In modern society the term “skinhead” carries only one meaning for the vast majority of people; racist. The sight of knuckle-dragging, beer bellied, Burberry clad goons on EDL marches complaining loudly and indecipherably about “muslamic ray-guns” with their shaved heads is what most people think of when they think of skinheads. Either that or they see the extremists of the Aryan Brotherhood and their ilk in the USA…far right, racist and violent. It’s not difficult to understand why people make that connection when that is the only image of the group that they are presented with.
The truth, as Oscar Wilde said, is rarely pure and never simple. That certainly applies to any examination of this most notorious of subcultures. Like all such groups their are a wide range of splinter groups…speak to any of the boneheads on an EDL march, inside of the Aryan Brotherhood or Britains Combat 18 and they will proudly proclaim themselves to be skinheads. For them the group is, effectively, a white working class political movement. What they fail to understand (deliberately or otherwise) or what they fail to see is that this premise is destroyed, at least partly, by the roots of the group.
The skinhead is arguably the most multi-racial of all fashion subcultures…it is the pinnacle of white, working class appreciation, worship and celebration of black style and music. Unlike those on the far right who have adopted the haircut and the boots that is a statement of fact and not a revisionist interpretation of the history of skinheads.
At the tail end of the 1960’s the mod movement was on its last legs…by its very name, mod = modernist, new looks and new sounds had to be sought out and embraced. So the bright young things began to embrace the psychedelic sounds and loose cuts of the flower power movement. Love, peace and harmony replaced tear ups on Brighton beach and the mellow vibe of marijuana replaced the anxious buzz of dexys and purple hearts.
For some mods and, in particular, for those who were not part of the Carnaby Street set this didn’t sit well. They had no interest in loon pants and “freaking out”. It was all a bit…well…scruffy. Working class kids always like to look sharp…good gear is the best way of standing out and asserting your place on the scheme or the estate. So, something different had to be found as a rejection of flowers in your hair.
Post War Britain had seen increasing numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean arriving to fill gaps in the labour market. By the 1960’s they were beginning to have a real impact on youth culture in Britain. Many young working class kids, particularly in the South East of England, were living side by side with Jamaican families. While there were undoubtedly tensions between the communities there is also no doubt that thanks to the ties that bind of clothes and music that white kids and black kids were finding common ground.
The trousers cut on the ankle, the pork pie hat, the heavy, heavy sounds of ska, lovers rock, rocksteady and reggae, the commitment to looking good in the most difficult of circumstances…all of this had a massive impact on those working class kids who didn’t feel any connection with the mainstream youth culture of the late 1960’s. So, something totally new began to emerge…a blend of mod, Jamaican rude boy and American Ivy League formed the basis of what would later be tagged “skinhead” by the tabloid media.
The original look was sharper than sharp.
Well cut trousers, brogues, button down shirts, suits, short, neat hair, Crombie coats mixed with the more readily available boots and jeans. All brought together to create a kind of “hard mod”. Lean, mean, dancing machines. Black and white together. The first youth movement in Britain to be a direct result of post-war multi-racial society.
The Spirit of ’69…the first, the original, skinheads. It was a blink and you’ll miss it movement. Within 12 months it was already morphing into the harder to define suedehead and then on into smoothies and then who knows where.
By the mid-70’s Britains far right National Front had realised that working class kids who were being worst hit by the economic downturn and high unemployment could provide willing converts to their cause. People who are suffering like to have someone to blame…so the NF gave them exactly that and slowly but surely the look of the skinhead became synonymous with the far right. It was a scruffy, aggressive, bastardization of the original look and with a little help from the sensationalist scribblings of Richard Allens “Skinhead” novels the die was cast…skinheads were racists.
The great tragedy of this is that the true Spirit of ’69 and that look is beautiful. It’s about clean living under difficult circumstances. It’s a celebration of black and white culture together. It’s about sharp dressing. It’s about shoes and boots that are polished to military standard. It’s about dancing. It’s about a sense of belonging. It’s about unity. It’s British without ever being nationalistic. To return to Oscar Wilde for a moment I would argue that skinheads are patriotic because, as Wilde said, they “…love (their) own country” where nationalists “hate” everyone else’s.
It’s unlikely that the skinhead can ever fully be extricated from the far right now…that is, in large part, due to the hijacking of the term in the United States by those groups and by the portrayal of the culture in the media. That, for me, is a tragedy because it is, undeniably, a great look and one that instills a bit of self-respect into an individual…even if that only extends as far as looking after your clobber!
However, it would be naive to try and claim, as some do, that there was never any racism amongst those original skinheads back in 1969. Archive reports from as early as 1970 discuss skinheads targeting Pakistani immmigrants for violence in the South of England and Richard Allens pulp fiction novels, including the original “Skinhead” also describe “paki bashing”. That’s not pleasant or easy to accept for people on the scene who want to defend it from accusations of racism but, like it or not, it’s true. I’m not sure how prevalent that sort of violence was and I stand by my description of the roots of the scene and it’s ties to the West Indies as support for the notion that racism isn’t an integral element of the originals.
Ultimately skinheads are not a political party. They are, predominantly, working class guys and girls who feel proud of their country, like to look sharp and love to dance. People on both sides of the political spectrum try to claim the scene as “theirs” but it’s not; it belongs to anyone who identifies as a skinhead. Personally I have no interest in far right politics and I find the rantings of the far left equally as tedious. I’m more interested in polishing my boots than Marxist dialectics or finding the right jeans over reading “Mein Kampf”.
So who are the real skinheads?
Who knows. All I know for sure is that I’m a skinhead.