SKINHEAD: The Evolution of a Subculture and Society’s View Thereof

Well, June was a quiet month here at The Undisciplined, what with work and me running away from responsibilities for a while to spend some time in Malta. But I’m back now and working on the second installment about Catholicism, Conservatism and Irish Law. Until then, I thought I might fall back to my tactic of posting old essays I wrote from my earlier college days. This one is one of my favourites. The topic of the skinhead subculture and how it can mean very different things to different people was one I found particularly interesting, and thankfully this odd sentiment was shared by my excellent lecturer in Criminology, Ivana Bacik, the Barrister, Senator and Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin. You can follow her and her ceaseless work in areas close to her heart such as human rights, equality and in particular the protection of children at her website www.ivanabacik.com or on Twitter @ivanabacik. Anyway, the following is a somewhat updated version of the original paper I wrote sometime around 2008, and it doesn’t seem to have aged all that badly:

Bollocks to the media really…[1] This phrase could be said to quite adequately sum up the opinions of many ‘traditional skinheads’ on the current public perception of the skinhead subculture. These were the words of Gavin, an ‘ex-skin’ from the UK, when asked about the media’s portrayal of skinheads as violent, racist thugs in the Channel 4 documentary “The World of Skinhead”.[2] Like the majority of the people interviewed in this documentary – people from England, Scotland and Wales, as well as from Germany and the USA – Gavin considered, himself a “traditional” skinhead; someone who considers ‘skinhead’ a way of life, a subculture about music, clothes, style and perhaps most importantly a sense of belonging or purpose. These ‘traditional skins’[3] criticise political forces for infiltrating and politicising skinhead groups but even more harshly criticise the media for propagating the idea of highly politicised, ultranationalist, violently racist skinheads.

The skinhead subculture is a particularly fascinating one from a criminological and sociological point of view, both due to its fragmented nature and the sheer length of its existence. Skinheads in some form or other have existed essentially uninterrupted since the mid-1950s and are relevant in such areas of study as moral panic, labelling theory, youth subculture and trash culture.[4] And while from a youth subculture perspective they are not particularly unique, they have for some reason been generalised and vilified by the media and the public more than many other groups.

So what then is a traditional skinhead and how have they generally become, or become known as, violent, white-power ultranationalists? If you type the word ‘skinhead’ into Google you’ll get about 3,680,000 (up from 2,850,000 at the time of writing) results and within the first page of entries you’ll find at least 4 conflicting ideas of what a skinhead is. The world is so clearly divided on this topic that if you change your search from ‘skinhead’ to skinheads’ you instantly see a huge rise in the number of results referring to neo-Nazis rather than other forms of skinhead. The purpose of this article is to investigate the perhaps surprising origins of the skinhead subculture, to attempt to trace its confusing evolution into a number of, often diametrically opposed, subgroups and finally to understand the current public perception of skinheads and assess how accurate it may be.

Origins; Mods, Working Class Britain and Caribbean Influence

Depending on which region people get the bulk of their news from, be it North America, The UK and Ireland or Continental Europe and Russia,[5] their image of ‘skinheads’ will most likely be (respectively) of neo-Nazi white supremacists, violent nationalist football hooligans or a mixture of both. Therefore it may come as a surprise to some that arguably the origin of skinheads was a coming together of influences from the ‘mods’ of  late 1950s and early to mid 1960s Britain and the influx of working class West Indian immigrants around the same time.[6]

The ‘mods’ or ‘modernists’ were one of the UK’s most prolific subcultures and famous for their rivalry and violent clashes with ‘the rockers’.[7] They were style-conscious post-war youths who listened to modern American jazz and blues and dressed in sharp modern Italian clothes, often riding motor scooters such as Vespas.[8] With their mid-length hair, sharp suits and jazz music, they don’t exactly evoke the same image that one would normally have of skinheads. However the reasons for joining such a ‘gang’ or group are much the same. These were young people, primarily working class, with either too much time or money on their hands but no clear goals and a sense of disillusionment with a post-war society in which many of them had disposable income to spare, yet no prospects of progressing out of the strict British class system of the time. It is therefore perhaps not that strange that the ‘harder’ mods were the precursors to the first skinheads. The mods came from predominantly working-class backgrounds and certain members saw their movement as becoming too far removed from their roots. In the mid-1960s differences became apparent between the ‘peacock mods’,[9] who were less violent and more into expensive clothes and style, and the ‘hard mods’,[10] who were identified by their shorter hair and more working class image.

The Who started out as part of the mod movement, with certain songs, such as Zoot Suit, specifically geared towards mod audiences.

The “hard mods” began to be known as “skinheads” around the mid to late 60s, with the peak of first-wave skinheads coming in 1969.[11] They began to wear their hair close-cropped perhaps for practical reasons, as industrial, manual and dock workers would, or because long hair might be a liability in a fight. Another possibility is that the short hair was meant to distance them from the emerging counterculture ‘hippie’ movement, to which skinheads were generally opposed. Whilst retaining the stylish suits during the evenings, during the daytime they moved to a more working-man’s dress code of Dr. Marten boots, button-down Ben Sherman or Fred Perry shirts, tight jeans with the hems rolled up to expose the imposing boots and of course the famous (not functionally necessary, but entirely integral to the look) braces.[12] Over this were worn Crombie-style overcoats, fitted blazers, MA-1 bomber jackets, denim jackets or any number of variations.

