Music has always been one of the defining aspects of both mainstream and counter-culture. It is a thread that connects generations to each other; it serves as an audio-history. In the skinhead subculture reggae has always been the historical soundtrack, the thread that connected the voices of ska and punk to create a rich musical history that began in the mid 60’s and continues to this day. But, when it comes to skinheads, most people don’t see that side of things. As such they have come to symbolise divisions, among themselves and society at large.
When asked, Joe, a 16 year old skinhead from Kent said: “Music is a big part of us [skinheads], and so is the unity of blacks and whites… the spirit of ‘69 within our heads and hearts.“ When a 16 year old can better articulate the history and views of his subculture than the well-educated media can, you know something’s wrong. The general stereotyping of an entire group of people has been widely acknowledged as unacceptable. So how has this “spirit of ’69” been so overwhelmed by the vocal nationalism that dominates our perception of skinhead culture?
What follows is an attempt to unravel the musical DNA of a notorious subculture in order to reveal that, at its core, the true skinheads are partially misunderstood.
The Great Reggae Wars
The summer of 1968 saw the streets of inner-city Britain filled with two subcultures – mods and rude boys. Rude boys represented the Jamaican subculture within Britain, carrying with them a distinct style of dress and a new kind of music – that of reggae. A marriage of the two subcultures produced the skinhead. Proud creatures, skinheads were easily spotted with shaved heads, heavy doc martens, and Ben Shermans. But more so, it was the sound they defined themselves with that separated them from the mainstream. It was the sound of reggae.
In 1968 Trojan Records was founded, helping to promote Jamaican music within England. Despite the success of a few top artists like Desmond Dekker, reggae was the music of the unknown – it remained special to the subculture of rude boys and skinheads, and as such of both black and white. Trojan, however, was able to make a small dent in the mainstream record industry with compilations like Tighten Up and Reggae Chartbusters. The community of artists under Trojan, and competing label Pama Records made up the majority of the reggae scene in both the underground and the mainstream.
Rooted in the celebration of love and the fight for equality and justice reggae always had the potential to become an important soundtrack for a marginalised youth. It appealed to skinheads particularly because of its beat and danceability. Bands like Toots and the Maytals, Derrick Morgan, and Pat Kelly were just as popular amongst skinheads as names like Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker. Young skins would even go so far as head to the docks at the break of dawn to buy records straight off the boats.
The same pride felt towards music was also felt towards things like territory. “Being part of a gang gave a tremendous feeling of belonging and from it stemmed the pride, respect, and loyalty you had for your mates and your gang’s reputation” says George Marshall, in Spirit of ’69: A Skinhead Bible. With the influx of immigrants to England at the time, this intense pride became warped; so-called ‘Paki-bashing’ was a regular occurrence. The line between a territorial skinhead and a nationalist skinhead was a blurry one.
These acts of indiscriminate violence would be the start of skinheads association with racial hatred. Important however was the fact that the violence exhibited was not reserved for immigrants alone, but was also inflicted on hippies, greasers, and even fellow skinheads who infringed on territorial boundaries. As George Marshall also states, “it was no part of an extreme right plot” – it was just kids doing what they could to keep what was theirs.
On a wider scale. British society was undergoing its own identity crisis. The country had become paranoid that close-knit immigrant communities from India and Uganda, among others, were not going to assimilate into “British” society as had been the hope. Born out of fear, ignorance and job competition the “pakis” became easy targets.
These issues of race became the media’s context for defining the skinhead. Aggro, both at football matches and against immigrants, was the only light in which skinheads received press. The importance of music and dance, with its foundations in racial tolerance, was widely ignored by the mainstream media. With radio stations giving little airtime to Jamaican artists, dancehalls became the main places to hear reggae. Club hits went widely unrecognized – even Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” only made it to number one after months of club play – undoubtedly due to Dekker’s avid skinhead following.
And since the music that defined the skinhead was unrecognized by the mainstream, the seemingly obvious contradictions in skinhead subculture were not addressed either. No one was able to point at a skinhead and say “well, he listens to Pat Kelly, too.” because the dominant image of the skinhead was that of a racist thug. The spirit of ’69 was about listening to music and defending your territory from whoever encroached.
