Syd Shelton’s photographs are a great record of how ‘70s music helped black and white youth stand their ground against racism, says BOB ORAM
Rock Against Racism by Syd Shelton (Autograph, £30)
NEXT year marks the 40th anniversary of a heavily intoxicated Eric Clapton blurting out racist crap on stage at the Birmingham Odeon.
“Britain is overcrowded,” he said. “Enoch will stop it and send them all back.”
Music’s response was immediate. Rock Against Racism (RAR), a collective of artists and political activists, came together for the next five years to fight fascism, racism and the rise of the National Front through music.
Syd Shelton, a British photographer and graphic designer, chronicled a unique visual record of its activities and a country gripped in racial and political tension.
This glorious book is a sumptuous collection of his photographs, work he says was a “socialist act,” and a “graphic argument” on behalf of marginalised lives.
From 1976 to ’81 the insubordinate, angry spirit of punk meshed with a rising generation of alienated black youth to find that they both had “no future in England’s dreaming.”
As Paul Gilroy says in a thoughtful essay accompanying the book: “It is essential that readers who are encountering these images for the first time appreciate how exciting it was to see them at the time they appeared.”
Anyone who lived through that period recognises how life-changing politically infused and committed art can be.
One of the highlights of the era was the April ’78 all-day concert in London’s Victoria headlined by the Clash, which drew thousands from all over the country to march to Victoria Park. RAR publication Temporary Hoarding described it as: “A park full of unity. Right in the middle of depressed, despondent, broke little Britain. Bands playing for free. The pinks and browns melt in sound.”
The stunning pictures of the concert —including performances by Misty in Roots, Tom Robinson Band, Aswad, Angelic Upstarts, The Beat, Matumbi, Elvis Costello, Steel Pulse, The Members, X Ray Spex, the Specials and Sham 69 — are counterpoised alongside powerful, intense images of people in Belfast and on the streets in Britain.
They contextualise what was an important moment in our nation’s understanding and history of race relations.
The clarity and directness of RAR’s trademark Love Music, Hate Racism slogan did more than anything else at that time to stop the possibility of any real connection between youth culture and racism and ultra-nationalism in its tracks.
As cultural commentator David Widgery said: “The great thing about RAR was its way of having a revolution without stopping the party.”
Even Cromer joined in the fun when The Ruts on the Militant Entertainment tour descended on the sedate Norfolk seaside town. The image of a punk girl lying on the stage of the West Runton Pavilion (left) was a one-shot moment that Shelton recalls with pride, marking him put as someone who captured “stills from life” not “still life.”
As with all Shelton’s work, the mind wonders what is happening behind the image or just out of sight.
The brilliant picture of Joe Strummer on stage messing around with Paul Simonon’s bass guitar indeed raises more questions than it answers and among the 100 images included are two which at first look like one picture but are actually two bomb sites in which children are playing — one in London’s Brick Lane and one in Belfast.
With images as well from the pages of Temporary Hoarding and concert fliers and posters, this is a truly wonderful treasure trove that needs to be seen by everyone agitating and organising with imagination and passion today.
A perfect seasonal gift.
A free exhibition of Syd Shelton’s RAR photograph runs at Autograph ABP, Rivington Place, London EC2 until December 5.