A Brief History of Riots: 1977

7.1 / Sell Out Now

A Brief History of Riots: 1977

By Allan deSouza September 10, 2015

I.

The year 1977 was a pivotal one for British politics, for punk, and for me. It was the Silver Jubilee of the accession of “Her Majesty, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”—to use just one of her many baroque titles. The Sex Pistols honored her with the song “God Save the Queen.” Derek Jarman followed up with his cinematic paean to punk, Jubilee. In contrast to all the pomp and circumstance of the Silver Jubilee and the Queen’s call for national unity, The Clash released its first single, “White Riot.” A new hole was being ripped in England’s nostalgic mourning for its lost “green and pleasant land.”2

The Clash. White Riot, 1977; cover of 7-inch single. 

I was part of the first generation from the former colonies (the aforementioned “other Realms and Territories”) to have largely grown up in England and was entering its colleges and universities as British students. This was a coming of age of new communities fighting for their rights of citizenship, forming new identifications, and transforming the social landscape with different kinds of bodies and hybrid cultural manifestations. We had few delusions of England’s green and pleasant.

In 1977, I had just completed my first year in art school at Goldsmiths, and was negotiating my place—and sense of self—in the personal, political, and cultural upheavals that were happening around me. I moved from a South London suburb to the inner city, switching my fashion sense accordingly from a kind of post-hippy glam—all polyester prints, velvets, and suede—to something resembling an unemployed coal miner, which was more in keeping with the economics of the time: a look of hand-me-down, grey, three-piece suits and grandfather shirts, though I would later accessorize my outfits with drop earrings and Doc Martens.

By all indications, to be a punk was to be white. To be fair (no pun intended), the stadium rock bands of my earlier teen years (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Black Sabbath)—much like the experience of seeing them live as tiny figures on a distant stage—seemed increasingly disconnected from the realities of my life, as an Indian in an overwhelmingly white suburb. Even as I shifted towards “Third World-y” groups like Santana and Osibisa, I was also transitioning from the perceived apolitical hedonism of disco and glam toward the angry street cred of punk.

It was a busy year of transitions: Marc Bolan was killed in a car crash; X-Ray Spex released the single “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”; Ziggy Stardust had long since left the planet, and the more terrestrial David Bowie was releasing the first of his Berlin Trilogy; ABBA, Donna Summer, and Queen were strutting their stuff; Sylvester released his third, self-titled album, though “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was still a year away; and The Adverts released “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.”3 I equated the experience the song described, of looking through another’s eyes, with the “double-consciousness” that W.E.B. Du Bois had theorized—and which I had been recently learning about, in theory and in practice.

England itself was gaining multiple consciousness, its white facades infused by different hues: reggae was massive; bands associated with the 2 Tone record label, like The Specials, were beginning to form; Queen’s Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, was a Parsi from Zanzibar; Poly Styrene, born Marianne Elliott-Said, of X-Ray Spex, was Somali. Bhangra was still in its infancy, but the group Alaap formed that year. Another kind of local color was the anachronistic TV series with an all-white cast, The Black and White Minstrel Show, whose male members (pun intended) performed in blackface as the female members frolicked in Southern-belle drag. A more complex blackface was donned by so-called white bluesmen like Eric Clapton, whose first solo hit was his 1974 cover of Bob Marley’s 1973 song, “I Shot the Sheriff.”

II.

In 1976, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, who in the following year would form The Clash, were caught up in a riot at the Notting Hill Carnival, which was then the biggest urban gathering in Europe and its largest Caribbean-style carnival. When The Clash sang, “White riot / I wanna riot / a riot of my own,” their call to arms displayed a curious envy of the so-called race riots that had been happening around England since the late 1950s, in neighborhoods that had significant African Caribbean and South Asian communities. But more than that, “White Riot” was one of the first songs to acknowledge a nonwhite presence that was resolutely British, even though it made no sense for a person of color to sing its lyrics. The footage in this compilation is of The Clash onstage and of the riot at Notting Hill; note the almost entirely white bodies in the former and the visibly black bodies in the latter.

The Clash. White Riot, 1977; music video.

Carnival, the feast before the fast, has historically unleashed society’s underbelly to perform a necessary allowance as a site of temporary subversion and as an outlet for public license and excess. Temporarily loosening social and individual restrictions, carnival enables the sated return to normality in its aftermath. While the carnival and the riot overlap in terms of excess, that of the carnival is permitted—as long as it remains temporary, essentially under curfew—whereas the riot does not seek permission. The riot is the refusal to participate in the social contract, which stipulates that we obey the laws in exchange for security and safety. Education, childcare, healthcare, a job that pays a living wage, the right to not work (this one wouldn’t make sense to most Americans), security of one’s savings, affordable homes, retirement: these were and are not luxuries but rather what the social contract promises. When every facet of the promise is systematically broken, when it is kept for only a few, when the War on Poverty is actually a war against the poor, what obligation, or even incentive, is there for the many to keep their side of the bargain—that was always anything but a bargain?

