Back in 2015, Autograph held the first major exhibition of Syd Shelton’s photographs capturing one of the most intriguing and contradictory periods in British post-war history. Between 1976 and 1981, the Rock Against Racism movement (RAR) confronted racist ideology in the streets, parks and town halls of Britain. RAR was formed by a collective of musicians and political activists to fight racism and fascism through music. Autograph's Digital Content Manager, Livvy Murdoch, caught up with Shelton to discuss his involvement in RAR and what has (and hasn’t) changed in the years since. We’re publishing the conversation and Shelton's specially curated playlist to coincide with the release of our image gallery of highlights from Shelton’s 2015 exhibition at Autograph and to celebrate the release of the second edition of the photography book Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism.
Livvy Murdoch (LM): Can you start by telling us a bit about what inspired RAR to first take action, and some of the central principles around which you organised?
Syd Shelton (SS): By the mid 1970s Britain was in the deepest recession since the Second World War and the Callaghan Labour government imposed massive spending cuts at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, the far right started to grow alarmingly, pointing the finger at Black and Asian people and scapegoating them as the cause of the country's problems. This fed the normalisation of everyday racism, with Black, Asian and Irish people becoming the butt of racist jokes on public platforms; the Black and White Minstrel Show headed prime time Saturday night TV on the BBC, racially motivated attacks had become commonplace and those infamous signs proclaiming ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs’ were still to be seen in letting office windows.
At his Birmingham concert in 1976, musician Eric Clapton urged support for the xenophobic Conservative politician Enoch Powell in a rant that made use of a number of deeply offensive racial slurs. When photographer and former-Clapton fan Red Saunders heard this he, along with several other founding members of RAR, became incensed; they composed a letter to the music press calling Clapton out for his hypocrisy - “Come on Eric… own up… Half your music is Black. You're rock music's biggest colonist” - and urging support for Rock Against Racism. The response was phenomenal and within days there were hundreds of letters of support. Within weeks, the first gig was organised.
I had been living and working as a photojournalist in Sydney, Australia and I returned to London at the end of 1976. I met Red Saunders by chance and became a part of what was to become an amazing 5 year-long anti-racist party. We were a small core of activists with differing views but with a uniting principle of loving music and hating racism. The timing was right and the chemistry of the punk scene emerging at the same time as UK reggae was the fuse which ignited RAR. Bringing together these two ‘rebel’ musical forms became the core which drove RAR to go on to produce seven massive Carnivals and about 500 gigs.
LM: The following year, in August 1977 the Battle of Lewisham (as it retrospectively became known) took place and at which you were present. Can you tell us more about that day and how it influenced RAR’s work?
SS: In the weeks before the Battle of Lewisham took place, the stage was being set by the National Front and the Metropolitan police and their media allies. The National Front were leading intimidatory marches through high streets all over multi-racial Britain. The Met were viciously and disproportionately pursuing their use of ‘sus’ laws against young Black people, which gave police the right to apprehend people suspected (hence ‘sus’) of “intent to commit an arrestable offence”. In May 1977 they organised dawn raids on 21 houses in New Cross and Lewisham, allegedly looking for ‘muggers’. They arrested 21 young Black people with no evidence against any of them. David Foster, whose 16 year old son was one of the arrested, led the campaign for the Lewisham 21 from his front room, where I photographed the family. The Evening Standard and the usual right wing national papers became obsessed with ‘mugging’, and championed an anti-mugging campaign. The National Front responded by organising what they called ‘The anti mugging march’ for the 13th of August, which is now remembered as the Battle of Lewisham.
On the day, the Met took the opportunity to take on the people of South London and deployed a quarter of their force and their entire mounted division to escort the National Font down New Cross road. The battle between the police and the anti-racists went on until it was almost dark, long after the National Front marchers had been bussed out of the area. The cops employed riot shields for the first time in mainland Britain that day, and ended the day with an arrest count of about 500 people.
A significant outcome of the day was the formation of The Anti-Nazi League, consisting of members of the Socialist Workers Party, the Labour Party and the Trade Unions. RAR and the Anti-Nazi League worked together to produce some of the biggest anti-racist events ever seen in Britain.
LM: Information about RAR news and events was distributed through Temporary Hoarding, a zine which you helped design and provided much of the imagery for. Why did you decide to utilise the zine format? What did that enable?
SS: It wasn’t really a zine like many of the other fanzines at the time because we devised a different format whereby it folded down from a broadsheet double page spread to an A3 (or sometimes A4) format. It meant that you could open it up and turn it from a magazine into a poster which is why we called it Temporary Hoarding. We saw the magazine as being a way through which we could raise broader issues among RAR audiences, addressing subjects such as sexual politics and an internationalist view. It was visually experimental - sometimes we got it wrong and the graphics rendered the text illegible, but when it did work it was visual magic. It was quite anarchic and only came out when we had enough money in the bank from previous issues and badge sales to produce a new one. I think the style only started to make sense by about issue 6! The design usually involved at least one all nighter studio session, with lots of people making graphic and written contributions to it.
LM: In his introduction to the Rock Against Racism book Autograph's Director, Mark Sealy, describes the five year period between 1976 - 1981 as ‘an intriguing, fragile and volatile moment that literally changed the world’. What sort of impact do you think RAR had on people and politics at the time?
That five year period was an incredibly empowering time for young people in this country. Until Thatcher came to power in 1979 the ruling class had taken their foot off the brake and urban youth had begun to set the progressive agenda. The genie was out of the bottle and it was going to take a long time to put it back. A whole generation had grown up in post-war, multi-racial, multi-cultural cities and weren't easily pushed back into Thatcher's ‘Rule Britannia’ ‘Little England’ vision.
