On Monday I awoke and declared it is “girl power” week at Punk Outlaw. To continue our theme I thought it would be cool to share with you an article by a young and seemingly intelligent (punk is a thinking person’s music, yes? at least for some) punk rocker that I met virtually via facebook, Elizabeth Worgan.

Elizabeth is from the Northeastern U.S. but currently living and going to school in London where she is studying Media & Youth Culture while continuing to pursue her design career. She’s also a model on the side, laying waste to the claim by some fringe “feminist’ that you have to reject or discard your beauty in order to not be judged by it. Poppycock (Yes, I’m continuing my British speak trend, what of it mate?). Enjoy some of Elizabeth’s modeling work throughout this post and her design work on her design page HERE.

I’ve never met Elizabeth personally and as is often the case with my social network friends from around the world, don’t really remember how we even became FB friends, but I do remember seeing her FB posting about an article she had penned for school  about Punk and the relationship with Reggae.

When I saw her posting I perked up as this is a subject that has interested me greatly since day one. I asked Elizabeth if I could read it and share it with our Punk Outlaw readers and she graciously agreed.

Enough blabbing from me, below is her excellent article on a little Punk & Reggae history and how they came together, side by side, to fight racism during punk’s early years in good old merry England.  I thought it was fascinating. Hope you blokes enjoy it as well.

Love Music Hate Racism

The Relationship Between Punk and Reggae in 1970s London

By Elizabeth Worgan

The Author – Elizabeth Worgan

It’s August 21st in London in 1977, and a sea of people are moving into Hackney Town Hall to see a show. Rock Against Racism, a recently founded anti-racist organization, is hosting it. Two groups sit in their shared dressing room anticipating the start. On the bill is the all-white Generation X, fronted by the blonde-haired, strong-voiced Billy Idol and backed by Tony James’ powerful guitar. With them is the all-black group The Cimarrons, who will play a cover of Bob Marley’s “Johnny Too Bad” underneath the stage’s failing lights. As The Cimarrons’ set comes to a close, Generation X rejoins them onstage and the members of both groups join hands and raise them. Throughout the hall, a chorus of “Black and white! Black and white!” echoes. Everyone in the audience joins in on the chants: a refrain of unity and strength. [1]

Rewind, now, to the previous August, where guitar legend Eric Clapton was onstage in Birmingham, England. A drunken Clapton praised Enoch Powell (known for his infamous – and incredibly racist – Rivers Of Blood speech) in between songs: a deliberate antic, not well accepted in the budding punk community. Within a week, Rock Against Racism had sent a letter to several national weekly music magazines stating that they were “calling for action against this ‘racist poison.’” [2]

David Widgery was one of the driving forces behind Rock Against Racism, as well as the zine that went with it, Temporary Hoarding. In 1986 he wrote in Beating Time that he “glimpsed in punk rock the possibility of black-white cultural solidarity [he] yearned for.” [3] Paul Gilroy, a pioneer in contemporary race relations writing, explained in his essay ‘Anti-Racism In The 1970s’: “Rock Against Racism (RAR) was formed by a small group of activists in or around the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in August 1976.”[4]

Rock Against Racism held its first gig around Christmas in 1976 at the Royal College of Art. It was headlined by Carol Grimes and the all-black reggae group Matumbi. Matumbi was fronted by Dennis Bovell, recently released from jail, who was initially reluctant to do the gig. The show, however, would turn out to have a major impact on race relations. Hundreds of punks crowded into the venue, greatly outnumbering the art students. “The music was extremely loud, the dancing very rowdy and the stalls sold political and anti-racist literature, food and banners. Something was in the air; not just dope, but a serious music-politics-black-white mix-up,” Widgery recalled. [5] Carol Grimes later described the goal of the Rock Against Racism gigs: “It showed that music can break down the barriers. What you want is the jam onstage to be reflected in the audience – it can’t be the property of the musicians.” [6]

Rock Against Racism was not the first assemblage to take on the issue of racism. The Clash were hugely influential in their endeavors to lessen tensions between whites and blacks. The Clash believed their music alone could do it. They’d borrowed from reggae and dub and a few members of the group had even grown up in predominantly black areas of London. They saw music as a global, unanimous language and wanted to translate it into social activism.

