What do you think of when you hear “skinhead”? Gangs of shaven-headed thugs, Nazi salutes and racial hatred? American History X or Romper Stomper? You’d hardly be alone if you did think that. Popular culture and the mass media have adopted that word as a synonym for “neo-Nazi hooligan”. A dark cloud has hung over skinhead culture since the 1970s, with skinheads themselves having become victims of prejudice.
A friend of mine had attended an anti-racist rally in Wellington the other weekend, sporting a shaved head and dressed in his habitual ensemble of skinny jeans, black t-shirt and bomber jacket. As he arrived, someone approached him and asked him:
“Excuse me, are you a neo-Nazi skinhead?”
He laughed and replied that he was not, that he was on the anti-racist side. Apparently, a few others had approached him during the course of the rally – the far-right New Zealand National Front was demonstrating only a few metres away behind a cordon of police and metal barricades. While skinheads themselves are keenly aware of the distinction between their ilk and neo-Nazis who call themselves “skinheads”, the general public has little idea.
Skinhead culture emerged by the late 1960s in England. It was preceded and influenced by British mods (sharp-dressing working-class lads who rejected dull British culture) and Jamaican rude boys (a tough street culture brought over by West Indian immigrants). The main elements that the early skinhead culture revolved around was music, fashion and lifestyle – not race or politics. The sharp class divisions in the UK left most working-class youths consigned to dreary jobs and a bleak future in industrial estates. Youth culture provided a temporary escape and a way to rebel.
The music of choice of early skinheads was largely black-originated: American soul and Jamaican ska (an up-tempo and up-beat genre that was the progenitor of reggae). The fashion was likewise influenced by working-class and black Jamaican origins. Trousers were rolled up at the cuff and worn with braces, like hand-me-downs from a big brother in a poor family. Boots, especially Doc Martens, were worn as they might’ve been by many industrial workers – this was quite some time before Docs were an overpriced fashion item. Elements of mod culture (like Fred Perry shirts) and rude boy culture (like pork-pie hats) were also popular. The short hair is variously interpreted as a reaction to hippie culture, a form of punishment for hooliganism practiced by British cops, as a precaution against having one’s hair caught in industrial machinery or grabbed in a street fight.
By 1969 skinhead culture became the fad of the year. Like most fads, most kids abandoned it after a few years but a hard core persisted. In some areas – like the Midlands, northern England and Scotland – the primary focus shifted away from music and towards football hooliganism. It is that part of the skinhead movement that provided the first recruits to far-right groups that emerged in Britain in the 1970s. Since they had lost their original links with Jamaican culture and were experienced street brawlers, they were recruited by organisations like the National Front as their very own thugs.
It’s important to remember that only a minority of all skinheads actually got drawn into far-right politics. This fringe was the most visible in the media – mostly because of their violence against minorities and their role in the far right movement. Most skinheads remained indiffirent to politics and many others were opposed to the racists that they felt were giving skinheads a bad name. By 1987 an organisation called SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) was formed in New York as a reaction to racist violence by neo-Nazis who called themselves skinheads. Informal chapters appeared in the UK, Germany and the rest of the world. Its supporters were often active in anti-fascist groups. Nowadays, SHARP skins are an informal network rather than a member-based organisation.
By the 1980s the wider movement split into three major factions: apolitical (or so-called “trad” skins) who did not become politically engaged with either faction, SHARP skins who consider anti-racism essential to the skinhead identity and neo-Nazi thugs. The latter are generally called “boneheads” by those who do not share their ideology. To cite Roddy Moreno of the Welsh band The Oppressed:
” SHARP and more importantly the SHARP attitude, has had a massive influence on Skinhead culture. Remember how it used to be back in the eighties when the Boneheads nearly strangled the cult. Remember how kids thought to be a Skinhead you had to be a Nazi. If it wasn’t for SHARP and other groups like AFA, ARA, RASH and all the rest we would be swimming in a sea of swastikas by now. Don’t listen to all the shit about splits and politics, the Boneheads go on about it because they know how we drove them underground and reclaimed Skinhead culture for true Skinheads. The non-politicals go on about it because it’s easier than taking on the scum. I’ve been a Skinhead since 1969 and I know what it’s meant since day one.”
..and Buster Bloodvessel of English ska band Bad Manners:
“To be a Skinhead, you must love your Doc Martens. You must love ska music. You must have the right attitude, the right attitude from the heart and the brain. You must like football. You must like to dance harder than anybody else, of any subculture. And most of all, you need to be anti-racist.”
Originally published by Shrapnel zine (Auckland).
BONUS – Laurel Aitken, a.k.a. Boss Skinhead: