Remembering Rock
Against Racism
with Syd Shelton

September 2022
Words by James Anderson
Photos by Syd Shelton

From the late-70s to early-80s, a succession of small gigs, carnivals, concerts, protest marches and meet-ups took place across London and beyond, organised by Rock Against Racism, and photographed extensively by Syd Shelton. We caught up with Syd to discuss his experiences of the movement and find out about his latest book.

The Black Lives Matter movement has seen large-scale protests and gatherings take place around the world, highlighting racial injustices and police violence against specific communities. Back in London in the latter half of the 1970s, a similar grass-roots protest movement gathered pace, using music to oppose the rise in racism and far-right organisations like the National Front.

Rock Against Racism was led by Jo Wreford, Roger Huddle, Pete Bruno, Red Saunders and Yorkshire-born Syd Shelton, who were initially galvanised into action by racist comments made on stage by the high-profile rock star, Eric Clapton. They began organising gigs, committed to showcasing multi-cultural Britain and music including reggae, soul, rock’n’roll, jazz, funk and punk. The RAR founders promoted the events through a popular zine named Temporary Hoarding, which Shelton helped design and populate with photographs.

By 1978, one of the biggest and most iconic of the Rock Against Racism outdoor concerts took place in Victoria Park, East London, organised in conjunction with the Anti-Nazi League. Attended by 100,000 people from all over the country, artists appearing that day included punk and reggae pioneers The Clash, Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots, X-Ray Spex and the Tom Robinson Band.

Shelton’s remarkable archive of photography from the era captures the crowds and performers at the thrill-packed atmosphere of RAR’s larger gatherings. In tandem, he photographed diverse subculture portraits on the streets of East London and beyond.

A selection of his archive photography and original Temporary Hoarding graphics were first published in Shelton’s Rock Against Racism book in 2016, while this September 2022 sees the launch of a significantly updated second edition of the book.

Here, the legendary lensman recalls the tumultuous and celebratory times of Rock Against Racism.

Grove Passage, London. 1979. Anti-Nazi League activists Gavin and Ian – ‘Skins Against the Nazis.’
Grove Passage, London. 1979. Anti-Nazi League activists Gavin and Ian – ‘Skins Against the Nazis.’
You moved to London in 1976. Punk was emerging in the UK, there was all sorts of political strife, an increasingly racist atmosphere, and the most extreme hot summer since records began, causing droughts, water shortages and anxiety across the country. What was London like back then?

We were moving into the deepest recession since the Second World War then too, which meant there was a real opportunity for fascist and right-wing thinkers to start pointing the finger and blaming immigrants and black people. Conditions were absolutely rife for the normalisation of racism, which was quite terrifying. The Black and White Minstrel Show was primetime Saturday night television, watched by millions. Black people, Irish people and Roma people were always the butt of dumb jokes from comedians. But something else was stirring in working-class communities all over the country: Reggae and Punk. And they were crucial to how racism was fought in this country. Without those two rebel genres of music appearing from the streets, Rock Against Racism would never really have happened.

How did you get involved in Rock Against Racism?

Eric Clapton had made a series of racist protestations at his gig in Birmingham. In response to this, Red Saunders and others wrote to the music press, calling for an organised rank and file movement against racism in rock music, called Rock Against Racism. And the response was quite phenomenal. Hundreds of people wrote in saying, "I want to be part of this, it's a great idea, I love it." And, so, the show was on the road almost immediately. But it started small with little gigs here and there. I got involved when I came back from Australia and met Red Saunders. We became pals and are still pals, 40-odd years later. Rock Against Racism was a wonderful mixture of people who came together - artists, writers, fashion designers, actors, musicians. And it was a quite an anarchic group who had two things in common: one, we loved music, and two, we hated racism. It was also a fantastic time of fun, you know, with bands like the Sex Pistols appearing, and The Clash and Steel Pulse.

Tell us about the legendary Rock Against Racism march from Trafalgar Square in central London, to Victoria Park in East London...

We wanted to take over London for the day, so we booked Victoria Park to do a gig. But we didn't want it to just be a free concert, so we booked Trafalgar Square too and also booked seven flatbed trucks for bands to play on. Misty in Roots played on one, The Watch played on another, The Piranhas played on one. We wanted to create an all-day party from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, which are eight miles or so apart. I was living on Charing Cross Road in those days, in a squat. On the day itself, I went down to Trafalgar Square early in the morning. And there were already hundreds and hundreds of punks in Trafalgar Square, mostly Scottish punks because they’d travelled down there early. And buses just kept on coming - from Birmingham, from Newcastle, from Manchester, from Yorkshire. By nine o'clock in the morning, there was 50,000 people in Trafalgar Square! Either Virgin, or EMI Records, had given us 100,000 whistles to distribute, which we just threw out to people. The noise was absolutely deafening! Everybody congregated around the bands because that was where the loudest music was. It was fantastic. And, it wasn't really a protest march, or a demonstration, in the traditional sense that we've all got used to. It was a party, and it was a street party that spanned eight miles. As Billy Bragg said, quite a few years later, "It was the day my generation took sides." And it really was, it was the largest anti-racist demonstration since the 1930s. Anybody who was there will never forget.

