November 28, 2020

In August 1976, Eric Clapton took a break from a performance in Birmingham to address the members of his audience. After the concert, outrage caused leading members of the UK music scene to form the Rock Against Racism movement. Here is the racist invective that Eric spewed:

“Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands … So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country … I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white … The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man … This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for fuck’s sake? … Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”

Among those troubled by Clapton’s remarks was the photographer David (‘Red’) Saunders. Saunders was also a former mod and a Clapton fan. He drafted a letter to the music press and persuaded six friends to sign it.

‘What’s going on, Eric?’ Saunders wrote. ‘Come on you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B?’ The letter called for volunteers to support ‘a rank and file movement against the racist poison in rock music’. It would be called Rock Against Racism. ‘P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!’

Rock Against Racism

The first Rock Against Racism gig took place at the Princess Alice pub in Forest Gate in October 1976, with the blues singer Carol Grimes. A second gig followed in December at the Royal College of Art. The RAR performers came largely from black reggae and ska musicians, and white artists from the growing punk scene.

In summer 1977, RAR started its own fanzine, Temporary Hoarding, in which they explained what they stood for. Rock Against Racism wasn’t a single-issue campaign demanding, say, an apology from Clapton: it was against racism in the music scene, which encompassed phenomena as various as the wearing of the swastika by punk bands, the attempt by supporters of the National Front or British Movement to recruit young punks and skinheads, and even the division of musical genres by race (punk, metal, soul and reggae). In its boldest moments, Rock Against Racism grasped that music couldn’t be separated from everything else, and proposed to confront racism in electoral politics and in state institutions. 

As Temporary Hoarding contributor David Widgery wrote at the time:

The problem is not just the new fascists from the old slime, a master race whose idea of heroism is ambushing single blacks in darkened streets. These private attacks whose intention, to cow and to brutalise, won’t work if the community they seek to terrorise instead organises itself. But when the state backs up racialism, it’s different. Outwardly respectable but inside fired with the same mentality and the same fears, the bigger danger is the racist magistrates with their cold sneering authority, the immigration men who mock an Asian mother as she gives birth to a dead child on their office floor, policemen for whom answering back is a crime and every black kid with pride is a challenge.

David Widgery

The first Rock Against Racism Carnival was held in Victoria Park on 30 April 1978; it was RAR’s breakthrough moment. The organisers had hoped ten thousand people would attend, but in the event a hundred thousand came to hear bands including X-Ray Spex, the Clash and Steel Pulse. It all kicked off with a march from Trafalgar Square through the East End to Victoria Park, led by giant papier-mâché models of Adolf Hitler and the National Front’s Martin Webster. The route passed Brick Lane, scene of recurring clashes between the Front and the local Bengali population. Red Saunders was the compère. He had grown enormous sideburns, and wore a hat covered in badges and a ‘Mr Oligarchy’ cape. The punk singer-songwriter Patrik Fitzgerald came on stage with an acoustic guitar. He withdrew, howled down by the crowd. ‘If you hate the NF as much as you hate me,’ he said, ‘they don’t stand a chance.’ The next act, X-Ray Spex, had an easier time of it. The band’s Somali-British singer, Poly Styrene, wore tweeds and an African headscarf as she sang ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours.’

Key to the event’s success was the participation of the Clash, the rising stars of London’s punk scene. By spring 1978, the band had released just three singles, ‘White Riot’, ‘Complete Control’ and ‘Clash City Rockers’. The first was widely misunderstood, with many people assuming the song’s message was that there needed to be white – i.e. racist – riots. 

But the Clash saw themselves as radicals. Joe Strummer, the band’s singer, felt it was important that they take part in the carnival. His brother, who had killed himself several years before, had been a member of the National Front: performing at the carnival was a way of atoning for the past.

The footage of the Clash’s performance, which has survived in Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s film Rude Boy, shows a band unhappy with the event’s organisers. The Clash wanted to headline. But it was RAR tradition that the final performers at any concert had to be black. RAR refused to let the Clash play last (they also laughed off the negotiating gambit of the band’s manager, Bernie Rhodes, that they would play if RARbought a tank and sent it to the freedom fighters in Zimbabwe). They did play in the end, but when their time was up refused to leave the stage. The plug was pulled; the Clash’s Johnny Green stuck it back in. Tom Robinson was due on next. ‘I was at my wits’ end,’ Robinson told Rachel. ‘It was my favourite band stealing my set.’ Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 briefly joined the Clash to sing ‘White Riot’. Finally they departed, making way for Robinson and then Steel Pulse, who played out the evening.

A special edition of Temporary Hoarding was published for the carnival. In it, Widgery attacked Margaret Thatcher’s recent claim that white voters felt swamped by black immigration. How many politicians, he wanted to know, ‘had ever lived in the inner cities they are always deploring?’

If they did they might find that deplorable human beings are getting along with each other much better than reported. That Jamaicans like Guinness, Greeks listen to reggae, the Irish go to tandoor restaurants, we all eat doner kebabs and smoke as much dope as we can get our alien hands on.

