Rock Against Racism: an interview with Ruth Gregory

Ruth Gregory joined RAR (Rock Against Racism) in 1977 after getting a job at the SWP print shop and became one of 3 main designers on RAR’s zine Temporary Hoarding (TH). She left the SWP in 1979 and set up the Hot Pink Heart Graphics studio with Syd Shelton, where they continued to design for RAR and TH. She was a member of the RAR Central London Committee and co-editor with the writer David Widgery in the TH
editorial collective.

Ruth was recently involved in bringing together the Rock Against Racism display as
part of the exhibition, No Turning Back, Seven Migration Moments that Changed
Britain with three other activists who were involved in the heyday of RAR: graphic
artist, Andy Dark; RAR’s first paid organiser, Kate Webb (aka Irate Kate) and the
writer Lucy Whitman (aka Lucy Toothpaste).

The RAR display showcases a large amount of material from RAR archives,
including original posters, photographs, badges, letters from fans and supporters,
leaflets and copies of Temporary Hoarding. Contributions from Caroline Coon,
Richard Lees, Virginia Turbett and RAR organiser, Wayne Minter.

At a time when immigration and migrants are again under attack and racism is
surfacing in various ugly forms across Europe, the display is a chance to see
what RAR achieved, how the movement grew and spread across the UK and
consider how RAR’s legacy empowers the forces of cultural resistance today.

Mitch Mitchell and Allan Struthers from rs21 caught up with Ruth at the exhibition to
chat about the organisation of the first RAR/ANL Carnival and how the culture and
politics of punk and reggae came to have an impact on anti-racist attitudes in the
UK. The interview was preceded by a guided tour of the RAR display where Ruth
talked about some of the posters, photographs and articles from TH and how letters
and feedback from local groups, RAR clubs, musicians and fans shaped RAR’s
politics in the pre-digital age.

Background

On Sunday 30 April 1978, 80-100,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square, and
danced their way through the East End to Victoria Park in Hackney for the first big
Rock Against Racism Carnival Against the Nazis. Rock Against Racism (RAR) had
emerged in reaction to an alarming rise in racist attacks on the streets, and support
for the neo-Nazi National Front at the ballot box. Mainstays of the UK pop scene
such as Eric Clapton and David Bowie – white musicians capitalising on black
music – made statements that further inflamed racial tension. A letter to the music
press, written by Red Saunders and signed by a group of fans, voicing their horror
at such hypocrisy, quickly gained widespread support. The first RAR gig took place
in 1976, with black and white musicians performing together, and soon people were
organising their own local RAR gigs and clubs throughout the country. The RAR
magazine, Temporary Hoarding, justly famed for its provocative articles,
memorable photos and groundbreaking design, joined the dots between radical politics and culture. Musicians and fans, armed only with imagination, courage and
tenacity, gave birth to a movement which inspired a generation.

Mitch Mitchell: When you set up the first carnival in Victoria Park, what was the reaction of the police? Were they okay about it or did they try and stop it?

Ruth Gregory: The police, the state and the leadership of the SWP: none of them actually noticed what was going on. But for the most part, the council people were all onside. The police policed the march but I don’t think they really knew what to expect. Along the way in Bethnal Green, there was an NF pub, they came out but then they just got tired of it and went back in. [Laughs] They must have been thinking, who are all these people? This rainbow of people and we had with bands on trucks and music being played from other trucks and people on the backs of the trucks as well.

Allan Struthers: So the NF came out, saw the whole thing happening and thought, “No, that’s not our scene”.

R: Well they went back in in terror, probably. [Laughs]. They didn’t have a counter-demonstration, because this was a carnival. I say “march”, but most people were dancing, y’know. This was a carnival, and it was based on the Notting Hill Carnival as well – the idea came from that.

But we didn’t know what to expect, either. We didn’t have mobile phones, so the (RAR) people at Victoria Park thought nobody had turned up, because we couldn’t tell them that almost everybody had gone to Trafalgar Square and were marching that 7 or 8 miles through the East End. And that was just such a brilliant way to show those areas that they had white people on their side.

That was an expression of strength really, but we didn’t understand it before we started. We didn’t understand how big it was going to be. I mean, the Anti-Nazi League wanted to put the bands on the back of lorries in the park, but we thought that most people would go to the park, and Trafalgar Square was just full of punks! From 4 o’clock in the morning people were coming down. And Manchester ANL organised 40 or 45 buses to come down, and every area was like that. It was a huge, huge mobilisation.

