Posted 25th April, 2018
(Stitch-Up In The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.