Here’s another, totally unrelated, The Who video. Because… well, because Baba O’Riley is great.

So far the skinheads are much like any youth subculture; filling a gap left by society, the lack of a role model or sheer idleness. What makes the skinhead subculture particularly interesting, in light of their popular reputation and subsequent development, is the other side to their early influences; the West-Indian/Caribbean side. At the same time as the rise of the mods and rockers, there was a large amount of immigration into the UK from the West Indies. Many of these immigrants found themselves living in or near the same estates as the working class skinheads and even working in the same jobs or factories. Through this the hard mods and early skinheads had the chance to be exposed to ‘black’ Caribbean music as well as to the ‘rudeboy’ or ‘badman’ images of Jamaica in particular.[13]

Yes… this article will be heavy on the embedded videos.

This was the genesis of the surprising musical style of the 1960s skinheads; the scene was a primarily reggae and ska dancehall scene, with a mixture of black working-class Caribbean and white working-class British. This phenomenon was so acute that arguably what really boosted the reggae and ska genres to worldwide success was their following in white working-class Britain. Many ska and reggae artists wrote songs specifically to appeal to the skinhead audience[14] and in turn many British white or mixed race ska and reggae bands and artists emerged.[15] These early days of the skinheads seem a far cry from drug-dealing white supremacists or football hooligan ultranationalists.

I did warn you.

Culture and Violence in Early Skinhead Subculture

Pinning down the exact ‘uniform’ of a skinhead will always be a near impossible task, even if one confines oneself to a specific time period. Although as it developed the skinhead subculture seems to have attached different meanings to the exact length of hair, or colour of bootlaces or braces, or specific types of jacket worn, whereas it seems that for the early skins it was more about a general look than a specific uniform. The look was made up of so many different influences, the stylish eveningwear and blazers of the mods, the heavy steel-toed boots and short hair of the British working class as well as the American-gangster-influenced pork pie hats, Trilbies and thin ties of the Jamaican rudeboy scene.[16]

There are many parallels to be drawn between the rudeboys of Jamaica and the skinheads of Britain. Rudeboys were devout followers of music and style, but also seen as figures not to be messed with, they demanded a level of respect that was attractive to the youths of the early skinheads. Shane Meadows’ 2006 film This is England, although based in the 1980s skinhead revival, tells the story of a boy whose father has been killed in the Falklands War but who finds a sense of ‘family’ and safety, but also respect and power, in a group of young skinheads.[17] The rudeboys were often called ‘dancehall crashers’ due to involvement in disrupting competitors’ dances and were also known to be involved in the rising gang violence and street fights in Jamaica.[18] But that was also part of the attraction for skinheads, the clothing was in a way a uniform, it gave them a sense of safety and power to be one of many. It is also easy to understand how even random and infrequent acts of violence from these imposing and similarly dressed gangs was sure to catch the media’s attention.

Does this justify the public and media vilification of skinheads, even in their early, relatively peaceful, days? The answer may be found in the wording of the question; ‘relatively peaceful’. Whilst the traditional skinheads emerged from a multi-cultural mix of fashion and music, there is always the propensity for violence or extremism in any movement, especially one which rejects many social norms (such as not regularly getting into fights), appeals to working class disaffected youth, and likes to cultivate an air of dangerousness.[19] Even their precursors, the mods, were known for their violent clashes with the rockers, indeed these clashes are often accepted as the trigger for that archetypal ‘moral panic’.[20] And whilst the origins of the skinhead subculture show that early skinheads and West Indian immigrants tended to get along very well, indeed many of the early skinheads were black West Indians, this did not mean there was no racially motivated violence within the early skinhead scene.

From This Is England. WARNING: contains violent racism, strong language, poop, and English accents.

As with any group there were violent incidents and particularly violent members, both white and black skinheads were known to engage in acts of violence against Asian immigrants into the UK, in particularly Indians and Pakistanis. Although it is difficult to tell the true extent of this racial violence, ‘Paki-bashing’ became one of the many media buzzwords when reporting on skinheads.[21] There does also seem, amongst the defenders of the early skinheads, to be a denial of widespread serious or racially motivated violence, but an acceptance of and even taste for ‘soft violence’. In the Channel 4 ‘World of Skinhead’ documentary, the ex-skin Gavin states that fights normally broke out over trivial matters whilst drunk in a pub but weren’t organised or racially motivated.[22] He does go on to make a telling remark near the end of the show that sums up quite well the somewhat violent but ‘all in good fun’ idea that many of the skinheads had of themselves;

“We were horrible gits really […] Twenty of us’d walk into a pub, and we’re big blokes, being loud and out of order… We weren’t angels at all”.[23]

Violent or not, racist or not, such gangs do fill a void for the young people attracted to them. Such subcultures can be seen as subversive or counter-culture, but in many ways can hold very similar ideals to those accepted by society. Within skinheads  a very high percentage, whilst still seeing skinhead as ‘a way of life’,[24][25] continued to hold the same goals as ‘normal’ members of society; get a job, get a house, get married, have kids.[26] The ideals of brotherhood, looking out for one and other acceptance into a society, are ideals striven towards by the vast majority of people. The general public and the media however find such extra-societal fulfilments of a basic need as foreign to their experiences and therefore, rightly or wrongly, will tend to fear it. It is widely accepted that society needs ‘folk devils’ as a way measuring their own level of commitment to society; “These people are deviants, I am not like these people, therefore I am not deviant”. This may well be the case with skinheads, a group which, by virtue of their very name, members of the public feel they can easily distance themselves from.

