Rock Against Racism ran from 1976 until 1981, and saw musicians and political activists come together to fight the hatred and xenophobia in the UK of the 1970s via music. Remembering the time, Syd Shelton says: “Having spent a few years living in Sydney, I came back to a Britain in the midst of the first great recession since the Second World War. As massive cuts ordered by the IMF and implemented by the Labour government really started to bite, racism was starting to become normalised in a society hell bent on finding someone to blame. Black people were very much the butt of dumb jokes, the Black and White Minstrel Show was prime time Saturday night TV fodder, those signs ‘No blacks, No dogs, No Irish’ were commonplace and the Nazi National Front was gaining ground.”
The final straw came when Eric Clapton made a notorious speech in support of Enoch Powell from the stage of a Birmingham concert at the same time as he was enjoying chart success with a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff.
“That was it for photographer Red Saunders who together with some of his friends penned a letter to the music press calling for a rank and file movement called Rock Against Racism. The response was overwhelming and in the first few days there were 800 replies. I got involved shortly after the letter was published and we came together as a mix of artists, writers, photographers, actors, fashion designers, musicians and fans in a vaguely anarchic group which I have always thought had more similarity with the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich early in the 20th century rather than a conventional political organisation.”
Under the slogan Love Music, Hate Racism, the group staged marches, festivals, and over 500 concerts throughout the UK. Documenting the movement was Shelton, who photographed the musicians and audiences, as well as marches. “For me the most amazing gig was the Rock Against Racism Carnival 1 at Victoria Park in 1978,” he remembers. “We were approached by the Anti Nazi League to look into jointly doing an event in Tower Hamlets where the National Front had got 17% of the vote in the previous year’s Greater London Council elections. The ANL wanted to do a gig from the back of a lorry in Victoria Park but we had altogether much bigger ambitions and through contacts in the music business we managed to organise a proper stage and PA.
“X-Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band were in from day one and were quickly joined by Birmingham’s amazing Steel Pulse. A couple of weeks before the Carnival, we got a call from The Clash who were right then the hottest band in town and we met up with them and they agreed be a part of the event. We were determined that it had to be an event and we booked Trafalgar Square which is seven miles from Victoria Park. We hired flat bed trucks with generators to run the PAs and had bands like The Ruts, Misty in Roots and The Piranhas playing the whole seven miles. I was supposed to be in charge of RAR in the Square, partly because I lived in Charing Cross Road at the time. People repeatedly told us that no one would march that far and that most would just go straight to the park. All night long I could hear people singing their way down Charing Cross Road and by 7am I had to go down to the Square to check it out – already it had 10,000 rockers ready to go. It got bigger and bigger and as it left and began the chanting, dancing, rocking procession there were a 100,000 people.”
Shelton was also one of the key graphic designers who created the Rock Against Racism fanzine Temporary Hoarding, as well as posters to promote events, which were all done in the punk style of the time. “The graphics, which were done collectively, were very much led by the technology of the time,” he says. “Offset litho had replaced letterpress, which was as liberating to designers as Apple Macs were to be a decade later. Our work was influenced by the Constructivists and montage favourites like John Heartfield. Our tools were the photocopier, the photomechanical transfer camera and a very Heath Robinson American Headlining Machine. Putting together Temporary Hoarding almost always involved at least one all-night session, sometimes with people dropping into the studio with a few beers or to put their two bobs worth into the artwork.
“Temporary Hoarding was printed in the East End by Feb Edge litho on a web offset and the proceeds from the previous issue determined when we could do a new issue,” Shelton continues. “It was largely distributed via the network of Rock Against Racism groups up and down the country. Our posters had to be driven to a sort of garage warehouse in North London which was headquarters of an operation run by a guy called Terry the Pill. He and his team of flyposterers had complete control of street posters and if you didn’t go through him, your posters would be lucky to survive 24 hours.”
Of the impact that Rock Against Racism had on society of the time, Shelton is unequivocal. “The National Front had gone in those five years from a serious political threat to political oblivion,” he says. As to whether there is a need for a similar movement today, he comments: “Racism is always there and it mutates and finds new targets to direct its hate. Now we live in the midst of a massive refuge crisis with people dying in their thousands in a desperate attempt to make life bearable as they flee intolerable war zones. The response by our government has been shameful. As the referendum is about to hit the ballot box, xenophobia and racism dominate the campaigns and it reminds us that there is always a need for Rock Against Racism.”