Punk Meets Reggae In The Park – April 30th 1978

Posted 25th April, 2018

(Stitch-Up In The Park)

The Clash onstage in Victoria Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a bright, sun-drenched day in Victoria Park in Hackney 40 years ago, the ‘Rock Against Rasicm’ demonstration met in Trafalgar Square, and then marched to Victoria Park where an extraordinary concert of immense proportions took place. In a seemingly spontaneous act of mass consciousness, many different factions united under one banner to protest the current state of race relations, police injustice, and revel in unbridled explosion of musical self-indulgence. It was a ‘people’s event,’ with everyone from the organisers to the bands contributing their efforts for free and demonstrated the ability of music to try and bring about change with its supporters claiming that it eventually helped demolish the National Front.

It also proved to be a surprising spectacular milestone in the Clash musical journey, representing a quantum leap in their public exposure and political credibility. With audience estimates of up to 100,000 it was not eclipsed again for the band until the US Festival in San Bernardino, CA five years later. More importantly, it gained national media attention for The Clash and firmly anchored the band’s flag to the left-wing’s cause. After the disintegration of the original punk scene just a year before, the carnival offered The Clash an opportunity to align themselves with a more political national version of punk constructed very much in their own image. In a time before the emergence of ‘Thatcherism’ and it’s jackbooted authoritarianism; the massive military build-up of the confrontational Reagan years, the enforced and bitter epoch-ending miner’s strikes, and long before the Thatcher-contrived, manipulated Falklands War, it symbolized a fervent rejection of the right-wing agenda that was shortly to come.

The march from Trafalger Square to Victoria Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though not a great number by today’s standards, with social media and instant internet access to world events reaching millions, back then it was quite an achievement for two far-left fringe organizations to pull together simply by word-of mouth and undoubtedly exceeded their wildest expectations. Viewed now, in hindsight, it can be seen as an anguished elegy for the post-World War II social system aspirations that Thatcher would so soon thoroughly sweep away. Played against a rising tide of tabloid press-inspired right-wing National Front popularism, it also had a significant socio-political impact, raising the consciousness of young people in the UK against racism, and unexpectedly turned out to be an ideal platform for the Clash to present their anti-racist stance, despite all the misgivings and doubts about the validity of the show beforehand.

The forces of authority in wait.

I say surprisingly, because from the start, the prospect and outcome of the gig was mired in doubt, suspicion, and conflicting emotions. As true today as it was back then, safety is only assured when we take matters into our own hands and Joe Strummer was keenly aware of this all his life, hammering the message home in all of his lyrics. He had been originally approached by John Dennis of the Anti-Nazi League and Red Saunders of Rock Against Racism, after Saunders had been thoroughly declined by Bernie Rhodes who’d dismissed them as “a collection of students playing politics.” Joe nevertheless was adamant and pressed for participation in the event despite the internal politics being played out. For Mick’s part he had already shown himself quite willing to make friendly overtures to the likes of the Tom Robinson Band. But to many of us in the Clash camp there were grave doubts about the organizers’ ability to stage such an event and wariness regarding any ulterior motives. Bernie was the big stumbling block against the entire venture and was extremely suspicious of the organizers, their political commitment, and what the band would eventually achieve doing a ‘gig in a park’. Bernie, saw them as a bunch of hippies and doubted their competence and their effectiveness.

Bernard in control.

I remember about a month before the gig, the band and crew all went to John Dennis’s flat one bright spring morning to discuss the details with him and his committee. We got rebuffed on most of our requests and felt that there was needless obstinacy towards us, especially on the part of the Tom Robinson’s people. So far from being assured, we came away even more unsure of what the band was getting itself into and keenly felt the growing contradictions: to be supporting a cause they fervently believed in, but was run and coordinated by a group of inexperienced politico’s who had never initiated a show of it’s kind before. The organisers could never have attracted the numbers they did without The Clash (they’d originally planned for 20,000) – they needed them – but were unwilling to bend to any demands. It was most definitely Tom Robinson’s event and playing support to The Tom Robinson band hardly seemed a step forward either, merely rubbing rub salt into already open wounds!

