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The contradictory nature of the history of the skinhead culture - its black roots and its synonymous link with racism, both from the very early days to the present, is a matter of much debate and confusion. Just what was the nature of these conflicting ideals. Much has been made of them by sociologists and the truth seems to be tainted by the politics and vested interests of those involved in writing about it. This is my own personal view of events based upon what I have read and heard about.
Right: Dobby Dobson with skinheads and rude boys/girls This Is Reggae PSP1003
In the early to mid sixties, the mods had begun to appreciate soul music that was coming out of the Tamla Motown stable, as well as jazz, r'n'b and ska which was becoming more readily available by 1962 through the Island label and the Blue Beat label. Clubs such as The Ram Jam played soul and ska but there were few clubs frequented by mods that were specifically ska or sound system based. 1967 saw the arrival of the rock steady and the popularity of the rude boys. The mods that mingled with the black rude boys in the dance halls to listen to the soul music also had a taste for the ska and rock steady. They weren't fully aware of the growth of the sound systems which were mainly confined to the black areas.
'By the latter half of 1968 when 'Neville the Musical Enchanter' could claim to be the boss (Top) system, he was playing almost anywhere around London regardless of travelling distance. and his supporters grew in numbers and were most keen and awesome. Most areas he played were predominantly white and not surprisingly many whites came along to hear the sounds. The Ska Bar was a very dimly-lit stone-walled basement bar without much ventilation. or much space for the keen fans it attracted. When it opened in the beginning of 1968 It seemed that Neville's most ardent supporters numbered not more than 20, but as his popularity grew so quickly more and more blacks were attracted to the Ska Bar. Neville's followers soon grew in confidence even on this foreign 'white soil'. The black lifestyle soon became apparent. It Included smoking spliff or weed, drinking barley wine, dancing In a totally ethnic manner- a sensuous sexual movement which became more obvious when dancing with a chick. It included wearing trousers too short, sometimes with boots- either for fighting or for making the effect of boots against trousers which was more striking and it Included hair cut very short, so short that the skull was evident and a comb was not needed. This haircut was known as a 'skiffle'.
Reggae Soul of Jamaica, Carl Gayle, Story of Pop,1973)
This style that emerged was what the 'Hard mods' began to copy. The style became known by many names so for the sake of clarity they shall be referred to as 'Peanuts'. The peanuts were the predecessors of the skinheads. As the mod scene began to fragment the 'Hard mods' as they are often called, standardised their image and began to copy many elements of the style of the blacks. The style that evolved was often termed 'The peanut' because of the sound of their motor scooters which was like 'Peanuts rattling in a tin'. Other names were coined such as The Spy Kids, The Lemons, The No-heads, Spikeys and Brushcuts. This is one peanut's side of the story:
'We'd just been through the mod era, which we'd all appreciated. I mean we sat around with our scooters In the early days. We an went down to Brighton and Southend, Bank Holiday and we all had a fight with the greasers like the mods did. But then we went to the extreme, I mean we took our hair right down to the limit, you know half-inch or whatever. I had it done at a barbers called Grey's down the East India Dock Road. It wasn't much of an haircut, he just gets those old trimmers out and goes zing, zing, zing and that's it your hair's gone'
(You'll Never Be 16 Again, BBC books)
The style began to diversify and move out of the dance hall and on to the streets. It soon become a trademark of the terraces as football hooliganism became a widespread problem. Arsenal's 'North Bank' was one of the first mobs to become overtly skinhead/peanut but it wasn't long before it was the norm at nearly every London ground. In 1968 the peanuts gate crashed a hippy gathering in Grosvenor square. The hippies were chanting 'Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh' and the peanuts were shouting 'Students, Students, ha ha ha'. Nobody knew them as skinheads but they hadn't gone unnoticed. The month before they had invaded Margate for a weekend of mayhem. Originally, the peanuts didn't seem to be for anything but they were very clear what they were against- 'Long hair, pop, hippy sit-ins, live-ins and the long haired cult of non-violence' was how one sixteen year old peanut put it to the Daily Mail. The skinheads despised the hippies as they were seen to be drop-outs while the skinheads were very much working class and could not afford the privilege of 'taking time out'. They'd gone straight from school to work and this seemed to be a big sticking point. The rude boys not averse to a spot of 'bovver' and they too were opposed to a lot of the hippy ideals.