M: It was about 100,000 in the end wasn’t it?

R: Yeah, I reckon, it’s difficult to know because they were never counted, but when you think that The Clash came on second last, Tom Robinson Band topped the bill, but by the time the back of the march got to Victoria Park, The Clash was on or just finishing. Before them Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex, and Patrick Fitzgerald had all been on. So it had been a long time. It took hours and hours and hours!

M: Did you get any refusals from bands you invited?

R: In the beginning, we asked bands to play, but those were bands that were already on-side really, and there were a lot to choose.

The NF did set up their “Oi” music – Skrewdriver was one of the bands – and they had their “Rock Against Communism”, as if anybody really knew what they meant by that. I don’t think they did! What does that mean – “Rock Against Communism”?

But most bands wanted to play. They had their reasons why they wanted to play. For example, People Unite was a youth centre in a house in Southall, set up by Misty in Roots and The Ruts. It was a predominantly Asian area. People could come and learn about how to produce music and how to play. They had instruments and recording stuff. When there was the Southall March where Blair Peach got killed [23 April 1979], the police systematically went through that building and smashed every bit of equipment and every person.

And Clarence Baker (Misty in Roots) – we always said, “Clarence Baker, No Trouble Maker” – he ended up in a coma because the police whacked him over the head. They stood either side of the doorway and as people were running out they were whacking them. The police behavied like agents of the state. They went in the same way they did with the miners’ strike. Just on a rampage. It was a show of brutality, a show of strength. And unlike riots, which come from being frustrated and not having anything and any say. It was orchestrated!

A: How come there was, more generally, a lack of representation of Asians in the Rock Against Racism movement?

R: The Asian punk band Alien Kulture played RAR, the problem was that there weren’t that many Asian punk bands. In the mid-1970s British reggae had started to rise, and it was mainly an Afro-Caribbean thing. One of the bands, the Cimarons, was actually formed earlier, in 1967, but for the most part, the [reggae] bands formed around that time. Many of the musicians were the children of people who came over from the Caribbean in the 1950s. So they applied reggae to the British situation, and in some ways that was quite a similar take on the situation to Punk.

It was very, very confrontational, and very militant, very political, because of course they had the Sus laws to contend with. And just a general smashing-up of everything [good] by agents of the establishment. Like the curfew on Notting Hill Carnival, which was a terrible, terrible thing. They actually had to stop around 6 o’clock in the evening I think? There was a lot of resistance to that: in 1976 there was mass rioting after the carnival because of the curfew. The police would come to carnival and you’d see them round the corner, seething away in their vans, and then they’d come out in droves down the side streets and into the crowd.

What the press did was typical of what they always do. [They claimed] it was all about what they called “steaming”, which was young black kids going through the crowds and robbing people, but it wasn’t about that at all. It was about controlling a situation. You have to remember that in British society before that, there wasn’t much noise or partying on the streets going on. Afro-Caribbeans brought that over here.

M: It was very grey society at that time.

 

R: It was very grey, and it was described by a Jamaican historian as “miserablism”, which is a great term for it. I think that dates back a lot earlier – the idea of miserablism. But it’s the person next door: if you’re having a party, they phone the police. “Stop that bloody noise!” – that kind of attitude.

I think it is all about control, and the amount of freedom to think. That’s why the 1960s are important because it started off that whole idea – and the whole Punk era can be defined by saying – “Yeah, I can do that.” The Do It Yourself attitude, to everything. You know: “I don’t have to go down King’s Road and buy that Vivienne Westwood and anything that’ll cost me my entire week’s wages for one item. I can do it myself. I can get a bin liner and a few safety pins and that sort of thing”. And also this attitude of, I can just stand up against the previous generation and say “fuck you”.

M: One of the Punk things was having a go at the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.

R: And the hippies, they didn’t like the hippies.

A: What was the problem with the hippies?

R: Well you have to remember that one generation receives information about the previous generation either because they’re their parents, or because they just hear what they see in the press. The hippies started off very militant though, around the Vietnam War. And in America especially, they were very radical.

M: But in Britain it tended to attract people who had been Mods, who were middle class and didn’t like fighting very much, and the sort-of more militant working class mods became the original Skinheads. And of course the Skinhead look was based on the Jamaican rude boys. In fact at one time, the Skinheads and Jamaicans used to get on really well together.

R: But then you see there was the p*** bashing.

M: Yeah but I’ve known Jamaicans who’ve admitted to doing that.

