Colin Revolting reviews Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League 1976-1982 by David Renton, the story of the fascist National Front and the campaign which stopped it in its tracks.
This review was first published at Red Flag.
In the mid 1970’s the National Front (NF) were on the rise. They were the envy of other far right organisations, in particular their ideological cousins, France’s Front National (FN). A decade later the NF were broken and yet the FN’s star was rising. Why were the NF defeated whilst the FN have gone from strength to strength, their candidate polling 10.5 million votes (34%) in the recent Presidential election? To answer this, Never Again looks at a movement in music.
In those days rock fans got their hands dirty reading the weekly ‘inkies’. Like my schoolmates I read them all religiously, but the NME (New Musical Express) was our bible. When in 1976 we saw a photo of David Bowie giving what looked suspiciously like a fascist salute we were concerned. Three months later we read that Eric Clapton had made a speech on stage against blacks and in favour of the anti-immigration Tory Enoch Powell.
Between those two events, yet unreported by the music press, was the death of a Sikh man, after which a far-right leader declared, ‘One dead – a million to go’.
Little surprise that me and my friends were not the only music fans pleased to see a letter in the NME calling out Clapton for his racist hypocrisy after making his name from blues music and calling for a movement called Rock Against Racism (RAR).
If the NF were hoping to grow into a big tree that letter was a small axe ‘ready to cut them down’, as Bob Marley sang. The letter led to The Clash performing at a massive Carnival Against the Nazis, with similar festivals and smaller gigs springing up around the country over the following 5 years.
How this all happened is the jigsaw that Renton puts together by doing what you wouldn’t want to do yourself – reading the sordid memoirs of the wannabe Hitlers and the police reports about racist murders. He also seeks out the fascists’ opponents – the music fans and others who marched and organised gigs in opposition to the growth of racism.
He locates the cultural movement in its historic moment. With rapidly rising unemployment and soaring inflation, the far-right’s demonising of immigrants was beginning to receive an echo – and not just from the likes of Eric Clapton.
The swastika represented real horror to our parents’ post-war generation, but it had been treated as a symbol of shock and humour amongst some of their children – including members of the Rolling Stones and The Who. But with the rise of the right that joke went sour when punks appeared on tea time TV wearing the fascist symbol.
Joe Strummer of the Clash reacted to this from their very first NME interview: ‘We’re anti-fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist and we’re pro-creative. We’re against ignorance’, he declared.
Rock Against Racism grew alongside punk in 1976 and both took inspiration from the righteous anger of reggae – including the first generation of British bands Steel Pulse, Aswad and Misty in Roots. This trend in music, born out of our tense times, was welcomed by those of us tired of the pixies and pomposity of Prog Rock and the fading glory of Glam. However in the streets the National Front’s marches were becoming bigger and bolder as their appeal at the ballot box grew.
They first came unstuck in Lewisham when the local black youth joined with left-wingers to confront their march. Reggae blasting from open windows was the soundtrack of what became known as the Battle of Lewisham, on 13 August 1977.
The alliance between the left and locals was not automatic. For instance, towards the end of the day one of the lefties, knowing that the fascists were heading for their trains home, called out, ‘to the station!’. The black youth, who lived with police harassment, headed to the police station.
Renton identifies that day as pivotal for both the racists and anti-racists. With their ‘patriotic’ procession disrupted the NF’s ‘respectable’ supporters fled from the streets, leaving the hardcore Nazi thugs exposed for what they were.
It was in the aftermath of that day that the Anti-Nazi League was launched as a way of gathering bigger forces. Many people including TV and sport celebrities and politicians signed up to the ANL. Rock Against Racism was taken to the heart of much of punk and reggae crowd and many a guitar was emblazoned with the RAR star.
The two organisations came together in 1978 to create the biggest anti-racist festival ever, in what Billy Bragg has called ‘the moment when my generation took sides’. The 80,000 there that day knew we weren’t alone in our revulsion to racism. The experience was life changing. From Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex screaming ‘Oh Bondage! Up yours!’ to Tom Robinson leading the crowd in ‘Sing if you’re Glad to Be Gay” there was a lot of learning for our young minds.
And it didn’t stop there. Over the five years covered by the book, I went from wearing a RAR badge – enough itself to be called a ‘n****** lover’ by some other punks – to dancing with a crowd of sixth form friends at the RAR carnivals and eventually helping put on RAR gigs.
But the threat of the NF was still growing and they looked set to take third place in the general election of 1979. It was us young RAR supporters, many interviewed in this book, who went out to leaflet and counter protest against them. Travelling to places such as Leicester where the NF march was showered with bricks from a building site. RAR organised a national tour of gigs in far-flung locations where fascists were standing including an all-day event at Alexandra Palace in north London. Stopped by police whilst fly posting for that gig I remember one of the coppers saying, ‘ was nearly hit by a rock against racism in Leicester’. (I didn’t mention my own involvement).
Never Again is an arresting and atmospheric account. To say the book is timely is unnecessary, given the rise of a very different Tommy Robinson to the Tom Robinson of 1970’s. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell recently asked if ‘it’s time for an Anti-Nazi League-type cultural and political campaign to resist’ because ‘we can no longer ignore the rise of far-right politics in our society’.
Renton’s book is clear that the cultural and political response now will differ from the response then – but what he is equally clear about is the growing need for a response. Whatever it does it will need to rock…
Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League 1976-1982 is published by Routledge