Forest Gate: scene of Rock Against Racism's first gig

Monday, 12 December 2016

We have just passed the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Rock Against Racism, and its first gig at the Princess Alice pub, on Romford/Woodgrange Roads.


Princess Alice - venue of first
ever Rock Against Racism gig
A recently published book: Reminiscences of RAR - Rocking against racism 1976 - 1982 tells the tale and  celebrates the remarkable story of the organisation that so successfully fused politics with popular culture and helped mobilise youth against the rising tide of racism in Britain, at the time.

The book features over 60 sets of personal recollections from people and the roles they played within the organisation. We rely on, and are incredibly grateful for,  a small number of these for what follows - an account of yet another important part Forest Gate has played within the history of popular music and modern political culture  within the UK (see footnote for details of the book).


The cover of Reminiscences
 of RAR - Buy it!

Context


Racism was on the rise in Britain in the mid 1970's. The National Front vote was increasing and their thugs tried to terrorise Black and Asian communities by provocatively marching through them, protected by the police, as they chanted threatening, intimidating and racist abuse at their targets of hate.

There was resistance from left groups, and brutality and fights were not uncommon. A number of Asian and  demonstrators/defenders were badly injured, and some killed in protecting Black and Asian communities and their rights to a peaceful life in their chosen town and country of settlement.

Then, in the summer of 1976 at a gig in Birmingham, a drunken Eric Clapton - dubbed by many at the time as "God" because of his guitar supremity - roamed about the stage, calling for Black and Asian immigrants to "Go home", in extremely racist terms. He also proclaimed that "Enoch was right"  (reference to Tory politician Enoch Powell who in 1968 had said that unless the "tide of immigration" was halted Britain would be drowned in "rivers of blood" ).

Clapton had recently revived his flagging career  with an enormous hit with Bob Marley's Who shot the sheriff, which to Marley was a revolutionary song.

Ironically, Clapton owed almost all of his fame to his reworking of Black music - Blues, some Rhythm 'n Blues and Reggae.


Roger Huddle and Red Saunders,
 at the book launch in Conway Hall
He was not alone among rock idols in expressing such appalling sentiments. David Bowie on another occasion - probably drug-fuelled - strutted around Heathrow airport in Nazi dress, and later proclaimed an admiration for fascism and Adolph Hitler -  sentiments he quickly later repudiated.

Appalled at this turn of events, a small number of Socialist Worker Party activists wrote to all the music and left press condemning the racism of some of pop culture's heroes.  The PS to the letter concluded: "Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you"

The results were remarkable, as large numbers of shocked pop music aficionados joined forces with political activists, committed to a better future, and formed: Rock Against Racism.

This is the story of its opening  Princess Alice gig, through the words of some of them.

Contributors

The extracts from the book, reproduced below, are from the following key people:

Roger Huddle: one of the three most influential early figures in RAR. He was a print worker and is today one of the two editors of the book.


Red (left) and Roger,
in Hackney in 1980
Red Saunders: the author of the letter to the music and Left press, following the Clapton outrage that proved to be the catalyst that lead to the establishment of RAR. The other co-editor of the book.

Steve Cedar: a student activist from the North East London Polytechnic (in Stratford), in the SWP at the time.

Carol Grimes: the headline act at the Princess Alice gig. Her first band was  The Race, a Blues and Folk based band, played mainly in London. She is still singing, writing and performing.

Bob Light: lived in Plaistow at the time and worked in the Royal Docks - which he described as a "war zone", because of a number or pro-Enoch Powell demonstrations and racists sentiments displayed.

The Princess Alice tale


Roger Huddle
We held the first RAR gig at the Princess Alice in East London on 12 November 1976, with Carol Grimes and the London Boogie Band... It was very important that we pitched our propaganda with a very high visual language. Dave King, a brilliant designer, who Red  knew through the Sunday Times colour magazine was asked to design a logo and the RAR star was born. Later he also designed the Anti Nazi League (ANL) arrow.


A near-contemporary
 photo of Carol Grimes
 the headline act
 of the first RAR gig
 at the Alice
Red Saunders
The first gig we did was with Carol Grimes. She was pub rock. In fact she was benefit rock. She did more benefits than anyone I knew. She'd say she was a Blues singer.
 Roger Huddle said we need to do gigs in east London, where the NF were. So we booked the Princess Alice pub in Forest Gate. We'd organised things before, so we weren't frightened. We got some socialists from the dockers' union to do the security. I remember putting up the banner onstage. The banners came from the other side of our sixties background - Agitation.
We loved artists from Alexander Rocdchenko and Andy Warhol.
So, the gig was a success, and it snowballed quickly.

Steve Cedar
The Princess Alice, an unremarkable pub in Forest Gate, E7, an unremarkable district of East London, was the venue for the first Rock Against Racism concert, organised by 3 or 4 unremarkable lefties from the area, myself included, perhaps in terms of musical tastes, the most unremarkable of all.

