Take no heroes – only inspiration: the Redskins and me
By Colin Revolting
If you type ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ into a search engine the first results that appear are not references to the slogan of the International Socialists and, later, Socialist Workers Party, but an album by the Redskins. The Redskins were formed by a couple of committed revolutionaries that loved music and saw it as a vehicle to popularise revolutionary politics. Touring extensively over a few of years, with a handful of dynamite songs and a unique, astonishing album, they helped to inspire a generation of young activists. They were also the catalyst for an anti-racist youth movement which prospered in Europe for a decade. The band fanned the flames for a few years but eventually burned out. The price they paid? Years of debt, stress, and possibly worse. But before they imploded they realised much of their potential.
I’d been drawn into activism as a teenager but had resisted the talking shops of left wing meetings. I was one of the many teenagers whose world had been turned upside down by the rebellion of punk, and formed a punk band at school. Since that time I’d done badly at my A Levels, become bored with crap jobs, and tired of time on the dole. My big hope that being in a band would free me from a life of boredom was fading fast. At 21 life hadn’t panned out as I’d wanted. As a friend observed at the time, I was, “ripe for religion”. That wasn’t about to happen to me.
I was not alone: 3.5 million people were unemployed. Like many I had gravitated towards the local music scene and a crowd of young people in bands who were either signing on, in casual jobs or attending college. That left us with endless time to plot, dream and, occasionally, rehearse. We were hoping to create a cultural life as an alternative to the deadly nine to five grind.
1981: Peasant Army
The Redskins were a different breed to the local bands I knew. They had focus, drive and a work ethic. This was largely down to Chris Dean, their singer and guitarist. I first met him before the band had even struck their first note, on the 1981 Right to Work Campaign (RTWC) march from Liverpool to Blackpool. No week-long RTWC march was complete without the crucial component of live culture. Punk and Reggae bands played on the back of moving lorries and at night-time gigs. I’d joined the annual RTWC marches in 1978 and 1980 and by the 1981 march I was with the Rock Against Racism (RAR) crew organising the evening entertainment. Volunteers from amongst the marchers stewarded the gigs. Two serious, skinny 18 or 19-year-old skinheads, Chris and Martin Hewes – their future bass player – were given the job of standing watch on one of the fire exits at Blackburn’s King George’s Hall. Chris was scribbling in a note-book. They were eager to talk about a band they were planning. Their previous group had been called No Swastikas, and the next would probably be called Redskins. “Not The Redskins, as we are not the only Redskins,” Chris explained.
They were named for skinheads in Sheffield who were left wing and actively anti-racist and anti-fascist, unlike many of the skinheads in London that I’ve written about previously. Chris seemed quiet that first time we met, but it was only because he was busy writing a four-page diary of a Right To Work marcher. That was so impressive I wasn’t sure I believed him. But sure enough ‘The Road to Blackpool Pier’ appeared in the following week’s New Musical Express (NME) paper – the best-selling, coolest and most influential youth magazine of the 1970s and 1980s – under his dole-dodging moniker X Moore:
“Steep hills all the way to Blackburn, steep hills in the town. I get dragged off with a crew of red skins to do security at the Blitz/Mo-dettes RAR gig tonight. We do a tour of the fire exits in Blackburn’s King George’s Hall and come back to guard them after a meal in a cafe. The venue looks like the Hippodrome and smells like the Palladium – a RAR Oi! gig in plush surroundings. More contradictions. Sit around backstage most of the night so [the bands] are just a throbbing noise.”
When I got home I flicked through my pile of recent NMEs and a handful of gig reviews credited to X Moore. When me and my mates were in the sixth form we had considered that, after being in a band, writing for the NME was the other thing was worth doing. We had run a fanzine for a year but when we didn’t get ‘discovered’ by the NME we had given up.
Chris and me wrote a couple of postcards to each other after the march. He explained that they were moving to London to launch the band. We also talked on the phone. He was surprised I wasn’t in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I was surprised that he was so proud to be. Most of the people I knew through RAR and RTWC were independent socialists, feminists and ex-members of the SWP. He told me, “Stop sounding so miserable!” He came down to Woolwich, in south-east London, to see my band Dali’s Car play. X Moore published a positive review in the NME:
“I’d like to introduce Dali’s Car,” says Colin and lets loose with some demented vocals before propping himself up on the mikestand, pushing back his specs with the microphone and warbling… The unemployed kids applaud and the band play Street Party, a quick pop tract on the summer’s riots, “It’s not gonna change society, it’s just a working class street party.” Dali’s Car play a lot of benefit gigs but, ‘zwept, the sound shakes up preconceptions about a benefit band, the song titles take you by surprise. Tesco Takeover settles it. 1234… Take over… Tesco’s!”