Bernie grasped all of these intangibles and was already dead set against playing support to the Tom Robinson Band realising it meant giving up control of the event and its outcome. He wanted complete control. The last card up his sleeve was the band’s backdrop and when Bernie discovered it would be virtually impossible to use the backdrop on-stage he flatly withdrew all participation in the event. To him the backdrop was, in some peculiar way, more important than any other facet of the performance and was something I never understood. Even at Mont-de-Marsan the previous year where we thought we couldn’t use the backdrop, he’d had me climb up a ladder and spray-paint in big letters ‘THIS IS JOE PUBLIC SPEAKING!’ (We did actually get one section up at the back of the stage before being stopped by the TRB roadies.) But all of this was denied and there were tense discussions and arguments on all sides from inside and outside the band. Had the eventual scale of the event been known beforehand, maybe there wouldn’t have been so many doubts but no one could have foreseen or realised the ultimate impact of the ‘gig in the park’. But at that point it felt like we were deceived in the name of a moral cause.

The trap was set. Conscious of the stitch-up that was being perpetrated in advance, the band nevertheless decided to spring the trap and run the gauntlet. Ignoring Bernie’s advice they determined the cause was ultimately larger than they were. And so the opportunity was taken up, despite all misgivings and unease – the band braced themselves to, if nothing else, blow everyone else off-stage.

Come the day of the gig, Johnny Green and I begrudgingly loaded up a rented van with all the equipment in the very early morning at Rehearsals – only to find the back doors of the van wouldn’t shut! Not a good start! We were already behind schedule. Of course we blamed each other for not checking the van out beforehand and cursed each other the whole way to the park. The guitar roadie on that day was Mickey Abbot, an acquaintance of Joe’s who worked at The Roundhouse Music Store and who Joe had originally approached months before to replace Rodent after he had seen fit to jump ship for the Pistols. Mickey eventually worked for the band throughout the recording of the ‘Give ‘Em Enough Rope’ album at Basing Street Studios.

A vast assortment of hippies, punks, rasta’s, beatniks, hobo’s and weirdoes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Johnny and I drove into the park, the realisation of what actual kind of event it would be slowly dawned on us; our qualms and misgivings multiplied (especially mine). The band had only played in broad daylight a few times before, but this event was on an unimaginable scale. The crowd was already huge with a vast assortment of hippies, punks, rasta’s, beatniks, hobo’s and weirdoes. People with fuzzy gray beards and worn-out wooly jumpers selling copies of Socialist Worker were not our usual crowd and our wariness grew. Lines of cops were everywhere; blokes with collection buckets taking donations; massive trade-union signs; it seemed like chaos to us out front of stage. As The Clash bassist Paul Simonon later remarked, “I’m glad we did the anti-Nazi rally because it was important but it was a bit off-putting with all these hippies wandering about with a giant bucket, going, ‘Put your money in here!’ and shaking it all around. We wanted to make the left seem more glamorous because at the time it was all hippies.”

Our anxiety notched up once we finally nosed our way through to the backstage area to unload the gear and find an even worse shambles. Five acts had to get on-stage, perform, and get off with all manner of instruments and equipment flying all over the place. There were no separate dressing-rooms; the old lido at the back of the stage was used by everyone. Even the PA had only been arranged at the last minute. Johnny spent the time leaping up and down the backstage steps three-at-a-time with arms flapping like an ostrich on speed.

Mick Jones breezed in unfazed with Tony James, wearing what looked like a leather bus conductor’s cap. “Tickets Please!” everyone called out to him. The interaction and high spirits of the bands themselves only lent itself to the bizarre, carnival surrealism of the afternoon – it was just mayhem and you had to have eyes in the back of your head, especially those of us trying to get the show on the road. The TRB road crew were in charge of proceedings and gave us little consideration or attention. “You can’t do this!” “You can’t do that!” was all we heard that afternoon. Mickey Abbot ran a mains extension from the stage so the band could tune-up only to have the TRB road crew rip it out (a sign of things to come.) Maybe they knew in advance we were going to try to steal the show and had made their preparations accordingly which included making our lives as difficult as hell (again, parallels with the US Festival five years later). Our ritualistic pre-gig routine had to be forgotten.

The Clash make it onstage.

