Rock Against Racism (1977)
Leeds Polytechnic (Beckett University)
Rock Against Racism (RAR) was the umbrella name for a series of concerts aimed at combating racism in 1970s Britain. The first RAR gig took place at the Princess Alice pub in London during late 1976 – while Leeds was home to the second, in 1977. Organised by Paul Furness, the initial Leeds RAR performances took place in a prefab building behind Leeds Polytechnic, before relocating to a venue in Chapeltown. Late 1970s Leeds saw frequent clashes between local political groups on the left and the far-right.
In Leeds, we put on the second-ever RAR gig…[I]t was in a prefab, some sort of social club used by trade unions, that backed onto Leeds Poly…[T]here was a hard core of us – myself, Linda, Barry, Dave and a few others from the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] – who set up the Leeds RAR Club…[W]e deliberately made the gigs feel political. – Paul Furness
Connoisseurs of the way specific times in specific places create unique and thrilling forms of popular music may not usually think to file 1970s Leeds alongside, say, early 1950s Memphis, New York circa 1975, Washington state around 1988 or 1990s Los Angeles in the annals of our 20th-century cultural moment. But Leeds in that time and that place have a definite claim to their attentions, as “a blueprint of fiery, political, community and DIY-based creativity”. And it is in those swirling currents of politics and art that the 1977 Leeds Rock against Racism gig must be contextualised, if it’s existence is to be properly understood. The full story of that period is, as yet, unwritten (though Dave Simpson’s 2019 piece – quoted above – is the best attempt yet) – but here are some books and other resources available at the Central Library that offer a starting point, at the very least.
The story could begin in many places, but the image below, of a swastika painted on the wall of an anonymous set of steps off Servia Hill makes as much sense as any. Taken in 1970, and found in a photo album compiled by “planners and architects” to record the Woodhouse area of Leeds prior to its demolition, the photograph defines the Leeds of the 1970s, at least in popular memory: grey, wet, dismal – and violently, politically extreme.
Fascists and other far-right groups stalked Leeds in that apparently grim decade, the physical manifestation of a post-industrial decline and its subsequent spiritual weariness, as Paul Furness remembered in Daniel Rachel’s book Walls Came Tumbling Down: the music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, 1976-1992 (the quote at the top of this piece is from the same book):
Leeds was a very big industrial city then. It was very monochrome, and the buildings were really black with over 100 years of pollution and lots of the streets were derelict. The whole place looked like a building site. There was this real sense of fear. The National Front were vicious and running riot…[T]here was ‘NF’ graffiti all over…[T]hey were absolutely brutal…[W]e’d be selling Socialist Worker on a Saturday and they would come down…[I]t ended up in fights all the time.
And Dave Ball, who formed the synthpop duo Soft Cell with Marc Almond in late ’70s Leeds, recalled similar memories in conversation with music historian David Stubbs:
Leeds was so right-wing. It was such a heavy town for the National Front. I was there between 1977 and 1981. I remember them in their black jackets, skinheads, they were scary.
The violence and viciousness referenced above had only intensified by the second half of the decade. The Leeds Other Paper (LOP) – the city’s alternative newspaper, launched in 1974 and designed “to support all groups active in industry and elsewhere for greater control of their own lives” – featured regular reports of such incidents, such as this typical account from 1978:
Much of this violence was led by Eddy Morrison, a far-right activist who makes frequent appearances in the LOP during the ’70s, including involvement in an attack on John Charlton, a teacher at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Beckett University). Charlton was “knocked to the ground and kicked unconscious by a group of fascists…[i]nstigated…[b]y Eddie Morrison” in October of 1978, after standing up to five men intimidating sellers of the Women’s Voice magazine on Land’s Lane.
You can read much more about the ethos and history of the LOP in Tony Harcup’s A Northern Star: Leeds Other Paper and the Alternative Press, 1974-1994.
Another particularly shocking incident around this time occurred at the Fenton pub on Woodhouse Lane – a favourite drinking spot for “art students and bohemian types and gays”, as Andy Gill describes it, in a memory also captured in Walls Came Tumbling Down:
It was shocking when the National Front smashed up the Fenton. Friends of ours were there: lots of chairs flying, glass smashing, people getting hit…[T]here was also a series of nights when right-wingers came onto Leeds University campus looking for people…[V]iolence was almost like a hit of cheap speed [Amphetamine].
Andy Gill wasn’t just ‘any’ 1970s Leeds resident: having arrived in 1974, to take a place on the University’s fine art course, Gill met fellow students Jon King and Hugo Burnham, with whom he formed the post-punk band Gang of Four (along with non-student Dave Allen). Paul Lester’s book Gang of Four: Damaged Gods tells their story, contextualising it within a portrayal of Leeds (and the University in particular) as a “hotbed of radical activity and provocative thinking,'” where many students were influenced by department head, Tim Clark – “a member of the British chapter of the Situationist International” – and Jeff Nuttall, then teaching at nearby Leeds Polytechnic, and partially responsible for Leeds’ reputation as “possibly the most liberated place in England to be a student”.
The context for Nuttall’s time in Leeds is covered in James Charnley’s Creative License: from Leeds College of Art to Leeds Polytechnic 1963-1973 and, from a slightly more detached perspective, Patrick Nuttgens’ The Art of Learning: A Personal Journey. Nuttall famously taught Marc Almond, who formed the electro-pop duo Soft Cell during his time in Leeds; just one of a number of influential and experimental musical acts to emerge from this unique time and place, including Delta 5, Scritti Politti, The Mekons and the aforementioned Gang of Four.
