Strangeways here we are ! A crowd was gathering outside Manchester’s Victorian prison getting ready to Rock Against Racism, to “Stop The Nazis”. If you had been to other rallies/marches like this, had spent any time on a picket line, you knew that an amount of “hanging about” was a part of the day. It would not be cool for leftist groups to embrace the organizational efficiency characteristic of those bastards we wanted out of here. Stuff will get done…eventually. Now where did I leave that petition ? I liked it like that.
I felt a tug at my sleeve, my attention sought by a small boy, about 8 years old, who wanted a “stop & chat” ( © Larry David) & to show me his toy car. This was Keith from Liverpool. We had met earlier in the year when I had been involved in & he had attended the creche at the National Womens’ Conference. A ad hoc bunch of male volunteers were responsible for up to 200 children of feminist mothers in a school donated for the weekend by the city council. It was two days with a lot of laughter. The cloud of marijuana smoke wafting from the kitchen across to the canteen may have helped the kids to chill the hell out but no-one was hurt & we didn’t lose even one of them. L.P.Hartley nailed it…”the past…foreign country…they do things differently there”.
How great was it that this bright-eyed, smiling young boy had remembered me from the games of football I had “organized” (seriously, that is funny !) that weekend ? How gratifying that our paths should cross while sexual stereotypes were being challenged & Fascism confronted ? The forces of reaction were massing behind their Warrior Queen Thatcher. When the time came to take to the barricades I knew that my crew would stand fast. This thoughtful, friendly Scouser & his two mothers would be welcome alongside us. “Power to the Correct People” ( © John Belushi).
We were showing out for the Northern Carnival Against the Nazis, a quickly organized complement to the momentous day out & concert in London. Rock Against Racism & their allies the Anti Nazi League found they were able to engage & mobilize surprising numbers of the youth by hooking them up with a chance to have a punky reggae party in a park. It’s modern to view political commitment in terms of social pathology. Man, that neo-con bullshit, like trickle down economics, was just as wrong the last time they tried to put it on us. Manchester has a significant tradition of radicalism reaching back to the Luddism of early industrialization. The 40,000 people who rallied, marched then danced knew they were part of it & were adding to it.The kids are alright.
The Buzzcocks are, undoubtedly, punk legends. They are remembered for singles which linked a lyrical romanticism to minimalist punk power chords. Pete Shelley & co-founder Howard Devoto were not just early adopters they were on point for the Sex Pistols when it was more about the fury than the filth, fixing up 2 momentous, celebrated Manchester gigs for the new sensations. They trailblazed with the independent release of their climacterical debut EP “Spiral Scratch”, following up with “Orgasm Addict” & “What Do I Get ?”. Triple Wallop right there. Two LPs & 5 singles in a busy 1978 made them the pride of Manchester. This was a hometown gig , “Love You More” was the current record & the band just rocked Alexandra Park.
Steel Pulse, Handsworth Revolutionaries, had played at the London rally in April. We had watched their set from the sound desk, perched above the packed,rippling, excited crowd. On this day I found Pulse’s soundman Horace, an old friend, before the band’s set. His dreads were coming along. I remember the Michael Jackson ‘fro. He was not long back from a European tour with the Wailers, not sure what day it was & would have to guess what town we were in. Still, if you are not smoking the best weed on a Bob Marley tour then I don’t know where you would be. I left Horace to his job. I had spent all day in the company of 4 women, skanking with the sorority, bubbling to a Brummie band of brothers was the very thing to make a good day great.
The band had always hit the spot. “Handsworth Revolution” is a fine debut LP, remember that 12″ of “Ku Klux Klan” ? I guess that we had always seen them as straight out of Handsworth Wood Boys School, local youth made good.Those big support gigs had pushed them along & here was a more assured, confident, mature combo.Those impressive songs stretched & flowed seamlessly into serious dub versions. This was the day we discovered that Steel Pulse were about to go international & that felt right.
My wife wandered off to explore the grounds of the inner city park & returned with the cherry on the icing on the day’s Bakewell tart. Our 85 mile journey North from Birmingham had been sweet & dandy, a cheap ticket on a well organized fleet of coaches. My 19 year old kid brother & his girlfriend had made rather more effort to hitch hike the 100 miles West. Good one ! It’s a family affair, fighting the good fight together, Rick & Marlene doing exactly the same stupid shit that we did when we were teenagers. We were proud of them. They met our friends, we fed them, got them high, slipped them a few quid & wished them luck on their journey home. ( They did not have it, they slept on the platform of a railway station ).
I was in London in May 1977, staying with friends, looking at the results of the local council elections. The right-wing party of the day (there’s always one), the National Front, had attracted a disturbing amount of votes. This would not stand, it was time for action, time to shut these fuckers down. In August 1977 anti-fascists & local youth confronted a march in London at the “Battle of Lewisham”. There were injuries on both sides, the NF’s police protectors used riot shields outside of Northern Ireland for the first time. This seemed to us to be the way forward. Our own involvement was through the workplace, trades union & community groups, now the racist right must be confronted, challenged & denied at every opportunity. What can a poor boy do ?
For the next 2 years the Anti Nazi League & Rock Against Racism worked effectively alongside each other. The showpiece concerts were the largest political gatherings of the time. Across the UK the best gigs in town were organised by R.A.R. The punk/reggae mix of the music reflected the multicultural ideology which reached precisely the same young people the NF hoped to influence. The 1979 election was a disaster for the far right. Thatcher’s Tories invaded their heartland with shifts in immigration policies (a tactic being used in the present day). An egotistical display of hubris by the National Front produced 300 candidates, all of whom got their arses kicked. It is, luckily, a characteristic of these fantasists that if you give them enough rope they do tend to hang themselves. I am biased but I do think that it was the harassment & challenge of the anti-fascist opposition, denying credibility to their actions & their policies, which kept them out of mainstream politics.
The Front were reduced to a bankrupt, squabbling rump. In the West Midlands stronghold an MI5 controlled organiser tipped off the ANL about activities hoping that the resulting punch ups would generate at least some publicity. It is the nature of single issue pressure groups that perceived success can lead to a loss of support. The ANL, a group run by the Socialist Workers Party, attracted mass appeal. The essentially exploitative nature of the division of labour within a capitalist economy…that’s a harder sell. In the next decade it was the Thatcher government which pursued policies which were anti-worker, anti-immigrant, even, in her own words, anti-society. An extra-parliamentary movement with a wider view than fighting fascism, banning the bomb & who knew how to organize a good party, could have been useful. Rock Against Racism seized the time & did the right thing at the right time. The amount of support it received created a grass roots energy for direct action. It incorporated the punk do-it-yourself attitude & made going to a gig into a political act. As my favourite Marxist said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member”, but in this case I was happy to make an exception.