Let’s hear it for Oi! - the most exciting, despised and misunderstood youth movement of all time.
After 21 years we’re still winding up the mugs.
Back in 1981, Oi! managed to outrage all shades of polite middle class opinion, right, left and centre.
To this day the hippy Left perceive Oi as a kind of cultural cancer. To the establishment, Oi was an upstart from a tower block slum who wouldn’t keep in line. He was raucous and obnoxious, a human hand-grenade with a menacing disregard for authority.
At best, Oi bands and their fans were viewed as gurning barbarians gleefully pissing in the coffee house latte. At worst, they were seen as modern day brown shirts responsible for the riots in Southall, Toxteth and the rest. Either way, Oi was too hot to handle.
To the fast-talking wide-boys who adopted its name however, Oi was something else entirely. Stripped down to basics, it was about being young, working class and not taking shit from anybody. It was anti-police, anti-authority but pro-Britain too. A lot of the Oi kids liked a fight, and yeah, this is no whitewash, there was a far right element among them but this was 1980 when the far right were polling 15 – 20 per cent of the vote in inner-city wards. It would have been a miracle if there hadn’t been NF sympathisers in the audiences. What matters is that Oi never suffered from Nazi violence the way Sham 69 and 2-Tone had. The ag that blemished those early Oi! gigs was strictly football related.
Discovered in the summer of ’81 (well into its second wind) by a mass media rocked to its foundations by weeks of riots and youthful insurrection, Oi found itself on the sharp end of the sort of tabloid crucifixion usually reserved for the more macabre mass murderers. Corrupting its meaning, the same media immediately tried to bury it. Inevitably their version of events was as watertight as a kitchen colander in a tropical monsoon. They said Oi was for skinheads (but it was always more than that), that all skins were Nazis (and only a minority ever were) and that therefore Oi was the Strasser brothers in steel-capped boots (but the bands were either socialists or cynics…)
To really understand Oi, you had to be there….
Oi’s roots were in Punk, just as Punk’s roots were in the New York Dolls, but they weren’t the same animal. For starters Oi was the reality of Punk and Sham mythology. Punk exploded between 1976 and 1979 because stadium rock had been disappearing up its own jacksie for years. The album charts were full of po-faced synthesizer twiddlers and pretentious singers belting out meaningless pseudo-poetic lyrics.
Punk seemed different. It was raw, brutal and utterly down to earth. Punk sold itself as the voice of the tower blocks. It wasn’t. Most of the forerunners were middle-class art students. The great Joe Strummer, whose dad was a diplomat, flirted with stale old Stalinism and sang about white riots while living in a white mansion. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood tried to intellectualise punk by dressing it up in half-inched Situationist ideas, all the better to flog their over-priced produce to mug punters.
Sham 69, from Surrey, were the first band to capture the growing mood of disillusionment. Street punks were disgusted both by the proliferation of phoneys and posers and the Kings Road conmen with their rip-off boutiques. But how much did Sham’s Jimmy Pursey really know about borstals, football and dole queues, and how much was he feeding off the people around him? The Last Resort’s Millwall Roi might have overstated the case but he summed up a common attitude when he wrote ‘I wish it was the weekend everyday/But Jimmy Pursey didn’t get his way/He liked to drink but he didn’t like to fight/He didn’t get his fucking homework right.’
Cockney cowboys? As Julie Burchill once observed: “It must have been a bloody strong wind the day the sound of Bow Bells reached Hersham.”
The Oi poloi didn’t need Punk’s proletarian wrapping paper – invented backgrounds and adopted attitudes, accents and aggression – because they really were the cul-de-sac, council estate kids the first punk bands had largely only pretended to be. The forerunners of Oi! were bands like Cock Sparrer, Menace, Slaughter & The Dogs and the UK Subs although none of these bands were as successful as Sham whose raucous brand of football chant punk dented the Top Ten three times.
Before he went potty, Jimmy Pursey gave the kiss of life to the two bands who defined the parameters and direction of original Oi – the Angelic Upstarts and the Cockney Rejects.
Singer Tommy ‘Mensi’ Mensforth and guitarist Ray Cowie, known as Mond, formed the Upstarts in the summer of ’77 after getting blown away by the Clash’s White Riot tour. Childhood mates, they had grown up together on the Brockley Whinns council estate in South Shields and later attended Stanhope Road Secondary Modern school (Mensi got expelled from the local grammar school at thirteen for delinquency.)