Rock​ Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League organised a second, even bigger carnival at Brockwell Park on 24 September 1978. Red Saunders was the compère again, in a ‘more thought-out’ uniform: ‘Yellow boiler suit covered in RAR stencilled slogans with a huge stove pipe hat with the “Love Music, Hate Racism” slogan all over it. Plus shades, of course.’ For many who took part, the second carnival was every bit as exciting as the first. ‘If it is all a Trot conspiracy,’ Keith Waterhouse told the Daily Mirror, ‘tough luck on the conventional political parties who play it all so safe and down the middle that they have the popular appeal of yesterday’s gravy.’

But the event was partly overshadowed by a National Front march down Brick Lane that took place on the same day. For several months the area had been a site of conflict between left and right. In May 1978, Altab Ali, a young machinist, was murdered on his way home. In June, a crowd of several hundred skinheads ran through the area, smashing in the windows of Asian-owned shops. The following week, tens of thousands of anti-fascists marched down Brick Lane, and in July, there was a local general strike in protest against racist attacks. Over the following two months, there were repeated clashes between the Front and its enemies, and it was a point of pride on the left that the Front was unable to hold demonstrations without being opposed by much larger numbers of anti-racists.

In the run-up to the second carnival, the leaders of the Anti-Nazi League had been under pressure to make sure that significant numbers of anti-fascists spent their day at Brick Lane rather than in Brockwell Park. ‘For weeks before,’ one member of the Anti-Nazi League, Andy Strouthous, recalls, ‘lots of us were trying to make sure that Brick Lane was covered.’ As the crowds prepared to leave on the march to Brockwell Park, speakers from the ANL and the SWP got up to insist there was nothing to worry about: Brick Lane was protected. The same message was repeated from the carnival stage. But it wasn’t true: there was only a small contingent of ANL supporters in the East End. According to Steve Tilzley from Manchester, ‘The National Front marched practically unopposed through the East End and held a rally in Curtain Road, off Great Eastern Street. There had been a small, token anti-racist presence in the area to protest against their presence but they were heavily outnumbered by the Nazis and the police.’ The novelist Tariq Mehmood was at Brick Lane, where he joined an anti-racist demonstration, but they were shouted down: ‘Really, the carnival should have been diverted as a historic gesture and wiped out the fascists but the SWP didn’t seem to work like that … [They] did a terrible disservice to the struggle against racism.’

Thatcher’s election victory disoriented RAR. It was no longer possible to argue that the National Front was (in its own metaphor) the ‘spearhead’ of popular racism. Mainstream forces were clearly doing more to stir up racism. Difficult as it had been to push back against the success of the far right, toppling the Conservatives was to prove even harder.

RAR organised a final carnival in Leeds in July 1981. The Specials – a black and white band which embodied RAR’s multiracial politics – were asked to headline. They ended their set with ‘Ghost Town’, a song about the destruction of industrial Britain. The week after the carnival, ‘Ghost Town’ reached number one in the charts.

Eric Clapton’s apology

The British guitar legend Eric Clapton has told of the self-disgust he felt at seeing old footage of himself chanting racist slogans at a 1976 concert in the British city of Birmingham.

Clapton was speaking at a Q&A in London following the screening of the highly anticipated biographical documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars.

The 18-time Grammy winner said he felt shame about the notorious incident, wherein he praised the racist Tory MP Enoch Powell, declared that Britain must stop itself from becoming a “black colony,” and said “England is for white people, man.” 

“I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country,” Clapton declared. “Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch’s our man. I think Enoch’s right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans and fucking… don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don’t want fucking wogs living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country. What is happening to us, for fuck’s sake?”

Clapton’s bizarre outburst, which helped spur the Rock Against Racism movement, saw him labeled a racist for many years, and he has subsequently apologized many times, blaming his addiction to drink and drugs for the outburst.

“I was so ashamed of who I was, a kind of semi-racist, which didn’t make sense. Half of my friends were black, I dated a black woman and I championed black music.”— Thus goes Eric Clapton’s apology.

Editor’s note:

In the article by The Daily Beast, Clapton bangs on at length about his addictions, horse fat and cow dead, etc.

But drink and drugs doesn’t make you a racist – being a racist makes you a racist.

Eric Clapton was a musician with influence who mainstreamed, legitimised and disseminated white supremacist ideology to his global followers and placed people of African descent, in the UK in particular, in danger with his racist diatribe. The musician built his career and made a huge amount of money by covering Bob Marley’s, I Shot the Sheriff and is a blatant hypocrite and a parasite of Black culture and music. You will note that none of the word “Black” has been capitalised in any of Clapton’s quotes, a habit usually adopted by the editor of Still We Rise. That’s because Clapton thinks of Black people as lower and therefore lower case is appropriate with his words.


Recent posts
Papal Bull of 1455, Romanus Pontifex
This Bull authorised Portugal to raid African Kingdoms, territories and land, capture and enslave the inhabitants and seize their natural and mineral resources, under the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
The Reign of Elizabeth II
A summary of the reign of Elizabeth II and events that took place during her reign