Author Daniel Rachel talks about his new book Walls Come Tumbling Down, a study of musicians at the forefront of Rock Against Racism in the 1970's and 1980's.
Contactmusic [CM]: Could you tell Contact Music a little bit about yourself and Walls Come Tumbling Down please?
Daniel Rachel [DR]: Walls Come Tumbling Down charts the last time in British pop when music radicalised a youth generation. It is the story of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge and tracks a sixteen year period when pop music and politics collided to challenge racism, gender inequality and social and class divisions.
I was at primary school when I was mistakenly driven into the middle of a National Front rally. My parents were screaming but I remember being quite attracted to the colours of the Union Jack and Swastika'sbeing paraded. Year later, I found out there was a riot soon after when local youth turned up to stop the march and there was a pitch battle with the police. The night's entertainment was the Clash who sang police and thieves in the street, oh yeah.
CM: How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book?
I had been a musician all my life, first in Rachels Basement and then as a solo performer. Music was all I knew or cared about. Then one day, I suddenly decided to guillotine my career, lock away my guitar and try and become an author. It took five years. And then Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters was published and became a Guardian and NME book of the year. I didn't have any previous skill or training in writing. But I had written hundreds of songs. I just dared myself to do it. My tactic was to tell everybody I knew of my intention and use it to push myself on for fear of failure.
CM: What did you find easy and hard about writing Walls Come Tumbling Down?
It was a joyous book to write. I met over a hundred people who had directly contributed to the period, from pop stars to politicians to activists. The stories I heard were incredible. So I decided to present the book in their words. The influence was a cross between a theatre script, film documentary and the oral history of Edie Sedgewick (the Andy Warhol 'It' girl') by Jean Stein.
There was so much incredible music in this period - from the Sex Pistols and Linton Kwesi Johnson to the Beat and the Style Council - which in turn drove the activism and the cultural politics. The difficulty was in cutting stories to maintain the book's pace and enjoyment. My literary agent suggested 'chopping out lines' and it would read like a thriller. In fact, a third of the book was culled by the final edit. Although there is the literary thrill of reading about fights and riots and government brutality the plot is driven by well-meaning outsiders trying to do good, not always getting it right, and somehow pulling off some of the greatest events in rock and roll history.
CM: Did you always know who you wanted to get to contribute to the book? Did you have a very big wish list?
Music books are usually about men and written by men. I tried to imagine how a woman might enjoy reading it, particularly because the gender struggles are at the heart of the three movements. I wanted the book to be half male half female in contribution. Considering the seventies and eighties that was pretty difficult. Most of the bands were men and few women were in parliament. But then you have people like Tracy Thorn (Everything But The Girl) Pauline Black (The Selecter), Rhoda Dakar (Bodysnatchers/ Specials) or Clare Short (Labour). And behind the scenes I discovered Red Wedge was started by Annajoy David (alongside Paul Weller and Billy Bragg). Neil Kinnock describes Annajoy as being like a 'nuclear reactor'. She was an amazing person to meet and unlock her history from leading Youth CND to getting Red Wedge policy into the Labour Party manifesto.
It also took about year and many people's involvement to get to and then persuade Jerry Dammers to talk to me. He had never contributed the story of 2 Tone to a book before. His interventions in cultural history are so important: forming the Specials in the image of Rock Against Racism, setting up 2 Tone as a socialist record label, writing '(Free) Nelson Mandela' and launching Artists Against Apartheid. Jerry's is an incredible journey and another one forming the backbone of the book.
CM: What was one of the most surprising things you learned when writing this book?
That Eric Clapton told the 'wogs' and 'Pakis' in his audience to go back to their own country. It is the incident that inspires the creation of Rock Against Racism and is the opening chapter of the book. It is unbelievable he has never apologised.
There is also David Bowie calling Adolf Hitler 'the first rock and roll superstar' and being caught on camera SiegHieling. But unlike Clapton, Bowie retracted his comments and apologised profusely. It's also amazing the parallels between then and now. Not only in gender, race and class but with the Labour Party. A reader might believe I was writing about today and using a cast of historical characters to make the point: Labour in civil war, black people being murdered by the police, immigrants being attacked and scapegoated. The only difference is the cultural response. Then, music and comedy and art was at the vanguard of the struggle against equality and the establishment. But you would be hard pushed to find that level of engagement today.
CM: What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
Cormac McCarthy. Carson McCullers. Two of the best.
I spent half of my adult life on the dole and Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell captured the feeling of being penniless and rootless against a backdrop of love and hope.
A while back I was the assistant director on the National Theatre production of London Road. It was a verbatim script written by Alecky Blythe and her approach and belief in the words of others was a key stimulus for Walls Come Tumbling Down.
CM: And finally, is there anything else you would like our readers to know?!
Walls Come Tumbling Down has just won the PenderynMusic Book of the Year: it just tops the night I sang on stage at the Birmingham NEC with Posh Spice and Roger Daltry, but that's a story for another time!
Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel is available in paperback now, published by Picador (£12.99)
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