This new documentary directed by Rubika Shah could not have been released at a more favorable time. It is a lively and concise look back at the U.K’s Rock Against Racism movement of the late Seventies. The group was a direct counter-protest to the rise of the virulent anti-immigrant political party the National Front. The RAR was a grassroots movement that were supported by many high-profile punk and reggae bands from that musically fertile era. Coming as it does during the hangover period of Britain’s Brexit fiasco, and the restive aftermath of the election that ousted American’s unapologetic bigot of a president, White Riot shows how this struggle against humanity’s inner demons is a perpetual, vital cause.The only real beef I have with White Riot is its title. Also the name of the Clash’s first single, the song was a fervent call for multi-racial unity against a common foe: a government indifferent to the many societal and economic woes facing the working-class at the time. But the song could be misconstrued the other way (and occasionally was in 1977) and may also lead some to think that this is a film about Joe Strummer and Co. Although the Clash do make several appearances, this is squarely a film about a movement where music plays but a supporting role. Central to this tale is Rock Against Racism founder Red Saunders, now an old grizzly bear of a man sitting in his office surrounded by the memorabilia of the time, esp. many back issues of the group’s handmade newspaper, Temporary Hoardings. Early on, Shah uses some of the available stock footage of National Front rallies and marches, with their drearily obvious signs (“It’s Our Country, Let’s Win It Back”) and speech snippets by those like the odious NF leader Enoch Powell and their paunchy and punchable “activities head” Martin Weber. Saunders came from a background in agit-prop theater and knew how to gain attention for a cause without being a bore about it. When Saunders, who is also a photographer, was asked to shoot at a punk concert, he was instantly bowled over by the Clash. Here was the musical energy that could match the drive of his upstart social movement. The Rock Against Racism manifesto was re-printed in many of Britain’s biggest music mags and that movement quickly spread. Bands that played at RAR-related shows were X-Ray Spex, 999, Steel Pulse, XTC, Sham 69 and the Tom Robinson Band; several members show up in interview snippets. But director Shah makes no mistake in pointing out that the National Front had made race prejudice an “acceptable point of view” in Britain at that time. This extended to some prominent old-guard rock stars. Included in this shameful category was David Bowie (who opined that the nation could “benefit from a fascist leader”) and Rod Stewart, who suggested (from the comfort of his new home in Los Angeles) that all of the UK’s immigrants “should be sent home.” Most egregious was Eric Clapton who, during an infamous 1976 concert in Birmingham, launched into a drunken racist tirade (“get the coons out”) while also asking minority fans in the audience to raise their hands and chanting the NF slogan “Keep Britain White.” Of course, Saunders was all over this, bitterly criticizing Clapton (who built his career on the blues) of musical colonialism and suggesting that the guitar-god may be suffering from a touch of “brain damage.” True, punk did sometimes dabble in Nazi iconography, but you always got the feeling this was for shock value and not the sort of contemptible white privilege on display in the examples above. An enjoyable aspect of White Riot is the emphasis on the inner workings of Temporary Hoardings and the current interviews with staffers like “Irate” Kate Webb, Syd Shelton and Lucy Whitman. The grassroots organizing, in an age before cell phones and the Internet, is inspiring as are the animated re-creations pf the newspaper’s cut-and-paste punk aesthetic. After months of rumbling with NF marchers and right-wing yobs, RAR had its moment in a bravura march from Trafalgar Square (see photo above) to Victoria Park, the ensuing demonstration and concert (headlined by the Clash) drawing close to 100,000 folks. The National Front fizzled at the polls in the ensuing general election (1.3%) but the vote also saw the election of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, who employed the dog whistle instead of the boot to exploit the cause of white grievance. Yet the celebration of cultural diversity promoted by Rock Against Racism has taken hold over the decades, even as populations seem intent on going backwards. So the struggle goes on, but Rubik Shah’s compelling work can act as a valued piece to show us again the way forward. ************************************************** You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick. firstname.lastname@example.org
Though it will never be regarded in the same zeitgeist-defining terms as the 1964 Richard Lester film, the 1980 Clash vehicle “Rude Boy” can be re-considered nowadays as a “Hard Day’s Night” of punk. Both films focus on era-defining bands in a format where documentary elements cohabitate with a lightly-fictionalized script. But whereas the Beatles quipped their way through a trend-setting capital city that was finding its post-war footing, the London Town that the Clash inhabit 15 years later looks a lot different. Grim high-rise council estates, economic misery and openly racist National Front rallies in downtrodden districts seem to be the order of the day. Of course, this is the backdrop from which sprang the punk-rock uprising in England a few years before. By the time of the events of this movie—-1978 and early ’79—-things only look worse and Margaret Thatcher, with the support of multitudes of aggrieved white voters, is poised to be elected Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Clash—-who keenly identify with multiculturalism—-lash out against all this with their razor-sharp riffs and impassioned lyrics. But the film’s shiftless protagonist (played by Ray Gange) plays like a blank slate on which we are not sure what will be written. He’s like a low-information voter in perilous times, making the film retroactively relevant in this age of Brexit and a Trump presidency.
