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A New England: Daniel Rachel

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

3:AM: You were a musician yourself before all this, how did Red Wedge and that era come to capture your attention?

Daniel Rachel: I was a musician all my adult life. From the Great Betrayal with Simon Fowler on lead vocals (Ocean Colour Scene) to ‘Let It Be Mine’, an independent chart hit some twenty plus years later. Then I locked away my guitar and decided to write a book.

As a teenager, I went to see Billy Bragg at the Birmingham Powerhouse expecting to pogo to the punk fire of ‘A New England’. In the foyer, I was confronted by Clare Short. I’m not sure I knew who she was or even what MPs did. But I understood a connection was being made between music and politics. That was the ‘Jobs for Industry’ tour in 1985 and the catalyst for Paul Weller to join Billy and launch Red Wedge in an attempt to politicise a youth generation.

Red Wedge has had scant historical documentation, and what does exist firmly accuses Billy Bragg of losing the 1987 General Election. An absurd claim. Perhaps, it marks beginning of Fake News, and my impetus to want to write and document the only time in rock n’ roll history when number one pop stars of the day tried to effect change from within Parliament.

3:AM: Why an oral history? Any particular inspiration there?

DR: The inspiration for presenting Walls Come Tumbling Down as an oral history was Edie by Jean Stein and George Plimsoll. It’s a riveting account of Edie Sedgwick the Warhol ‘it’ girl. I was also strongly influenced by Alecky Blythe who I worked with on the verbatim play London Road at the National Theatre.  The other factor was film documentary making. Going back to the great directors John Grierson and Frederick Wiseman, their strength was in allowing the contributors to tell the story without the need for narration. In my case that was over 100 people who I met from pop stars to parliamentarians to social activists – all directly involved in the three movements: Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge.

3:AM: How long did that take?

DR: My book before Isle of Noise: Conversations with Great British Songwriters involved meeting 27 songwriters and took five years, albeit on and off, and mid-way writing through writing a companion producers book (still unpublished). Walls Come Tumbling Down by contrast, and my own surprise, took 18 months. The difference was the accessibility and willingness of the contributors.

3:AM: There were big personalities and egos involved in all three, while some you interviewed, like Tom Watson, were relatively peripheral at the time?

DR: Tom Watson, now the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, was the librarian at Labour HQ during Red Wedge. He used to spend hours at the photocopier with Porky the Poet (Phil Jupitus) discussing new Go! Disc acts like the Housemartins when he should have been collating press clippings for his leader, Neil Kinnock. Tom tells a great story about overhearing Militant in the toilets planning to overrun a Red Wedge meeting.

It was important to have politicians in the book who were directly involved at the centre like Tom and Clare Short. Peter Hain was one the founders of Rock Against Racism.  Neil Kinnock was on the original steering committee. He was also the Honorary President of the Gene Vincent Appreciation Society.

3:AM:  There were tensions between the more minor political sects of the day and the Labour Party, and indeed those who felt organised politics had no part to play in the campaigns?

DR: Red Wedge was an autonomous group. They were ‘for’ but not ‘of’ the Labour Party. But other left-wing organisations were suspicious or perhaps jealous of their status. There was an incident on the last night of the first Red Wedge tour in Newcastle. Questions were asked whether Militant had trapped Red Wedge by announcing an event, with Paul Weller, in the music press. Weller didn’t show and fans were on the verge of rioting.  The night was saved by Billy Bragg, while Peter Mandelson, then director of communications, was being threatened and minutes away from being locked up in a backstage dressing room with Nick Brown, the local MP.  

3:AM: You begin the book with the formation of Rock Against Racism, which was a response to Eric Clapton’s onstage drunken rant about backing Enoch Powell.  Yet little is said now about Clapton’s outburst, let alone the kind of opprobrium which that would generate today?

DR: In the wider world very few people seem to know, or have chosen to ignore, Clapton’s racism. On the surface, it seems a contradiction with his musical influences. But you can back Enoch Powell ideas, like the ‘voluntary repatriation of black people’, whilst liking black people.  It is not dissimilar to Martin Webster, the former leader of the National Front admiring Jewish people. Their argument is about keeping Britain white and free of immigrants. As recent as the 2000s Clapton was asked on the South Bank Show about his remarks that led to the formation of Rock Against Racism. He neither explained or apologised. In fact, Jerry Dammers (The Specials) recounts in the book that when he asked Clapton at the Wembley Artists Against Apartheid concert to use the opportunity to apologise, he said, ‘Don’t believe all you read.’

