In the early 1980s, during a dismal political and economic time in Britain, there emerged a opinionated, committed and musically brilliant band from Yorkshire who, in terms of cutting edge polemic and absolute confidence in their beliefs, have never been bettered.
They were called the Redskins (or just Redskins), were card-carrying members of the Socialist Workers Party, and adopted soul music as the sound of revolution. Their support for the SWP was unwavering: a speech by Tony Cliff, the de facto leader of the party was used on the only studio album, Neither Washington Nor Moscow, named after the masthead on the party’s weekly paper, Socialist Worker.
There was nothing frivolous about the three-piece; politics had to be lived and breathed, and if they weren’t singing about revolution and the class struggle, there were plenty of benefit gigs, in support of jobs or the Greater London Council, for example, to support.
Redskins comprised singer Chris Dean, a former NME scribe who was inspired by Joe Strummer, drummer Nick King, and bassist Martin Hewes. Changing their name from No Swastikas to Redskins in 1982, the trio moved to London and released their debut single Lev Bronstein in July of that year and bagged a John Peel Session in October, where they paraded a brass section, featuring Kevin Robinson, Trevor Edwards and Ray Carless, who would become a regular fixture.
Their emergence was timed perfectly. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party won a parliamentary majority and soon began a series of cuts and attacks on working people and communities that never let up. I recall as a primary school child the chant ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher’, after one of her first moves, to stop free milk in schools. It seemed callous but this was merely a portent of things to come: heavy industry was destroyed, especially in Scotland, local government powers were limited, millions were added to the dole queue, and the unions were bound in suppressive legislation.
Out of this era arose several leftist acts, such as Billy Bragg and Style Council, but Redskins were the only ones to be so committed to a cause. Later, Manchester indie band Easterhouse, with their far-left politics and alliance to the Revolutionary Communist Party, would be carry the red flag hoisted by the Redskins.
In the early days, Redskins were more punk than soul, the ardent Peasant Army containing an inflammatory, and angry chorus. It was only a B-side, the A being Lev Bronstein, otherwise known as Leon Trotsky. Another single was released on CNT, the label which was also home to the Three Johns, Lean On Me/ Unionize!, although the B-side was as good as it’s supposed superior.
This incredibly upbeat paen to working-class solidarity was their breakthrough single, reaching no. 3 in the then critical Independent chart in the UK. Dean’s message couldn’t have been clearer on Unionize!: “We can talk of riots and petrol bombs all day long/ But if we fail to organise, We’ll waste our lives on protest songs.”
I have recently been listening to all these songs on Epilogue, a barely promoted compilation released by a largely punk Canadian label called Insurgence. Living in New Zealand I had to pay through the nose for postage this, but it’s worth every cent.
It contains three tracks by No Swastikas, which signified their commitment to radical politics, none of which have been released on CD or vinyl before: Strike/ Unnamed/ Stickies, which reveal among some raw and edgy music, a commitment to the cause. There’s also the excellent The Most Obvious Sensible Thing from an unreleased John Peel Session, as well as B-sides and demos.
For me this is as good as music can get. I only became aware of them through a friend, who was a member of the SWP, in 1986, the year they broke up.
They had released their debut album earlier that year, and before that released more fantastic singles, one of which made the national charts. Bring it Down! (This Insane Thing) peaked at 33 in 1985 but it felt like a rocket up the establishment.
By this time Redskins were on Decca, a move that seems remarkable for a band of such noted political persuasion.
But understandable as well. In 1984, Britain was in the midst of the Miner’s Strike that polarised the nation, and brought to our television screens pictures of picketing and violence as miners fought for their livelihoods. The media portrayed the battles as the fault of aggressive miners, but there is much evidence of deliberate police provocation.
Redskins were at the forefront of the miner’s campaign, playing benefit gigs and releasing Keep On Keepin On!, which was backed with Reds Strike the Blues. The A side solemnly noted “Can’t remember such a bitter time, The boss says jump, the workers fall in line.” And while the workers were let down by union leaders and the media lie machine, Dean rallied the troops, urging them to keep fighting and not to give up. It didn’t sound like typical lefty politicking, these lyrics just sounded right, the most suitable words for a difficult situation.
Around the time they formed, Dean predicted a surge in industrial activity and was proved correct when the National Union of Miners called the nationwide strike. In essence it was a battle between an industry on the wane and a government not doing enough to save it. But this was a test for Thatcher; win this and she could claim to be the hammer of the unions to business interests, and feel she had the upper hand when it came to reforming union laws.
After a year on strike, the miner’s went back to the pits, defeated, but the Redskins’ campaign had only just begun. Bring it Down was followed by Kick Over the Statues, the Power is Yours and It Can Be Done, all of them as much inspirational than political.
Since they broke up at the end of 1986, virtually nothing has been heard of Chris Dean, and apart from a CD release of Neither Washington Nor Moscow, with extra tracks, the only addition to their limited recorded material has been a live album, called simply Live, on Dojo in 1995.
More recently, several left-leaning bands got together to record several of the band’s tracks, for an album called Reds Strike the Blues. Somewhat surprisingly, many of these acts are from America, although they never toured there, and one of those are Peasant Army, named after one of their first tracks. It also features Negu Gorriak, a fiercely nationalist and socialist band from Euskadi/ Basque Country. An Italian band, Ned Ludd, covered Names Were Named, a rare Redskins track played live toward the end of their lifespan.
They split because of a number of reasons – Hewes, in an article for Socialist Worker at the time, under his pseudonym Martin Bottomley, put that down to things like losing the spontaneity of the band and being unable to do their bit for the party. “It’s hard to get up for a paper sale when you’ve got back from Bradford at five in the morning,” he wrote.
Their split was timely, perhaps. Given that Neither Washington Nor Moscow contained few new tracks and was full of previously-released singles, they may have been struggling for motivation by 1986. They wouldn’t have been spoilt for inspiration, however, had they continued. Thatcher continued her divide and rule tactics, and the hated Poll Tax, which meant people on the dole paid the same on their council house as a millionaire in his mansion, would have provided a jolt in the arm at the end of the 1980s.
Redskins left on a high, however, with a wonderful legacy of a back catalogue full of spiky, punk-soul classics that made an impression on, maybe a small amount of people, but people who generally took on their ideals, if not purely of a socialist revolution but of using art in politics and of not allowing the bastards you grind you down. Keep on keeping on indeed.
* Epilogue available on CD and download from Insurgence records: