In concert united
Dan Carrier reviews a new book that links three movements which were united in deploying music as a weapon against fascism
30 September, 2021 — By Dan Carrier
The book’s cover image: Paul Simonon, The Clash at Rock Against Racism concert Victoria Park, 1978. Photo: Syd Shelton
IN the early 1950s, two secretive government committees were working to weaponise racism and cause civil unrest.
This extraordinary fact is one of many stories told in Babylon’s Burning, a comprehensive social history of three key groups who fought post-war British racist movements.
The book, by academic Rick Blackman, charts the rise of key campaigns that combined music and youth culture with politics, looking at how people have responded to British fascists. He considers the roles of the 1950s Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship; Rock Against Racism in te 1970s; and more recently Love Music Hate Racism.
He gives a comprehensive overview of the conditions that give rise to racism – and tells the story of a scandal that casts light on the deeply ingrained bigotry within the British establishment in the mid-20th century.
He cites how “two secret civil service committees had been set up and were enthusiastically supported by Churchill after his 1951 victory”.
“The Working Party on Coloured People Seeking Employment in the United Kingdom was engaged in subterfuge to establish false narratives about black immigrants who allegedly had come to Britain to draw unemployment benefit,” he writes.
“The second, the Immigration and Repatriation Commonwealth and Colonials Home Office Working Party, sought evidence that ‘coloured immigrants’ had undesirable biological characteristics that made them incompatible with white English people.”
The bogus “evidence” these committees put forward had ramifications: they helped get the 1962 Immigration Act through Parliament, which discriminated against black citizens of the Commonwealth.
Mr Blackman has been involved in the anti-racist movement since the 1980s. A musician, he has been part of Love Music, Hate Racism, Unite Against Fascism and Stand Up To Racism.
The book is an adaptation of a PhD thesis – which explains the high level of research and the sources he draws on to create a rounded picture of the past 60 years.
Mr Blackman considers why these music-based anti-racist campaigns were necessary, the conditions that created them, the forces they were facing down and how you can judge their success.
He gives a detailed overview of what the far right need to prosper and how we fight the politics of hate. He offers both warnings and answers for the UK today.
The narrative starts by looking at the racism that was fomented as people from the Commonwealth answered the call from the UK to help with a post-war rebuild.
For the Windrush generation, joining a workforce could be chastising experience: many were over-qualified for the work they were offered. Highly skilled, highly motivated manual workers were given low-paid and low-skilled jobs. It was made worse by many of their colleagues openly calling for limits on the numbers of black people employed in many of the major industries.
Against this backdrop came the Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958 and, as Mr Blackman explains, it was an important moment. After the August bank holiday attacks on the black community, the Melody Maker newspaper published a front page letter signed by 27 musicians “…appealing to the public to reject racial discrimination in any form”. It led to the formation of the Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship (SCIF), backed by musicians such as Humphrey Lyttelton, Cleo Laine and Tommy Steele. SCIF garnered global support – Frank Sinatra penned an SCIF pamphlet with the title You Can’t Hate and Be Happy.
The second movement Mr Blackman considers in depth is Rock Against Racism. In 1976, Eric Clapton made a series of offensive remarks on stage in Birmingham which prompted a swift reaction. Photographer Red Saunders wrote to the music press saying “rock was and still can be a real progressive culture…we want to organise a rank and file movement against racist poison in rock music”.
This gave birth to Rock Against Racism, which battled the National Front.
Music genres of the period were at the centre of this. Punk had developed a bad reputation because its proponents looked for anything they considered nihilistic and shocking – which meant Nazi symbols and skinheads.
“However, alongside the swastikas were also anarchists’ symbols, images of Karl Marx and inverted crucifixes. The rationale was to do anything to offend and shock,” adds Mr Blackman.
But the creeping influence of the National Front in the punk movement was worrying. The Clash fought against it, while Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten said: “I despise them. No one should have the right to tell anyone they can’t live here because of the colour of their skin or their religion or whatever the size of their nose. How could any one vote for something so ridiculously inhumane?”
Finally, Mr Blackman’s excellent book tells the story of Love Music Hate Racism, and how music and youth culture has once again combined to fight home-grown fascists like the English Defence League in recent years.
The book is timely as, sadly, those with violent and bigoted views once again feel safe to air them. These music movements were a vanguard – and will no doubt inspire more in the future.
• Babylon’s Burning: Music, Subcultures and Anti-Fascism in Britain 1958-2020. By Rick Blackman. Bookmarks, £10