Getting the young punks to join in: Gary Foley and the Clash

Explaining the politics of the Clash, lead singer and chief lyricist, Joe Strummer, stated: ‘I think people ought to know that we’re anti-fascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist and we’re pro-creative. We’re against ignorance’ (New Musical Express, 11 December 1976). In the lyrics for the band’s first single, ‘White Riot’ (CBS, 1977), Strummer implored white people to learn a lesson from black people by collectively standing up for their rights. And, although he did not say ‘black and white unite and fight,’ it was clear he meant black and white people should together fight their ruling elites. He and the Clash did their best to make good on this anti-racist commitment during their first and only tour of Australia, some six years later in 1982.

As well as having Aboriginal band No Fixed Address open for them at one gig, the Clash did this by agreeing to have veteran Aboriginal rights activist, Gary Foley, speak at many of their shows during playing their version of the Willi Williams’ song, ‘Armagideon Times’. Foley was an internationally recognised Aboriginal rights activist known for his work in establishing the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Alongside a number of other Aboriginal activists such as Isabel Coe and Dennis Walker, Foley organised against state and federal policies which made Aboriginal people foreigners in their own land, and called for Federal Parliament to recognise First Nations sovereignty.

Playing ten gigs in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney in February of that year, the Clash had a stop-over in Sydney on their way to play four shows in New Zealand and before coming back to Sydney to start a seven-date residency at the Capitol Theatre. The band held a press conference during their stopover to publicise the residency, their tour and their politics.

There are different, somewhat conflicting accounts of what happened before the Clash left for Auckland and after they returned to Australia. In the official band biography The Clash, bass player Paul Simonon told of staying at Sydney’s Sebel Townhouse Hotel and being

woken up by a knock at the door. Three Aborigines were standing there, wanting a chat. They asked if they could come up on our stage to talk about their situation. So, I got Joe and we had a meeting and, of course, said yes. We realized the power that we had ‘cos we could let these guys talk to people who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to them. But when we played New South Wales, while one of the guys was on stage giving his talk, the police were at his house, beating up his wife.

By contrast, per the account that Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz made in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of The Monthly, Gary Foley was sitting in his home in the Sydney suburb of Redfern one Summer afternoon when ‘some Pommie bloke rings up and says he’s Joe Strummer from the Clash’. Strummer then invited Foley to the band’s hotel to educate him on Australian politics. According to Maloney and Grosz: ‘The pair hit it off immediately, and Strummer ended up asking Foley to share his thoughts on stage during that night’s gig at the Capitol Theatre.’

Lending slightly more support to Simonon’s version of events, Strummer made no attempt to contact any Māori rights activists in order to find out about politics in New Zealand or to give them the same access to the band’s audiences at any of their four gigs (where they also performed  ‘Armagideon Times’) so that they could talk about the exploitation and oppression they suffered. Indeed, there was pressure on Strummer and the band from Clash fans – but only to play the South Island. A successful petition led to an extra gig being held in Christchurch at its town hall on 8 February. During the tour, Strummer went busking with his ukulele in Auckland and made no mention of Māori rights in an interview at the city’s train station or at their first gig there.  

Whatever the truth of whether Strummer invited Foley or three Aboriginal activists approached Simonon, in late 2002, upon Strummer’s death, Foley recalled: ‘No doubt there were young women who turned up at the shows and were keen to bed him, but he always deflected them from those sorts of thoughts and tried to encourage them to think about local political issues and engage them in broader political questions.’

Long before the term ‘intersectionality’ had popular currency, Foley not only explained the historical roots of the racism and oppression that Aboriginal people are subject to but that the struggle to liberate them must also be a struggle liberate women and the working class. At the final show in Melbourne show on 23 February, his message was enthusiastically received, as a bootleg recording of the gig demonstrates. The New Musical Express (27 March 1982) noted a similar response at one of the Sydney shows.

At the Melbourne gig, for example, Foley stated

[I]f we’re going to build an Australia of the future, where everyone is free, where no one is oppressed, then you are going to have to understand that the struggle against racism, sexism and exploitation is one struggle. Next time the unemployed people march, get out there and march with them. Next time women are marching for their rights, get out there and march with them. And the next time Aboriginal people in this state are marching for their rights, be there with them too!

For Foley and his fellow Aboriginal activists, the opportunity to speak to a new audience was potentially invaluable as they prepared to put Aboriginal rights centre stage through protests at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. Foley thought that speaking to Clash fans might ‘incite some of these young punks to join in’. Maybe his rousing rhetoric did the trick, as Maloney and Grosz reported: ‘That September, there were so many demonstrators against the Commonwealth Games that Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency.’

Among the major studies of The Clash and Joe Strummer and where the Australian tour is covered,  Marcus Gray and Chris Salewicz offered only fleeting mentions of it. Consequently, it is useful that two more recent studies, found in edited collections on The Clash, have emerged. Both cast doubt on the size and longevity of the impact of Foley’s foray into the coveted Clash community. One is by Gabriel Solis, a scholar of African American music and of Indigenous musics of the Southwestern Pacific, and the other is by Alessandro Moliterno, a campaigner with Australian Progress. They largely utilised newspaper reporting from the time. Lingering perhaps on some of the most standard interrogations of activism’s very function, they argue that while it was believed to be a worthy initiative, there were definite limitations. Was it a case of just (p)reaching to the converted? Were the numbers attending the shows too small to make a difference? Was the rhetoric of Foley and Strummer simply not enough to turn apathy into alacrity and interest into activism?

Although it seems Solis believed that Foley spoke at more gigs than he actually did, he points out that Foley did not attempt to link the different struggles together at the Brisbane show, preferring to use the framework of black power and black nationalism – a framework he had learnt from the Black Panther Party when some of its members visited Sydney.

Beginning with his declaration of ‘I’m a black Australian’ at this Brisbane show, Foley charged that

Our people have lived in this country for fifty thousand years. And until two hundred years ago when some bloke by the name of Captain Cook came out here. … When you arrived, when white men arrived in this country they either shots the blacks, poisoned their water holes [or] murdered them right, left and centre … and those that were left were rounded up like dogs and cattle and stuck on these places called Aboriginal reserves, which were nothing less than concentration camps.  

Using this framework may have seemed to be a case of pushing away potential support, especially in the most racist of states within Australia at the time. Ironically, Solis argued that this more confrontational approach may have been used because the punk scene in Brisbane relatively more advanced and, thus, he thought more receptive to this message of The Clash than in any of the other major Australian conurbations. It was also he thought because Brisbane was the only city to see the emergence of the Black Panther Party of Australia. Nonetheless, Solis emphasises that Australian punk bands did not readily embrace the agenda of Aboriginal rights, nor Aboriginal people punk. In an age before the rise of the internet and social media, this may not have been helped, he reasoned, by the underreporting of the tour itself in the Australian media. By contrast, Moliterno argued that there was something of a media blackout – not so much of the shows themselves, but of Foley’s speeches. The most extensive coverage of this aspect of the gigs was provided back in Britain, albeit a few weeks later, by the New Musical Express of 27 March 1982, and found limited distribution in Australia.

What identifiable – qualitative and quantitative – imprint remained once the Clash left for shows on other foreign shores in south east Asia? By this measure, we might argue that the initiative proved to be relatively disappointing and dispiriting, but success in challenging prejudice and raising awareness cannot always be directly and easily measured. Besides, Foley’s efforts have to be seen as part of his lifetime’s work and a much bigger project he shared with Aboriginal rights’ activists. Nonetheless, what lessons can be learnt?

Firstly, it should not be concluded that music – especially the live, visceral and febrile gig – does not matter for advancing progressive political purposes, nor that black and white unity in action is not possible or meaningful through such a medium. Publicly planting your progressive flag in the ground is a first step for any possible subsequent action, and showing support to a cause or campaign helps establish its wider public legitimacy as well as providing sustenance for its activists.   

Secondly, we are reminded the scale of the activities and the scale of the aims should be aligned. While the tour was more than an ordinary, one-off benefit gig, it would be unrealistic to expect a significant advance in the fight for Aboriginal rights just because the Clash – even at their height of worldwide fame – lent their support to it for two weeks. If music is to play a big role or have a truly great impact, it needs to be on something like the scale of the Rock against Racism movement of 1976-1982, which saw numerous gigs organised up and down the length of Britain. The singular high-point of this successful struggle against the Nazi National Front was a performance in London by the Clash alongside reggae band Steel Pulse in front of 100,000 people in April 1978, at the conclusion of a march. The likes of Billy Bragg and many future senior left and union activists attended this event and testified to how it convinced them not only to become active anti-racists and anti-fascists, but also socialists. 


Image: The Koori History Website

Gregor Gall

Gregor Gall is visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds. He is currently writing a book for Manchester University Press called The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer. It will be published in 2022 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Strummer’s death on 22 December 2002.

