David Bowie (né Jones) died a short time ago, as ever on such occasions, tributes ‘poured in’, and there is no doubt that Bowie was an artist who could produce very interesting material. He could also, it should be said, produce whole albums-worth of dreck. The person who first broke ranks on the adulation was the comedian (and sharp investigative television reporter), Mark Thomas.
He noted Bowie (“the Thin White Duke”)’s Hitlerian salutes and straightforward racism, shouting “Keep Britain White”, and “Get the foreigners out” in the course of early 1970s gigs. Such people don’t ‘do’ irony, the fact that he was using African-American music crudified for honkie consumption never seems to have ‘fizzed’ on him.
He was, admittedly, one of the few people who composed ‘concept albums’ worth listening to – one on the theme of travelling from Vladivostok to Moscow along the Trans-Siberian Railway. That’s the sort of thing ‘Rock Stars’ did in those days, when not molesting under-age girls or chucking televisions out of hotel windows. Bowie was a quite inconsistent artist and some of his stuff is worthless. The guitarist Eric Clapton, of the band Cream, joined in the racist fun at his own gigs.
A result of this dangerous nonsense was the founding of Rock Against Racism, at the instigation of a professional photographer ‘Red’ Saunders, in a letter to the ‘music press’, presumably mainly NME (New Musical Express) a mass-circulation journal at the time. There already was a group called Rock Against Racism an arm of the SWP (still the International Socialists, becoming a ‘party’ in 1976). The SWP was very gratified at a sudden huge extension of its youth base.
It was less enthralled to learn that the great majority of the base thought their particular analysis of society was surplus to requirements. The SWP personnel were voted out of office in RAR, though the IS / SWP were allowed to sell their wares at RAR gigs – some of which were enormous. The racist Right found that “there ain’t no black in the Union Jack” stirred most teenagers to thump them rather than nod in agreement. Ska and reggae bands were ever-present at RAR gigs and rallies. RAR’s magazine Temporary Hoarding was first published on May Day 1977.
Despite that, the racist Right looked as if it was going to make inroads in electoralist politics, it got 10% of the vote in the 1974 London’s local elections. It certainly seemed to be making determined efforts to monopolise the streets. Kevin Gateley was killed in Notting Hill in the Summer of 1976, prior to that Enoch Powell, in April claimed that ‘Britain’ was being “hollowed from within…” a portentous remark, if not a particularly clear one. England, or at least London, experienced a number of long, hot summers. In August 1977 the National Front staged an “anti-mugging” march through Lewisham. It left the south London, largely plebeian borough in a mess, but did very little to wipe out ‘mugging’ (street theft of purses and money off isolated, working class people) mostly women out shopping.
There can be little doubt that the rank and file of the police were sympathetic to the NF. The ‘blacks’ had suddenly become a majority, allegedly, in some London boroughs and parts of other cities and towns. The ‘Asians’ were a slightly more ambiguous matter, they didn’t look all that out of the ordinary, at least when they didn’t wear ‘Asian’ clothes. And they had the proper attitude to women, they should be seen and not heard, and stay in the kitchen. The ‘Blacks’ largely of West Indian origin have now become observably English. Some third, and forth generation ‘Asians’ have reverted to wearing the sort of clothes worn in the Indian subcontinent. Given that even liberals can use phrases like “fourth generation immigrants” possibly this is not too blameworthy.
Rock Against Racism rather fizzled out in the course of the 1980s mainly because groups like the National Front did, there was nothing like an invasion (you’ll recalled Mrs Thatcher used similar language in the 1990s, when she was Prime MInister) or a ‘deluge’. It was for most towns and cities more of a trickle of immigrants. The people coming into the economy proved useful, – most of the Asians were middle class and educated. They were somewhat similar to the Poles of the ‘noughties’, nearly all of whom had skills. Despite which, the Daily Mail attempted to work up grievances against them – then they all went home.
It is worth mentioning that Blair Peach, a New Zealander was killed opposing a National Front celebration of St George’s Day (April 23rd) in Southall. It is in (far) west London, and was heavily populated by Indians – the biggest Hindu temple on the planet is in the area. Peach was part of a crowd of about 3,000 – they were managed by an astonishing number of police, about 2,500. Peach was killed some streets away clearly obviously trying to get away from a baton charge.
He didn’t manage to escape, and died next day of a physical trauma – a huge injury to the back of his head. The London Metropolitan Police took years to admit that they did it. And that they had been very heavy handed dealing with a crowd that was not being physically aggressive and was not much bigger than their own body of men. This was the socio-political ambience that Bowie and Clapton decided to throw their tuppence worth of racist bilge around.