Concerted Efforts: Remembering Rock Against Racism

By Mark Bedford


As well as the earth-shaking events of 1968, this Spring marks another anniversary worthy of commemoration: an anti-racist event that indelibly roused and rocked London almost exactly 10 years later, on April 30th 1978. A new feature-length documentary by fire fighter-filmmaker Alan Miles, Who Shot the Sheriff, charts the history and legacy of Rock Against Racism – one of the most progressive cultural movements ever to have captured the popular imagination in modern Britain. The film focuses upon the years between 1976 and 1981 when RAR was ignited, shone most brightly and then burned out, but is framed by both the historical context of turbulent post-war UK race-relations that made a populist anti-racist campaign necessary and speculation about the contribution to the enduring struggle for multi-racial equality that this movement may still have the potential to make.

The film opens with a montage of the ugly race riots that intermittently affected the inner-cities in the second half of last century, including the incendiary Notting Hill flashpoints of 1958 and 1976. Against the backdrop of the latter disturbances, blues musician Eric Clapton used the platform his star status afforded him to make a number of ill-advised racist remarks and unwittingly became the catalyst for RAR.

A succession of activist talking heads recount the anger and determination that forged the Rock Against Racism initiative, but the narrative that begins to emerge is of a cultural youth movement that took on a momentum of its own. Events staged in early 1977 that billed white punk bands with black reggae acts at first seemed incongruous, yet it is difficult to see now how two cultural forms could have had more affinity.

And so it was that The Clash – who had covered songs by the Maytals and Junior Murvin and worked with Jamaican producer Lee Scratch Perry the previous year – were part of a famous line-up that included Birmingham reggae band Steel Pulse at Victoria Park in East London on April 30th 1978. Who Shot the Sheriff blends familiar stage-side colour footage of the Clash’s Vicky Park performance of White Riot with authentic fan-recorded black and white super-8 film-stock shot from within the audience and presents a symbolic shot / reverse-shot of musician/audience reciprocity.

But while RAR made an enormous contribution to normalising multi-cultural events and effectively paved the way for the multi-racial Ska scene that became dominant in youth culture between 1979 and 1982, perhaps the organisation’s greatest achievement was in fashioning a cultural movement that would steer many thousands of white working-class youths away from the ascendant National Front. Despite the conventional wisdom which posits that The Clash attracted a less proletarian fan base than peers such as Sham 69, Alan Miles’ film emphatically points up how the Clash’s alignment to the anti-Nazi movement created a crucial bifurcation along the path that led to the NF. Tim Mardell, an east Londoner who was barely in his teens in 1978, recounts that “…the National Front had been trying to influence youngsters by leafleting football matches and were starting to find a way into the music scene as well, but Joe [Strummer] … gave us a figurehead for something that became a stand against racism and his involvement with Rock Against Racism was fundamental in re-tuning whole swathes of working-class music fans in London to the anti-fascist and anti-racist stance… ”.

Mardell’s recollection of the choice faced by young Londoners in April 1978 is appositely illustrated by a dissolve to the front cover of London listings magazine Time Out from the week of the RAR festival: a torn-down-the-middle dichotomy depicting the NF’s then leader John Tyndall in full Nazi style military regalia against the late Clash front man in righteous full effect.

But Miles knows we are ‘hearing music from another time’ and one of his film’s great strengths is its insistence upon keeping one eye fixed firmly on the here and now. Ex-Special Jerry Dammers, whose band headlined RAR’s final large-scale event at Leeds in the Summer of 1981, points out that the very use of the word Rock in the movement’s rubric was ethnocentric and admonishes the value of the recently resurrected RAR slogan ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’ instead. This notwithstanding, the artist who emerges in the film as the most worthy contender for the position of popular cultural anti-racist ‘figurehead’ is the Clash and Specials influenced Hard-Fi singer Richard Archer. Indeed, there is a kind of symbolic passing of the baton at the end of the film when Hard-Fi are joined on stage by Dammers, Neville Staple and the Beat’s Ranking Roger for a version of the Specials’ classic, Ghost Town.

With the British National Party currently working hard to win seats in the forthcoming Greater London Assembly elections the appearance of this film is timely because, as well as documenting a rich period of cultural history, Who Shot the Sheriff is a valuable source of inspiration for the present.

Who Shot the Sheriff will be screened at a number of cultural and trade union events in April. The film can be seen at London’s Prince Charles cinema on 27th April and will be broadcast on the free-view community channel on 4th May.

Mark Bedford writes and teaches in London. He was formerly a fire-fighter