And it is Ray who’s the more-or-less sole focus of “Rude Boy’s” first fifteen minutes or so. We first see him in an iconic UK image of the day: staring down disaffectedly on a grey cityscape from the upper floors of a council tower block. Down the stairs he goes past the KKK graffiti and on out to the unemployment office. Out on the streets of his racially-mixed Brixton neighborhood, the leader at a National Front rally is spewing a xenophobic tirade that would make the Donald look like a Rainbow Coalition spokesman. (Well, maybe not but you get the picture). Although he’s on the dole, Ray works (at least part time) at a dirty bookstore but spends the after-hours in gritty punk venues, eventually shuffling into his screenplay destiny to become a Clash roadie. He’s standing at the back of the club as Joe Strummer and the boys tear through their amped-up version of the reggae anthem “Police and Thieves” and starts to meet them soon after. Gange’s character gets it to a certain extent. Hung up between the long arm of authority and the general malaise, he is attracted to the Clash’s aspirational indignation—-especially so after getting a night in jail for walking down the street and then having the nerve to get “lippy” with an officer who stops him for no reason. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that this case of punk profiling takes places at the corner of Whitehall and Downing Street—-the seat of British of British government power.
Still, Ray makes it clear early and often that he has little use for “left-wing wankers,” making his scene with Strummer at the bar one of the more useful in the film. Ray reveals himself as one of those wishful-thinking “undiscovered millionaires” so beloved of Conservative Party and GOP strategists, while Joe’s rising tide would lift all boats. Strummer’s vision of what lies at the end of a blinkered pursuit of materialism is typically blunt and earnest, a touching up-close moment with the punk populist who died in 2002.
Politics aside, the main draw of “Rude Boy” would be the generous serving of concert clips from the Clash’s early prime. Though the tough issues are never absent for that long, there is still an unbridled joy in watching them bounce onto the stage at the huge Rock Against Racism rally at Victoria Park and get 50,000+ kids bouncing up and down in unison to “London’s Burning.” Jacked-up versions of “White Riot,” “Complete Control,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “What’s My Name” and “I Fought the Law” perfectly capture that era’s twin themes of sedition and disaffection. The stage performances work well with Mingay’s documentary street-protest footage: if you ever needed a real-life visual for “White Riot’s” admiring opening line (“Black people gotta a lot of problems/But they don’t mind throwing a brick”) you’ll get it here.
Clash fans will be quick on the draw with the second half of that couplet: “White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick.” Which brings us back to Ray Gange. When one of his crew takes leave after the RAR rally, road manager Johnny Green pops into the sex shop to offer Ray a job on the band’s upcoming north-of-England tour. Internal and external forms of repression circulate: there are unnerving scenes (scripted or not?) of thuggish security men throwing fans out the side door, in the day when being a gate-crasher or stage-rusher could be very bad for your health. At one point, Ray intervenes on behalf of the kids and the bouncers give him a right pounding as well.