More by Gregor Gall ›

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  1. I was at one of those gigs and Foley’s appearance was certainly a remarkable event: a superstar white group known for their anti-racist politics giving centre stage to an Aboriginal activist, in redneck 1980s Australia was quite something. What was more interesting was that Foley really gave it to us: Going to see a Clash concert was not activism, was one notable statement he made. Fwiw, the word on the street was that Foley had knocked on someone’s hotel door and talked his way in. In their songs the Clash showed no awareness of Indigenous struggles. Even on Sandinista!, which travels the world and history there’s no consideration of Indigenous politics. But there wasn’t much feminism either, or LGBTIQ recognition. As much as I loved them – and as powerful as the appearance of Gary Foley was – it’s an indictment in some ways of the contemporary left (the white left anyway – and probably the old white left at that)) that it is still poring over the socialist and activist politics of a band that has been dead for almost 40 years. They were definitely a one-off as far as white rock bands go,and ahead of their time as bands go on racism and capitalism and many of Strummer’s lyrics seem prescient (London Calling as a picture of global warming; Up in Heaven as a prediction of Grenville; Clampdown as an early description of Islamophobia). But there’s stuff that’s problematic too. I hope your book is better than the execrable efforts of Salewicz and Gray. At least so that the band can be put to rest, as part of a history and activism that was valuable but now needs both more anarchy and more nuance. After all, they were just a band.

  2. Thanks for that comment. In my book, Strummer’s weaknesses will be examined, most obviously his almost total silence on women’s rights. He was at best non-sexist rather than anti-sexist (though in his personal life this was not the case). Nonetheless, Strummer from 1976-2002 and during The Clash years in particular (1976-1986) achieved something that is worth studying, namely, how to effectively project progressive politics via cultural mechanisms to a mass audience. I doubt he’d read any Gramsci but he was effectively trying to build a counter-hegemony not matter how ill-defined or inconsistently. So far the research for by books has uncovered countless cases of people (mostly men) who have been inspired or influenced by become or stayed leftwing and become or stay active in leftwing causes. There are more of these cases than for any other band with left-leaning sympathies or politics.

    1. Thanks Gregor. I still run into old white Clash fans like this. It’s interesting. The only song that is sympathetic to women’s rights is Lovers Rock. It really stands out too. In my own case, I find myself still quoting Strummer’s lyrics whenever something goes down (‘Murder is a crime; unless it was done by a policeman..’) – which speaks to what a really extraordinary poet he was (I suspect Joe read more widely than one might think, judging from the lyrics he may well have read Gramsci!). It is also because they were making a definite call to arms, and exacting a promise: don’t ever, ever become a cop of any description, in whatever disguise. And they took actions to show their own commitment. I was very affected by their giving up of the royalties on Sandinista! when they couldn’t afford to, so broke kids like me could buy it. I guess I’m objecting to the horrible deification of the band by successive writers, and the awful ‘laddish’ tone of that writing and the shallow political analysis. Deification is something they objected to (‘Phony Beatlemania..’) and our emotional investment in bands is an effect of capitalism after all. The Clash can still speak to some of us, but when I hear the ‘we really need them now’ arguments, I just wonder if the left will ever grow up. I won’t go on, except to throw in a couple of quotes from the Westway doco. Mick Jones said that after the breakup, the band members became friends again and this was much more important to them than being in any band. And amidst the grief and regret over the break-up, it was Paul Simonon of all people who said the most sensible thing. I can’t remember his exact words, but it was more or less, ‘we had our time, and we’re done, and I’m happy with that’. Good luck with the book. The standard to date has been generally so abysmal you’re probably in pole position.

  3. I was on the periphery of the punk music scene in Brisbane in 1983, & I reckon this account of Gary Foley’s Brisbane speech really misses a number of crucial differences in the Qld radical left political experience.

    We were living under thecregime of neo facist Joh Bjelke Petersen, where by 1983 you cld (& we did) get arrested for spealing to more than 1 person in the Queen St Mall.

    & we had our UQ based alternative rock radio station 4 Triple Zed playing a powerfully active role in politics, bringing the alternative music scene & activists wsy more closely aligned than in any other place in Australia (or NZ).

    To be accurate,the debate here re how much or little impact Strummer giving Foley that platform had on the future of radical left political activism, you REALLY need to be factoring in the HUGE impact such moments of cultural liberation had on the actual young people who attended this event.

    What I saw in the years following 1982 was a whole generation of young people who rose up to protest what was hapoeninh in our state, including the removal of indigenous people to *whitewash* the Expo88 site, & really, the change of State govt after 19 years of continuous rule.

    I wld contend that The Clash concert in Brisbane including Gary Foleys speech may well have had an incalculably important role in the future activism of attendees, & as as Margaret Mead reminds us “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”

    If you want more information re this period of Qld alternative activism, I would start by contacting Andrew Bartlett, Australian Greens politician, who was integral to these movements at the time, & has spent the rest of his life working to change the world for the better.

    1. I didn’t speak in Brisbane. I only did Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide concerts.It was Bob Weatherll in Brisbane. This is just one of many things wrong in this article.

