Monday, 7 December 2015

Syd Shelton and Rock against Racism at Rivington Place.

We were in Shoreditch at the Rivington Place Gallery to see an exhibition of photographs about Punk, Reggae and Rock Against Racism by Syd Shelton. For a whole mix of reasons I hadn't made it there until the very last day which turned out lucky for us because the artist himself was there to give a talk and answer questions.

Of all the struggles and campaigns I've fought in, this was the most successful and the most fun.

At the end of the day I suppose it's really what I was all about.

Apart from the music and the politics, RAR stuck out because of its design and look and Syd Shelton's starkly realist photographs  of the late 70's played a big part in that.

Here he is, patiently letting me fumble a picture of him;

It was quite a special afternoon, standing in a trendy art gallery in an area where in 1976, as Syd pointed out, Black and Asian people were often too intimidated to walk around at night.

It all seems a long time ago now although I wasn't the only person of a certain age in the audience remembering what we did.

In 1977 young white kids started listening to punk and at the same time black kids were listening to a more militant kind of Reggae.

At the same time openly Nazi political organisations were marching the streets and supposedly 'respectable' people were openly racist too......something had to change.

Then Eric Clapton made a racist speech at one of his concerts and David Bowie chose to return from Berlin in big limousine pretending to be some kind of Nazi.

It was one of those moments where it could have just been allowed to happen and everything would have carried on as before.

As it was it turned out to be the catalyst that produced a reaction from people like Syd. Rock Against Racism was set up to organise anti racist concerts up and down the country, taking Punk and Reggae to places where it had never been before.

I remember a RAR concert in Slough very early on that ended in one big fight but it changed the town forever.

Probably none of this would ever have happened if it hadn't been for the force of nature that was Red Saunders and it was nice to see him at the back of the hall, enjoying it all as he has every right to.

By 1978, we'd done about as much as you could with little do it yourself concerts and the next step was to take the battle to the heart of the East End. By this time many of us had already been leafleting the area, challenging the National Front in its heartland.

On 30th April 1978, RAR organised a march and carnival from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in the East End with a line up to die for; Tom Robinson, X-Ray Specs, Steel Pulse, and Jimmy Pursey singing with The Clash.

I remember nailing up the 'lollipops', the round placards that filled the march, at midnight the night before and wondering if anyone was actually going to turn up to use them.
I didn't need to worry - there were about 150,000 there and the march seemed to take all day to get to the park. When we got there, the kids were up in the trees to get a better view.
None of us ever thought to bring a camera - that's why there are so few pictures of the day and only two short films I've found so far.
Luckily Syd Shelton dragged his cameras about for us and we have some special memories as a result.
The picture on the left here is going to bring back memories to anyone who ever read 'Temporary Hoarding', RAR's magazine;

It started out as little more than a Punk fanzine and ended up creating a new graphic all its own.

From this;

To this;

The pictures ranged from Lewisham in 1976, through the Northern Carnival, The Militant Tour and my favourite the September 1978 carnival in Brixton;


And then, something strange happened.....Two-Tone came along from Coventry;

And suddenly all the things we'd been trying to make happen
just happened;

It was as though we'd done our job;

Probably the most important thing was always to ensure that there was a place for Skinhead culture (minus the racism) as much as for anything else. I think we managed that.

Rock against racism didn't operate in a vacuum - there was a whole lot of politics going on as well - big struggles and the music that seemed so important to us played just a part in those bigger things.

The funny thing is that in 1977 the number of Punks in Britain were no more than a few thousand - I often used to go and watch The Jam play, I just turned up at the venue and queued to get in with a couple of hundred other people.

No problem.

At the big carnival there were 150,000 people.

The strange thing is that all these years later, it seems as though every one was there.

We must have been doing something right.

Thanks to Rivington Place gallery, Autograph ABP and The Arts Council for the money, to Syd Shelton, Red Saunders and everybody at RAR!

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)

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