In late 1968 the term skinhead was becoming used more often to describe what was previously the peanut. The style was basically the same but was becoming more elaborate. The music was becoming a more prominent feature, reggae was the order of the day. Access to the music was a lot easier than it had been five years before. In 1963 there were only three sound systems working the London area but by 1967 there were at least three reputable sound systems in every area where blacks resided. The following passage tells of the early days of the skinheads.
'White kids had been associating with blacks in clubs like the Ram Jam since black music first became popular In England, but It wasn't until 1967 that the whites had begun to appreciate the reggae music and to mimic the black lifestyle. They fell in love with the first wave of of reggae music that Pama records issued like the instrumentals - 'Spoogy', 'Reggae on Broadway' and '1000 tons of Megaton' by Lester Sterling. They stomped to the frantic dance records like 'Work it' by the Viceroys and 'Children Get Ready' by the Versatiles. They sang along to Pat Kelly's 'How Long will it Take' and Slim Smith's 'Everybody Needs Loves' and laughed at rude items like Max Romeo's 'Wet Dream' or Lloyd Tyrell's 'Bang Bang Lulu'.
Pretty soon you couldn't go to a black house party without finding a gang of skinheads but amazingly there was very little black/white violence and hardly any resentment. Black and white youth have never been as close as they were in the skinhead era despite the 'mixing' in the trendier soul scenes nowadays The skinheads copied the way we dressed, spoke, walked, the way we danced. They danced with our chicks, smoked our spliff and ate our food and bought our records '
Reggae Underground, Carl Gayle, Black Music magazine 1974)
The early skinheads prided themselves on their knowledge of the latest sounds that were being released. A skinhead who had the white label pre-release records was the skinhead that knew his music. The slang used in the songs also appealed to the skins. By using Jamaican slang words a mod peanut or skinhead could exclude any outsider from their conversation. According to Dick Hebdige the phrase 'Ya Raas' was picked up by every self-respecting skinhead. The skinheads dress manner became more meticulous by the minute. During the day they might be seen in boots and jeans but by night they wore suits to the dance halls. Places such as the Top Rank network played regular reggae and soul nights and the dress restrictions meant that you either had to look smart or miss out. The early skinhead was much more boots and braces orientated, the shoes and trousers look superseded this with the need to look smarter.
The emergence of the skinhead phenomena did not have a great effect on the evolution of the Rude Boy and not to the extent of losing their identity amongst the skinhead culture. It was a good time for reggae music because the skinhead purchasing power at its peak increased sales of reggae enough to get it into the charts and the music became much more widely available. The Rude Boy culture greeted the skinhead culture with more friendliness than would be granted had the roles had been reversed. The last main migration from Jamaica to Britain was in 1962 and many resident Jamaicans brought their wives and children here during that period. This would probably have made the kids of '67 the first large group of West Indian youths in British cities - large enough to make an impression on youth culture. As a relatively new group they still had to fit in somehow and the skinhead culture gave them every opportunity to spread their wings across the city. They were present in numbers in skinhead gangs but wether they were necessarily skinhead, rude boys or afro boys is difficult to say but given the nature of youth culture then - even people who considered themselves skinheads used the term very loosely. It was not down to the crop but was used as a catch-all term for anyone who associated themselves with the skinheads.
The skinheads were very territorial and the existence of blacks in skinhead gangs would have varied from area to area. The total percentage of Afro-Caribbeans in the UK is around the 10% mark so the numbers could on average have been 1 in 10 but the geography of the working class areas would have meant some areas with a very high percentage of West Indians and there were some totally black skinhead gangs in London. The country as a whole however, with its uneven distribution of immigrants was not as familiar with this phenomena as London.
Different groups with different grievances led to the press sensationalising reports of grease-bashing, squaddie-bashing, queer-bashing, hippy-bashing and student bashing. Paki-bashing was also a very common pastime. The main influx of Asian immigrants came to Britain around the late 60s and some areas felt particularly threatened by their new neighbours. The blacks and whites in the skinhead gangs pointed their sights at this new type of immigrant. This victimisation coincided with the Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of blood' speech and the white hysteria he stirred up. Powell was against the mass influx of Asians to Britain and called for repatriation of all immigrants. By sympathising with him the skinheads were alienating themselves from their West Indian brothers. It was only a matter of time before the time bomb exploded.
