In late 2020, music legends Van Morrison and Eric Clapton announced they had collaborated on a new a single, to be released on Dec. 4. They announced the profits were going to Morrison’s Lockdown Financial Hardship Fund, a philanthropic project to support musicians whose livelihoods have been harmed by a series of lockdowns in the U.K., designed to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
In September, Morrison caused controversy by releasing three songs whose lyrics condemned government officials as “fascist bullies,” and claimed restrictions on travel, socializing, and commercial activity were designed to “enslave” the public. On that basis, several observers predicted his forthcoming collaboration with Clapton would contain similar lyrics, and the song was widely described as being “anti-lockdown.”
This predicted foray into political commentary by Clapton prompted some online observers to highlight another infamous piece of social and political commentary from Clapton’s past — the obscenely racist rant he delivered, onstage, in August 1976.
Actor and online activist Jameela Jamil posted a screenshot that appeared to contain a transcript of remarks by Clapton, excerpted below. (The quotations widely attributed to Clapton contain racial slurs that some readers might find particularly offensive):
Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands… So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country … I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white …
Over the years, several purported transcripts have emerged, with various differences and points of commonality. It appears no recording of Clapton’s racist rant exists, so its exact wording is open to dispute, and we can’t verify the verbatim accuracy of any given set of direct quotations.
However, the accounts of several eyewitness observers, as well as a contemporaneous magazine review of the concert, corroborate the fact that Clapton used several odious racial slurs, said foreigners and Black people should be removed from Britain, and expressed support for Enoch Powell, an infamous Conservative politician who was the leading proponent of anti-immigration and racially discriminatory policies in Britain during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Over the years, Clapton has effectively confirmed the authenticity of the remarks attributed to him, and belatedly distanced himself from them. For decades before that, he failed to demonstrate an understanding of the offense he had caused, and repeatedly defended Powell and continued to rail against aspects of immigration into the United Kingdom. He continues to blame his past abuse of alcohol, at least in part, for the racist tirade.
What Clapton Said
Right from the start it was obvious it was going to be one of those nights. He shambled on with his head covered by some strange object, struggled to free himself and then warned us all about “foreigners” and telling us of last night’s “aggro” [a scuffle or fight] and the need to vote for Enoch Powell whom…Eric then described as a “prophet.” A rather distasteful beginning although it was difficult to tell how much of this was the result of the large quantities of alcohol he had obviously consumed.
…More time was then spent on warning us of the danger of the country “being a colony within 10 years” and of how Eric was thinking of retiring to become an MP [member of parliament] for a constituency in Surrey. Further comments followed such as “get the wogs out…get the coons out” which he was heard to say, before finishing his embarrassing rant with “…send them all back…the Black wogs and coons.”
In Britain, “wog” is an exceptionally offensive slur for a non-white person, and was regarded as such even in the 1970s.
Caryl Phillips, now a novelist and professor of English at Yale University, attended the Birmingham Odeon concert as a teenage fan of Clapton. He was born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts and immigrated to England as a child, and was therefore part of the non-white and immigrant communities targeted by Powell, Clapton and the far-right, racist National Front party, whose popularity surged in England during the 1970s.
In a 2005 documentary, Phillips recalled his experience, explaining that Clapton’s racist rant was protracted and intermittent over the course of the evening, and did not merely come in a single outburst:
When he started talking about Enoch Powell, and how “Enoch was right”, I felt embarrassed, and I could that tell my best friend felt embarrassed, and we couldn’t really talk about it. But the thing that made it really awful, aside from the actual racism of the comments, aside from the hostility that he was giving out, the venom from the stage, was that he would play a couple of songs and I’d think “Oh thank God, it’s gone away now, it’s not going to come back, we’ve dealt with it”, and then he would start up again…
It was a betrayal, in a way that is kind of primal, in a way that only an adolescent, a late adolescent could feel it… I never wanted to listen to Eric Clapton again.
Dave Wakeling, who later went on to form the Birmingham ska band the English Beat (probably best known for their 1980 single “Mirror in the Bathroom”) also attended the infamous August 1976 concert. In a 2017 book, he contributed his recollection of the evening:
I was at the gig. Here’s this bloke singing Bob Marley songs telling everybody to get the “wogs out.” It seemed like he had had a few, so some of the speech was more gargling than pontificating but the thrust of it was “Enoch was right” and that “we should all vote for him” and that “England was a white country” and then a lot of saying “wogs” and “get ’em out.”
Wakeling corroborated the description of Clapton’s rant as sustained and intermittent, found in Phillips’ account and the original Sounds magazine review, saying:
“I don’t remember it all happening in one go. There were two or three episodes of it and he had a bit of a recap towards the end.”
