Rock Against Racism: the photographs of Syd Shelton that define an era


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 in Victoria Park 30 April 1978

The 100,000-strong crowd at the Rock Against Racism/Anti Nazi League Carnival 1, at London’s Victoria Park, 30 April 1978. All photographs by Syd Shelton

Shelton’s images, collected in a new book, Rock Against Racism (scroll down for a selection of images), capture a period charged with thrills, anger and the threat of violence. One shot of Sham 69 playing at the Central London Polytechnic in September 1978 was taken directly after a group of skinheads were thrown out for threatening to trash the place. It was also a fertile time for music. “It was phenomenally exciting,” says Shelton, “especially for reggae and punk. Bands were just arriving from nowhere, musicians were splitting up and reappearing in other people’s bands. And there was so much blurring between genres and subcultures.”

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

The Clash at Rock Against Racism, Victoria Park, 30 April 1978

Paul Simonon at Victoria Park, April 1978.

This is a classic shot,” says Syd Shelton. “I’ve sold more copies of it than any other photograph. The Clash were magic that day, but their management were mean about letting any photographers on the stage, even though it was our stage that we’d built. I got so few shots, just a single roll, and this was a lucky one. It just worked – it’s so rock’n’roll with the legs spread apart. I think they were playing White Riot. If you watch the documentary Rude Boy you can see the whole audience is pogoing at this point – 100,000 people jumping up and down. The excitement was fantastic. I didn’t mind getting thrown off the stage almost immediately afterwards because I knew I’d gotten the picture I wanted.”

 Jimmy Pursey at Carnival 2, Brockwell Park, Brixton, 24 September 1978

Jimmy Pursey, ANL Carnival 2, Brixton September 1978

Jimmy Pursey at Brockwell Park, September 1978.

After Victoria Park, we put on another carnival at Brockwell Park in near Brixton – 150,000 people turned up for Elvis Costello, Stiff Little Fingers, Aswad and Misty in Roots. Sham 69 had to pull out because they’d had death threats from some fans. Just as Aswad finished, the backstage door burst open and on came [Sham 69’s lead singer] Jimmy Pursey. Some kid at the tube station the night before had said you’re not playing the carnival because you’ve got no balls. It worked in his head all night and he decided: I’m not having this. So he came on and gave this fantastic speech against racism. You can see his emotions in the photograph: the look on his face, his furrowed brow. I’m not a photographer who goes after decisive moments in the Cartier-Bresson sense, but this was one of those decisive moments.

Fans of the Ruts invade the stage, West Runton Pavilion, Cromer, Norfolk, 1979

Stage invasion at the Ruts gig in Norfolk, 1979.

Stage invasion at the Ruts gig in Norfolk, 1979.

In 1979, we put on a big tour called Militant Entertainment, which went all over the country. This particular gig was in a big shed on the beach in Norfolk, miles from anywhere. We didn’t think anyone was going to turn up but then these double-decker buses arrived from Norwich full of punks and they stayed for the whole gig. While the Ruts were playing, I saw this girl climbing on to the stage and lying there like a reclining nude, and thought, I’ve got to get this shot. Straight afterwards I got bundled off the stage, headfirst into the crowd. It was a fantastic gig.”

Darcus Howe addressing an anti-National Front march in Lewisham, 13 August 1977

 Darcus Howe (with loudhailer) addresses a crowd, 1977.

Darcus Howe (with loudhailer) addresses a crowd, 1977.

In August 1977, the National Front organised what they called an “anti-mugging” march through Lewisham and there was a big counter-demo involving a fantastic mixture of people. I was running around all day taking photographs. In this one, the civil liberties activist Darcus Howe was standing on top of a toilet block on Clifton Rise [New Cross], addressing the crowd. (Don McCullin has a photograph of the exact same moment taken from a slightly different angle in his book In England.) That was the day my involvement with Rock Against Racism really began. It was also a turning point in British policing – it was the first time that riot shields had been used on mainland Britain.”