As is the risk with media attention to any conceived threat, the issue may be blown out of proportion, whilst still retaining elements of truth. The problem with applying the label of ‘skinhead’ and then widely reporting on their popularity, their dangerousness propensity for violence is that it can in fact encourage young people to attempt to follow such a movement for the wrong reasons, or convince existing members of their own deviance. As the years progressed the skinhead subculture itself as well as in the media moved dangerously into the area of football hooliganism and the later ‘casual’ subculture. [27][28]

The youths attracted to these groups were often from the same socio-economic backgrounds as the early skinheads and attracted for similar reasons, though now very much predominantly white working class British. Many of the more violent and racist elements of the skinhead subculture,[29] as well as those who were easily led, progressed into this new culture often bringing with them their dress sense and the name skinhead, one the media had already begun to use as synonymous for football hooligan. The football ‘firms’ gave a gang structure and sense of meaning to angry working-class youths and naturally attracted the more violent elements of society. Having borrowed so much from the early skinheads and bringing out the latent racism, machismo and violence amongst some skinheads, one can see how the two were almost indistinguishable at times, certainly to members of the English press. As the years progressed this phenomenon of infiltration by more extreme elements would lead to the many schisms which make it so difficult today to pin down a precise definition for the term ‘skinhead’.

The Skinhead Revival and Politicisation

1969 was seen as the peak of the first wave of skinheads; however there was a revival of the scene at ground level, rather than merely a rise in the use of the term ‘skinhead’ to describe deviant groups, in both music and fashion in the later 70s and early 80s. This can be seen as the point where the societal perception, as well as the individual groups’ own perceptions, of what ‘skinhead’ meant truly became muddled. This was the era of the ‘punk’ subculture, in many ways similar to the skinhead subculture, the emergence of Oi! and 2 Tone music and the politicisation of skinheads and the skinhead image.[30] For these reasons it was also the time in which some skinheads first began to vocally distance themselves from these new developments by declaring themselves ‘traditional skinheads’.

‘Punks’ whilst decidedly more counter-culture than the original skinheads, held many similarities to skinheads in dress sense and the want to appear ‘tough’. In Britain this led to a crossover between the two groups that resulted, amongst other things, in the Oi! music genre and the so-called ‘Oi! skinheads’. Oi! was an escape from what was seen as the commercialisation of punk rock and whilst it arguably had its beginnings in a rough form of anti-government socialism, Oi! did also end up attracting white nationalists and members of the National Front, Rock Against Communism, Blood and Honour and the British Movement,[31] leading Oi! to follow the path of often being branded in the public consciousness as a “white noise”, racist music genre.[32] Notable also was that these skinhead punks often wore their hair shorter than the original skinheads.[33] This scene often seemed more extreme in looks and ideals and more politically charged to the public, adding to the raised profile of skinheads in the UK and their reputation in popular consciousness as being decidedly counterculture and political.[34][35]

2 Tone is a music style which emerged in the UK in the late 1970s through a fusion of ska, punk rock, rocksteady, reggae, and New Wave. It got its name from the fact that most of the bands were signed to 2 Tone Records at some stage. The most famous 2 Tone group were probably The Specials and like many 2 Tone artists were a result of growing up listening to the ska and reggae scene popular amongst skinheads of the 1960s in England.[36] Due to the similarities in musical influences and general lack of political undertones in 2 Tone music, the ‘new skins’, listening to this type of music in the 1970s, tended to be closer in appearance and apolitical stance to the early skinheads, though weren’t strict traditional skinheads.

 

However the late 1970s and on into the 1980s saw a rise in white nationalist movements within the UK. These organisations such as the National Front saw these disaffected youths, already branded deviant by the media, as the perfect ready-made foot soldiers for their brand of hate-mongering racist nationalism. As with the early skinheads many of these youths came from a working class background and many of them, perhaps those most seeking strong role models and solid goals, are suggested to have come from broken homes or may have been victims of abuse.[37]

“The far-right political groups were looking for any kids that were alienated and these kids were putting on the [skinhead] uniform and going to the gigs. The two recruiting grounds were “Oi!” music and football violence.”[38]

Bill Osgerby thinks that the penetration of National Front can be over-played and that the appeal the skinhead subculture to youths was differed from person to person – there were racist and non-racist elements, violent and non-violent ones, but that;

   “[…] it’s unfortunate that the racist elements have become such a by-word for skinhead culture. The media has played its part in this, but by the same token it’s clear the fascist element has always been fairly vocal in skinhead culture. The sad bit is that the more enlightened, anti-fascist aspects have not better promoted   themselves.”[39]

He also makes the point that class nostalgia played an important role, that inner city struggles, gangland violence and unemployment were leading to the death of the traditional British working class culture and that these skinhead gangs, in their more violent and nationalist forms than previous skinheads, offered the youths a sense of pride; pride in themselves, pride in their background and on a more dangerous note; pride in their country. It is easy to see how in this time of radicalisation of political opinion amongst younger people in Britain, these disaffected youths with all this ‘pride’ but little prospects for employment seemed like, and in certain cases were, the foot soldiers of these radical nationalist movements. One can also imagine how this sense of pride, especially on a nationalist level, coupled with the charismatic leaders of these white nationalist movements, could instil racism and violence as positive values for these young people.

