Eric's old post-colonial blues

 

I think Her Majesty was taking the piss. At some reception or other in Buckingham Palace recently, Liz was ushered into a room where, standing gormlessly, waiting to meet her were Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Brian May, writes Brian Boyd.

It's common knowledge that the Queen is briefed by her advisors as to who her guests are and is given suitable, patronising questions to ask them. But with this group of palaeo- axemen she decided to have a laugh.

First of all, she pretended not to know who Jeff Beck or Brian May were. The unctuous May had to timidly explain that he was the one responsible for standing on top of Buckingham Palace during the second Jubilee to play some awful guitar solo. To be fair, at the time, the Queen didn't take down a rifle and shoot him on sight as a security risk.

Upon meeting Clapton, she asked him what he did. When he replied "I'm a guitarist, ma'am", she stared at him and said: "Have you being doing that a long time, then?" She was definitely having a go - she knew exactly who they all were (even Jeff Beck), but decided to put the rock'n'roll bad boys in their place.

If she had wanted to have had a proper go, though, she could simply have asked Clapton: "Aren't you the man who was responsible for the formation of Rock Against Racism?" That would have taken the stupid grin off his face.

At a concert in Birmingham in 1976, Clapton told the audience that the right-wing nutcase, Enoch Powell, was correct in his analysis of a multicultural Britian. Powell's thesis amounted to "send them home" ("them" being people whose skin colour didn't match Powell's). Clapton added that Britain had "become overcrowded" and urged the crowd to vote for Powell to ensure Britain did not become "a black colony".

The following week a letter appeared in the NME. Written by a bunch of not famous musicians, it read: "Come on Eric ... you've been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff and you know you can't handle it. Own up. 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'n'B? You've got to fight the racist poison, otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their cheque books and plastic crap.

"We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison in music. We urge support for Rock Against Racism."

Directly because of Clapton's remarks, Rock Against Racism went on to organise hundreds of concerts that attracted thousands of people. RAR is still very much an active force on the music scene.

Just last year at one of their biggest ever gigs, The Libertines (playing one of their last shows with you know who) and The Buzzcocks both gave up their fees to the organisation. Both bands pointed to the increased vote for the BNP in local council elections throughout Britain as the motivation for their appearance.

Here's the thing about Eric Clapton: he's never retracted his remarks. Last year, in an interview with Uncut magazine, he tried to spin his Birmingham speech by attempting to explain: "We were inviting people in under false premises ... inviting people in as cheap labour and then putting them in ghettos."

This is somebody who has made an awful lot of money out of playing black music. Somebody whose most recent album, Me and Mr Johnson, finds him covering the work of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. It's great for Clapton that he's making money out of Robert Johnson. If they had been contemporaries, he would have wanted Johnson "repatriated".

Two words for you, Eric. The second one is "off".

bboyd@irish-times.ie

REVOLVER

Brian Boyd