Sociologist, member of the Big Red Band in London in the 1980s, a socialist street band formed for the purpose of political activism during the Thatcher era in Britain
Email interview, 16 October 2002
[My thanks to Tim Butler of University of East London for putting me on to Ben in the first instance]
What were the origins and the dates of activity and of the Big Red Band?
I think it must have started 1982 or ‘83. It was going strong by the time of the Miners’ Strike which I guess was ‘84. I left UK in 1990, and the band continued for a few years. But I have heard nothing for 6-8 years.
As for the origins, it depends how far you want to go back: Trevor Evans and I got together a few people associated with a communal house in Hackney. Trevor’s brilliant idea was to constitute it as an evening class. For that purpose it was called, on paper, the Hackney Community Band, or something like that. With backing from the evening class system, we got a room and money to hire a part-time teacher/arranger.
Beyond that, it started when I got sick on a bus in central Pakistan in 1981. I had to spend a night in a small town half way between the archeological sites of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. In the town market I found a stall selling musical instruments and found I make sounds on a wonderful old colonial sousaphone. Rather than buy that instrument a plane ticket back to UK, I decided to get one when I got back. That gave me the idea of trying to create a band to play music on political occasions.
I had tried to join bands on the CND marches when I was a teenager, but could barely get a note out of the trumpet I then carried.
What was the line up of the band, in terms of both instruments and people involved?
There was a core of 5, sometimes up to 35 people. Trumpets, trombones, saxophones (alto, tenor and sometimes bass), sousaphone (occasionally two), bass drum, various percussion. For a while, there was a separately organized Big Red Choir, but it never gathered the momentum of the band. Band members were a wide range of leftists, 2-3 working like me at the Open University. Some unemployed people.
Everything we could find from collected books of left songs, folk songs, feminist songs, anticolonial, international, US labour movement … Victor Jara from Chile, Beatles … whatever we could lay hands on, and could persuade our teacher/arranger to put in a form we could play.
What kinds of events did the Big Red Band play at?
Pickets, demonstrations, occasionally festivals and pubs. Mostly demonstrations. My shining memory is playing the Internationale standing at the entrance to Downing Street when Maggie [Thatcher] was P[rime] M[inister] as the foundation for many tens of thousands of miners from all over the country. There was an extraordinary elation to being drowned out, at our most extended volume, by the rich, harmonious voices of thousands of miners. It was great music at a very emotional event.
Early morning pickets at some of the East Coast power plants were more difficult, but also very rewarding. Frozen fingers trying to move nearly frozen valves while edging closer to a brazier losing the battle against a wind from the sea.
What do you think was the impact of a band like the one you were involved in on political demonstrations?
It made political events much more pleasant. The band did not have great technical skills. Most of us were novice players. But the fact that we had songs to fit the occasion made our contribution valuable, even when much more proficient bands were around. Often even the great miners’ bands had no repertoire suitable for the occasion.
We got on TV and in newspapers periodically because we provided a visual and vocal element that enlivened coverage.
Was the band professional/amateur, and how booked/funded?
Amateur. Funded by London rate-payers through the evening class programme.
Is the Big Red Band’s history written about anywhere?
Not that I know of.