Mensi worked as an apprentice miner after leaving school. Forming the band at 19 was his escape route from the pits. Mond worked as a shipyard electrician right up until their first hit. The Upstarts’ original drummer and bassist quit after violent crowd reactions to their first gig in nearby Jarrow, to be replaced by bakery worker Stix and bricklayer Steve Forsten respectively. The band were also soon to recruit the services of Keith Bell, a self-confessed former gangster and one-time North Eastern Countries light-middleweight boxing champ, who as manager, bouncer and bodyguard was able to maintain order at early gigs on the basis of his reputation alone.
The Upstarts soon attracted the attention of the Northumbria Police Force, who haunted the band’s early career like a malignant poltergeist. Police interest stemmed from the Upstarts’ championing of the cause of Birtley amateur boxer Liddle Towers who died from injuries received after a night in the police cells. The inquest called it ‘justifiable homicide’. The Upstarts called it murder, and ‘The Murder of Liddle Towers’ (b/w ‘Police Oppression’) was their debut single on their own Dead Records. Later re-pressed by Rough Trade, the song’s brutal passion was well received even by music press pseuds, although not by the Old Bill who infiltrated gigs in plain clothes. Charges of incitement to violence were considered. Only the Upstarts’ mounting press coverage dissuaded them. For their part the band were uncompromising. They appeared on the front cover of the Socialist Workers Party’s youth magazine Rebel soon after and accused their area police of being largely National Front sympathisers.
Official police action might have been dropped but unofficial harassment continued unabated. Mensi claimed he was constantly followed and frequently stopped, searched and abused by individual officers. The band blamed unofficial police pressure for getting them banned from virtually every gig in the North East of England – via the promise of raids, prosecution for petty rule breaking, opposing licence renewals and so on. The Upstarts got the last laugh though when in April ’79 they conned a Prison Chaplain into inviting them to play a gig at Northumbria’s Acklington Prison (where ironically Keith Bell had finished his last sentence). 150 cons turned up to see a union jack embellished with the words ‘Upstarts Army’, a clenched fist, the motto ‘Smash Law And Order’ and a pig in a helmet entitled ‘PC Fuck Pig’. The band hadn’t managed to smuggle in a ‘real’ pig’s head (they usually smashed one up on stage) but the cons revelled merrily in the wham-bam wallop of rebel anthems like ‘Police Oppression’, ‘We Are The People’ (about police corruption), and a specially amended version of ‘Borstal Breakout’ retitled ‘Acklington Breakout’.
The Daily Mirror splashed with ‘Punks Rock A Jailhouse’ (wrongly identifying me as the band’s spokesman.) The Prison Governor and local Tories did their nuts, with Tynemouth MP, the appropriately named Neville Trotter, condemning the gig as ‘an incredibly stupid thing to allow’. Only Socialist Worker printed a true record of the gig, quoting Mensi telling prisoners they’d be better off in nick if Thatcher got elected that summer, and urging punks to vote Labour as ‘Thatcher’s government will destroy the trade union movement’. (In reality Mensi’s brand sub-Scargill patriotic socialism was far removed from the SWP’s revised Trotsky-lite posturing).
The band’s salty populism and savage post-Sham punk attracted a massive following of working class kids in the North East, the self-styled Upstarts Army, while the power of their debut single convinced Jimmy Pursey to form his JP label with Polydor. The Upstarts were the label’s first signing and also their first sacking after a jumped-up Polydor security guard tried to push the band about. He took on Mensi in a one against one fight and went down like the Belgrano. Polydor dropped the band. They never bothered to ask for Mensi’s side of the story. Soon after the Upstarts signed with Warner Brothers. Their second single, the Pursey produced ‘I’m An Upstart’, was released in April ’79, charted, and was chased hard by the ‘Teenage Warning’ single and album
The Cockney Rejects were also the real deal, this time the sons of dockers from London’s East End, but their music wasn’t political. Thirty years of lame Labour local government had stripped them of any world view except cynicism. Their songs were about East End life, boozers, battles, police harassment and football.
I met them first in May ’79. Two cocky urchins adorned in West Ham badges bowled into my boozer spieling back-slang and thrust their tatty demo tapes into my hand. Like them it was rough, ready and suffused with more spirit than Mystic Challenge. I put them in touch with Pursey who produced their first demo tape. These songs re-emerged as the Small Wonder debut ep ‘Flares & Slippers’ which included the essential guttersnipe anthem ‘Police Car’ (‘I like punk and I like Sham – I got nicked over West Ham…’). It sold surprising well and earned them the NME epithet of the “brainstorming vanguard of the East End punk renewal”, (although the student-orientated rag was later to virtually ignore Oi! until its arrival in the headlines forced their hand.)
