1. Bob Marley – I Shot the Sherriff  

DAVID HINDS Clapton was hailed as a god because of the Yardbirds and then Cream, but I thought ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ was utter rubbish. It was nowhere on a par to Marley’s version: Sheriff John Brown always hated me . . . every time I plant a seed he said, ‘Kill it before it grow.’ You could hear the suffering and frustration in Marley’s voice, but he did an interview saying all kinds of positive things about Clapton’s version. I was saying, ‘Is Bob crazy? What’s he talking about?’ Then it dawned on me: ‘Why wouldn’t he? He’s raking in the money for it.’ Reggae had different ways of being born to the public and if it took Clapton for other people to start listening to reggae, so be it. 

  1. Tom Robinson Band – (Sing If You’re) Glad To Be Gay 

TOM ROBINSON I had been politicized by the gay struggle so coming out as gay was a crucial part of my political development. Once you’ve written a song called ‘(Sing If You’re) Glad To Be Gay’ there’s no going back in the closet. The basic tenet of the Tom Robinson Band was you either live in a free and fair society or you don’t. You can’t ask for freedom and fairness for just homosexuals on the one hand but not people of a different skin colour or for women or for workers versus bosses. You didn’t just fight in isolation.

  1. X-Ray Spex – Oh Bondage Up Yours

KATE WEBB Poly Styrene was the greatest product of punk ever. She was part Somali, part Scottish-Irish and was like the advance party for the new self that was going to remake Britain. She was so unprecedented and completely her own thing and of the moment Bind me tie me / Chain me to the wall / I want to be a slave / To you all; it’s one of the greatest feminist anthems ever

NICKY SUMMERS Poly’s message was different and important. It was about being female and not dressing or looking or behaving how you’re expected to. Punk had a different aesthetic of female beauty. It was beyond liberating.

4. The Ruts – Jah War

JOHN JENNINGS Whereas Linton recorded They killed Blair Peach the teacher, we wrote ‘Jah War’ about Clarence Baker: He got whacked over the head with a truncheon. And Malcolm wrote those brilliant lyrics. But most of the reviews were god-awful. They couldn’t deal with white blokes trying to be black. There was one from Julie Burchill: ‘Obviously, they’ve never been near this genre of music except listening to “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”’.

DAVE RUFFY I thought, ‘You’ve no fucking idea.’ They accused us of being like Black and White Minstrels for doing reggae; it was a story about our friend who got fucking brain damage. We used to jam with Misty so we learnt how to do a lot of the roots. It wasn’t like, ‘We know how to play reggae.’ It’s really hard. When we jammed I was like, ‘Don’t take it for granted. Try and keep it fresh. Stay on top of it.’ We just did it the best we could, with enormous respect. 

5. The Clash – White Riot

TOM ROBINSON There was a curfew at six o’clock and the Clash deliberately carried on playing. They were starting their third song over their time, ignoring all gestures from the side of the stage. I was at my wits’ end. It was my favourite band stealing my set.

JOHNNY GREEN There’s these people going, ‘You’re overrunning. Come on, off.’ We were going, ‘Fuck off. Look. People are loving it.’ It was getting argybargy.

ROGER HUDDLE Red said, ‘They’ve got to get off the fucking stage. NOW. Pull the plug.’ I said, ‘We can’t.’ He said, ‘Pull it. It’s our fucking plug.’ They finished the song and I went ‘pff’ and that was it. Johnny Green called us long-haired hippies.

5. Sham 69 – If The Kids Are United 

SYD SHELTON They said they would kill Jimmy Pursey if he played the Carnival so we said, ‘You can’t do it.’ We knew it would ruin it and there would be a punch-up. Up to that stage Jimmy had never openly come out and said he opposed the National Front. Misty had just finished their set and I was on the stage reloading film in the camera. I saw Jimmy come through these massive gates and he charged straight to the front of the stage and made this fantastically impassioned speech: ‘I decided in bed last night that I wasn’t gonna come today. But this morning I met this kid who said, “You ain’t doing it ’cos all your fans are National Front.” And I thought, “That’s just what everyone’ll think if I don’t turn up.” WELL, I’M HERE! I’m here because I support Rock Against Racism.’ It was a seminal moment.

7. Steel Pulse – Ku Klux Klan

RUTH GREGORY Steel Pulse came on in their Ku Klux Klan outfits. I don’t know what the sound is for shock but somehow there was shock in the crowd.

