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Marking the 40th anniversary of the uprising in Brixton, Dave Randall looks at the music that accompanied the struggle

Chaos, violence and destruction are the words we most readily associate with riots. Certainly eye-witnesses have described the Brixton Uprising of April 1981 as ‘all out war’. But it was also a profoundly political act destined to become a defining moment in the story of a polarised nation. Many musicians felt moved to document the events, and in so doing created a new soundtrack for the struggle.  

In late 1930’s Germany, Bertolt Brecht wrote the poem, ‘Motto’, which pondered: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.”

It could have been penned in late 70s Britain. The post-war boom had finally bust and economic uncertainty loomed. Gloom descended following an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Callaghan’s Labour government in 1976. It was made on the condition that public spending cuts and deregulation were implemented – economic policies soon to be given rocket-boosters by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

Poverty and unemployment soared, particularly in inner-city areas, leading to anger and unrest. Right wing tabloids, Tory politicians and shamefully a handful of musicians, including British blues guitarist Eric Clapton, blamed immigration for the hardships experienced, encouraging racists thugs onto the streets under the banner of the National Front (NF).

Left wing activists recognised the urgent need to oppose them, expose them as Nazis, and to make anti-racism cool. Music was the left’s weapon of choice and ‘Rock Against Racism’ (RAR) was launched with a letter to the music press in 1976. By 1978 thousands had flocked to RAR carnivals across the country and many joined RAR’s sister organisation the Anti-Nazi League. Brixton hosted RAR’s biggest carnival in September 1978, with more than 100,000 people marching to Brockwell Park for a ‘Carnival Against the Nazis’ headlined by Aswad and Elvis Costello.

Support for the NF collapsed, but they weren’t the only thugs intent on terrorising Black communities. Indeed, frightening as the jackbooted NF were, an even more serious threat was posed by racist police who acted with impunity. Harassment and intimidation by the police were daily realities for many Black people across the country. In 1980 a riot broke out in St Pauls, Bristol following a police raid on a Black-owned cafe.

Tensions in other inner-cities rose in early 1981. On 18 January, 13 young Black people died in a fire at a birthday party in a house in New Cross, South London. Many believed the fire to have been the result of a racist arson attack (it would not have been the first in the area), and police inaction and media silence sharpened feelings of anger. Demonstrations in the following weeks culminated in 20,000 joining a ’Black People’s Day of Action’ on 2 March.

It was against this backdrop that the Met launched operation Swamp 81 (a name based on Margaret Thatcher’s statement that British people feared being “swamped by people of a different culture”). Ten police squads swooped on central Brixton in early April and stopped and searched almost 1,000 people in six days – most of them young black men. Operating under the hated ‘sus’ law, short for ‘suspicion’, the police harassed whoever they wanted, regardless of whether they had any evidence of wrongdoing. When, on 10 April, rumours spread that a young man had been left to die at the hands of the police, rioting erupted.

Punk had already prophesied unrest with The Ruts’ ‘Babylon Is Burning’ and the Clash’s ‘Guns of Brixton’. The latter, penned by bassist Paul Simonon who grew up in Brixton, is often mistakenly thought to be inspired by the riots, but was actually written a few years before. In the wake of the uprising, local dub-poet legend Linton Kwesi Johnson recorded ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’ declaring:

 “When we mash up the Swamp 81, fi what? Fi make deh ruler dem understand, that we nah tek no more of dem oppression.”

Probably the most famous topical tune of the times was The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, written with an eye on the riots in that took place in Bristol in the previous year, and recorded the same week Brixton erupted. The song’s lyrics captured the scenes of desolation witnessed in inner-cities across the country:

“Government leaving the youth on the shelf, no job to be found in this country, can’t go on no more, the people getting angry.”

Released in the summer as rioting spread to other cities, it spent three weeks at number one in the UK chart.

With 2-Tone testifying on Top of The Pops, roots reggae provided reportage from the streets. Raymond Naptali and Roy Rankin’s ‘Brixton Incident’ described rising unemployment, Black pride and defence of the ‘front line’ (as Railton Road and surrounding streets were known at the time) by youth “fling(ing) stone and battle pon di wicked tabernacle”. Appropriately enough, the tune was released as B-side to an equally poignant track ‘New Cross Fire’.

A host of other reggae testimonies included Chrismic Youth’s ‘Brixton Riot’, Abacush’s ‘Suffera Style (Brixton Riot 1981)’, Lorna Gee’s ‘Brixton Rock’, Angelic Upstarts’ ‘Flames of Brixton’ and Sugar Minot’s ‘Riot inna Brixton’.

Then, in 1982, came Eddy Grant’s huge hit ‘Electric Avenue’, named after the iconic market street which curves through the heart of Brixton. Perhaps it’s the upbeat, poppy feel of the song that led some (including the decorative panels in the stairway of Morleys department store in Brixton) to interpret the lyrics as simply a “celebration of the vibe of the area”. Close listening suggests something rather more specific:

“Now in the streets there is violence, and lots of work to be done…working so hard like a soldier, can’t afford a thing on TV, deep in my heart I abhor ya, can’t get food for the kids, we’re gonna rock down to Electric Avenue, and then we’ll take it higher.”

It would be easy to find irony in the fact that such violent scenes inspired a dance-floor favourite, liable to pop up on wedding disco playlists to this day. But when the events of April 1981 are seen as a moment a when a community under attack fought back, then the celebratory tone of the song seems less incongruous. The government-commissioned inquiry into the rioting led by Lord Scarman was widely seen as a whitewash, but the Uprising did force policymakers to acknowledge the impact of racism, economic deprivation and a lack of opportunities, and led to some much-needed investment in the area.

That was four decades ago, and as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us, there remains ‘lots of work to be done’, to borrow the phrase from Eddy Grant’s song. We still face serious challenges, but they may well have been even greater were it not for the Brixton Uprising of 1981.

A shorter version of this article was originally published by the Brixton Blog

Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music.

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Dave Randall

Dave Randall is a musician and author of Sound System: The Political Power of Music

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