Turn on, tune in, drop out

What’s with all the mythologising about Rock Against Racism? Those self-congratulatory concerts demobilised a generation.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Culture

Another week, another outbreak of anniversary-itis, this time in reference to Rock Against Racism. My personal (and political) inclination is to say that the twentieth century is yesterday; time to move on. But since nearly everyone else is determined to relive it…

Of the late 1970s I recall trying to produce records not straighten them. Resident in Brixton, I attempted to compose music for the punky reggae party which The Specials got right (my own version was too kitsch). One of my other memories is of being demobilised by Rock Against Racism (RAR). There I was one sunny afternoon (was it Hackney?), with a group of friends at an open-air RAR carnival concert. I think we were awaiting Elvis Costello when a voice from the stage attracted us with its urgency: ‘The British Movement [a fascist outfit] is getting ready to march down Brick Lane. If you really want to fight racism, meet us at the gates in 10 minutes. Defend Brick Lane against racist attack – join us!’ Or words to that effect. The speaker was a young Asian guy from Workers Against Racism.

I got to my feet (of course we had been sitting on the grass – it was that kind of event), as did a couple of my friends. We said goodbye to the others and started to move off; resolved to fight racism, but nervous at the same time – what were we letting ourselves in for? Then another announcement from the stage. Words to the effect that the previous announcement was a false alarm; Brick Lane was not under immediate threat; there were enough anti-racists in the area to head off any trouble; better to stay put; if you were thinking of going – don’t, and that’s official.

We sat down again. Relieved, to be honest, not to have to put ourselves on the line. The afternoon drifted on, like so many before and after – another beer, another smoke, earnest conversations about how to re-mix my latest track so as to get the sound right. Potential action against racism in Brick Lane, East London, had been thwarted by the very organisers of Rock Against Racism, as we kids were invited to chill out and congratulate ourselves on our anti-racist feelings rather than do anything real to confront racism head-on. Thus were we demobilised, even depoliticised, by RAR.

Getting the sound – how I was obsessed with it. Leaving aside aesthetic considerations (for those with a second life to spare, I’ll argue the toss with you even now), this lazy afternoon chatter was the sound of the punky reggae party crashing in on itself. We had the energy and the intelligence to engage with the wider world in other than aesthetic terms, but we were never pushed to do this by RAR. On this occasion some of us were even pushed back from the brink. And not only on this occasion; rather this occasion summed up the RAR ethos: buy a badge, enjoy the carnival, stay with your right-on friends – all so very different from the effort to engage and transform which I subsequently found out was the very stuff of politics, as I signed up with Workers Against Racism.

All dressed up in our tonic suits, half-way between artschool and suedehead, the fact that we had no political place to go was ultimately our own responsibility. But we would have had to create our own independent political leadership, because there was none forthcoming from the likes of RAR.

I stress independent political leadership because the effects of RAR were not negligible: it symbolised the left-wing current which has repeatedly brought people back to where they already were, thereby confirming the limited conditions of the time rather than demonstrating how fragile is the construction of the status quo.

When the postwar boom ended in the mid-1970s, British politics were re-focused around the postwar settlement, whereby workers in Britain had expected secure employment, a council house and a health service in return for indirect commitment to British nationalism via the legacy of wartime anti-fascism. The key question of the late 1970s was whether the postwar settlement should stay or be made to go. While the Tories under their new leader Margaret Thatcher could hardly wait to tear up this social contract, left-wingers rallied to its defence, decrying anyone who attacked it as ‘fascist’ – this on the fallacious grounds that since the postwar contract was settled on wartime anti-fascism, anyone who attacked any part of it must be anti-anti-fascist, and goose-stepping to boot. In this respect, insofar as the left exercised political influence, it ‘led’ us back to 1945 at precisely the moment when new times demanded a new outlook. Even in 1978, many left-wingers were already suffering from anniversary-itis.

RAR not only reiterated the past, in another aspect its legacy has also helped to create a new problem. RAR was formed in reaction to on-stage remarks by the rock star formerly known as God – Eric Clapton – who said that ‘Enoch was right’. In his 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Enoch Powell had said that immigrants posed the problem of the age. Powell was completely wrong about the source, but he was on to something when he suggested that British society would lose its coherence. RAR supporters were right to want to fight racism, especially as British racism was intensifying in the 1970s, but its ethos either reinforced conservatism (as above), or anticipated the incoherent separation of ‘communities’ which has since been ratified as multiculturalism.

The irony of the punky reggae party is that blacks and whites tended to stay in different corners of the room. In sound, it took Jerry Dammers’ transformation of punk and reggae to bring them together in a robust, musical form; and it would take more than lame exhortations to ‘unite and fight’ to bring them together in transformative politics. In any case, the weight of left-leaning influence has been more towards ‘separate and respect’ – that is, respect ‘cultural differences’ largely constructed in artificial, communal separation.

In a further irony, it was ‘communalism’ – separation along cultural lines – which Powell had witnessed in India (where the British encouraged it for the sake of ‘divide and rule’), and which he feared would spread to Britain itself. But communalism has not spread from India, as Powell erroneously predicted. Instead, in the name of multiculturalism, it has been grown at home by RAR’s former adherents as they undertook their long march into Britain’s public institutions. Here they have made a new role for themselves as mediators between different groups in the punky reggae party.

The artschool dance goes on forever..? I hope not; but I always was suspicious of anyone who identified themselves as ‘Rock’ – especially in 1978.

Andrew Calcutt is researching ‘the mediation nation’ – Britain’s social role after Empire and the Cold War. He is the editor of Rising East.

Previously on spiked

Andrew Calcutt remembered 1967: the summer of possibilities. Neil Davenport saw Closer as a joyless depiction of the post-punk era. Shirley Dent urged organisers to keep sanctimony out of music festivals. Elsewhere, Frank Furedi described how New Labour racialised Britain. And Neil Davenport argued that black youth was being chained to victim culture. Or read more at spiked issue Race.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today