In Conversation With: Daniel Rachel
Is it possible for music and politics to remain separate from one another? Perhaps, but during the late '70s and early '80s, it was virtually impossible. An unstoppable force was set in motion, one which Daniel Rachel fleshes out in his new book Walls Come Tumbling Down, The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, Red Wedge and 2 Tone. We caught up with him to talk about his experience of Thatcher's Britain, a love affair with The Specials and tales of the Modfather himself popping round for tea.
In the August of 1976, Eric Clapton stumbled on stage and slurred an intoxicated rant in support of Enoch Powell preaching that 'foreigners', black and Asians, living in Britain should clear out; clear out of the music hall in which he was performing to 2000 fans of mixed race, and clear out of the country. The onslaught of racism he projected onto the crowd was unparalleled. He later apologised saying that a 'foreigner' had pinched his wife's bum before he went on stage and revoked some, notably not all, of the speech, but it was too late; a movement had already been set in motion.
The young working class in Britain were a conflicted generation of confused teenagers. With no money and no clear moral or political direction, many had grown up in prejudiced households but where at odds with what to believe when mixing with their black friends on the council estate; Windrush had brought an influx of Jamaicans to Britain in the late '40s. They got on with these kids, they liked their clothes and they liked their music but when they went home parents were preaching the racist messages of Clapton and Powell, and the National Front was on the rise, recruiting young and impressionable members in their plight.
Along came 2 Tone, and with it the political affiliations of a multi-racial genre that found its roots in Jamaican and ska music. At the same time Red Wedge was born. With a little help from Billy Bragg and Paul Weller the campaign affiliated itself with the Labour party, a defiant stand against the racist undertones of a subculture and a way into left wing politics for young people. Rock Against Racism was another campaign to get in on the act, and off the back of it Jerry Dammers felt compelled to go ahead and form The Specials. With the increased popularity of the National Front among the British working class, it became increasingly important that these movements expressed non-racist, liberal views to a generation who felt confused and disheartened about the sloppy state of politics and race relations during Thatcher's Britain.
In Daniel Rachel's new book Walls Come Tumbling Down, the title lyrics of a song by Weller's band Style Council, the Rachel's Basement front man turned author picks up on this fascinating period of British politics, music and subculture. We caught up with him to talk about the book, a succession of meditative interviews with musicians and those involved with the campaigns at the time, including Pauline Black (The Selecter), Billy Bragg and Jerry Dammers.
Interview by Danielle Morgan
You dropped out of University to become a musician, and gave up being a musician to write about music. What is it about music and the industry that you find so irresistible?
I guess it was lyrics like the Who's Meet the old boss / same as the old boss and the Specials' Working for the rat race / you know you're wasting your time.They had quite an impact on me as a teenager and cemented the idea that I would never accept 9-5 as a way of life and that music was what I loved and needed to be at the centre of my life.
Why do you think punk, ska and 2 Tone appealed so much to the young working class in Britain during the '80s?
Punk and 2 Tone spoke and looked like the language of the working class. It was inherently anti-establishment and anti-authority. That's very powerful when you want to rebel against your parents and school and people who tell you, 'Life has to be this way.'
What was your experience of Thatcher's Britain in the '80s?
I was eight when Margaret Thatcher got into power in 1979 and 22 before I was eligible to vote in a general election. In that whole period, the Conservatives held power. My upbringing was pro-Tory and pro-Thatcher. It was the Daily Telegraph, BBC1 not ITV, and the belief instilled that to get on you had to make money and look out for No.1. Contrary to that ethos the music of Billy Bragg, the Housemartins, the Jam, the Specials, the Beat talked about collective ideas, socialism, social responsibility. It was a heady mix to forge an identity between and define my own belief system.
Out of all the interviews you did for the book, is there a story that stands out for you as epitomising the tone of the era and how these movements were so important in changing the situation of the times?
Jerry Dammers' story echoes throughout the book. He was inspired by Rock Against Racism to form the Specials, and to make it a multi-cultural band. He created 2 Tone as a socialist label. He was on the Red Wedge tour and then established Artist Against Apartheid. He wrote 'Nelson Mandela', and was the visionary behind the concerts that ended with Mandela standing on stage at Wembley Stadiums watched by a global audience of billions. Jerry has never told his story before for a book so it was a thrill to meet him and have his cooperation and backing for Walls Come Tumbling Down. Just listening to 'Doesn't Make It Alright', 'Ghost Town' and 'Racist Friend' tells you everything about Jerry and the period.
How important do you think the Windrush generation were in shaping the history of British music and subculture?
The Windrush generation brought Jamaican music and fashion to the streets of British cities. It was admired, adopted and loved: by Mods, skinheads, even high society as seen in the film Scandal. The first generation children born in Britain absorbed pop music and fused it with their culture: the result was Aswad, Steel Pulse and Misty In Roots and British reggae. 2 Tone followed within a matter of years and for the first time white and black musicians played in the same bands and dominated the charts selling records in the hundreds of thousands. That's quite some impact.