The job placed on the police to protect and serve (though they’re not called a police force for nothing) is to maintain the contract that we all, as citizens, more or less participate in. When police break the contract by placing themselves above it, there is no incentive for anyone else to obey. Regardless of public and media discussions about right and wrong, protest or crime, whether productive or not, the riot is a manifestation of this refusal to participate since the contract has already been broken. In “White Riot,” The Clash exhorted white youth that it was time for them to similarly rise up and occupy the streets:

Black people gotta lot a problems

But they don’t mind throwing a brick

White people go to school

Where they teach you how to be thick

New Cross Road, South London, August 13, 1977. Photo: Mike Abrahams. [4]

III.

A photograph depicts a deliberately provocative march by the extreme right-wing party, the National Front, whose skinhead “bully boys” were escorted by the police to separate them from a rival coalition of leftists and people of color, some of whom coalesced under the banner of “Rock Against Racism” (RAR). This movement was formed the previous year, partly in response to the right-leaning views of various rock musicians such as David Bowie (whose Berlin Trilogy albums marked his fascination with fascism at the time). More overt was Eric Clapton’s rant from the stage during a concert in 1976, in which he prompted the crowd to vote for the virulently anti-immigration politician Enoch Powell, because, as Clapton so eloquently put it, “This is England. This is a white country. We don’t want any black wogs and coons living here.”5

Enoch Powell, whom Clapton continued to support throughout his career, had already become a raving demagogue with his notorious 1968 speech, in which he suggested that the white English had “found themselves made strangers in their own country” and, alluding to a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, prophesied, “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”6 This “Rivers of Blood” speech (as it came to be known), was and has remained powerfully resonant, as was Powell himself, as a hero and a villain, for many of the demonstrators both right and left.

For me, the photograph from August 13 is saturated with meaning, partly because of what cannot be seen in it. It was the day I enacted a smaller migration, moving out of my parents’ home and into my first apartment, on the second floor, on the right side of that street. This photograph, taken by a journalist, depicts what I watched from my window: my first viewing of a white riot.

New Cross Road, South London, August 13, 1977. Photo: Mike Abrahams.

The white riot is not what we think of as a race riot. The latter conjures up media images of black people—and very occasionally brown people (such as the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in Los Angeles)—and excludes white people, who apparently just resist or get a little boisterous but don’t riot. Yet, looking closer, the riot where the term race most applies is the white riot, since these have mostly been riots to reassert white supremacy, including the above Los Angeles riots, during which US servicemen and off-duty police officers (known as the Vengeance Squad) hunted down and beat up any brown and black zoot-suiters they found. Riots such as these have clear racial intentions: to reconstitute public space as ideologically white space.

IV.

A phenomenon that epitomizes these intersections—and it really did seem like an otherworldly phenomenon when first encountered—is the punk anti-dance that came to be known as the spastic. Like many avant-garde adoptions of marginality and visible otherness, the spastic is highly problematic, intentionally offensive in its naming and its emulation and parody of the St. Vitus dance of epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Sid Vicious joined the Sex Pistols in 1977 and claimed to have authored the spastic dance. A more convincing though paradoxically later source was Ian Curtis, the singer of Joy Division. (Vicious died in 1979 of an overdose of heroin supplied by his mother; Curtis committed suicide in 1980, and his mother was partly blamed, as mothers inevitably are for the misdeeds of their sons.)

Joy Division. She’s Lost Control, 1979; Live at BBC2. 

Diagnosed with epilepsy in January 1979, Curtis would sometimes go into actual convulsions on stage; to most viewers at the time, these appeared to be variations of his dancing. What’s noticeable in the video for “She’s Lost Control” (1979) is that whenever the music approaches a crescendo, the camera abruptly cuts away from Curtis before he erupts in response, and it returns to him only when both he and the music are calmer. His expression of anguished rapture evokes Renée Falconetti’s rendition of Joan in Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Curtis’ movements—past stagecraft, past performance, straying into territories as yet unnamed, a kind of interrupted excess that was too unsettling to watch, since it could not be easily dismissed as something we could innocuously name as dance—were too disturbing for primetime television.

