Red Wedge – Walls Come Tumbling Down

We’re a Sleaford Mods tribute act’ Daniel Says to Russ, as the two face the audience to launch ‘Days Like These’ at Humber Mouth, inside the James Reckitt Reading Room. Daniel Rachel’s book called ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ documents three different revolutionary movements that were inextricably linked to music and musicians of the time. Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge when pop music became the vehicle to propel a Socialist message. Led by folk musician and political activist Billy Bragg, Red Wedge became a rallying call and a focus for disengaged youths, that swept across Thatcher’s Britain.

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

In 1976 you had Eric Clapton’s infamous ‘Enoch was right speech’ then two years later Rock Against Racism gigs with Jerry Dammers at Victoria Park. There were a quarter of a million people on Clapham Common in 86 then in 1990 a global audience of 600 million watched the release of Nelson Mandela – and Jerry Dammers who formed the 2 Tone movement – wrote the anti-apartheid anthem Free Nelson Mandela.

Red Wedge and the subsequent Red Wedge Tour of 86, featured diverse bands and artists such as The Style Council with Paul Weller, The Communards with Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles (now Reverend Richard Coles) Madness, Lloyd Cole and many others collaborating and campaigning ‘against the darkest days of Thatcherite Britain

During the research for his book, Daniel unearthed a videocassette tape filmed during 86, that documented the tour as it travelled from city to city. The footage has been transferred on to DVD and so tonight, after not seeing the light of day for thirty years, the Hull audience got to see Days Like These.

‘Red Wedge formed in 85, January86 was the inauguration of Red Wedge, this film is an incredible document and record of politically aware pop stars of the day: it’s a historical archive.’

There’s a very young Suggs in his denim jacket, shaking on the stage, and Paul Weller and Junior Giscombe. Hints at a few rock n roll hijinks, with Phil Jupitus – Porky the Poet as he was known – doing a running commentary of the artists, getting on the bus after a night on Paul Weller’s cocktail: crème de menthe, frappe and Domestos. Porky also shows of his spoken word chops, with a brilliant suited and booted poem ‘Scheme of things.’

There are many highlights in the film, musicians writing postcards home whilst on tour for one: how things have changed. The music despite the grainy visual quality the music has endured, Many Rivers To Cross, Don’t Leave Me This Way, don’t Look Any Further with artists crowded mics on stage jamming together, sound great. A disenchanted Johnny Marr in blue sweatshirt and hooped earing, Tom Robinson one of the big names from Rock against Racism: eighties haircuts and fashions, fresh faced young men and women unified, mobilising the youth. ‘What you gonna do for us?’ shouts a voice from the crowd. ‘What you gonna do for yourself? responds Weller.

Watching the film, apart from the thrill of seeing all the grainy footage of the young stars half a life time ago, it is surprising just how openly political they are. They took a risk, with the press, the public and their record companies. Some parts of the music industry had to be educated, the value of allowing their artists a certain amount of freedom.

‘Record Companies realised that music with radical revolt was good for sales’

Eighties Britain was a time of high unemployment, low wages and a Conservative government intent on ripping the heart out of industries and communities, with impunity. Union led protests against the privatisation of national industries led to rail strikes, postal strikes and the miners strike. Britain was a very volatile place with different sections of society, being pitted against each other.

Red Wedge was revolutionary because like the Rock Against Racism and 2-tone movements before it, it brought different groups, black, white, gay, straight together, to stand under one banner. In the case of Red Wedge that banner read remove Margaret Thatcher from power.

Red Wedge identified with the Labour party and entered the corridors of Westminster to try an effect policy change. Then by taking the Socialist message on the road, they effected real change in the country.

It is no accident that despite Labour losing the 87 election, the swing to the Left was a whopping great 7% amongst 18-25 year olds, nationally the swing was just 3%.

Tom Watson MP, then a librarian said, ’You danced the dances, wore the natty threads and eventually the read the lyrics.’

Pop music was the new medium to talk about politics and all those on the Red Wedge Tour believed it was better to be part of the cure not the cause. Billy, Paul and Jimmy had met playing benefit gigs and felt they needed to do something more with their pop status. They could have gone back to appearing on the glossy pages of Smash Hits, instead they all jumped in a bus and toured the length and breadth of the country.

In each town they visited, Red Wedge held day events where people could come along and talk to local and national politicians, and the pop stars, about their own situation. They effectively created a platform for the voiceless from the ground up.

The mainstream media was biased against socialist ideology and demonised the working classes. Red Wedge wasn’t just a propaganda machine, but something to change attitudes and readdress the balance.

The pop presses just wanted the wackiness, not the fact that the band had just come from a CND rally or a Greenpeace march. It was publications like the NME that carried the story and pushed the political message of Red Wedge.

Red Wedge inspired many people to action, the pop stars provided the draw undoubtedly, but when the tour bus had moved on, real groups were formed that began to debate issues and become active, in their own communities.

“Come over to my place, the solutions to our problems, we’ll find a way.”

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments
Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

With radical politics and music at the heart of the book and film, the Q and A was bound to throw up some disagreements. The overall message from Days Like These wasn’t to become a card-carrying member of the Labour Party, it was to be politically aware. The parallels between then and now are unmistakable, rise of far right, seemingly immovable Tory Govt, unemployment, low wages, disenfranchised youth, low opportunities… could such a movement happen now?

Perhaps, through social media, but as Russ points out, any pop star with any clout today daren’t enter the political fray, for fear of being shot down by trolls and derided by the press. There are some musicians whose lyrics are issue-led, socially and politically aware, the aforementioned Sleaford Mods and Kate Tempest are good examples. With the following message ringing out loud we ended what was a nostalgic, enjoyable and for some emotive, event.

‘Be the change you want to see in the world’

Buy Walls Come Tumbling Down The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge by Daniel Rachel