The kids were the Geggus brothers Mickey and Jeff, the latter soon known to the world as Stinky Turner. Both had been good boxers – neither of them had ever been put down in the ring, and Jeff had boxed for the England youth team. They had little trouble transferring their belt onto vinyl. The Rejects’ story began in the summer of ’77 when seventeen-year-old Mickey was first inspired to pick up a plectrum by the Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’. Incubating in back garden performances in their native Canning Town as The Shitters, the Rejects only emerged as a real group after council painter Mickey recruited twenty-one-year Vince Riordan as bassist in 1979. Previously a Sham roadie, Vince (whose uncle was Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie) had marked time with loser band the Dead Flowers before he heard the Cockney call. Drummers were to come and go with the regularity of a high-fibre diet until Stix transferred from the Upstarts in 1980.
Live, the band hit like a mob of rampaging rhinos, with Mickey’s sledgehammer guitar the cornerstone of their tough, tuneful onslaught. Schoolboy Stinky was a sight for sore eyes too, screwing up his visage into veritable orgies of ugliness, and straining his tonsils to holler vocals best likened to a right evil racket. I was the Rejects’ first manager – although those stories are best left for another book - and I stayed with them until Pursey and I had negotiated an EMI deal for them. After that, I bowed out to let a man I assumed was a pro take over. He was Pursey’s manager Tony Gordon, who went on to handle Boy George (in the management sense). So little was money my motivation, that my price for signing the band over was a £100 meal at the Park Lane Hilton (I went with Hoxton Tom and our wives – Tony begged us to get him a receipt). In retrospect Gordon was bad for the band. They really needed a Peter Grant figure, someone tougher and smarter than they were, to keep their energies channelled in a more umm, artistic direction.
Under Tony Gordon, the Rejects’s career soared briefly then crashed and burned. After getting evicted from Polydor’s studios for running up a damages bill of £1,000, the band got stuck into serious recordings with Pursey at the production controls. Their second EMI single ‘Bad Man’ was superb, like PiL on steroids, but it only made the fag end of the charts. Their next release, a piss-take of Sham called ‘The Greatest Cockney Rip-Off’ did better, denting the Top 30. Their debut album ‘Greatest Hits Vol 1’ did the same, notching up over 60,000 sales.
Unlike the Upstarts’, the Rejects’ first following wasn’t largely skinhead; in fact at first skins didn’t like them. Stinky’s school pals the Rubber Glove firm aside, The Rejects crew came from football and consisted largely of West Ham chaps attracted by Vince’s involvement and disillusioned Sham and Menace fans. Famous faces included Gary Dickle, Johnny Butler, Carlton Leach, Andy Russell, Andy Swallow, Hoxton Tom, Binnsy, H and Wellsy. Even as early as November 1979, their Hammers support was so strong that mass terrace chants of ‘Cockney Rejects – oh, oh’ were clearly audible on televised soccer matches – to the tune of Gary Glitter’s – Hello Hello I’m Back Again’.
Many of the East End Glory Boys swelled their ranks a little later, realising for the first time that here was a band exactly the same as them.
The first stand-alone Oi scene developed around the Cockney Rejects and their regular gig venue, the Bridge House in Canning Town, East London. It became the focus for an entire subculture. In 1980, this was the LIFE!
None of these faces were “Nazis”. Most of them weren’t political at all, beyond the sense of voting Labour (if they bothered to vote at all) out of a sense of tradition. A tiny percentage was interested in the extremes of either right or left. As a breed they were natural conservatives. They believed in standing on their own two feet. They were patriotic, and proud of their class and their immediate culture. They looked good and dressed sharp. It was important not to look like a scruff or a student. Their heroes were boxers and footballers, not union leaders. Unlicensed boxing was a big draw, as were the dogs and stag comedians like Jimmy Jones and Jimmy Fagg. They liked to fight around football matches – the West Ham ICF (Inter City Firm) were fully represented at most local Rejects gigs. The young men oozed machismo, but some of the women were just as tough. But they weren’t mugs. These were bright kids and a surprisingly large number of them have gone on to carve out successful businesses in fields as diverse as the music industry, pornography and clothing manufacture.
They’re the ones who didn’t end up in jail of course.
