Insights From A Rebel Of The 70s On Protest Culture

"I would encourage staying in touch with the physical world as much as possible, not just online."

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Some days I find myself in an argument with someone significantly older than me about protests and rebelling against what’s considered “normal”, I’m about to drive my point home with the best fact ever — until they stop me in my tracks: “I know that, I don’t live under a rock!”

I wondered about the 1970s and 1980s, they’re painted to be a crazy time.
So this week, I sat down with Jeremy Hughes who shed some light on the picture of protest and rebellion all of those decades ago. We discussed what it was really like, what the impact was like on young people growing up, and compared how today’s generation seems to have watered down protesting more than ever before! Yet there are some key differences and good takeaways to consider.

Jeremy, in our last conversation, I said young people today, in 2023, are facing adversity and standing up to what’s considered normal, and you said you were part of that too once. Can you paint that picture for us?

Yeah! Well, I remember for example Rock Against Racism, 1978, everyone — myself included, marched from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park to show solidarity against hate in general. We all partied and had a great time, the energy was absolutely brilliant!

But we did that, back then, we stood up to a lot of things we thought we were being hard done by. It wasn’t always to do with us in particular either. A lot of people would march for all sorts of things which didn’t affect them personally, but for some reason in London, you just did it.


What’s an example of a protest, or a cause you believed in which didn’t concern you directly?

Well, back then, in the 70s he big enemy was war. With the Vietnam war and everything going on in America, everyone felt that war was unjust: why did a bloke have to go to a country miles away to fight someone else’s war? My friends and I just didn’t stand for it at all.

Other examples were protests against racism, but rebellion wasn’t as divided as it was today: it wasn’t perceived as much as one group fighting against something, it was a lot more mixed up.


What do you mean exactly by that?

Maybe there is something to do with education and being more educated on how deep inequalities really ran, but back then we just protested what seemed unjust.
Yes, it was more general, but it was more tangible. There was more energy. Different people all getting together to fight back in the same voice.

It was weird, back then when Rock Against Racism happened and the concert called out racism, I thought “wow the progress!” Today, racism is still around so maybe not so much! But I think we protested against something a lot more general than what young people today are calling out like the much more detailed stories of challenges.


When you think of stars like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Lily Savage, Elton John etc… Did you ever think “wow these people are really challenging the normal”?

No I thought “where can I get a haircut like that?” I wanted to be different, you know to my parents generation, so anything that was new back then sort of made sense why it was so popular.

It was definitely an identity thing, thinking: “my parents won’t like this… Great!”

Again, education, it wasn’t this big thing you had to buy into those trends, you bought into the emotions, the connection with other people who were trying to find their identity. Going to a protest back then, which always had music by the way, it was all about connection because you would describe it as a day out. If you wanted to go, you had to make the effort.


I love how you compare protesting, or challenging the normal, as finding an identity. What was the difference between getting behind Bowie and the anti-war protests?

I think with Bowie, there was no real enemy. With the war, it was obvious. For Bowie, when Life on Mars aired on Top of the Pops in 1969, it was quite surreal. Everybody sort of loved him even after his coming out because he just represented the search for identity and in a really cool way. Can you imagine, in suburban South London, geezers being Bowie fans? It was just a surreal time.


So what happened with all of that rebellious fever?

Well, you conformed. I can’t really explain it, life just sort of moved on. It was as if by the 2000s that rebellious nature really went away. Now it’s back again, but it was a strange time.


Do you think protest culture has changed?

I think every group has its own enemy now, when they really all have one beneath it all. It’s all very fragmented. Of course, social media has watered down the effects of protesting.


I know what you mean, sometimes I wonder what is posting about this online actually going to do?

Yeah, the increase in information is incredible but it’s all missing that energy of meeting up somewhere, going to a physical place, making loud noise… I think it’s definitely harder for younger kids, just like us they are trying to find identity. You want to know what’s your purpose, where life is taking you, it’s hard.

I would encourage staying in touch with the physical world as much as possible, not just online.

It’s a challenge that’s only getting harder, but find the people who are organizing something, find your people, and make the effort to go connect with them!


That’s a brilliant last piece of advice, to stay in touch with the physical world as much as possible, especially as everything is only moving faster and faster today. 

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