By the time we were forced to take the stage at 2:30pm (ready or not), the crowd had grown even more enormous. None of us had ever seen such a huge and VERY animated audience before and even the band was gob-smacked at the sight and sound of such a huge mass of humanity. The band was dwarfed by more than 80,000 punks, skinheads, rasta’s, long-hairs, and all-sorts by then all wanting one thing ….hard, fast, roots-rock-reggae music. The roar of the streaming, surging crowd was deafening and swept over the four musicians as they ran headlong on stage. The Clash gave them want they wanted in torrents – virtually non-stop, number after number. Fuck-ups were many. The sound was poor, barely carrying to the back of the crowd (when TRB came on later, the sound improved dramatically.) But the ‘band played on’ regardless, forced by sheer adrenaline, energy, and passion.

Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer – dynamism, passion, and people as far as you could see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We played over our allotted time (as we’d intended all along), and finally Tom Robinson’s road crew had had enough and pulled the plugs (much to the anger of the crowd.) The lights and music stopped and there was a mammoth jostling, shoving match backstage, with all of us trying to get to the power. Finally through bluster and threats we got the power back on and Steve English, the Pistols’ hulking security man doing double duty that day, was told to stand over the mains and guard it with his life!

The roar from the heaving, uncontrolled crowd was earsplitting as the band went into ‘White Riot’ and it seemed like WWIII had erupted. I was too busy getting equipment working and plugging stuff back in to even react to the emotion of the instant but for many it was an iconic moment. Jimmy Pudsey ran onstage like a fixated berserker, taking the mike and screaming the words but that was just fine with all the Sham skinheads that were in the crowd. Youth was having its say that day no matter what end of the fashion spectrum they hailed from and the cops were left looking on helpless as over 80,000 did as they pleased in the name of Rock Against Racism. The authorities’ underestimation of the mood of the blue-collar, dispossessed suburban kids was quite staggering.

In a master stroke, Bernie had convinced the organizers to let the film crew for the movie ‘Rude Boy’ shoot footage of several numbers. Masquerading as a documentary film crew, they were there to capture the pandemonium of the day and the undeniable success of the event. After it was all over and Johnny and I drove back to the studio to unload the gear, the adrenaline slowly subsided and the magnitude of that momentous and historic occasion we had just been part of started to sink in. It’s peculiar how you can only realise afterwards in hindsight how great something had been. We’d doubted it from the start, become paranoid before the show, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the Clash’s remarkable legend. The organizers had tried to stitch us up that day but we’d mugged ’em and turned the tables – it could have so easily gone the other way. But luck favors the foolish (or naive), and the band took home the ultimate prize.

In retrospect, who can say what the RAR gigs’ eventual impact was on the politics and culture of the day. In years to come, Mick Jones said quite rightly that, “The event transcended petty in-fighting.” Red Saunders summed it up: “The lesson from Rock Against Racism, is that we can all intervene, make a difference and change things: nothing is inevitable.” A number of people in the crowd who would never have attended a Clash gig were, in time, inspired to stand up and subsequently make their own contributions, Billy Bragg and a young Tony Benn being among them. For a many of us it’s still a most important reference point. The immediate effect of RAR was to incite the anti-NF supporters to come out and make their presence felt. Just one year later, Thatcher would become Prime Minister, her uncompromising agenda creating schisms in Britain not seen since the English Civil War. With Thatcher on the way, it was if nothing else, a statement in time; a reminder that given a uniting influence, there was at least another voice in Britain, not just the UK’s right-wing tabloid press.

In summary, only haphazard scenes and random images remain in my memory now – the individual minutiae of the show is currently the property of everyone who made the effort to be there and be part of it, not the journalists who chronicled the event years later. You, the audience, made such memories possible – 80,000 of you. Please share with everyone any memories of the day and use this forum to tell your story, no matter how trivial. Did you have your political views changed or shaped by the event? Did you get beaten up by skinheads? Were you a skinhead/punk/ student/hippie? Your memories, no matter how trivial, should be recorded for posterity and I welcome them.

Audio of the Clash Rock Against Racism set.


Links:  http://www.ukrockfestivals.com/victoria-park-1978.html   https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/apr/20/popandrock.race


 

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20 thoughts on “Punk Meets Reggae In The Park – April 30th 1978

  1. Curmo

    I was there …. marched through East End streets in defiance of Webster and Tyndall’s thugs who were out in force. A powerful message to the NF and their ilk who seemed – at the time – to be on the threshold of power. A day I will never forget … the energy coming off the stage in Victoria Park was like nothing I’d experience before … and maybe since.

