Babylon’s Burning (Again!): Top 10 British Riot Songs of the Early ’80s

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London’s streets have burned before, and not only during the Great Fire of 1666 or the Luftwaffe’s 1940 “Blitz”. The late 1970s saw England’s economy mired in recession, mass unemployment leaving youth alienated, angry and without hope. The streets burned with a continuous series of clashes between angry young people and authorities, playing out conflicts over racism and class inequality that lasted well in the mid-1980s. The drama and violence of those clashes also proved to be a cauldron of creativity, producing some of Britain’s most memorable music of the same era. Herewith, a personal playlist. (Post your own in the comments section):

The Sex Pistols

‘God Save the Queen’

If anything, the raw outrage and nihilism of the Sex Pistols anticipated the explosion of violence in the years that followed their 1977 debut album Never Mind the Bollocks. While they had little direct political inclination, their iconic “God Save the Queen” smashed a taboo against being rude about Britain’s national symbol, in order to trash the country’s delusions of grandeur and warn that their generation saw “no future in England’s dreaming”.

The Clash:

London’s Burning/White Riot

Unlike the Sex Pistols’ nihilism, the Clash saw themselves as revolutionary political activists, channeling the energy of punk into a fusion with reggae to mirror the unity of black and white British youth against the challenge of the fascist National Front. The Clash were the driving force behind the Rock Against Racism movement (slogan: Nazis are No Fun!) that gave the nascent punk and post-punk movements an unambiguous progressive politics, turning the streets against the poisonous racism of the National Front. The clip, above, is from the inaugural Rock Against Racism concert (with Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey doing guest vocals), in what might be an anthem for the past week, “London’s Burning.” It’s followed by “White Riot”, a song inspired by the group having been present at the 1978 Notting Hill Gate festival that turned into a clash between police and black youth. The  song’s message was unapologetically inflammatory: “All the power’s in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it; while we walk the streets, too chicken to even try it” — black kids weren’t afraid to throw a brick when under attack by the cops; it was time for white kids to follow suit.

Linton Kwesi Johnson

‘Fite Dem Back’

If there was a chronicler of the black British youth rebellion of the 70s and ’80s, it was Linton Kwesi Johnson, a Jamaican-born dub-reggae poet who brought both the wit and the militancy of a Malcolm X to an uncompromising message that resonated with the streets: Black people would not be intimidated by the National Front’s menacing marches and threats of violence; if the fascists wanted war on the streets, LKJ and his peers were ready to dish out some righteous licks and “fite dem back”.

Johnny Osbourne

’13 Dead and Nothing Said’

In early 1981, tensions ran high in Britain with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enforcing a harsh austerity program, and communities of color under attack from racist mobs and complaining of indifference (and worse) by police. A fire at a party in the south London neighborhood of New Cross killed 13 young black people in what many in the community believed was a racist arson attack. In the face of perceived police indifference, the New Cross Massacre as it became known sparked a massive protest movement. And some stirring songs, my favorite among them Johnny Osbourne’s “13 Dead and Nothing Said.”

The Ruts

‘Jah War’

The message of everyone from LKJ to the Clash was taken up by others, including the Ruts, an all-white punk band that incorporated a reggae sound, nowhere more effectively than on “Jah War”, a searing commentary on police violence against black communities in London’s Southall area in 1979.

Sham 69

‘If the Kids Are United’

A street punk band with a street punk sound, Sham 69 was also present at the creation of Rock Against Racism and one of its first headline acts. Every movement needs its anthems, and “If the Kids Are United” was just the ticket.

The Beat

Stand Down Margaret

One of the more delightful by products of the cross-cultural fusion that occurred on the streets in the fight against Thatcherite austerity and National Front racism was the revival of ska in its amped up British form, personified by large ensemble bands such as the Beat and the Specials. Indeed, the Beat even incorporated Afropop guitar licks in their sweet poppy adaptation of Prince Buster’s rude reggae classic “Whine and Grind” into a polite if cheeky request to Margaret Thatcher to “stand down please!”

The Specials
‘It Doesn’t Make it Alright’

Those at the forefront of the scene that connected music with the politics of the streets were intimately aware of the constant danger of violence, and of the volatile situation just outside (or sometimes inside) the clubs at which they were playing. Probably the most heartfelt and beautiful anti-violence song of the era was the Specials plea for unity and against violence in “It Doesn’t Make it Alright.”

The Jam
‘That’s Entertainment’

The Jam’s Paul Weller was musically perhaps the most gifted performer of that era, although he was barely 17 when Rock Against Racism began and his Mod-inspired band was on tour with the Clash. A fallout with the Clash may have alienated the band from the more overtly political scene initially, but the Jam went on to produce some of the most beautiful and poetic songs about growing up in Thatcher’s Britain and the politics of austerity — none more so than “That’s Entertainment”.

Elvis Costello
What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding)?

Elvis Costello is arguably the finest song-writer in a generation, and his work is far too sophisticated to be pigeonholed in any narrow categories — indeed, it has traversed the spectrum. But he came of age in the same late ’70s cauldron as the Clash, and he took his pioneering New Wave sound onstage at one of the earliest Rock Against Racism concerts, leaving no doubt about his willingness to take sides — and to lend his own side a measure of humor and irony as a variation on the anger of some of his peers.