David Corio, who went on to become a renowned photographer, attended the Birmingham Odeon concert as a teenager, recalling that:
I was fifteen or sixteen at the time and I remember him coming on stage and being obviously drunk and saying something about how there were so many Pakis in Birmingham. He sounded like some bad, old racist stand-up comedian.
Clapton’s Responses: 1976-2018
Based on our research, Clapton does not appear to have ever disputed the accuracy or authenticity of the remarks attributed to him from the August 1976 concert. Over the years, he has repeatedly accepted the authenticity of those remarks, beginning with a handwritten letter published in Sounds magazine in September 1976. That letter set a tone of ambivalence, churlishness, and self-contradiction about his own racist rant, which Clapton repeatedly demonstrated until decades later, when his stance belatedly shifted to one of regret.
While ostensibly apologizing, Clapton also excused and downplayed his remarks (offering the explanation that he was drunk) and then offered an assessment of Powell that could readily be interpreted as an endorsement.
In October 1976, Clapton was interviewed for Sounds magazine. There, he expressed ambivalence and amusement about the rant, vaguely distancing himself from what he had said, but without demonstrating any understanding of why it was unacceptable, bigoted, and extremely offensive.
In an interview with Melody Maker magazine in 1978, Clapton defended Powell and again called him a “prophet.”
In the ensuing decades, Clapton was given still further easy opportunities to comprehensively or sincerely apologize for his rant, or even to demonstrate an understanding of why it had caused such outrage, or to explain how his views had changed. He did not take up those opportunities.
In a 2004 interview with the Times of London, Clapton claimed “there’s no way I could be a racist,” but in the same breath once again defended Powell as “outrageously brave,” and once again sought to excuse and contextualize his obscenely racist rant by blaming his alcoholism and saying “It was fuelled by an outrage at what was happening to London with the Saudis buying up the West End.”
Remarkably, Clapton even volunteered, in that 2004 interview, that he had steadfastly refused to apologize for his racist rant when given the opportunity in 1988:
So does Clapton still agree with what he said? “My feeling about this hasn’t changed, really,” he insists. “Years later, when I played at the Mandela concert, one of the promoters said: ‘You know that this is your chance to apologise formally for what you said.’ And I thought: ‘You must be fucking joking.’ I was so insulted.”
In 2007, more than three decades after the rant, a then 62-year-old Clapton once again failed to confront his own remarks, and appeared to defend Powell. In an interview with Melvyn Bragg on the “South Bank Show,” he said:
Clapton: It was fairly kind of normal behavior for me to come out with sort of inappropriate speeches. I mean, usually they were in private or in pubs — that one somehow made the papers. I didn’t think it was as important as a lot of the people attached to it. I can’t remember what sparked it off, really.
Bragg: I think it was a reference to Enoch Powell and a sort of “Black colony” or something like that, wasn’t it?
Clapton: Yeah. I was convinced that we had a weird kind of attitude to — the government’s attitude towards immigration was corrupt and hypocritical. And my impression of Enoch Powell was that he was somehow telling the truth about this, or that he was saying that, predicting that there would be trouble and of course there was, and is, you know. It’s not a racial thing. You see, it could not have been a racial thing for me because how could it be when I’ve always identified so strongly with the Black community anyway.
Only in the last few years has Clapton begun to express what could be viewed as a change in his attitude, but his reflections have been inconsistent in their tone, and he continues to blame his alcoholism, at least in part, for the tirade. In the 2017 documentary “Life in 12 Bars,” he reflected on the Birmingham Odeon incident:
When I realized what I said, I just was so disgusted with myself. I was so fucking angry. And I thought I needed to apologize to the people that I said that to, because it was shocking and unforgivable and I was so ashamed of who I was. I was becoming not only chauvinistic, but fascistic too. I was a kind of a semi racist, which didn’t make sense. I mean, half of my friends were Black. I dated Black women, and listened to Black music and championed Black music. But it didn’t matter at all. They could all have gone to the wall as long as I had the bottle. I hated everything.
Although Clapton clearly struck a markedly different tone in those 2017 remarks, they nonetheless rang somewhat hollow. Firstly, he once again couched his political and racial views at that time (“fascistic” and “semi-racist”) in the context of his alcoholism. Secondly, it’s not clear exactly when Clapton “realized what [he] said” and vowed to apologize. A significant discrepancy exists between his claim, in 2017, that he had readily understood that his rant was “shocking and unforgivable”, and his observation in 2007 (more than 30 years after the incident) that “I didn’t think it was as important as a lot of…people.”
In subsequent interviews promoting that documentary in 2018, Clapton indicated that his views on immigration had changed (he said he had “ceased to be xenophobic”), but also insisted on attributing his racist rant to his alcoholism (“It’s an easy way out, but I blame the drink”), and expressed amusement at his infamous remarks.