Skinhead: Jamaican Roots, Extreme-Rightists, Gay Iconism — A Movement of Contradictions

Like the dreadlocked Rastafarian and the Punk with his or her pink or blue “Mohican,” the Skinhead — shaven-headed and wearing imposing workmen’s or military-style boots — has become an iconic image — an archetype, even. But of what, exactly?

Even today, Skinhead remains an emotive and highly controversial subject. And we approach it with some trepidation. Yet most of what is known about Skinhead is wrong, beginning with its origin: Seen as a phenomenon of the 1980s, the Skinhead “movement” actually began in the 1960s. It was partly a reaction against the more middle class and more popular Hippie movement of the time.

skinhead-contradictions

Skinheads shaved their heads partly to contrast themselves with the Hippies, and partly because, being working class, they were doing the sort of manual labor (construction and factory work) that would have made long hair a potential safety risk.

A Political “style”

At its height, the movement became a subject of academic literature, largely because of “Cultural Studies” — a British academic discipline taught in art colleges. The novelty of Cultural Studies lay in the fact that it eschewed high culture in favor of studying “low culture” in pursuit of understanding the meaning of society. Advertisements, television shows, pop music, subcultures, fashion, and so on, provided the material for study and analysis. (You may have noticed something similar about People of Shambhala.)

Like Skinhead, the discipline began in the Sixties. It was founded by a number of conservative academics, but within a year or so they had left, leaving a slew of Marxist professors to enter and take over the burgeoning program. These academics sought to examine low culture through an essentially Left-wing or “progressive” lens. Skinhead was — perhaps surprisingly — treated neutrally, even slightly favorably, despite its association from the 1980s with extreme-Right-wing forms of politics and even violence. Speaking about Cultural Studies academic John Clarke’s work on Skinhead, Dennis Dworkin in Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain says (p. 159) that he,

did not believe that the skinheads were political in a conventional sense. But in a society where ideology and the struggle for hegemonic control were fundamental, their style became political. It signified their rejection of the dominant cultural order and their refusal to acquiesce passively to a subordinate role. 

Skinhead, in the view of such academics, represented the struggle to hang onto and give new meaning to working class values in a changing, postwar Britain, as well as the “celebration of masculine virtues” and the active rejection of middle class values.

The Influence of Jamaican Reggae

Skinheads typically wore (and wear) jeans that have been cut short so that the ends are above the ankles. They can sometimes look as if they’ve been “shrunk in the wash.” The assumption is, usually, that this look was intended to show off the “bovver boots” of the Skinhead, and, thus, to strike fear in the heart of anyone passing anywhere near them. No doubt that did become the meaning for many inside and outside this movement.

But Skinhead’s roots lie in Reggae and the related music genre of Ska. In 1967, the Jamaican Reggae and Ska singer Desmond Dekker flew to England to play a concert. He was given a suit as a gift on his arrival. But Dekker didn’t like the length of the trousers (US: “pants”), and had several inches cut off of the legs so that the ends came up above the ankles. Dekker also had short hair — shorter than many of those in the British Mod movement which had gone to see him — and from which Skinhead would emerge.

Going on stage that night, many of those in the crowd were inspired by Dekker’s style, and adopted it as their own. “The most distinctive icons of the Skinhead cult,” claims Dave Thompson Reggae & Caribbean Music, p. 389) “fell into place there and then.”

Indeed, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the music of the Skinhead movement was Reggae and Ska. The Specials — one of the more popular Ska bands of the early Eighties — which helped define the Mod and Skinhead movements early in this decade had both White and Black British singers. (The band’s single “Ghost Town” — about the then worsening economic situation in Britain — was one of the top ten selling records for ten weeks in 1981, for three of which  it was the best selling record.)

Nationalization of the Masses: Skinhead and the far-Right

By the mid-Eighties, though, the Skinhead movement had begun to be absorbed into extreme-Right-wing politics. If Skinheads had previously expressed their frustration at high unemployment and rejection of the “system” through music, dress, and working class culture (such as going to pubs and soccer games), Skinheads increasingly turned to the National Front. A marginal political party (it never won any seats in Parliament), the leadership of the National Front made a direct appeal to Skinheads, branding their party as the voice of what had heretofore been a fashion and lifestyle movement.

National Socialist (“Nazi”) ideology was promoted by the National Front-linked Skinhead band Skrewdriver, fronted by Ian Stuart Donaldson.