The performance becomes recognizable as performance only in its repetition. The diagnosis of Curtis’s epilepsy and his increasing inability to perform live was, according to those around him, one of the factors that led to his suicide. Knowing that in retrospect changes how we now view his performances. What they mean now, with the knowledge of his suicide, is different from what they meant then. What we can also read in retrospect is the “she” of the song’s title. It’s as though Curtis has identified and externalized his own body, naming its loss of control as a feminine Other. In the song’s lyrics, the unnamed “she” speaks herself into being while switching between who is losing control and who is watching that loss:

And she screamed out kicking on her side and said,

I've lost control again.

And seized up on the floor, I thought she’d die.

She said I’ve lost control.

The spastic bears a similarity to the later zombie dance craze popularized by Michael Jackson’s 1982 song, “Thriller.” But the zombie more generally, at least until the mid-’90s, was symptomatic of and became a prime symbol of alienated labor under capitalism—labor that persists in its mindless condition. The spastic was a symbol of the body taken out of one’s own control. It’s not a body out of control but a body that refuses being controlled as an obedient worker. It’s a riotous, rioting body, an embodied, specifically working-class-identified demonstration of alienation during a time of high unemployment, the strikes of the Winter of Discontent (1978–79), and the onslaught of Thatcherism.

The spastic was also emblematic of a certain mode of white, working-class, heterosexual masculinity, of white-boy culture—a mode that could be performed by anyone, including me—but it was also a mode that paraded a specific trope of white men, as being unable to dance, by turning it into a masquerade. One might say that masquerade, like carnival, is a doubled representation. In this case, it depicts the arrhythmic, physically dyslexic, straight, working-class, white male body and performs that representation to itself, regenerated  as a kind of meta-representation. And don’t forget that this particular white body is being projected as a counterpoint to and as a masking of its envy of the rhythmic, physically fluent, potent, black male body and of the lithe, also physically fluent, queer body.

In expressing envy, the spastic dance represents the frustration of the lack of social power, embodied as an individualized, isolated impotence. When Curtis dances, his eyes seem to roll back into his head, turning in upon an unreachable interiority. The spastic performs a white body seemingly out of control, at the edge of its limits, but actually tightly regimented; that is deliberate and purposeful.

V.

Joy Division’s fascination with fascism was evident not only in the band’s name (referring to sexual slaves in Nazi labor camps)—nor its previous name Warsaw, in 1977, after Bowie’s single “Warszawa” from that year—but also and perhaps more in its debut album’s cover image of a member of the Hitler Youth, drawn by the lead guitarist Bernard Sumner, under the pseudonym Bernard Albrecht; or the album’s foldout notes with a photograph of a German soldier, with a gun pointed at a surrendering Jewish child; or Ian Curtis beginning a song by yelling out a concentration camp number instead of the usual “1-2-3-4!” These gestures, like the ubiquitous punk use of the swastika, can be mitigated—if one were to be generous—as the unthinking shock tactics of white youth against their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. But for Jews and people of color, it was yet another assault, especially since these were increasingly the tactics of the extreme right wing. At their slightest impact, these petty exclusions and microaggressions reinforced the fact that, when listening to what was otherwise radicalizing music, one was participating in white goy culture.                 

VI.

To return to the “White Riot” lyrics—its call to seize control dialectically related to “She’s Lost Control”—the black (male) body expresses its frustration and outrage physically, by “throwing a brick,” while the white, working-class (male) body is numbed by the mind being dumbed down, “They teach you how to be thick.” The spastic dance is this truncated movement, the useless limbs themselves being flung away, stopped, and repeated, much like the cinematic edit played over and over in a continuous, traumatized spasm. That edit, the frustrated, performative spasm of the spastic dance resembles the emblematic gesture of the riot: the throw, of a brick or rock. However, the spastic is the throw in the throes of failure—that is, in the failure of enacting any outward rebellion.

The thrown rock became the emblem of the Palestinian Intifada, which began in 1987, and the thrown homemade, incendiary bomb is the emblem of riots worldwide. Thrown incendiary devices have a longer history, but the Molotov cocktail, with its prime ingredients of mass-produced glass bottles and cheaply available gasoline, is a distinctly twentieth-century device directly linked to industrialization and the internal combustion engine. The Molotov, coined by Finnish soldiers during the Winter War against Soviet invasion, has entered the popular imagination and popular culture as the tool of the heroic, revolutionary underdog.7 It is a cinematically visual device, not least given that one early source of ignition material used by the British War Office was a length of film stock made of highly flammable nitrocellulose.8

Nitrates and nitrites also circulated within popular culture. Sniffed amyl nitrite (poppers) was especially popular in gay clubs of the 1970s, as it induced an immediate double-whammy— of “head rush” and sphincter relaxation— as a precursor to sex. The popularity of poppers was immortalized in Jarman’s Jubilee by the character Amyl Nitrate, played by the single-named Jordan, singing an iconic punk rendition of “Rule Britannia.”

