- “To be a Skinhead, you must love your Doc Martens. You must love ska music. You must have the right attitude, the right attitude from the heart and the brain. You must like football. You must like to dance harder than anybody else, of any subculture. And most of all, you need to be anti-racist.” ~ Buster Bloodvessel
Getting under their skins
April 1, 2007
Skinheads created one of the most iconic youth movements ever to emerge in Britain. It quickly became defined by terror, menace and racism. But beneath the shaved heads and steel-capped boots lay a more complex reality. Now the style and substance of this uniquely English tribe is to be reassessed in a new film and an exhibition of stunning photographs taken by a young skinhead in the early Eighties.
For a while in the late Sixties and early Eighties, Britain fostered a youth cult so iconic in its imagery, and so threatening in its pose, that we [?] remain ashamed of it decades later. Steel-capped boots and jeans with back pockets shaped by sharpened metal combs: that was the look, all aggravation and bristle, the terror at station platforms and football terraces and corner shops. Fashion is about many things – money, humiliation, fitting in and sticking out – but until skinheads showed up it was rarely about menace.
And now the menace is back, as unfashionable as ever and ripe for rehabilitation. There aren’t so many skinheads on British streets any more, and, like punk, the cult has been exported, occasionally with comic results, to Europe, the United States and the Far East. But new interest is emerging – an exhibition, the reissue of classic books, and a striking film called This Is England, the latest work from director Shane Meadows. The movie, a classic rites-of-passage saga, is most memorable for its performances and its look, and for the near-perfect recreation of the oddest of cults. It is the first truly empathetic skinhead film that neither glorifies nor condemns the tribe, and places its conflicts of comradeship, masculinity, music, hormones and extreme-right politics in a fully realised setting, the summer of 1983, with Britain searching for identity in the shadow of the Falklands and Margaret Thatcher‘s tireless dismantling of community. If you lived through it, you will recognise it.
You may not, however, recognise the humanity of its subjects. These days, the word skinhead can conjure images only of hatred and racism, but that is our [sic] problem. How it came to be a problem is instructive, and tells us something about the power of imagery, and the nature of our [sic] prejudices.
‘Skinhead’s a way of life, a culture I live by,’ says a present-day [?] skinhead called Pan on the website skinheadnation.com [sic] (‘A true family of brothers and sisters that spans the globe’). ‘It’s about having pride in the way I look, it’s about working for my living, earning everything I get. It’s about the second family I have with my mates on the street, about being true to the values that I learnt, the honour code. [It’s all about that coming together, and i]t’s the truest culture because you’re talking about the real people, the working people, the poor people. [Endquote. Garfield then runs together Pan’s quote with the words of the site’s author, George Marshall:] To outsiders, we represent the scum of the earth, but we know better. We know that we are the part of the greatest youth cult of all time, and nobody can ever take that away from us. It really is us against the world, and as we know all too well the world doesn’t stand a chance.’
[See also : George Marshall, Spirit of ’69: A Skinhead Bible, ST Publishing, Glasgow, 1993.]
From where does his honour code spring? The marines were called skinheads in the Second World War, but the term was first applied to British youth towards the end of the Sixties. The ‘h’ was silent – skin’ead, the description that stuck after its rivals – ‘peanuts’, ‘cropheads’, ‘boiled eggs’, ‘skulls’ fell away. The style – particularly the hair, the clean lines of Ben Sherman shirts and braced Levi’s, the Doc Martens Air Wear shoes and boots, the rat-tail hair and miniskirt for girls – derived directly from the gang end of the mod movement; younger brothers taking the fashion further and harder, eventually on to the football terraces with improvised household weapons. Amphetamines, the staple of the mod all-nighter, were popular, augmented by cannabis and solvents. Like the clothes, the music couldn’t have been more removed from hippiedom: skinheads plundered the Jamaican dancefloor and adopted rude-boy tastes of bluebeat and ska. The tribal gatherings at Brighton and Southend presented a dilemma: who were the skins actually up against, beyond broad authority? By the height of glam in 1972, skinheads had run out of stomping ground.
When they returned in the late Seventies, they had their own style manual. This was not something one might have anticipated from an anti-fashion movement that made things up as it went along, but Jim Ferguson’s ‘Fashion Notebook’ [a chapter in Nick Knight’s 1982 Skinhead] confirmed just how seriously the toughs took their stitching. At times it reads like the shipping forecast: ‘Suit jackets single breasted, button three, very high buttoning – sometimes button four, or even button five. Ever increasing pocket flaps (up to 4 inches or beyond).’ Their trousers, worn short to display boots, lengthened from 18 inches in 1969 to 19ins or 20ins by 1971. Levis were dominant in London, but Wrangler, slightly wider and pre-shrunk, were big in the Midlands. The use of spattered bleach came in in 1969.