There were of course at this time still large numbers of non fascist or even anti-fascist skinheads, in addition to the avowedly non-political skinheads, but a skinhead going about his business and not causing trouble is not going to catch the eye of the national media. An enduring trait of the skinhead subculture is that the media of the day seem to see them as symptomatic of the current woes of the country and therefore they are often associated with contemporary issues, with perhaps little focus on where the tag ‘skinhead’ came from.[40] It was therefore most likely around this time, in the mid 1980s, that the idea of the white ultranationalist skinhead became prominent in Britain and indeed also around that same time that skinheads became a major subculture outside of Britain, however primarily in their white ultranationalist form.

Skinheads Outside of Britain and Their Modern Reputation

As with most trends, and even with subcultues, skinheads have existed outside of Britain since their very beginning, maintaining small followings abroad, often in countries influenced by British music or fashion, but in particular Germany and the USA. However the media in other countries really began to pay attention to what they called ‘skinheads’ around the time of the neo-fascist politicisation of the skinhead image in Britain and its export to these countries. Although in Britain they had always been an interest of the media’s, skinheads only began to make news in Germany when the style and name began to crop up in relation to neo-Nazism, racism and violence.

Germany tends to have much greater extremes of subcultures, trends and music genres, but also a very great sensitivity when it comes to ultranationalism. The right-wing, generally very racist, elements of German society seized upon what they saw as a white, English, home-grown, right-wing nationalism. This was of course mirrored by the adoption of many National Socialist symbols and slogans by the more extreme of the fascist skinheads in Britain. Much as with the American white power nationalists, [41] the German fascist skinheads seemed not to realise that the moniker they attributed to themselves derived from a movement which had its origins in black Caribbean music and stylish suits.[42] It seems that a mixture of the uniform, the ‘tough’ look, the intimidating close-cropped hair and working-class disenchantment, often due to unemployment and the perceived threat of immigrant workers,[43] has resulted in many self-styled fascists or white supremacists adopting the skinhead look and name.

In the German media and even in the German language itself, the word ‘skinhead’ almost invariably refers to violent neo-Nazi type groups. This is evident in the interviews with young Germans, purporting to be the more traditional form of skinhead, in “World of Skinhead”. Emma Steel from Berlin claims that “[…] every racist attack, every time, the word ‘skinhead’ comes up.”,[44] and goes on to say that this label is used regardless of the length of the offender’s hair, be they a Nazi, a hooligan or even a hippie. In certain areas, particularly German train stations for some reason, where groups of neo-Nazis, punks and skinheads all tend to hang out, drink beer and look intimidating, often the only way to tell which side of the political divide, if any, they belong to is by examination of the slogans or patches sewn onto their clothing. Alex, also from Berlin, notes how you have “[…] a lot of different kinds of skinheads, who often don’t like each other,”[45] but then goes on to note that the ‘Turks’[46] don’t like any of them and that there can be a lot of violence.

This idea of the imposing-looking, white ultranationalist skinheads was directly exported to many other areas, such as Russia, France, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Australia, South Africa and the US, but to a great extent devoid of the multicultural background of the skinhead movement. ‘Skinhead’ was adopted as a ready-made militant racist group into many of these areas, particularly in North America. Nevertheless, there is evidence of skinheads in the US and Canada since the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, who adhered to the more fashion- and music-based, multicultural early skinhead ideals.[47] With the US being the famous ‘melting pot’, the cities along the eastern seaboard of America gave rise to any number of different versions of ‘skinhead’. In different cities and even different areas of cities one might find several different types of skinhead; violent, non-violent, racist, multicultural, right-wing, left-wing, apolitical, liberal or conservative. However as in Germany the skinheads who really rose to prominence in the media and the public consciousness were the ones who adhered to the pre-existing white power movements in America.

Movement such as the Klu Klux Klan in the US have a long history, going well back beyond the skinhead subculture and even the Nazis. Certain groups across America began to adopt elements of this existing white power movement, along with aspects of neo-Nazism and the basic look and name of the skinheads. One of the most interesting cases is that of Bill Riccio’s Alabama-based ‘Aryan National Front’;[48] a white power, neo-Nazi youth movement intent on creating an exclusively ‘white homeland’ in Alabama and other areas across America. Shari Cookson’s rare inside-look documentary “Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War[49] shows in startling detail the extreme hate-mongering and indoctrination present in the ANF. The introduction to the video itself is telling in that it refers to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and skinheads essentially interchangeably.

