Great Britain

Still rocking against racism

“Not being an arsehole isn’t actually that hard.”

That was Jake Burns’s no-nonsense response to my Twitter comment that he didn’t seem to have gone the way of so many childhood musical/political heroes. 

Not all pull a “Full Morrissey,” but those we have musically loved find numerous ways to disappoint.  

So it was nice to discover Burns on social media, sporting a red “Made Racism Wrong Again” baseball cap, still recognisable as the bloke whose band I’d gone to see from the age of 13 (I was the short one in unflattering bondage trousers, getting crushed at the front by the taller, older, cooler people). 

I’d have been happy to know then that Burns would remain both untouched by rock-star hubris and as righteously pissed off with the state of the world as when the first Stiff Little Fingers album, Inflammable Material, charted on his 21st birthday. 

A US citizen now, living in Chicago since 2004, he took citizenship partly with the goal of being able to vote Donald Trump out of office. 

It seems incredible that it’s 40 years this year since Burns and the band (then also comprising Henry Cluney, Brian Faloon and Ali McMordie), played to 20,000 people in the Rock Against Racism carnival. 

RAR was inspired by two “pre-Morrissey moments.” 

In May 1976, David Bowie was photographed at Victoria station giving what looked like a nazi salute, later telling Playboy magazine: “I believe very strongly in fascism … Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”

The same year in Birmingham, Eric Clapton told black audience members: “You should all just leave … Not just leave the hall, leave our country … I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man. I think we should vote for Enoch Powell … send them all back.”

Leftie activist Red Saunders, until that moment a Clapton fan, wasn’t having any of it. In an open letter to Clapton he wrote: “Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B?”

Rock against Racism was formed. Picking up on traditions of anti-racism established over generations by the blood, sweat and tears of black and Asian activists in Britain, RAR organised an astonishing 500 gigs over the next six years.

On April 30 1978, the Carnival against the Nazis was 80,000-strong — the march four miles in length. 

Next September Stiff Little Fingers played at Brockwell Park, Brixton, with Aswad. 

I asked Burns how it felt to be a new band and suddenly playing a mega-gig in front of 20,000: “I don’t know that we gave it much thought, to be honest,” he says. 

“I’m sure we must have been nervous as it would have been the biggest crowd we had ever played in front of, but we were a very late replacement for Sham 69, so the whole thing is a bit of a blur. We were in the middle of a tour supporting the Tom Robinson Band and had to get to Cardiff after the festival for a show that night.”

He laughs when I ask if he can recall what songs they played: “No! But, it probably would have been the 30 minutes or whatever we were playing on Tom’s tour. The only songs we knew at that stage were what made up our first album, so probably just that, minus Closed Groove, which I know we hadn’t written at that point.”

SLF had hit the ground running just two years earlier. Formed when Belfast-born lead singer Jake Burns was 19, their first single, Suspect Device, was a blistering tirade against British oppression in Northern Ireland. 

Louise Raw (LR): Jake, the cover was designed to look like a cassette bomb — is it true one record company had to ask for a replacement, as they’d thrown the first one in a bucket of water?

Jake Burns (JB): We were told that but I think it’s probably apocryphal. I’ve been in a lot of record company offices since then and I’ve never seen a bucket of water lying about the place!

LR: You’d gone from doing covers to a full-on punk band; you’ve credited Joe Strummer and the Clash with that (their lyrics politicised me, as did yours). 

You’ve never sounded derivative, though I suppose your use of direct, unpretentious, sometimes funny lyrics is quite Clash-y. What sort of music do you think you'd be making if punk hadn’t influenced you early? 

JB: I was, and remain, a huge Rory Gallagher fan. So, that was the road I was headed down. Although, just prior to punk “happening,” like a lot of people I had started to tire of the endless guitar solos by bands like Deep Purple etc. 

I’d started paying more attention to the songwriting side of things, listening to people like Graham Parker and Bob Marley etc. I was also a big Dr Feelgood fan, so when punk arrived, I was a pretty easy recruit, although I did need to be convinced of its staying power and relevance beyond shock value. 

That was where the Clash came in. A song like Career Opportunities really opened my eyes to the possibilities in the music.

LR: Was punk your biggest political influence (as well as life in Belfast presumably)?

JB: Growing up in Belfast at that time, politics was unavoidable. It wasn’t just something that was on the news or in the papers. It was everyday life in a way that it wasn’t anywhere else in the UK. So, you couldn’t help but be influenced by it, even if you weren’t overly aware that you were being.

LR: What were your parents’ political views/backgrounds?

JB: My dad was a socialist. A machinist in a textile machinery factory/steel foundry, he was a shop steward and always stressed the importance of a union. 

That was something that was impressed on myself and my sister from an early age. My mum was a seamstress. What was interesting about both of them, in the sectarian hotbed that was Northern Ireland at the time, was that they were both implacably opposed to hatred of any kind. 