Chris recognised we were mixing music and politics in the way he was intending to do with the Redskins. We were hardly alone in this: many of the biggest bands were doing so. Not just The Clash and The Jam, but Gang of Four, Dexys Midnight Runners, The Specials. In their rehearsal room the Redskins were cooking up a brew which took something from all of those bands. But the Redskins were to take things further than them. They took no prisoners.
“We can talk of riots and petrol bombs and revolution all day long,
But if we fail to organise we’ll waste our lives on protest songs.”
1982: Lean On Me
“The first thing that needs to be said
Is hate’s all very well
But hatred must be organised
If dreams are to be realised
And anger is no substitute
For disciplined rebellion
To unionise is to organise”
My 23-year-old brother Stuart had set up Woolwich Right To Work Campaign (WRTWC) to bring together local youths who were fed up being unemployed but didn’t care for the type of employment we were being offered. We organised a local march for Fares Fair, the campaign to make bus fares more affordable. I was driving a flat-back truck and we’d got Conflict, a well-known anarchist band who lived locally, to play on the back. We also asked the Redskins. Only about 50 or 60 young people turned up, we had problems getting the generator started and the police didn’t arrest anyone: the march felt a bit flat. The year before a thousand schoolkids had swarmed into Woolwich for our march against unemployment and on the subsequent march four of our group were arrested by Special Branch cops, who were in town because of an IRA bomb had been found near the local army barracks.
The Redskins’ Chris, Martin and drummer Nick King joined the march wearing black balaclavas. We didn’t know why. Maybe it was because local skinheads were known to be fascists; we were always on edge because of the chance of attack by Nazi skins from nearby Welling or from the East End. At the end of the march we parked up on a grass verge in the sun and the bands played. It was an unspectacular debut for the Redskins but indicated what the band’s approach would be – linking their music as closely as possible to political action. One lyric stood out through the dodgy PA system and growling generator. Chris goaded the anarchists, and wannabe rioters, amongst the small crowd, singing, “Do you want to change the world – or do you just want to throw petrol bombs at it?”
As Woolwich RTWC our plans to build a local youth group weren’t amounting to much. We organised gigs and the march which turned into a mini-riot, then got caught up in a defence campaign for our arrested members, but hadn’t built anything that was sustainable. People were moving on – one or two were drawn towards the local fascists. That was bad, but emphasised the need for a left wing pole of attraction in the first place. Stuart had been fanatically active for the last couple of years but was losing patience and looking elsewhere. That summer he travelled to Papua New Guinea. Something about that experience affected Stuart. He later moved permanently Papua New Guinea.
The Redskins’ official debut was in a grotty community hall near London Bridge at the end of the 1982 Right To Work protest. This time we marched around London for five days and The Jam did a secret gig for the marchers. The NME’s rival music paper, Sounds, said, “Redskins bashed out fiery salvoes of uncompromising protest [with a] harsh heavy sound that mirrors their harsh heavy politics”, and called for, “more melody and less metal.”
They may not have shown it that first night but Chris knew why music was important:
“Why is rock’n’roll exciting? Because it’s got all sorts of different elements – uplifting music, rebellious spirit, sex, style, subversion… Political bands are a dirty word since the arse end of RAR, but that’s because they missed the point of what makes great music. James Brown meant a million times more than they ever did. If people aren’t listening to the music they certainly aren’t listening to the words. A Town Called Malice, Ghost Town, The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum – they were all great because they were popular and they had something to say. ‘Course, the easiest way to get a hit is to forget politics all together.”
In the name of Woolwich RTWC I released a collection of songs by left wing bands called Militant Entertainment. The cassette tape opened with Kick Out the Tories by the Newtown Neurotics. This was the most exciting political rock music of the time. The Redskins said they weren’t ready to be on the release but would go on to eclipse all the music on the tape – though it didn’t happen overnight. Their first single was a tribute to Leon Trotsky called Lev Bronstein. “It was a disaster really,” Chris admitted later, “not accessible, not a good production. It was just the best song we had at the time”. They were prepared to admit mistakes.