 

From the outset of the documentary it becomes evident that these skinheads are a strictly white power group, absolutely no signs of multiculturalism, reggae or sharp suits exist, however in the audience of the opening ‘white power metal’ or ‘white noise’ band, these skinheads can be seen to wear the close cropped hair, combat boots, jeans and braces reminiscent of the early British skinheads.[50] More worryingly, also evident are the large number of Nazi flags and white power symbols, as well as the prevalence of shirtless youths heavily tattooed with swastikas and chanting ‘White Power’ or ‘Seig Heil’. Such groups appear distinctly more extreme than their British counterparts due in part to their access to firearms[51] and the few limitations on freedom of speech in the US. At one stage in the documentary Bill Riccio and his ANF organised a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, alongside the Klu Klux Klan, to promote their vision of a whites-only state. Although the march did not end violently there was a large contingent of the local African-American community out in protest of the march,[52] and around the seventh minute in the video there are particularly interesting shots of African-American police personnel calmly performing their role in the protective cordon around the march as Bill Riccio and his brainwashed followers chant their creative slogans such as; “Nigger, nigger, nigger, out, out, out” and “foreigners out”. When news reports show groups such as this referring to themselves as skinheads,[53] it is not hard to see how this becomes the image conjured up in the public consciousness when they hear the word ‘skinhead’.

The more frightening aspect of Bill Riccio’s skinheads was not their extremism or their supremely racist ideology, but the type of recruits they were searching for. Bill Riccio openly admits that he, like his idol Adolf Hitler, thinks it important to recruit his skinheads at a young age. At his home, ’The War House’, he keeps an open dormitory in the basement for his youngest recruits, who he takes in from all walks of life and offers them a sense of belonging, a role model and, odd as it sounds, affection. Riccio is seen giving these young boys encouragement, hugs, worrying that ‘their fathers never gave them love’[54] and one youth even says that he wished Bill Riccio was his biological father.[55] Riccio, like many of the white power skinheads outside of Britain seems to have little knowledge of the roots of the skinhead subculture; he seems to think it was a white American creation, though does say that their boots represent the working class and what he sees as traditional family values.[56] But perhaps the most shocking example of this indoctrination comes from a very small boy, no more than seven or eight years old, who when asked “Where does Adolf Hitler live?” chillingly replies, “In my heart.”[57]

 

Riccio’s skinheads are by far not the largest or most extreme example of the white power skinheads in America, but due to that inside look and his active recruitment of young boys one of the more frightening. There are numerous similar groups around America, many more extreme or actively criminal gangs. The ‘Hammerskins’ are a US-based, worldwide[58] affiliation of neo-Nazi skinheads and the goals of their ‘Hammerskin Nation’ are summed up by their ‘14 words’; “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”[59] They are considered the United States’ most organised racist skinhead group and many of its members have been convicted of harassing, assaulting and even murdering non-whites as well as white people.[60] Even more serious criminal gangs style themselves as skinheads as seen in Ross Kemp on Gangs: Orange County,[61] where he investigates such gangs as the ‘Nazi Low Riders’, PEN1,[62] The Aryan Brotherhood[63] as well as extremist radio host Tom Metzger’s ‘White Aryan Resistance 88’.[64] Throughout his interviews he, the authorities and the gangs themselves use the word skinhead interchangeably with white supremacist and violent racist. It seems that the term skinhead is easily applied to some of southern California’s, and indeed America’s, most violent drug gangs.

It is clear to see how and why the media and the public, particularly in North America, have become to see skinheads as synonymous for neo-Nazis, but for exactly this reason there has also been a rise in skinhead groups actively calling themselves anti-fascists, anti-racists, or even extreme left-wing skinhead groups. Perhaps the most important of these is SHARP or ‘SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice’,[65] a group founded in New York in to counter the idea that the skinhead subculture is based on racism and political extremism.[66] André Schlesinger[67] and Jason O’Toole[68] were among SHARP’s early supporters and around 1989, Roddy Moreno[69] started promoting SHARP ideals to British skinheads. SHARP has also appeared in Germany, throughout Europe and in other continents. The SHARP attitude is less of a group in itself and more of an individual designation, with many skinheads of all sorts wearing the sharp badges or patches[70] to distinguish themselves from racist skinheads. Alongside skinheads attempting to distance themselves from politics there were a number of radical left-wing skinhead groups, the largest of these being the ‘Red and Anarchist SkinHeads’,[71] a left wing, anti-racist and anti-fascist group established in 1993 and containing many ‘redskins’[72] or anarchist skinheads.[73]

SHARP

There is even a skinhead following amongst the gay community, an interesting development in light of the fascist, homophobic American skinheads and even the hyper-masculine idea of the early British skinheads.[74] Whilst some of these skinheads simply claim to be gay but also a skinhead, others have specifically fetishised the masculine look of the traditional skinhead.[75] In today’s society, worldwide, skinheads are just one of many diverse subcultures and so fractured and often contradictory that the term may mean many different things to many different people.

WARNING: Contains Sascha Baron Cohen. “Do you think that there are any skinheads that aren’t gay?”

