Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge: days like these?
In 1986, my favourite band was called Easterhouse.
One reason I loved them was the fact that their ideological guitar-powered pop sounded like fire – like the moment when smouldering embers ignite. The other reason I loved them was that their politics were my politics, their attitudes were just the same as mine. They sang about fearsome ideas and workers betrayed. In short, they were revolutionary as fuck.
Not that their sound was ever very radical. They were as guitar-bass-drums-verse-chorus as indie-minded rock bands have been throughout pop history, and their incandescent guitar lines scorched the air in the same way as those of their fellow Mancunians – and Rough Trade labelmates – The Smiths.
But Easterhouse’s left-wing lyrics weren’t scooped from the same pot of slogans that other bands used – generic anti-Thatcher diatribes or heart-warming paeans to racial unity. Easterhouse stuck to a specific party line drawn from the same far-left group for which I sold newspapers on street corners each Saturday, and who gave me the chance to hurl spittle-flecked rants into the air as Sheffield rushed by me on its way to the shops.
For Easterhouse, as for me at the time, Mrs Thatcher was too obvious a target to sing about. That she was the enemy was to be taken for granted. Far more deserving of a barbed couplet or poison-tipped metaphor were the traitors to our movement – or “Labour’s house-trained socialists, the lowest form of hypocrite” as Easterhouse put it. And because I was party to the sectarian twists and turns of mid-80s revolutionary politics, and felt Easterhouse’s deep anger in my heart, it meant I could never embrace the biggest political music movement of that age: Red Wedge.
Red Wedge was a musical collective formed to engage young people in politics and to remove Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government from power. It was launched in 1985, an era of stark polarisation in British politics, when Thatcher was simultaneously both wildly popular and the most hated political ogre of our time. In industrial communities, particularly in the North, her policies were devastating, but to other people she seemed as necessary as air.
I actively chose to turn my back on Red Wedge and the bands and artists that fuelled it, a decision that reflected the fiery political climate of the time. Looking back, it seems that although I may have enjoyed songs by Red Wedge’s prime movers, including Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and The Communards, I felt they all loved Labour a little too much and, thanks to that crime, my affections had to be lavished elsewhere.
Fortunately for them, other music fans weren’t so ideologically pure, and Red Wedge’s method of running high-profile tours with an explicitly political agenda pulled in the crowds. While its mission might have been sneerily mocked by some (guilty your honour), the bands’ willingness to align themselves with young people who were under Thatcher’s cosh, and to do something constructive about it, helped to raise consciousness and catalyse debate.
Given the profile of the key artists involved, it perhaps comes as a surprise to discover that the movement’s history has never been studied all that closely. However, with the publication of Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel, whose Isle of Noises was one of 2013’s best music books, that wrong is about to be put right.
Red Wedge’s dancefloor-friendly agitation, education and organisation didn’t emerge in a vacuum, and Rachel identifies two other pop movements as its progenitors: Rock Against Racism, which was established in 1976 in response to increasing racial conflict, and 2 Tone, the multi-racial ska-punk fusion that moon-stomped out of Coventry around the turn of the 1980s.
On September 3, visitors to Manchester’s People’s History Museum can listen to Rachel talk about Walls Come Tumbling Down in conversation with one of the book’s main players, the singing, songwriting activist Billy Bragg. In advance of that event and in the run-up to publication, I catch up with Rachel for Northern Soul and, without ever coming clean about my own leftier-than-thou love of Easterhouse, ask what prompted him to delve into this tale.
“The story of Red Wedge is largely untold,” he says. “And at a time when there’s a great need for a cultural alliance with politics, it seemed apt to look back, to see when pop stars had the gall to take on the attitudes of punk but to also ask how far things could be pushed. And Billy Bragg and Paul Weller pushed it into the corridors of Westminster, literally, with the intention to oust Margaret Thatcher from power. That was just extraordinary and completely unprecedented.
“By trying to understand what Red Wedge tried to do, it soon became apparent that it was also important to turn back the pop wheel and look into the politics of what 2 Tone had tried to achieve and, prior to that, Rock Against Racism.”
While Rock Against Racism was broadly concerned with combating growing racial tensions throughout mid-1970s Britain, particularly among the youth, it was a racist outburst by a rock deity, Eric Clapton, that initially helped conjure it into existence.
Rachel explains: “The book follows an arc from the mid-70s, when Eric Clapton stood on a stage in Birmingham and made outrageous racist remarks – this in a nation where there was a great deal of everyday racism – to 16 years later when, through the work of Artists Against Apartheid and Jerry Dammers of 2 Tone, millions of people across the world were demanding the release of Nelson Mandela at a pop concert at Wembley Stadium. I decided to follow that story as I think it’s an extraordinary period.”
If pop music seemed to be settling into bloated and reactionary middle-age by the mid-70s, the upstart revolutionaries of punk and reggae were about to spill its beer and hide its slippers. By the time of Red Wedge a decade later, left-wing pop would rule the roost, but what was it that transformed haphazard youthful rebellion into a movement that was much more politically mature?
“A major spark was Jerry Dammers’ vision of a multicultural band, The Specials, and his promotion of them through a socialist record label, which was 2 Tone. That was vitally important. For the first time ever, black and white musicians were sharing the same stages, it was a national movement where the songs were selling in the hundreds of thousands and eventually getting to the top of the charts.
“I think the other two major sparks were the popularity of CND during the early 80s, and then the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The arts got behind the miners’ struggle because they perceived it as a class war. And because they were doing that, they met each other on stages. Billy Bragg was meeting Paul Weller, meeting Junior Giscombe, meeting The Communards, meeting members of The Clash. And when the miners’ strike was lost, all these people said ‘is this it?’. As Billy says in the book, do we all just go back to wearing funny haircuts and being in Smash Hits, or do we do something about the power we’ve harnessed? So they said let’s really push this forward, and that brings us to the concept of Red Wedge.”
As a young man in the late 1980s, the pop and politics of Red Wedge clearly had a powerful effect on Rachel, but it turns out that during his early life he was immersed in a very different political milieu.
“I grew up in a hardcore Tory town called Solihull,” he tells me, “with staunch Margaret Thatcher-supporting parents. Yet the music that I was getting turned on to was coming from people like Paul Weller, Paul Heaton, and Billy Bragg.
“Crucially, I had a politics teacher who recognised that there was some discrepancy between liking all this music and coming from a Tory town, and so he would purposely set me tasks that contrasted my apparent political future with my musical loves. It started opening up ideas to me, so the power of music changed my life.”
Many of us are familiar with the way that love of a particular band, artist or musical genre can nudge our life onto a different course, perhaps through exposure to new people, new concepts or new ways of living. Yet the notion that music, or art in any of its forms, can actively change the world remains a minority view. Rachel, however, is dismissive of this pessimistic thinking.
“Billy Bragg will tell you that music can’t change the world, and Tom Robinson will tell you that. But I don’t buy that at all. I think music completely changes the world because the world is changed by people. If you change a person, that person can then contribute to changing the world. 2 Tone inspired hundreds and thousands of people to sing along with an attitude and point of view towards life, and those things have reverberations.”
I wonder, though, whether this long-term thinking would have been much in evidence at the time. Didn’t Red Wedge have a specific mission in mind, namely the election of a Labour government in 1987? In the event, it was to be another decade from that date before Labour returned to power.
“Winning the 1987 election wasn’t their ambition,” insists Rachel. “A cultural movement can’t win an election even though the music press will write it in that kind of way. The ambition of Red Wedge was primarily to get people to register to vote because there were six million 18 to 24 year-olds not registered.
“The second thing was to try and oust Margaret Thatcher from government, so therefore by default the Labour Party would get in. But there were real splits within Red Wedge from day one as to what form their support for Labour should take. Actually, in the 1987 election there was a 7 per cent swing in the youth vote to Labour, which is huge when you take into consideration where Labour had been in 1983: fourth in the polls, experiencing a civil war, and talk of the end of the Labour Party, exactly as we have now. So the swing by 1987 was incredible, and Neil Kinnock, who was Labour leader at the time, says he would credit Red Wedge with a large part of that swing.
“In terms of the success of the other movements, Rock Against Racism say that their greatest achievement was 2 Tone. And Jerry Dammers credits Rock Against Racism as being a major part of the reason why The Specials and 2 Tone happened. So in many ways there were immediate successes but I think you also have to look to the long-term gains. These people laid down paving stones that we now all walk on.”
It is tempting to think of change only in the context of revolutionary transformation, and the idea of musicians storming barricades can seem risible. But if we think about the details of today’s world and try to imagine a society where that musical politicisation never happened, perhaps we get closer to the truth.
“Red Wedge were talking about green issues 30 years ago,” says Rachel. “Along with gender issues and sexuality issues. They really pushed the Labour Party to accept gay rights. Somebody has to be behind these campaigns and bring them into the national consciousness and make them sound like credible ideas. All these artists in this period stood at the front of the battle lines and said ‘this is what we stand for’. They were talking about it to make it national news.
“Now a lot of these things are just part of society as a whole. History says that these are the people who played a crucial and vital part in the life that we now live. I would say there’s greater liberty in life today because of Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge.”
So what are the songs that mean most to Rachel when he thinks back to those heightened and exhilarating times?
“The song Walls Come Tumbling Down by The Style Council is a fantastic song,” he replies. “It’s like a call to arms in its lyricism, and on top of that it’s just a great melodic, up-tempo tune.
“I love Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars EP, with the song Between the Wars itself which I think is the greatest song he’s ever written. He performed that live on Top of the Pops when it was his first chart entry. That was radical then and it’s still radical now. Then there’s Steel Pulse with their album Handsworth Revolution. Alongside Forces of Victory by Linton Kwesi Johnson, they really tell it from a black perspective, saying this is our lot and we have a right to be British as much as anyone else.
“And you could take any Specials song. It Doesn’t Make it Alright is a great track off the first album, saying it doesn’t matter if you’re black, it doesn’t matter if you’re white – simple but effective lyricism with British reggae behind it, which is very exciting stuff.”
It will be interesting to listen in on Rachel’s conversation with Billy Bragg when the pair appear in Manchester on September 3, but the audience will also get chance to enjoy a rare screening of the Red Wedge film, Days Like These, which was last shown in 1986. With the film’s period insights and accompanying chat between two people who were there, the evening is sure to be a fascinating evocation of a time when mainstream pop stars put their music in the service of a political cause.
However, to really recapture the confrontational mood of the times, I feel I must play my own part in the event too.
So rather than joining the debate and contributing my ideas and point of view, perhaps it will be better if I just stand outside the venue, back turned and arms folded, stubbornly listening to Easterhouse on my own.
Daniel Rachel will be in conversation with Billy Bragg at the People’s History Museum, Manchester on September 3, 2016. More info: www.danielrachel.com/event/red-wedgebilly-bragg-in-conversation-with-daniel-rachel-including-film-screening/
Walls Come Tumbling Down is published by Pan Macmillan on September 8, 2016. More info: panmacmillan.com/books/walls-come-tumbling-down
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