The ‘amazing day’ Leeds came together for the final Rock Against Racism concert 40 years ago

It is 40 years since the final curtain came down on the ‘Rock Against Racism’ series of gigs - with the last show taking place in a multi-cultural corner of Leeds. Kim Revill reports.

The Specials were among the bands performing at the concert. Picture: Syd Shelton
The Specials were among the bands performing at the concert. Picture: Syd Shelton

This Sunday will mark the 40th anniversary since a fondly-remembered concert in the Chapeltown area of Leeds closed the Rock Against Racism concerts which had toured the country and mirrored the mood for improved racial equality after a year of rioting on Britain’s streets.

Renowned photographer Syd Shelton drove up to his native West Yorkshire to take images of the emotive event in Leeds’ Potternewton Park.

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He shared the journey with Red Saunders, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism.

Music fans at the concert in Potternewton Park on July 4, 1981. Picture: Syd Shelton

Shelton recalls: “Before Rock Against Racism, black bands mainly played to black audiences and white mostly white; RAR helped get rid of that.

“It was an amazing day, the weather was good and the audience was a mixture of dreads, mods, rude boys and punks.”

The racially harmonious line-up for the Leeds Carnival Against Racism, included headline act, The Specials – who debuted their eponymous number one single Ghost Town.

They were joined by reggae bands Misty In Roots and Aswad, Rhoda Dakar, Leeds locals The Mekons, Delta5, Gang of Four and ska bands The Beat and the Selecter to name but a few.

This final gig in the summer of 1981 followed a series of concerts aimed to quell the rising tide of nationalism in the UK and they illustrated a wider Rock Against Racism and Anti-Nazi League movement to stamp out inequality, fundamentally by educating the music loving youth.

Shelton, who was living in London at the time, says: ‘There were still signs on the doors saying, ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. We said that way of thinking was instilled from a young age. The only way to change it was by educating the young.

“Rock Against Racism did help change the thinking to all of that. I remember there was great harmony at the Leeds carnival that day.”

One of the festival goers included 19-year old Leeds student, Josephine Graydon, who described it as a “tranquil black and white sea of racial harmony”.

She adds: “We thought this marked a real change. I liked Billy Bragg’s summation that the Rock Against Racism movement was the time that the younger generation finally took sides and we were on the side which was a force for good.”

The Leeds carnival took place against a backdrop of a series of spring riots which were largely seen to be racially-motivated as white youths frequently clashed with the black and Asian communities.

Some were railing against the reign of the Thatcher government which they blamed for rising unemployment and poverty in inner cities across the UK but the BAME community were regularly targeted.

Chapeltown was the epicentre for the Leeds riots so organisers were keen to show the antithesis to negative public perception at the time to this particular LS7 postcode.

The Rock Against Racism movement was largely ignited by rock musician, Eric Clapton’s controversial outburst, ranting about ‘foreigners’.

He was seen to have endorsed Conservative MP, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech made nearly a decade earlier in Birmingham.

Powell caused a political storm in 1968 by deliberately targeting immigrants to bear the brunt of his ire; in particular those migrating from the Commonwealth countries.

Clapton’s outburst came during one of his concerts in 1976 and his words included the belief that Britain had become ‘overcrowded’ and that people should vote for Powell.

These opinions incensed photographers like Shelton, Ruth Gregory and Red Saunders.

Along with friends Roger Huddle, Jo Wreford, Pete Bruno and swathes of others, they responded by appealing for the young to stamp out racism through the letters pages of the left-leaning New Musical Express.

Further action was needed to spread the ethos behind Rock Against Racism’s chosen mantra, ‘Love Music, Hate Racism’, and the campaign was to be backed by a string of concerts teaming mainly white post punk bands with reggae, blues and funk artists.

The first RAR gig was held at the Princess Alice pub in London featuring main acts, Carol Grimes and Matumbi but momentum gathered in other towns and cities across the UK and the move was endorsed by musicians, artists, writers, photographers and fans.

Barbados-born Dennis Bovell, Matumbi’s erstwhile guitarist, now a respected writer, artist and producer, said unity was necessary to tackle the hostile environment that was around at the time.

In Leeds, post-punk bands like Gang of Four, led by the late Andy Gill, The Mekons and Delta5, fervently got behind the move too while the West Midlands bore supporters from ska bands like the Specials, the Selecter and The Beat.

On April 30, 1978, 100,000 people defiantly marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney for the inaugural Rock Against Racism concert headlined by The Clash who performed White Riot.

The event also included Tom Robinson Band, X-Ray Spex, Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey, and Misty in Roots. Other RAR and ANL gigs followed suit in London’s Hyde Park and in cities up and down the country.

Many organisers said they were met with cynicism from certain members of the police force who were scathing about the move, saying RAR would never muster enough support: They were wrong.

Thousands descended on Leeds in 1981 to march from the city centre towards Chapeltown before merging with the crowd for the carnival.

David Oluwale’s murder, 12 years earlier, was said to be firmly in the thoughts of many. Oluwale, a Nigerian homeless man, was found drowned in the River Aire, in Leeds and his death was seen as a result of ‘hounding’ by certain members of West Yorkshire Police after witnesses had come forward.

The officers in question were cleared of manslaughter and grievous bodily harm but two were sentenced to three years for actual bodily harm.

This final unified concert left a lasting legacy and the widespread belief was that the seed for change was definitely planted through the campaign.

RAR’s ‘Love Music, Hate Racism,’ mantra still lives on says Shelton, who adds that most RAR members are today still campaigning for racial equality.

“The Specials’ Jerry Dammers, told me at the time that the Leeds concert was the day RAR handed the baton over to the 2Tone label.”

The legacy of RAR did pave the way for racial and women’s equality as many were and still are, behind the feminist movement.

“But it is still a struggle; the fight, of course, still goes on.”

Author's book on Leeds' hidden gems

Kim Revill is the author of 111 Places in Leeds That You Shouldn’t Miss.

The Leeds-born author released the book last year and it includes entertaining insights and an insider’s guide to parts of the city less well-known to visitors.

A spokesperson for the book said: “Whether you’re a first-time visitor or lifelong resident, exploring Leeds offers endless surprises – fascinating sights and stories, both ancient and modern, concealed in plain view.

“From multiracial music lovers to local ales, from a modern-day boxing legend to rhubarb, Leeds will surprise you at every turn. Her composition of 111 unusual places, in combination with the stunning photos by Alesh Compton, will enchant you and make you fall in love with this intriguing city.”

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