The UK and especially London were places of great musical activity and creativity in the 70s. At the end of the decade two genres seemingly wide apart, Reggae and Punk, came together. What came out of it was not only musically innovative but also tackled some important social and political issues at the time.
While a number of young black people born in Britain were searching for aspects of their identity through Rastafarianism and Reggae, Punk became a voice of protest for a large section of the white working-class youth. Both blacks and working-class whites were badly affected by the economic downturn, suffering amongst other things from unemployment and poor housing. It is therefore no surprise that they ended up connecting with each other. Being both social outcasts, Rastas and Punks joined forces in a broad musical, social and political struggle.
Punks were maybe the first to make the connection with reggae music, by covering some of the genre’s classics. Though not all punks were keen on playing reggae, a number of bands had a close affinity with the music. On their first album for instance, The Clash made a cover of Junior Murvin’s hit Police and Thieves.
Police harassment of blacks was frequent at the time and was the most visible display of the institutional racism that prevails to this day in the UK. Fighting racism and discrimination as well as the capitalist state that enhances them was one of the major issues raised by the reggae / punk movement. The Junior Murvin song, which was once played from an upstairs window when anti-fascist demonstrators attacked the National Front march in Lewisham, South London, in August 1977, encapsulates this idea.
Police and Thieves, by Junior Murvin. 1976.
It is around 1976 and 1977 that reggae and punk really came together. At The Roxy, a club in Covent Garden where punk bands performed, a DJ called Don Letts played reggae and dub records between different acts. He was friends with Paul Simonon, the bassist from The Clash, and John Lydon, the singer of The Sex Pistols. Both of them were great reggae fans and it was sometimes them who turned him onto tunes, rather than the other way around.
If 1977 is the year punk really came of age, it was just as important a year for reggae music. This is when the roots reggae vocal trio Culture released the album Two Sevens Clash, which became one of the dominant albums of the year. The title song, a mystical invocation of the apocalypse implying that 1977 would be a year of great social change, became somewhat of a punk anthem.
Two Sevens Clash, by Culture. 1977.
A year earlier, the Notting Hill Carnival had seen violence erupt between the police and young black Britons. What happened at the Carnival heavily influenced the punk movement, structuring a musical and cultural movement into one that had social and political concerns. As Paul Gilroy writes in There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack :
"... the genesis of punk coincided with militant action by young blacks in the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot. The imagery of black, urban insurgency was particularly visible as the nation reflected on the carnival explosion and the defeat of the Metropolitan Police by mobs of stone-throwing youths. [...] The street carnival, with its bass-heavy sound systems pumping out the new militant ’rockers’ beat of reggae as the half bricks and bottles flew overhead, demonstrated to the punks the fundamental continuity of cultural expression with political action. The two were inextricably interwoven into a dense and uncompromising statement of black dissent which was a source of envy and of inspiration to a fledging punk sensibility. This envy and its creative consequences were spelled out by the Clash in their song White Riot"
White Riot, by The Clash, at the Rock Against Racism festival in 1978.
In 2007, in one of his latest anti-immigration outbursts, Morrissey was lamenting the disappearance of British identity, blaming immigration for it. Somehow reflecting some of the anti-immigration policies put in place by various governments in the UK, Morrissey has a history of his own when it comes to airing nationalist views. Apart from declaring he dislikes Pakistanis and loves the sight of skinheads, he is known for saying that reggae is a vile form of music only glorifying black supremacy. In 1992, he also said ’I really don’t think, for instance, black people and white people will really ever get on or like each other’.
Such racist ideology, proved wrong only by the association of punks and rastas some 15 years before he uttered these words, is amongst others what the Rock Against Racism (RAR) movement was set up to fight against. Founded in August 1976 by a small group of activists in and around the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the immediate spur for the formation of the movement was precisely a racist comment made by Eric Clapton at a concert in Birmingham. During the concert he expressed on many occasions his support for Enoch Powell, a Tory MP strongly opposed to immigration, championing nationalism, and whose speeches throughout the 60s and 70s had stirred up racist feelings and attacks against black Britons.
The politics of the RAR movement were mostly derivative of the SWP’s analysis. The main call was for for blacks and whites to unite and fight along the fundamental lines of class. However, despite the SWP’s involvement, the movement somehow deviated from traditional leftist politics in the sense that it recognised and emphasised the autonomous value of youth cultures and the radical potential of rock, reggae, or music in general.
