Reclaiming the skinhead tradition - review of "Spirit of '69" by George Marshall

Review of a book about Skinhead culture, taken from issue 2 of Anti-Fascist Action's Fighting Talk magazine.

The fascist skinhead has become part of the left's mythology. Cable Street Beat [AFA's music and culture section] takes a look at a new book by George Marshall, which cuts through the myths to give a more balanced account of skinhead culture.

"Spirit of '69" is about working class youth, having a crack. It's also about what happens when the left fails to identify its interests with working class youth, and about how the space that opens up gets filled. The book's purpose is to reclaim the skinhead tradition from the hands of the far right and the gutter press. As George Marshall puts it:

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"Here in Britain, we are slotted in nicely somewhere between devil dogs, England fans and serial killers in the tabloid scare story league, and things aren't much different in any other country."

Along the way, Marshall gives us some brilliantly written portraits of the '60s skinhead scene, and of a skin's eye view of the Summer of Love, where:

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"middle class youngsters everywhere said goodbye to the real world and started turning on, tuning in and dropping out (man). Well, at least until Daddy found them a plum job at the office anyway."

Marshall pinpoints the real birth of the skinhead style in the emergence of gang mods or hard mods, who replaced smart suits with shirt, jeans and boots, and whose hair "proceeded to go down the barber's scale from four to one." What happened next gives the lie to the "skinheads are racist" bullshit which is accepted from the News of the World to Ian Stuart Donaldson:

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"Young white mods soon became regular visitors to the blues parties and illegal drinking holes that could be found in North Kent, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol and areas of London like Notting Hill and Brixton. It gave them a chance to hear the very latest sounds and this in turn brought them into regular contact with black youths."

The best of Marshall's book is his description of early skin styles — the Charlie George style mutton chops, steel toe-capped boots with the metal tip exposed, and "eight or ten hole boats and none of this boots up to your armpits nonsense that caught on after punk." The joys of terrace rucks are touched on as well, with Marshall nailing the hypocrisy of the media:

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"Most of the answers to the trouble at football from a supposedly caring society were more violent than the problem itself. Whip them. Bring back National Service, get some discipline back into their lives. Great stuff. Not on the terraces please bays. Save it for the trenches."

Marshall takes us rapidly through the seventies, with bands like Slade jumping on the skin bandwagon, and the "Clockwork Orange" cults, which led to "small armies of droogs who turned up in white boiler suits." It’s the late '70 that cause Marshall problems, though. He's clear enough about the bullshit and hype which was "punk":

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"Punk was never any spontaneous street rebellion made good . . . More like a weekend exercise in shock, courtesy of the oh so trendy fashion and art colleges. And all this a million miles away from the snotty nosed kids in their snorkel coats, too busy booting a ball about a sprawling council estate to lead a charge of the punk brigade."

He's clear also that what he calls street punk, bands like Sham 69, Cock Sparrer and Menace, were a positive alternative. The problem for the scene at this time was simple:

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"A lot of the skinheads who followed Sham and the other street punks bands supported the National Front and the British Movement."

Marshall suggests that Sharn 69 were wrong to play a Rock Against Racism gig as a response to the growth of far-right activity amongst their following. The fact that Sham tied their colours "to the RAR flagpole" led directly, according to Marshall, to the British Movement-led attack on their farewell gig at the Rainbow.

Marshall repeats this analysis later, when he looks at the Oi movement. He recognises the importance of Oi: "For probably the first time ever, the people on the stage really were the same as the people on the dancefloor." Working class bands addressing a working class audience, "havin' a laugh and havin' a say."

Most of the bands had little or no connection with the far right. Their songs were about issues which any socialist could (or should) agree with - The Gonads' "Jobs not Jails", the Business' "Employers Blacklist" - but the far right were in the area, and bands like Last Resort, with songs like "Britain's Not Dead" and Combat 84, whose singer Chubby Chris was on open fascist, were prepared to pave the way.