Sectarianism and racism were both railed against whenever the subjects came up and my dad in particular was a great proponent of the argument that working-class folks would be better served fighting for better conditions together rather than apart.

LR: You once said your mum was a bit worried about you touring with Tom Robinson because he was (then) a gay activist — was she socially conservative, and if so, how did she take to having a punk rock star son?  

JB: I wouldn’t say she was socially conservative — she simply had no experience of meeting gay people, so it was “fear of the unknown,” I suppose. 

And you have to remember that homosexuality was illegal in Northern Ireland at the time, so on some level, she may have thought I was about to go hang out with a criminal! 

I honestly don’t know, and sadly she has long passed away so I can’t ask her. With regard to what we were doing and however successful we became, I think like most mums, she was concerned that it wasn’t a “real” job. She only ever saw us play once. A “triumphant” return to the Ulster Hall in Belfast. 

She came backstage afterwards and I was expecting at least some praise, but instead I got a clip round the ear for “swearing so much” on stage! 

After the break-up of SLF, Burns formed Jake Burns and the Big Wheel — Burns on vocals and guitar, Steve Grantley on drums, Sean Martin on bass guitar and Pete Saunders on keyboards. 

JBBW’s 2002 single She Grew Up was a rather lovely reflection on post-punk life — “I’d met her before somewhere, I knew the face /But she had green spikes in her hair, back in ’78/ Now the plastic bin liner skirt and the safety pins /Have given way to a zip pocket shirt and designer jeans.”

LR: It’s nice that the lyric of She Grew Up just muses on the passage of time rather than looking down on this woman for “selling out” as some rock stars would. Was it based on an actual incident?

JB: My songwriting partner, Gordon Ogilvie, wrote that lyric. I’m not sure that he had any one person in mind, more a reflection on changing times, I think.

LR: You moved to Chicago in 2004. You were pro-Obama — but disappointed by him in the end? 

JB: Yes. He was such a breath of fresh air compared to what had gone before. Suddenly, it seemed like there was intelligence in the White House as opposed to the perceived buffoonery of George W. 

My problem with Obama was he didn’t push as many social reforms through initially as I felt he could have. When you see the way Trump attacked the presidency, having control of both houses, and moving like gangbusters through his “reforms,” I felt Obama could have done that. 

However, he was much too conservative (with a small ‘c’) for my liking. But then, any mention of socialism here gets you branded a communist, as Americans can’t seem to distinguish between the two schools of thought. 

It’s endlessly frustrating talking to someone who will agree with everything I say in terms of the bettering of their situation and then say: “Yeah, but no-one will go for it, because it’s communism.” It’s what will always dog Bernie Sanders, for example.

LR: Instead of Trump driving you out of the US, you said you were applying for citizenship just so you could vote him out. Have you ever thought of moving back?

JB: Not because of Trump, no. It’s true that the night he got elected, I made up my mind to take citizenship. I’d already been living here for about 11 years at that point and I guess being in a liberal city like Chicago, I’d gotten lazy regarding my civic duty. 

The election of Trump changed all that and I felt I needed a voice again, beyond railing on record albums. Of course, Chicago will probably always be staunchly Democratic, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make myself heard.

In 2009, Burns formed Chicago punk-rock super group The Nefarious Fat Cats to raise money for local charities. Apart from five years in the 1980s when they were completely broken up, he’s also kept Stiff Little Fingers alive and continued to add to their legacy, rather than impersonating his younger self.

Members have come and gone — the band now features guitarist Ian MacCallum and drummer Steve Grantley, who’ve been part of the act for two decades now, and bassist Ali McMordie, who was with Burns as part of what’s considered the classic line-up, and has come back to the band after leaving for much of the ’90s. 

While SLF are not too proud to play the old hits, Burns takes pride in keeping them current, too. 

“Obviously at this stage of the game being 40 years into it there’s an element of, “This is one we wrote back in 1970-whatever,” he has said, “but it’s always important to us that we moved forward and didn’t live off past glories — basically fight the temptation to become a cabaret act.”

Appropriately, SLF’s last studio album was 2014’s was called No Going Back.

LR: Jake, you struggled at first with that balance of past and present, and scrapped a load of material at the last minute? Why?  

JB: The songs felt too “formulaic.” Like “writing by numbers.” They didn’t reflect where I was as a 50-year-old man. 

I was still trying to write like I did when I was 20. So, I needed to change some of the subject matter and challenge myself a bit more with regard to melody and structure within the songs. (Doesn’t sound very punk rock, does it?) 

Of course, within that, I also had to try and make the songs exciting. When I’d finished the writing and listened to the songs back, my first thought was: “Shit. Who’s going to want to hear a late middle-aged man moan on about being depressed and not being able to pay his mortgage?” 