 

 

R: Yeah of course they did. David Widgery describes that when one Asian, Altab Ali, got killed. The people that got caught were very young and one of them was mixed race, and he describes the tragedy of being black in a predominantly white society and in a gang like that, and wanting to be part of a tribe and how you have to show your “white manhood”, it was like a test. That was his initiation – how horrible is that? This Asian worker who was just coming home from work early in the morning.

M: I remember about 12 years before that a bloke called Kelso Cochrane was murdered by white racists, in Paddington, and he was a trainee architect and no threat to anybody, he was just walking home, and they just set on him. It was supporters of Colin Jordan, the Nazi leader in the early 1960s, that had done it. And he said, “It’s very tragic when someone gets killed but of course if he hadn’t have been in this country it wouldn’t have happened.”

R: No, that’s right, that kind of attitude was quite prevalent. Also at that time, 1976, before RAR, it was quite common to be at a bus stop and somebody would just say something randomly racist to somebody else at the bus stop. Everybody else would just remain silent. All the white people would remain silent.

That was what was important about what RAR did in a way. We crossed that barrier; we changed that consciousness. Actually it’s what the Sex Pistols describe as “I wanna destroy passers-by” – because it’s the “passers-by” to racism that are the problem.

A: So you were Rocking Against Racism, but what were you rocking for?

R: Well that was kind of fairly obvious if you came to any of our gigs. RAR was directed towards the music industry as well, we didn’t do deals with the music industry, we actually were confronting the music industry in their racism because they didn’t sign up the reggae bands that were around at that time.

So we were trying to change… the whole thing really, and that’s why it’s important to look at the whole period. Because at that time there were loads of independent record labels. People put out a record, and like, there was this band called the Desperate Bicycles, they did this single, New Cross, New Cross. They put out their single and it came in one of those paper bags that you get when you buy a sausage roll from the bakery. Then printed on there, on the white paper bag, was the name of their single. People were just bringing out their own records and then there was record companies like Rough Trade, People Unite, Stiff Records. There were loads of independent record companies.

That discussion was being had all around us, about the dominance and the control of the big record producing companies, like Sony and Decca. So what I’m describing is people doing it for themselves, again. That is the best way to describe that period.

M: Well now people are putting their tracks online.

R: There’s a lot of similarities with now, people putting videos up online. The majority are complete crap, but then you’ve got people like that Artist Taxi Driver, who hits the nail on the head quite often. And it’s about voices isn’t it really?

A: But then there’s individual voices like someone who makes a track in their bedroom, uploads it on the Internet and waits to see what happens. And then there’s collective voices…

R: Collective voices, which is what RAR was. But you have to remember that we didn’t orchestrate anything. We were defending something, we were rocking against racism, because it encapsulated – it put the issue on the head of a pin. But around that, it was a much broader thing, it was also promoting something, and I think that’s very important too – we had a dream, you know, even though we didn’t know it, even though we weren’t conscious of it, we had a dream of a better world basically. We all had that, and that’s what drove us. That included the reggae artists, it included the punk bands, and it included every single person that was involved in RAR or the ANL.

And a lot of [people] were members of the SWP at the time, that’s why you get involved on the left, isn’t it? You don’t get involved on the left because you’re against something, or maybe you do in the beginning, but then you start to think, “What kind of world do I want?” Everybody has their own little dream of it, but you can have a collective dream as well about it. I mean, that’s what’s great about that Martin Luther King speech, “I have a dream”, and also John Lennon’s “Imagine”. They give you something to aim for, something to build.

A: How important were squats to Rock Against Racism? Could it have happened without them?

R: A lot of people did squat. At the time of the first carnival I was squatting in Charing Cross Road with a whole lot of other people. We were right in the heart of things, just up the road from Trafalgar Square. There was another block on the other side of the road, identically built: tiny little flats, no bathrooms, just a toilet. Couple of rooms – tiny. Now that one was owned by the GLC and they joined flats up together, made them bigger, and improved them, and continued renting them as council flats. But ours was owned by Westminster council, which was trying to “decant” the whole block so that they could pull it down. That’s what they did eventually, and they built flats which they then sold. When we were squatting there, before they kicked us out, most of it was empty, so it just got filled up with people wanting to find somewhere to live.

