Into the light: The Redskins
This is a column for those lurking in the recesses of every genre. Occasionally name-checked but rarely in the spotlight. They did it better. Just never got on the radar of Joe Public. Well, we’re going to make our own soupcon of restitution by shining our very own AAA battery torch on them for you, dear readers.
Number two: Redskins
1983. The country’s in the grip of Thatcher’s butchery of the working class communities, the miners’ strike is just around the corner, and the charts are full of boys dressed up in 19th century frocks and singing about Rio.
1983. The Redskins – a thrilling mixture of the twin peaks of protest music, punk and soul – release their second single, Lean On Me, on CNT Records. It announced their arrival in magnificent fashion, bringing revolutionary socialism to the dance floor.
Nick King’s relentless beat, Martin Hewes’s thumping bass and Chris Dean leading the vocal charge between punches of razor sharp brass– it burst forth as an infectious, angry and danceable call to arms. Little else seemed more relevant in popular music to the crisis the country was going through as unemployment topped 3 million.
‘Sad signs of a sad despair / a wild cat here and a wildcat there / weak in isolation… We can argue right and wrong / but together we are strong / a flame that can’t be dimmed’.
They were, of course, skinheads. And socialists. Hence, red skins. Harrington jackets, tight Levis turned up halfway up the shins, and Docs or boxer boots. It was a familiar uniform, but with a different message (they were attacked by fascist skinheads on more than one occasion). They talked Motown more than punk – Dean was nicknamed Tamla Motormouth – and were far removed musically and politically from the skin Oi! scene. Think along the lines of The Jam and The Clash meet Diana Ross.
Redskins were Gary Bushell’s band of the year in 1983: ‘The Redskins don’t believe in mincing words,’ wrote Gaz, ‘they’re as uncompromising as their music’s flash and forceful… Socialism on Top of the Pops? We live in hope.’
The Redskins were unique for mixing of accessibility and protest. Songs were catchy, but with a hard-hitting message, and deliberately so: ‘If people aren’t listening to the music,’ said Dean, ‘they certainly aren’t listening to the words.’ It was important that there was an audience and that they were up in front of them. ‘Loads of people have made rebellious music since time immemorial, it’s only in the hands of an audience does it become revolutionary.’
Even lyrically, things could be read two ways at times. Dean reported in one interview of a ‘girl whose reaction to Lean On Me was going into gory details of her sexual fantasies’. Lean On Me showed how far they had travelled since the first, brutal and flawed single, Lev Bronstein (Leon Trotsky’s real name). More soulful, danceable and melodic, it marked really an end to their flirtation with punk and a new, arguably more commercial direction.
Their song titles hinted at a soul obsession at the same time as being a rallying cry for the forces against Thatcher – Hold On!, Keep On Keeping On!, Turnin’ Loose (These Furious Flames) – whilst others were more direct: Kick Over the Statues! and Bring it Down! (And yes, they all do have exclamation marks).
The Redskins’ timing was impeccable. The year-long miners’ strike literally kicked off in March 1984 and it was as if their time had come. They were made for this. Younger readers won’t appreciate quite what a cataclysmic event the strike was, but for a whole year Britain was at war with itself. And it’s never been the same since.
Miners against the police, strikers against scabs,Tories against the unions. Pitched battles were fought in and out of Britain’s coalfields as large swathes of the country were virtually occupied by the police and army. In the first three months of the strike one miner was arrested every twenty minutes – 3,282 arrests in all.
Billy Bragg’s Which Side Are You On? captured beautifully the polarisation of the time but it was Keep On Keeping On! by the Redskins that landed like a big red flag into the middle of the battlefield in October 1984.
I still remember getting my mitts on the 12”. Designed by Bolsheviks, and delivered by revolutionaries, the front cover just had the title and blood-red letters across the bottom: ‘It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!’ A tub-thumping, tom and bass start ushers it in, as Dean laments ‘I ain’t found what I’m looking for…’ then turns, ‘but I found some things, and I’m gonna change them! / Keep on keeping on! / ‘Til the fight is won’.
Brass and guitar interject but it is Dean’s soulful cries that really set the record alight. It epitomised the crunching struggle, the strife, the hope and despair. This strike mattered because if the government won, all was lost, the Thatcher steam roller would march on, the mining communities die and the Left would never recover.
The failure of large segments of the Labour movement to properly back the strike was not spared, nor the starving back to work of many miners: ‘Time and time when the workers rise / the fight back’s stabbed by a neat back stab / and the paper’s lies. / Leaders lead us into blind retreat – one by one we take the money / and ten by ten we face defeat’.
In the autumn of ’84, the Redskins appeared on the Tube. Before KOKO!, they invited a striking Durham miner onstage to put their case. Although those of us in the TV studio crowd could hear him, the broadcast version was turned down – launching an almighty row over censorship.
Redskins toured the country relentlessly during the strike, doing benefits, putting their energies where their mouths were in the exhausting year-long dispute and showing a dedication to the cause that is unheard of now. Toward the end of KOKO!, a prophetic desperation kicks in: ‘Maybe 5 or even 6 months yeah / 7, 8, 9, 10,’ Dean counts, ‘…and if it takes a year we’re gonna last a year!’
Sadly of course the striking miners stuck it out a year, only to be defeated, and the rest is history. At least ten men dead, many in prison, thousands out of work. The Redskins had provided the soundtrack to the dispute.
Their record covers were laden with revolutionary rhetoric, stylish graphics and images of defiance and victory. After KOKO!, came singles that attempted to capitalise on their profile – The Power is Yours! and Bring It Down! – whilst at the same time promoting their association with the Socialist Workers Party, something that didn’t endear them to large segments of a sectarian Left. Bring it Down became their only Top 40 hit in June 1985.
Principles and the record industry clashed in late 1985 with the release of Kick Over the Statues!. The band wanted the single’s proceeds to benefit the anti-apartheid cause, and to accompany their Kick Over Apartheid tour, but Decca refused. So the band stole the master tapes and released the single on the Abstract label, removing the band’s name from the sleeve to avoid prosecution, and then donated proceeds to the ANC.
Nick King left in ’85 to be replaced by Paul Hookham and in 1986 came the long-awaited album, Neither Washington Nor Moscow – But International Socialism, itself a slogan of the SWP. Highlights included gems from their live set: Take No Heroes – heartfelt and almost bluesy in its angst (hear the live version on the double pack 7” of Bring It Down, ‘recorded in Manchester during the great strike’) – and Hold On, a furious guitar driven anthem.
By the end of 1986, the contradictions inherent in trying to break an ultra-commercial music industry with a socialist band started to count. Chart success never really came, although there was a final single, It Can Be Done, in ‘86. Chris Dean reflected, ‘It became harder and harder to be a member of the SWP and the Redskins. The group was out of time, out of date and out of step with the political reality of Britain in 1986. We were becoming more rock and roll than political.’
Since then members have pretty much disappeared from view, a sad loss to music. One reviewer summed it up: ‘For many people the Redskins were inspirational. They came and went in the kind of way that you wish the Strokes would. One album, thank you and goodnight.’ And as The Redskins themselves sang – ‘Take no heroes / Only inspiration’.
- This article featured in AFL:SPG issue 2. To get a copy (£2) call in to the Working Class Movement Library, 51 The Crescent, Salford, M5 4WX or phone 0161 736 3601. Make sure you ask for Lynette, please. Issue 3 is also still available, but issue 1 was sold out.