The Rise and Fall of the Skinhead

by Lowenna Merritt

Photo credit: BBC

‘Skinhead’ isn’t the prettiest of terms, and it certainly doesn’t have the prettiest of associations. The archetypal skinhead image of shaven-heads, Harrington jackets and Dr. Martin boots is often linked to neo-Nazism, delinquency and violence, with the media representation of skinheads within films such as American History X and This Is England only fuelling this perception. The image of the skinhead is, nowadays, difficult to detach from the politics it denotes. However, the 1960’s saw the sub-culture arise from something quite the opposite. The first skinhead movement was born in working-class London towns and was strongly inspired by Jamaican culture and music, alongside elements of Mod fashion. The movement was, at its core, for the working-class outsider, reacting both to the austerity and conservative government of the early 1960’s and the largely middle-class hippie subculture throughout the decade. Forming a group identity from Dr. Martin boots, shaven heads, high-rise jeans, braces and reggae music, skinhead culture was a declaration of pride in the working-class identity.

Jamaican reggae music circulated widely in the UK at this time, due to the often-shared neighbourhoods of working-class Brits and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. Its popularity amongst young Brits led to the rise of ska music, ‘skinhead reggae’: this genre was created specifically for a UK market and symbolised a merging of immigrant and British cultures. White British men were attracted to the fashion of their black friends, particularly the Jamaican ‘rude boy’ style, and ska became a bond between friends of different backgrounds. The skinhead subculture was fundamentally multiracial, born on a shared love for fashion and music. So, what changed in the evolution of skinhead culture, causing it to become affiliated with racist politics and violence?

The late 1960s was a flourishing time for fashion and music. Yet it also saw a rapid spread of fascism, with far-right parties such as the National Front infiltrating British politics. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 embodied an increasing anxiety about immigrants in the UK. This growing nationalism coincided with the sprawling of skinhead fashion beyond London boroughs and towards the North, where it was widely adopted by young football fans. The skinhead movement was born apolitical, but a growing sense of alienation amongst working-class Brits led to the first traces of far-right politics to circulate amongst the sub-culture, with skinheads becoming attracted to the National Front’s promises of a reclamation of British identity. However, in this time of conflict and struggle, with immigration and fascism at a head-on clash, the skinhead movement took a backseat and largely faded from the streets of the UK. It didn’t fully surface again for almost a decade, in the late 1970s, reignited by the rise of punk-rock.

The mid 1970s welcomed an influx of punk rock music into the UK, with British bands The Clash, Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks storming the music scene. Punk rock bought with it ideas of anti-establishment, anarchy and youth rebellion. Yet for many working-class Brits, the punk scene embodied an ‘art school’-esque middle classness that they could not fully identify with. Then came Sham 69. Seen as punk music for the working-class, the band built a bond with skinheads through lyrics of political populism and football-chant style vocals. Their concerts became populated with skinheads from across the political spectrum, yet very quickly things took a turn for the worst. The violence often found in young football fans at the time had infiltrated the skinhead scene and fights regularly took place in the concert crowds. Tensions came to a head at Sham 69’s infamous gig at The Rainbow in Finsbury Park, in which National Front supporting skinheads stormed the concert in a white power protest. Despite Sham 69’s attempts to detach themselves from this increasing toxicity, promoting causes such as ‘Rock against Racism’, they became burdened by their new fascist-skinhead following and took a step back from the scene.

As though sensing the need for a return to the roots of skinhead culture, a new genre emerged. Two-tone music was a fusion of traditional ska and new punk rock, and its bands were often made up of a mixture of black, white and mixed-race members. Its purpose was to diffuse the racial tensions of far-right movements in Britain, particularly as Britain moved into the new Thatcher era in which social divisions could be felt across the country. Groups such as The Specials, The Beat and Madness were the face of the genre, and the racially united image they promoted sparked hope amongst older skinheads for a return to the way things used to be.

Unfortunately, as Britain entered the new decade of the 1980s, many of those that now identified as skinheads were younger and unaware of the history of the sub-culture they embodied. Skinhead style became more military-like, and amongst younger generations, punk rock was a firmly rooted part of skinhead identity.  Their new, preferred soundtrack was provided by punk rock sub-genre known as Oi!, a sound which encapsulated a sense of working-class rebellion. The music was aggressive, anti-establishment, and its growing popularity amongst skinheads marked a turning point which would tarnish the reputation of skinheads forever.

In Germany, street fights were regularly breaking out between skinheads and the anti-fascist group Antifa. German neo-Nazi groups began to recruit new members from the growing skinhead scene. Fascist politics had become intertwined with the skinhead image, and the spread of this across Europe only mirrors the situation in the UK. Oi! music had become strongly associated with the British skinhead scene, and 1981 saw a compilation album titled Strength Thru Oi!. The title appears a play on the Nazi slogan ‘Strength Through Joy’ (although this was denied by the albums compiler, Garry Bushell, who claimed to be unaware of the Nazi connotations). This, paired with the cover image of Nicky Crane, a British Movement activist serving a prison sentence for racial violence, was enough to displace the skinhead movements from its roots entirely. Shortly following this, an Oi! concert at the Hambrough Tavern in Southall on 4th July 1981 resulted in violent riots, with 120 people injured and the tavern being burnt down. Earlier the same day, National Front slogans were written in the surrounding area and abuse was hurled at local Asian residents. The concert did have a mixed political audience yet was portrayed in its aftermath as a white nationalist event. Skinheads were now too closely affiliated with extremist ideologies, with many participating, and the movement appeared worlds away from where it began.

At no point were all skinheads racist or affiliated with far-right politics. A large amount rejected these ideologies entirely. Non-white members of the skinhead culture still existed, yet many felt they could no longer attend music events such as this one, due to the burgeoning racial violence that often occurred. The roots of skinhead culture were always of multiculturalism and unity, but the movement had become tarnished, its reputation in ruins. The media began to home in on skinhead culture’s links to racism and violence, and the image of this stuck. The movement was divided, with elder generations feeling displaced from a movement that they helped to create. Skinhead culture slowly disintegrated from the streets of the UK in a feeling of brokenness, with key elements of its style being left in the hands of neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups.

Skinhead revivalists still exist today but are a small minority. Their aims are to preserve the culture in its original form, sharing a love for early reggae and ska music. Yet it now seems impossible to shake off the political and ideological implications the skinhead appearance now holds, and thus devoting yourself to this style in a modern age is a bold move. Skinhead culture united many people but became inescapably intertwined in a turbulent world of conflicting ideologies and political disillusion. The music of the movement, particularly ska, reggae and punk rock, remains popular today, yet the skinhead fashion remains a source of controversy, with an uncomfortable likeness to that of modern white supremacists. Perhaps more of an effort should be made to re-engage with the origins of skinheads. Or perhaps it is a culture that lost its way and should simply be left in the past.