In 2018, I interviewed The Selecter’s lead singer Pauline Black for my book In Defense of Ska. We discussed the political movements surrounding 2 Tone ska in the late ’70s, like the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. Casually she mentioned what a big fat racist Eric Clapton was—most likely still is.
“Everyone conveniently forgets that Eric Clapton is a rank racist. I don't believe that leopards actually change their spots that quickly. But he's to be forgiven because he's such a great rock guitarist, which he is. I'm not saying he isn't. At the time he was as much of a racist pig as your president in your White House, who shall remain nameless.”
She didn’t give any more context to Clapton’s racism, but she didn’t need to. I knew exactly what she was talking about. The infamous drunken racist rant, where in August 1976, Clapton told a Birmingham audience: “Stop Britain from becoming a black colony…England is for white people…We don’t want any black wogs and coons living here.” Careers have ended for less, yet somehow Clapton’s rant did nothing to harm his status as a mega-star. He’s only recently acknowledged his racism. “I was a kind of semi-racist, which didn’t make sense,” he said at a Q&A after the screening of his 2017 documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars.
His career may have taken little to no damage, but his rant had a profound impact on British politics, and it helped to establish the anti-racist environment 2 Tone ska emerged from.
Part of what made Clapton’s behavior so hideous was that it wasn’t just one rant; it was a series of them at several of his concerts. And these weren’t just off-the-cuff, hate-filled tirades. He was actively promoting National Front candidate Enoch Powell, an overtly anti-immigrant racist. According to former National Front member Joseph Pearce, the goal of the National Front was to disrupt “the multicultural society, the multi-racial society, and make it unworkable.”
In the BBC documentary Punk Britannia, musician Billy Bragg said that the National Front was literally advocating that people of color be rounded up and kicked out of the country. There was a sense of urgency in stopping their message from spreading. “We weren’t [just] fighting to defend our multicultural society—they were building the boats.” It’s strange looking back and seeing how similar this strain of racism that happenned in ’70s England was to the one happening right now in the US under the “president who shall remain nameless.” But what’s even more peculiar is that Clapton—a musician whose art is steeped in black culture—would want black people kicked out of his country.
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At the time, when the press asked him to explain himself, he blamed the rant on alcohol and a “foreigner” pinching his “missus’ bum.” Two years later, in an interview, he defended Powell, saying that he was the “only bloke telling the truth, for the good of the country.” It’s bizarre how little attention Clapton’s racsim has gotten over the years. With the US’ current racist president, the only celebrities to back him have been irrelevant has-beens like Scott Baio and Randy Quaid. Clapton though was a huge, highly respected star at the time, who, it should be noted, scored a number one hit single a few years earlier with his shitty cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”
Clapton’s racist rant didn’t go unnoticed. It was the triggering event that inspired the Rock Against Racism movement in England, which banded together several punk, reggae, and alternative bands. Their mission was to fight the rise of racism, and specifically to marginalize the National Front, who were gaining influence in politics and respectability by “average brits.” Immigration from non-white countries had been on the rise for a few decades, and racism was festered in England. The National Front was its natural evolution.
But immigration was making England a better place. One group—people from the Caribbean—brought with them ska, rock steady, and reggae music. Sound systems proliferated in their communities, and blasted this amazing music. Nearby white working-class people heard it and fell in love with it. In the late ’60s, many of them adopted the skinhead look. These weren’t Nazi skinheads, but they weren’t specifically anti-racist either. Racism towards Asian immigrants was a particular problem among skinheads of this era. There was a group called The Anti-Paki League who would attack and disrupt the businesses of Asian immigrants who they perceived as not integrating properly. Even some of the black immigrants participated in this.
In the late ’70s, the 2 Tone bands got the idea to revive ska because of the sustained culture of Jamaican music that existed in immigrant communities. Otherwise, they likely would have never heard ska music. By the time these bands formed, many of the musicians had already been schooled in anti-racism by participating in Rock Against Racism, and they had firsthand experience dealing with the National Front and Nazi skinheads, who had co-opted the skinhead subculture and made it specifically racist.
The 2 Tone bands were mostly mixed with black and white members, the very thing that the National Front feared. When these bands played, Nazis would sometimes show up and sieg-heil. The bands wouldn’t put up with it. “We were not some bunch of hippies sitting around saying peace and love and stuff like that,” Black told me. “If you're going to have a perspective which is interracial and all that, trouble is going to come your way. You better be prepared for trouble.”
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The Specials’ keyboardist Jerry Dammers saw this distortion of the ’60s skinhead subculture and recognized that they had a responsibility to change it. He and the bands made a point to embrace the skinhead subculture as part of the ska revival but insisted that to be a skinhead was to be anti-racist. While it wasn’t technically true historically, the message stuck, and it became true. Anti-racist skinheads dominated the culture for decades to come, and they pushed hard to stop the spread of the Nazi ideology with anyone claiming to be a skinhead.
Rock Against Racism was largely successful at marginalizing the National Front, though it failed to temper Thatcherism. That’s a whole other issue. And while Nazi skinheads didn’t disappear completely, anti-racist skinheads made it their mission to keep them out of the scene, which they mostly succeeded at doing. We can thank 2 Tone ska for attaching anti-racism as a tenant for anything related to the culture of ska. As for Eric Clapton, he may have apologized forty years after his drunken racist rants, but I’ll take him seriously when he admits that he spent the late ’70s publicly endorsing a Nazi. And you know what they say about people that support Nazis.