To a large extent, RAR organised and shaped itself on a grassroots basis, rather than on a party politics line. Influenced by the anti-authoritarian punk ideology, it was run collectively by the various people involved in it, who tried to explore new means of political expression. This could be seen most clearly in the visuals and designs of the RAR broadsheets and magazines, which formally broke from the usual leftist propaganda by using montages and collages, and generally resorted to visual rather than verbal communication.
A cover of the RAR fanzine the Temporary Hoarding.
The Clash got heavily involved in the RAR movement, which culminated in a music festival in April 1978 in Victoria Park, London, where many Punk and Reggae bands such as The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Steel Pulse or The Ruts performed under the same banner and the same motto ’Black and White Unite and Fight’. This motto, which was that of the RAR movement from the start, revealed extended common political interests between blacks and white punks. Beyond the cohesive struggle against racism, a challenge to nationalism and capitalism was what united Reggae and Punk into one movement. As Paul Gilroy writes, again in There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack :
"Drawing on the language and style of roots culture in general and Rastafari in particular, punks produced not only their own critical and satirical commentary on the meaning and limits of white ethnicity but a conceptual framework for seeing and then analysing the social relations of what Temporary Hoarding called ’Labour Party Capitalist Britain’. The dread notion of ’Babylon System’ allowed disparate and apparently contradictory expressions of the national crisis to be seen as a complex, interrelated whole, a coherent structure of which racism was a primary characteristic, exemplifying and symbolizing the unacceptable nature of the entire authoritarian capitalist edifice."
A well-balanced mix between punk and reggae, The Slits offered their own satirical take at consumerism in their song Spend, spend, spend.
Spend, spend, spend by The Slits in 1979 (Don Letts video).
Due in part to the economic downturn, nationalism was on the rise in 1977, the year of the Royal Jubilee. Drawing a relation between nationalism and racism, the punks were eager to develop forms of anti-racism that also challenged English nationalism. A large section of them ended up rejecting all conceptions of Britishness and whiteness in general, further establishing the connection with black culture. John Lydon, singer of The Sex Pistols before joining dub-influenced group Public Image Ltd with bassist Jah Wobble once said in an interview to an American Journalist :
"There’s no such thing as patriotism any more. I don’t care if it blows up... England never was free. It was always a load of bullshit.... Punks and Niggers are almost the same thing... When I come to America I’m going straight to the ghetto..." 
The song The Suit which appeared on P.I.L.’s second album Metal Box, can be read as a critique of the middle-class aspirations prevailing in English society, and which some people adhered to all too easily.
The Suit, by P.I.L.. 1979.
In the aftermath of the RAR festival in Victoria park, bands such as The Specials started to take centre stage. Jerry Dammers, founder of The Specials, established a new record label called 2-Tone Records to relase the band’s albums as well as the music of similar bands. This was the rise of the two-tone ska movement, which ended up taking over from the association of reggae and punk. Reggae gradually lost the radical political content it once had as it started to be appropriated and used as a political tool by the two main party leaders in Jamaica. By the time Michael Manley’s socialist government got replaced by the America-backed regime of Edward Seaga in 1980, reggae had ceased to be a genuine underground voice of protest for the local youth.
Similarly, as happens with all radical ideas or movements, punk was gradually appropriated into capitalism. RAR continued to develop but under the increasingly strong influence of the Anti-Nazi League, a front organisation of the SWP. They were working on a narrow anti-National Front agenda rather than focusing on an extensive definition of anti-racism as was first the case with RAR. The broad and radical political line of the reggae/punk association and the autonomous forms of organisation it created thus disappeared into rigid party politics and got diluted into the marketing and consumerism they once stood against.
Bands like Madness, Bad Manners or later The Police even rearticulated the two-tone music genre into a distinctively white British style, depriving it of all progressive, if not revolutionary, content.
Only a few bands such as The Beat or The Specials, both made up of black and white musicians, continued to address the politics of class and race in their music. This stance was visible in the recurring black-and-white chequered which was designed for the label and symbolised the same racial unity that was initiated by the reggae / punk association.
The song It’s up to you by The Specials shows the importance that they attached to the autonomous self-organisation of blacks and whites, as they call for them to unite and fight. For this generation, this was not only the original motto of the RAR movement but the most effective way to challenge the racist, capitalist state.
It’s Up to You, by The Specials, in 1980.
To a large extent, the information contained in this article is taken from the above-mentioned book by Paul Gilroy, chapter 4 ’Two Sides of Anti-Racism’. The book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of the relations between race, class and popular culture in UK.
 Regarding Lydon’s dubious choice of words, Lester Bangs’ 1979 article on racism chic in the punk scene, "The White Noise Supremacists"—though written about the American punk scene—remains edifying.
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