8. Linton Kwesi Johnson: The Great Insurrection

DENNIS BOVELL The SPG went around unscrupulously stopping and searching black people going about their business to clean up Brixton. It was a move to agitate communities and crack down on whatever they thought was wrong within the community. Admittedly, there was ganja on sale quite openly and gambling was quite commonplace, but one street in Brixton hardly deserved the attention of the whole of the British police force. Brixton was a mixed community – like Ladbroke Grove, like Toxteth, like Handsworth – so when ordinary working-class people were beginning to feel the same pressure as the minorities, they suddenly realized there was a common thread. Then all you need is a few people to go, ‘Per- haps they need to hear our voice? Yeah, let’s have some disorder.’ Linton captured it in ‘Di Great Insohreckshan’: It woz in April nineteen eighty wan / Doun inna di ghetto af Brixtan / Dat di babylan dem cauz such a frickshan / Dat it bring about a great insohreckshan / An it spread all owevah di naeshan / It woz truly an histarical occayshan.

9. Aswad – Can’t Stand The Pressure

BRINSLEY FORDE Scenario: one-thirty in the morning. You have got to go down this dark alley and on one side you can see a lot of black guys with hoods playing reggae music and on the other side there’s white guys. Which side of the street do you choose to walk on? You walk where you think you’re going to be safer. Racism is a security measure. All you need is someone to trigger it to start that fear. That’s what Hitler did. It was an economic situation so they used it. I remember when Aswad played in Liverpool. After, Tony and I went to this club with a couple of girls. It was like a massive house with all these different rooms and we were probably the only black guys in there. We could make out these boys who were checking us out. Suddenly, the group got bigger and bigger. I said, ‘Tony, we’re going to get a kicking. Let’s go to the bar, get a drink and get something to defend ourselves.’ It seemed like the longest time and my heart was beating really fast. Suddenly I saw one of them. I said, ‘Here they come.’ The guy walks up to us and says, ‘Are you guys in Aswad?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said to his mates, ‘I told you.’ We might have struck out at those people just out of fear.

10. Au Pairs – Come Again


JANE MUNRO We recorded ‘Come Again’ for the TV programme Something Else and then were told it was unsuitable and too rude for the BBC. The song was about men’s cack-handedness and lack of skill at giving women orgasms; and the fact that a woman might want more than one, which isn’t unreasonable. It was the sort of territory that people didn’t go into. John Peel said it was the flip to ‘Je t’aime’.

LESLEY WOODS ‘Come Again’ is all about encouraging a woman to have an orgasm. I can feel you hesitating. Is your finger aching? I felt embarrassed about it for a long time. It was semi-humorous. I used to get young men come up to me at the end of a gig and say, ‘I really do want to give my girlfriend an orgasm. She won’t come.

11. Gang of Four – To Hell With Poverty


KATE WEBB I remember being at a party with some of the Gang of Four. They were talking about ‘How do we get these kids to turn away from fascism?’ which was a massive question. They were very bright guys and very interested in sexual politics and aggression from the stage and how you portray that. They were pretty articulate. They were asking, ‘Is music enough?’

ANDY GILL At its crux Gang of Four was most defined by the issues involved in Rock Against Racism but we were never promoting a party political point of view. It was about trying to describe the reality around us in a truthful way. It was never straightforward sloganeering like the Clash, who almost had a stance by association

12 The Specials – Too Much Too Young (live)

NEVILLE STAPLE With toasting you just go with the rhythm of the bass and drum or the keyboard. People didn’t understand what I was doing at first. For example, in ‘Nite Klub’, Nah bother dally down at the Nite Klub, come mek we’ll boss it. ‘Nah bother’ is ‘Don’t bother’: ‘Don’t bother fuck about and hang around the nightclub, come on, let’s go and enjoy ourselves.’ Patois is just broken English. I had to cut the Jamaican down to make it more English. In ‘Too Much Too Young’, Oh no, nah give me no more pickney, I’d have to cradle my arms on stage to illustrate the meaning.

JERRY DAMMERS ‘Too Much Too Young’ was written about one woman and I didn’t hate her at all – it was very rude, sarcastic and adolescent, punky and angry, ’cos those were the times. Politically it could be seen as a feminist anthem. It wasn’t saying, ‘It’s all your fault.’ It was saying, ‘Young women shouldn’t allow themselves to be used just for creating babies; they should take control of their own fertility and contraception. Don’t let men dictate what happens with regard to contraception; don’t let them decide when you should have children.’ In the seventies there was still pressure on people to settle down, get a steady job and a family by the age of twenty; some people spent their lives in unhappy marriages. But it was unexpected getting keep a generation gap – try wearing a cap to number one, and that brought in what is still the biggest problem facing the world today, population growth: Do you really want a programme of sterilization, but just persuasion: Take control of the population boom / It’s in your living room

HORACE PANTER The live version of ‘Too Much Too Young’ is like fucking Motorhead

13. The Bodysnatchers – Easy Life

NICKY SUMMERS ‘Easy Life’ was produced by Jerry (Dammers) and suddenly it came across as an anthem with this very slick production. We were taken aback. The riff came forward and it had this catch-line. Rhoda wrote the lyrics. It was about not taking the easy option and girls doing something more challenging, more creative than going for the safe norm. I did modern languages at school and was told the best I was going to be was a bilingual secretary.

