Eric Clapton & Enoch Powell To Morrissey: Race In British Music Since ‘76

On 5th August 1976, Eric Clapton took to the stage at the Birmingham Odeon. This strange brew of a man was hitherto known as a slightly self-effacing virtuoso who liked a quiet life and had done his best to keep the peace while in Cream between the ever-warring Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. He was seen as a musician whose heroes included Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson; as someone who idolised Jimi Hendrix even as he tried to rival him in the late 1960s; as a brilliant guitarist who had rejected the noisy histrionics of rock God-dom in the 1970s in favour of a mellower, more reflective style. Tonight, however, somewhat the worse for wear, he had something on his mind. Something ugly and toxic.

“I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism,” he slurred. “It’s much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here… Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”

He later attempted to pass the rant off as a “joke”, yet never apologised for it, repeatedly, soberly extolling the virtues of Enoch Powell, who had warned of the dangers of immigration in 1968 with his infamous “Rivers Of Blood” speech.

Clapton wasn’t the only rock star of a twisted, right wing bent in the 1970s. David Bowie’s comments about the need for Britain to experience a disciplinary dose of fascism, coupled with his supposed Nazi salute delivered at Victoria station were greeted with horror but in fairness he managed to live the infamy down over the years through repeated acts of contrition, his outburst not forgotten but forgiven. Less publicised and more commonplace were the reported attitudes of Roger Daltrey (who recently spoke out against “mass immigration” and declared his intention to vote for Brexit) and Rod Stewart, who displaced The Sex Pistols’ 'God Save The Queen’ at number one in 1977 with 'I Don’t Want To Talk About It’. What he had been happy to talk about was his own enthusiasm for Enoch Powell, who he described as “the man”.

Rock Against Racism was formed in 1976 off the back of an open letter written to the music press by Red Saunders and Roger Huddle in response to Clapton’s outburst. Describing him as “rock’s biggest colonist”, they argued for a rank and file movement that opposed the “racist poison” of the likes of Clapton, as well as that disseminated by the growing threat of the National Front. RaR succeeded in politicizing punk and dispelling its early bad habit of sporting the Swastika.

The groups that came after the initial punk wave began to reflect the increasing diversity of Britain’s streets. Come the 1980s this was evident not just in The Clash and PiL’s avowed love of reggae or the mordant take on funk as an alternative, serrated weapon as practised by Gang of Four, The Pop Group and A Certain Ratio. It was also seen in the healthy racial mix of groups like The Beat, The Specials, UB40, The Selecter, all of whom had pop hits and a public profile. They represented an extremely potent, practical example of the slogan Black And White Unite To Fight, just when it was most sorely needed. It was no coincidence that Madness, despite their adoption of ska, attracted such a strong National Front contingent – they contained no black members. The spectacle of racial integration was vital, and in their case, vitally lacking.

The wave of punk-derived New and Electro-pop, from ABC to Depeche Mode to New Order, scotched lumpen assumptions that it stood in opposition to disco, representing some roar of Caucasian street authenticity. The best new early 80s music was alive to other cultures in a way that white 70s rock, with its grandly conceptual, gatefold, virtuoso pretensions and implicit disdain for more earthy styles, as well as its head-up-arse, unreconstructed political attitudes had not been. [Read More]