Delta 5, in particular, are worthy of attention: a mixed-gender group of thrilling musical inventiveness and caustic, mocking humour, whose lyrics carried the influence of the radical feminist movement active in Leeds in the 1970s, most especially the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group (LRFG). You can find out much more about the LRFG in a BBC documentary – or visit the Central Library to see a bootleg copy of their 1981 pamphlet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism.
The LRFG organised the UK’s first Reclaim the Night march in November 1977, a direct response to the cultural and legal framing of the so-called ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ assaults and murders of women, in particular the police ‘advice’ that women should remain inside to ‘guarantee’ their own safety. The march turned the focus back onto the behaviour of male perpetrators, widening the context to include a spectrum of criminality on which the ‘Ripper’ attacks were the most extreme.
In a 2021 interview with the BBC, Headingley ward Councillor Al Garthwaite, who was involved in the 1977 march, recalled:
It was about the fear that every woman felt about going out at night, and the behaviour of men, sexual harassment, groping, unwanted touching, comments, that sort of thing. The attitudes that were so prevalent at the time… were totally blaming the woman, as if the man’s behaviour was not even talked about.
Delta 5 crop up in Greil Marcus’ collection of articles from the period, In the Fascist Bathroom: Writings on Punk, 1977-1992. Marcus reports a now semi-legendary incident in which the band members were assaulted by eight members of the far-right British Movement (a group Eddy Morrison was involved with) outside a Leeds bar, the infamous F Club, after ‘identifying’ Ros Allen (bass) as a “Communist Witch“. The band’s gigs were frequently interrupted by
Sieg-Heil-ing thugs; one night Bethan [Peters, bass] found herself grabbing one erstwhile fascist by the hair and slamming his head into the stage.
The F Club – run by legendary Leeds music promoter, John Keenan – was the centre of clashes between Leeds’ arty-punk student contingent and their far-right opponents. While there was no real native Leeds punk ‘scene’ – “there was one band called SOS doing punk stuff but that was about it” (Lester, Damaged Gods, p.26) – the bands named above were all, to some extent, influenced by punk’s underlying DIY philosophy, as well as the arty, more esoteric edges of mainstream rock (Bowie, Roxy Music, Krautrock). And, while most of these post-punk groups and performers were politically identified with the Left with varying degrees of self-consciousness – many played the RAR gigs – liberals, communists and anarchists had by no-means a monopoly on such counter-cultural sounds in Leeds during the late 1970s, as the book The White Nationalist Skinhead Movement: UK & USA, 1979-1993 (Robert Forbes and Eddie Stampton) makes clear.
That book starts its story with a focus on the so-called Rock Against Communism movement, a far-right response to Rock Against Racism. For the purposes of our story, it is worth quoting the very first lines of the first chapter (of which the first six pages are almost entirely devoted to events in Leeds):
Arguably, the story of ‘Rock Against Communism’ starts with Eddy Morrison, the National Front Leeds District organiser, who had a taste for punk music. Notably, he saw the Sex Pistols at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall and again on the Anarchy tour at Leeds Poly…
That ‘Eddy’ Morrison was the same ‘Eddie’ Morrison implicated in the 1977 attack on John Charlton, described above. According to the Forbes and Stampton book, “Morrison recognised that punk rock…'[w]ould be a powerful weapon for anyone who could turn it politically,'” but that “the left had already stolen a march on the National Front [NF] by forming in late 1976 an organization called Rock Against Racism.” Morrison claimed “We [the NF] had to condemn Punk or use it.” He did this by launching a “spoof fanzine called Punk Front which featured a NF logo with a safety pin in it.” The apparent success of that ‘zine led to an influx of far-right punks at the F Club – so much so that, by 1978, “We [the NF] controlled the F Club basically,” a situation that caused
the red bands [to stop] playing the F Club because we brought every one of their gigs to a halt…[I]t kicked off big time when 999 played the F Club…[they were] a big band at the time [and] they attracted a lot of non-NF punks and quite a few were RAR.
Such clashes are captured in a letter to the LOP in March of 1978, which describes
…[a] really nauseating incident that happened at the ‘F’ Club in Chapeltown last night (16th March). A Leeds band called the Mekons were playing (supporting 999) and halfway through their set a Nazi in the audience yelled ‘Goosestep’, to be told ‘No chance’ by the lead singer. The atmosphere really froze immediately and the band had to carry on to yells of ‘Commie’ and three of the Nazis goosestepping to the music and holding up their arms in Hitler salutes…
Morrison also recounts a nauseating competition for West Yorkshire NF members:
…[a league for] how many ANL/RAR/Commie badges a [NF] unit could rip off in a month. That’s rip off a red in broad daylight. Leeds won.
An LOP article around this time records one such attack, on Steve Kind in the Hyde Park area, home to many students:
Such targeting of RAR supporters in Leeds does not seem to have dissuaded the movement, however, nor those bands associated with it. An LOP advert in October of 1978 reports that the gigs would now be held on a regular, weekly basis and that the biggest name in town would be joining them just a few weeks later. Many of the bands active in Leeds during this time have been regularly cited by their musical descendants as formative influences: individual battles may have been won by the far-right, but the RAR could claim the broader war.
All the books and other stock referenced here are available in our Local and Family History department at the Central Library. As well as the materials directly referenced through hyperlinks, the following online articles are essential reading for this period in Leeds’ modern history: