Book Reviews

Left-wing youth activism and the celebration of unity with reggae & punk

By Jo Manby

Crisis Music: The cultural politics of Rock Against Racism by Ian Goodyer. Manchester University Press: 2009

(Local Classification: AR.8.00/GOO)

November 1976. Rock Against Racism (RAR) holds its first gig in the Princess Alice pub in the East End of London. Young people are rallying against the far-right National Front.

Two years later, April 1978. Victoria Park in the East End of London. A huge crowd gathers for a day-long outdoor concert headlined by Tom Robinson and The Clash. It was this concert, organised by Rock Against Racism, that helped to radicalise a generation and gave punk a reason to be something more than rebellious nihilism.

front cover of reviewed book featuring black and white photograph of two performers at concert
Front cover of Crisis Music by Ian Goodyer

By 1977 RAR was headlined by such key bands as Sham 69, Stiff Little Fingers, Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots and The Clash. Gigs and concerts were staged all over Britain right up until 1981. The RAR magazine, Temporary Hoarding, presented its manifesto in its first issue, from which Ian Goodyer’s book, Crisis Music: The Cultural Politics of Rock Against Racism, takes its main title:

We want Rebel music, street music, music that breaks down people’s fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock Against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.

Crisis Music evolved out of research Goodyer originally undertook for his MA in Imperialism and Culture. RAR was an ‘interesting and relatively neglected area of study’ and there were plenty of people who were involved in the movement in the 1970s who were up for sharing their experiences of it.

38892309851_858a664dd5_z RAR image
Memories of 1979, Photo courtesy of Paul Townsend ( Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Goodyer was a teen during that decade, when politics and music combined to spark off the explosive punk rock phenomenon – and as he says, ‘this present study… shares a historical space with my teenage self, even if the voice has aged thirty-odd years.’

The shifting British class struggle of the 1970s is what Goodyer sees as prompting left-wing interest in the ‘potential of cultural activism’ and as a result of this, the establishment of RAR.

Picture the decade. A time of:

• high youth unemployment
• economic crisis
• widespread strikes
• power blackouts
• the 3-day week
• social and industrial unrest

It was also a time when far right extremism brought about a contraflow of activities such as the Anti-Nazi League, founded in 1977. RAR was not, however, an isolated incident in the passage of the 1970s. Goodyer argues that it was enmeshed in the complexities and ramifications of a certain period of British history that encompassed both the ‘collapse of the post-war consensus’ and the ‘ascent of neo-liberalism’ which still impinge on our lives today. Moreover, RAR has its echoes in the youth activism of subsequent generations who have more recently mobilised against:

• ‘capitalist globalisation’
• ‘the threat of ecological catastrophe’
• ‘resurgent tendencies towards war and militarism’ (Goodyer).

Crisis Music Pages
Inside Crisis Music

While possessing their own socio-political dynamics, present day celebrity endorsements of such causes via popular music were possibly anticipated by RAR, although the nature of their manifestations may differ enormously from the raw ingenuousness of punk.

Among his aims with this book, Goodyer seeks to ‘locate RAR within a lengthy tradition of left-wing engagement with popular culture’, which by the 1970s had tended to break away from ‘both the stultifying dogmatism of official Communism and the patently reactionary nature of Stalinism.’ Trotskyism was also rejected, a way of refusing the compulsion to ‘privilege the cultural products of “state capitalist” regimes over the often more beguiling creations of their unashamedly capitalist rivals’, primarily the USA.

One of the contested aspects of RAR was that, while reggae played a part in acting as a connecting point between white and black youth and ‘as a symbol of the resistance of Afro-Caribbean people to oppression at the hands of the British state’, there were suggestions that RAR was elitist and ‘turned its back on Asian victims of racism’. Goodyer also investigates the fact that punk and RAR had other realities ‘beyond the purlieus of the Kings Road and Soho’ in London.

In 2002, RAR was reborn as Love Music Hate Racism, ensuring that music continues to unite people, not divide. One thing is for sure, the passion and fury of RAR effectively defeated the National Front with their marches into immigrant areas to stir up trouble, and in this sense could be said to have changed the course of British history.

Further reading and resources in the Resource Centre library:

Reminiscences of RAR: Rocking Against Racism 1976-1979, compiled by Roger Huddle & Red Saunders. London: Redwords, 2016 (AR.8.03/HUD)

Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism
, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, 1976-1992 by Rachel Daniel. London: Picador, 2017 (AR.8/RAC)

The Rock Against Racism carnivals and concerts are also covered in our IRR Newspapers collection and Anti-Fascism archive.

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

2 replies on “Left-wing youth activism and the celebration of unity with reggae & punk”

Reblogged this on Floralia and commented:
First published February 2020 on Reading Race, Collecting Cultures, reblogged with thanks

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