The Clash and their enigmatic leader Joe Strummer were known for their strong, nonconforming political stance. But before they started aligning themselves with the Sandinistas and rebellious factions of the oppressed, the band started stoking the fires of the anti-Nazi league back in 1978 as part of the Rock Against Racism gig at London’s Victoria Park.
The event was originally conceived as an idea in 1976 by Red Saunders, Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford, Pete Bruno and others, but according to the organiser, Huddle, “it remained just an idea until August 1976”. What could start such a powerful movement? Eric Clapton and his apparent leaning towards the intrinsically racist political figure of the time Conservative, Enoch Powell.
The guitar impresario drunkenly told an audience at a Birmingham gig that Britain had “become overcrowded” and suggested they should be voting for Powell and his hardline policies on immigration. He said a vote for Powell would keep Britain from becoming “a black colony”. He even told the audience that Britain should “get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out”, and went as far as to repeatedly shout the far-right hooligans, the National Front’s slogan “Keep Britain White”
The fervour of punk was not purely based on a feeling of escapism and the need to break free from the shackles of their parents. No, it was also largely driven by the idea of justice. With Clapton, a music behemoth of the time, directly advocating for such a colossally controversial figure, the national climate was beginning to reach fever pitch with riots breaking out across London, notably in Notting Hill, a riot that Paul Simonon and Joe Strummer were involved in and would form the basis for The Clash classic song ‘White Riot’.
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RAR was only really ever going to get off the ground with a groundswell of support. So Saunders, Wreford and Bruno, who were members of the agit-prop theatre group, Kartoon Klowns, together with Huddle, responded to Clapton’s incendiary remarks by writing a letter to the all-hallowed NME. They set about expressing their opposition to Clapton’s remarks. Their claims were given extra gravitas after highlighting that Clapton’s first hit was with a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’: “Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black… Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!”. They finished their letter by asking for people to help form a movement called Rock Against Racism and they received hundreds of replies from fans eager to put an end to the hypocrisy of their rock stars steeped in black history.
The first RAR gig took place at the Princess Alice pub in London’s East End in November 1976; Carol Grimes and Matumbi were the main acts. One notable moment was when both white and black musicians finished the gig with a multi-cultural jam session – something which back then wasn’t really the done thing. To keep the momentum coming, RAR released a fanzine Temporary Hoarding and encouraged more and more factions of the organisation.
By ’77 with the height of punk reaching dizzyingly high heights, RAR was enjoying similar success. There were groups popping up all over the country: Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Hull, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Sheffield, Cardiff, Swansea, Bristol, and all across London. Eventually, there were more than 200 throughout the UK. Across the world, several Rock Against Racism factions started in the USA, and also in Ireland, France, Belgium, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Norway, South Africa and Australia. RAR had gone global.
By 1978, the movement was gathering pace and RAR decided they needed to go bigger. They looked to the idea of a carnival organised alongside the Anti-Nazi League (ANL) by way of thumbing their nose to the rise in racists attacks in the UK. The two carnivals were held in typically poor but culturally rich areas. We’re taking a look back at the event on April 30th, 1978 as 100,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square into the National Front hotspot of East London, where they set up shop in Victoria Park and proceeded to rock against racism.
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The open-air concert saw The Clash headlining the event with ample support from Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson Band, X-Ray Spex, Jimmy Pursey (from Sham 69) and Patrik Fitzgerald. The end result is a performance charged with feeling and the buzzing emotional surge that one gets when doing something that, ultimately, make sone feel good. The Clash are on top of their game as they display a frighteningly sharp strut on stage and deliver some of their best work.
In the performance below, watch The Clash perform ‘White Riot’ and ‘London’s Burning’ for a huge crowd and the melee that ensues once someone “pulls the plug”. It’s hard to ascertain exactly what happened but many suggest that the band had overrun on their allotted time so someone from the ANL pulled the cord.
Big mistake. The offender is soon put in his place, Paul Simonon’s bass is plugged back in, and the band roared back into life with their race-riot anthem ‘White Riot’. It’s a truly powerful reminder not only of The Clash’s incredible poignant political stance and ability to make punk feel far more real than any other genre – but that together as a generation we can make movements happen to put things right. RAR was done without the internet, surely we can sort something out in an afternoon or two?
Watch below as The Clash perform ‘White Riot’ and ‘London’s Burning’ in London’s Victoria Park for Rock Against Racism in 1978.