Formed in the late 1970s, Skrewdriver was originally an apolitical Punk band. It split a few years after forming however, and in 1982 Donaldson reformed the band. In the same year he openly aired his support of the National Front, with which Skrewdriver would soon become associated. The party used it as a recruiting tool, but it also drew new members from the crowds that were drawn to professional soccer games — a highly masculine environment. And at the very least not exactly discouraging mass soccer violence, the National Front and Skinhead more especially soon became synonymous with racism and extreme violence in the public consciousness.

As the movement spread abroad, it did so largely (though certainly not entirely) in this form. Movies, such as the Australian-made Romper Stomper (1992) and the more recent American History X (1998) portrayed Skinheads as partly tragic, partly extreme and ideological, partly ignorant, and largely violent.

Back in Britain, Skinheads joined National Front parades, and frequently acted out violently at Skinhead discos, soccer matches, and even in the streets, though such behavior was probably not always motivated by politics or ideology.

But, during the 1980s, with the extreme-Right-wing Skinhead movement peaking, a major split in the National Front began to emerge, with the party’s thinkers forming a group around the “political soldier” ideology, which fused various Left-wing and Right-wing ideas together. From this emerged the “International Third Position” movement (not to be confused with the “Third Way” politics of British Prime Minister Tony Blair) which merged “racial separatism” with environmentalism, distributism, etc.

This new, and much smaller movement also sought to make contact with and promote Colonel Gaddafi of Libya and the Iranian regime among others. Indeed, the National Front had been plunged into infighting partly due to its newspaper carrying a picture of Gaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Louis Farrakhan (leader of the revived Nation of Islam), and calling for a new alliance with them.

Almost as a counter-force to the new ideological approach. the British Movement, a neo-fascist street fighting movement began to come to the forefront, not least of all due to the activism of one Nicky Crane (who we will look at in more depth later on).

Suedeheads and SHARPS

Also emerging from the Skinhead movement came the much lesser-known “Suedeheads.” Unlike those of the former movement, who now shaved their heads almost to the scalp, Suedeheads cropped their hair only within a few millimeters, which gave it a kind of velvety look and feel, and had the connotation of being slightly more chic and “proper.”

Though generally working class, Suedeheads also wore relatively upscale and “sharper” clothes, especially suits with a “dog tooth” pattern weave, and “tonic suits” (usually gray) by the Ben Sherman label. Instead of boots, Suedeheads wore brogues (a type of shoe made from several different pieces, with the edges of each piece decoratively perforated) or loafers.

Though they, like earlier Skinheads, listened to Ska and Reggae, the choice of footware alone differentiated them from the Skinheads, who had taken to wearing colored laces in their boots to identify themselves with a particular political party of street fighting group (red for the National Front, white for the British Movement).

By this time Skinhead had largely migrated away from Ska, with its Jamaican roots, and had adopted “Oi,” a kind of loud, thrashy, and highly aggressive music associated with some Punk bands. Despite Punk having a Left-wing orientation — basing its ideology in anarchism (a contender of Marxism) — some Punk and Skinhead bands were included on the same Oi compilation records.

In 1987, another Skinhead grouping emerged, formed — or formulated — by Marcus Pacheco & Stevan M in New York City. This was SHARP: Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. The Left-wing Skinhead movement (which derided Oi and Right-wing Skinheads as “boneheads” and “not real Skinheads”) was (and still is) opposed to the Right-wing in general and the racialist Skinheads in particular. However, SHARP did not readopt Ska or Reggae as its choice of music, but continued with Oi, of an anti-racist variety.

This was not the first articulation of an anti-racist Skinhead worldview. The 1983 album Son of Oi, released by Syndicate Records, contained some anti-racist and anti-Right-wing tracks, especially “Andy Is a Corporatist” by  Attila/Newtown Neurotics. Another, more mainstream example was the northern British band The Red Skins (red connoting Marxism, trade unionism, and Left-wing more broadly).

Gay Skinhead

The Skinhead image would eventually become one of several “looks” or perhaps “cliches” within the gay culture of Britain. (Notably, the singer Morrissey (who may be asexual, but who certainly sings about and draws upon homosexual themes) released an album titled Suedehead. A track on another Morrissey album was “National Front Disco.” This earned the singer a certain amount of notoriety on the activist Left, with accusations of racism following the singer throughout much of his career.) Where did this strange orientation come from?

Nicky Crane in Psychic TV's "Unclean" video (left), and on the cover of the Strength Through Oi album (right).
Nicky Crane in Psychic TV’s “Unclean” video (left), and on the cover of the Strength Through Oi album (right).