Steve Cedar - today
I fucking hated racism in all its forms, and even I, whose only social activity at the time was selling papers and going to the pub, had heard of Eric Clapton's disgusting comments about foreigners touching his wife and David Bowie's irresponsible antics at London Airport, dressed in Nazi gear and seig-heiling from a limousine. He, at least had the dignity to admit that he was being a tosser at the time. ...
So, I was very proud to be part of the organisation of the first ever RAR concert in that pub. To be honest, I don't remember very much about the concert. I remember the rubbish fighting and the rubbish sound system, but the reggae band was good and Carol Grimes topped the bill and sang some great classic rock.
I spent most of the time with a pint in my hand and an eye on the cash till, and reckon about 200 people came to the event, a great success, seeing as the posters advertising it were hand printed on a stencilling machine in our living room in Plaistow, as everything was in those days, from demos to public meetings.

Cover of the first edition of
 TempoRARy Hoarding,
 the magazine of the movement

We also made a heavy profit with more than enough to pay for the drinks we bought for the bands (cans of light ale and cheap whiskey, I remember it very clearly) and that's where my memory becomes sharper.
Every story of success has its downside. After the concert we were tidying up and the landlord came upstairs to check on everything, when he saw the cans of beer and empty whiskey bottles and went totally apeshit. He wanted to break my head open with one of the empty bottles and take all our profits for "corkage", a new word for me then, which meant the difference  in his earnings due to the gift to the musicians. I pleaded total ignorance and made sure we got well behind Bob Light and Pete Goodwin, two of the other organisers at the great event.
We calmed him down, eventually, by me accepting a lifetime ban from the Princess Alice and appealing to his Irish origins in search for solidarity with a movement that was against racism in the British Empire, but I think the lifetime ban clinched it. So, I walked the mile home clanking with change in a metal cashbox, feeling proud to have launched my showbiz career for a worthy cause. ...

I think the RAR movement opened up politics and political action to hundreds of thousands of young people who would not have been involved through the traditional politics of the left.

Carol Grimes: What follows are extracts from a Black Echoes and London Jazz News interview with Carol Grimes, the week after the Princess Alice gig.


Carol Grimes, today
Carol Grimes and the Boogie Band once again delivered a rocking set to a delighted crowd who had turned up and put their money where other put their mouths. A tight hard working seven-piece band who enjoy a good blowing, funky evening, as much as the audience, they should be seen by more people, especially as they are fronted by one of the best female blues/soul singers the country has yet produced.
The repertoire was mostly songs from her Memphis album, recorded with the Memphis Horns, and she sounded good, giving the Frederick Knight compositions a good shakedown. ...
The event is worth noting as well. Instigated to set up a fund to combat racism (from whatever source), it is hoped to make it a regular event, although not necessarily in the same venue (they have plans for Ackham Hall and the Roundhouse). It is hoped also to get the services of Soul and Reggae bands, as well as rock musicians, and the success of the venture will eventually be measured by the ratio of black and white and vice versa in the audiences, one of the worthwhile grass roots objectives this could achieve.
At this gig it was predominantly white, but that was due to the lack of advertising (Black Echoes?). I'm not sure of the role that politics takes but I'm sure that the Socialist Workers' who got this thing on, will realise that racial harmony is far more important than any political party.
The venture deserves support from anybody who cares, as the World is in need of Love today - Fred Rath
Bob Light
The very first RAR gig ever - held in the Princess Alice, Forest Gate. Compared to the achievements of the epic carnivals, this was an almost absurdly small initiative. I think it is fair to say that even the imaginations of Roger and Red had not yet grasped what RAR would achieve.


The Clash at the huge RAR gig,
 in Victoria Park, April 1978
But for most of us who lived in Newham (and I lived about a mile from the Alice) even  small scale anti-racist events threw up the problem of security. The NF considered the East End as their 'patch', and the BM (ed: British Movement) held their weekly covens at a different pub a couple of hundred yards up the road. At least one of the local pubs was a no-go area for anyone with more than a millimetre of hair (ed: Earl of Essex?).
I can't recall the exact reason was made to have the first RAR gig in an unlikely and fairly inaccessible place like Forest Gate. Hackney, Camden, even Central London would have all seemed more obvious choices. But looking back, I would guess that it was Forest Gate precisely because the Nazis thought it was their own little Reich. We were taking the fight to the belly of the Beast.
I can recall going to book the pub. The Alice was not one of the regular pubs we used for meetings - it was generally too big and a bit expensive. On top of that one of the none-too-imaginative tactics the Nazis regularly used was to frighten off a pub landlord either with a threatening phone call or a bomb threat.
So, we needed to forewarn the publican the gig might be a bit 'warm', to give us some guarantee that it wouldn't be cancelled. In the event, despite our fears, it turned out the landlord was an Irish Republican who told us that as long as there was no fighting actually inside his two bars, he didn't give a fuck about the Nazis. Which seemed fair enough.


