Keep On Keeping On! – the Redskins and me (part 2)

In the second part of his recollections on the Redskins, Colin Revolting recalls being a revolutionary during the miners’ strike and its aftermath during the Redskins’ growing popularity, including TV appearances, being attacked by fascists and touring against apartheid with their radical rock and soul music. (To read the first part of Colin’s reflections, click here.)

 

1983: Go Get Organised!

As a new band, the Redskins wanted to make a big impact and so they grabbed every gig they could, supporting bands from the Smiths to the Dead Kennedys. They were distinct from most other groups because they were so upfront with their politics. If the Clash expressed our alienation and a sense of hope, the Redskins took everything a step further. In songs and interviews they talked about revolutionary change.

Working people forced the bosses’ backs against the wall
First steps taken for a better life for all

-‘It Can Be Done!’

At Goldsmiths’ College I started to make films, take photos and study how the media works. Chris invited me to the New Musical Express (NME) offices where he worked sub-editing and writing as X Moore. I’d dreamed about writing for NME, but the office was not like I’d imagined. It was more like the council offices I’d worked in – people leaning over typewriters and telephones. None of NME’s star journalists were visible.

I got involved in organising Socialist Worker student meetings at college and asked if Chris would do a speak at one. He said he’d talk on the German revolution of 1918-23, having just read the book Lost Revolution. But the band started getting busier.

1984: Turnin’ Loose Those Furious Flames

I’m waiting on hold
For something to blow…

– ‘The Power Is Yours’

Chris wrote, “The problem with working class heroes is they take themselves too seriously.”

1984 was a cold grey dawn. Orwell’s dystopia had not arrived but, following Thatcher’s Falklands victory and the Tory re-election, things were looking pretty grim – and not just “up north”. The year started with a series of high-profile gigs featuring hot new bands at the ICA, London, and the Redskins played alongside Billy Bragg and others.

The band had a new song to play…

Can’t remember such a bitter time
The Boss says jump! The workers fall in line
I’m not down, but I’m feeling low
They whip us into line, with the threat of the dole

– ‘Keep On Keeping On!’

‘Keep On Keeping On!’ was to become the band’s anthem for the battle that lay ahead that year.

Films at Work, a young group of revolutionary film-makers that I had hooked up with, were filming the gig and interviewed the band’s audience including Billy Bragg. “It’s Chris’s lyrics. When Chris says it, I know,” Billy explained enthusiastically. Chris was articulating the socialist politics that Billy was coming to, but unlike Bragg and others, the Redskins already had the radical songs and ideas.

For the video we were making, the band came round to the Films at Work flat so we could interview them. My diary shows it was the evening of 14 February – clearly we were committed revolutionaries.

The Redskins came to play at Goldsmiths’ a week or so later. The band had a growing reputation but the main hall wasn’t that full. Afterwards we were in a small student union room that they were using as a dressing room. Chris sat behind a desk at one end of the room whilst a handful of fans debated with him about politics. He was taking them, and himself, very seriously. It felt like Chris was growing into his new role, part rockstar, part political orator. I wondered how this would change him. In hindsight, I realise there was a similar dynamic to the weekly political meetings we ran in that very room – and in the seminars in the nearby classrooms.

Suddenly word came to the dressing room that the local British Movement skins had broken into the building. Everyone flew out of the room in pursuit. The call turned out to be a false alarm but showed the sense of nervous, coiled readiness at which the band existed. How long could that last?

For the first time in 5 years I went to see the Clash and to my surprise the Redskins were supporting them. They looked little and a bit lost in the large venue, especially compared to the Clash with their six albums of songs and huge bank of 40 TVs on stage behind them. The emperors were still in their gilded tower but a small band of peasants were at the gates…

A week later Thatcher announced the closure of some coal pits and the miners walked out on strike. In the previous decade the Tory prime minister Ted Heath had asked, “Who runs the country – us or the miners?” He called a snap election declaring to voters, “This time the strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. It is time for you to speak, with your vote.” The country voted the Tories out, broken by industrial struggle with the miners were at the centre.

This 1984 strike could be the one to beat back Thatcher. But, to do so, it would need levels of workers’ solidarity more like the 1970s. But the unions had been seriously weakened by the Labour government and its Social Contract. Supporting the miners, there were meetings, marches and picket lines, and many discussions to be had. Fundraising and propaganda benefit gigs were organised for the strikers– and that was where the Redskins came into their own.

In the first week of the strike they “turned a GLC anti-racist gig into an impromptu miners benefit and the result was the most inspiring thing I’ve seen for ages,” said Time Out magazine.

The shop says yes
The boss says no
To hell with the ballot, boys
Go, go, go!

– ‘Hold On!’

They played a huge free outdoor festival staged by the left-wing Greater London Council (GLC) – which Thatcher would abolish within a year or two. Jobs for Change Festival was specifically conceived to be a celebration and not a political protest.

The Redskins were on in the early afternoon. They dedicated songs to the striking miners and also to the “best dressed picket line in London”. Journalists at IPC magazines, including Chris’ workmates at NME, were in the middle of a two month strike.

There was a good gender mix in a crowd of largely ‘normal people’, left-leaning music fans, with a bunch of skins and punks up the front. The Redskins roared into their last song, ‘Lean On Me’. “We may argue right & wrong/But together we are strong…” It looked like the band had really arrived – a big festival which the band had focussed politically with their songs and talk of strikes. And then it all went boom.

Suddenly some of the skins at the front were clambering onto the stage, grabbing microphones. “Fuck off out of it!” shouted Chris as the skins started to chant “Sieg heil!” with Nazi salutes. “You sound like Margaret Thatcher, you sound like Margaret fucking Thatcher.” The Nazi skins were kicking the drum kit over, punching and pushing the band backwards.

In the face of a pack of fascists, the band and the roadies were barely in position to defend themselves. The crowd divided, fleeing from the fighting. It was a hit and run – the Nazi skins exited rapidly. Some of us chased after them but the young skins fled at top speed. The only Nazi in striking distance was a gorilla of a thug who growled, “Come on then…” None of the chasing few took him up on his offer, and then they were gone.

The sunny afternoon atmosphere had changed, and the tension had shot up. I was reminded of the advice from Rock Against Racism (RAR) days: “Don’t let the Nazis take the stage.” In RAR’s time the fascists had the followers to swarm through an audience but in 1984 they only had an attack squad of 30 or so.

A year later Chris reflected, “…when we got attacked at the GLC festival the situation was dangerous. All they had to do was to attack 3-4 gigs in a row, smash them up. Even if they did not win, even if we’d been prepared, the promoters wouldn’t do your shows any more. [The Nazis] wanted to finish us off. They could have last year but not now.”

The Tube had supplanted Top of the Pops as the supreme programme for music lovers, live music on TV, early on Friday evening was a great way to start the weekend. Eight months into the miners’ strike, the Redskins appeared on the programme. Chris announced, “On extra percussion, on tambourine, and on strike for 35 weeks, a Durham miner…” Norman Strike stepped up to the microphone to make a speech about the arrests and deaths of miners during the strike… But none of us watching on TV could hear what he was saying. What was happening? The microphone was either not working or turned off.

We talked about it in the pub that night at the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) branch drink, almost all the music fans were into the Redskins. We assumed it was censorship, but the band had still made their mark on mainstream TV – possibly even exposing media bias against the miners and ended with the cry, “Victory to the miners!”

We gotta keep on keeping on…
Stay out…Maybe 5 or even 6 months yeah
7, 8, 9, 10 and if it takes a year
We got to last a year

– ‘Keep On Keeping On!’

The gigs and benefits the band played for the miners were electric. I went to a big one in Stoke Newington Town Hall – the place was covered with Victory to the Miners posters, miners in hats covered in badges were rattling collection buckets and everyone was singing along to the choruses.

Stop strike – Unionise!
Fight back – Unionise!

– ‘Unionise!’

Fellow SWP member, redskin poet and journalist Steven Wells reviewed the gig in the NME. He began with The Clash in his sights: “Never has any group talked so fine and glorious a revolution. Never has any group failed to deliver so dramatically.” The Clash had helped us express our disdain for racism, hatred of authority and longing for a fulfilling future. He was more optimistic about the Redskins: “The hurdles and pitfalls that face The Redskins are numerous and obvious. Yet never has any band been in a better position to avoid those dangers, to be able to communicate revolutionary ideas through the medium of accessible lyricism and fucking brilliant music.” Then he signs off with a personal note to Chris/X Moore, “Cock this up, X, and I’ll break your legs.” (To read the review today has a poignancy. Steven Wells died of cancer in 2009 and is writing about Chris who has not been seen publicly since the late 1980s.)

At the end of the year The Clash played a gig in London billed as Arthur Scargill’s Christmas Party. The Redskins weren’t on the bill but the NME’s review still noted: “The Clash play for close on two hours but there is little coherence or crispness to their set. Compared to, say, The Redskins scampering through ‘Unionise’ or ‘Lean On Me’ in Hammersmith only a week earlier, Strummer and company dilute much of their political force by their fanciful and romanticised imagery. And judging by the reception afforded the speech of a striking miner before The Clash’s set – gobbed at, splattered in beer and eventually subjected to the indignity of having his papers torn up by a marauding punk who had forced his way on stage – any political points being made by The Clash are lost on certain sections of their audience.”

Things were different at Redskins gigs.  “You’d have stalls by the Miner support groups, Women Against Pit Closures would have a stall, Labour had stalls, the SWP had a stall, there were Socialist Worker sellers outside. The whole atmosphere was right and it worked, it was not an odd thing to do. You could do it now and it would seem like overkill,” Chris observed a year later.

At the end of 1984 Morrissey wrote about ‘Keep On Keeping On!’, “We should pray that the Redskins are canonised in 1985. Biblical lyrics.”

1985: Kick Over the Statues

The first act of freedom
All over the world
Is to topple the statues
Kick the bosses over

– ‘Kick Over the Statues’

The Redskins had become a rallying point for left-leaning rock fans and were now creating a wider audience, including in some surprising places. In 2012, Ed Vaizey, Tory MP and junior Culture Minister, who’d been a teenager in the mid-1980s, said that the Redskins were his favourite band and he “likes the passion and positive lyrics of SWP member X Moore”.

The miners’ strike ended in defeat. It was bitter for the mining communities and sent a message across the workers’ movement that striking does not necessarily lead to victory. The Tory government had taken their revenge for 1974, even making deals with other unions to do so. Before the end of the miners’ strike, the newspaper printers’ unions started their own strike which was also to last a year and to go down in history as a defeat. Workers were fighting, but losing.

Can’t remember such a bitter time
The Boss says jump! The workers fall in line
I’m not down, but I’m feeling low
They whip us into line
With the threat of the dole

– ‘Keep On Keeping On!’

‘Keep On Keeping On!’ felt even more true now than when it was written before the strikes.

“Loads of people have made rebellious music since time immemorial. It’s only revolutionary in the hands of the audience.” – Chris 1983

The Redskins knew that their music and ideas had the most resonance with the audience when it was aligned with people in struggle. Like the thousands who marched and campaigned in the UK against apartheid, the band were inspired by the militancy of South African workers.

The workers in Poland rose
& in Hungary too
Somoza & Jose fell
… Azania coming soon! 

– ‘Kick Over the Statues’

Azania was what the radical black anti-apartheid fighters wanted to name post-apartheid South Africa.

The record company refused to release the single ‘Kick Over the Statues!’ so the band stole the master tape and released it through an independent record company. They called on Films at Work to make a promo video which made visual links between the imperial history connecting UK with South Africa via street names and statues around London.

So, on a cold winter morning one Sunday in 1986, we filmed the video. The Films at Work people were now working in the TV industry and I was nearing the end of my Media degree. Just as I had found with the backstage side of bands and the inside of the music press, behind the cameras of the video business there was no glamour, just hard work and waiting around.

The resulting video was not broadcast at the time but in the last decade has been watched nearly 200,000 times on YouTube, whilst one of the band’s other videos has 330,000 views– a testament to the enduring interest in their music.