During the 1980s, pockets of gay Skinheads had formed. A few of these Skinheads were members of racialist and extreme-Right-wing movements. Others were unconnected to it, and had no interest in such politics. Most were probably opposed to it. The latter group had no interest in Skinhead music either, preferring the high-energy dance music of London’s discreet gay clubs. Superficially, they adopted the look to avoid getting beaten up or “gay bashed” (an alleged favorite pastime of Right-wing Skinheads). But they undoubtedly also wanted to appropriate the “hyper-masculine” imagine to themselves in a statement of rejecting the feminine image of homosexuality.

In this environment, which revolved to a large degree around nightclubs, Murray Healy, author of Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation, has said, “gay [Skinheads] were assumed to be left-wing [by other gays] even if they had Nazi tattoos.”

Into this scene walked probably Britain’s most notorious Skinhead: Nicky Crane.

Though quiet and softly spoke (unusual for a Skinhead), Crane was physically imposing, and capable. He climbed the ranks of the British Movement with ease. His propensity for violence and activism meant that he was promoted to organizer for the borough of Kent, in the Southeast of London, within a short time. On the side, Crane was also in charge of security for Skrewdriver.

The street fighter was jailed three times for violent behavior. Being “inside” failed to calm him down, and on one occasion Crane attacked prison officers with a metal tray. Consequently, he was forced to serve one of his sentences at the top-security prison on the Isle of Wight.

Crane continued to be one of the leading street fighting figures until the end of the 1980s. But by then he had begun to surface on the “gay scene.” In 1986 he worked as a steward for the annual gay “Pride” parade, though he was confronted and heckled by “anti-racist” activists.

While his presence had gone largely unnoticed at first, after that Crane was, to a degree, ostracized on the “gay scene.” His far-Right associations and past made him unwelcome, even if his swastika tattoos could be overlooked as some sort of odd personal expression.

By 1990, however, Crane was preparing to break with the nationalist scene, and in 1992 he caused shock waves by appearing on the Channel Four television show Out, talking about his life, how he had now rejected the far-Right and had embraced “individualism,” and how he had come out as a gay man. The front page of the working class tabloid The Sun would proclaim “Nazi Nick is a Panzi” (a pun on the British slang for homosexual: “pansy”).

Not everyone had rejected the former street fighter, however. The provocative, experimental band Psychic TV, fronted by Genesis P. Orridge, recruited Crane to appear in the video for their single “Unclean.”

Masculinity, Brutality, and Identity

The video mixed religious imagery with the male body in an art house style. Crane himself — the Skinhead and once notorious street fighter — appears in one scene with a halo around his head.

What was Psychic TV saying?

Images and styles are appropriated and subverted. As such, it should not be surprising that Right-wing Skinheads subverted elements of the Jamaican-inspired Skinhead movement of the Sixties, and that they had their image subsequently appropriated and subverted by “anti-racist,” SHARP Skinheads and gay Skinheads later on. (or that all of these groups are able to exist during the same time, though not necessarily in the same space.) Goth appropriated and subverted elements of Punk and Hippie. Punk appropriated elements of Reggae and Rock ‘n’ Roll. It goes on.

The Skinhead as symbol might, like most symbols, be ambiguous and in need of context and interpretation. Yet one thing that seems to carry through is the perhaps unstated notion of the purifying nature of violence (an element of both Left-wing and Right-wing revolutionary ideologies).

The belief that authentic masculinity is discovered through brutality is another underlying theme. Yet, with such contradictory manifestations, we should not assume that in all cases such violence and brutality is to be manifest for political reasons. In some cases — such as Psychic TV’s video for “Unclean” and movies as Romper Stomper — it is partly aesthetic.

Aesthetics hints at something more primordial. The extreme manifestations of Skinhead — regardless of whether it is expressed as racialism, anti-racism, or sexually — is about the sub-rational: the primordial working class society, the classless utopia, the destruction of the self, etc. For this reason, and not just for its association with violence per se, the Skinhead — no less than the headless horseman and other mythic entities — has entered into the shadow world of society’s unconscious, to periodically rise up and terrorize its host.

You might also like:

Stranger in a Strange Land: The Male Image as Otherness
Punk, Feminism, and the anarchist Femme Fatale
Strength, Spirituality, and Masculinity Against Materialism
A “Topless Burka-Clad Model” and Radical Islamic Fashion

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

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