Aswad playing The Southall Kids Are Innocent gig at the Rainbow theatre, London, 1979

Aswad at the Rainbow 1979

Aswad at the Rainbow, 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

Mick Jones and Paul Simonon backstage in London, 1977.

Mick Jones and Paul Simonon backstage in London, 1977.

This was taken at a gig in London but I can’t remember the venue, nor can Mick Jones. It’s really early Clash. I managed to blag my way backstage and take that picture. There’s something very raw about it: it’s straight-on flash, 35mm, black and white, grainy… They’re wearing Vivienne Westwood gear they’ve customised by sewing on silk Haile Selassie patches. Before Victoria Park, their manager, Bernie Rhodes, said: “I’ll let my lads play if you spend the money you make on buying a tank for Zimbabwe.” We said: “What money?” I remember Joe Strummer saying: “Fuck off, Bernie, we’re doing it.” That was fantastic.”

Specials fans at the RAR/ANL carnival, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 1981

Specials fans in Leeds, 1981.

Specials fans in Leeds, 1981.

I didn’t print this picture at the time. It was Carol Tulloch, one of the curators of my book, who spotted it a few years ago. What she thought was amazing about it, and I agree, is the way in which the whole skinhead/rudeboy dressing styles had gone full circle. Here are these black kids wearing Ben Sherman button-down shirts, braces and Harrington jackets. I think it’s really great how subcultures transform and mutate over time.”

Tony James of Generation X plays bass with Sham 69 at Central London Polytechnic, September 1978

Tony James with Sham 69, 1978.

Tony James with Sham 69, 1978.

A few days before our carnival in Brockwell Park, we did this gig that was infiltrated by racist skinheads. Sham 69, who were playing, had been adopted by a hardcore racist group and we knew they were going to try to trash the gig, so we got a posse of heavily tooled-up people from Southall to protect the stage. The skinheads did manage to get in though a lift shaft but they were beaten back by the Southall posse. The night ended with Tony James and Sham 69 singing The Israelites with Misty in Roots, and it was so celebratory because the gang had gone. Red Saunders, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, is on the right with his hands on his hips.”

The Specials, RAR/ANL carnival, Potternewton Park, Leeds, 1981

The Specials, RAR/ANL carnival,, Leeds, 1981

The Specials, RAR/ANL carnival,, Leeds, 1981

This was the last carnival we ever did and the last gig the Specials did before they split. Similar to the first carnival, there was a march from the centre of Leeds up to Potternewton Park, which is quite a few miles away – 30,000 people turned up and marched. Rhoda Dakar from the Bodysnatchers sang with the Specials, which was brilliant. The Au Pairs, Stiff Little Fingers and Aswad also played. Afterwards, Jerry Dammers told me that this was the end of Rock Against Racism because 2 Tone had taken up the baton.”

Syd Shelton self-portrait 1978

Syd Shelton self portrait 1978

A self-portrait by Syd Shelton, Charing Cross Road, 1978.

SOURCE: The Guardian

Interview: Syd Shelton’s Rock Against Racism years

Rock Against Racism photographer Syd Shelton recalls 1978, The Clash & marches

The Anti Nazi movement, RAR Carnival March Against the Nazis & Rock Against Racism concerts in London’s Victoria Park and others, as recalled by photographer and activist, Syd Shelton. The National Front arose in the late 70’s UK much like the racist Tea Party Patriot & Trump movement in the USA of today. Syd Shelton was amongst a multi-racial coalition of musicians, artists, activists and citizen supporters who created effective counter-narratives to vicious nationalist white supremacists and took their message of racial unity and opposition to the streets and airwaves.

Shelton photographed pivotal anti-racist performances by acts such as The Clash, Elvis Costello, Misty in Roots, Tom Robinson, Au Pairs and The Specials.

The photographic archive of Syd Shelton, is a unique repository of this pivotal period in Britain when difference was championed as a form of empowerment, anti-establishment and as a post-modern artistic statement. Shelton helped capture the history-making RAR Carnival through memorable photographs that are shared through this video.


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