Chris invited me to travel with the band for a gig in Brighton. He encouraged me to try my hand in mixing the sound but it was beyond me. Through talking to them I was beginning to notice that Chris and Martin had something I’d only felt a whiff of in the Woolwich RTWC. They were part of a political organisation with a newspaper and fellow members who could explain what was happening in the world.
My band had been grateful to have our single played on Radio 1 by legendary DJ John Peel but by the end of the year the Redskins were booked for what every new band dreamed of – recording a session for John Peel’s show. Chris asked me to join them on backing vocals. I should have been flattered but I’d never been under any illusion that I could actually sing – I was a punk singer. After five years I felt like giving up on my band. My school friends who’d originally formed the band with me in sixth form had left over the years. One had tragically taken his own life. Instead of travelling to north London for an all day recording session I decided to hang out with my muso mates instead. Maybe Chris was right, I was feeling a bit miserable. Maybe I was happy enough in the small pond of the local music scene. The Redskins certainly weren’t content to do the same.
The BBC had an agreement that they would pay Musician Union rates for all performers. So, although I didn’t show up, the canny band listed me as a backing singer and duly claimed the fee for themselves. So John Peel read out my name! To this day on various websites there’s a credit for Redskins’ backing vocals to Colin Car – another alias to add to the list. More importantly the band used the BBC-Musicians’ Union agreement to bring in saxophone and trumpet players, Steve Nichol and Lloyd Dwyer, to play on the session. It was the first time the three-piece had played with brass but together they would create the distinctive Redskins sound.
I decided to leave my band. Was I being pathetic or was I being realistic? Was the hope that life could be creative and exciting whilst earning a basic living just a ridiculous dream? Would I have to accept what many of my schoolfriends had done and get a sensible job in a bank, a shop or an office?
“Someone once wrote
All the world’s a stage
But the truth comes written somewhat different on my page
I know this script’s fixed from the start
Cos ordinary men & women only get
The Power Is Yours
I missed the Redskins’ recording session but later that week I turned up for a socialist meeting. I’d gone to a handful of such meetings over the past five years. One memorable meeting was when an odd little old guy with mad hair and a ‘funny accent’ – Tony Cliff – spoke to a handful of school kids and very young unemployed. “When there is a revolution and we kill the Queen… No, she will have a job driving a bus!”, I remember him saying.
Most of the Woolwich RTWC crew were jobless and a couple were homeless – people knew things weren’t working out for them. Explaining that things could be better was easy. The problem was getting people to collectively do something about it.
“Your only weapon
Is those you work with
Your strength is their strength
Can’t beat the rank and file”
Go Get Organised
I’d been reading Socialist Worker newspaper over the previous year and went to a Socialist Workers Party meeting in Deptford. Going to Labour Party meetings was out of the question. My teenage years had been under the traitorous Wilson-Callaghan governments. Most Labour figures either ignored or condemned the street protests and campaigns that had drawn me and others into political activity. It was no accident that I chose an SWP meeting rather than any of the other left groups – all the campaigns I’d been involved in, opposing racism, the fascists and unemployment had been led by the SWP. I’d like to say I’d met a lot of SWP members in these campaigns but it wasn’t the case. Most of the people I’d got to know weren’t involved in the organised far left. The SWP were slightly removed from the campaigns in that whilst they participated they were also busy with their own meetings and selling papers. Yet it was precisely the decline of the campaigns I’d been involved in that pushed me to attend their meetings.
At the meetings someone would do a talk to start things off. The subject was often an historical example of when working class and oppressed people had got organised. The speaker talked like the Redskins sang:
“And in another country workers rose again
1919, 1919 in Berlin
But they didn’t learn the lessons
From the Russians that they should
Revolution, revolution drowned in blood”
It Can Be Done
My question at each SWP meeting was along the lines, “You’ve explained what’s wrong, so what are we going to do about it?” And I didn’t mean at some undefined point in the future, I meant that week. They didn’t always have an answer which satisfied me. After the meetings most ‘comrades’ went to the pub where a lot of politics was talked. I was surprised when members also asked me for a drink on a Saturday night – I thought the idea was to take the ideas of the meeting to the friends that I’d normally meet up with at the weekend.
The Jam disbanded at the end of 1982 and Chris commented in NME, “The Jam were fantastic because not only did they have hope, they also had an answer to some extent. You can do more than just do benefits – music can uplift working class kids and it can change attitudes. A band can act as a catalyst. From the moment you’re born you’re told what to do. But rock’n’roll gave kids a voice. Working class kids were suddenly being listened to – by other working class kids.”
