Syd Shelton’s images, collected in his book Rock Against Racism, capture a period charged with thrills, anger and the threat of violence.
On 30 April 1978, Syd Shelton was woken by people parading past his building in Charing Cross Road, singing Clash songs. It was 4am but Shelton, a photographer and activist from Yorkshire, was delighted. He was helping organise a Rock Against Racism march later that morning from Trafalgar Square to east London. A stage had been set up in Victoria Park and the Clash were playing, as were Steel Pulse, X-Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band, but the organisers were worried no one would walk seven miles to see a concert. “When I went down at 7am,” Shelton recalls, “there were already 10,000 people in the square.”
In the end, nearly 10 times that number marched to Victoria Park. It was a coup for Rock Against Racism, which had been staging only small events for two years. Its mission was to challenge racist tendencies in British music – the spark was a rant by Eric Clapton at a gig in Birmingham, praising Enoch Powell and urging Britain to “get the foreigners out” – but it had a wider social agenda too. The National Front was on the rise, and tensions between communities were being stoked by the rightwing press, and by the police, which many perceived to be institutionally racist.
Shelton joined Rock Against Racism in 1977. “My first real involvement was in Lewisham. The National Front organised an ‘anti-mugging’ march and we put on a big counter-demonstration.” He shot rolls of vivid photos and continued to document the struggle over the next four years.
Rock Against Racism made a point of bringing artists of different colours together on the same stage. You can see the diversity in Shelton’s collection: Jimmy Pursey and Steel Pulse saluting the crowd at the Victoria Park carnival; Misty in Roots and Tom Robinson group-hugging at Alexandra Palace.
The audiences were mixed too. “It was such a great mish-mash,” recalls Shelton, “from hardline SWP supporters to people who were simply anti-racist.” He stresses that they weren’t merely preaching to the converted: “I came across a photo today of a woman called Sharon who had been a racist skinhead but Rock Against Racism changed her mind. She became one of our main activists. We saw it as an argument we had to win.”
The movement staged some 500 gigs around the UK before dying down in the early 80s. (It was reborn two decades later as Love Music Hate Racism.) “I don’t mean to suggest the fight is over – that would be ridiculous to say when you look at the current situation in Calais – but music had changed; it had become more multiracial and that was fantastic.”
Paul Simonon of the Clash at the Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League carnival in Victoria Park, 30 April 1978
Jimmy Pursey at Carnival 2, Brockwell Park, Brixton, 24 September 1978
Fans of the Ruts invade the stage, West Runton Pavilion, Cromer, Norfolk, 1979
Darcus Howe addressing an anti-National Front march in Lewisham, 13 August 1977
Aswad playing The Southall Kids Are Innocent gig at the Rainbow theatre, London, 1979
“This was taken at one of two benefit gigs we put on at the Rainbow theatre in Finsbury Park. We were raising money to defend 700 people who’d been arrested at a demonstration against the National Front in Southall, during which the activist Blair Peach was killed and Clarence Baker, the manager of Misty in Roots, was beaten so badly that he ended up in a coma. As well as Aswad, we had the Pop Group, the Clash, the Ruts and Pete Townshend, who loaned us the PA. Both nights were totally sold out. They were two brilliant gigs.”
Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash, London 1977
Specials fans at the RAR/ANL carnival, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 1981
Tony James of Generation X plays bass with Sham 69 at Central London Polytechnic, September 1978
The Specials, RAR/ANL carnival, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 1981
Syd Shelton self-portrait 1978
A self-portrait by Syd Shelton, Charing Cross Road, 1978.