Demonstrators/gig attendees en route
 from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, April 1978
We knew we could promise that because one big advantage the Alice had over other venues was above the function room was above the pub approached by a wide staircase with its own door to the street.
I cannot remember a thing about the publicity or anything else about the actual organisation of the gig itself. But I do remember only too well that we knew the gig would be in serious need of protection. Our plan wasn't exactly D-Day - we knew if the bad guys came we had to stop them on the stairs. If they got into the room, it would be bloody chaos, the police would be called and London's Finest would take the chance to beat up and arrest some Lefties, while letting their Fascist soul mates get away to their cars.
So, on the night, we had women and men placed on all four corners of the junction with the Alice stood on to warn us if the Nazi hordes were coming, and we had a reception committee waiting for them at the top of the stairs. Just in case that proved inadequate, we had six pick axe handles in a cricket bag and several cans of pepper spray that I had bought at a motorway service station in France.
In the event, the Nazis bottled it (I'm pleased to say they usually did) but for me the evening developed a rhythm that would become all-too-familiar in the RAR days. You could summarise our evening under the headings Tension, Apprehension and Frustration.
The Tension was driven by fear - the fear that the Nazis would coming streaming up the stairs, fear that I would get seriously hurt, fear that I would let my fear get the better of me. But as the minutes and hours passed that turned to Tension - we knew we had to keep our guard, we knew we had to keep our guard, we knew we had to keep everyone on their toes, we knew we couldn't afford to drink, we knew we couldn't relax, we knew we couldn't enjoy the gig.
Then, as the gig inside was turning into a glorious celebration of anti-racist fun, courtesy of Carol Grimes and her band came frustration. Frustration that we had not been able to enjoy the evening and even more frustration that we had not been able to give the Nazis the fucking good hiding they certainly would have got.

What came next for RAR

- courtesy of Mike Symonds, who compiled a far more comprehensive time-line of RAR's history for the book.


The logo that supported a
political/cultural movement
- May 1977, the National Front and National Party attract a large following in local elections in London, Leicester and Blackburn.

- November 1977, launch of the Anti-Nazi League.

- April 1978, massive RAR/ANL festival in Victoria Park, when 80,000 attendees marched from Trafalgar Square to Vicky Park, in support of threatened East End communities, to see X-Ray Spex , The Tom Robinson Band and The Clash. A life and political changing moment for many there.

- June 1978, Fascist gangs run amok down Brick Lane, to terrorise the local Asian community (so very reminiscent to Battle of  Cable Street, almost 40 years previously).

- September 1978, second London RAR festival, in Brockwell Park.  35,000 see Aswad, Sham 69, Misty in Roots, Elvis Costello - among others.

- The summer of 1979, the police deploy multiple thousands of officers to defend pitifully small National Front marches in a number of British cities (echoes of Cable Street, again).

- July 1980, 4 racists stab Atab Beg to death in East Ham High Street. This was followed by a number of racist attacks on pupils and teachers at Plashet school. These events prompted the foundation of the Newham Youth Movement, spearheaded by militant local Asian youth (remember, Unmesh Desai?).

- April 1981, riots in Brixton, followed later that summer by riots in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. Less serious disturbances also broke out in Bedford, Bristol, Edinburgh, Gloucester, Leeds, Leicester, Wolverhampton and elsewhere.

The book and its launch

A very successful launch event was held for the book, at Holborn's Conway Hall on 5 December - organised, almost inevitably by Roger Huddle and Red Saunders. We were all looking a bit greyer than in those heady days, but a good time was had by all. Roger and Red have lost none of their organisational skills.


The ever-fresh Tom Robinson,
 at the book launch
The event was a mixture of reminiscences and music, notably featuring Tom Robinson - in as fine and angry a voice as ever. A good night - down memory lane. As many of the speakers noted, the most appalling racism of those days is thankfully behind us, but the threat of racism is ever-present, as much of the post Brexit mood has shown.

Finally - BUY THE BOOK! It's a great read for those who remember those days and even more so for those who want to find out more about an important part of our recent political/cultural heritage.

Footnotes:

1. Reminiscences of RAR - Rocking against Racism, 1976 - 1982, published by Redwords, £15. ISBN 978-1910-885-36-9. We are grateful to the publishers, editors and contributors for enabling us to compile this blog.  We highly recommend the book to all interested in RAR, and modern political culture.

2.A second book - this time mainly of photographs has recently been published on RAR, which is highly recommended: Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism, published by Autograph, £20.

3. Were you at the Princess Alice gig? Do you have any mementos of either it or the whole Rock Against Racism movement, if so, a website is being established that would love to hear from you: www.rockagainstracism.uk. It is under construction, but contact gregory.ruth@gmail.com for details.

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