Swimming in the right pond
Maciej Zurowski talks to Paul Thompson about the emergence of the skinhead subculture and its implicit values
There are episodes in British youth cultural history that are remembered fondly and in great detail. Barely a week goes by without a punk retrospective on Channel Four commemorating that great moment in 1977, against which all others must be measured. Perhaps unsurprisingly so, given that many of the original punks went on to become key players in the British media, fashion and graphic design industries.
Skinheads, who emerged from a more sociologically working class milieu, have been less lucky in this regard. Like acid house and the ‘second summer of love’ in 1988, the original skinhead subculture of the late 1960s was much bigger than early punk in terms of numbers, yet remains woefully under-documented, allowing for a number of competing mythologies to emerge.
Don Letts’s documentary The story of skinhead, first aired on BBC on October 14, was among the few mainstream attempts at an objective assessment - and to a degree, it succeeded. Although partly motivated by the desire to project notions of multiethnic harmony onto a complicated past, it largely managed to avoid the pitfalls of both revisionist history rewriting and ill-informed generalisations.1
Instead of presenting a monolithic ‘cult’ driven by specific ideas - whether racist or ‘anti-racist’, as some would have it - what emerged was the image of a working class youth trend that reflected typical prejudices of its time, while cutting across others. Among the talking heads was Paul Thompson, original skinhead from 1968-70, editor of a short-lived skinhead column entitled ‘Yell’, and lifelong leftwinger. He is currently working on a book, which will document the original skinhead era, as seen through the eyes of some of its protagonists. I spoke to him about the subculture’s emergence, culture and implicit values
What is a skinhead?
Something that has existed in some imitative form or another since 1969, so everybody will have their own experience. For me, it’s very much a London thing and exclusive to a period from 1968 to about mid-1970. In 1968, bikers used ‘skinhead’ as a term of abuse for the harder, non-peacock London mods with short, college-boy haircuts. But eventually it lost its sting and was adopted to describe a certain look. When I came to London from Blackpool in 1968, I still used the term ‘mod’, which my mates had come to find bewildering.
Our look evolved gradually. But, when the press got hold of it in 1969, younger kids read about it and made a conscious decision to become skinheads. The age-spread between the two groups wouldn’t have been more than five years. In 1970 I turned 20, and from my point of view it was over by then. We started to grow our hair, which is when people began to call us ‘suedeheads’.
Jimmy Pursey of the punk band, Sham 69, has said that in 1969 most kids at his school were skinheads - and those who weren’t were fair game. Was it really that massive?
I was at college by then - but I did have the impression that by late 1969, every kid in London was jumping on the bandwagon.
So it was a youth fashion rather than a subculture with rigid boundaries?
To people like me, it was fashion. Nobody signed a dotted line pledging to take part in football violence, despise Pakistanis, or do any of the other things commonly associated with the subculture. But then the press got hold of it and interviewed a handful of kids about their views on various issues. This, in turn, established a check list for other kids on how to become skinheads. Like any other youth group, they could be a bit sheepy.
But, beyond it being a fashion, we had the time of our lives. You were somebody, you were identifiable, and you had a good time in company. I can remember a TV documentary at the time where a young skinhead said, “When I see a bunch of us walking down the street, I get tears in my eyes”. I know exactly what he meant - there was a strong feeling of camaraderie.
Were skinheads exclusively working class?
Less solidly working class than the common narrative would have you believe. However, it was overwhelmingly working class simply because it was big in inner cities. There was a handful of mostly lower-middle class mods and skins at my college in south-east London. I also remember seeing guys in London offices who had the look - white-collar skinheads, if you like. But yes, skinheads were mainly working class.
How important was music?
Music and clothes were the two most important things to me. I was over the moon when I found a West Indian record shop in Deptford 10 minutes walk from my college. The reggae vinyl they had on sale had literally come off the boat that afternoon.
Did it have to be the latest reggae records, or did you also listen to older ska and Motown?
Ska was something that we used to listen to as mods a little, although our main focus had been on soul music. When I came to London, rocksteady was still going, but shortly after, reggae arrived - that’s what I was mainly picking up at the record store in Deptford. Otherwise, it depended on the DJs. At the Savoy Rooms, they played the latest Tamla Motown singles, but they also kept playing older crowd-pleasers. ‘Same old song’ by the Four Tops was a favourite, as was ‘The clapping song’ by Shirley Ellis, to which we would chant our own rude lyrics.
And when soul got heavier and became funk - did skinheads like that?
I can remember buying a proto-funk seven-inch single called ‘Look ka py py’ by New Orleans band The Meters in 1969. For me, what they and James Brown were doing was just the way raw basic soul was going. Nine months from then, the skinhead thing fractured anyway, and I’m sure some people went on to become funksters.
