by Geoff Stanton
It used to be you could tell a good riot from the soundtrack. Just look at the peasant revolt of 1381 – five hundred and ninety years before Johnny Rotten, its rabble-rousers still being covered by Chumbawamba. The banditry of Robin Hood was later formalised; British communists had a Little Red Songbook “to fan the flames of discontent” while smashing Fascists in the street. The fifties and sixites gave us Folk Music, Frontmen, Highways, Hells Angels – and magazines have long since fossilized the punk and reggae rush through the spot-fires.
Yep, every decent riot needs a good soundtrack.
So what was the soundtrack for looting a Footlocker or nicking a plasma? While the 2011 London riots look familiar against a century of images – hi-res fireballs and swarms of hoodie aside – overt political causes are muted by sheer adrenalin and rage.
But the genuine voices are out there. “We just have to hunt them down,” veteran musician Bruce Cockburn told The Star in 2010, on talking about how music has been forced underground again. “We just don’t hear them. We don’t hear anything worthwhile these days unless we go looking for it.”
Reg Weston recalled the rioteers ‘Little Red Songbook’ (published between 1905 and 1973, it was originally called Songs of the Workers, on the Road, in the Jungles, and in the Shops—Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent), used during Weston’s involvement in the London riot of 1936. “The fascists were assembling by the Royal Mint” he said. “And police started to make baton charges, both foot and mounted, to try to clear a way for them to escort a march. They did not succeed.”
“We sang the traditional working class marching songs and anthems. The Internationale (“Arise ye starvelings from your slumbers”); the Italian revolutionary Bandiera Rossa (“Avanti popoli, alla riscossa”, “Forward ye workers, into the struggle”, “Fling to the breezes the scarlet banner”); the Berlin workers’ song Rote Wedding (“Left, left .. the workers are marching again”); the Polish Varshavianka, and the old Wobbly song “Solidarity Forever”, with the appropriate words: “We’ll hang Oswald Mosley on a sour apple tree … when the red revolution comes”.
“A barricade started to go up. A lorry was overturned, furniture was piled up, paving stones and a builders yard helped to complete the barrier. The police managed to clear the first, but found a second behind it and then a third. Marbles were thrown under the hooves of the police horses; volleys of bricks met every baton charge.”
“Back in Stepney and the East End there was almost unbelievable delight. We had won. The fascists had been defeated and humiliated. The police too and the authorities had been proved unable to protect them.”
“Hastily a victory march had been organised to follow the route from Cable Street to Victoria Park where Mosley had planned to address his army. Hundreds joined in. Thousands stood on the pavements and in the roads, clapping and cheering as we marched on. In those days we marched, often in ranks of fours, under the leadership of the ex-servicemen of the not so far away World War I. We marched and we sang.”
By the 1950s the sounds of US folk singers such as Woody Guthrie had seeped into the working quarters of Britain, much the same way that Dylan would shift its youth culture a decade later. Guthrie had traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California, learning traditional folk and blues songs. His songs recorded experiences in the ‘Dust Bowl’ era of the Great Depression. Known as the “Dust Bowl Troubadour” Guthrie was associated with Communist Party groups throughout his life – but never a member.
“Working people have always known that songs are a good way to say what you got to say about work, wages, school, cats, love, marriage, keeping house or doctors bills. If the fight gets hot, the songs get hotter. If the going gets tough, the songs get tougher.” (Woody Guthrie)
Folk was seized by a politically charged element and used as a standard. Ewan MacColl, father of the late Kirsty MacColl, was a leading writer of English protest songs in the 1950s, with pro-communist songs such as “The Ballad of Ho Chi Minh”, “The Ballad of Stalin”, and songs about the nuclear threat such as “Against the Atom Bomb”. He also wrote ‘Dirty Old Town’, later immortalised by The Pogues.
Notting Hill, 1958 – the riot blueprint for generations. Simmering racial tension and poverty (check out the 1955 Pathe newsreel Our Jamaican Problem) led to the riots of Notting Hill – also eventually resulting in the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of diversity and music. Organised by Claudia Jones (black nationalist, journalist, activist and local) as a response to the race tensions of ’58, the festival was a huge success, despite being held indoors. The hippie London Free School reinvented the festival as an outside event in August 1966.
“The words ‘protest songs’ give me the willies,” Cockburn told The Star. “They conjure up the worst music of the 1960s – songs like ‘Eve of Destruction,’ which I hated when I first heard it. It’s pretentious posturing, manufactured nonsense, bad songwriting and just plain ignorant, compared to Dylan’s work in the same period. ‘A Hard Rain’ and ‘Masters of War’ are beautifully constructed and artfully created. They hit the right emotional buttons and they nail their targets.”
The anti-Vietnam protest in London’s Grosvenor Square, now known as The Battle of Grosvenor Square, was a watershed moment in the rise of Britain’s so-called counter-culture. The target of the march was the United States Embassy, and the resulting riot was the inspiration for The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man after Mick Jagger attended the rally and got swept up in some of the heat. An enormous crowd began to squeeze into the confined square, with reports that as many as 6,000 to 10,000 people made there way to the protest. The police reportedly handled the protest with kid gloves. Until the protesters tried to storm the US embassy.
