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(Credit: Hans Peters / Anefo)

Music

How the Toxteth riots led to The Real Thing song 'Children of the Ghetto'

The Toxteth riots remain some of the most incendiary to occur in Liverpool during the last 50 years. Hot on the heels of the Brixton Riots, the Toxteth riots came as a result of the Merseyside’s shabby treatment of people in poor rural areas. Unemployment was at a 50-year high in 1981, and Liverpool – nominally one of the poorest cities in England – was suffering greater still. 

The Real Thing, a British soul group formed in the 1970s, grew up in and around Liverpool and witnessed the political changes, where they felt their identities were slowly changing from Scouse children to “Black British”. It was getting harder to stand in the community when the country was determined to point out the differences. 

“I’m a Liverpool 8 kid from a mixed-race family,” Eddy Amoo remembered. “My granny was white. We grew up in Tennyson Street, which has been knocked down now, and race was never an issue. I didn’t even know I was black until my mother finally got us a flat in Myrtle Gardens. We were the first black family in Myrtle Gardens, and that’s when I started to be called a nig-nog”.

Inspired by the jaunty escapades of Shaft, Amoo started to feel more comfortable in his skin as a Black British person, feeling that he had a hero he could identify with. He was emerging as an artist but now felt liberated to curate a vocal style that spoke of the streets, sidewalks and pathways he grew up around. 

The Real Thing were best associated with the frenzied, disco flavoured grooves of ‘You To Me Are Everything’ and ‘Can’t Get By Without You’, so a political single was certainly a brave avenue to take for the group. But the band needed to be truthful, especially since they were talking about England and not land far beyond the Irish sea. 

England was supposed to be an emblem of truth, change and acceptance, never shifting from the focus to the detriment of its individuals. But it was falling into the trappings of prejudice and hate, pushing individuals of another class to the side, asking them to keep to their lanes and avenues. It wasn’t a privilege; it was punishment. 

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The band’s scintillating ‘Children of the Ghetto’ exhibited their innate sense of frustration and truth, cutting into the mythos that laced the country, but offered a more probing alternative to the narrative that was being woven in the public eye. The life of a member of The Real Thing wasn’t flowers and feverish flushes of love, but it was a schedule of concrete laden jungles and days replete with angst and misery. It went on to become a mainstay in 1980s soul, as luminaries Mary J Blige and Philip Bailey put their stamp on the recording. 

But there’s something unimpeachable about the original, caught in the shifting political climate from which it was recorded. The band were determined to bring perspective to the single, so they emphasised the ghostly vocal harmonies over the glistening guitar sounds. As was their prerogative, the words held greater depth than the backbeat. 

The tune formed the concluding chapter in a trilogy of “Liverpool” ballads, but the song nearly ended their careers as a viable gang. They were one of the more successful bands to rise from the streets of Liverpool, pivoting a hole left to them by The Beatles. And unlike the more taciturn Beatles, the group never forgot their roots as a Liverpool outfit, bringing the vernacular of the land headfirst into the music. 

The times, as Dylan once sang, were changing, and the Toxteth riots were the beginning of the change. As the decade wore on, more black British artists used their artistry to express their displeasure at the government. The Beat issued ‘Stand Down Margaret’, a damning indictment about the country’s then Prime Minister; Rhoda Dakar released ‘The Boiler’, chastising the rise of assault that permeated the land; and then there was The Specials ‘Ghost Town’, which suddenly had added prescience following the Toxteth Riots. 

It was growing harder to refrain from truthfulness as the decade wore on, and the only way for The Real Thing to maintain their credibility was to release the beautifully produced ‘Children of the Ghetto’, their bravest and finest work. And it continues to capture listeners decades after it was released, with its air of demonstration and commitment, echoing integrity to an under-voiced group of people all over the world. 

From the seeds of mistrust came of the most startling and shimmering pop tunes of its era, and the band benefitted from the association in as much as it sold them as a Liverpool band, as much as it exhibited their standing as an act of black artists. 

But no matter where it stemmed from, the tune holds enough clout to stand in any era, and long may it continue to do so.