When the Business, the Last Resort and the 4-Skins played the Hamborough Tavern in Southall in July '81, local Asian youth, facing on influx of Sieg-Heiling thugs, burned the pub to the ground. Marshall's problem is that he treats the forces involved with Oi as political innocents and blames the Asian community for overreacting. But the facts speak for themselves. Bands like The Elite and Combat 84 were openly Nazi. The 4-Skins' manager Gary Hitchcock was an ex-British Movement member. Leading light of the BM, Nicky Crane, was on the cover of the "Strength Thru' Oi" LP. In dealing with Oi, and with the far right's attempts to infiltrate the skin scene in general, George Marshall is never more than half right, but the fault isn't his.

When Sham played for Rock Against Racism, the Socialist Workers Party said "thanks" and left the band to face the backlash on their own. So Marshall concludes that Sham were wrong to run the risk at all. The truth is that Sham were right to follow the courage of their convictions, and the left was guilty of turning a blind eye to the consequences.

With Oi, things took a turn for the worse - faced with a movement of working class youth, the left opted out of the battle for their hearts and minds, concluding that Oi was "mindless music for an equally mindless audience, and everyone remotely connected with the movement was branded a racist", which let the fascists make all the running. Marshall tells us that "Oi ended up being daubed with a massive big swastika and the music industry couldn't distance itself quick enough." He's correct, and he's right also when he details the extent to which the best of the bands fought against this, with Info Riot and the Business playing Oi Against Racism gigs, and the 4-Skins offering to arrange an anti-racist gig in Southall.

Marshall's analysis of the strength of the far-right amongst sections of the working class youth is spot-on:

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"While virtually everyone else was condemning football hooliganism and other skinhead pastimes, the Young National Front hailed them as terrace warriors and published a regular League of Louts feature in Bulldog. Here was a party that didn't talk at you, but talked to you, and didn't look down at you, but treated you as the cream of British youth."

Marshall's analysis is flawed despite this because he's been let down by a gutless, middle class left so often he ends up thinking it's wrong even when it's been right, and blaming it for sins it's not guilty of. He tells us that Skrewdriver turned to the right because anti-fascists kept on getting their gigs cancelled: "With nowhere to go and no media publicity, Skrewdriver turned to the only friends they had left, the National Front."

He's sickened by the growth of the White Noise and Blood and Honour movements, and glad for the brief alternative posed by the Hard As Nails fanzine, the ska revival and the burgeoning scooter scene. When he talks of the attack on a Desmond Dekker gig at Great Yarmouth by 30 NF skins as showing "how far sections of the skinhead cult had drifted from their roots. If the original skinheads had had their way, Desmond Dekker's birthday would have been a national holiday," you know that Marshall is on the side of the angels. His problem, and the problem of both the Spirit of '69 and his regular Skinhead Times, is that the failure of the left to deliver the goods has left him with little but the hope that

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"maybe the day will come when skinheads will once again leave politics outside when they go to gigs and dances, and maybe petty politicians who do all the mouthing and then lead from the back, will find some other mugs to fight their battles."

The trouble is, these days the politics which gels injected into the skin scene all too often comes from the right. What's necessary is the forging of a working class anti-fascist left that won't buck the battles ahead, that won't put up with bands like Skrewdriver performing shit like "White Power", and will lead from the front in every battle, big or small, whether it be driving Nazis out of ska gigs or fighting for the rights of the unemployed, stopping Blood and Honour gigs or resisting anti-union laws.

"Spirit of '69" is in many ways a great book. It is a tribute to the creativity of generations of working class kids, from the hard mods, through Sham, the Two-Tone scene to the scooter kids of today. Marshall tells us that "Skinhead has always stood for pride in yourself, pride in your town, pride in your class."

What we can't forget is that "pride in your class" means taking on those like Ian Stuart Donaldson and those like Tyndall and Edmonds who stand behind them, because their loyalties are to another class, the bosses who shit on us everyday. "Pride in your doss" is nothing unless it means fighting for the real interests of your class against those who'd sell those interests out.

Marshall's problem is that he treats the forces involved with Oi as political innocents and blames the Asian community for over-reacting