Conclusion:

Somehow the tag ‘skinhead’ is an enduring one. Many other subcultures, trends and gangs have come and gone, moved on or transformed, but none have stuck so consistently in the minds of the media and the public at large over five decades, nor stayed so closely associated with their original name, all generally containing a variation of ‘skinhead’ or ‘skins’. Perhaps the reason for the enduring nature of the skinhead subculture is the very fact that it became more splintered and open to interpretation than other groups. The sheer number of different groups using the name skinhead or tracing their origins to the skinhead movement makes the task of identifying exactly what that culture means a daunting if not impossible one. It seems that in all manifestations they have, from the very start, been held up as examples of deviance to some extent or other; white working class males tend to be an easy target.[76]

Most people today, if asked on the street, would immediately think of violence and intimidation when they heard the word skinhead; even the word itself evokes an intimidating figure with very close-cropped or completely shaved hair, but as we’ve seen, this is not always the case. There is little in the way of moderation amongst the media in the use of the term skinhead, save for a few examples,[77] often in which the reporter has a specific knowledge of the more traditional skinhead subculture. In Russia especially many reports on violent right-wing or neo-Nazi attacks contain the term skinhead in the title or the text of the report, football hooliganism seems to be very closely linked with their ‘skinhead problem’.[78][79] Even Ireland has cases of far-right extremism which once again comes under the heading ‘skinhead’.[80] Has the term skinhead become such a meaningless term that it is pointless to attempt to differentiate or defend it? The culprits themselves of these awful crimes often style themselves as skinheads. Is there even a skinhead subculture as such anymore, or are the ‘traditional skins’ just another group of young people rediscovering an old idea and it becoming fashionable again?

It seems that the origins of the skinhead subculture, as well as the reasons for its initial popularity can be relatively easily traced. Even the enduring popularity of the label skinhead can be explained, as the image and the name has lived on through generations in the media and in the public consciousness and has time and time again been adopted by groups seeing themselves as outsiders. Perhaps it is the fear that the skinheads, even from the very start, instilled in the quiet middle-classes that has been the reason for their endurance. One way or another, ‘skinheads’ as an entity still exist today: Whether they are to be seen as a bygone trend, a logical development, an offshoot, a betrayal of traditional skinheads or something entirely different altogether, depends, and will continue to depend, very much on the view of the media and of each individual person.

 

~ Shane


 

[1] Doug Aubrey, World of Skinhead, (1996), Channel 4, at 09:19, available at http://vimeo.com/74189365

[2] Ibid

[3] Also known as; ‘traditional skinheads’, ‘tradskins’, ‘trads’, ‘trojan skins’ and a number of other names, but for the purpose of this paper generally referred to as ‘traditional skins’.

[4] Simon, Richard Keller, Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition, (1999), University of California Press.

[5] Laruelle, Marlène, The Ideological Shift on the Russian Radical Right; From Demonizing the West to Fear of Migrants,  Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 57, No. 6, November/December 2010, pp. 19–31. © 2010 M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

[6] Rawlings, Terry, Mod: A Very British Phenomenon, (2000), London: Omnibus Press.

[7] Cohen, Stanley, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, (1972), London, McGibbon and Kee.

[8]They “appear to have been a group of working-class dandies, possibly descended from the devotees of the Italianite style.” Hebdige, Dick. “The Meaning of Mod”, in Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, eds. London. Routledge, 1993, p. 167.

[9] Or ‘smooth mods’.

[10] Also known as ‘gang mods’ or ‘lemonheads’.

[11] Marshall,George, Spirit of ’69 – A Skinhead Bible, (1991), Dunoon, Scotland, ST Publishing.

[12] Also known as ‘suspenders’ in North America.

[13] Cohen, Phil, Subcultural Conflict and Working Class Community, Working Papers in Subcultural Studies 2, University of Birmingham: Centre for Cultural Studies (1972).

[14] “Skinhead” by Laurel Aitken, or “Skinhead Girl”, “Skinhead Jamboree” and “Skinhead Moonstomp” by Symarip.

[15] Judge Dread (The first white artist to have a No.1 reggae hit in Jamaica.), and later the 2 Tone band The Specials.

[16] Marshall,George, Spirit of ’69 – A Skinhead Bible, (1991), Dunoon, Scotland, ST Publishing.

[17] “Under My Skin” Interview, The Guardian Online, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2007/apr/21/culture.features

[18] Staple, Neville, Original Rude Boy, (2009) Aurum Press.

[19] “We were all lost kids you know”, Doug Aubrey, World of Skinhead, (1996), Channel 4, at 3:00.

[20] Cohen, Stanley, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, (1972), London, McGibbon and Kee, p. 54.

[21] Pearson, Geoff, ’Paki-Bashing’ in a North East Lancashire Cotton Town: A case study and its history, Working Class Youth Culture, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1976.

[22] “[…] that’s what it was, pissed white men.” Doug Aubrey, World of Skinhead, (1996), Channel 4, at 19:07.

[23] Ibid at 50:40.

[24] http://skinheadawayoflife.ning.com

[25] Doug Aubrey, World of Skinhead, (1996), Channel 4, at 01:10.

[26] Doug Aubrey, World of Skinhead, (1996), Channel 4, at 48:32.

[27] ‘Casuals’ were football hooligans who abandoned football jerseys and returned to the smart suits, style and longer hair of the mods or early skinheads, so as to be more difficult to spot entering football games or rival football teams’ pubs.