More recently, Ed Sheeran has been backing the Love Music Hate Racism campaign, a phrase taken from Rock Against Racism.  A week later he was on Desert Island Discs waxing lyrical about Clapton.  There was no acknowledgement of Clapton’s racist outbursts. Make sense of that, if you will.

3:AM: In a sense, it seems weird if not perverse that Clapton could have continued to hold those views while agitating against apartheid in South Africa. Or do you think he was insincere, opportunist even, in that?

DR: Syd Shelton argues Rock Against Racism would have happened with or without Clapton. David Bowie had a Nazi memorabilia collection, had called Adolf Hitler, ‘the first rock and roll superstar’ and staged a dubious press call in an open top limo at Victoria Station. Rod Stewart had told International Times that ‘the country was overcrowded’. He too backed Enoch Powell.  Critically, Bowie apologised and retracted all that he had said.

The question today is if a high-profile artist wears a Love Music Hate Racism T-shirt and tweets it to their 34 million followers should they by rights recognise the roots of the campaign they are supporting.

3:AM: Hasn’t there always been that disconnect to some extent, even back then? I’ve heard it said recently, rightly or wrongly, that Red Wedge only galvanised the existing left voters, it didn’t bring anyway else along.

DR: Red Wedge set out with two clear objectives: to make young people think about politics. And to inspire 18-24-year-olds to register to vote.  Red Wedge offered music, comedy and DJ tours. There were also the ground-breaking Day Events initiated by Annajoy David. Disenfranchised young people were invited, after months of groundwork to find them, to church halls or youth centres on the day of a Red Wedge evening event. There would be a panel of Wedgies (Weller, Bragg, Madness) a local politician and often a big name MP. The idea was for the politicians to listen and feed back to the grievances of the audience to the shadow cabinet office. Often as many as a thousand people would attend.

These events happened during the tours to big cities and then later on to compliment the marginal constituency tours. In the 1987 General Election there was a national swing to Labour of three per cent. Amongst 18-24-year-olds there was a seven per cent swing.

3:AM: But wouldn’t younger voters, on the YTS and the like, have more reason to vote Labour than other age groups, bought off by Right to Buy and British Gas shares? As you say, those Labour politicians cut their political teeth on the anti-racist and apartheid campaigns, but their successors tend to be dismissive of Red Wedge and its relevance.

DR: More young people in 1987 voted Conservative. It cannot be assumed dole means a vote for Labour. The whole period was about identity. I was raised by hard-core Tory parents. Like many teenagers, I turned to music to claim my own understanding of the world and to define myself on my own terms. In 2 Tone it was the simplicity of black and white unite in the lyrics of The Specials and The Beat that spoke volumes. Likewise, the lyrical challenge of ‘Racist Friend’ or Billy Bragg’s ‘Days Like These’.

In the mid-80s, songwriters like Paul Heaton, Billy Bragg and Paul Weller challenged listeners with didactic words. If you were left thinking, they recharged your batteries. That in itself is hugely important. It is too easy to try and belittle what Red Wedge attempted to do. Walls Come Tumbling Down charts an incredible period of activism. And achievement. If you read the chapters about leading up to 1992 General Election they demonstrate how the influence of culture directly influenced Labour Party policy and thinking. As explained by Neil Kinnock, those ideas led to the formation of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 1997. It was one of many Red Wedge victories. Tom Watson got it then and stands by it now. As does Angela Eagle. As does Clare Short. As does Peter Hain.

All the artists, politicians and activists from this period can stand proud.  And they would be justified in asking, ‘Where has the cultural debate come from since?’

3:AM: Institutionally, both in terms of the politicians and support for the creative industries, Labour’s regionalism cuts through both Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge and was probably why it reached across to more than just the tastemakers in London?

DR: Regionalism was at the heart of Rock Against Racism. That was best represented by the Militant Entertainment Tour in 1979.  Main bands, like Gang of Four and the Ruts or Stiff Little Fingers changed every three to four gigs, with the bill being backed up with two local bands. They included the Specials and John Cooper Clarke when they were relatively unknown. There were over 30 cities or towns visited and many great tour stories. The tour ended with an all-dayer at Alexandra Palace in North London.  In the book, I tell the story outside of London by focusing on Leeds (Gang of Four), Birmingham (Steel Pulse, Au Pairs) and Manchester (Buzzcocks). The reggae artists were predominantly from London (Misty in Roots, Matumbi, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Aswad).