The phenomena of paki-bashing by both white skinheads and blacks alike is explained as 'A displacement manoeuvre whereby the fear and anxiety produced by limited identification with one black group is transformed into aggression against another'
( P 58. Subculture-The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige. Methuen 1979)
There seems to be a more simple reasoning for these actions. I would say that racial victimisation by a group is inexcusable whether they are black or white but those involved have to live with that. Like the monologue in the last scene of Trainspotting when he says that he could make excuses but the real reason was that he was a bad person.
On racism towards Asians in the Joe Hawkins books and on the streets of London when he was a boy Dotun Adebayo has the following to say:
"I hate to say this today but I think, in fact, because a lot of racismwas focussed on people of Asian origin, as a twelve year old Afro-Caribbean in London, I didn't feel as uncomfortable with it - as unpolitically correct as that sounds today - as if it was perhaps an NF book and straight out against blacks from Africa & Caribbean. I don't think all skinheads were like Joe Hawkins in the book".
Dotun Adebayo - Publisher X-Press Books on the Joe Hawkins books
The Jamaican music scene was becoming more involved with the Rastafarian beliefs. The few records that mentioned skinheads were by the more traditional musicians who were more sympathetic to the dance element than to the rootsy rasta element. Derrick Morgan and Laurel Aitken were reactionaries to the new rasta ethos and they latched onto the theme of the skinheads, releasing such skinhead classics as 'Skinhead Train', 'Return of Jack Slade' and 'Night at the Hop'. The younger artists like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh were devoting themselves to creating a music that was more African and in keeping with their rasta ideology. Many artists flirted with the rasta themes but were not devout rastas. Desmond Dekker's 'Israelites' reached number one spot in the charts in 1969. The 'Israelites' has a strong Rastafarian theme yet he rarely followed up this theme in later records. The rasta themes were an emphasis of their African identity but there were many records that merely raised black consciousness such as 'Young, Gifted and Black' by Bob and Marcia. These songs became more and more popular from 1970 onwards and the rude boy trend became more of a rasta trend or natty dread. 'Young, Gifted and Black' signified a rise in black consciousness but the whites didn't like this as it excluded them from what until then had been one great long party. Skinheads began pulling the wires from amps during the track and sang "Young, Gifted and White'. It wasn't long before the skinheads stopped attending the dances, thus ending the link that was beginning to form between black and white youth cultures.
The relationship between blacks and whites was never clear cut. As one skinhead remembers:
"Yes, we did have trouble with the blacks. I mean, there was a club that started up at Mile End that was called 'The A-Train' and yeah, sure, every Friday night, every Saturday night, whenever we chose to go up there, we'd have a battle with the blacks. But we had black guys on our side as well, a few coloured guys who'd stand behind you and fight for you as a brother, no problem".
(anonymous quote - You'll Never Be 16 Again - BBC books)
As the seventies wore on, the skinheads were beginning to find themselves more and more in opposition to the blacks and judging by the following account from a black Liverpudlian, it was more due to the skinheads' change in attitudes and to territory rather than racial hatred.
"Oh yeah, we used to fight against the skinheads, and it'd be like territorial. you'd have to stay within your territory. like you wouldn't get one man coming out of his territory, going into say Lodge Lane, because you'd just get attacked. So we used to meet them at certain times, and we'd throw bricks and people would have catapults y'know? And of a Saturday, people would go into town, the city centre, and they'd go in the precinct there, in a café called the Brass Rail. The black guys would meet in there and the skinheads would come in shouting all kinds of things, 'Niggers' and 'Wogs', and then you'd get the kind of situation where you'd have ten black guys and say fifty skinheads, and if the ten black guys made a dash for the skinheads, the fifty of them would run, you know, because they'd see plenty of black faces and they'd see ten as like fifty of them.
And then people started getting into karate and ju-jitsu. There were the Bruce Lee films and they appealed to the black guys and they started learning kung fu. Then after a while, the Bruce Lee thing died out and people started to leave it, and there wasn't the need to fight the skinheads. As people grew up and got more mature and got more sense, and that type of thing stopped".