1983: Go Get Organised!
“I ain’t found what I’m looking for
But I’ve found somethings
And I’m going to change them”
Keep On Keeping On
The Redskins released their second single, Lean On Me, on CNT, an independent label from their home county of Yorkshire. Many bands were enthusiastic about being on independent labels, free from the control of the major companies, but the Redskins saw this differently. Chris said, “Cult bands are really criminal, a real waste. If a band’s got something to say they should use every platform they can rather than being deliberately inaccessible. I’d much rather our name be linked with The Jam – and all those hard brassy bands. Who wants to end up in a musical ghetto? What does that achieve?” This meant signing to a mainstream record label. They knew it was a gamble but they didn’t do things by halves.
I decided to apply again for college. The SWP members I was getting to know clearly missed their time at college and hated the mundane jobs they’d been doing since. My A Level results had been poor – a D and an E – but I was told my five years of ‘life experience’ since school would count. At this point I was glad they would count for something as they had begun to feel like they amounted to little.
“Memories of years gone by
Dashed hopes & a dream that died
Spirit pulled us through”
Lean On Me
Though the event had been running all the years I had been politically active, I attended the summer Marxism festival organised by the SWP for the first time. It was a week of meetings, talks and discussions, films, comedians and bands. Almost every room, hall, cafe and bar in the University of London Union – now called Student Central – was packed with people engaged in that great mixture of talking politics and talking bollocks. Chris and Martin were there, with one of my personal heroes, radical cartoonist Ray Lowry, who was doing a feature article on the band for NME. The article encapsulated so much of what the Redskins were about, describing them as having, “one foot on the road to socialism and the other on rock’s lost highway. Chris Dean is a Marxist with a rock’n’roll heart.”
Chris: “The contradictions of our system will always throw up revolutionary sparks, revolutionary music, little bits of rebellious music. Punk did.”
NME: “Has it ever done it before that?”
Chris: “Move On Up, Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud, saying get up, get ready, get involved. James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke… People Get Ready.”
The Redskins’ palette of influences had been enriched by their digging into musical history, particularly radical soul from the black power movement of the 1960s. Chris then went further back in history, and talked about the inspiring story of black communist Paul Robeson and how he stood up to state persecution in the dark days of 1950s.
Chris: “If you are getting shit thrown at you I think it’s hard to go soft. When someone like Paul Robeson had his passport torn up [after travelling to USSR] and he was getting hammered by the US government, and there were race riots when he appeared at Peekskill N.Y. [where the concert attacked by KKK supporters], and so forth. Precisely because he had all this shit being thrown at him, he COULDN’T cop out. They withdrew his passport so he went to the border and sang to Canadian steelworkers who came down to the border to meet him. Previously he’d gone through Europe playing factories, he went to Australia and played a building site for construction workers; when [the authorities] hammered him and tried to keep him in his own country, he still managed to keep on pushing.”
But Chris didn’t say what happened to Paul Robeson after that. The level of persecution and state surveillance by the CIA and FBI took its toll on the singer. Robeson became depressed: in the USSR he tried to take his own life. He came to England and was treated with electroshock therapy. The great man was broken and lived out his final decades as a recluse.
NME: “Do you see the advent of socialism as inevitable?”
Chris: “No… the CRISIS is inevitable, the crisis of capitalism, but we might get beat.”
Chris then goes on in the way that many of us were thinking at the time: “There’s a good chance that in two or three years time, over here, an upsurge of workers militancy will bring a crisis… the ruling class in difficulties. We might come out of it with no arms and legs, completely wrecked and defeated. The confrontation’s inevitable but the outcome isn’t.”
The NME piece ended with the writer linking Chris’ political prediction to the band’s “volatile mix of supercharged dynamism and implacable principles rubbing up against today’s lame pop values. Oh brother, the confrontation’s sure inevitable but the outcome isn’t. Best to ’em.”
After six months of going to SWP meetings and selling papers most Saturdays in Deptford market I made a couple of decisions. The meetings, and talking to comrades, had answered a lot of my questions – including why, at the beginning of the year, my Dad had resigned from the SWP after 24 years’ membership. One of the student members was doing the media degree that I wanted to enrol on at Goldsmiths’ college. She went through what sort of experiences I should talk about at the interview and what not to mention. Her advice worked and I got a place for September. I signed an SWP membership form. I would remain a member for almost as many years as my Dad had been.