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Thirty Years of "White Riot"

On August 30th, 1976, in a turbulent and volatile section of London, a piece of rock n’ roll legend took place. Though the anniversary last week was insignificant to most in the mainstream press, the events of that insufferably hot summer day were not just important in their own right, but played a part in shaping one of rock music’s most influential bands, and helped re-establish the link between popular culture and popular resistance.

Much has been made in recent years of The Clash’s immense influence on both music and culture. Rightfully so.

Their rebel attitude, combined with a streetwise wit and politically charged lyrics, raised the bar for what was possible in punk rock, still in its infancy in the mid 1970s. Billy Bragg summed it up in a now-famous quote: ‘were it not for The Clash, punk would have been just a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers.’ The Notting Hill Carnival, thirty years ago last week, was where it all started.

On the morning of the 30th, singer/guitarist Joe Strummer and bass player Paul Simonon, exhausted and a bit demoralized from a disastrous gig the night before, wandered with their manager Bernie Rhodes down to Notting Hill for the annual Caribbean Carnival. At that time The Clash were still a little known band that had yet to cut a record and were struggling to get noticed. Few outside of London and New York had any notion of what ‘punk’ was. The charts were full of such acts as Queen and Elton John. But the stale, overproduced sound of stadium rock had run its course. Something was needed to inject some life back into rock n’ roll, and the first rumblings could be heard by anyone paying close attention. On August 7th, Melody Maker magazine gave four skinny, foul-mouthed youths known as ‘The Sex Pistols’ their first cover story.

To look at Britain in the 1970s, one gets the feeling that the Pistols’ refrain of ‘no future’ wasn’t far off. The economy was in a deep slump, with inflation topping twenty percent. In 1975 unemployment had passed two million. And the so-called ‘Labour Party’ was not just neglecting its working-class base, they were actively moving to crush it. ‘Whereas the Tories had not dared to use troops to break the miners strike [of 1973],’ writes Chris Harman, ‘Labour was able to use them successfully against the refuse workers in Glasgow, traditionally one of the most militant cities in Britain.’

Prospects were even worse for the black and immigrant communities such as Notting Hill. This neighborhood was a far cry from the well-to-do row-houses of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts that we know today. In the mid-70s, it was an impoverished yet colorful world of reggae parties and record stalls where recent black immigrants from the Caribbean resided. Like most immigrants, they were shunned and scapegoated by Her Majesty’s Empire. Police harassment had become a fact of life for black youth, and fascist groups such as the British Movement and National Front were gaining more and more of a hearing.

The overwhelming feeling was that Britannia was coming apart at the seams. Still, Strummer and Simonon had no clue that the powder keg that they were sitting on was about to blow that day. They had wandered to the Notting Hill Carnival for the same most had; to listen to some music, eat some food, and take in the vibrant costumes and displays. But something else was to transpire that day. The police presence was, of course, unnecessarily large, and when a black youth was arrested for a supposed pickpocketing, the community erupted. People threw bricks and bottles at the cops, demanding the young man’s release. When a line of riot police assembled to confront them, they were simply met with more flying debris. As things escalated, Paul and Joe jumped in.

Pat Gilbert, in his Clash biography Passion is a Fashion, gives an excellent account of the two young punks’ actions during the riot: ‘In the commotion, Paul and Joe lost Bernie [Rhodes] under the Westway. Simonon recalls with glee throwing bricks at the lines of police and almost unseating a police motorcyclist… with a traffic cone. As the riot exploded, Joe tried to set light to an upturned vehicle but the matches he lit kept blowing out in the breeze.’

Don Letts, later The Clash’s video-maker and himself the son of Caribbean immigrants, was also at the Carnival that day. A photograph of him crossing the street in front of a line of cops right before the riot is itself a piece of Clash history, as it was used for the cover of the Black Market Clash compilation album. ‘It is interesting how people look back on it as a black and white riot,’ he tells Gilbert. ‘It wasn’t. It was a wrong and right riot. It wasn’t the black kids against the white police, it was youth at a black festival against the police. Don’t forget this is 1976 you are talking about, a time when the country was in a bit of a state, there are no opportunities…’

Likewise, Simonon and Strummer weren’t just two kids looking to raise some hell. They too had every reason to fight back against the cops. Despite Joe’s middle-class upbringing, his anti-authoritarian streak had longed to take part in the 1968 uprisings as he watched from afar. Now, after spending the past few years squatting and busking in London’s tube stations, being harassed by the cops and watching black and Asians being pushed around to no end, he finally had a chance to fight back.

For Simonon, who had grown up in the heavily Caribbean neighborhoods like Notting Hill and Brixton, the scene of police harassment must have been all too familiar to him as well. Paul had spent his teens hanging out at reggae parties. His high school was described as ‘a shit-hole.’ ‘You felt like you were dumped there until you got a job or signed on the dole…’ he says in Passion is a Fashion. ‘Most of the pupils were black, Irish or Greek. Very few [English] white. But there wasn’t much racism as I can remember; everyone was in the same boat. No one had anything.’ For him and Joe both, lashing out at the cops was just as much in defense of themselves as the Black community.

The effect that the Notting Hill Riot would have on them and the rest of the group would be profound. Taking manager Rhodes’ encouragement to ‘write about what’s happening,’ Joe would write The Clash’s first single: ‘White Riot.’ Clocking in at just under two minutes, the song is a brash and loud call to arms. Interestingly, the frank nature of the first lyric, ‘Black men got a lotta problems / but they don’t mind throwing a brick,’ would lead some to mistake the song as racist, but Strummer insisted he was only generalizing, and the second lyric, ‘White people go to school / where they teach you how to be thick,’ made it clear that this was a fight for white kids too, against a common enemy: ‘All the power in the hands / of the people rich enough to buy it / while we walk the street / too chicken to even try it.’

The song would be released as The Clash’s first single, and it became clear that they had touched a nerve: ‘White Riot’ would reach number 38 on the UK charts.

From that day on, The Clash’s insistence on taking a stand became an integral part of their music and image. If there was any mistaken notion that punk was a soundtrack for ‘rebels without a cause,’ ‘White Riot’ put it to rest. Over the next nine years, the group would make it clear which side they stood on in the riot between ‘right and wrong.’

They wrote songs not just about race and class, but consumerism, war, police brutality and sexual politics. They played shows for anti-racist groups and benefits for striking miners, organized against far-right groups, and made public their support for liberation fighters in Angola. They would decry the US’ support for Pinochet’s coup in Chile in songs like ‘Washington Bullets,’ and pay tribute to the Spanish workers’ militias in ‘Spanish Bombs.’

In the world of MTV and Clear Channel, the concept of music reflecting the outside world and urging us to take a stand seems far away. But the if the story of one of rock n’ roll’s most influential bands can be so intimately tied with an event such as the Notting Hill Riots thirty years ago, then we must sit up and take notice. The legacy of The Clash is safe, and will never be forgotten. But music, like history, doesn’t simply exist to remember the past. It exists to inspire the future. In a time of war, racism and poverty, The Clash refused to sit on the sidelines. Today, musicians, artists and activists alike can learn a great deal from them.

ALEXANDER BILLET is a writer and activist living in Washington DC. He has written and spoken on The Clash for several publications and forums, including CounterPunch, Socialist Worker (US), Everensel (Turkey), and Radio Free Adelaide (Australia). He is currently working on a book tentatively titled The Kids Are Shouting Loud: The Music and Politics of The Clash. He can be reached at alexbillet@hotmail.com

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