Rock Against Racism (RAR) was a political and cultural movement which emerged in 1976, in reaction to an alarming rise in racist attacks on the streets, and support for the neo-Nazi National Front at the ballot box. At the same time mainstays of the UK pop scene were making outrageous comments which risked legitimising racist and fascist opinions.
David Bowie had ostentatiously flirted with imagery derived from the Nazis and was quoted as saying that “Adolph Hitler was one of the first rock stars.” It was the non-stop racist rantings of revered guitarist Eric Clapton at a high-profile gig in Birmingham which lit the touchpaper for RAR. A letter to the music press calling out the hypocrisy of Clapton – who had made his name playing music created by black musicians – quickly gained widespread support. The first RAR gig took place in 1976, with black and white musicians performing together, and soon people were organising RAR gigs all over the country.
(David Bowie later apologised and stated categorically that he did not support fascism; Eric Clapton has never apologised or unambiguously disavowed these views, although he has tried to pass them off as drunken ramblings.)
Nowadays, RAR is remembered mostly for the huge carnivals it staged in London and Manchester in 1978, in collaboration with the Anti-Nazi League, which were attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Red Saunders, co-founder of RAR, talks about the Victoria Park Carnival in this short film made by Asya Gefter in 2018.
However, the real strength of RAR was in the local RAR groups and clubs which sprang up across the UK, organised by fans who exemplified the slogan: Love Music, Hate Racism.
One of these local groups, Leeds RAR club, is celebrated in a short film made by RAR activist Paul Furness. This film not only commemorates the fantastic Leeds Carnival of 1981, but also shows how effective these local groups were, and how much they meant to the local community. It also shows how RAR activists teamed up with others to combat different forms of oppression, including homophobia.
My own contribution to RAR was mainly through our fanzine Temporary Hoarding (TH), which was sold at gigs and by mail order from our London office. TH was a dynamic combination of photos, posters, interviews with bands, provocative collages and photo-montages, hard-hitting polemic, letters from supporters, and news and views from local RAR groups, all lovingly presented in a fierce anarcho-punk aesthetic which perfectly captured the spirit of the times.
Readers and contributors (including members of the bands we interviewed) were challenged to think about racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. Articles with titles such as ‘Out with apathy!’, ‘No more normals’, ‘I seen the world – I didn’t like it’, explored topics such as the growing menace of neo-Nazi groups, the Sus law, what was going on in Northern Ireland and in Southern Africa, scary predictions (which all came true of course) about what would happen if Margaret Thatcher came to power, sex and sexuality, heterosexism and homophobia, why we needed to resist attempts to restrict abortion rights, and history lessons on racism, fascism and colonialism.
‘Did I tell you that I very nearly got expelled for handing out anti-NF leaflets?’
Some of the best contributions to TH were the letters from supporters all over the country (and even from other countries). These letters show young people ‘thinking aloud’ about the menace of racism and fascism and how best to challenge it in their everyday lives.
Find out how people have been piecing together the history of RAR, mainly from first hand accounts, here.