posed portraits as well as captured moments, is direct and communicates the liveliness and contradiction of the time.

There are original prints on display with their corners, like the earlobes of punks, pierced with pinholes.

The photographs are presented as a record of the period. For me, however, there was something missing in this display — the edge, the danger of the times. You never knew if National Front skins were going to turn up. The actual confrontations with the NF are largely missing or only hinted at.

The accompanying book — a beautifully presented large format hardback — is much more successful. Giving you the chance to really study the photographs, it carries Shelton’s “graphic argument” better. You realise how dirty everything was in the 1970s; in grimy London and grimier Manchester and Leeds poverty was the defining experience.

These were not the couture punks of Malcolm McLaren but the working class youth of Shoreditch and Hoxton and other places. Perhaps wearing their school uniforms, but in their own way — punks in DIY mode.

Reggae was the other side of the Rock Against Racism coin and we wore the badges of Birmingham reggae legends Steel Pulse alongside our RAR and Anti Nazi League badges.

The mix of music and of kids, black and white, was the great achievement. The music brought us together — after all, “NF=No Fun”, as the slogan went.

This book brings this out more clearly, the connections made by the excerpts from fanzine Temporary Hoarding, its cut and paste style still challenging.

From Birmingham to Harlow, it covered not only music and anti-racism but also calls to save Bethnal Green Hospital from threat of closure.

The book also contains some analysis by Paul Gilroy, now an eminent professor at King’s College London, but involved with RAR back in the day.

Gilroy is on one side of an argument about the anti-racist movement of the time: did it succeed despite those politically involved with it or, as David Widgery argues in his (sadly out of print) book Beating Time, because of the political vision and commitment of those involved?

Gilroy cannot dismiss the role of the Socialist Workers Party in the movement but critiques our relationship to culture. He likes RAR with its general opposition to racism and its cultural thrust, but dislikes the ANL with its focus on Nazis.

As Gilroy says elsewhere, “When my mum came to England in 1952 she used to have to run for her life from the teddy boys in Brixton; when I was a teenager I used to run for my life from the skinheads.”

RAR challenged those attitudes among young people, recognising that “racism was a white problem”.

But the change in wider society came from the mobilisations that broke the hardcore fascists of the National Front and took up the arguments against racism in a direct way, inside the working class.

The definitive book about RAR and the ANL is still to be written and Shelton’s book is not an attempt at that. It is an excellent reminder of the energy and the hope of the times, when black and white and Asian youth stood together against the National Front and danced together afterwards.