Punk wordsmith, Joolz the Poet, was hiding in the girl’s toilet, when she heard a sound from the cubicle next door. ‘Are you crouched on the toilet seat to avoid the encore?’ And this voice went, ‘I am.’ I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she went, ‘I’m Sandi Toksvig.’
The poet and comedian were on the Red Wedge 1987 Woman’s Tour ducking from an ensemble rendition of ‘Ain’t No Stopping UIs Now’. The all-female concerts was a riposte to the predominantly male outing a year earlier featuring the likes of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and the Communards. It was a chance for the women to say, ‘We have a voice, too’. Across the country audiences were treated to performances from Sandie Shaw, Rhoda Dakar, Sarah Jane Morris, Tracey Thorn and the comedy three-piece Sensible Footwear. ‘If you play to men, their first instinct is to shout, ‘Get your knickers off. Show us your tits,’ remembers Alex Dallas, ‘gender politics are not easy because it requires one gender to pull back and do a bit of self-analysis. Men always used to say to us, ‘Where’s your woman Picasso?’ ‘Where’s your woman Beethoven?’ ‘Where’s your woman Shakespeare?’ It was to prove that we were therefore inferior. We used to wear these horrible masks and tell mother-in-law jokes like, ‘What does a woman put behind her ears to make her more attractive to men? Her legs.’
‘There were a lot of women at the heart of Red Wedge,’ explains Billy Bragg, ‘they were driving us to make decisions and articulating what we were singing about.’ The left wing collective had been formed in 1985 in an attempt to politicise and encourage a youth generation to, simply, vote. (In the 1987 general election six million 18-24 year old were unregistered to vote (a figure equitable with today). Red Wedge offered music, comedy and DJ tours and in return demanded an influence on Labour Party policy. Neil Kinnock whole heartedly backed the movement and happily told the artists in the leaders Shadow Cabinet office of his rock n roll credentials as the once, honorary president of the Gene Vincent Appreciation Society. A generation before, Kinnock had been at the heart of the formation of the Anti-Nazi Leagueand it is where Walls Come Tumbling Down begins.
Music and social history is usually told by and about men. I set out to find the female pioneers whose actions, in the sixteen year period between 1976 and 1992, shaped a generation. It was an exhilarating and life-affirming journey. Alongside the pop stars and the politicians, of which there were many – Clare Short, Tracey Thorn, Pauline Black – there were the activists. These were the unknown campaigners who provided the imagery and intellectual rigour behind Rock Against Racism, who organised the mammoth 2 Tone tours and wrote graphic songs about rape and sexual politics, and in Annajoy David engineered the political unit behind Red Wedge, a counter-cultural origination that radicalised a generation to challenge gender inequality and social divisions.
From a mid-Seventies where sexist humour was as common place as the racism evident in the Black and White Minstrel Show or Love Thy Neighbour, the eighties decade ended with a newly radicalised youth enlightened by values exemplified by the Nelson Mandela concerts held at Wembley Stadium and watched by a global audience of over 600 million. What happened in the intervening years is charted in Walls Come Tumbling Down by over one hundred contributors and presented as an oral history. It is an era to be revered and a declaration of the power of woman to change society for the greater good.
Daniel Rachel is the author of Walls Come Tumbling Down: the music and politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge - winner of the Penderyn Music Book of the Year. The paperback is available now, published by Picador. (12.99)