In 1978, The Clash’s bassist Paul Simonon told Search & Destroy zine editor Howie Klein: “We play reggae in our sets and kids come along to our concerts – and some of them are National Front kids – and they like the Clash, and when we play reggae it’s sort of like turning them on to black music – which sort of helps lead them away from racist feelings that they might have.”[7]

The Clash were the most influential group in terms of meshing together the sound of punk and reggae, and soon these influences found their way into the subject matter of their songs. ‘White Riot’ was written after Clash members Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon witnessed the Notting Hill Carnival violence in 1976. In that year, the number of policeman multiplied eight times the number of the previous year. The black population was angered and upset. On the Monday after the Carnival’s main events had died down, a group of about 600 black youth remained. The police – which outnumbered the blacks by more than double – attempted arrest and what followed was “the first major riot mainland Britain had seen since the riots there in 1958: 456 injured and 60 arrests.” [8]

Joe Strummer explains what made him pen ‘White Riot’ following the event: “Paul and I were standing in Lancaster Road: we hadn’t noticed that all the white faces had gone. Suddenly this young posse came up: ‘Hey man, what you got in that pocket there?’ I had this transistor radio, but I had this brick in the other pocket, and I said, ‘Don’t say that shit to me.’ They shrunk back because I was shouting really loud. That was when I realized I had to write a song called ‘White Riot’ because it wasn’t our fight. It was the one day of the year when the blacks were going to get their own back against the really atrocious way that the police behaved.” [9] Later, the Clash would appear onstage with banners depicting the English police beating the youth at Notting Hill. [10]

It was at this carnival that The Clash saw reggae as the background music for a call to social change. The Clash wanted to “create their own white Rasta in Punk – a new cultural resistance.” They did this by mixing the two together, not by stealing from the other culture. The Clash’s sound was “‘punk and reggae’ as opposed to ‘white reggae.’”[11] “There’s a difference,” Joe Strummer insisted. “There’s a difference between a ripoff and bringing some of our culture to another culture.” [12]

The reggae scene in 1975 was blossoming. Bob Marley and the Wailers had recently brought reggae into the mainstream music scene, with the help of Chris Blackwell. Reggae and dub flooded England’s Jamaican inhabited streets. Independent labels were started and larger English labels signed reggae groups as well.

Punk is generalized as being a “white” movement, and it is often assumed that Punks have a direct correlation with Skinheads. This is caused by the alignment of certain groups with right-wing extremist organizations. For example, the group members of Sham 69 were affiliated with the National Front. Additionally, songs such as “White Riot” were misinterpreted in press. As Jon Savage explains in his book England’s Dreaming: “a song like “White Riot” could be taken a different way: not as an admiring shout of solidarity in sympathy with the blacks of Notting Hill Gate, but as a racist rallying call. To those without a key to Punk’s bewildering jumble of signals, its combination of cropped hair, emotive symbols and brutal, harsh music that seemed to eradicate almost every trace of pop’s black origins, pointed one way.” [13] But punk was not a racist movement at its core; it shared too much with roots reggae.

Punk and reggae went hand in hand because they were similar at the foundation: working-class, fighting back with music, the battle cry of the oppressed.  As Paul Gilroy put it, “It called for black and white to unite and fight along the fundamental lines of class.” [14] Temporary Hoarding, the zine for Rock Against Racism, put it best: “We want rebel music, Street music. Music that breaks down peoples’ fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music. Music that knows who the real enemy is. Rock against Racism. Love Music Hate Racism.” [15]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Elizabeth Worgan is an American student from Skidmore College who is currently abroad in London studying media and youth culture. You can see some of her design work and reach out to her directly at her facebook page Elizabeth Worgan Designs
Photographs by Jennifer Sager

[1] “Punk Reggae Party” White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, Stephen Duncombe & Maxwell Tremblay

[2] England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage

[3] Beating Time, David Widgery 1986

[4] Anti Racism In The 1970s, Paul Gilroy

[5] Beating Time, David Widgery 1986

[6] Beating Time, David Widgery 1986

[7] Excerpt: Interview with Paul Simonon “The Clash” Search & Destroy no. 7 by Howie Klein 1978

[8] England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage

[9] England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage

[10] Beating Time, David Widgery 1986

[11] “Paul Simonon” White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, Stephen Duncombe & Maxwell Tremblay

[12] “Paul Simonon” White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, Stephen Duncombe & Maxwell Tremblay

[13] England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, Jon Savage

[14] Anti Racism In The 1970s, Paul Gilroy

[15] Temporary Hoarding, first issue

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