Of course, racial tension existed between groups regardless of whether you wore doc martens, penny loafers, or sneakers. “Skinheads were just angry unemployed working-class kids. They were angry with their lives, but roughness doesn’t mean racism,” says Gabor, a Hungarian born skinhead DJ in Dublin (whose favourite bands include Laurel Aitken, Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker). If mixed-race skinhead gangs were to be labelled as fascists, then surely mixed-race music groups like The Specials would receive the same reception.
Boomtown Is No More
The Specials would herald the new skinhead era. With a sharp sound, and a clear agenda of “positive anti-racist” values, The Specials breathed new life into the subculture. They had the energy of punk, the Jamaican beat of ska, the style of the rude boy and the pride of the skinhead.
By linking The Specials to their skinhead followers, the media made the scene out to be fascist, and the mixed-race Specials to be part of a far-right agenda. Of course, they weren’t entirely wrong. The same complexities that skinheads had faced in ’69 were present in the late 70’s. While most skinheads who followed 2 Tone were a-political, some were also supporters of the National Front and many were too uneducated or uninterested to examine the contradiction in dancing at a Specials gig while waving the NF flag.
In the mind of Special’s frontman Jerry Dammers the music was supposed to be the force that changed everything. And there were some success stories – “ask anyone from the 2 tone camp what they remember most about it all, and more often than not you’ll get a story about a racist skin talking to Lynval [Golding, of The Specials]… and leaving without the NF badge” (George Marshall).
In the summer of 1981, unemployment was at an all time high and riots broke out at nearly every 2 Tone gig. However, The Specials weren’t going to go down without a fight – and in 1891, 2 Tone had its swan song: Ghost Town.
“Why must the youth fight against themselves // Government leaving the youth on the shelf // This place is coming like a ghost town.”
“No song could have captured the state of the nation as accurately as these three minutes of 2 Tone sobriety did.” Marshall states. And the sentiment lingers. “Most music I like would be considered older, but in today’s circumstances I think the music is as relevant today as it was back then,” says Mayo, a 22-year-old skinhead girl from Dublin, (who cites The Specials, Madness, and local band Bionic Rats, as her favourites). Joe adds: “To be frank, I think politics are fucked. Whoever is in power is just going to fix one problem while screwing up something else.” Ghost Town represented the feelings of Mayo and Joe to a T: it laments the loss of all the things that could have been, but never were. And perhaps still aren’t.
One Law For Us
However the summer of 1981 also marked an event that would become the final nail in the coffin for the anti-racist skinheads. In anticipation of violence at the Oi! Punk festival at Southall‘s Hambrough Tavern, local Asians took to the street outside the venue. The police watched. The gig-goers were a hodge-podge, including about 100 women. During the show, around 2,000 people massed outside. As The 4-Skinslaunched into Chaos inside, chaos broke loose outside. Petrol bombs, bottles, and bricks came flying through the windows. The crowd was released onto the streets where they were attacked. The violence was reciprocated, and full-scale riot ensued.
The media circus that followed did its best to link skinheads and the Oi! bands to the racially motivated violence. Bands who weren’t even there were blamed for provoking innocent ‘passers by’. Hindsight allows us to see the complexities of the riot, while the truth remains elusive. Oi! and its a-political skinhead followers were pinned down against their will and had the swastika inked painfully into their foreheads.
But, skinheads don’t go down easy, and a skinhead zine titled Hard as Nails came out – espousing the spirit of ’69 – the spirit of true skinheads. And so the war between the two factions of skinheads waged on. It was mostly a quiet war, but whenever society needed a scapegoat, the finger was quickly pointed at the young man with the shaven head and the doc martens – no matter what he believed in.
The division which emerged then and which still exists today between the younger, drug addled, right wing skins and ‘traditional’ skinheads, like those of ’69, has not helped to debunk the myth that skinheads are at best angry and at worst racist. But, “boots and braces don’t make me a racist,” says Joe, echoing the spirit of ’69 in near perfection. (Though it was these very steel-toed boots that gave many racists the courage to ink swastikas into their foreheads.) Any kid with a shaved head who dons a pair of suspenders and doc martens faces a heavy burden. As such, it takes courage to remain a true skinhead.