[28] Didcock, Barry, Casuals: The Lost Tribe of Britain: They dressed cool and fought, (05/08/2005), The Sunday Herald.

[29] Often referred to as ‘boneheads’ by other skinheads.

[30] Panter, Horace, Ska’d For Life, (2007) Sedgwick & Jackson.

[31] Robb, John, Punk Rock: An Oral History, (2006), London, Elbury Press.

[32] Barberis, Peter, McHugh, John, and Tyldesley, Mike, Encyclopaedia of British and Irish Political Organizations, (2000), London and New York, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 175.

[33] Who in fact rarely had a No.1 razor or a raw blade cut.

[34] More than one genre of music has been infiltrated by right-wing and racist beliefs. The 1990s have seen the emergence of Nazi techno and Nazi folk for example. See the essays in Devin Burghardt, ed., Soundtracks to the White Revolution. White Supremacist Assaults on Youth Subcultures, (Chicago, 1999).

[35] Brown, Timothy S., Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and “Nazi Rock” in England and Germany, Journal of Social History, Fall 2004, Volume 38.

[36] “Jerry Dammers interview by Alexis Petrides”, Mojo, Jan. 2002.  http://2-tone.info/artists/the_specials.html

[37] This is certainly echoed in the later rise of white nationalist skinheads in North America, particularly in the case of Bill Riccio taking in homeless boys, runaways and victims of abuse, to indoctrinate them with his white power neo-Nazism.

[38] Bill Osgerby in Under the Skin, BBC News Magazine, (April 2007) by Tom Geoghegan, found at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6546617.stm

[39] Ibid.

[40] Reiner, Robert, Media Made Criminality: The Representation of Crime in the Mass Media, (2007),  in: Maguire, M and Morgan, R and Reiner, Robert, (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, Oxford University Press, pp. 302-337.

[41] Wood, R., The Indigenous, Nonracist Origins of the American Skinhead Culture, Youth & Society, Dec. 1999, Vol. 31 Issue 2, pp. 131-152.

[42] Brown, Timothy S., Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and “Nazi Rock” in England and Germany, Journal of Social History, Fall 2004, Volume 38.

[43] CBSNews Online, Immigration Fuelling White Supremacists, Feb. 6 2007, at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/02/06/national/main2440306.shtml

[44] Doug Aubrey, World of Skinhead, (1996), Channel 4, at 06:15.

[45] Ibid at 24:00.

[46] Turkish people make up the most significant minority in Germany and one that is the subject of much racial tension to this day, with Chancellor Angela Merkel remarking a few years back that Germany’s integration policy has failed. “Merkel says German multicultural society has failed”, BBC News Europe, 17/10/2010, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11559451

[47] Wood, R., The Indigenous, Nonracist Origins of the American Skinhead Culture, Youth & Society, Dec. 1999, Vol. 31 Issue 2, pp. 131-152.

[48] Also known as the ANF.

[49] Shari Cookson, Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War, (1993), HBO.

[50] Ibid at 01:10.

[51] Ibid at 01:50, two boys are seen practicing with an assault rifle.

[52] Ibid at 06:05, chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racist crackers got to go.”

[53] For that is what Bill Riccio designated himself and his followers, as opposed to his allies, a distinctly separate group, the Klu Klux Klan.

[54]Shari Cookson, Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War, (1993), HBO, at 12:08

[55] Ibid at 41:20.

[56] Ibid at 20:05.

[57] Ibid at 32:50.

[58] With 6 chapters in the US, as well as chapters in Australia, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, France, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Hungary and Switzerland

[59] http://www.hammerskins.net/index.html

[60] The Anti Defamation League, Extremism in America, The Hammerskin Nation, at http://www.adl.org/Learn/ext_us/Hammerskin.asp?LEARN_Cat=Extremism&LEARN_SubCat=Extremism_in_America&xpicked=3&item=hn

[61] Ross Kemp on Gangs, Season 1, Episode 4; Orange County, (2007) Sky1.

[62] Standing for ‘public enemy number 1’.

[63] A notoriously violent and exclusively white, neo-Nazi skinhead prison gang in the US.

[64]  Also known as WAR. Metzger when interviewed also uses the term ‘skinhead’ to mean all the neo-Nazi groups he is appealing to; “I don’t want skinheads beating up blacks in the streets, I want them dragging politicians out of their offices and hanging them”.

[65] Commonly referred to as SHARP or ‘sharpies’.

[66] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skinheads_Against_Racial_Prejudice

[67] Of the Oi! band The Press.

[68] Of hardcore punk group Life’s Blood.

[69] Of the Welsh Oi! band The Oppressed.

[70] The letters SHARP over the old emblem of Trojan Records. Trojan records is also used in the designation of some skinheads as ‘Trojan skins’, meaning that they are traditional skinheads adhering to the ideals of the subculture around the time Trojan Records were producing ska, reggae and rocksteady.

[71] Commonly referred to as RASH.

[72] Left-wing or communist skinheads.

[73] RASH United

[74] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gay_skinhead

[75] For an even more surprising mix see; Nicky Crane: The secret double life of a gay neo-Nazi

[76] Gavin in “World of Skinhead”, at 05:10.

