The Interview, 1986 Dec 29, 2006 21:11:30 GMT -5
Post by unite on Dec 29, 2006 21:11:30 GMT -5
The Interview, 1986
(printed in the fanzine Bloodred. Online here: www.sozialismus-von-unten.de/archiv/text/redskins.htm)
It’s damn old. Eva Kowalski interviewed the Redskins in London around ‘86. Besides the obvious fact Bloodred is still a fanzine and every Bloodredists worship the Redskins what is the use of printing an unpublished interview with this long ago defunct legend?
The interview deals largeley with the role and limitation of political music which is - I’d argue - still relevant for HC bands today...
Never has so much been written by so many about a band with so little hair. Redskins were a three piece four tops with Joe Strummer’s guitar, in a word faberoonie or as Karl Marx might have said "Shit hot!".
Drawing from punk and Tamla Motown for inspiration, they were young militant... hard and fast and the closest thing to heaven since Presley joined the Army and Levi Stubbs joined the rank of the also-rans. Their ambition was to sing like the Supremes and walk like the Clash. What the Redskins set apart from the other modern soul bands was their strong commitment to revolutionary socialism. They didn’t write love songs. Asked if he’d ever written one, Chris Dean said: "No! I don’t want to bore people with details of my personal relationsships." For them what defines both music’s responsibilities and politics’ concern were what happen in public: "What really guides The Redskins is the political situation... We try and sing about whatever is at the forefront of current political debate and at the moment that is the confrontation between the government and the working class. We’re not a little band that live in our little world."
You can criticise the Redskins on many things, but their historical achievement is that they have provided a brilliant soundtrack to a particular political struggle - the Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985. This strike is still the longest major strike in British history that ever happened. It affected hundreds of thousands of miners, their families and supporters. Although the strike was a defensive one, a strike against pit closures, lay-offs and wage losses, it had a huge impact and many musicians like the Redskins rallied for the cause of the miners. Even bands like Wham!, Bronski Beat, Style Council and mister Bruce Springsteen donated money and played benefits for the miners to hold out against the vicious attacks of the right wing government of Margaret Thatcher. The strike failed because the lack of solidarity of the TUC union bosses, the failure to halt the back to work movement, and riot police in full gear. Times have changed since then. A few short term strikes and two huge demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of miners and other workers in London 1992 convinced the British government to withdraw plans of closing the mines that are still working. ‘The return of the working class’ in the fall of 1992 has left the ruling Tory party of England in tatters ever since.
When did the Redskins start?
Chris: It started in 1981. There was a band before with me and Martin and Nick, that was the other drummer that we had before Paul started. The band was called No Swastikas.
With a name like the Redskins, are you a skinhead based band?
Chris: Not really. When you ask about the audience, it’s very mixed, there isn’t very many skinheads at all. Around the time of 2 Tone, late seventies there were quite a lot of skinheads. But now there’s very few. So you get some skinheads, some punks, soul boys, you know, people into dance music. A very mixed audience, also in terms of age. The more popular you get, you get younger people not just young male Clash fans, more girls.
What about right wing skins, can you change their ideas?
Chris: The misconception has always been that skinheads were all right wing, which they were not. If you look at the Specials audiences, the 2 Tone bands, Madness, there were a lot of skinheads, a lot of anti-racist skinheads and left-wing skinheads and socialist skinheads. The name Redskins came from a group of skinheads in Sheffield who were in the Communist Party. The young on the left are mainly in Trotskyist organisations or the Labour party, because in the Stalinist organisations were very old men. Yet there was this weird thing, very strange, that in Sheffield there were all these skinheads in the CP. Some were in the Labour party, some in the Socialist Workers Party. There have always been left-wing skinheads. Most working class youth don’t have strong racist ideas, have rather strong right wing ideas. I mean, obviously you get fed right wing ideas all the time, obviously that’s reflected in young people’s minds. Over the years, you meet skinheads and, yes, we have had an effect. There’s so few, it’s more pertinent to look at kids whether they’re into soul music or rock’n’ roll or whatever that we have affected politically, because the skinheads are a very small number. Within that small number, yes, I know of skinheads who have moved to the left. We have not really had any effect in terms of the National Front or fascist skinheads. Obviously, our ideas clash to hard.
Paul: The one important thing is we have stolen their symbol, we use up their symbol, their strongest symbol of cropped young men with big boots that are violent. By being a skinhead band, being left-wing you diffused, you diluted the strength of their one bonding sort of image. Even if we have not won any converts from the National Front type of skinhead at least we have done one thing and that’s robbing off the potency of their symbol. The National Front has been trying to recruit disaffected young kids. If I can bring up a historical thing here: I’ve read a book called The Classic Slum by Robert Roberts and it dealt with one man’s memories of this slum area in Warrington, northem England between 1895 and 1910. It was a very oppressive time for workers. You had a job for two years and then you were out of it for another two years. Robert Roberts in that book describes groups and youths, unemployed, hanging around street corners with working boots on, working trousers, short cropped hair, men and women, and this was 1905! There were skinheads in 1905. Really it is a symbol of frustrated, angry, disenfranchised youth and it’s never actually been solely a uniform of the right wing youth. Skinheads are a phenomenon but they ain’t new.
Chris: It has kept some people away from them.
But they have disturbed your shows?
Chris: Yes, they have done, in the past. There were a lot of threats. There’s always been a lot of talk of ‘this is gonna happen, that is gonna happen? and it’s only happened two or three times. When we played that open air free festival with The Smiths, organised by the Great London Council, the National Front turned up and smashed up the gig and there have been a couple of other little gigs when there were a handful of skinheads in the audience that sieg heiled and stuff. We’ve dealt with them or the crowd dealt with them.
Martin: When we played in Holland last time, we played in Utrecht with Billy Bragg and there were some Dutch fascist skinheads there and there was a fight. But the number of times when it has gone from being just a threat or the possibility of actually a fight is hardly ever.
Chris: But last year when we got attacked at the Great London Council 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 and they had attacked five gigs, the promoters wouldn’t do your shows anymore. After this one gig promoters started saying, ‘The Redskins are trouble, they are too much violence, too much trouble’. They wanted to finish us off. They could have last year but not now. I don’t think they see us as competition anymore. They’re so bloody weak. They see us as a pop group. 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, something we’ve talked about with Socialist Worker, when we were talking about doing an interview for the paper recently, is that the contradictions are becoming more and more acute. It may well come to a point where we have to give it up.
So you doubt that music can change the world?
Chris: A lot of people have had grand ideas of Punk. People had a romantic idea that music could change the world and all sorts of farcical and ridiculous ideas, like music on its own is so powerful, but it is not. It is incredibly bloody weak. It is only when it is linked to political struggle like during the Miners’ Strike that it really starts to mean anything. I mean the number of bands, political bands playing last year for the strike was far less than the number of bands singing political songs of some sort in 1976-1977 and yet the impact in concrete terms in many ways is greater. Because in the end of the day Punk did just sell records it did just make money. It was floating, it was not linked to anything. Look at the period, except for 1976 to 1978 in Britain you see that the level of political struggle was minimum, the level of industrial struggle was minimum. So you had music operating in a complete vacuum.
Paul: We had a right wing Labour government. My idea is that we did not have anything going on there because we thought we had the right government to look for us as working people. Not everyone, but the people that put Labour in power, believed that.
So how do you try to combine politics and the band?
Chris: At our gigs it is very much up to other people. Say we play Manchester, the local SWP branch have always tended to sell papers outside. We haven’t got the time if we actually play the gig ourselves to stand outside selling the paper. You’d block the whole thing off. People wouldn’t buy the paper but would just be talking all the time. Me and Martin, if we’re here, in town, and not in the recording studio, where we’ve been the last couple of months - actually we haven’t been involved in the party at all for the last couple of months - we sell the paper at a factory in Wilsdon Friday morning or we sell the paper Saturday afternoon, we go to the branch meeting, whatever. At our own gigs it’s very much up to people in the local branch to organise around us. The time when most happened at our gigs was during the Miners’ Strike. 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. If we had people trying to recruit people for the SWP it’d be terrible, people would be turned away. In the middle of the Miners’ Strike you could have loads of paper sellers at the door, it was absolutely right. It was all part of it, the whole discussions around it, miners speaking on stage. There is a lot of glamour involved in rock’n’ roll. People do look at you, so we had miners on stage because what they were saying was much more important than all of our songs. It’s much more important to hear from someone in a mine than from me that ‘tomorrow you should all be down at the picket line, this is how you organise’. It would be ‘who the fuck do you think you are’, that’s lecturing, whereas, if it comes from a miner, a steelworker on strike, someone that has to be down at the picket line the following day, it something else. We always had collections, someone going around with buckets. The whole idea of that, of giving money for solidarity is not that you give money out of a moral reason, because people are suffering. People suffer all the time. The whole point about factory collections is that you have to argue with people. If you go around with the bucket you have to argue about why they should support you. Then it’s not the pound in the pocket that’s so important. It is the movement at the factory that it takes to move the hand and get the pound out and then to be able to get back to following week and say look, we’re sending a delegation up to support this picket line can you come on that or come on strike in support of them. There has been a lot of bands that just gave royalties, people like Sade quietly gave a gold disk or some royalties to the miners and no one ever knew. I think you should publicise that. It is not a matter of bragging. You should be quite clear. We support the miners and this is why!
But on stage don’t you say anything about the SWP, why you are a member, why you support that?