Ferguson’s guide also had an instructive list of ‘habits’. ‘Girls practising dance steps in twos at bus stops, with thumbs in the air… wearing hankies in the ends of your boots because you’d bought them two sizes too big… keeping your hands deep in your jeans pockets because your braces are too tight and your balls are separating… running in a clump through a crowded station, like the Bash Street Kids, keeping perfect time with chant and clap… having a fat youth in your crew…’
The skinhead revival came in with a darker shadow. ‘Paki bashing’, though not confined to skinheads, was prevalent, a gang mentality fuelled by unemployment and deprivation. And there was a fatal link with the Oi! movement, a fiercely working-class, predominantly East End collection of bands including the Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts, Skrewdriver, the Last Resort and the 4-Skins. These were not media-friendly groups, and their confused disaffection swiftly transformed them – in the public eye at least – into a musical version of Alf Garnett: nationalistic, defensive, bunkered in with a victim mentality. Racist clashes marred several shows, a skinhead with a swastika appeared on the cover of a compilation album [Strength Through Oi!, compiled by the wanker Gary Bushell and released on Decca Records in 1981; it featured the very gay and very dead Nicky Crane on the front cover] and it became difficult to think of Oi! as anything beyond the soundtrack to the National Front [“They’re such a bunch of cunts”]. Many of the bands swung completely the other way – anti-racist, pro-Communist [sic] – but skinheads have always struggled with public relations. So Top Shop never embraced their wardrobe the way it did punk and the new romantics; the bigger bands skinheads followed, including Madness and Sham 69, were swift to disown them as soon as they became successful. In many ways, this was ideal; no one liked them and they didn’t care, or at least they didn’t care until they couldn’t move without police searches and accusations that they were all Nazis.
[Blah blah blah. See : Timothy S. Brown, ‘Subcultures, pop music and politics: skinheads and “Nazi rock” in England and Germany’, Journal of Social History, Vol.38, No.1, Fall 2004 (PDF).]
Shane Meadows’ film shares its title with an astute essay by the cultural critic Dick Hebdige. Its full title, This Is England And They Don’t Live Here, comes from a comment made by an East London skin called Mickey, a quote that began with the classic line, ‘Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got a lot of coloured friends. And they’re decent people. But they’ve got their own culture. The Pakistanis have a culture, it’s thousands of years old. But where’s our culture? Where’s the British culture?‘
Hebdige confirms that the stripped-down skinhead style was as self-conscious and studied as anything that had preceded it. ‘Just watch the way a skinhead moves. There is a lot of lapel twitching. The head twists out as if the skin is wearing an old-fashioned collar that’s too tight for comfort.’ He observed the cigarette tip turned inwards in the palm, brought down from the mouth in an exaggerated arc. He saw them always ‘jumping out of the frame’, alert to provocation and eager to defend what little they had (and what they perceived was being taken from them by Asians and other immigrants.)
These days Hebdige is a professor in the art and film studies departments at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and now he equates the stance adopted by skinheads in the late Seventies with a more recent phenomenon. ‘In the end,’ he tells me by email, ‘I think it’s about humiliation, to be frank: the matrix of humiliation is an obvious but all too often neglected condition that’s driving many of the more violent/extreme contemporary cultural and political phenomena in our era. I don’t think you can understand what motivates a Palestinian suicide bomber any more than you can a [Blood & Honour] Asian-stomping [bonehead] without taking humiliation into account as a major motivating factor.’
- “Most notably, ‘paki-bashing’ can be read as a displacement manouevre whereby the fear and anxiety produced by limited identification with one black group [on the part of white youths] was transformed into aggression and directed against another black community. Less easily assimilated than the West Indians into the host community… sharply differentiated not only by racial characteristics but by religious rituals, food taboos and a value system which encouraged deference, frugality and the profit motive, the Pakistanis were singled out for the brutal attentions of skinheads, black and white alike. Every time the boot went in, a contradiction was concealed, glossed over, made to ‘disappear’.” ~ Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Routledge, London & New York, 1979, p.58.
Hebdige supports a theory put forward by the East End youth worker Phil Cohen: the original skinheads from the Sixties hankered for a traditionalist prewar Britain and the working-class lifestyle of their fathers, distantly wary of the new European alliances that threatened a magnificent isolation. In the second wave, nostalgia for a golden age was replaced by a desire to shock and bully, and to drink and laugh.
Hebdige says that these days ‘the style tends to look more like part of an international white power movement, though I may be wrong. It may well be a lot more complicated than that, but it’s certainly more difficult in 2007 than it was a few decades ago to adopt the skinhead style “innocently”, that is, without invoking the equation most everybody nowadays – white and non-white people alike – makes between skins and right-wing racist activism. Spectacular youth subcultures are all about bending signs this way or that, but my sense is you’d have to be really determined, really smart and really perverse nowadays to set out to appropriate skin style for something other than a xeno-homo-non-white-phobic ideology.’
