They just weren’t having it anymore. Sick of the hippie movement’s empty promises and the austerity that pervaded British government at the time, skinheads emerged in 1960s London and rallied around one thing: to wear their working class status as a point of pride.
It was only a matter of time before radical right-wing politics buried that mission in favor of open racism and ultimately Neo-Nazism, however. In The Story of Skinhead, Don Letts — one of the original London skinheads — traces this story, and offers a sobering, uneasy tale of how easily racism can creep into working class politics.
The First Wave
The first wave of skinheads stood for one thing: embracing their blue collar status. Many self-identifying skinheads at the time either grew up poor in government housing projects or “uncool” in suburban row houses, and felt isolated from the hippie movement, whose members they believed embodied a middle class worldview — and one that didn’t address their unique concerns.
Changing immigration patterns also shaped the burgeoning culture. Around the time, Jamaican immigrants began to enter the U.K., and many of them lived side-by-side with the working-class English. This physical proximity offered a chance for sustained cultural exchange, and soon enough English kids latched on to Jamaican reggae and ska records. In a nod to the mod and rocker subcultures that preceded them, skinheads donned slick coats and loafers, buzzing their hair in a quest to become cool in their own right — and to disassociate themselves from the hippie movement.
Racism Creeps In
By 1970, the first generation of skinheads had begun to frighten their peers. Popular media exacerbated this fear, with Richard Allen’s 1970 cult classic novel Skinhead — about a a racist London skinhead obsessed with clothes, beer, soccer, and violence — serving as a prime example.
The second wave of of skinheads didn’t take umbrage at this portrayal; instead, they began to reflect and project it — particularly the racism. Indeed, Skinhead became the de facto bible for skinheads outside London, where football fan clubs were quick to take the subculture — and its constitutive aesthetics — up.
It didn’t take long for political groups to attempt to use the growing subculture for their own gain. The far-right National Front Party saw in the skinheads a group of working-class males whose economic hardships may have made them particularly sympathetic to the party’s ethno-nationalist politics.
And thus, the party began to infiltrate the group. “We were trying to think about race wars,” said Joseph Pearce, a now repentant National Front member who wrote propaganda for the group throughout the 1980s, in The Story of Skinhead. “Our job was to basically disrupt the multicultural society, the multi-racial society, and make it unworkable.”
“[Our goal was to] make the various different groups hate each other to such a degree that they couldn’t live together,” Pearce added, “and when they couldn’t live together you end up with that ghettoized, radicalized society from which we hoped to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes.”
National Front would sell propagandistic magazines at soccer matches, where they knew they would reach a massive audience. It was an economical move: even if only one in ten attendees bought a magazine, that’s still 600 to 700 potential recruits.
In its efforts to recruit more party members, the party also took advantage of rural conditions in which many skinheads found themselves. One former skinhead featured in the The Story of Skinhead recalled that the National Front opened up the sole nightclub within dozens of miles of one rural community — and only allowed members to come inside. Those who wanted to dance had to listen to propaganda.
Southall Riots And The Subculture Today
Over time, right-wing efforts to co-opt skinhead culture began to rot the latter from within. For example, Sham 69, one of the most successful punk bands in the 1970s and one with an unusually large skinhead following, stopped performing altogether after National Front-supporting white power skinheads rioted at a 1979 concert.
Barry “Bmore” George, a skinhead forced out due to racially-charged politics’ entry into and commandeering of the subculture, put it this way:
“I got asked a lot by people, about like well, you seem to know a bit about skinheads, I thought they were all racists… Depends on where you start reading your story. If you go right back and start your story right back at the beginning, and get yourself a good foundation of your knowledge of skinhead culture and where it was born from…You know what it was about. You can see where it was distorted. It did start off as one thing; now it’s branched to mean untold things.”
The end of the 1970s also saw the last flare of multicultural acceptance with 2 Tone music, which blended the 1960s-style ska with punk rock. And as that genre petered out, Oi! music began to pick up speed, combining the working-class skinhead ethos with punk rock energy.
Right-wing nationalists co-opted this genre from nearly the very beginning. Strength Thru Oi!, a famous compilation album of Oi! music, was — supposedly mistakenly — named after a Nazi slogan, and featured a neo-Nazi on the cover who would be convicted of attacking black youths at a train station that same year.
When that man was released from prison four years later, he would go on to provide security for a band called Skrewdriver. While it started off as a non-political Oi! band, over time it would grow close with various right-wing political groups and eventually become one of the most influential neo-Nazi rock bands in the world.
Music and violence became enmeshed, perhaps most saliently seen in the 1981 Southall riot. On the day it transpired, two busloads of skinheads headed to a concert located in Southall, a London suburb which at the time was home to a large Indian and Pakistani population.
Those skinheads found an Asian woman on the way to the concert and kicked her head in, smashing windows and vandalizing businesses as they proceeded. One 80-year-old retiree told The New York Times that the skinheads were, “running up and down asking where the Indians lived. It was not nice at all.”
Outraged, Indians and Pakistanis followed the skinheads to the pub where the concert took place. An all-out, racially-charged brawl took place soon after.
“The skinheads were wearing National Front gear, swastikas everywhere, and National Front written on their jackets,” a spokesman for the Southall Youth Association told The New York Times. “They sheltered behind the police barricades and threw stones at the crowd. Instead of arresting them, the police just pushed them back. It’s not surprising people started to retaliate.”
The Southall incident solidified skinheads’ perception as an openly racist and violent subculture, and the subsequent generations of the subculture — particularly those in U.S. prisons — have worked to ensure that the associations stick. As for the working-class ethos that propelled the subculture in the first place?
Its progenitors don’t think there’s any chance of getting that narrative back.
“Those ideologies have been sold to people that skinhead is associated with [fascism].” Jimmy Pursey, the lead singer of Sham 69, said. “It’s like a branding.”
For more, watch The Story of Skinhead: