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When rock took on racism

Reggae band Matumbi played one of Rock Against Racism's first gigs at the Royal College of Art in 1977. Picture: Syd Shelton - Credit: Archant

Photographer Syd Shelton was one of the architects of the Rock Against Racism movement. He talks to Richard Holledge about what brought it into being and its resonance today.

Syd Shelton likes to take his time taking a photograph. He waits, he coaxes, he builds up a rapport between himself and subject before he gets it right.

‘People are very much aware they are on the camera,’ he explains. ‘So I will use 10 rolls of film if necessary until the subject gives me something more and I have got what I want.’

Shelton recalls the example of two skinheads he met in 1979. They were kitting themselves out at the Last Resort, a popular hangout in London’s East End, which sold the tribe’s uniform – Harrington jackets, braces and steel capped boots.

‘They stood against a corrugated fence like a pair of wallies, not giving me anything at all and being guarded whenever I asked them something.

‘It was only when I started arguing about race that I could see them getting angry. One of them got really angry, I could see his fist clench. He was going to hit me at any second. Zap. I got the picture I wanted and off I went.’

Despite the surly aggression de rigueur for that particular sub-culture, one of the two lads tracked Shelton down using social media only a few years ago, long after the picture was taken.

”We were a right pair of plonkers,’ he told me. ‘Now I know you were right and we were wrong.”

What’s right and what’s wrong has been driving Shelton’s work since the 1970s when he found himself in the heart of the Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement, a collective of political activists and musicians which had grown to resist the rise in racism and the serious threat of a resurgent National Front.

Many of his images from that time are reflected in two new shows, Days of Rock, at the Lucy Bell gallery, in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, and Syd Shelton; Rock Against Racism, at Gallery Oldham, in Oldham.

The Lucy Bell show also includes photographers who recorded the music scene of the 1960s and 1970s such as Geoff MacCormack who snapped a sleeping David Bowie and Terry Pastor who created the familiar hand tinted artwork for the singer’s album cover of Hunky Dory in 1971. Colin Jones caught The Who shopping, shaving, sleeping and generally hanging out while Kevin Cummins’ images helped create the Madchester scene of the 1990s and was, as Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks put it, ‘sometimes more important than the bands’.

Shelton, who studied painting at Leeds College of Art before becoming a photographer and graphic designer, learnt the rough and tumble of the trade covering riots and protest marches for newspapers in Australia.

When he returned to London in 1976 one of the first people he met was photographer and activist Red Saunders who encouraged him to become one of the founding members of RAR.

‘Red’s enthusiasm was infectious,’ he says. ‘He got me involved straight away as their official photographer. He had a studio in Soho in a former boxing club between the Windmill Theatre and the strip clubs which was exciting and which became our HQ for weekly meetings.’

Another key player in the movement, Gered Mankowitz, also features in the St Leonards-on-Sea show with his classic portrayal of Jimi Hendrix looking suitably moody in a flamboyant military uniform.

The campaign was galvanised by the antics of other rockers. Eric Clapton praised Enoch Powell during a gig and urged Britain to ‘get the foreigners out’ while punks such as Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux sported swastikas as fashion accessories. David Bowie, who had been photographed apparently giving a Nazi salute, told the September 1976 edition of Playboy: ‘The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air… is a right wing totally dictatorial tyranny.’ He also claimed that Adolf Hitler ‘was one of the first rock stars’.

Beyond this flashy – publicity winning – rhetoric and posturing was a more serious threat from the far right and the National Front who had become a serious electoral challenge, winning two council seats in Blackburn and standing for election in 43 seats in Tower Hamlets. They failed to win but nevertheless created considerable local tension which they stoked by staging provocative marches through multicultural areas such as Wood Green in north London.

One of the most destructive NF protests was the so-called anti-mugging demo in Lewisham in August, 1977 and Shelton was there to record it.

‘Mugging was very prevalent at the time,’ he says. ‘Though much of it was a tabloid creation. The stereotype was that all the mugging was being done by black lads and the NF wanted to exploit that perception.’

It was a perception that was heightened when the Metropolitan Police raided 25 houses in a series of dawn raids on the same day and arrested 21 young people.

‘They made it more intimidating than they needed to by smashing down doors,’ claims Shelton. ‘The only thing they were guilty of was being black and being young. They were all released without charge.’

Nonetheless, the NF saw an opportunity to blame the growth of mugging on the black population and 250 of them marched into Lewisham where they were met by about 10,000 anti-racists.

‘The Metropolitan Police ushered the NF away and concentrated on the rest who had not realised that the Front had left,’ recalls Shelton. ‘They had deployed their cavalry using scores of horses and bussed police into the area who, for the first time in mainland England, used riot shields. There were something like 700 arrests.’

