Book Review: Walls Come Tumbling Down
In these days of landfill indie and disengaged pop stars, it’s easy to forget that at one time, rock music was counter cultural, and it’s proponents outspoken influencers of change. Walls Come Tumbling Down tells the history of some of those bands and artists, specifically those that came together under the banners of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge in the punk and post-punk eras.
Cast your mind back to Britain in the mid-70s. Racism wasn’t just prevalent, it was overt, and to many an accepted point of view. Violence against black minorities was commonplace, and the National Front had enough support that they were standing in elections. And sadly, despite it’s generally lefty liberal outlook, rock n roll was not safe from this. Drunk onstage at a gig in Birmingham, rock luminary Eric Clapton went on a racist tirade that shocked his audience, so much so that one of them wrote a letter to the NME condemning Clapton, and proposing the formation of a movement against racism in music – Rock Against Racism. The response was overwhelming, and so the story begins.
RAR sought specifically to engage with disaffected youth, and in a language they could understand, music. Garnering support from some of the biggest artists of the punk era such as The Clash, Sham 69 and Tom Robinson, as well as reggae artists such as Misty In Roots, Steel Pulse and Aswad, RAR set out to promote unity by example, black and white together. As a campaigning organisation, it’s one which neither rock nor left wing histories shout about loud enough, so it’s great to see a book like this documenting that story.
Daniel Rachel collects here massive amounts of oral history and reminiscences, with original interviews with not just the bands involved, but also the political organisers, and people who attended the demos, rallies and carnivals. He also extends this approach to two movements that followed in RARs wake, 2 Tone which centred around multi-racial bands like The Specials and The Selecter, and Red Wedge, an uneasy alliance between rock music and the Labour party led by Billy Bragg and Paul Weller. You wouldn’t think you’d get the lead singer from Aswad and Neil Kinnock interviewed in the same book would you? Well, here they are.
The story here is told in the words of those that were there in the form of quotes, the literary equivalent of a talking heads documentary, a style popularised by punk anthologies like Please Kill Me. This approach reveals the real, often contradictory, stories of the people that were there, giving you all sides of a very complex story. Which is great, but the lack of an overarching narrative does make this a rather plodding read, especially at the whopping 500+ page count. It’s full of interesting stories right enough, but it’s not always a page turner.
Containing a wealth of information and original interviews, Walls Come Tumbling Down is a lengthy but worthwhile account of some tumultuous times in British history, where musicians chose to make a stand against racism, and for a more fair and tolerant society. In these troubled times of increasing violence and xenophobia, it is an example we would do well to take notice of.