There was a mini-pilgrimage from High Wycombe on Sunday 30th April 1978 to attend a joint ‘Anti-Nazi League’ and ‘Rock Against Racism’ march and concert in London. The march started from Trafalgar Square and would make the 4 mile trek towards Victoria Park in Hackney, East London, for an open air concert attended by an estimated 80,000 people and featuring X-Ray Spex, The Clash, Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson Band.
Those travelling from High Wycombe journeyed mainly on organised coaches departing from outside the Stewart and Arnolds factory in Temple Street. Those travelling independently by public transport used the regular service National Express from the Bus Station (built as part of the Octagon Shopping opened in 1968) or the dilapidated train service of the time – heading for Marylebone and then choosing to either join the march at Trafalgar Square at 11am or most likely catching the Hammersmith and City line to Mile End, before walking to Victoria Park for the start of the concert.
The first band on were X-Ray Spex – taking the stage around 1.30pm as many of the crowd were still making their way to Victoria Park. Sound problems plagued the day throughout but X-Ray Spex battled along with their sax based punk sound, led by the charismatic and outspoken Poly Styrene.
‘Folk Punk’ Patrik Fitzgerald braved the stage next but for some reason was met with hostility from a small section of the crowd who decided to lob beer cans at the stage. Fitzgerald would have been familiar with the small contingent from High Wycombe – he had played The Nag’s Head earlier in the year and unlike his time at Victoria had received a warm reception. He abandoned his set part way through and was later quoted as saying: “If the crowd hate the Nazis as much as they do me, then we will be OK.”
Perhaps the reaction to Fitzgerald was the anticipation of waiting for The Clash? Looking back some 40 years later it would be easy to play the revisionist trick and hail The Clash at that point in time as a mighty force with a huge back catalogue of classics. Truth be told, back in April 1978 they were still trying to find their true direction having been one of the original punk bands from the UK punk explosion of 1976 and 1977.
The Clash had been formed in the summer of 1976 and played an early gig at The Nag’s Head later that year in front of a crowd that barely approached 100. Just a few months later a six-figure sum had enticed them to sign for CBS records and they released their debut self-titled album in April 1977 to wide acclaim. The album reached No.12 in the UK charts but CBS didn’t consider it suitable for the US market and it wasn’t until early 1979 that a modified track listing version was thrust upon the States and much later in 1979 that the classic ‘London Calling’ album was a success on both side of the Atlantic. The intervening time was one of evolution for The Clash.
Punk seemed to be losing its way during tail end of 1977 and the early months of 1978. The Sex Pistols had split in January 1978, while The Damned had played a ‘farewell’ concert at The Rainbow in April 1978. The Clash’s debut album had been hailed as punk classic but the follow-up, was still in the making and their latest single,’ Clash City Rockers’ (released in February 1978) had been met with mixed reviews – the band themselves later admitted to hating it and sacked producer Mickey Foote as a result.
The Clash seemed a perfect for the RAR concert at Victoria Park but ended up being a late addition to the bill after the band’s management were seemingly reluctant to associate themselves with political causes. Luckily the band thought otherwise and agreed to an early slot in order to fit in with a re-arranged evening gig in Birmingham the same evening. Reports that they were pushed down the bill to reduce competition with TRB appear to somewhat exaggerated over the years.
They arrived on stage around 3pm with some of the set being filmed for a drama/documentary, ‘Rude Boy’. They burst on stage to play ‘Complete Control’ followed by ‘London’s Burning’. Later in the set they would showcase new material, including ‘Tommy Gun’, ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘English Civil War’. Their set closed with Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey taking the vocals on ‘White Riot’.
However, there were sound problems throughout their set too, while lead singer Joe Strummer also complained of a sore throat. The footage seen when the film was released some two years later, included overdubbed versions of the songs played.
The political edge was taken up a further notch with Birmingham’s Reggae finest Steel Pulse coming on stage around 4pm. It will come as no surprise that their Ku Klux Klan track was the highlight of their set. The sound seemed better than The Clash but the band themselves never seemed happy and eventually cut their set short.
The most political band of the time were left for the final say of the afternoon. The Tom Robinson Band came on stage around 5.30pm and played a short but powerful set in order to comply with the GLC’s live music curfew of 6pm. TRB had played High Wycombe three times previous to the day at Victoria Park, so provided a very familiar face to most of those making the trip from High Wycombe. Tom Robinson was a natural for the politically charged atmosphere at Victoria Park, getting the crowd fist pumping to the pop of ‘2-4-6-8- Motorway’, singing along to ‘Sing if You’re Glad to Gay’ and spitting out the lyrics to ‘Don’t Take No For An Answer’.
After TRB had finished their set, Robinson returned to the stage alongside Jimmy Pursey, Mick Jones and members of Steel Pulse to perform’ We Have Got To Get It Together’ – a song written especially by Robinson for the event.
An amazing day and one that has rarely been matched in the years since, from the point of view of bringing together such a huge group of people with a common love of music and the desire to protest for humanity.
Did you travel from High Wycombe to see this concert? Please get in touch with your memories.
For your listening and viewing pleasure
London’s Burning – The Clash – Victoria Park 30 April 1978
White Riot – The Clash (with Jimmy Pursey) – Victoria Park 30 April 1978
The Clash – Victoria Park – April 1978 – Original audio of full concert