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      Nice memory Cirmo…. I agree, things were heading the wrong way at that point and could easily have slipped the other way. “For evil to survive all it takes is good people to do nothing…..”
      The Baker.

      Reply
  2. Rupert

    feel proud to have been part of that day Baker, remember the running battles with the NF and the police who protected them. Also remember the giant effigies of the NF leaders being marched through the crowd. The Black and White youth of Britain were completely united that day and I still feel that bond largely continues with our generation. It terrified the establishment too but Thatcher soon went back to the policy of divide and conquer and unfortunately a lot of people fell for it. May sound like a conspiracy theory but I’m convinced that she also allowed the Shah of Iran’s cronies to come here when the Ayatollahs kicked them out and flood the streets of Britain with the purist smack ever to hit these shores. She’d studied her history (Chinese Opium Wars) and knew there was no better way to supress a population than get them strung out. It decimated a generation and quite possibly bought about the demise of the Clash, Great to see Topper and Johnny Green are in a much better place now. Steel Pulse and the Clash were magnificent that day. Thanks so much for writing this.

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      I agree Rupert. On this side of the pond everyone’s hooked on cigarettes, whiskey, and coffee – keeps them angry and unfocused, able to go to work in a factory and get so angry again they can’t wait to get blitzed again. We all need to reclaim our minds and get iout of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.

      On a side note, harking back to your thoughts about us all being united, back in the Reagan-testosterone fueled years, he speculated on a most curious notion:

      During a speech before the United Nations in 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke longingly for the world unity that would happen if aliens invaded Earth.
      He said:
      “Perhaps we need some outside universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”

      “Ronald Reagan, wishing an alien invasion on Earth because of the kumbaya effect it would have on relations among nations,” said Rachel Maddow on her show Monday night. “One of the truly weirdest things he ever said in public.”

      Reply
  3. k lts

    Hi, I’ve got a question remotely related to your article.
    How these big backdropes were made back then?
    The one with the flags, I understand they were sewed each other, but the first one? With the policemens (back of Clash s/t lp)? It was too big for silkscreen; maybe sprayed?
    And in ~81 the wall behind band was just grafitti sprayed by Futura 2000?

    Cheers (and sorry for bad English 🙂

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      Hi K, the backdrop image was superimposed onto some kind of super-hard material which was then bonded to 3/8″ backing board 4″ x 8″ making it 12″ high. That was then attached to pine stripping which made it very heavy and unwieldy and unstable. It came in about six pieces which were then ‘G’-clamped together. Finally, Sebastian Conran attached some ‘A’ frames on hinges which could be closed and flattened when the backdrop was stored but would swing out and hold the backdrop in an almost upright position….in theory!

      Of course, the reality was far different. The backstage area was littered with cables from the lights and PA system. Plug-boards, power junction boxes, all manner of equipment stored out of view – and of course, the backdrop was ALWAYS in the way (much to the anger of the rest of the roadcrew).

      Also, they had forgotten as to how cover the backdrop while the support bands were playing and then unveil it seconds before the band walked out onstage. All we could think of whilst actually being on the road was gaffa-taping it over the backdrop which became a nightly horrorshow for Johnny and I. Even today we still laugh about the times when the gaffa tape would peel off halfway through the support act OR it would refuse to come off at all…..many’s the time we’d be up on ladders, trying to wrench this black plastic off and the band would already have finished the first number. Like a scene out of ‘Spinal Tap’ they’d be glancing back at us nervously as we teetered on unstable ladders, swearing and cursing Bernie and that backdrop which had become the bane of our existence. But everyone loved it so I guess it was worth all the aggravation in the end.

      Reply
  4. Joe

    Traveled down from Middlesbrough by coaches laid on by Teesside Poly, only £1 return. Can’t remember how many coaches were there but the surrounding area was full of them. I think all The Rock Garden punks turned out.