They related to the Cockney Rejects because at the time at least the Rejects mirrored their audience. Rarely in rock history have a band and their followers been so identical.
The Rejects and the Upstarts had plenty in common – shared management, shared experiences of the Old Bill, shared class backgrounds – and were soon identified (by me) in the music press as the start of something different, a new more class conscious punk variant, which was known at first as ‘Real Punk’ or ‘New Punk’ and which had little in common with 1979’s self-styled punk rockers in their second-hand images and wally bondage pants. It was a pairing they obviously approved of with both bands frequently jamming together at each other’s gigs. Unlike Sham, the Rejects had little Nazi trouble. They wrote off the threat from the British Movement (we called them the German Movement) in their first Sounds interview. “We can handle them,” said Stinky. “If anyone comes to the gigs and wants to have a row, we’ll have to row. Pursey couldn’t do that. We’re not gonna take no bollocks.”
Strong words that they had to back up the first time they played outside of the East End, supporting the Upstarts at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. When a large mob of BM skins started harassing punks in the audience, the Rejects and their twelve-handed entourage (including two of the fledgling 4-Skins) took ’em on and battered them. Mickey Geggus commented: “Our gigs are for enjoyment. No one’s gonna disrupt them or pick on our fans. Troublemakers will be thrown out – by us if necessary.”
The only other major run-in they ever had with the far right was at Barking station the following February, and once again the master race contingent got bashed. Most of the Rejects’ London gigs were trouble free, especially the ones at the Bridge House, which was to London Oi! what the Roxy had been to Punk. Managed by Terry Murphy and his tough boxer sons, the Bridge never had a serious punch-up or any sieg-heiling. No one dared step out of line against the Murphys. Son Glen, the former barman, can now be seen playing George Green on TV’s London’s Burning.
The Angelic Upstarts also fought – and won - a couple of sharp battles against the far right. They played numerous Rock Against Racism gigs too, including one at Leeds where the band sported SWP ‘Disband The SPG’ badges. Like the Rejects their real ag came from other areas – principally their manager, Keith Bell. Sacked by the band when he started to knock them about, Bell and his henchmen set about trying to intimidate Upstart fans, even assaulting people buying their records, before threatening Mensi’s mother, smashing her house windows and making threatening and abusive phone calls to her. Reprisal incidents included Mensi and one time Upstarts drummer Decca Wade smashing one of the Bell firm’s car windows and a midnight visit to Bell’s own home by Decca’s dad, club comedian Derek Wade and Mensi’s brother-in-law Billy Wardropper who blasted one of Bell’s henchmen in the leg with a sawn-off shotgun. Hitting back, Bell threatened to kill Wade Senior. Three of his cronies set fire to a stable belonging to Mensi’s sister causing almost £5K worth of damage. In ensuing court cases both Bell and Billy Wardropper were jailed while Decca’s dad copped a year’s suspended sentence. Presiding Judge Hall told the Upstarts team: “I accept that all of you suffered a severe amount of provocation, which was none of your seeking. But at the same time I have a duty to condemn the use of firearms, particularly a sawn-off shotgun.” The Upstarts’ recorded their opinion in ‘Shotgun Solution’: ‘Shotgun blasts ring in my ears/Shoot some scum who live by fear/A lot of good men will do some time/For a fucking cunt without a spine’.
With the Rejects, football was the trouble. And it was understandable because they’d been fanatically pro-West Ham aggro from the word go. Even at their debut Bridge House gig they decked the stage out with a huge red banner displaying the Union Jack, the West Ham crossed hammers and the motif ‘West Side’ (which was that part of the West Ham ground then most favoured by the Irons’ most violent fans). Their second hit was a version of the West Ham anthem ‘Bubbles’ which charted in the run-up to West Ham’s Cup Final Victory in the early summer of 1980. On the b-side was the ICF-pleasing ‘West Side Boys’ which included lines like: ‘We meet in the Boelyn every Saturday/Talk about the teams that we’re gonna do today/Steel-capped Doctor Martens and iron bars/Smash the coaches and do ’em in the cars’.