“I remember being terrified at being chased down by what seemed like scores of mounted police with truncheons flailing about while the square was blocked off so that none who found themselves on the inside could get out” recalled Robert Newsom, from the University of California. “But the police seemed as frightened as the protesters. I remember also seeing Mick Jagger standing coolly on the steps of a house in the square surveying the chaos”
For the conservative observer of the 21st century, 1968 still delivers apoplexy. “The remarkable thing is that the half-baked and narcissistic ideologies of that dismal 12 months are still with us” moans columnist Rod Liddle in The Daily Mail. “In our schools, in our law courts, in our social services. They have permeated every facet of our lives. A disrespect for authority, contempt for the family unit, multiculturalism, “yoof culcha” and an emphasis upon rights rather than responsibilities. A permissiveness and indulgence shown towards every anti-social phenomenon from the use of illegal narcotics to single mothers and suicide bombers (‘We really need to understand them better’)”.
Strangely enough, Liddle didn’t seem to mind punk when it came around. Perhaps he liked Sid’s shock-value swastika.
London councillor Bernard Brook Partridge didn’t. “Most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death” he stoically observed on London’s emerging punk phenomenon. “The worst of the punk rock groups I suppose currently are the Sex Pistols. They are unbelievably nauseating. They are the antithesis of humankind. I would like to see somebody dig a very, very large, exceedingly deep hole and drop the whole bloody lot down it.”
Punk’s place in the riot littered seventies is well documented. And Anarchy in the UK still ticks every box. Rotten’s ‘just another council tenancy’ bark sounds almost mournful enough to be timeless. And it might be more in step with the personal politics of our day, more so than the socially driven Clash or protest folk and rock of the 1960s.
“It’s a loser’s emblem (swastika), because the Nazis lost the war. It’s ridiculous to suggest we are involved with fascists. All my best friends are black, gay, Irish or criminals.” (Johnny Rotten)
The Clash’s ‘White Riot‘ was written during the fermentation of London’s civil unrest. Joe Strummer, sartorial social barometer that he was, recalled getting caught up in the Notting Hill riots of 1978 under the Westway, along Malton Mews by Ladbroke Grove; starting with a group of “blue helmets sticking up like a conga line”, going through the crowd. It started with one can being lobbed through the air, one man hit – followed by a pelting hail of cans in every direction.
“The crowd drew back suddenly and the Notting Hill riot of 1976 was sparked. We were thrown back, women and children too, against a fence which sagged back dangerously over a drop. I can clearly see Bernie Rhodes, even now, frozen at the centre of a massive painting by Rabelais or Michelangelo… as around him a full riot breaks out and 200 screaming people running in every direction. The screaming started it all. Those fat black ladies started screaming the minute it broke out, soon there was fighting 10 blocks in every direction.”
Another notorious incident in the build-up of tension was the Southall riot. In the great tradition of Mosley, the National Front met the local candidate for upcoming parliamentary elections, who was pledging to “bulldoze Southall to the ground and replace it with an English hamlet“.
Among the inevitable clashes a young teacher named Blair Peach was knocked unconscious (reportedly by a rubberised police radio) and died the next day. Another victim was Clarence Baker, the manager of the British reggae band Misty In Roots. Baker was left with a fractured skull and a blood clot in his brain. He took a year to recover. Peach later became a national protest icon, memorialized by dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson in his song ‘Reggae Fi Peach‘. Baker’s assault meanwhile inspired The Ruts classic ‘Jah War‘.
Between July 3rd and July 11 of 1981 more riots fueled by racial and social discord in Birmingham, London, Liverpool, and Manchester. There were also smaller episodes of unrest in Leeds, Leicester, Southampton, Halifax, Bedford, Gloucester, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Bristol, and Edinburgh.
Amongst the recent media white noise, a spotlight has this time swiveled onto Grime – a sub-sound of UK Garage, breakbeat and hip hop.
“As the glaziers and magistrates go to work after four nights of riots across London and the UK,” wrote the Guardian after the August 2011 riots “the search for understanding and the finger of blame are simultaneously pointing towards the MCs and rappers who Bizzle told me in January were ‘the real prime ministers of this country’”.
“For Professor Green, a top 10 artist, like Chipmunk and Wretch, and one of the MCs who has been most eager to illuminate the causes of the riots, it’s a story of a country that has elected to forget about many of its young people. ‘What needs to be understood here is there is a lot of anger in the underclass’ responded Green. “And a lot of the youth aren’t quite sure where to aim their anger. There are also a lot of underprivileged children who’ve grown up without boundaries”
The Guardian goes on to describe Grime’s place in the recent unrest:”Grime describes the world politicians of all parties have ignored – its misery (eg Dizzee Rascal’s Sitting Here), its volatile energy (Lethal Bizzle’s Pow), its gleeful rowdiness (Mr Wong’s Orchestra Boroughs), its self-knowledge (Wiley’s Oxford Street), its local pride (Southside Allstars’ Southside Run Tings), down even to minor specifics. When some Londoners expressed their surprise and admiration at the quasi-vigilantism of “Turksec” in Dalston and Hackney, the north London Turkish community who fought off looters with a mixture of togetherness and baseball bats, most grime fans’ first thought was Wiley’s offhand lyric: “I had this Turkish bredrin from school, all his family were gangsters.”
“People concerned about the issues that have always troubled us are more likely to turn to Facebook to find a like-minded community than to sing songs in the streets, the way we did in the 1960s,” Cockburn told The Star. “There are plenty of protest songs out there, but they just aren’t part of the cultural mainstream any more. Radio doesn’t play them, and people don’t seem to do things together, as a community. We’re all connected individually to some kind of device, working alone, amusing ourselves alone, enlightening ourselves alone.”
Yet the roots of rhythm remain. Even if thirty million CDs did go up in flames at the Sony warehouse.