Amyl Nitrate, played by Jordan, in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, 1978.

VII.

Amyl’s parodic dance (burlesque and goose-stepping) and the poppers-induced, propulsive disco and house dancing of gay clubs (not to be confused with popping, a funk-influenced, virtuosic, competitive street dance of bodily articulation) speak to different histories of corporeal response to the constrictions of the world. Unlike these dances, the spastic is an oxymoron: the staccato failure to respond bodily, socially, and politically.

Those familiar with the codes of punk know that the spastic dance is more linked to the nihilist, vacant anarchy exemplified by the Sex Pistols. The dance more associated with The Clash is the pogo, the testosterone-pumped, manically up-down motion of a piston out of whack—the cogs pummeled before the machine explodes. The pogo is a dance performance of the ultra-violence of white street rebellion and the class-war slogan, “Smash the state.”

The pogo and spastic were rarely performed by anyone of color, except as a parody of whiteness and perhaps as a knowing pastiche of their own dislocation and unbelonging. The bodies of people of color were already besieged in ways that made these symbols superfluous. The physical body out of control is commonly mistaken for a mind out of control, and since that is already the perception governing the dark-skinned body, it is a perception that people of color were careful not to exacerbate. A particular circumstance in England was that of the sus law (from “suspected person”), dating from 1824 and repealed in 1981; during its enforcement, it allowed police to stop and search anyone they deemed suspicious, including anyone they thought was in the wrong neighborhood and in the wrong country. The police could have a resisting suspect “sectioned,” that is, forcibly committed for psychiatric evaluation, which led to even fewer legal rights.

Given such circumstances, performing these dances was also seen to be acting white—that is, to fail to read the script of one’s own body. But the spastic, more than the pogo, is the dance of refusal. It is the dance that I can still feel as a corporeal memory, even though when I did perform it, it felt like I was doing so on many levels of meta-narrative. It’s the “spasmic” (cosmic spastic) or perhaps “spastiche” of not having the energy, the desire, or the masculine wherewithal (in other words, the balls) to perform the macho pogo—of not being bothered to smash the state, of being the psychiatric and societal reject. It’s the parody of the National Front’s Nazi salute, the dis that NF means “No Future” for anyone. It’s the jerk(ing) that announces that I can dance, or fail to dance, like a white boy. And when another person of color does it—which is not often—it tells me that person can read only too well the conflicting layers of history interwoven with their body.

Notes

  1. This article contains extracts from a series of lectures given by the author in 2014.
  2. From William Blake’s poem from about 1804, “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time,” which depicted the English countryside as the New Jerusalem, that is, the earthly paradise. The concluding stanza: “I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem, / In England’s green and pleasant land.” In 1916, Sir Hubert Parry added music to the poem, turning it into the now hugely popular nationalist anthem, Jerusalem.
  3. In January 1977, Gilmore was executed in Utah by firing squad. His corneas were donated for transplants; hence the lyrics described the point of view of the receiving patient, waking up in a hospital bed, “looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.”  
  4. See the blog Lewisham ’77http://lewisham77.blogspot.com/2007/08/photo-gallery.html, for more images and a chronology.
  5. Various transcriptions of Clapton’s extensive rant are available on the Internet. However, since these are transcribed from memory, none can be verified. All agree, however, that Clapton closes by repeatedly chanting, “Keep Britain White.” In this video interview, the clueless Clapton tries to explain himself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4f1OF1zpIU. See also: Luke Bainbridge, “The Ten Right-wing Rockers,” Guardian, October 14, 2007, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/oct/14/popandrock2. In this list, Clapton is #4, and Ian Curtis is #10.
  6. “Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech,” Telegraph, November 6, 2007, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3643823/Enoch-Powells-Rivers-of-Blood-speech.html.
  7. The Molotov cocktail became ubiquitously used by protestors during the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe following World War II, but similar petrol-bomb devices were used earlier, during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) as anti-tank weapons. The Molotov has also been used by military forces and has been mass-produced by, for example, the Finnish government-owned alcohol production and distribution company, Alko.
  8. Nitrocellulose was also used in photographic film manufactured by companies such as Kodak. This film stock was used until 1951, when it was replaced by what became known as safety film.

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