  4. Gregor, what you might also discover if you look at the detail of the Brisbane concert is that the speaker was not Gary Foley, but Bob Wetherall. There are multiple points where this is mentioned in the literature on the Brisbane music scene at this time – the most obvious being in Andrew Stafford’s account “Pig City” (at the start of the chapter titled “Brisbane Blacks”). You might also find a review of the show in the Brisbane newspaper The Courier Mail. Further, the link to 4ZZZ is an essential one, as it is that radio station that would have been the primary context for any airplay of The Clash and promotion of the Cloudland gig – and where you would have found a strong overlap between broadly left positions and music (esp in the punk / post-punk context). In fact, the links between music and politics in Brisbane were so strong that the comment in your piece about about the racist State misses the point that much of the music scene (punks included) tended to be focused in opposition to the State and were already radicalised … or rather, that the State was opposed to the music scene (via a corrupt and politicised police force). Whatever the impact of events at a single Clash concert, you’d need to look a the Brisbane context more widely to draw specific conclusions in that case.

  5. There are numerous inaccuracies in this account. amonmg them mention pf me speaking at the Clash’s Brisbane concert which I never did. Bob Weatherall spoke and danced at the Brisbane concert. In terms of how Strummer and I met up, there is yet another account that has been written by then rock journo David Langsam who reckons that it was him who put me into contact with Strummer. I think the real version rests somewhere between my account and Langsam’s account. Simonon’s is wrong. Tell him to give back the Aboriginal flag jacket I gave him 🙂

  6. It is a pity that Overland no longer has its office next door to mine at Victoria Uni because the editor might have been able to walk next door and check the veracity of some of the stuff in this article. But at the end of the day, it all is just grist for the mill and another part of the myths and legend that swirl around and engulf both Strummer and myself from that period and that tour.

  7. How many times do I have to set the record straight?
    I was in Sydney to interview Paul Brickhill (The Great Escape, Reach for The Sky, Dam Busters) and fellow rock journalist Stuart Coupe let me crash at his place.
    I’d heard bits of the Clash’s new triple LP ‘Sandinista’ and knew they had put Sandinistas on stage with them at New York’s Madison Square Gardens, infuriating the US Government.
    Stuart took me along to the CBS record company welcome for the band where i had a couple of drinks and shot my mouth off about capitalist record companies and the general evils of the world, which upset a couple of the record company people and embarrassed Stuart, but Joe Strummer, tour manager Cosmo Vinyl and Topper Headon were happy for the breath of fresh air and we later retired to their hotel, with a welcome back the next day.
    It was there I mentioned to Joe and Cosmo that they should do something with an Aboriginal activist like they did with the Sandinistas and they said “Yeah, do you know anyone?”
    I said I’d make a couple of phone calls. I’d met Gary at Swinburne Tech a few years earlier and called his Melbourne number, knowing that if I ever wanted to just chat he was never around but if something was important he’d magically appear.
    A young woman answered the phone and gave me a Sydney number.
    I called the Sydney number and another young woman answered the phone and I said I was after Gary and she asked why and I said I was with The Clash and he took the phone from her.
    “Do you know anyone who might want to go on stage with The Clash and describe the plight of Aboriginal people?”
    “Are you with the f…ing Clash? I’ve been trying to get a hold of them for days. Where are you?”
    And that is the true story and the rest is history.
    Our mutual friend Shane Moloney wrote that story for The Monthly, and despite Gary telling him to speak to me, he didn’t, which is why that story is factually inaccurate.
    As for Paul Simonon’s account, we were very relaxed and comfortable at the hotel. I’m not surprised memories have faded. I am surprised mine hasn’t.
    Post Script: The last time I saw Joe was at a Pogues gig, I think in Tottenham Court Road London, where he introduced me to the Daily Mirror’s “Page 3 Girl” Maria Whittaker, who was also very political.
    But she came out with this memorable line about her Murdoch Sun competitor Sam Fox: “She only looks bigger than me because she’s smaller than me.”
    “You mean if we hung you both over a bath, you’d displace more water?”

  8. David – thanks for taking the time to set that out. I could only go on what was available to me and appeared to be from reputable sources. Gregor

  9. Ah, My old mate David Langsam would have us believe that his version is the “true story”.

    As a Professor of History I would point out to David that “truth” is a subjective notion and furthermore that “truth” and History are two different things.

    David’s story is only his memory. And as much as he will dislike my pointing this out, despite his gargantuan belief in his own infallible memory he has been known to be wrong. And his memory is not infallible on all matters in this instance.

  10. My esteemed (tor) mentor Prof Dr Gary,
    Having grown up with Hunter S Thompson and the concept of Gonzo journalism, to reveal the subjective in order to attempt the objective, I accept that my memory is not infallible, but the recording of the events of The Clash and you, ARE accurate.
    Going down the nihilist post-modernist road of there are no truths is just silly. as you well know.
    If there are no facts in the world, where are we?
    As for the detail, what have I recorded that you dispute?
    You don’t recall me calling you and you demanding to know where I was?
    Do you recall somehow finding yourself on stage with The Clash – as if by magic?
    Who else had your phone number and was with The Clash that day?
    Yours in perpetual revolution,

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