The Redskins organised a Kick Over Apartheid! tour, where each night someone spoke on stage about the battle in South Africa. Meanwhile other musicians like Paul Weller and Billy Bragg, who had performed alongside the Redskins during the miners’ strike, reached a different conclusion.

They said if we couldn’t beat the Tories in the industrial struggle what about at the ballot box? They formed Red Wedge, a musician-led campaign to get young people to support Labour.

This left the Redskins and a handful of other bands isolated from the musical and political movement which had grown in support of the miners. In ‘Red Wedge – the Great Debate’ in the music press, Chris argued, “The Redskins have always done benefit gigs organised by the Labour Party – anti-racist gigs, anti-unemployment gigs… Red Wedge is different. Your first priority is to get a Labour government in power… I think Red Wedge can energise a sense of young people’s potential power, but what’s the point if all they elect is someone like Neil Kinnock?” Chris made many cutting references to Kinnock’s Labour at gigs, including saying, “We’ve had to change the song ‘99 and a half won’t do’ to ‘9 and a half won’t do’.

1986: Take No Heroes

We spend our lives
Waitin’ for
Someone other than ourselves
To make a move
We always do
We always blow it
I know, you know it but…
I keep on coming back because…
The power is yours

– ‘The Power is Yours’

Chris: “We want to be popular. It’s not the wish to travel in limousines, it’s not the wish to be recognized on the streets, but we want to be popular. It’s like art should be popular but it should be dealing with the people who are aggressive, challenging and aware, wanting to change their lives, wanting to change history. It’s no point just appealing, it’s a matter of who and how. How you appeal and what effect it’s gonna have. If you play stadiums to millions and people would just come there because they appreciate the noise, we’d be a bloody failure. If we play in front of 2,000 people and afterwards they want to talk to you about the politics, that’s much better. I do not think we want to be stars but we want to be successful. We’re aggressive about it, we must be.”

A gig review in their final year shows what they had achieved. “The National Ballroom’s packed, and an amazingly cosmopolitan gathering witnessed The Redskins perform with a sensibility, maturity, and control… of tempered aggression, always smouldering threateningly at the hands of brass or a dangerously funky rhythm. This evening’s turnout should be proof that the Redskins determination in breaking through to the majority is going to pay off. Evidently their political directness has not been the turn-off once predicted.” (Melody Maker 1986).

Another review noted, “The Redskins are, without doubt, the single most emotive and emotional band in town.” (Sounds, 1986).

An’ it just seems

We can’t get round to gettin’ round to it
Sometimes it makes me ache…more than I can take…

– ‘The Power is Yours’

With active struggles on the decline, the band knew they had to cut it musically. They spent time in the studio working on their album, Neither Washington Nor Moscow. In confidence I was passed a demo copy by Chris – the music sounded blistering and the lyrics brilliant. Friends demanded copies and I was soon passing out cassettes cheekily titled “Neither Woking nor Memphis, But Imitation Soul” (Woking was the home of The Jam and Memphis of Elvis Presley).

Unsurprisingly the album divided the critics. Sounds magazine liked the music but railed against socialist politics. Melody Maker was won over, welcoming, “…this ferociously inspirational, desperately romantic, hot-headed, pig-headed, emotive and ultimately triumphant brand of International Socialism.  …this classic piece of agitpop propaganda really hits home, doing more good for the SWP than any other comparatively stale form of recruitment and publicity could ever hope to achieve. …to tremendous effect it makes the Redskins seem closer than ever to this sick nation’s saving grace.”

For many of us the album was an inspirational blast and has stayed alive for others to discover through CD re-releases, YouTube and Spotify.

In France, Italy and Germany that summer, the Redskins played in large arenas to big audiences some of which were broadcast live on TV, like the Place de la Bastille event. Being a revolutionary rock band was not stopping them reaching a mass audience.

It was in this time that a movement of left-wing skinheads and indie rock fans was born. The redskin movement appeared in France and gradually spread to other countries over the next ten years.

