Socialist Worker

Skinheads–a working class cult that’s been ska’d for life?

by Paul Sillett
Issue No. 2525

Don Letts with Pauline Black of Ska band The Selector

Don Letts with Pauline Black of Ska band The Selector


Say “skinheads” and most people will think instinctively of fascist thugs.

The truth is far more complex.

Don Letts, the legendary punk pioneer, radio DJ and social commentator, grew up with the original skins and allows them to put the case for the defence.

Skinhead culture was rooted in the crossover between the “rude boy” style brought over by Jamaican immigrants in the 1950s and 60s, and sharp-dressing, soul-loving, working class Mods.

Gigs were often wrecked by boneheads giving Nazi salutes.Often they were battlegrounds between racists and anti-racists.

The mods, already obsessed with aspects of black culture, took to Jamaican Ska music and its dances and clothes naturally. Many who made the transition from mod to skinhead were only too aware of these multicultural roots.

Black skins (Afro Boys) were a crucial part of skinhead. Why wouldn’t they be? The singers and bands skinheads worshipped—Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster and The Skatalites—were their heroes too.

Being a skin was fun, edgy, and dangerous. The style was unapologetically working class.

Against the prevailing hippy fashions, they wore the hair close cropped, and donned sharp suits, Ben Sherman shirts and Bass Weejun Loafers. Trapped in dead end jobs, most skins lived for the weekend. Dancing in clubs to Rock Steady reggae, learning about the “birds and the bees”, and going to football.

Multiracial

Letts uses great archive footage to reveal the multiracial nature of skinhead.

But there was a contradiction in the movement. While befriending one set of immigrants, West Indians, others—Asians in particular—were often subject to attack. By 1968, when the scene spread from London to the rest of Britain, Enoch Powell’s bigotry reinforced such violent racism.

Media moral panics about skinheads exaggerated the worst behaviour and led many skins to play up to the stereotype.

Many original skins started moving away from the life by the early 1970s, while a new, younger element emerged. By now skinhead was associated in the public mind with right wing scum.

Fortunately, Skinhead Against Racial Prejudice’s Roddy Moreno is on hand to tell it as it really was.

Letts’ portrayal of the re-emergence of skinheads in the late 1970s around bands such as Sham 69 and the 2-Tone record label is problematic.

Skinhead

The screen darkens when ex?Young National Front leader, Joe Pearce, and right wing “journalist” Gary Bushell start spouting. But the ­boneheads who latched onto the skinhead image from the fascist right were consistently challenged.

Sham ‘69’s lead singer Jimmy Pursey stood up to fascist goons who recruited some skins around his band. To his credit he backed Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League instead.

Pauline Black of The Selector recounts the tribulations of playing Ska to audiences in the 1970s and early 1980s. Gigs were often wrecked by boneheads giving Nazi salutes.Often they were battlegrounds between racists and anti-racists.

In the post-punk era of the early 1980s, skinheads became more associated with Oi! music, and Moreno notes how the scene became infested with Nazis.

Raw, harder than punk, and with some cardboard cut-out characteristics, Oi! was littered with even more contradictions.

Some of the new skin bands were socialist, others were linked to fascists. The Southall Riot of 1981 was sparked by racist skinheads going to an Oi! gig. It effectively ended the scene.

Oi! certainly had a Nazi skinhead following, but to label it Nazi music is mistaken.

In Sheffield, Communist Party-influenced skinheads helped lead marches against police harassment, and were part of the inspiration for Trevor Griffiths’ 1982 anti-fascist play, Oi For England.

Blemishes aside, Letts has made a fascinating film. Updated with a homage to Shane Meadow’s This is England TV hit, this is a firm ­rebuttal to those who revile the whole ­skinhead scene.

The Story of Skinhead with Don Letts is on BBC4 this Friday at 9pm

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