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Who Shot the Sheriff? — rocking against racism

This article is over 18 years, 6 months old
Richard Archer of Hard-Fi, Neville Staples of The Specials, Rankin’ Roger of The Beat, filmmaker Alan Miles and promoter Geoff Martin from the Left Field cooperative on the fight in the seventies and today
Issue 1969
Richard Archer of Hard-Fi at the launch
Richard Archer of Hard-Fi at the launch

A new film charting the history of Rock Against Racism (RAR) premiered on Thursday of last week at an electric gig in London. RAR was part of the movement against the Nazi National Front in the 1970s.

Those involved in RAR spoke to Socialist Worker, along with newcomers who support RAR’s successor, Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR).

Richard Archer, singer with Hard-Fi

‘The whole Rock Against Racism movement involved bands at the forefront of their scenes at the time. But if you’re 14 years old today, you don’t necessarily know who those bands are.

For me that means the current crop of groups and acts has got to take this opportunity to use its voice against racism, to say that this is a current problem and to try and put the other side of the argument.

Some people say there’s been a resurgence in racism recently, but I’d say it’s been there all the time — it’s just that some of the time it gets swept under the carpet.

Staines, the town we’re from, used to have Combat 18 and the National Front active in the area. Recently flyers came round the town from the BNP.

They were full of lies, but there might be people out there who believe them. Nevertheless I hope people are fairly reasonable minded and can be won round—but it’s down to the movement to do that.

A lot of the time racism is down to ignorance. If people don’t know about other cultures, they can feel scared and angry. No one likes to feel they’re left out.

But you can learn so much more from different areas of life. We’ve got to get people together and get them to know each other.’

Geoff Martin from the Left Field cooperative

‘The film’s great, it really captures what the world was like back then. It’s hard to explain what it was like. There was a large disaffected white working class with little hope.

RAR gave them something positive, somewhere to go, something real.

We had all the best bands back then and we need to keep that up this time. That’s why it works out that LMHR are putting together acts from different musicals genres — like tonight with Hard-Fi, The Beat and Roll Deep.

We’ve got to keep up the support and energy of this movement, get new bands involved, get new blood involved. We’ll keep working with Love Music Hate Racism to see what we can do.’

Neville Staples from The Specials

‘Musically things were very exciting back then, we were saying something politically. It’s good to refresh people’s minds.

A lot of bands nowadays aren’t really saying anything — the record company people have got hold of them. But with the new young bands coming up now, I feel that’s what we need — a new fresh attitude.’

Rankin’ Roger from The Beat

‘There were four million people unemployed when we released the song Stand Down Margaret in 1980. There were lots of people losing their jobs and houses every week for two or three years. Margaret Thatcher had sold off half the country.

We felt it was time for her to stand down — and most of the country felt that way.

When I look at Tony Blair today, I think “different party, same bullshit”. He’s just as bad as her. Since then we’ve had the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. I’m a pacifist, and I thought Labour was there to keep the peace.

So for those reasons we’ve changed the chorus to Stand Down Tony.’

Alan Miles, firefighter and director of the new film about the history of RAR, Who Shot the Sheriff?

‘I first became involved in film back in 1985 when I started work in Soho as a runner for a film company. I then worked abroad for a few years, came back and decided to joined the fire brigade in 1996.

A few years ago I started a part time college degree in media production. Half way through doing that the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) strike kicked off.

I took a camera to rallies and marches, and started producing propaganda videos for the FBU along with Greg McDonald. The whole spirit of that strike was brilliant—the coloured flags, the carnival feel, the public support. It was wonderful to film the rallies and picket lines.

When the dispute really kicked in I went round the meetings up and down the country capturing the same spirit. One of the events we videoed was Joe Strummer’s last gig, a benefit for striking firefighters.

When Joe died I decided to make a little film of the gig called The Last Night London Burned. I felt it really summed up what Joe was about.

That film got shown at the Glastonbury festival in the Left Field. We also took cameras there and put a film together of some of the bands playing for a Love Music Hate Racism gig — Miss Black America, The Buzzcocks, The Libertines.

That experience got me interested in the Rock Against Racism movement in the 1970s. We’ve started to forget those times. But we can’t forget them, it would be like forgetting the Holocaust. You have to remember and say “never again”. And the fascists are on the rise again with the BNP, though they’re now in suits and aren’t on the streets anymore.

So I decided to start researching it, and started by reading Beating Time by David Widgery. It’s a very “punky” book and it really works. I wanted to make sure that imagery was in the film.

I spent some time going through ITN archives, looking through shows and video logbooks. There were some great editions of the London Weekend Show produced by Janet Street Porter covering the British reggae scene and the rise of punk.

One show was devoted to Rock Against Racism. It included some rare footage of the legendary RAR concert in Victoria Park, east London.

The more I researched the movement, the more it amazed me. There’s so much that I couldn’t get into the film.’

The next steps to stop the BNP

Next May sees full council elections across England and Wales, and the BNP is aiming to pick up seats in target areas such as West Yorkshire and Barking, east London.

The fascists only need to come third in any ward election to gain a council seat.

Unite Against Fascism is planning to hold three major LMHR carnivals in these areas, alongside a series of smaller benefit gigs, to mobilise young people to vote against the BNP.

Who Shot the Sheriff? will play a key role in building these events.

Alan Miles’s documentary brings together rare archive footage of RAR events, including the legendary 1978 carnival in Victoria Park, east London, alongside interviews with many of the artists involved in RAR.

RAR played a crucial role in the Anti Nazi League campaign against the National Front in the 1970s.

RAR changed the face of British music, bringing together reggae and punk bands on the same bill and helping to create multiracial “two-tone” bands.

The Who Shot the Sheriff? tour is supported by the Amicus union and Left Field. For details go to the websites of LMHR or Unite Against Fascism

Neville Staples and Jerry Dammers of the Specials reunite onstage (Pics:
Neville Staples and Jerry Dammers of the Specials reunite onstage (Pics: Angela Stapleford)


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