Chris: Not specifically. It is a matter of deciding, when does it fit. It is what I said about heavy handedness. This is also the question: Why don’t you put at the back of your records: Join the SWP! I can well see a situation when it is right to do it: If you’re in the middle of a general strike and you have a record coming out. We’d be irresponsible not to do that, it’d be our duty. At the present time, when you’re very much just a pop group, it’s different. When the SWP comes along and asks, ‘could you announce this or that meeting’. We would announce it, rallies, demonstrations. They think though that we could push the party more. But it would completely fire over people’s heads if we’d be talking about membership or Socialist Worker all the time between songs. We take things from it. I have taken Socialist Worker on stage sometimes and picked out things from it. The idea of a musical version of a revolutionary paper is quite out of place. There could be nothing worse than the most ideological right on band, that must be so boring and dull. But whatever, I think there should always be paper sellers at our gigs because there’s people there that will be interested in our ideas. But that is something different from starting a recruitment drive, that would turn people away. There are times when propaganda can be very specific and concrete and we don’t decide those times when working class people fight. At the moment, because working class people aren’t really fighting, the Redskins is very much abstract propaganda. It’s like firing shots in the dark. It very hard to find something that knits with people’s experiences. The important thing is to understand how much we are affected by what’s happening in the world and in the English working class and their struggles. We can say the most extreme things on TV, we can do an interview in a paper that sells a quarter of a million. We can do the most extreme things but that won’t make a point because it’s that simple thing, that Marxist thing, that you must relate to people and where their ideas are. People do know what we’re about. Everybody knows we are skinheads in the SWP, all the journalists want to know about that: ‘who are these lunatic Marxist headbangers?’ We’ve always made that quite clear.
If you’re so dependent on the movement, what will you do if the movement goes down?
Chris: It is down at the moment. Everything seems to close up very much. You have to reconcile to the fact that the propaganda you make is quite abstract and you have to think much, much harder about how you link in with things. You have to think really clearly if you are gonna have an interview with say Smash Hits, a magazine read by young kids. If you reach to kids of their age you have got to talk about things that affect them like the young labour schemes. To cut down on unemployment figures they push kids into so called training.
Paul: It’s just cheap labour. Working in a shop for 20 pounds a week, not learning anything.
Chris: Just sweeping the floor. They’ll say you will learn shop skills, commercial business skills and you are just sweeping the floors for shit wages. We have to find these little things here and there that relate to people. Inevitably another thing is you retreat in your music a lot more. During the miners dispute we didn’t stop and think about our songs. For fuck’s sake, there were much more important things going on than songs structures. All the time we were busy on a political and organisational level. Now you see we spend time on music and melody.
Paul: I think that’s right. It means we get on the job to make sure that people are still buying our records when the next conflict comes up.
Chris: We’ve had a bit of a crisis after the Miners’ Strike as we saw audiences dropping. Thousands during the strike and now 500-600. There were some rock’n’ roll problems with the label and promotion and so on. But a large part of it was the end of the strike. During the strike for a year I never thought, ‘what are we doing’. It was obvious, now that is different. It is the thing that happens when culture gets divided from that struggle, physically or by defeat, writers, painters, like the German writer Bertolt Brecht who got kicked out by Hitler, they all had to deal with that problem. That’s the problem The Clash had. The Clash sincerely believed that they’d do so much on their own. Completely blind to the reality, to what was going on in 1977. If you ask people what happened in 1977, no one can bloody remember anything than Punk, that’s all I can remember, all I can think of. Whereas 1979 I remember the large steel strike, loads of engineering strikes, strikes in the motor industry. 1984 is the Miners’ Strike, the docks, the railway, all sorts of struggle. In 1977 nothing the fuck was going on and yet the music The Clash was making was as though we were in the middle of a bloody revolution! It was brilliant, it was great, it sounded like a revolution, but it meant fucking zero. In the end Punk was just wearing safety pins. A lot of people did try, like Mark Perry, the Buzzcocks, the Gang Of Four. It wasn’t for the want of trying but it was just another fad. It wasn’t linked to struggle and too many people just got carried away with it. A lot of friends of mine did think this was the end of the record industry...
Do you want to be rockstars, it’s a cheesy question, but...
Chris: No, it’s not. It sounds like a simple question but it’s not. You could say no in the sense of my idea of it.
Paul: I think everyone wants to be a star no matter what. They want to be recognized and it’s fairly obvious why the Redskins want to be.
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 agressive, challenging and aware, wanting to change their lives, wanting to change history. You’ve got to have an agressive concept of the word ‘popular’. Most pop music appeals to the most passive popularism on the lowest common denominator. Something that’s just easily acceptable, music that’s not particularly wonderful but not unlikeable. It does not upset, just appeal. 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 people 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 afterward they want to talk to you about the politics, that’s much better. You can try a trick to become more popular but the hard truth is that all your ideas can still be in there but those extra people you draw are just purely bind by the trick. I do not think we want to be stars but we want to be succesful. We’re agressive about it, we must be.
Paul: Carry on doing what you do and if you draw more people with that, that’s a lot of support, to those people we’re something worthwile.
Chris: We have people coming up to you at shows telling how we influenced them. That is what keeps you going. But don’t lull yourself into that too much, there’s severe limitations. On a trivial level you can influence people, condoning products and so on.
Paul: But when you tell people you condone certain revolutionary movements, it is something different.
Chris: That is a big mental leap. There is a lot of hard work necessary to achieve that: selling the paper every week, arguing, organising in struggles. That’s a big mental leap against the flow. It is rallying people, not converting. In the end, it is much easier going to a Redskins gig then it is to buy the Socialist Worker.