Were live gigs an integral aspect of the skinhead experience?
My most important gig was Desmond Dekker live at the Daylight Inn in Petts Wood on the day that ‘Israelites’ got to number one in the charts. But generally, skinhead culture was more record-oriented. Sometimes, they had live bands playing at the Savoy Rooms, but people quickly got bored watching them. We found it much more fun to have DJs, who could change the music and respond to our moods.
A common narrative is that skinheads went off reggae when the Rastafari influence got stronger and the lyrics explicitly addressed black audiences. Is that true?
On the contrary: we became disenchanted with reggae when it became too commercial. For me, something went out of it when Desmond Dekker stopped singing in patois. It is true that later reggae became more particular to young Rastas, but I never heard anybody say, ‘I don’t like reggae any more because the musicians are Rastafarians’. Give it another four or five years, and it would become hip to like precisely this sort of thing. I came back to it myself.
Did black and white youths drift apart socially when you became disenchanted with reggae?
There were fewer places where the two groups met. At the height of the skinhead time, there was always a bunch of West Indian lads at the Savoy Rooms in Catford, which for us was the south-east London place to go. When we lost our interest in reggae, we went looking for other venues. Heaven knows where the black lads went. Did they grow up and start families? Did they all grow dreadlocks and become Rastafarians? I don’t know - we just didn’t see each other any more.
What direction did you evolve in when the skinhead thing faded out?
I dressed arty for a while and rediscovered 1950s-60s modern jazz, such as John Coltrane, yet I never found anything with the same energy again until punk started. I still hankered back to soul music too. Actually, I was in my early 20s when the ‘northern soul’ scene started out, which initially made me curious. But these people were very obscurantist: they didn’t like Stax, Motown or Atlantic, because those records were too well-known for their taste. For me, this was synonymous with not actually liking soul music.
Did you ever make it to the Twisted Wheel in Manchester?
I had been to the Twisted Wheel long before it became the centre of ‘northern soul’. Back in mod and skinhead days, we were not exposed to the really obscure stuff that later became known as ‘northern soul’, though.
Aside from the music, was the West Indian influence upon skinhead style and culture really as strong, or is this overstated?
I wasn’t aware of anyone adopting patterns of speech from the West Indian community, for instance. We had a few West Indian lads among Lewisham area skinheads who used to switch between patois and London, depending on who they were talking to. In terms of fashion, the West Indian skinheads largely imitated the British skinhead style, not the other way round. The other West Indian guys who hung out at the Savoy Rooms - the so-called rudeboys - had their own fashions, which were somewhat different to ours.
Were skinheads more violent than the teds and mods before them?
I don’t believe so, but there were more of them - hence, violent incidents were more noticeable. Even so, there had been youth gangs and fights in inner-city areas long before skinheads came along. Ditto football violence, which in fact got worse after skinheads disappeared.
But hippies suffered quite a bit from skinhead violence, didn’t they?
It happened often enough for people to talk about it. Having said that, I remember going to one of the free concerts in Hyde Park. Somebody threw a can and accidentally hit a woman on the head. Her man got up and immediately piled into the guy who had thrown the can. Mind you, this was a bunch of hippies fighting among themselves. Such things happen - people flare up and jump on each other.
Were you involved in violence yourself?
I was fairly tall and looked rather tasty, so I found I didn’t have to use violence a lot. One ‘violent’ episode I remember is a mob of us attending a football match. When the fans of the opposing team came charging into us, we just stood there - so they went round us and ran back to where they had come from.
Another such example: a bunch of people I knew in Lewisham had trouble with a rival mob at a housing estate in Eltham, so the idea was to go and sort them out. Frankly, I could think of better ways to spend my evening - but one thing you didn’t do was let your mates down. However, when we arrived, the place was quiet as a grave. I think somebody kicked over a milk bottle on the steps, and that was that.
Generally speaking, my way of dealing with violence was to face the aggressor down and talk the violence away - and very often it worked.
You wrote a skinhead column entitled ‘Yell’ in the International Times, a leftish freak magazine. How did that come about?2
The story of ‘Yell’ is slightly complicated. Somewhere in 1969 I read an article in the IT which was critical of skinheads, so I marched into their offices, demanded to see someone, and said they should help set up a magazine for us instead of slagging us off.
God knows why I said that, but their response was, in effect, ‘Like ... far out ... like, wow ... like, why don’t you be editor ... like, too much, man ...’ So they decided they would give me a page in the IT to start off with. Problem number one was, I had no idea where to go from there. If I had had the first idea what I was doing, I would have been trying to find a printer and distributor, but all I had was a skip-load of hubris and fuck-all else. The only freak who was directly involved was cartoonist Edward Barker, a lovely guy. The rest was up to me and a bunch of other skins - notably a west African skinhead from north London called Fred Dove. We also got Steve Maxted involved, who, although not a skin himself, was the skins’ favourite DJ in south London and reviewed the latest reggae vinyl for us. Other people got involved, but all round the country, so we couldn’t stay in touch all that easily.