Crucial to all this was the Rock Against Racism alliance with the Anti-Nazi League who formed a year later in the aftermath of the Lewisham riot in 1977. In time, Rock Against Racism, although autonomous, was effectively the cultural wing of the Anti-Nazi League who provided a vital infrastructure. This enabled the Rock Against Racism message to reach major cities and remote villages alike. It’s an incredible story of mobilisation.    

3:AM: Neil Spencer of the NME is important in all of this? Though as he says, Chris Moore of the NME and later of the Redskins, as a paid-up Socialist Workers’ Party member, wasn’t exactly on-message with Kinnock and Labour.

DR: Chris Moore of the Redskins was hilarious. The Melody Maker had a ‘Labour vs. Conservative Great Debate’. Weller, Bragg and Clare Short were on the left and Moore was on the right with Stewart Copeland of the Police. He was far too suspicious of the Labour Party that much. The Redskins never supported Red Wedge. It was far too mainstream for them.  They did a Redder Wedge night at the Mean Fiddler.

3:AM: Some skinheads would say they weren’t ‘skinheads’ either, as much as they tried to co-opt the Lonsdale and Harrington aesthetic.  Both Dennis Bovell and Robert Elms are at pains in the book to assert skinhead’s place in 2 Tone, which you delineate as a kind of baton passed from Rock Against Racism.

DR: It should be remembered that Rock Against Racism and 2 Tone ran parallel.  Red Saunders said when he saw the Specials, ‘job done’. Jerry Dammers formed the Specials in the mirror of Rock Against Racism as a multicultural band. They headlined Rock Against Racism’s last stand in Leeds in 1981. The following week ‘Ghost Town’ became their second number one single.

Skinheads had been around since the late 60s and both Jerry and Dave Ruffy of the Ruts talk about the Paki-bashing that went with it. The skinhead reincarnation in ’78, ’79 was at the heart of the 2 Tone movement. Many of the bands dressed in the fashion. But there was the right-wing contingent that would Sieg-Heil at some gigs. It was fascinating to ask people like Pauline Black and Dave Wakeling how they dealt with those factions.

Incredibly, music was being used as a weapon against discrimination by offering great rhythms to back themes of social acceptance and responsibility.  With each passing generation, their time and motivation become more stunning.   

3:AM: For Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter, both design students, there was almost a desire to recreate not only the sound, but also the look and feel of Tamla Motown Detroit, albeit in Coventry.

DR: 2 Tone was a vision of Jerry Dammers. Commercially it was more successful than punk. When you heard a 2 Tone record the sound was instantly recognisable; that was the Motown dream. You hear it on ‘Tears of a Clown’ ‘The Prince’ ‘Too Much Pressure’ ‘A Message to You Rudy’. Jerry had been a mini-mod, inspired by the Who to form a band. Later, he took elements of Jamaican ska and early reggae and added motifs from old records to his own. The Beat channelled Motown and the Velvet Underground, the Selecter blues and reggae, Madness 50s RnB. And all of the bands infused the sound or spirit of punk. It was those disparate influences that gave 2 Tone a uniqueness and within a year allowed the groups to evolve and musically develop. ‘Embarrassment’ ‘Stereotype’ ‘Doors of Your Heart’ ‘Celebrate the Bullet’  

3:AM: Many of those protagonists have since expressed frustration that among the skankers in sta-press were Sieg-Heiling paid-up members of the National Front who didn’t ‘get it’.

DR: Jerry was very clear that he wanted a movement which would offer youth an alternative to the National Front. As Cathyl from Madness argues, you can’t lance a boil from 100 yards away. The power for change was in the songs and the joy of a thousand other rude boys and girls skanking to the irresistible rhythms of ska and reggae. The NF were crushed and humiliated in the 1979 General Election. But Margaret Thatcher had as much claim to that outcome, as music and the cultural opposition of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League.  

3:AM: Richard Coles is now a vicar, the pit perverts achieved Hollywood acceptance, while the Section 28-ers and Outrage! are soon to have their exhibition in the British Library.  Is this where it all ended up?

DR: The Rocking Vicar succinctly illustrated where it ‘ended up’ when he recognised Margaret Thatcher in his parish church. She was old and perhaps a little confused. He said hello to her and accepted the distance he had travelled from wanting to stamp on her grave in the 80s, to a small act of compassion he showed for a fellow human being two decades later.

Meanwhile, I love the British Library. They have a culturally knowing staff who realise the importance of what happened socially and politically in the mid to late 70s. A people’s movement recognised by a people’s library.

(all images © Daniel Rachel archive, RAR Collective, Adrian Boot & Tony Mottram)

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew Stevens is senior editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 5th, 2017.