Southall Carnival against the Nazis. 22nd July, 1978. 
Fans dance to Misty in Roots who headlined the event.
Southall Carnival against the Nazis. 22nd July, 1978. Fans dance to Misty in Roots who headlined the event.
A pivotal moment...

Yes. But the important thing is that the next day was the GLC [Greater London Council] elections. And the National Front’s share of the vote went down dramatically. That carnival gave the community of East London fantastic confidence! The youth of London - and the whole country - had come out in massive numbers. It was fabulous. And from there, the summer of 1978 became the summer of carnivals. There were carnivals in Manchester, with The Buzzcocks, Graham Parker, The Au Pairs, Aswad and Misty in Roots. There was a second carnival in London, in Brixton, which 150,000 attended. That was an important milestone as well, because one of the bands billed to play there was Sham 69 and Sham 69 had unfortunately attracted quite a lot of racist followers.

Which they didn't want?

No, they didn't! A few weeks before, the police got notice that some individuals planned to kill Jimmy Pursey [Sham 69’s lead singer] at the carnival. So, Jimmy Percy decided to pull out, and the brilliant Stiff Little Fingers stepped in as a replacement at the last minute. But halfway through the gig, after Aswad had done their set, I was backstage reloading my cameras with film, and Jimmy still had his backstage pass. And he came through the backstage area, brushed straight past me and ran to the microphone. He made this fantastic and impassioned, anti-racist speech disowning National Front supporters and declaring his support for Rock Against Racism, which was wonderful. And he was in tears. He turned around and looked at me and I got a shot of him where his face is absolutely distraught with angst, but it was fantastic. That really was one of those decisive moments - a decisive anti-racist moment, because he really had disowned those National Front fans. And it was incredibly brave of him to do that. In front of 150,000 people.

Clifton Rise, Lewisham, London. 13th August 1977.
Civil liberties activists address ‘Anti-Anti Mugging March’ demonstrators from the roof of a public toilet block. Some 5,000 local people and anti-racist activists occupied New Cross Road. A quarter of the Metropolitan police, together with their entire mounted division, were deployed as escort to the NF demonstration.
Clifton Rise, Lewisham, London. 13th August 1977. Civil liberties activists address ‘Anti-Anti Mugging March’ demonstrators from the roof of a public toilet block. Some 5,000 local people and anti-racist activists occupied New Cross Road. A quarter of the Metropolitan police, together with their entire mounted division, were deployed as escort to the NF demonstration.
What were the main challenges of taking photographs at these events?

Given the amount of equipment I used to carry around all day, I don't know how I'm not lopsided! I’ve still got the cameras I used – big, heavy, metal Nikon M3s, with motor drives. But the excitement of it all was wonderful and you are driven by adrenaline. You never know with photography what you're going to get - you might spend a whole day shooting and get absolutely nothing. People nowadays are much more used to having their photograph taken. Back in the 70s and early-80s, though, you had to give a bit more direction to people in terms of how to pose. I did a lot of street portraits and you have to build a rapport and trust very quickly. There's a photograph of a young woman called Linda, who I don't really know much about, but it took ages to get her to give me something of herself. She was very guarded. I must have shot ten rolls of film before we got anywhere. But other times, you set up a situation, you get somebody to stand here, and the first shot you shoot is the one that works.

Hare Rowe, Tower Hamlets 1979. I used this location for portraits and used to call it ‘my studio’.
Linda. Hare Rowe, Tower Hamlets 1979. I used this location for portraits and used to call it ‘my studio’.
You released a book of your Rock Against Racism pictures a few years ago. How did that come about?

I never thought of them as a narrative at the time. Then years later, Carol Tullach - who happens to be my wife, but is a professor at UAL - looked at them and said, ‘Look, there's a story here.’ There's a narrative which runs all the way through these pictures, from the crowds through to the demonstrations and so on, so we decided to put the book together. It isn't the definitive story of Rock Against Racism, it's very much a personal view and personal interaction as an activist as well as a photographer. I keep finding more and more photographs, which I didn’t know existed. So, the second edition of the Rock Against Racism book is coming out in September and is all photographs. In the first edition, there were also some of the graphics from the Temporary Hoarding zine. Now, there’s much less distraction, and there’s an afterword by Red Saunders too. And there are one or two gems in there which I didn’t include in the first edition and which I am very proud of.

