Your Stories

Syd Shelton

In 1976 in the midst of the first great recession since the Second World War racism in Britain was becoming ‘normalised’ with the Black and White Minstrel show on prime time Saturday night TV. Black, Asian and Irish people regularly used as the butt of dumb jokes from a stream of comedians, racist attacks and murders were on the increase and the Fascist National Front was gaining an electoral foothold.

Eric Clapton’s racist tirade at his Birmingham concert was too much for photographer Red Saunders (one of the founders of RAR) he wrote to the music press calling for “a rank and file movement called Rock Against Racism to fight the racist poison”. He ended the letter “Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? Cos it sure as hell wasn’t you” The response was phenomenal and over 800 people replied in the first week. I met Red in these early days and got involved firstly as an activist and secondly as a photographer and graphic designer.

After the success of the big RAR carnivals in London and Manchester in 1978 we’d decided we wanted to do a sort of RAR road show called ‘The Militant Entertainment Tour’ taking bands all around the country to different venues.

The West Renton Pavilion was the third gig on the tour with The Ruts, The Gang of Four and Misty in Roots.

I had no idea where Cromer was, but I’d volunteered to drive one of the vans from London. It was an old VW Kombi filled with copies of our magazine, Temporary Hoarding, camera gear, lights and a load of other equipment. When we arrived all we could see was a massive shed near the beach – no people, no queue for tickets. We thought we’d arrived at the end of the earth and that this was going to be the party, which no one turned up to. The bands started to arrive, we set up the PA and they did their sound checks but still there were still no punters. Then suddenly it was like the cavalry had arrived – a fleet of double-decker buses came round the headland with the entire audience.

I was near the front when I saw the girl in fishnets climb up on to the stage and take up that reclining pose between two monitors. It was one of those adrenaline-driven moments when nothing matters apart from getting the shot. So I climbed over everyone’s heads and dragged myself on to the stage in front of the Ruts lead singer, Malcolm Owen. I had my two Nikons around my neck and a big old Norman flash and it just went pop. A second later I was in the air and then on my back in the middle of the audience. The bouncer had thrown me off the stage. I still have those cameras and one of them has a big dent from that night.

I remember the long drive back to London through the night thinking about that shot and I went straight to the darkroom to process the film.

Recently the New York Times ran a review of the Autograph ABP touring exhibition, ‘Syd Shelton: Rock Against Racism’ and one of the images they used was the West Runton shot. A New Yorker saw the review and was convinced that the only black person in the image was his sister so he contacted her and she confirmed that it his her - she is Alisandra Cummings and is director of the National Museum of Barbados.