In which case, there’s a number of really determined, really smart and really perverse people out there. Alternatively, Hebidge is talking bullshit:
“SHARP [Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice], and more importantly the SHARP attitude, has had a massive influence on Skinhead culture. Remember how it used to be back in the eighties when the Boneheads nearly strangled the cult. Remember how kids thought to be a Skinhead you had to be a Nazi. If it wasn’t for SHARP and other groups like AFA, ARA, RASH and all the rest we would be swimming in a sea of swastikas by now. Don’t listen to all the shit about splits and politics, the Boneheads go on about it because they know how we drove them underground and reclaimed Skinhead culture for true Skinheads. The non-politicals go on about it because it’s easier than taking on the scum. I’ve been a Skinhead since 1969 and I know what it’s meant since day one.” ~ Roddy Moreno, The Oppressed
Priscilla Layne, Germany’s Other Skinheads, Deutsche Welle, October 16, 2004
‘I was so intense about being a skinhead, to me it was final,’ says Gavin Watson, a former skinhead from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. ‘Anybody who grew their hair for work or their girlfriend was severely mentally impaired. I would be downtown and see an older skin growing his hair for some reason or another, I would feel very disappointed. I could not understand how one could ever not be a skinhead once the step had been taken.’
Watson, who is 41, is a more reliable witness than most. On the floor of his Brighton flat is a large black case containing a few hundred photographs. ‘There are many, many more,’ he says. ‘I’ve got 5,000 printed and 10,000 in all.’ The living room windows are open with a view of the sea, and Watson is wearing an Adidas woollen cap and loose-fitting black work-out clothes. He is muscular, tattooed, and illustrates his speech with such animated, large hands that you think he may be wrestling an invisible animal. He calls his black case The Box of Death, and he goes through his photos with a mixture of delight and dread. ‘That’s John… that’s Lee… he went mad… he went off the rails on heroin. That’s Duncan. He died when a PA [an amplifier] fell on him.’
Watson says eight of his friends were dead by the time he was 23. By then his camera, an unwieldy Mamiya RB67 in brown and gold, was four years old, and paired with his Nikon had captured a scene in High Wycombe that Watson’s admirers claim to be the single most complete depiction of an English youth movement in existence.
Watson photographed from the inside, the only member of a provincial and isolated gang with a camera, only occasionally aware that his friends were part of a larger moment. His work shows a different view from the one we may be used to. Some of his photographs are funny, some are tender, some are domestic. Many of them show skinheads smiling, others display a great vulnerability: young boys struggling for their place in an adult world. If there is aggression it is playful and uncertain. And in the background sits an unbeautified England of the Eighties, a harsh depiction of extreme disunity.
‘That’s Neville, my brother,’ Watson says. ‘Three years younger. The girls thought he was the sweetest little thing, and I have to admit we used him as bait when we cruised round town. And I love this one,’ he says, holding an image of a young skinhead in a German uniform, Sieg-Heiling. ‘The odd thing is, one week before that he was a punk. I think there were only about 30 Nazi skinheads in London. But they tarred everything. Young skinheads were recruited by the BNP, but most weren’t because they didn’t care about politics. Skinheads just went where other skinheads went. If they voted at all, most voted Labour.’
Watson’s own skinhead allegiance began in 1979, when he was 14. He returned to his house after the usual post-school misbehaviour on his estate to find his parents watching Madness on Top of The Pops perform their single, ‘The Prince’. ‘I had to have that record,’ Watson remembers. ‘This guy here [he points to a black friend in a photograph] nicked it for me the next day, and I played it until it was worn. But if Madness had been mods I would have become a mod.’
He has written an unfinished account of his skinhead life, a vigorous record of his experiences with girls and violence and extreme boredom, and it contains several doomed attempts to explain the appeal. ‘I truly believed it was a way of life, and that being a skinhead was not just about clothes and style but something that went so deep, a connection. It’s like being in love: you just can’t explain it.’
Watson’s romanticism, unmissable in his photographs, permeates his written account. There are many schoolgirl crushes, and deep feelings of inadequacy. His parents were unhappy with their lives, and there is an unspoken quest for role models among his friends from abusive homes. His writing, available on his MySpace site, offers a raw and unexpected reflectiveness, and it brings an apology: ‘Well there I was,’ he writes, ‘surrounded by 50 Pakis with knives. I had a glue bag in one hand and a tool in the other, the swastika I had freshly tattooed on my head was still hurting a bit but I was ready for a ruck… There, that’s better, that should please the readers expecting stories of Nazi nights of passion, ultra violence and hard men who bowed to no one. Well I’m sorry, but I always looked upon myself as a shy, sensitive human being, who if I had the chance would have lived a more stress-free life, not needing to be tough, fight, feel scared most of the time. Damaged goods, that’s how I look at it.’