In a more genteel but no less disquieting moment, there is an intercut Thatcher speech. Any quaint notion of broad-based social justice is out the window here, replaced by the Iron Lady’s claim that (Caucasian) people “above all” want to be protected from the strangely omnipresent threat of “violence, theft and intimidation.” Joe Strummer captured this grim turning point in a way that echoes bitterly right down to the 2016 U.S. elections. In “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” the group’s jaunty reggae number sliced through with ear-splitting punk dynamics, Strummer sings of being one of the few palefaces at an all-star revue of Jamaican performers. He seeks solidarity but comes away dismayed at the perceived indifference to the looming political threat. In the live version seen here, Joe delivers the song’s famous climatic line while the camera hones in on Gange, crouched in the wings. “All over, people changing their votes, along with their overcoats,” Strummer cries out, his voice brimming with rage, “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway!” Ray’s expression stays neutral.
Ray Gange in a recent photo. He received a Fine Arts degree in 1997 and has found some success as a painter and sculptor.
Well, they do say all politics are local and it’s in some of “Rude Boy’s” quieter moments that we see a bit of a breakthrough. Gange the inner-city kid appears seems genuinely moved while talking to lead guitarist Mick Jones after he completes studio vocal for “Stay Free,” his neighborhood narrative of meeting up with a childhood mate who’s just been released from Brixton jail after serving a 3-year burglary sentence. Other scenes are just gratefully played for fun: Ray holds the heavy bag while drummer (and martial arts enthusiast) Topper Headon works out, eventually turning his attention to the roadie whom he playfully pummels. In other scenes, Ray does a bit of the ol’ soft shoe while Strummer plays the rehearsal-space piano and Jones, Headon and bassist Paul Simonon are seen in their full rock-rebel glory in several scenes outside a courthouse while they were up before a judge after the air-gun shooting of some birds–who turned out to be expensive racing pigeons—-while their de facto manager at the time, Caroline Coon, also makes a cameo. The Clash are seen quite correctly as a band on the upswing with all that entails. “Things have tightened up,” Johnny Green tells the semi-competent Ray before he’s eased out a job and shambles off into Thatcher’s grave new world, while the band finish up with their mission-statement cover “I Fought the Law,” charging into the 80s as the conscience of rock.
Why in hell the Clash came to disavow this well-meaning and often vital film is puzzling at best. OK, so “Rude Boy” (unlike “A Hard Day’s Night”) will never be thought of as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” The documentary and fiction elements sometimes seem uncertainly cobbled together and the under-developed subplot about a group of black kids caught up in a drug sting would have been better off as a separate project. Johnny Green, in his entertaining and fair-minded 1999 memoir “A Riot of Our Own” says the band made it quite clear they wouldn’t attend the premier at the Berlin International Film Festival and that the same would go for people working for them. Green, who comes across as nobody’s fool, writes “I took delight in telling Mingay on the phone, within Mick Jones’ hearing, ‘See you at the airport.'” He and his road crew partner Barry Baker (who’s also in the film) sat in the balcony and afterwards came down the front aisle, to great applause, to be acknowledged. The film won an Honorable Mention and was playing in London the following month over the band’s objections.
A recommended read for Clash fans.
As the giddy-up ska beat of Clash’s ebullient “Rudie Can’t Fail” plays over the end credits it’s not hard to re-live the enthusiasm of the Berlin festival crowd. It’s not like a lot of them were thinking “Well, someday this will be a valuable record of that era.” I like to think it was just them getting caught up in the film’s implied idea that when the outside world, with its endless perversions of power and money, brings all its pressure to bear and “You need someone for a savior” at least you can follow Rudie’s example, being “rude and reckless” while “drinking brew for breakfast” and in general caring fuck-all for what anyone else thinks because you’ll go it your own way. May it ever be thus.
My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available on Amazon and through my author page at BookLocker.com Please click on the book-cover image (or the link below) to access the 30-page excerpt at BookLocker.