As Dotun Adebayo - Publisher X-Press Books - remarked in the Joe Hawkins bookmark program, Richard Allen (Jim Moffat) would not have got away with some of the language used in the Joe Hawkins book but it was the backdrop of its day. People were much more uninhibited about using terms such as 'nigger' and 'wog' and tended to use them in everyday speech whereas there was a time between then and now when the use of these terms became unacceptable and that time would have been the mid Seventies when the previous account was set.
The skinheads identified with the themes of the reggae music as the themes of another working class culture. Dick Hebdige agrees with Phil Cohen that the skinhead was a meta statement about the whole process of social mobility. This social mobility aspect is probably the reason for the paki-bashing. The blacks were downwardly mobile as were the skinheads but the Asians were more upwardly mobile. The Asian emphasis on education and profit-making abilities were opposed to the nonchalant attitudes of the skinheads and rude boys. The co-existence of hippy-bashing and student-bashing with the Paki-bashing signifies the fact that the gang violence was of a class nature: a protest against the changes that were occurring in the lower classes. The West Indians were more in line with the downwardly mobile outlook of the skinheads and weren't going to rock the boat too much. The Asians were seen as different, obviously due to their entirely different culture. They were seen as a threat to the fabric of the old vanishing communities by more reactionary skinheads. Change on such a large scale was unacceptable in their eyes.
The seventies saw the skinheads on the wane and there was a time preceding punk when long hair was so much the norm that skinheads would be unheard of. Early footage of the National Front shows that they basically consisted of long haired seventies football thugs and not the skinhead contingent that would later be the case.
I believe that it wasn't just the material style that was borrowed from the rude boys but some of the rude boy ethic. The three main factors I mean are:
1) Social mobility
"Aggressively proletarian, puritanical and chauvinist. the skinheads dressed down in sharp contrast to their mod antecedents in a uniform which Phil Cohen describes as a kind of caricature of the model worker"
(P. 55 Subculture-The meaning of style, Dick Hebdige, Methuen 1979)
In white skins black masks, Hebdige tells us that the skinheads were trying to revive the fading working class chauvinisms and that the resurrection occurred not in the dance halls with the rude boys but on the all white football terraces.
This is true. The skinheads lived on through the terraces long after their split with the Rude Boys, emphasising another aspect of their style. The style by this time however had changed and what Hebdige refers to as skinhead consists of the groups that followed the skinheads - the suedeheads and boot boys. Football hooliganism was still prevalent well after the skinhead phase and the offical uniform was still the boots and jeans. Some blacks were, and still are, big players in the hooligan league. In the book 'Guvnors' by Mickey Francis which is the biography of a Manchester City hooligan of mixed parentage, the author recalls his first outing at Leeds. Dressed in skinners, Man City scarf and DMs he was told by an older lad that he'd get his arse kicked and his naive youthful outlook dismissed this idea. On the train home, a bust nose and a booting later, he bumped into the same lad that had given him the advice who gave him a knowing smile. He'd learnt a valuable lesson about the way of things and spent his later years with a little more respect and a little more hatred than he had before. He describes in the book the mid-70s and the style of the football hooligan - crombies or doctor's coats, cropped hair and DMs.
When the skinhead revival of 78 occurred, the punks' fetish for fascist imagery and the NF's recruitment of young whites led to the skinheads becoming seen as a neo-nazi group. Only the following Two Tone movement adopted the original style of the early skinheads but this was modified with a totally anti-racist nature that was different to the early skinheads who had been known for victimisation of Asians. The Asians now had a sizeable youth population that was at a similar stage of the West Indians in 1967 and assimilation of Asians into the Two Tone culture was common as was their assimilation into punk culture. Although the Two Tone bands had no Asian contingent UB40 had a cross section of Birmingham society with members of the white, West Indian and Asian communities in their ranks. The Two Tone flagship actively opposed the NF and gave young British youth another option. You couldn't be interested in Two Tone music and not be affected by the message they were giving out. They associated themselves with as many anti-racist events and groups as they could playing large outdoor free concerts in direct opposition to what the National Front were trying to do.
The Asian contribution to the second wave of skinhead was possibly more significant than the black contribution and certainly a new phenomena in skinhead terms. Riki Hussein has described himself as a mod, a skinhead and a Glasgow Spy Kid. One thing is certain, he is definitely a scooterist and owns/owned Glasgow's only scooter shop.
