- Our crew gathered for Saturday brunch…well, coffee & cigarettes…at the Camberwell commorancy that we had all called home at some time. June 28th 1986, a sunny London summer morning. We had a full, exciting day ahead of us chanting down Babylon, attending the Artists Against Apartheid rally just down the road at Clapham Common. There was still an element of having to tiptoe through those Tory twats, apologists for white South African racist exploiters. Today was no street-fighting urban warrior deal, more a picnic in the park with some speeches, some music. A chance to state the obvious truth that supremacism must be superceded & that Nelson Mandela must be released from his prison cell. Say, what’s the word…? These good companions hit the mean streets of South London (joke) in an almost vivacious (steady there) disposition. Della & Helen had not met before. They both had something to say, liked to laugh. I expected an easy affinity & was enjoying being proved right, right there on the busy pavements.
Busy ? You ain’t seen nothing yet ! We reached Oval tube station & the place was just rammed. Everyone was showing out for this one. Under & overground was a road block leaving no option but to join the pedestrian swarm to the Common. The turn out was estimated to be between 200-300,000 people. A hubbub on the street bubbled bemusement & exhilaration as our city was usurped by those of us who opposed the South African regime & supported the African National Congress, a body our own government considered to be terrorists. Up in Clapham this impressive congregation sorted itself out with an easy, amicable grace. Man, this was a popular picnic !
Here’s a taste of the music from that day…great stuff eh ? We had a bit of a wait before things were shaking though. I suppose that it was good to see Boy George out of the house. The Summer of 86 was not his best, what with the arrest for cannabis possession, a guy dying round his yard, his own addiction. Did the little girls still love him ? Then Sade brought her sumptuous, spurious soul from #1 in the US charts. A bloke off of Spandau Ballet was instantly forgotten. Just don’t get me started on Paul Weller, pretend punk, mock mod, now sham-soul style councillor, plodding through Curtis’ classic “Move On Up”.
All this style over substance was a bit much. This was a worthy cause so kudos to them all for showing out when they were usually showing off but this was becoming a little underwhelming. The local pub, the Windmill, was inundated…out of the question. On the Southside, Bedford Hill way, the Nightingale was a little treasure unknown to over 250,000 of those massed around us. OK let’s go get a beer before Bananarama turn up.
Back in time for Big Audio Dynamite…we’ve got the moves today. B.A.D. was Mick Jones’ next gang in town after being sacked by the Clash. He went back to the Westway but not to the garage, this time around there were dance beats, samples, technology. If anyone was playing the “I’m still a punk & you’re not” in 1986…ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated ? B.A.D. sounded like the London that I could hear just like his other group used to back then. “E=mc²” is a tribute to the films of Nic Roeg, more mature & a guitar-heavy live version. Mick Jones has always written great tunes, I really like B.A.D., more later.
This thing was starting to fly. Speeches by representatives of the African National Congress & leading anti-apartheid figures were always going to hit the spot. The music had already picked up & you can never see Elvis Costello & the Attractions play live enough times. It made Helen’s day, Elvis was her boy. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love & Understanding”… the very thing for all these good people who stood up for, pure & simple, respect for humanity. We could have torched some stuff that day, broken some things, the cops or stewards could not have stopped us. This festival, it seems inappropriate to call it a demo, showed a great many responsible, well-intentioned people cared about this injustice & that it was time for others to listen up. It was a point very well made.
I knew about Hugh Masekela back in 1967 when he played trumpet on “So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star” by the Byrds. His early talent was mentored by Trevor Huddlestone, a prominent opponent of apartheid. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 exposed the dangerous reality of life in South Africa. Masekela got the fuck out of Jo’burg & remained in exile for many years. Through the Byrds thing, the hit singles, the deeper jazz, you could always hear the roots of his rhythms. You can take the man out of Africa but…you get me. Those records on Jive Africa are proper world music, respectful of tradition, no trace of cultural tourism…Afro-funk, “Don’t Go Lose It Baby”, oh yeah !
Round our house in the mid-80s we made our own video mix tapes for after the pub gatherings. No high-tech, dual-deck editing, knob twiddling, just being near the right place at an appropriate (approximate ?) time & our own innate good taste (ha !). One of our pride & indeed joys of hours of music was “Stimela”, a landmark work of art by Hugh Masekela. A story of forced upheaval & disturbance, a coal train blues, a serious, beautiful, soulful song. It was something to be with this crowd listening to this music. We had not expected to hear this monumental tune today, Mitch & I exchanged a glance. This was as good as it gets. Click that clip…this performance is one of my greatest musical memories.
And the hits just kept on coming. Peter Gabriel, the inventor of world music (wink), behooved with “Biko”, another serious, appropriate tune, before whoever happened to be in the Specials that day came to do their thing. It had been some time since Jerry Dammers & his group had carried the swing in British music. He was front of house on this occasion, relied upon to do the right thing. Their music, with the confidence of rebellious youth, moved from ska revival to social commentary. There’s a case to be made, mostly by myself, that “Ghost Town” (1981) was the last time that such an assured lyrical & musical provocation was the most popular song in the country. “Free Nelson Mandela”, angry, celebratory & conciousness-raising, was the only way to end a day which surely placed South Africa in the political foreground.
Two year later there was another day of action. A Live Aid template filled Wembley Stadium & attracted international television coverage. Last time around it was the numbers, the attitude of those making the scene which…made the scene. This time there were less people…in a football ground…the celebrities were bigger so that’s better…OK ? Sting, Simple Minds, Dire Straits…rock & roll. Intros by Emily Lloyd, Corbin Bernson…who & why ? Any notion of political protest became so diluted that poor befuddled Whitney Houston wasn’t sure if she was fighting the power or attending a birthday party. Fox TV just wanted a Summer gig in London, anybody got too direct at the “Freedomfest” missed the cut. I thought the whole thing sucked.
Still, millions now knew about Mandela. In February 1990, an emotionally charged “walk to freedom” proved that sometimes the good guys win. In South Africa the majority of the population were no longer victims of state oppression because of their colour. Nelson Mandela became an international symbol of political honour & human decency. To mark his passing Jerry Dammers, who had so adroitly caught the mood in the 1980s, assembled his Spatial A.K.A. Orchestra for this furious, relevant, version of “Free Nelson Mandela”. Now this is what I call music !