Book Review: Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel

walls come tumblingDaniel Rachel’s excellent new book focuses on the links between music and politics in the 1980s. Ostensibly an oral history of three epochal movements of the era – Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge – ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ shows how these campaigns politicised a whole generation.

Fresh from his fine ‘Isle Of Noises’ tome which interviewed key British songwriters, Rachel opens his contacts book again to get telling contributions from Pauline Black, Dennis Bovell, Billy Bragg, Lloyd Cole, Elvis Costello, Jerry Dammers, Andy Gill, Junior Giscombe, Paul Heaton, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Tracey Thorn, Tom Robinson, Paul Simonon, Paul Weller and many more. There are also many rare or never-before-published photos of the era by the likes of Pennie Smith, Jill Furmanovsky and Kevin Cummins.

The story starts on 5th August 1976 when Eric Clapton used a notorious Birmingham Odeon gig to lambast the audience, calling for ‘w*gs’ and ‘P*kis’ to ‘leave the country’ and pledging his support for Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP who eight years earlier had made the infamous ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech. Clapton’s shocking proclamations sparked the Rock Against Racism movement, a campaign also inflamed by David Bowie’s comments to Playboy magazine concerning Hitler and the rise of fascism.

Rock Against Racism march, Trafalgar Square, April 1978

Rock Against Racism march, Trafalgar Square, April 1978

This troubling era is picked over in immense detail, with various jaw-dropping artefacts: Clapton’s handwritten ‘apology’ letter to Sounds magazine is printed in full, and there’s also an extremely rare photo of Bowie’s ‘Nazi salute’ at Victoria station in May 1976 (as well as a new-to-this-writer explanation/apology from Bowie). Black musicians and music-biz legends also comment with great candour about life in the UK during this period.

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The 2 Tone movement attacked racism at its source while many artists under that umbrella also supported the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament and Rock Against Sexism. When Margaret Thatcher swept to a second term of office in 1983, bolstered by the Falklands War, a new pacifism emerged, typified by tracks like Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding‘ and Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang‘.

Later, as the miners’ strike took hold and Thatcher’s assault on socialism gathered pace, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg formed the Red Wedge movement which focused its attentions on ousting her in the 1987 General Election. It wasn’t to be, of course – although she did resign in December 1990.

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The final section of ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ focuses on Dammers and various accomplices’ efforts to raise public awareness about the banned ANC, with high-profile singles and the famous 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium, followed by his eventual freeing from jail on 11th February 1990.

Full of juicy details, potent memories of a far more passionate and politically-engaged era of pop music, and gripping, sometimes moving testimonies, this fascinating book outlines a period when youth culture demanded a voice.

‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ is published by Picador.

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No More Protest Songs? Red Wedge 30 Years On

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The Red Wedge gang including Paul Weller, Jimmy Somerville and Glenn Gregory meet Ken Livingstone and Labour leader Neil Kinnock, 1987

Some might say that music and politics should never mix. But it’s less than two weeks to the General Election here in England. Looking at the music press or listening to music radio, you’d never know it.

Is politics just terminally uncool? Do today’s musicians not give a damn about who gets into power? It seems to be a mixture of both, though I was intrigued to see Paloma Faith hand-picking the writer Owen Jones to open some of her recent gigs.

The deafening silence (apart from a recent Jazz For Labour event at the Barbican) can’t help but beg comparison to the state of play 30 years ago when the movement known as Red Wedge got underway. Formed in 1985 initially as a Labour-supporting group to encourage young people to vote and get Margaret Thatcher out of office, it arguably politicised a second generation of music fans a decade after Rock Against Racism and punk. Though I was too young to fully understand Red Wedge’s aims (and too young to vote), I certainly took notice.

Red Wedge officially started on 21st November 1985 when Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Strawberry Switchblade were invited to a reception at the Palace of Westminster by Labour MP Robin Cook. Major tours followed in the next few years leading up to the 1987 General Election featuring additional artists such as The Communards, The Style Council, Junior, Jerry Dammers, Madness, The The, Bananarama, Prefab Sprout, Elvis Costello, Sade, The Beat, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and The Smiths. In short, this was no Mickey Mouse setup.

Unfortunately, their efforts amounted to diddly squat; the 1987 election resulted in a third consecutive Conservative victory. But at least they tried and their message didn’t fall on deaf ears. And where is the new batch of protest songs and protest singers? Unfortunately the current crop of musicians are just like most of the politicians: bland, middle-of-the-road, lacking in ideas and desperate not to offend.