We want rebel music

Issue: 130

Lee Billingham

Ian Goodyer, Crisis Music: The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism (Manchester University Press, 2009), £60

Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR)—in tandem with Unite Against Fascism (UAF)—has played a key role in the movement to take on the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL), and face down a resurgent racism in Britain over the past decade.

The “Love Music Hate Racism” slogan was coined by David Widgery in the first issue of the Rock Against Racism (RAR) fanzine Temporary Hoarding. Widgery’s book Beating Time (sadly out of print) brilliantly conveys the political excitement, creative energy and visual flair of RAR from the perspective of a leading participant. An analysis of RAR also forms part of Dave Renton’s history of the Anti Nazi League (ANL), When We Touched The Sky.

Ian Goodyer’s timely study of RAR aims for the first time to set the movement fully in its cultural and political context and particularly to examine the relationship between RAR and what he calls its “main political sponsor”—the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He argues that RAR was a genuine mass movement comprising diverse and independent forces, but that the SWP’s politics and ideological tradition were a crucial formative influence.

Most readers of this journal will be familiar with the history and political context of RAR, which is outlined very well in the book. The movement was formed in 1976 from a letter sent to the music press by Red Saunders and others following Eric Clapton’s racist remarks praising Enoch Powell. It arose among the political and economic crisis of the mid-1970s with much of the left demoralised by the sellouts of the Labour government and the National Front (NF) on the rise.

The movement reached a high point with the 1978 ANL/RAR Carnival in east London, which attracted around 100,000 people—many of whom marched the five miles from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park. The 1978 Carnival’s line-up has come to symbolise RAR’s cultural achievements, combining punk (The Clash and Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey) with reggae (Steel Pulse and Misty). The two subcultures had much in common and a degree of cross-fertilisation and mutual respect had already begun. This was accelerated by punk and reggae bands and fans coming together for RAR gigs, a process that culminated in the Two Tone movement whose leading lights The Specials headlined the RAR Carnival in 1981.

Pursey himself was an example of the movement’s ability not only to creatively blend the most radical popular music but also to influence musicians politically, having stood up to his band’s section of skinhead followers in strongly backing RAR and the ANL. Tom Robinson (a top five artist at the time) and Misty were among a number of prominent musicians politically and organisationally involved in RAR beyond playing their part on stage. The 1978 Carnival also highlighted the movement’s (and punk’s) involvement with and ability to further other struggles against oppression— the Tom Robinson Band’s anthem “Glad to Be Gay” and X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene’s strident blow against sexism “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”

Goodyer argues that it was the coming together of nascent but exciting youth cultures with socialist ideology, and left wing activists involved with and steeped in the traditions of radical culture that made RAR possible. The movement’s relationship with the SWP was “mediated” by three factors identified by Goodyer. First, the party’s increasing emphasis on political rather than industrial struggles in the face of what later became known as “the downturn” engendered in activists a greater openness to and willingness to take part in campaigns like RAR and the ANL.

Second, the SWP’s view of the USSR as a state capitalist society, in contradistinction to the Communist Party, the Labour left and orthodox Trotskyist groups, meant that its members tended not to have the distrustful attitude of much of the left to “Americanised” mass culture. The idea of “socialism from below” that followed from a “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” perspective meshed well with punk and reggae’s DIY ethic and helped ensure (along with financial imperatives!) an emphasis on RAR being a grassroots, “bottom-up” campaign.

Third, the party’s ideological commitment to the spirit of Trotsky’s theory of the united front—as a means to unity in action around a particular issue without sacrificing political independence—helped give RAR “a powerful motive to take its message far beyond the pale of the organised left”. This is a statement that could be applied more accurately to the ANL with its more formal structures and political alliances between revolutionaries and reformists; nevertheless, argues Goodyer, the united front method applied by the SWP influenced their work in RAR. Overall, “the party’s anti-Stalinist, humanist Marxism and the presence within its ranks of a number of young radicals, imbued with a commitment to cultural activism, were factors that shaped its ability to relate to a mass movement rooted in popular culture”.

The book goes on to look at sharply contrasting examples of cultural-political campaigns that have followed RAR—Live 8/Live Aid, and of course, LMHR. In the case of the former, Goodyer notes that Bob Geldof’s aim for Live Aid to provide immediate famine relief in Ethiopia was achieved—to the tune of £150 million. But its other aim—politically to point the finger of blame at the failure of the Western powers to provide aid—was fatally undermined by the campaign’s top-down nature.

Whereas RAR had sought to engage its audience and create activists, Live Aid was easily steered away from confronting power with awkward questions due to its emphasis on “punk diplomats” and lack of pressure from a genuine mass movement. Geldof’s populism without wider political principle also led to Live Aid/8’s sidelining of black and African musicians in favour of booking only acts with the broadest appeal.