Some of Watson’s images are on show at the PYMCA Gallery in London, from 10 April. Others have been collected in a book called Skins, which is now out of print. Its mood has frequently been appropriated by other photographers and many magazines, to the point where the book has become a cult in itself. The hip [Australian slang for ‘yuppie’] youth culture magazine Vice recently commissioned Watson to take some new pictures, and introduced them thus: ‘We’ve always loved Watson’s photos and would often gaze out the window going, This guy is amazing and he hasn’t shot anything for years.’ The magazine asked him what he’d been doing since Skins. ‘The last eight years I’ve been in the pub,’ Watson said. ‘Thankfully I’m out of it now.’
His skinhead book was not the first. The celebrated fashion photographer Nick Knight took pictures in the East End, and their publication in the Omnibus Press book Skinhead, which also contained Dick Hebdige’s ‘This is England’ essay, was the cause of some resentment in High Wycombe. ‘[It was] a book I never really liked,’ Watson observes, ‘because I felt I had taken better photographs even though I was only 15. And also he wasn’t a real skin, [but] jumping on the bandwagon. Sour grapes on my part really.’
When skinheads grew their hair, Watson turned his camera towards the Summer of Love, but he knows that rave photographs will not be his legacy. He is now keen to take pictures of the Muslim skinheads of Malaysia. ‘I promise you they exist,’ he says. ‘I often think, how did we get from our little gang to this?’ Recently he has photographed some young skins in Southend, but they resemble a catwalk version of their inspiration: they are suedeheads at best. ‘What began as a style soon became a myth,’ Watson concludes. ‘And the myth soon became more convincing than the truth.’
Boots and braces: Skinhead style
Skinheads took the Mod look (Ben Sherman shirts, Levi’s jeans) and toughened it with donkey jackets, army greens, Doc Marten boots and braces. Inspiration was also drawn from the long black coats and two-tone suits worn by Jamaican rude boys. [NB. Both Ben Sherman (a/k/a Arthur Bernard Sugarman, 1946–1987) and Levi Strauss (1847–1902) were Jewish.]
Early skinheads opted for the short-but-not-bald look, although suedeheads grew their hair longer and combed it, while later skins shaved their heads. Girls wore the Chelsea cut, short on top with fringes at the front, back and sides.
Early skinheads listened to ska and rocksteady by Desmond Dekker [1941–2006], Laurel Aitken [1927–2005] and the [Skatalites]. British bands fusing Jamaican music and punk (The Specials, Madness) were big in the late 1970s before the more aggressive Oi! bands such as [the anti-racist] Blitz [1981–2007], [the anti-racist] The Business [1979–] and [the neo-Nazi] Skrewdriver [1976–1993] barged onto the scene.
Skins on screen
Made In Britain (Alan Clarke, 1982[3?])
Tim Roth’s searing performance as Trevor, a volatile 16-year-old with a swastika on his forehead, became symbolic of the darker edges of skinhead culture.
Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992)
Gritty portrait of a racist gang in [Footscray,] Melbourne, starring Russell Crowe, was meant to discourage neo-Nazism but [sic] became a skinhead cult classic.
American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998)
After a spell in prison for the murder of two black youths, skinhead Edward Norton struggles to distance his family from the white supremacist group of which he was a leading member.
The Believer (Henry Bean, 2001)
The twist in this riveting film about a violently anti-Semitic New York skinhead is that Danny Balint (played by Ryan Gosling) is himself Jewish.
[Skinhead Attitude and White Terror (Daniel Schweizer, 2003 and 2005)
Two documentary films by Swiss director Schweizer, the first providing an historical overview of skinhead culture, the second documenting the bonehead corruption of skinhead, in particular the boneheads associated with the neo-Nazi Blood & Honour network.]
- Real Skinhead — Stage Bottles
Oi! You stupid bastards just wake up
And think about
Where your culture comes from
Oi! It’s not just having fights
Dancing and drinking
Dressing up and owning many records
Oi! It’s fighting back
So you should feel
Like a suburban rebel
Oi! Social difference is the reason
Employees are still exploited
Oi! Fred Perry was a Jew and Levi, too
The movement source
Oi! Is kicking out the stupid racists
So let the kids be united
Oi! Don’t influence the younger ones
By telling much
Without saying anything
Oi! Skinhead’s not a stupid culture
Your’re not allowed
To switch your brain off
Oi! You’re singing songs about a teenage warning
About not showing the white flag
Oi! Don’t talk about a way of life
Though for you
There’s no deeper meaning
Oi! Is feeling pride
But just posing
Is no reason to be proud
Oi! So skinhead is a different thing
Your infiltration will be stopped