[77] Willamette Week Online, Skin Of A Different Color;not every skinhead in Portland this weekend was a white supremacist, found at  http://wweek.com/editorial/3348/9672/

[78] Russian Skinheads Attack Concert, Irish Times

[79] Kosterina, I. V., Practices of Masculinity in Youth Groups, Russian Education & Society, Jan 2011, Vol. 53 Issue 1, pp. 3-21.

[80] Brian Whelan’s (Sunday Mirror) story about ‘fascist skinheads’ infiltrating the Irish army and encouraging like minded friends also to do so; found at http://brianwhelan.net/post/314722020/no-more-nazis-at-the-central-bank

Bibliography:

Books:

Barberis, Peter, McHugh, John, and Tyldesley, Mike, Encyclopaedia of British and Irish Political Organizations, (2000), London and New York, Continuum International Publishing Group.

Brake, M., The Skinheads: An English Working Class Subculture, Youth and Society (1974), Vol. 6, pp. 179-200.

Cohen, Stanley, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, (1972), London, McGibbon and Kee.

Knight, Nick, Skinhead, (1982) London.

Marshall, George, Skinhead Nation, (1996), Dunoon, Scotland, ST Publishing.

Marshall,George, Spirit of ’69 – A Skinhead Bible, (1991), Dunoon, Scotland, ST Publishing.

Moore, Jack B., Skinheads Shaved for Battle: A Cultural History of American Skinheads, (1993), Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Osgerby, Bill. Youth in Britain Since 1945, (1998) Blackwell Publishers, Malden, Massachusetts.

Panter, Horace, Ska’d For Life, (2007), Sedgwick & Jackson.

Rawlings, Terry, Mod: A Very British Phenomenon, (2000), London: Omnibus Press.

Robb, John, Punk Rock: An Oral History, (2006), London, Elbury Press.

Simon, Richard Keller, Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition, (1999), University of California Press.

Watson, Gavin, Skins, (1994), Dunoon, Scotland, ST Publishing.

Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, eds. London. Routledge, 1993

Articles:

Brown, Timothy S., Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and “Nazi Rock” in England and Germany, Journal of Social History, Fall 2004, Volume 38.

Cohen, Phil, Subcultural Conflict and Working Class Community, Working Papers in Subcultural Studies 2, University of Birmingham: Centre for Cultural Studies (1972).

Craig, Laura and Young, Kevin, Beyond White Pride: Identity, Meaning and Contradiction in the Canadian Skinhead Subculture, Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue Canadienne de Sociologie Volume 34, Issue 2, pages 175–206, May 1997.

Didcock, Barry, Casuals: The Lost Tribe of Britain: They Dressed Cool and Fought, (05/08/2005), The Sunday Herald.

Laruelle, Marlène, The Ideological Shift on the Russian Radical Right; From Demonizing the West to Fear of Migrants,  Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 57, No. 6, Nov./Dec. 2010, pp. 19–31. © 2010 M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

Pearson, Geoff, ’Paki-Bashing’ in a North East Lancashire Cotton Town: A Case Study and its History, Working Class Youth Culture, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1976.

Wood, R., The Indigenous, Nonracist Origins of the American Skinhead Culture, Youth & Society, Dec. 1999, Vol. 31 Issue 2, pp. 131-152.

Online Sources:

The Anti Defamation League: www.adl.org

www.brianwhelan.net

www.dubskin.com

www.hammerskins.net

www.skinheadawayoflife.ning.com

www.skinheads.net

www.traditionalskinheads.org

www.tradskin.org

Documentaries:

Doug Aubrey, World of Skinhead, (1996), Channel 4.

Shari Cookson, Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War, (1993), HBO.

Ross Kemp on Gangs, Season 1, Episode 4; Orange County, (2007) Sky1.

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9 thoughts on “SKINHEAD: The Evolution of a Subculture and Society’s View Thereof”

  1. Spot On ! Fantastic article ! The original skinheads were working class East London kids from working class council estates mixing with the black Jamaican immigrant kids housed alongside them who arrived from Jamaica on the “Windrush” etc and brought their music with them which they adopted and created a fashion in post war late 60’s just after the hippy generation and the mods and rockers era. They certainly weren’t racist, sadly the term “skinheads” has been hijacked, adopted, repackaged, sold on so many times and the media only associate it with neo-Nazism, white power, racism and violence. In truth, those people are too fecking lazy to create their own identity, they have to steal it from someone else and re-brand it ! I ended up here via a google search after watching a tv programme on BBC4 (UK) “The Story of Skinhead with Don Letts” – Personally, I was a bit young to be an original skinhead but fully embraced the 2-Tone / Ska movement in the early 80’s which in my opinion was a resurgence / recognition of the original movement taking into account the political climate in the UK at the time (Brixton Riots for example). Whilst i’m still proud to be a 2nd generation rudeboy, I positively and truly know and respect my musical and fashion origins (I had a 2-tone t shirt with the slogan “black & white unite, with a photo of a black & a white ska / rocksteady girl dancing together). Again, fabulous reading.

    1. Thanks Dave, you are of course correct. What I meant to say was that the beginnings of a movement which would lead in many ways to skinheads (the mods) existed in some form since the mid to late 1950s, and the beginnings of a movement which could actually be described as “skinhead” have existed since the mid 1960s

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