Soon after the so-called Battle of Lewisham the Anti-Nazi League was formed with backing of the Socialist Workers Party and a broad church of hitherto uncommitted people who had been shocked by the violence, as well as political activists, the unions and, in something of a coup, football manager Brian Clough.

With this fresh impetus, the idea grew of holding an anti-racist Woodstock-style concert in Tower Hamlets, East London, the centre of so much racial tension.

‘We wanted to do something spectacular – not a march with slogans but a dancing and rocking festival like the Notting Hill Carnival, which is where a lot of the musicians came from.

‘We borrowed a PA system, blagged a stage and equipment and lined up some top names of the day such as Tom Robinson, X-Ray Spex and Steel Pulse.

‘Two weeks before the festival The Clash phoned up and wanted to be involved. They were the hottest band in town, according to the New Musical Express, and we knew that once the news got out that they were appearing it would guarantee success.’

And so it did. Ten thousand people gathered in Trafalgar Square to sing and dance before setting off to walk the seven miles to Tower Hamlets.

‘No one really believed anyone would want to do that,’ says Shelton. ‘I was living in a squat on Charing Cross Road and I could hear the noise all night. When I went down at about six in the morning there was a wonderful mix of dreads, punks, Rastas and rude boys. Fantastic. They followed seven flat bed trucks all the way to Tower Hamlets playing as they went. It became a carnival.

‘We expected 20,000 at the concert, we got 100,000.’

For Shelton, the success of the event was down to luck, the chemistry of funk and reggae coming together, the mix of black and white bands on the same stage, all captured in Shelton’s compelling black and white images.

No coaxing or posing here; the country’s most notorious rebel musicians such as Paul Simonon of The Clash, The Ruts and The Beat are caught in full cry, raging against the wrongs of the far-right, sweaty and snarling in front of ecstatic crowds.

And today? ‘I don’t think it could happen again,’ reckons Shelton. ‘Not least because Covid makes it impossible to organise but because the targets shift and the source of the hostility to minorities is hard to pin down.

‘Now we have the awful Football Lads Alliance, Tommy Robinson and White Lives Matter who are not as organised as the National Front but then they don’t need to be.

‘The Windrush scandal, the hostile environment encouraged by Theresa May when she was home secretary, the drip-drip-drip of propaganda against, for example the Muslims who are often labelled jihadists, has made racism normal.’

He was cheered to read that more than 700 figures from the world of music, including Little Mix, Lewis Capaldi and Rita Ora, have banded together to fight racist abuse in the wake of an anti-Semitic tirade by grime star Wiley.

They wrote to the Sunday Times recently saying: ‘All forms of racism have the same roots — ignorance, lack of education and scapegoating. We, the British music industry, are proudly uniting to amplify our voices, to take responsibility, to speak out and stand together in solidarity. Silence is not an option.’

‘Yes the struggle goes on and it’s great to see,’ says Shelton who, unsurprisingly, is excited by all expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

‘It is a fantastic symbolic gesture when a multi-millionaire like Lewis Hamilton takes the podium with a black power salute. I’m not sure what I think about the statues. I can understand why they pulled the statue down in Bristol but most of them are part of the idea that history is made by great men, invariably great white men.

‘Walk down Whitehall or Parliament Square and you’ll find the likes of Castlereagh, Canning or Disraeli. They are just statues of another time and another version of history, and most of them pretty dire in terms of artistic merit.’

Shelton is aware of the nuances and subtleties that surround the symbolism of statues and tells how Nelson Mandela, on a visit to South Africa House in London, insisted that a mural in praise of the Boers and the formation of apartheid should not be ripped out as the commissioner wanted but kept in place so that people could see how abhorrent apartheid had been and understand how it began.

He’s aware of the ambiguities that the reinterpretation of history throws up. He has four photographs in Tate Britain and knows all too well that the gallery benefactor Henry Tate made his fortune on the back of the slaves who worked in the West Indies sugar plantations.

But ultimately, it’s personal. His wife’s family is from the Caribbean and suffers frequent instances of unthinking racism.

‘It’s a small thing, but the other day she went into the building society to update the passbook where she keeps her record of savings and withdrawals. The bank clerk would not believe it was hers and made her sign a form and show her ID to prove she had not picked it up in the street.

‘No way that would happen to a white person.’

• Days of Rock, Lucy Bell Gallery, St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex, runs until September 26. Syd Shelton; Rock Against Racism is at Gallery Oldham, Greater Manchester until November 21

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