"An evening's worth of restraint is given vent as a transit van of skinhead vengeance speeds through Edinburgh looking for anybody with a bald head, boots and an Harrington jacket that doesn't belong to them. Stopping at a set of traffic lights, someone spots them over the road and Riki jumps out with a wooden baton followed by the rest of the van. A car load of casuals in the next lane panic and reverses at high speed, an instinctive manouevre when confronted by a pack of baton-wielding skinheads, and the Edinburgh boneheads freeze. "We bought it from a bloke at the gig" they claim, keeping half an eye on an approaching police car and trying to work out whether it's a baseball bat or a cosh that is being thrust in their faces. In the end, they surrender the jacket and no blows are exchanged. "We're not into mindless violence," grins Riki later, "and the place was crawling with coppers anyway".
Before the Oi movement were Sham and Skrewdriver. Both bands had very vocal followings of neo-nazis but dealt with it in different ways. Jimmy Pursey was far too left-wing to bless the association and tried in vain to stop the violence and extremism at Sham gigs. In the end he decided it would be better to wind up the Sham rather than continue. Skrewdriver started life as just another punk/new wave band, heavily influenced by heavier 60s bands such as The Who and The Stones. The NF/BM had stirred up so much of a following but had neglected the most important point - they had no bands as Two Tone had. The right wing craze carried on regardless and there were some very odd mixes of political statements - white NF rude boys, BM Two Tone skinheads and such like. Skrewdriver were eventually to go underground and become the voice of British Nationalism.
After the death of SHAM 69, disillusioned punks/skins were conscious that the rest of the scene was becoming commercialised at a rate of knots and were drawn to the new Oi movement. This consisted of streetpunk bands (very few to begin with) championed by Sounds columnist Gary Bushell. While not necessarily racist, the followers of the Oi bands were more likely to be NF/BM as Skrewdriver weren't as big as they were to become at this stage. Completely innocent bands were labelled with the tag of fascists because of their following. Oi had many bands that were actively anti-fascist and others that were non-political. When the Southall riot occurred, the whole Oi movement was blamed and it would be foolish to say that it was totally innocent. Staging a major gig in the middle of an Asian community was either totally naive or was intended as a red rag to a bull.
It was at this moment in time (early eighties) when the style began to be exported overseas through the punk element. Laz gives a rundown on the black and latino role in the US skinhead movement.
"In the USA, the the punk movement was getting old - it was becoming too mainstream. Britain was pushing the yank punk scene off the market - then came Hardcore - the US speeded up and more aggro version of punk. It was street music - what the British called Oi. As "Strength Thru Oi" was released "Let them Eat Jelly Beans" came storming in and out sold it. It also introduced Skinheads to the US in a wider market. It brought Blacks and Latinos back into the underground rock scene, again (The Bad Brains, DK's, Black Flag). This was actually helped by the New York Funk scene but in this case the Blacks started to play in HC bands and reintroduce Reggae (Bad Brains). This time the music wasn't coming from NYC. The Westcoast takes over with this new music (HC). The battle began between the US and the UK scene. The UK scene started going NF and new wave - all that eyeliner rock stuff. The US punk bands and HC bands find the UK bands rude and disappointing. The US can't get into the neo-nazi stuff either. The scene was escaping from all the suburban trappings and, like what happened to the Oi scene, jocks (yobs) started getting the wrong idea and started getting off on the aggro only. The bands disband rather than encourage this behavior. Enter the Aryan Resistance to collect the trash.
Speedcore, Thrash, Speedmetal then Thrashmetal came out and ripped the scene to shreds - faster, louder, harder. Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, Flipside, Hard as Nails still hold up the Skinhead culture as not part of mainstream politics but as a youth movement fuelled by music. The DK's manage to put out Nazi punks Fuck Off" before disbanding."
Today, the scene has spread across the entire globe and as well as the spread of the extreme right-wing element, there are also skins of every colour and creed imaginable. Skinhead isn't specifically about white boys and it never was - it's more than that and anyone who thinks this isn't the case doesn't know enough about the history and the soul of skinhead. As one West Indian told me -
The skins when we were at school (late 70s/early eighties) weren't just white kids, there were black skins as well but it wasn't about race - they kicked anybody who wasn't a skinhead