'Someone's gonna die tonight. The boys are out tonight.' - Blitz, All Out Attack
What Have We Got?
The Turbulent Story of Oi!
In his foreword Simon Spence makes clear two things: that he will not be exploring in any detail the sub-culture of skinhead and that the ‘second wave’ skins who were the audience and musicians of Oi! were just ‘playing’ with the violent, right wing imagery and actual fascism connected to the original skinheads in the same way that early punks used swastikas to ‘shock’.
The following interviews and, indeed, Spence’s own evidence show that neither of these are true.
As an insight into late 1970s and subsequent skinhead culture the interviews provide a slew of information, often from first hand experience. And, often, in the same interviews and in the almost by-the-way descriptions of violence, death and deliberate provocations and attacks on minorities carried out by Oi! affiliated skinheads it is clear that Oi!’s links to organised fascism and bloody violence across the world are unquestionable.
It is a strange, defensive book in that, almost despite itself it damns its subject. Spence says he is a fan and, indeed, he seems very knowledgable about the sub-genre when it comes to who played what and when and with who. But there is little to no in-depth discussion about Oi!’s musical roots and the dichotomy that even this heavily white-skinned and lumpy guitar rock comes from a Black origin. The wider roots of the music itself are never brought up with interviewees.
Spence seems to be a little in awe of the aura of ‘street warriors’ and the book flips back and forth between slightly breathless descriptions of the almost endless aggro and some slim contextualisation based around the poor beginnings of some of the musicians. Elements of the writing remind me of James Brown-as-editor era NME, as Spence pursues quotes about Jimmy Pursey’s caution for sexual assault on an under-age girl during interviews with other musicians, and brings up Suggs from Madness’s friendship with unrepentant nazi Stuart Donaldson.
Much is made in the book of the working class-ness of the movement. Without saying it out loud, the inference is there that being ‘authentically’ working class gives an excuse for the violence and the racism that infected Oi! It kind of annoys me. I was around (and working class) during its origination and it was clear, very early on after punk, that there was a choice to be made, about how you lived your life. The surprise that seems to be expressed in the interviews, still, from some of the leading faces on the Oi! scene that there would be violence at their gigs, that there would be sieg heiling nazi skinheads is not really challenged. As if there were some kids and young men who were infected with a disease that they couldn’t resist, because they grew up poor. As if there wasn’t a choice. Which makes the the writer seem sympathetic.
Yes, skinhead is a remarkable cultural and social phenomenon. Yes, some of the imagery, the fashion, is incredible, street smarts made flesh. But to try to deny its roots - from ‘hard mod’ to white power terrorist - in an otherwise comprehensive book, is an omission and, in a way, amounts to a tacit support of the consequences. Skinheads spread across the world because of the violence, not the music. The main fashion is based on being ready for violence, not dancing. The football allegiances (hilariously shown to be invented in the case of OG Oi!-sters Cock Sparrer) based around fighting, not a love of watching sport. After The Beatles, it’s arguably Britain’s most successful late 20th century cultural export: violent football fans who morph into nazi ultras. Well done, to all concerned.
"People we don't beat up, we're going to fucking shoot." - 4-Skins
A missed opportunity? Or an author keen on self-preservation as he mixes with some delicate egos in a movement in which violence is the life blood? It’s hard to tell. Ironically, it is probably a valuable document for the interviews alone and for those, he must be commended.