Sunday, 11 September 2016

Punky Reggae Party: The Story of Rock Against Racism, British Library, London, Friday 9th September

Friday marked the final instalment of the British Library's 40 Years of Punk season, Punky Reggae Party: The Story of Rock Against Racism.

From watching people file into the auditorium, I could see that the majority of the audience appeared to be the right sort of age to have lived through punk and RAR. There were a smattering of twenties and thirtysomethings, but very much the minority. 

After a brief introduction by a member of staff from the British Library, Daniel Rachel (author of new book Walls Come Tumbling Down: Rock Against Racism, Two Tone, Red Wedge) introduced the panel, including the empty chair where Dennis Bovell was meant to be, had he not been unavoidably delayed by Aswad. Next to the empty chair were Kate Webb (Irate Kate, RAR/Temporary Hoarding), Lucy Whitman (Lucy Toothpaste, JOLT fanzine, RAR/Temporary Hoarding, Rock Against Sexism) and Tom Robinson (Tom Robinson Band). 

The discussion began with the catalyst for RAR: Eric Clapton's infamous speech at a gig in Birmingham in 1976, sections of which were read out by Tom Robinson. As a speech, it is brutally shocking in terms of it's choice of language, and appears to have been equally shocking at the time. Clapton the bluesman, Clapton with his cover of Bob Marley's 'I Shot The Sheriff', Clapton the rock colonialist... Clapton who thought Enoch Powell was right. 

We then moved on to gig attendee and photographer Red Saunders' open letter decrying Clapton's speech and actions, which was published in the music press and Socialist Worker, which called for a "Rock Against Racism". 

This was oral history at it's best; the relating of the history of Rock Against Racism, from four different perspectives (Dennis Bovell did arrive, not too late), with Daniel Rachel steering what became an increasingly multimedia discussion: We saw clips of the carnivals and marches, of the Clash playing, of Steel Pulse... The story took a number of twists and turns, with inevitable digressions. 

There was Temporary Hoarding (the RAR newspaper), mass communication in a pre internet age, Rock Against Sexism, women in punk, the birth of lovers rock, Dennis Bovell's work with The Slits, Sham 69 and their fans, the difficulties of bands who acquired NF/Skinhead followers (Rhoda Dakar, from the audience during the Q&A, was very quick to point out that all the 2Tone bands acquired these kind of fans. It just happened, and the bands had no control over the fans they attracted). There was a lot of really interesting detail on the logistics of RAR, of organising the carnivals, the impact of the carnivals and, really, the whole event succeeded in really bringing RAR, and that period of time, alive in a way that was vivid, colourful, and inspiring.


In the Q&A someone asked (as I knew they would) whether we need a new RAR now, if it's even more relevant in a post Brexit vote world with hate crime reporting increasing on a daily basis. I think the answer given was a good one: That RAR was right for it's moment in time, but not necessarily for now. That said, as Kate Webb mentioned, RAR did go global and events do still occur all around the world. There was also Love Music, Hate Racism, which seemed to be the natural heir to RAR. The return to this question encouraged an incredibly forthright heckle at the very end, vis a vis the question of whether society is in worse shape in 2016 than it was in 1976. The panel said no, pointing out that there are at least laws in place now that there weren't then. The heckler, a middle aged white guy, yelled "BOLLOCKS!", adding "WE'RE IN THE WEIMAR PERIOD!!" (now there's a cheerful thought...) A woman on the other side of the auditorium of a similar age called back "I AGREE WITH YOU MATE!"

There wasn't a lot that anyone could say to that, and the event ended at that point anyway as we were out of time. 


I have to say, I'm glad that no one on the panel, or in the audience, fell into the trap of saying that the current generation aren't stroppy/proactive enough. It looked like that was about to happen at one point, during which I had Georgia on my mind, specifically 'Move Systems', along with Hope Not Hate's #moreincommon campaign.

I don't think RAR could exist now because, as Dorian Lynskey concluded in his history of the protest song, 33 Revolutions Per Minute, what started as a celebration became a requiem. As I see it myself, protest and youth protest do occur, but they don't have a soundtrack. You can find angry music, angry music about specific issues in fact, but the protest and the angry music increasingly feel divorced from each other. 

We have songs about Donald Trump and the refugee crisis (Will Varley's 'To Build A Wall'), songs about austerity (Doyle and the Four Fathers 'Welcome To Austerity'), youth unemployment (Poppy and the Jezebels 'Sign In, Dream On, Drop Out'), and good old marching songs (Pretty Girls Make Graves' 'Parade') but the student protests of 2010 produced no anthem, there was no Ballad of Milbank, there was no Occupy anthem (unless you count the marching chant of 'Whose streets? Our streets!'), there is no musical lament for the EU (unless you count that absolutely inspired take on Paloma Faith's 'Only Love Can Hurt Like This' on Dead Ringers on June 24th, where it became 'Only Leave Can Hurt Like This').

Similarly, in around 2003, there were a number of songs catching the anti-Iraq War mood, but none became anthemic enough to stick. Green Day's 'American Idiot' is fingered by Lynskey as a contender, but Broadcast's 'America's Boy' and Biffy Clyro's 'Stars and Shites' are similarly eloquent. 

This diverging of protest and music is why I think there couldn't be a RAR now. That doesn't mean something shouldn't happen to address the increasing hell that is post-Brexit vote Britain, but it probably won't be rooted in music. I have started an audio diary on Spotify, post Brexit, using songs to mark my reactions/moods to events as they unfold, but it makes for very random listening and, ultimately, probably only makes sense to me. Unlike the one I did of post-2000 marching songs, which was inspired by the TUC march last year, and what I felt was a woeful playlist along the PA system as we marched. Or, to put it bluntly: I really, really resented having to march the last leg of the march to 'Don't Look Back In Anger'. 

It will be interesting to see what this years TUC march will bring in the way of banners, chants and iconography. Maybe something will happen. We can't do the pig banners again, that's for sure. 

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