LM: In the process of working with RAR you got to document and attend a lot of gigs. Below you’ve curated a playlist of tracks that resonate with you from this time. Can you tell us about some of your favourite memories or gigs?
SS: I think the first Carnival in Victoria park on 30 April 1978 with Patrick Fitzgerald, X-Ray-Spex, Steel Pulse, The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band all on the line-up is the memory which never fades. We wanted to take over London for the day, so we booked Victoria Park to do a gig. But we didn't want it to just be a free concert, so we booked Trafalgar Square too and also booked seven flatbed trucks for bands to play on. Misty in Roots played on one, The Ruts played another, The Piranhas played on too. We wanted to create an all-day party from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park, which are eight miles or so apart from each other.
I was living on Charing Cross Road in those days, in a squat. On the day itself, I went down to Trafalgar Square early in the morning and there were already hundreds of punks and dreads in Trafalgar Square, mostly from Scotland and up north because they’d traveled down overnight. And buses just kept on coming - from Birmingham, from Newcastle, from Manchester, from Yorkshire from Bristol. By nine o'clock in the morning, there were 50,000 people in Trafalgar Square! Virgin Records had given us 100,000 whistles to distribute, which we just threw out to people - the noise was absolutely deafening! Everybody congregated around the bands because that was where the loudest music was. It was fantastic. And, it wasn't really a protest march or a demonstration in the traditional sense that we've all got used to, it was an anti-racist party, and it was a street party that spanned eight miles. As Billy Bragg said, quite a few years later, "It was the day my generation took sides." And it really was, it was the largest anti-racist demonstration since the 1930s. Anybody who was there would never forget it.
LM: Though the images we’ve shared in our image gallery focus on your documentation and work on RAR, you were also working in a wider political context - can you tell us a bit about your engagement with The Troubles in Northern Ireland?
SS: The Irish Republican Army's bombing campaign made it easier for politicians and the media to crank up its old favourite, anti-Irish racism. Weaponised with my cameras I wanted to use photography to tell a different story. I went twice in the late seventies to republican West Belfast, staying with contacts made via the Troops Out movement. By day I walked the streets of the Falls looking for pictures, and usually spent my nights sleeping on people's floors. I wasn't interested in taking ‘conflict’ images which so many fine photographers were already doing. I was looking with a different eye, trying to humanise the demonised population. What surprised me was how it felt almost autobiographical as it reminded me of my own upbringing on the streets of Northern England 25 years earlier. Everywhere I was met with fantastic hospitality and the young people I met were more interested in talking about music rather than The Troubles. A collection of some of the images was recently made into a book called The Falls, published by Fistful of Books.
LM: What impact did the exhibition at Autograph in 2015 have on you/your career as a photographer?
SS: In his forward to the Rock Against Racism book, first published to accompany the exhibition, Mark Sealy writes “The history of photography is full of archives lying in distress waiting for cultural agents to come along and enunciate their worth.” Well, Carol Tulloch, Donald Smith and Mark Sealy were those cultural agents for me. Only a few of the images which were in the exhibition had seen the light of day until Carol Tulloch and Donald Smith liberated them for A Riot of our Own, an exhibition at Chelsea Space Gallery in 2008. The show was then invited to be the feature exhibition as part of the International Biennale organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Istria, Croatia in 2012.
It was then that Autograph’s Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial & Collection, Renée Mussai, collected a selection of the works for the Autograph archive and Mark suggested making the book and the major 2015 exhibition which went on to tour to Helsinki and two other venues in Finland as well as Impressions Gallery in Bradford, Street Level in Glasgow, Side in Newcastle and Gallery Oldham. At the time of taking the photos, I never saw them as a clear narrative, just a random collection and it is thanks to the curatorial vision of Carol, Donald and Mark that the story exists. As a result of this exposure some of the works are now in the collections of The National Portrait Gallery, The Tate Gallery and the V&A.
LM: Do you still engage with anti-racist organising and actions? It’s perhaps easy to see what’s the same, but what do you feel is different in the fight against racism today?
SS: As an anti-racist activist the struggle never ends and it is a conscious part of all the work that I do as a photographer. The racist mindset might change here and there, but there is a continuous thread of perpetrators, whether that’s Oswald Mosly in the ‘30s, Enoch Powell, the National Front’s Martin Webster, the British National Party’s Nick Griffin or of course Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson in our current times. Cheered on by the right wing press, they constantly find new targets for their hate. Every generation of anti-racists employ the weapons that work and now Black Lives Matter and the decolonisation movement are carrying the baton in the ongoing fight against bigotry and ignorance.
Syd Shelton is a photographer and graphic designer. He studied fine art at Wakefield College of Art. In the early 1970s he began his photography practice following a move to Australia where he worked as a freelance photojournalist for newspapers such as Nation Review, Tribune, and Digger. In 1975 he had his first solo photographic exhibition at the Sydney Film-makers Cooperative. Shelton returned to London in 1976 and established the design and photography partnership Hot Pink Heart/Red Wedge Graphics which evolved into his current company Graphicsi.
Shelton become one of the key activists in the Rock Against Racism movement (RAR). He was a photographer and one of the designers of the RAR magazine Temporary Hoarding (1976 to 1981). In 2015 the book Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism was published by Autograph to accompany the touring exhibition of the same name. A new edition of the book was published by Rare Bird Books in 2022. You can follow the artist on Instagram here.
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