Billy Bragg once said that music doesn't change the world, but you recon that music changes people, who have the power to change the world. How important do you think Red Wedge was in changing the world? Some have said, including Paul Weller, that when it all ended they felt like they hadn't really achieved a lot.
Music does change the world. It's because artists like Billy Bragg and Paul Weller wrote the songs they did that inspired a generation. Billy got it from the Clash and Motown. Paul from the Beatles and the Who. Without the songs there is nothing. They act as clarion calls and instigators for change. With Red Wedge, Paul and Billy attempted to use their influence politically. And succeeded. Red Wedge connected music to party politics. It inspired people to register to vote. The argument was in their interviews, in their lyrics. The pushed the Labour Party to recognise gay rights, black rights, green issues, the status of the music industry - all of these ideas shifted hearts and minds and laid the foundation for the Labour government of 1997. And for the audience and those listening on the radio the ideas inspired and shaped how people grew up. But the change was incremental not necessarily immediate. And now Paul's backing Jeremy Corbyn in the best way he can: on stage. I think the gig in Brighton in December to back the Labour leader is Paul's first public political act since Red Wedge.
Considering Margaret Thatcher was as popular as she was hated during the '80s, why do you think big musicians such as Paul Weller and Billy Bragg aligned their campaigns with the Labour party? Do you think their humble, socialist upbringing's had a lot to do with how grounded they were even when they'd 'made it'?
I'm not so sure Paul's upbringing was socialist. He went on a journey to discover his politics: it's in his songwriting. And then meeting with the Annajoy David who was the leader of Youth CND and a co-founder of Red Wedge gave him an opportunity to do something with the success from the Jam. Paul ran a mini- socialist republic out of Solid Bond supporting many people and causes around the country like fanzines and youth initiatives. Likewise Billy - a product of a free health service, a free education system - also took a collective responsibility to accruing wealth. Both Billy and Paul had earnt money by their trade as musicians and done good. As long as they keep writing great songs nobody can ask more of them.
What do you think it was about the National Front's message that was so appealing to young people who had grown up on council estates with their black friends listening to Jamaican music? When we think that 2 Tone was born out of Jamaican and Reggae influences, it seems a complete contradiction that a large proportion of its fans promoted a racist agenda.
It's all about identity. People just want to belong. Be seen as cool, have status. When you're young it's all about who your peers are, who you aspire to be like. What records are 'in'. So in many ways, it's not even the message. I got involved in a skinhead gang and then football violence for a bit: I liked the clothes and the thrill of running and chasing people. But when you get given racist literature outside the school gates, or somebody dies at a football match it's a wakeup call. The bond of the gang is empty. The thrill is dancing at gigs. Embracing the positive and not being seduced by negativity. 2 Tone, like Rock Against Racism, fought back with music. They had the best songs, the best clothes, and the majority following. As Robert Elms says in the book if you were against the government in the Eighties, culturally 'You were on the side of the angels.'
Jerry Dammers has claimed that without Rock Against Racism there would be no 2 Tone. How important do you think the label, its founding band The Specials and their symbolic black and white checkerboard were in shifting young people's attitudes away from the racist messages the National Front were marketing to them?
2 Tone was massive. The Specials had 2 lead singers one black one white. The lyrics were about racial unity and celebrating black culture. It led you to Prince Buster, The Maytals, Trojan, Blue Beat. They even had Rico Rodrigues on trombone who had played on many Jamaican originals. 2 Tone made a black and white union look and sound natural. It was in the look of the Beat with Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling; white and black; melody and toasting. It was Pauline Black fronting the Selecter; six blacks and one white. It was seven women in the Bodysnatchers fronted by Rhoda Dakar singing 'The Boiler' about a rape. It was Madness, who were all white, playing Rock Against Racism gigs and singing about mixed race marriages and coveringPrince Buster's 'One Step Beyond'. 2 Tone was an invigorating and proactive youth movement so much so that National Front members wanted to be at the gigs too. With 2,000 fans skanking and singing along with the bands there was only ever one cool one to go forward. The National Front youth brigade were crushed by music.
We couldn't not mention your own ventures into music! We hear you've supported some of the biggest acts on the scene, from Billy Bragg to OCS. Any stories from the dressing room you wish to share?
Rachels Basement supported Ocean Colour Scene on the Moseley Shoals tour which was great fun. They were on the way to selling a million records and then Simon (the singer) and I got a flat together in Moseley Village. Steve Cradock (the guitarist) lived upstairs and I remember Paul Weller popping round for a cup of tea one afternoon. PP Arnold would hang out quite a bit. She'd be in our mould ridden front room with a bottle of brandy and a selection of herbal remedies singing Koko Taylor songs.