Any political input was mine, being a far leftie, and, although my anti-boss stance is visible in some editorial stuff, it’s not there anywhere else. But that scarcely matters, because the whole thing quickly began to grind to a halt, people began to lose interest and the IT realised they had backed the wrong horse. In any case, I had realised there wasn’t room for a skinhead magazine anyway - no-one really wanted it. It was a relief to let it go.
To make matters worse, a tabloid picked up on it and interviewed me, publishing the piece under the headline ‘The king of the skinheads’ . I had to play it down and take the mickey out of myself for months, because one thing you were not supposed to be among skinheads was too flash.
Much later, someone told me that I basically invented the fanzine, but I think that’s untrue - I actually failed to invent the fanzine.
What did David Bowie have to do with it all?
That was just another silly idea of mine, as I tried to keep the thing going. I happened to drink in the same pub as him sometimes. He was up and coming on the pop scene, so I asked him if he wanted to contribute to ‘Yell’, and he agreed to write a regular column. Alas, nothing came of it, as ‘Yell’ folded.
In your ‘Yell’ editorial for IT issue 69, you wrote that Bowie was “on our side, In spite of his long hair”. Was he really?
I think he was more on the side of being friendly, as he was a really down-to-earth, approachable guy without a hint of snobbism about him. However, it is well known that he, too, started out as a mod. He was from a suburban, fairly ordinary background.
Your politics were quite unusual by skinhead standards of the time.
I was always somewhere on the left because I was proud of my dad, who in World War II volunteered to be parachuted into Yugoslavia as a radio operator for a unit of Tito’s partisans. I got to dislike Tories early on, and I bothered to find out about the history of the Spanish Civil War, which in those days meant reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. So I became a kind of anarcho-syndicalist.
I wouldn’t say that I was unique, but I was fairly unique to identify openly with something that far left. Some mods and skinheads in colleges would have been exposed to such ideas. Most of those who did not go to colleges came from traditionally Labour-voting working class families, and that’s what they stuck with. Others came from conservative working class families and held corresponding views. Either way, we didn’t talk about politics all that much among ourselves. If you had asked us, most would have probably said that we did not like politicians.
Original skinheads often stress that, in addition to class identity, skinheads stood for ‘traditional values’. A term that is often synonymous with conservatism, patriotism and so-called family values.
From my point of view, it was more that most of us were fairly well brought-up, even those from poor working class backgrounds. We were brought up to be polite - when you walk through a door, you look behind you and hold it open for others. I never saw a skinhead slam the door in somebody’s face. Look at it this way: if a skinhead beats somebody up, that’s news. If a skinhead gives up their seat on the bus for somebody, that isn’t news.
Did skinhead culture and style not have a socially conservative component that lent itself to appropriation by the right?
You could be right that there might have been a small seed. But I don’t think it was outstanding in any way. What you are looking at is something that is always present in urban families: there was a strong emphasis on family. On the other hand, we didn’t like the police. None of us were overly militaristic, even though people perceived our look as a uniform. We did not go around waving union jacks - that was something only introduced by the revivalists 10 years later. Much less did we sport swastikas or other Nazi insignia, which were a distinctly greaser thing to wear.
I suppose the elephant in the room is the racism against Pakistani migrants. One thing you have to remember is that the country as a whole was a lot more racist than it is now. You heard racist jokes all the time, and you had racist stereotypes on television programmes - this was years before The black and white minstrel show was taken off TV. Whatever racism skinheads inherited, it would have already been there with their parents.
A comrade who went to a protest against Enoch Powell in 1969 distinctly remembers skinheads chanting “Enoch, Enoch!” on the other side of the police line.
I have no problem believing that this happened. Enoch Powell articulated - or was assumed to have articulated - some of the racial worries of people in inner cities. However, I have never been in a crowd of people shouting for Enoch, and I never heard anything like it from my mates. As I said, we didn’t talk about politics much, but my best guess is that most saw Powell just like any other politician - except those whose families’ attitudes were already a bit racist.
A June 1970 article from the German news weekly, Der Spiegel, reports a 40-strong group of London skinheads offering Enoch Powell their services as a kind of praetorian guard. If true, this would imply much earlier politicisation that is commonly assumed.
I can imagine that happening - and, knowing Enoch Powell, I can imagine him turning them down.
What about the ‘Paki-bashing’ - ever see it happen?