RHODA DAKAR I was twenty. You don’t know that much. I could stay at home, play houses / There’s a brain here. Is it our natural fate? / Do we just have to procreate? The other misunderstanding is that I thought motherhood would drag you down but with the genius of hindsight I now know that it’s an empowering role. Once you have physically invested in the future you’re going to make damn sure there’s going to be one.

14 Madness – Embarrassment

1) Madness do not support any political group which has racial politics. 2) The career of Madness has been inspired by many people. Their first-ever hit, ‘The Prince’, was dedicated to a Jamaican, Prince Buster, who is the godfather of ska and reggae. This record was released on a label belonging to the Specials who have both black and white members. It is consequently very upsetting to Madness that it could be assumed by anyone that Madness could support any racist group. 3) At the concerts at Hammersmith Odeon when the National Front and the British Movement were outside selling literature all possible efforts were made by Madness and the promoters of the concert to stop such literature being sold. 4) Finally, Madness will make it absolutely clear that they did not support any racist policies and hope that their fans of all ages and all nationalities do likewise.

TIM WELLS I’d listened to ‘Embarrassment’; Madness spoke out in the music.

15 The Selecter – Too Much Pressure

PAULINE BLACK The Selecter used to have a mock fight during ‘Too Much Pressure’. Most people used to think we were actually doing it, and sometimes we were, depending on how much dissension was going on in the band between people at the time. It was a way to offset fights in the crowd and show that unbridled violence is pretty senseless. It was an interesting experiment: black folk of all kind of hues and a girl all lamping each other. It was quite a thing to behold. Subliminally it was saying, ‘We’re finding it really difficult to get along. Is this what you want?’

JULIET DE VALERO WILLS It was designed to hold a mirror up to the various factions in the audience to make them question the violence. Violence only makes sense when you’re in it and fuelled by the anger. Just watching, it becomes ludicrous and pointless. It looked real. Like one of them had totally fucking had enough. People were shocked. By the time they picked up their instruments again people would have forgotten where they were at. Well, that was the hope, it didn’t always work out like that!

16 Rhoda and The Special AKA – The Boiler

RHODA DAKAR The first song I wrote for the Bodysnatchers was ‘The Boiler’ – ‘old boiler’ was a phrase Nicky told me she’d hear men use to describe ugly women. They started playing the riff and I just started telling a story someone had told me about a rape.

PAULINE BLACK Rhoda has my undying admiration for the song.

17 The Beat – Stand Down Margaret

DAVE WAKELING Thatcher represented a class betrayal: that somebody from above a grocer’s shop in Grantham who had gone to Oxford was now looking down their nose at everybody. It seemed a bit kippers and curtains to me. Then Andy Cox finished ‘Stand Down Margaret’ off with one of  the best satirical lyrics in literature: how can it work in this all white law, which was Geoffrey Howe and William Whitelaw; both cabinet members in Thatcher’s regime.

BILLY BRAGG The first time I heard ‘Whine And Grine / Stand Down Margaret’ was on The Old Grey Whistle Test, on the soundtrack to an unrelated abstract film clip. I thought, ‘This is a nice reggae song.’ Then all of a sudden it started talking about white law and that pricked my ears: ‘Wait a minute, stand down Margaret. This is incredible.’ It was one of the first anti-Thatcher songs I ever heard. I went straight out and bought it.

18 Billy Bragg – Between The Wars

ROBERT ELMS Sweet moderation, heart of this nation is one of the great lines of any piece of British political pop music. What Billy so cleverly did was turn the tables by portraying the right as the aggressors and the warmongers. And the left as those that like peace and are the moderates and don’t want to divide people by class or race.

TRACEY THORN Billy is someone who’s very positive about political action and a believer in people; sweet moderation, heart of this nation is his politics in a nutshell. Political songwriters are often characterized as negative and constantly slagging things off and criticizing, but I do think of Billy as one of life’s great positive thinkers. He is the standard-bearer for it all.

19 Joolz the Poet

JOOLZ DENBY In the soundcheck, Jimmy Somerville sang ‘Summertime’ a cappella in the empty hall. It was riveting. This cleaner stopped and was leaning with her hands on the back of a seat. It was this most beautiful moment of perfect artistry. Later, I bummed a fag off Paul and he chatted to me. I’ve never forgotten it. Not because it was Paul Weller but the fact that he deigned to pay attention to you in a matey, casual kind of way. It was so unusual. It’s difficult to explain the lowly position that women inhabit in the sausage fest that is rock ’n’ roll unless you’re pretty and you’re a singer or do the catering. I thought, ‘Good lad.’ And somebody sent me a bouquet of flowers, which was very unusual for me. I was thrilled because this was a big thing and not my normal scene, but I’d been a socialist all my life and I thought if it brings socialism to even one person of sixteen then it’s a good idea.

20 ELVIS COSTELLO Shipbuilding

KAREN JOHNSON We had been told that Day Events didn’t have live music, but the rumour mill had gone mad and the venue was absolutely rammed. There were at least 500 or 600 there and it was a very heavy, scary, intimidating atmosphere. Half the crowd were Militant Young Socialists, winding up the whole atmosphere of aggression and confrontation, and a few troublemakers all baying for a live band. Me and a colleague had been on the phone to Peter Jenner to say, ‘Can Billy help us?’ But then Red Wedge got offered the live music programme The Tube so they said, ‘We can’t do it.’
He begged him to come down to the Riverside and Elvis said yes. When he arrived he asked for a pint of lager, a pint of orange juice and a guitar. And then he went on stage and said to the audience, ‘I don’t know where the fuck the others are,’ and started playing a wonderful rendition of ‘Shipbuilding’.


TRACEY THORN I come back to the great Ben Elton joke about being wealthy under a Tory government when he said, ‘I don’t want to have to wade through an inner-city riot on my way to the squash court sipping my Pimm’s.’ However successful and well off you are, it doesn’t benefit you to live in a broken society. Yes, I wasn’t personally suffering under this but you’re a thinking, sensitive, feeling human being; you don’t like looking around and seeing your society vulnerable and people in it suffering. You don’t have to be the one on the end of this punching fist not to like it.

TRACEY THORN Everything But The Girl did Nottingham Royal Court with the Style Council, the Blow Monkeys, Billy Bragg, Junior, Lorna, Black Britain and Dave Wakeling. Glenys Kinnock was backstage and she gave me her little red rose badge to wear on stage. I had been admiring it on her and as I went on she said, ‘Go on. Wear it.’ I tried to keep it after but she wanted it back.

22 The Communards – Don’t Leave Me This Way

RICHARD COLES In Leicester, we made Ken Livingstone play on ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ and he very embarrassingly shuffled on stage in a safari jacket. He ended up signing more autographs than the rest of us.

SARAH JANE MORRIS We were learning as we went along. I did a lot of dancing and bending down to Jimmy because I’m five foot eight and he’s five foot put together. I clearly remember Madness trying to get a GLC grant out of him.

23 Junior Giscombe – Come On Over

BILLY BRAGG Junior was the king because he really was a soul singer. He took it outside of the post-punk ethic. He had a mainstream career that was not known for its politics so for him to come and join us was a big risk for him.

JUNIOR GISCOMBE I wrote ‘Come On Over’ for the tour, trying to show from a musical standpoint that I didn’t just have to do ‘Mama Used To Say’. And I felt it was right for what we were doing: Come on over to my place / There’s a solution to the problem.

KAREN WALTER I had so much admiration for Junior. His music was very different from anybody else involved in Red Wedge. He was articulate and reasonable. I was used to people not being so reasonable at the NME.

24 The Special AKA – (Free) Nelson Mandela

BILLY BRAGG There was a direct link between Rock Against Racism and the Nelson Mandela concerts because Jerry had been inspired by the Victoria Park Carnival.

Eric Clapton played, I think mainly as a friend of Dire Straits. I asked him on the day if he would apologize from the stage for the comments which gave birth to Rock Against Racism. I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity for him given the occasion, but he just said, ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.’

25 The Style Council – Walls Come Tumbling Down!

JERRY DAMMERS ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down!’ was a biblical reference to when they blew the trumpets and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Archaeologists now believe that the walls were undermined first; so it wasn’t the music. But that is a good point: music on its own isn’t going to work. You have to work with non-musical people and political movements that are connected.

ANNAJOY DAVID This whole period put culture at the centre of politics and helped to define the language of politics in a way that the country hadn’t seen happen before. You had thousands of young people out on the streets with something to say who had taken politics into their lives. It helped to define a generation who brought together culture and politics to stand up and say something about the government of the day. Was it better to do nothing and let the fascists go unchallenged? Was it better to do nothing and let Margaret Thatcher go unchallenged? Should we have stayed silent? Of course we shouldn’t. We had a duty to stand up and call people to account. That’s what democracy is about. Walls did come tumbling down.