As it turns out, quite a few people. I’d always tried to stick to the old adage of “write what you know,” and by reflecting my life, it turned out I was reflecting quite a few of our audiences lives as well.

LR: I’d always assumed the reason you didn’t write love songs was that you were too cool for it — love songs were too cheesy, too pop. But you said in a later interview it was actually because you found it hard to write personal lyrics?  

JB: Yeah. They always came out sounding like bad sixth-form poetry. You know how every year the Guardian awards a Bad Sex Award to an author who has written a particularly awful description of a passionate encounter? That’s how my “love song” lyrics always seemed to me. 

So, rather than wait for a national newspaper to give me an award for bad writing, I decided I’d self-censor and not bother writing them in the first place.

LR: But then came My Dark Places, definitely not a love song, about your own depression. Did you hesitate to write something so personal? 

JB: I did hesitate. Not to write it, but to record it. I didn’t think it was a particularly strong song, it has a very simple chord structure, for example. But, the rest of the band, Ali in particular, were very keen that we play it. Three chords and the truth, you know? It works.

LR: Is depression something you’ve had for a long time, or did it hit in later life? 

JB: I think it started after my divorce. I thought I just felt guilty about that but it obviously triggered something much deeper and that something is still there. Not every day. I’m lucky, insomuch as I’m not at the suicidal end of the depressive spectrum, but I am prone to periods when everything seems futile and I’d rather hide away and not speak to anyone. Hide away and rock back and forth. It’s definitely a physical pain as well as mental.

LR: You credit friends for helping you through, and presumably family too. How did that work for you? Did you have to learn to honestly express your feelings (some blokes do) or were you always able to do that in your private life? 

JB: No. Like most men, I bottle things up. I talk about that whenever we play the song live. I know it’s the wrong thing to do, but it’s still my, and a lot of men’s, knee-jerk reaction.

LR: The first time I spoke in Belfast as a historian, I had a long talk with some people in their sixties afterwards who spoke about collective, untreated PTSD from the Troubles. Do you think that played any part in your own depression? 

JB: That’s an interesting point that has just come up recently. I was talking with my sister about it earlier this year. I think everyone who lived through that period carries some form of “hangover” from it. 

It may be something as simple as a sense of unease walking home late at night that your companions who didn’t grow up there don’t feel. Or it could be something much more traumatic. But I do think we all carry something, whether we’re aware of it or not.

LR: You haven’t given up political song writing — Trail of Tears is about brutal immigration enforcement in south-western America. I think your old songs stand up, too, which is quite something — I was playing Alternative Ulster to my son recently and the raw anger of the vocal still connects. What do you feel when you hear it now — do you feel close to “that” Jake Burns?

JB: Well, I did have some help! Gordon and I wrote that song together although I did do the lion’s share on that one. 

I’m not a person who does “pride,” I’m not comfortable with it. But, I’m pleased that the song has lasted this long and that people like it and take something from it. 

As far as feeling close to the 20-year-old me … I can still see him in my head. He was a determined little bugger, and I still have a lot of that left in me.

I ask Burns what he would say to young bands and acts thinking of getting involved with anti-racism; in an interesting echo of Red Saunders’s admonishment to Clapton 40 years ago, he replied: “Why wouldn’t you? The chances are extremely high that your music is influenced by another culture at some point in its evolution. Why wouldn’t you want to include as many people as possible in your music? It’s pretty simple as far as I can see.”

Indeed, those who have long proclaimed the death of effective political music may have been hasty — in recent years we’ve seen Grime for Corbyn, and this year Stormzy’s support for voter registration had a huge positive effect. 

On the third of this month, the R3 sound system and Stand Up To Racism/ Unite against Fascism turned the London anti-Trump demo into a virtual rave with thousands of young (and not-so-young) demonstrators dancing in Trafalgar Square. 

I watched groups of bemused fascists circling, and though a few made the token, cowardly and strongly rebuffed gestures of trying to kick over the SUTR stall and threatening a female steward, the average age of the audience (as well as tight security) were almost certainly factors in them slinking away defeated afterwards. 

Also in the crowd that evening was none other than Red Saunders, who tells me: “At 73, I still really enjoyed the thumping contemporary DJs and their anti-racist music. 

“The big issues don't change much. The central aim of RAR was to put black and white bands on stage together to break down people’s fear of one another — to make rebel music, music of its time. 

“One of my slogans of the time, ‘Love Music Hate Racism,’ is today’s manifestation of the spirit of RAR.” 

Paul Sillett of Unite against Fascism agrees: “Jake Burns, Stiff Little Fingers and everyone involved in Rock against Racism made a massive difference, shifting young people away from racists and fascists, who were trying to recruit them. 

“The National Front and British Movement are history now but sadly, racism and fascism aren’t. Today’s political acts like Stormzy can and do help in the fight. Rock hard!”