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Saturday, 3 October 2015

Rock Against Racism exhibition: a message to you Rudie

I had a quick dash around the Syd Shelton Rock Against Racism photo exhibition at the Autograph ABP gallery in east London the other night. Hmm, photos and music - we've been there before (here and here for example!).

Never quite sure I get all that much out of these exhibitions, but hey, that's probably down to my own (many) deficiencies. But ... yeah, some evocative concert shots of The Specials, The Clash, Misty In Roots, The Beat, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Undertones, Sham 69 and others.

Feargal Sharkey, the whitest man alive

All perfectly fine. There's some stark black-and-white photography, famous people captured in their long-lost youth (Paul Simonon's trying-hard-to-out-Billy-Idol-Billy-Idol's all-pout-and-cheekbones "punk pin-up" look, Terry Hall's lugubrious kohl-eyed clown face), and, as so often with these exhibitions, a melancholy sense of time irretrievably lost.

The background details are sometimes good as well. In one photo - a backstage image of a Barry Forde Band/Leyton Buzzards gig in 1979 - I spotted this daubed slogan: "Dead punks don't pogo". No, indeed they don't. 

With Shelton's work though, I found the images of the fans more interesting than the musicians and their (not very glamorous) surroundings. There's the main promo shot of some black teenagers at a Specials gig in Leeds (one with a look of total rapture on his face), and some excellent shots of identikit punk women with their Soo Catwoman/Siouxsie Sioux eye make-up and Rock Against Racism lapel badges.

We're all individuals, we are

Even better are one or two images of the female skins, who to me often have a tough-but-tender look, androgyny battling it out with the bovver boy stereotype they're playing with and (possibly unintentionally) subverting. 

Skinheads v racists

Or not always subverting. Seeing Shelton's skins/short-haired punks puts me in mind of the photo of Iain McKell's that Dazed recently ran showing the deeply unpleasant side of the late-70s/early-80s skinhead scene. A young woman putting on make-up in front of an old-fashioned dressing-table mirror which is casually adorned with "Send Them Back" and other neo-Nazi postcards. Lovely.

In my own glorious gig-going career, a notable event (my second-ever gig) was me going to a biggish Specials' concert in Coventry in 1981, more or less at the peak of their 2 Tone fame. I went with two people from my old school where The Specials phenomenon had been pretty huge. One of these two (neither particular friends of mine) was a chubby Asian kid (parents from India?) who received plenty of our school's typical oh-so-racially-sensitive treatment ("You fucking Paki! Why don't you go back to your own country?"). He didn't fuck off back to India/Pakistan, though, he went to see The Specials instead. Enjoy yourself ...

Looking back, I wonder how much Rock Against Racism changed anything. To judge from surveys of the great British public's growing "concern" over immigration, there is if anything a lot more racism now than there was in the late 70s, just the racism is differently expressed ("too much immigration" not "the blacks are the problem").

Keeping Britain Two-Tone

I definitely like the way RAR made a point of bringing together punk and reggae bands, and the movement was eminently ... laudable. But, like Red Wedge, I don't really think these musical campaigns quite work somehow. Too predictable? Artistically deadening?

Anyway, Shelton's photos are undoubtedly worth a look and I don't mean to disparage them or the scene they document. I'll even check the exhibition out again now the first-night throngs obscuring the photos themselves (!) have pushed off to the next exhibition opening. But oddly enough I've got two other mini-criticisms of the RAR exhibition.

One: I don't think there are any colour photographs on display - a shame I think, though possibly entirely intended. So there are indeed two tones at this exhibition: back and white.

And second: there's no music playing in a gallery exhibiting photographs ... about a music scene. C'mon! Someone do a reggae/punk/ska mixtape and send it in to the organisers, quick. This is a message to you Rudie ..

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