clash between rock and racism as Paul Simonon returns to the front line
Thirty years ago, The Clash were in Hackneys Victoria Park, part of a concert which became a defining moment in Rock Against Racisms successful stand against the National Fronts late Seventies spread.
Persistent rain has probably kept the crowd below 1978s 100,000. But the spirit in the park feels like a return to those times, as many thousands of Londoners of most races and ages mingle with Union representatives, Socialist Worker sellers, and socially committed pop stars.
This is Hard-Fis only festival. It strikes us as the most important, explains singer Richard Archer, shortly before Suburban Knights rallying cry stokes the mosh-pit. Cash Machine gives electronic ballast to their appropriately Clash-style guitar pop. The sentiment of We Need Love seems to embarrass the crowd, when theyre asked to join in; but its vulnerable idealism suits the day.
The Union leaders and politicians (Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone included) who speak between songs cause many to flee, but others to stand and cheer blunt anti-Nazi statements. Hearing reggae singer Natty describe cultural alienation over fat fairground organ in No Place for I and I, or Jay Sean interrupt his sweet-voiced R&B to proclaim his British Indianness, make such messages easier to swallow. The fact of a bill in which skinny indie bands such as The Paddingtons, a heaving dance tent and Roll Deeps Wiley-featuring grime crew can co-exist, in the East Ends heart, is perhaps anti-fascist statement enough. The utter impossibility of the BNP raising such a crowd in London is suddenly glaring.
The ghosts of 1978 start to walk during a guest-heavy set organised by Babyshambles Drew McConnell. X-Ray Spexs Poly Styrene bursts on for a joyful Oh Bondage, Up Yours! And though Sham 69s Jimmy Pursey repeating his 1978 version of The Clashs White Riot may have sent Joe Strummer spinning in his grave, it is well-received, and well-meant. The Guillemots Fyfe Dangerfield singing Springsteens Dancing in the Dark is less contentious.
Jerry Dammers, ex-leader of Britains greatest multi-racial group The Specials, who were inspired by Rock Against Racism, spins dub 45s, a Union leader invokes Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie, and bright sun finally appears: all fine omens for The Good, The Bad and The Queens climactic set.
Paul Simonon saunters on like a spiv, with his pork pie hat and perfectly angled cigarette, looks out at the by now huge crowd, gives a short nod of approval, and says: Its good to be back. Damon Albarn looks delighted to be with him. Kingdom of Doom, an Iraq-inspired love song for the collaboration, grows into a close, dubbed-up cousin of The Clashs London Calling. Albarns alternately classical and cockney piano, rumbling bass, subtle strings and a guest Arabic rapper all add to the bands frail folk songs for the capital. Dammers caps things by leading them and The Specials trombonist Rico in a spooked, heavy, hymn-like Ghost Town, surely his first performance of it in 20 years. London feels better to be in, as they leave.