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      Now we had no idea what a monumental effort was being made by strangers up and down the country, all with one united cause. Thank you for the comment Joe

      Reply
  5. Martyn

    Mine is a simple story. At the time I was not a particular fan; I wanted to see Steel Pulse. I was 19 years old and recently moved to London. I knew no one and nobody really wanted to know me. I went on my own. I stood quite near the back by some trees. People were talking amongst themselves distractedly and then a band came on. People around me stopped talking and started listening. Me included. The moment that band came on changed my life forever. Quietly and not in a showy way. That band was called the Clash. On 30th April 2018 I will once again go on my own to Victoria Park and the Clash will once again be playing.

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      We meet no ordinary people in our lives Martyn. If you give them a chance, everyone has something amazing to offer. Every passing face on the street represents a story every bit as compelling and complex.

      Your own story just brought shivers up my spine. I urge you to post it on as many fb sites as possible. Maybe we can even get a whole bunch of people that were there on that memorable day.

      Thanks again wholeheartedly

      The Baker.

      Reply
  6. Hassan

    Great to hear from The Baker again, I wasn’t at the park that day, only saw the footage on the Rude Boy film ( although I was fortunate to see the Clash many times in the 80’s) I read somewhere that Johnny said his favourite memory of Joe was from this show, and he mentioned watching Joe and his electric leg giving it all that day. In response to K its question on the backdrops, The backdrop ( or work of art sprayed by futura 2000 ) sold at auction for £28,000 not so long ago. I’ll try to dig up the link and pictures and post then here. Anyhow, lovely to read another instalment from The Baker, Peace & Love.

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      Hassan the magnificent – good to hear from you! Yeah you’re right, Johnny was always transfixed by the band (instead of watching the gear) ha!

      As far as Futura, I guess he deserves the money considering all the shit we gave him. He used to teeter back and forth at the top of his ladder spray painting. We used to run back and forth at the back of the stage and always give a good hard knock to the ladder. He used to get furious and complain to Mick. Paul always thought it hilarious.

      Stay well old chum. Day he’ll go your daughter for me.

      The Baker.

      Reply
      1. Hassan

        Hey, The Legendary Baker, thanks for remembering mate, My daughters impressed that you
        re called our meeting, you & Alex are much remembered by her, Hope you’re well & in good health, Take care, Really appreciate your message. Peace & Love.

      2. thebaker77 Post author

        As far as being impressed Hassan, you are the only person that recognized Alex and I at the pop up store, which just goes to show how many of the unsung heroes of great things are left in the dust once fame and fortune are gained.

        Anyone interested should look up Mal Evans, the Beatles original roadie. They paid him £38 pw the entire time they were together. After they split up he was offered some lowly office position at Apple like a bone to a dog. Eventually depression got him and he died shot by LA cops in his apartment. His body got down back to England but not one of the Beatles even showed up. [Mickey Foote died just last month]

        I guess there’s a cautionary tale there somewhere Hassan. Thanks for the comment. The Baker.

    1. thebaker77 Post author

      Thanks for reading it Jon Wurster.
      ‘And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
      Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not there,
      And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
      That fought with us in Victoria Park.’

      Reply
  7. jennylens

    “I guess there’s a cautionary tale there somewhere” sent shivers down my spine, Baker. Truer words never spoken. For me, my memories (many which I’ll always keep private, partially because impossible to ever put int words) and my photos are what matters to fans (most bands don’t care).

    But as for recognition, appreciation, monetary gains, forgetaboutit.

    Loved seeing photo at top. Made me smile. You always made me smile. I was so intimidated and shy around all of you. Grateful for lovely memories and photos. Thank you. Best. Band. Live. Ever.

    Reply
    1. thebaker77 Post author

      Hi ya Jenny. How’s life treating you? I hope you’re well and living life to the fullest.

      Yes there is a lesson to be learned there. The band was so blinded by the righteousness of the cause that they threw caution to the wind and never gave it a second thought that they might be being used by the organizers. Fortunately, their sheer fortitude and tenacity carried them through and years later, all that most people remember of that day is their performance.

      I’m glad we were able to make you smile, if but for a short time. Memories are priceless – they can’t be bought or traded [yet]. It was unforgettable characters like yourself with such passion and warmth, that kept us going on the road and now in the fullness of our years, bring smiles to my face.

      As far as monetary gains go I’ve learned that there is no wealth, but health. So stay healthy and optimistic, mon chéri,

      The Baker.

      Reply

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