Then there were all the squats in Brixton before that, where they took over whole roads… I lived in Australia for a while and when I came back here in 1976 I lived in Brixton and there were whole streets of corrugated iron of these run down terraced houses, people took over. So all that was going on when I arrived, and that’s how I joined the [Brixton] SWP as well. Because we did things like supported the anti-SUS campaign, we occupied the dole office because at that time you had weekly signing. The queues would go right down the street, so we occupied the dole office and held the manager prisoner [laughs], to get him to bring in fortnightly signings, so at least it was staggered.

A: How did you come together as a group?

R: Red Saunders wrote a letter about Eric Clapton which was in all the music press and Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge and all of those papers. Out of that a whole lot of people got involved. I wasn’t involved in RAR then because I was in still Australia, I joined because I got a job at the print shop, and that’s where Temporary Hoarding was being produced so I got involved that way.

A lot of it was just due to fans really loving the music. The letter was directed to a different generation – Gurinda Chadha says that she didn’t even know who Eric Clapton was – but because they put “Rock Against Racism” at the end of it, people started writing in and saying, “Where do I join?” And that’s where it took off.

 

 

M: It’s very funny, the number of people who I’ve spoken to who know about Eric Clapton and have heard his records, and don’t realise anything about the Enoch Powell speech…

R: What is shocking as well, is that some of the bands that play Love Music Hate Racism [don’t know], one of them came out and said his favourite artist was Eric Clapton!

M: Oh dear, that’s not a good move.

A: It’s especially ironic that Clapton made his name off the back of covering a Bob Marley song.

R: Oh yeah, well the letter said, “Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you.”

M: I mean, he covered Muddy Waters and all the great blues artists.

R: His music comes from the blues, doesn’t it? But you know, what he says as well in interviews, “Well there are white blues musicians” is a total irrelevance really.

M: I think it was it him who said about, “White men get the blues”, and then somebody brought out a song called “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites”.

A: What was the wider press reaction to RAR?

R: Pretty terrible actually – The Telegraph, The Mail, that’s obvious. The BBC also downed the event numbers. But it turns out they’ve got loads of footage. The other thing about RAR is that, because we were so suspicious of the media, we wouldn’t allow people to come along and film, which was really stupid, because none of us had cameras or phones that recorded or anything like that. So there’s very little footage of the carnivals or the march, but the BBC does have quite a bit in their archives. But they’re always pulling out things like that, aren’t they? You think, oh blimey!

M: On BBC 4 they often have these documentaries about that period.

R: And then it all comes out.

M: Yeah, they did an interesting one recently on Skinheads on BBC4.

A: And this exhibition at the Migration Museum in Lambeth is adding to all of this archival sort of worldview that we’re getting of Rock Against Racism, but is it doing anything that you haven’t already seen on television?

R: Yes, because we’ve got stuff that those people don’t have, and we had lots of discussions whilst we were putting this exhibition together [like]: “Is it just a dusty old tome being pulled off a library shelf and then shown to the world?”

We had to have a purpose, and our purpose for doing it was to show people now, that if you work together in a collective way you don’t have leaders, because you don’t need them. You’re all free-thinking, you’ve got a common purpose, you’re creative about it, and you just think, “nothing’s gonna stop me”.

A lot of people are not confident – it’s about raising confidence [now], and that’s what it was about then as well. So really it’s about telling a part of our history that belongs to us. It shows a link –  people have done this before, and they’ve changed something, and it’s been very successful. And it was successful because we didn’t have a line coming from above. We reacted to things that were happening at the time and we included them in the discussion and that’s what people are doing now.

Really, that’s why we’ve spent so much time doing this, otherwise it’s kind of a bit pointless in a way… so yeah, it’s about linking that time with now.

If you were involved or are interested in RAR join our FB group ‘rar-rap’ (Rock Against Racism Research ‘n’ archive project). Contact: rarcollective@gmail.com

Leeds RAR made this short film to accompany the recent exhibition of their archives: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DR01x9waNqI

Manchester RAR will be holding a 40th anniversary celebration of the Northern Carnival in Manchester on Saturday 14 July 2018 with an exhibition, discussion and gig.

A special 40 Anniversary Hoarding has been produced to celebrate 1978 – The year of the RAR Carnivals: 30 April Victoria Park, London; 15 July Northern Carnival, Manchester; 5 August, Craigmillar Park, Edinburgh; 20 August, Brent Carnival NW London; 24 September, Brockwell Park, London. Inside –  a 1976-82 time-line poster; ‘All the bands that played RAR’ poster; an Andy Dark montage + more… @ £1 each (min order 10 copies)… order via: rarcollective@gmail.com

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