I learned about ‘Paki-bashing’ through the media, but I never saw it happen myself, and I never heard of anybody among the people I knew doing it. I understand that it did occur, and I don’t wish to present a sanitised version of history. However, I don’t think it took place as much as is sometimes claimed, and I don’t think it was typical of skinhead behaviour or a defining aspect of skinhead culture. What was important to us were the clothes, music and football. That didn’t leave much time for going round beating up random people.
Benjamin Bowling’s book, Violent racism: victimisation, policing and social context, notes that over a period of only three months in 1970 some 150 people were seriously injured in ‘Paki-bashing’ incidents in the east end of London. That’s possibly more hate crime than the white-power skins of the 1980s could boast.
I have no idea whatsoever in how many of these cases skinheads were involved. I know that by then the National Front had started up. Whenever I saw groups of people from the NF, which was rare enough, I never saw a skinhead among them. This is not to say that skinheads or former skinheads didn’t join the NF - it is possible that a lot of them did even then. But don’t forget that I didn’t move around the East End of London much, except when I went to see football matches in West Ham. I was mainly in south-east London.
The idea of ‘hating Pakis’ did catch hold though, as time went on, and people came to expect it of each other. I had a mate called Noel, he came from an Irish working-class family, and he was way on the left of Labour - I suppose these days you’d even call him a Corbynista - and one day he made a remark about greasers: “You know, we hate them more than Pakis!” So I said, “Hey, just a minute, Noel, you’re a leftie like me. We don’t hate Pakistanis!” He stopped, thought about it for a second or two, and then said, a bit shamefacedly, “Oh, yeah. Sorry, Paul, I forgot.”
What are your thoughts on last week’s documentary, The story of skinhead?
It was a wee bit rose-tinted. Harmony between white kids in London and West Indian kids wasn’t total. If a white girl went with black boys she was generally thought untouchable. As for south Asians, the problem was that there was no point of contact with the white kids that could have given them obvious common ground. That said, the documentary was pretty positive overall.
What did you think of the skinhead revivalists that appeared in the late 1970s?
Not much. I just thought, ‘This isn’t quite how things were’, both fashion and attitude wise. They struck me as belligerent, shaven-headed ex-punks who got into the NF in a big way. They only picked up some of the hardest aspects of our fashion and, I suppose, made them their own. I felt there was a complete disconnection.
Isn’t it normal that subcultures evolve and reflect their time, even if it is for the worse?
I suppose so, but I rather resented the fact that they called themselves skinheads. I much prefer today’s revivalists, who look for authenticity in fashion and music. They look good, they have fun, and they bring originals like me out of the woodwork to talk about it again. And I think it’s fair - after all, skinhead is probably one of the least documented youth cults.
As a leftwinger, how do you feel about skinhead groups that identify themselves politically - red skins, Rash (Red and Anarchist Skinheads), etc?
It is true that we weren’t a political group back in the day, but once the far right attached itself to the image, it was inevitable that groups with a contrary political viewpoint would come up. Obviously, there is something timeless about the style - people like it, but don’t necessarily want to associate with organised rightwing gangs. My own political perspective has not changed much, except that it has become better informed. However, I do not see the necessity for my politics to hitch itself to any particular look or group.
What seems to be the case, though, is that rightwingers have less qualms about associating with all manner of people, including in subcultures. Lefties are quick to set up their ‘safe spaces’ and hide away. How can one change society if one exclusively associates with like-minded people?
True, and it doesn’t even end there. Let me take you back to the late 1960s - lots of leftist posturing. I knew people at college who were Maoists, Trotskyites and pro-Moscow communists. I was under the impression that most of their basic assumptions were all the same, but they were permanently at each other’s throats and divided into dozens of exclusive little groups. Consequently, I went for drinks with the treasurer of the college’s Conservative Society, because the conversation was better!
See, when I was going to college, I felt it was this little middle class island in an area of London where everybody was Irish or black. On this island, people thought of themselves as leftwing, but they didn’t have the faintest idea about the working class that surrounded them. To bring the conversation back to skinheads, I associated mostly with people outside of that college. And I felt I was swimming in the right pond.
1. In the period following Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, a highly visible minority of skins engaged in violent street assaults on Asian migrants, sometimes in collusion with their Afro-Caribbean rudeboy counterparts. As far as the tabloid papers were concerned, selectively racist violence became a defining characteristic of skinhead culture in general - sufficiently so to inspire an exploitative reggae single, Claudette and the Corporation’s ‘Skinhead a bash them’. Contemporary articles in the left and alternative press such as the International Times and the International Marxist Group’s Black Dwarf, on the other hand, saw fit to discuss skinheads without dwelling on racist incidents. While one might argue this was due to lower sensitivity to racism in the late 1960s, it also indicates that this aspect was not considered central to the subculture outside the pages of the tabloid press.
2. All ‘Yell’ columns can be accessed at www.skinheadheaven.org.uk/index.php/cuttings/172-it-magazine-yell-features.