The cultural, moral and emotional impact that music has is undeniable. Songs like “Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” and “What’s Going On” or events like Live Aid or The Concert for Bangladesh brought with them societal change by mobilizing music fans to action. “White Riot,” new documentary from director Rubika Shah streaming on Virtual Cinema Screening sites (see below), details the fight between Rock Against Racism and Britain’s National Front.
In the macro the film’s story is set against the rise of xenophobic politician Enoch Powell and violent, far-right hate group the National Front. Language that would get anyone kicked off Twitter or cancelled today was casually tossed around in the papers and on television. In one inspired sequence Shah pieces together a montage of outrageous racist remarks pulled from mainstream sitcoms. In August 1976 guitarist Eric Clapton, whose entire career was based on the elements of blues created by Black American musicians, added his voice to the rhetoric, endorsing Powell from a stage in a drunken rant. “I think Enoch’s right,” he said. “I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a Black colony. Get the foreigners out.”
His comments caught the attention of music photographer Red Saunders who wrote a letter to the music press, calling for rock to be a force against racism. Bigtime outlets like NME, Melody Maker and Sounds all published the letter. The resulting and overwhelming response from like-minded Brits inspired Saunders to create the grassroots movement, Rock Against Racism (RAR) and a fanzine, Temporary Hoarding geared toward reporting on the stories the mainstream press ignored. “Our job,” Saunders says, “was to peel away the Union Jack to reveal the swastika.” Their reports on immigration and the police’s racist “suspected persons” powers among other hot button topics appealed to a generation of young people who embraced new ideas politically and musically, in the form of rebel music, punk rock and reggae.
Despite violent resistance from the National Front RAR persevered and “White Riot” ends, not at the end of Rock Against Racism’s mandate—they remained a potent force until 1982—but with their first massive public outing, 1978’s Carnival Against the Nazis. Headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson, it attracted 100,000 people who began marching a march at Trafalgar Square, before the concert at Victoria Park.
“White Riot” pieces together archival footage, like unsettling shots of National Front supporters parading through London, recent interviews with the main RAR players and piles of ephemera, like old gig posters, punk badges and photos, to define the film’s time and place. Shah weaves the elements together, punctuating the info with sonic blasts of music courtesy of live footage of The Clash, The Selecter, Sham 69, Steel Pulse and others.
It is compelling stuff and even though it details a time more than forty years ago it doesn’t feel dated. Racism and rise of neo-fascism are still with us but “White Riot” reminds the viewer that resistance not only comes in many forms but that fighting the good fight is never out of date.
“White Riot” is a Virtual Cinema presentation benefitting independent movie theatres. Check out the websites for the theatres listed below, buy a ticket for $9.99 (CND), and enjoy the show while supporting a worthwhile case.
Richard speaks to “CTV News at 11:30” anchor Andria Case about television and movies to watch this weekend, including the retro rantings of “The Critic” on ctv.ca and the Virtual Cinema presentation of the Rock Against Racism doc “White Riot.”
The mid-seventies were a confusing time to be a music-obsessed kid looking to latch onto pop culture in Nova Scotia.
Old hippies weren’t my people—they were everywhere, sporting peace and love hangovers, tie dyed t-shirts and dazed looks. With them came bad hygiene and battered copies of Aoxomoxoa. The free love stuff sounded pretty good to me, but I never liked Birkenstocks and stoner rock wasn’t my thing, (although Silver Machine by Hawkwind was usually worth a fist pump.)
In syncopated lockstep with the 60s leftovers were the disco Dan’s and Dani’s, polyester-outfitted goodtime seekers looking to boogaloo to the top of Disco Mountain. I did the Bump at school dances, I suppose, and played the hell out of my Jive Talkin’ 45, but I was six three at age twelve so wearing platforms were out of the question. Even if I could have worn them the hedonistic woop-woop of disco felt alien to me, like it was emanating from a different planet where everyone had glittery skin and mirror balls for eyes.
Singer songwriters wrote about things that didn’t touch me. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover? I didn’t have a lover to leave once, let alone another 49 ways. Also, lover? Who did Paul Simon think I was? Marcello Mastroianni?
Country rock was OK, although at nine plus minutes Freebird overstayed its welcome by about six minutes. Country music was for hillbillies (it wasn’t until much later I discovered the joys of Waylon and Willie and the boys), soft rock was for girls and I’m pretty sure only dogs could fully appreciate Leo Sayers’ high-pitched wailing. I liked KISS although their “rock and roll all night, party everyday” ethos seemed unrealistic, even to a teenager.
My parents listened to the smooth sounds of Frank Sinatra which frequently clashed with the hard rock racket emanating from my brother’s room.
I was left somewhere in the middle.
Of course I had records. A stack of them.
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was usually near the top. It was a touchstone then as it is now because of its exceptional songwriting, cool cover and otherworldly sounds. I also had the obligatory copy of Frampton Comes Alive! but I also had pop records, heavy metal albums and some disco. But I hadn’t yet heard the definitive sound. For my brother it was Jimi Hendrix’s string stretching. For my dad it was Bing Crosby‘s croon.
I was fifteen and hadn’t yet passed that most important—to me anyway—rite of passage: finding the combination of notes and attitude my parents wouldn’t understand.
In those days the top ten charts were really diverse and fans were regularly exposed to a baffling array of music. The Billboard charts hadn’t yet fragmented off into genre specific listings and radio wasn’t yet run by robots with limited imaginations. Playlists were all over the place, and if you weren’t quick on the dial you’d awkwardly segue from the slick jazz of George Benson into You’re the One That I Want’s pop confectionary.
There weren’t many stations were I grew up but there was a smörgåsbord of sounds to be heard, but around the time Barry Gibb became the first songwriter in history to write four consecutive #1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart the music on the radio started to have less appeal for me.
On the quest to figure out your identity there are few things more soul destroying for a fifteen-year-old than finding yourself inadvertently humming along to a song on the radio as your dad drives and hums in harmony.
I didn’t want the shared family something-for-everyone experience radio offered. I wanted my own experience so I began to regard the radio I grew up listening to as Musicology 101. With its indiscriminate playlists, it’s ability to embrace all genres I had a solid base to build on, but like many good relationships we outgrew one another.
Songs by Kenny Rogers and the like were everywhere but tunes such as The Gambler sounded hopelessly old fashioned; like a Zane Grey dime store novel put to music. So when the radio, which had been my constant companion, fell away as a source of discovering new music I turned to Hit Parader, Circus, Cream and any other magazine I could to find out what was what.
There I saw pictures of the Comiskey Park Disco Demolition Night that lead to the jettisoning of my Bee Gees singles. I read about Elvis Presley dying on the toilet, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane bursting into flames, killing six while, ironically, promoting the Street Survivors LP.
It felt like the old guard was fading away. Sure Queen (liked them) and Barry Manilow (not so much) and Village People (see Manilow note) were still having hits, and Bruce Springsteen was still being loudly touted as the future of rock and roll (by rock critic turned Bruce’s co-producer Jon Landau who wrote, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”) but I wasn’t ready “to trade in these wings on some wheels.”
At the same time my one-time hero Alice Cooper got sober and made the worst record of his career to date but that stuff was quickly fading as I began to hear about—but not actually hear—some exciting music from London and New York.
The only thing I knew about New York came from TV and a family from Manhattan who rented a cottage every year at one of the three beaches that framed my hometown. They told me that if you left your bike unchained at the corner of Ninth Street and Second Avenue it would disappear almost immediately, as if by magic.
London I knew only from history books, James Bond and Monty Python.
But in the pages of my mags I learned about a new youth movement, a musical incubator spearheaded by bands like The Ramones, The Clash, Wire and Television.
Joe Strummer was the embodiment of punk rock even though he was the polar opposite of what the punk movement stood for. As the leader of The Clash his edgy good looks and charisma made him a star in a culture that treated celebrity with contempt. He squatted in London’s abandoned homes but came from a privileged background, with a father who was a career diplomat. He moved The Clash away from punk’s do-it-yourself ethos, skillfully crafting ambitious and interesting songs; and for a movement whose rallying cry was “No Future” he created music that more than twenty-five years on still sounds rebellious and fresh.
In other words he was a paradox, but it was this contradictory nature that made him one of the most exciting and unpredictable musical figures of the twentieth century. In Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten director Julien Temple presents the facts of his life, told by those who knew him best.
Temple, best known as the director of the outrageous Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle uses Strummer’s friends and associates—most of whom are seated around a giant campfire, reminiscing and playing music—and beautifully edited montages to paint an intimate portrait of a man many thought they knew, but few really did.
But this isn’t a typical big screen bio. Although it is told in a linear straightforward fashion, Temple uses his visual flair to punctuate each of the pieces of Joe’s life. For instance when the Sex Pistols burst on to the scene they were, arguably, punk rock’s big bang, so Temple accompanies the Pistol’s footage with an explosion. He uses stock footage and clips from Animal Farm the way Strummer used his guitar—with a rambunctious power that is guaranteed to grab your attention.
What holds your attention, however, is the spirit of Strummer, which is infused onto every frame of the film. We see him at various stages of his life, from round-faced “boarding school bully” to long haired art student to sneering punk rocker through to chunky elder statesman with voice clips from his radio show London Calling and various interviews providing the soundtrack.
As cantankerous and confounding a character as Strummer was in life, (he died in 2002 at age 50) his overriding love of life and people shines through. “Without people we’re nothing,” he says near the end of the film. Sounds more like hippie-speak than the words of one of punk rock’s most famous sons, but there you have it, yet another contradiction.