It was a red rag to testosterone-charged bulls all over the country. At North London’s Electric Ballroom, 200 of West Ham’s finest mob-charged less than fifty Arsenal and smacked them clean out of the venue. But ultra-violence at a Birmingham gig really spelt their undoing. The audience at the Cedar Club was swelled by a mob of Birmingham City skinheads who terrace-chanted throughout the support set from the Kidz Next Door (featuring Grant Fleming, now a leftwing film maker, and Pursey’s kid brother Robbie). By the time the Rejects came on stage there were over 200 Brum City skins at the front hurling abuse. During the second number they started hurling plastic glasses. Then a real glass smashed on stage. Stinky Turner responded by saying: “If anyone wants to chuck glasses they can come outside and I’ll knock seven shades of shit out of ya”. That was it, glasses and ashtrays came from all directions. One hit Vince and as a Brum skinhead started shouting “Come on”, Micky dived into the crowd and put him on his back. Although outnumbered more than ten to one, the Rejects and their entourage drove the Brummy mob right across the hall, and finally out of it altogether. Under a hail of missiles Mickey Geggus sustained a head injury that needed nine stitches and left him with what looked like a Fred Perry design above his right eye. Grant Fleming, a veteran of such notorious riots as Sham at Hendon and Madness at Hatfield, described the night’s violence as the worst he’d ever seen.
Taken to the local hospital for treatment, Geggus had to bunk out of a twenty-foot high window when ‘tooled-up’ mates of the injured Brum City fans came looking for him. Back at the gig, the Londoners emerged triumphant from the fighting only to discover all their gear had been ripped off – total value, two grand. The next morning, the Cockney contingent split into two vans – one that went on to the next gig at Huddersfield, the other containing Mickey and Grant that went cruising round the city looking for any likely punters who might know the whereabouts of their stolen gear. Incidents that morning in Wolverhampton Road, Albury, involving Geggus, three locals and an iron bar, resulted in Mickey being charged with malicious wounding. Eight months later, both he and Grant had the luck of the devil to walk away with suspended sentences.
Maybe as insurance, in the summer of ’80, the Rejects played two
Bridge House benefit gigs for the Prisoners Rights Organisation, PROP, arranged by me and Hoxton Tom with the help of Terry Murphy. Tom’s aunt was involved with London PROP because his uncle, Steven Smeeth, had been jailed for his part in George Davis’s doomed comeback caper. The gigs were two of the best I’d ever seen the band play.
Brum had meant the end of the Rejects as a touring band however. They had to pull a Liverpool gig when literally hundreds of tooled-up Scouse match boys came looking for confrontation. Road manager Kevin Wells was threatened at knife point. At first Mickey seemed to revel in it all, acting like he was living out some Cagney movie. The band’s second LP called, surprisingly enough, ‘Greatest Hits Vol 2’, reflected his apparent death wish with sleevenotes boasting ‘From Scotland down to Cornwall, we dun the lot, we took ’em all. On the song ‘Urban Guerrilla’ he spoke these words: “Some folk call it anarchy, but I just call it fun. Don’t give a fuck about the law, I wanna kill someone.” Me? I think he meant it.
But in the long build up to the trial, a change came over Mickey. He swapped his little blue pills for ganja and started to mellow. Correspondingly, the Rejects’ music began to move away from hooligan racket towards more mainstream rock. 1981’s ‘The Power & The Glory’ sounded like The Professionals. 1982’s ‘The Wild Ones’, produced by Pete Way, was more like UFO. And if 1984’s ‘Quiet Storm’ had been any more laid back it could have been bottled and sold as Valium. ‘The Wild Ones’ remains a great rock album, with stand-out tracks such as City Of Lights; but the old fans were actively hostile to their new sounds, while abysmal marketing meant potential new fans never got to hear them. Stale mate.
The Angelic Upstarts lost their momentum in 1980 as well, getting dropped by Warners in the summer. And although they were snapped up by EMI, going on to release their finest studio album, ‘Two Million Voices’ in April ’81, they barely played live and fans were getting frustrated.
During 1980, hooligan audiences, especially in South East London, found new live laughs in the shape of Peckham-based piss-artist pranksters Splodgenessabounds, whose brand of coarse comedy and punk energy scored three top thirty singles that year. Their debut single, ‘Two Pints of Lager’ was a Top Ten smash. Tongue in cheek, I dubbed them ‘punk pathetique’ along with equally crazy bands like Brighton’s Peter & The Test-Tube Babies and Geordie jesters The Toy Dolls.
Singer Max Splodge insisted: “The pathetique bands are the other side of Oi! We’re working class too only whereas some bands sing about prison and the dole, we sing about pilchards and bums. The audience is the same.’ Pathetique peaked in the autumn of 1980 with the Pathetique Convention at the Electric Ballroom. West Ham’s bootboy poet Barney Rubble was Man of the Match.