If Geldof had found himself fronting a cause in 1985, he and the nauseating Bono rushed to put themselves at the head of an existing movement at the G8 in 2005, trying to mobilise its support for the very G8 leaders it was protesting against. As George Monbiot said at the time, “While the G8 maintains its grip on the instruments of global governance, a shared anthem of peace and love is about as meaningful as the Coca-Cola ad.”

Conversely, Goodyer argues, LMHR “advances explicitly political aims whilst simultaneously exploiting the implicitly …multicultural nature of modern music to exemplify its mission”. Crucially, LMHR started from a position of being able to build on the success and experience of RAR and the ANL, particularly the far more integrated multiracial nature of both society and popular music. Goodyer rightly points out that this means “LMHR’s appeal is potentially wider than RAR’s.” At the same time, the strategy employed by the Nazis during most of LMHR’s existence, crudely put, had been forced to change from the NF’s braces and boots, to the BNP’s “Euro-fascist” turn to being “brutes in suits”, as UAF joint secretary Weyman Bennet has put it. This has “necessitated a corresponding shift on the part of the anti-racist movement”.

LMHR has reprised RAR’s emphasis on audience engagement, grassroots organisation and close links to political anti-fascist campaigning while operating in a mainstream milieu which RAR only began to reach in its closing days. There have been more than 700 LMHR events in eight years. Over 110,000 people attended the 2008 LMHR Carnival in east London, and tens of thousands have attended other carnivals and gigs around the country.

In late 2007 the NME produced a special LMHR edition with a cover-mounted double-CD featuring a cover photo of six of the country’s biggest acts (it was the magazine’s best-selling issue of the year). Half a million copies of the NUT-sponsored CD were distributed to schools. And thanks to the band Hard-Fi’s support, the “Love Music Hate Racism” slogan was emblazoned across ten million bottles of Becks beer.

LMHR’s main sponsors throughout have been the trade unions, whose members have also been centrally involved as activists, with LMHR gigs and stages a common feature of May Day events, the Left Field at Glastonbury, national union conferences and so on. These initiatives have brought thousands of young people into contact with the anti-fascist movement and helped take the movement into the BNP’s “heartlands”, doing the Nazis real damage.

The section of the book on LMHR does a good job of sketching in general terms the similarities and differences between the political and cultural contexts in which RAR and LMHR have operated. If I have a minor criticism it is that the book would benefit from a more concrete look at how the current movement has developed in different conditions to RAR and the ANL.

Much is often made, for example, of the apparent lack of similarly radical musical subcultures today to those which were concurrent with RAR. As Goodyer says, we should be wary of letting such comparisons “descend into a yearning for a more radical past, as if RAR provides a kind of ‘gold standard’ against which other movements must valorise themselves”.

LMHR, too, for much of its time has relied heavily on two music scenes which, though certainly nothing like on the scale of punk and reggae, nevertheless have played a similar role among both music fans and in the movement. Grime, with a multiracial audience and mainly black MCs and producers, was rarely overtly political but was certainly a “DIY” culture open to even the least well off, and developed in reaction to its largely young exponents’ lack of identification with the slicker, more moneyed-looking garage scene. At its best it was and is an eloquent expression of anger at poverty, racism and disenfranchisement.

The mid-noughties indie-rock scene, exemplified by major LMHR supporters The Libertines, was initially at least a reaction to the increasing corporate blandness of mainstream “indie” and was influenced by the anti-capitalist movement. It developed in east London and aimed to reduce the gap between audience and performer with its squat parties, impromptu gigs and pioneering use of online social networking. LMHR helped put these artists and audiences together, feeding into and off of the brief-lived vogue for “Grindie” music, but most importantly encouraging a common and popular anti-racist sentiment in popular music culture that identified the Nazi BNP as an enemy to be confronted and beaten.

This sort of mobilisation of a broad, mass, anti-racist sentiment, feeding into an active, militant and explicitly anti-fascist campaign, will be even more vital in the years ahead. The crisis facing capitalism is more intractable than in the 1970s, and the political crisis and instability accompanying it are more pronounced. This provides fuel for Nazi organisation and racist ideas to endure and grow over a long period. In Britain the elections in May 2010 saw anti-fascists deal a massive blow to the BNP, but they still grabbed more than half a million votes. Tensions over strategy within the Nazis’ ranks has seen BNP members joining the ranks of the racist street thugs of the EDL.

Crisis Music is an honest, sympathetic and nuanced look at “cultural politics” through the prism of RAR—with whole sections devoted to critical responses to RAR, its relationship to youth culture, and a potted history of the left’s attitude to culture through the 20th century, from modernism to the New Left. There are some great examples of RAR’s radical visual style, with reproductions of posters, stickers and Temporary Hoarding covers. It contains a wealth of well-argued theory and background history that will be a fascinating read for any anti-fascist looking to learn the lessons of how a mass movement to beat back the Nazis was built last time. Sadly, it’s currently only available in an academic edition at an eye-watering price, so ask your university or local library to get a copy in