Such as?

Some people in Hackney. And a few more Northern Ireland pictures, because I was quite passionate about trying to combat anti-Irish racism. I went to Belfast on two occasions to really find out for myself and to put a human face to people who had been caricatured as monsters. I was met with incredible hospitality and kindness from all the people I met.

Some of your photographs from the Rock Against Racism era still look really modern. You can almost imagine fashion designers today using them as sources of inspiration. How aware were you of the clothes and the hair, and the make-up and the strength of the looks that those young people were presenting?

I don't know whether I was at the time. I don't know how much I was interested in that. A good example is a photograph of three young black kids jumping around at The Specials’ gig in Leeds in 1981. It's one of my favourites because they're all wearing skinhead gear. They've got Harrington jackets, button-down shirts and braces on. It's the Rude Boys from Jamaica that so many of the skinheads got their influences from. The young Rude Boys in Leeds had taken back or re-appropriated the style of the original Rude Boys via skinheads, and I love what that mixture of styles absolutely represents. And you're right, there are incredible style points within those photographs. A lot of which is easier to see, now, than it was at the time.

Specials fans.
Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League Northern Carnival Against the Nazis, Potternewton Park Leeds 1981.
Specials fans. Rock Against Racism/Anti-Nazi League Northern Carnival Against the Nazis, Potternewton Park Leeds 1981.
Do you see strong parallels between the Rock Against Racism movement of four decades ago and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement?

Yeah, I think there are strong parallels. And it's interesting that Rare Bird Books in Los Angeles - who are publishing the second edition of Rock Against Racism - are very much involved in and inspired by Black Lives Matter. There are parallels, and that struggle against racism is something which never goes away. It’s something that the right wing will use to divide us all our lives. Nobody's born racist. They learn it. It's quite a long, slow process of drip-drip-drip feeding it to people, by newspapers and at schools. But it's not enough to be anti-racist. You've got to fight against it.

Explore Syd Shelton’s photography on his Instagram here.

Syd Shelton’s book: Rock Against Racism (1976-1981) is available to purchase from 29th September 2022 via Rare Bird Books.


Mark Moore: Teenage Memories of Rock Against Racism

During the late-70s, Mark Moore was a teenage, music-obsessed punk, living alternately in grim bedsits and squats. Inevitably, he and his wide circle of friends were drawn to the gigs, marches and carnivals staged by Rock Against Racism.

In the ensuing years Moore went on to become a hugely successful DJ and producer, fronting the globally chart-topping, late-80s Acid House-era band, S’Express.

Here, he recalls the often-violent and racist atmosphere in London back then, contrasted by the youthful excitement and future-facing style, optimism and music he experienced at the Rock Against Racism events. 

“I remember reading in NME, Melody Maker and Sounds about Rock Against Racism. The Clash gig in Victoria Park in 1978 was my first Rock Against Racism event which was mind blowing as it seemed so big!

Racism was a part of everyday life then and casually ingrained into a lot of ordinary people. Hanging around punk gigs, you would often get skinhead contingents there who were either National Front or British Movement followers. Fights would often kick off at gigs while at other times a fragile truce would be in effect. Because of this strange melting pot, where we were thrown together with no money and no future, some of the racist skins we knew eventually came to their senses. I think just having another point of view other than the racist hive-mind helped open their eyes to a bigger world and made them realise people are just people no matter their colour. I would also like to stress, and this is very important, that not all skinheads were Nazi thugs. There were many great skins around at the time.

Goulston Street, Petticoat Lane, London. 1979.
Kevin and Lee.
Goulston Street, Petticoat Lane, London. 1979. Kevin and Lee.

Most people at the Rock Against Racism gigs looked punky or new-wave or post-punk. There were lots of students too - some who looked nondescript, but even a few of them got with the times with a few badges thrown in and maybe a spiky or even a floppy haircut. In 1978, I was probably wearing a leather jacket like the Ramones covered with badges. Some cheap bondage trousers with a faux leopard-skin nappy and a homemade T-shirt.

Just being there was exciting in itself. The Clash were great. The Slits had people like Neneh Cherry and future TV chef superstar Andi Oliver, dancing and singing with them. Ari-Up, the lead singer, had gone all kind of Earth Mother and their music had gone more World Music, which wasn’t even a ‘genre’ at that time. That gang of girls all jumping around being bold and magnificent just blew me away. They were a multi-racial girl-gang group just going nuts on the stage. And they looked fantastic with various head wraps and ribbons and rags sewn onto dresses. This look was later ripped off by everyone in the 80s, including Madonna.

Looking back, most of the bands we saw and the places we went to later became historically important, but you’re unaware of that at the time.”

Discover Mark Moore on Instagram here.