Whilst the Redskins were touring Europe and reaching their largest audiences I’d left college and began working with young people in youth centres and after school clubs. At a video and drama summer project, I was introduced to working with young people with learning disabilities using drama. I made a connection and have been happily working with young people like this ever since. My wish to make music is largely behind me but I work as creatively as I can, enabling others to be creative whenever possible. Even within the bureaucratic constraints of education under capitalism, it’s been a mostly engaging, enlightening and rewarding experience. And I find time to be creative in other ways outside of work whenever I can.

Despite the predictions of jaded lefties and cynical music critics the Redskins never sold out. Having burned brightly for a short but thrilling few years they burnt out. What they left was the songs – a brilliant collection of soulful, impassioned pleas for the listener to cry as loudly and as angrily as themselves… “Bring it down!”

Spurn the lie
They use to justify
This insanity!
The inhumanity!
Of this insane thing

– ‘Bring It Down’

Capitalism killed the band in the end. Not through some kind of cultural assassins but record company pressure for the band to recoup and repay the company’s investments. To me it appears that being in a band signed to a record company is less like being employed as a wage slave and more like running a small business reliant on the patronage of a much bigger capitalist enterprise.

Chris in their final interview, 1986, said: “We are now a pop band and it has limitations. It is fantastically hard to be a revolutionary and a musician because in many ways the two things just simply contradict each other. Something we’ve said a long time is that the contradictions are becoming more and more acute. It may well come to a point where we have to give it up.”

Martin in 2003: “The Redskins, at the end was in danger of becoming a contradiction. That is why I decided to leave the band. However, that should not detract from what we achieved. From my perspective, the band operated best when we were out doing benefit gigs and live performances. If we had stuck to that and not got caught up in ‘the record industry’ it is very possible we might have still been together.”

Billy Bragg later admitted, “They were the true inheritors of the mantle of the Clash.”

After the band finished, Chris asked around about the theory of post-modernism – it was the first time I remember him searching to understand something rather than already understanding or rejecting it. He was planning his next musical project being called P-Mod.

The last time I saw Chris was in April 1989 at the tenth anniversary march for revolutionary socialist Blair Peach, who was murdered by the police whilst leaving an anti-fascist protest. Chris was almost as quiet as he’d been when I first met him scribbling in his notebook. He looked pretty much the same, though his Harrington jacket was now plain black and the determined spark in his eyes had dimmed. I’m not criticising him. All of us go up and down in our energy and enthusiasm –  and when Chris was firing all four cylinders he was a powerful force. In fact it’s crucial that we are supportive of each other going through the difficult times, personal and political, and consider how they interrelate.

Chris told me he’d been living in Paris and was doing a bit of journalism. His passion was now film, the major art form of the 20th century, and the one that he argued the left had made the most impact on, citing the likes of Godard, Bertolucci and Eisenstein.

No way I could explain
No one to explain it to anyway
But a tearful misery’s a sorry legacy
And this is not the time for sad obituaries

– ‘Take No Heroes’

I haven’t seen Chris since then and despite the growing interest in the band over the decades, it seems that no-one else has either. Rumours abound. What is consistent in the stories is that he lives a quiet life with his mum in his home town of York. Whether this is by choice or not, it seems we’ll never know and that’s to be respected.

Leaving the last words to Chris and the Redskins…

The struggle is hard and the struggle is long

– ‘Lean On Me’

An’ I’m waiting on hold
For something to explode…

– ‘The Power Is Yours’

There are 3 comments

  1. Rick

    This would have been an interesting article, from someone who was there at the time as was I. However, it is rather sad a not a little pathetic that you should use this memoir of a great band and the period as a thinly veiled attack on the SWP. You really should grow up

  2. Rob

    I’ve read it carefully and I can only conclude the perceived attack is your own projection. I’m genuinely sorry a layer of otherwise sensible people still around the SWP are so anxiously defensive about any perceived slight.

    It’s not a healthy reflex, particularly when a new person reading the article would very possibly look up the SWP on the basis of reading and being interested in the Redskins.

  3. Alex

    As a long standing member of SWP I have to agree with Rob. I may have missed the bits attacking SWP and felt the party came out of it in quite a positive light. Please point out the thinly veiled attack bits.

Leave a Reply