Babylon's Burning: Music, Subcultures and Anti-Fascism in Britain 1958-2020
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Published By Bookmarks Publications
ISBN : 9781912926978
Category : Music
Format : Paperback
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On 21 August 2021 it would have been Joe Strummer's 69th birthday. As two 21's clashed and symbolised the middle-aged to elderly status of the original RAR generation, it seemed like a perfect time to sit down and absorb this powerful, highly informative history of the British anti-fascist/anti-racist movement. Captivated by the opening stages of the story, I read it in two unbroken sessions over that weekend, a deeply rewarding experience and one I'd heartily recommend to anybody with a serious interest in the subject matter.
It's a very important book not least for the way in which it shines a light on the birth of the 'The Stars Campaign for Inter-racial Friendship'', following the Notting Hill riots of 1958. A period in which British fascists whipped up original West London Teddy Boys, into an orgy of gratuitous violence and intimidation upon the growing black community of the area. Until now, this has been a neglected strand of anti-fascist history, with many, many people completely unaware of the organisation's existence. My own knowledge was limited to a few conversations, in which jazz musicians of the era provided sketchy reminiscences, those providing little more than the names of some of the prime movers inside the 'Stars' campaign.
The roles played by people such as Cleo Laine, Johnny Dankworth, Tommy Steele and other famous musical entertainers of the time, are accompanied with detailed descriptions of the network of inter-racial 'clubs' and social activities implemented by the organisation, which even managed to elicit written endorsement and support from the likes of Frank Sinatra. The role of Teddy Boys in those riots provides Blackman with a key template for his second thematic strand, which examines the crucial role played by youth sub- cultures and their deep affiliation with musical progressions over the decades.
This second focus gifts another innovative and original concept to the story, one which I believe could only have been written by a working class product of that culture. Blackman rightfully takes studied issue with certain academics who have questioned the impact of such aspects upon British fascism. Those for instance who have dismissed such factors and accredited Margaret Thatcher with the supposed defeat of the National Front, via her own adoption of a number of their flagship policies. Whilst acknowledging openly that there are no formal academic structures within which the factual impact of something like RAR can be ultimately assessed, he provides weighty reference and evidence on the likely societal dynamics of such energies. In reality, Blackman provides ample illustration of the redundancy of much academic study of the topics covered.
In terms of political figures, Thatcher, Enoch Powell and the intrinsically racist British Conservative Party are not alone within the author's authoritative lens. Harold Wilson's sixties administration and various other Labour MP's and spokespeople are shown in elements of collusion and empowerment of racial prejudice, as is Tony Blair and his shameful campaign of Ministerial contributions, in partnership with The Sun newspaper.
The book is basically divided into three sections, with the spotlight moving from the 1950s up until the ground-changing seventies emergence of 'Rock Against Racism' and on through the years to greet the arrival of the contemporary 'Love Music Hate Racism' organisation. Blackman dissects each embodiment with a keen socio-political blade. In doing so he skilfully links the history of Teddy Boys, Mods, Skinheads, Hippies and Punks with the energies of modern socialist thought and activism. This journey shifts right up to consideration of the football Casuals culture and the emergence of present-day race hate agitators like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon ('Tommy Robinson) and the tactics deployed by the anti-fascist movement to combat such developments. Never shying from approaching divisional and moral questions, the result is an illuminating and thoroughly absorbing chronicle of Anti-Fascist history. As concerns supposed – often mythological – agendas and motivations, Blackman's question as to why socialist organisations are submitted to a different moral barometer as compared to capitalist groups and political parties, is a particularly potent one.
There some extremely succinct and indeed, witty moments inside this framework. At one point, commenting on Ardorno's summary of Art's supposed true aesthetic role outside of the cultural mainstream, Blackman wryly reflects that ''He obviously never saw The Clash''.
There is an enormous scope to the book which is handled with a fine economy of language. Two-Tone, the Rave scene, Bob Geldof's thoroughly consumer based 'Live Aid' campaigns – and the systematic racism which permeated them – are all submitted to examination, as are the conceptual conflicts and strategic options concerning the question of ''From the top down'' or ''From the bottom upwards''? That subject is encapsulated inside the documented split inside the 'Love Music Hate Racism' campaign, a rupturing caused by the conflicting agendas of music industry executives and grassroots street level activists. The former's reluctance to support criticism of Israel's barbaric treatment of the Palestinians, throws up a glaring paradox within their supposed support of Anti-racism.
The book closes with a crucially important look at the deeply sinister State censorship – implemented by the Metropolitan Police – of contemporary Black 'Grime' and 'Drill' music. Many middle-aged people often dismiss the relevance and power of today's teenagers and young people. Blackman correctly refutes these rejections, pointing out that the powers granted to Police to censor the release of Drill videos and recordings, represent the most heavy-handed State intervention against the energies of youth sub-culture in British history. If the authorities are not still frightened of the power of youth culture, then why do they now go to such draconian degrees to suppress it?
In singular context, that question perhaps provides the most powerful and utterly compelling observation of the entire book. 'Babylon's Burning' is an absolutely essential read for anybody aligned to the British Ant-Fascist Movement. More than that, it is a vital and overdue portrait of youth tribes active inside the 20th and 21st century struggle against systematic western racism. It is now over 40 years since I first absorbed the writings of Angela Davis and George Jackson as a dysfunctional young resident of the British Youth Penal system. Those books, along with meetings with people like Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and a subsequent lifetime of cultural and political activism, ignited an engine of constructive resistance to such forces, within me. The long decades of such energies can sometimes leave one weary and disillusioned. At such moments, books like this are an enormously powerful antidote to feelings of despair and frustration. In such times, you often need senses of re-empowerment and commitment. This book should be as widely read as possible. Within its conscientious and dedicated construction, Rick Blackman has provided a truly inspirational tool in the intellectual armoury of the Anti-Fascist/Anti-Racist movement.
The Brother has delivered. Bigtime.
Richard David
23rd August 2021

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