“This ain’t no Woodstock – this is the carnival against the fucking Nazis!” That was Rock Against Racism co-founder and carnival compere Red Saunders’ blunt summation of the huge outdoor concert that took place in Victoria Park on April 30 1978. On that day around 80,000 people marched from Trafalgar Square to Hackney to demonstrate their opposition to the rise of the far right National Front, where their dedication was rewarded by sets from The Clash, the Tom Robinson Band, Steel Pulse and X-Ray Spex.
Anyone under 50 is unlikely to know much about the occasion, but watching a new documentary will still feel disturbingly familiar. White Riot, named after the Clash song, features angry clashes between marching racists and anti-racists, police attacks on black people, and politicians spouting hateful rhetoric. At least today’s young musicians seem to be an improvement on Eric Clapton, whose 1976 concert in Birmingham saw him voicing drunken support for politician Enoch “Rivers of Blood” Powell and saying “Keep Britain white,” or Rod Stewart, who announced around the same time that “This country is overcrowded.” Even David Bowie’s mind was so befuddled by drugs in May 1976 that he told Playboy magazine: “Britain is ready for a fascist leader.”
All of these incidents motivated the formation of Rock Against Racism, which promoted nationwide gigs at which black and white musicians shared the stage and produced a fanzine-style mag, Temporary Hoarding, brimming with pop, politics and energetic cut-and-paste graphics.
Director Rubikah Shah began making the film in 2015, when the looming Brexit vote made the subject feel relevant. Towards the start, members of the National Front are seen sitting in front of a banner that says “It’s our country. Let’s win it back” – which sounds eerily familiar. Since it won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary at last October’s BFI London Film Festival, a full cinema release was delayed by the virus situation, but it arrives on the big screen today at a point when ongoing news events keep making it feel ever more timely.
“When we first came across the story there was a feeling in the air, but it was nothing like how it is at the moment. We didn’t know what would actually transpire over the next five years with Brexit, Trump and now Black Lives Matter,” says Shah. “It has become more relevant, which seems crazy because racism doesn’t go away, it’s just that at the moment people and the media are talking about it. It’s great that it can become a part of that conversation, because the film shows what can happen in just a short period of time.”
Within two years the RAR team – which also included office manager Kate Webb, graphic designer Ruth Gregory and typesetter Roger Huddle – went from posting out badges in response to handwritten letters from new recruits, to insigating a march that dwarfed anything the Union Jack-waving NF could rustle up. They chose Victoria Park as the destination because it was National Front heartland at the time. In the 1977 Greater London elections, the party won 19 per cent of the vote in Hackney South & Shoreditch.
The film doesn’t shy away from showing what RAR were up against: swastika graffiti, racist murders around Brick Lane, a spotty lad from the Youth National Front talking matter-of-factly about what will happen “when we do start sending the blacks back.” Saunders talks about receiving a bullet in the post not long after his daughter was born. Even clips from the mainstream television entertainment of the time are startling today: the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show, which ran in primetime for 20 years until 1978, and Love Thy Neighbour, an ITV comedy about a white man’s horror at a black couple moving in next door.
“We wanted to do something that was authentic and showed a real portrait of what people felt at that time,” says Shah. “That’s why the film stands out: because it doesn’t look away from some of those harder issues.”
Aside from the rowdy archive footage of bands including The Clash, British reggae band Matumbi and oiks Sham 69, the biggest musical thrill might be the revelation that there was an Asian punk band called Alien Kulture. Comprising three men of Pakistani heritage and a white guitarist, they released one single, Culture Crossover, on Rock Against Racism’s short-lived record label.
I speak to the band’s singer, Pervez Bilgrami, who is now 63 with his own recruitment agency and a home in Mayfair. He rules out a lucrative Eagles-style reunion but has clearly been tickled to find that his transitory quartet is today regarded as godfathers of “Taqwacore”, a sub-genre of Islamic rock music.
“We lived in Balham and the National Front was everywhere,” he tells me. “We went to a lot of punk gigs and to a lot of the demonstrations against the National Front, and there weren’t many Asians there. This was our fight as much as anyone else’s – Asians were being killed – so we wanted to get more people coming along to these kinds of events and someone said, ‘Why don’t we form a band?’ Excuse the pun but music was very black and white. There was no brown element to it. Our mission was to get an Asian voice out there and sing about things other people couldn’t sing about.”
The band, whose other songs included Asian Youth, Airport Arrest and Arranged Marriage, played around 30 gigs in total and faced difficulties on every side. A gig in Clapham saw the venue being destroyed by skinheads. At home, Bilgrami’s mother only learned that he was a punk singer when she saw him on television. “There was quite a lot of animosity within our community because of what we were singing about. My mum was pretty liberal really. She was a widow with three sons and it’s very difficult to control the young. I think she was pretty proud I was on TV. People who resented what we did ask me about the band and speak about it in positive terms now, so they’ve learned the error of their ways!”
Prior to Alien Kulture’s formation, Bilgrami was one of the thousands marching to Victoria Park that day. In June he and his wife were back in Trafalgar Square watching a Black Lives Matter protest taking place. “It was so similar, looking at all these kids who are so committed,” he says. “It’s exactly how it was 40 years ago.”
White Riot is released in cinemas today.