Elsewhere a second generation of hardcore Oi! bands had been spawned directly by the Upstarts and the Rejects. The Upstarts inspired Criminal Class from Coventry, and Infa-Riot from Plymouth via North London. The Cockney Rejects inspired the ferocious 4-Skins, and Sunderland’s Red Alert. Edinburgh noise-terrorists the Exploited also cited the Rejects as their major influence. In London, a whole host of groups sprang up around the Rejects too including Barney & The Rubbles and Stinky’s Postmen combo. A movement was evolving at the grass roots.
I called it Oi!
Oi! was and remains a Cockney street shout guaranteed to turn heads. Stinky Turner used to holler it at the start of each Rejects number, replacing the first punks’ habitual ‘1,2,3,4’. Before him “Oi! Oi!” had been Ian Dury’s catch-phrase, although he’d probably nicked it from Cockney comic Jimmy Wheeler whose catchphrase had been “Oi, Oi that’s yer lot.” Entertainers Flanagan and Allen first used “Oi!” as a catchphrase in their 1930s variety act.
As I was compiling ‘Oi! – The Album’ for EMI (released in November 1980) more like-minded combos sent demo tapes from all over the country. There was Blitz from New Mills, The Strike from Lanarkshire and Demob from Gloucester. But the first real challengers for the Rejects crown were the 4-Skins. They made their debut supporting the Damned at the Bridge House in ’79 with Micky Geggus on drums. The 4-Skins developed through various line-ups playing low-key London pub gigs sporadically before arriving at their definite line-up towards the end of 1980: Gary Hodges, vocals; Hoxton Tom, bass; Rockabilly Steven Pear, guitar; and John Jacobs, drums. There was a real charisma about the band, and their raw brand of barbed-wire roar was blessed with a driving dynamism. Their stand-out song was ‘Chaos’, a horror movie fantasy of urban chaos and skinhead takeover. But most of their three minute blasts of fury concerned unemployment and police harassment (‘ACAB’, ‘Wonderful World’), the horrors of war (‘I Don’t Wanna Die’), thinking for yourself (‘Clockwork Skinhead’) self-pride (‘Sorry’) and class (‘One Law For Them’).
Both the 4-Skins and Infa-Riot were emphatic about the need to learn from the Rejects’ mistakes and get away from football trouble. The 4-Skins favoured no one team (Hodges was West Ham, Hoxton, Spurs, Steve, Arsenal and Jacobs, Millwall) and no one political preference (Hoxton was a liberal; Steve left Labour; Jacobs apolitical; and Hodges was a reformed right-winger very pro anti-unemployment campaigns). Infa-Riot were the same, professing no football affiliations. Mensi wrote their first Sounds review and he and Jock McDonald got them their first London gigs. Musically, they were a lot like a lither, wilder Upstarts. Like most Upstarts-influenced groups Infa-Riot played gigs for Rock Against Racism (an apparently noble campaign that was actually a front for the extreme Left SWP). Criminal Class played RAR gigs too, and a benefit for the highly suspect Troops Out Of Ireland movement.
The 4-skins refused to play RAR gigs, not wanting to be poster boys for Trotskyism.
The Oi! bands converged to publicly thrash out their stance at the Oi debate held at Sounds in January 1981. Everyone agreed on the need for raw r’n’r, and the sense of benefit gigs, but there was a heated difference of opinion on politics. Stinky Turner was violently against politics and politicians. Mensi argued that Labour still represented working class interests and claimed that “the Tories still represent the biggest threat to our kind of people”. It was the same divide that had always separated the Rejects and the Upstarts. They managed to be agree about reclaiming Britain’s Union flag for the people and, erh, that was it.
Although a few black and immigrant kids were into Oi, it was mostly a white working class phenomenon. The West Indian kids into Oi were cockney Blacks like the now famous Cass Pennant who’d rejected the pull of Rastafarianism and reggae. No Oi! band professed racialist or Nazi leanings (in fact Demob had two mixed race boxers in the band) and the teething trouble that dogged early gigs was all to do with the football legacy bequeathed by the Rejects. As Punk Lives commentated later “Anyone who went to Oi! gigs could tell you you didn’t get sieg-heiling at them…ironically Madness and Bad Manners had most trouble with Nazi skins at the time. All Oi! went on about was class”.
For the first half year of Oi the movement there were only two bad incidents of gig violence, both around Infa-Riot. The band headlined the first ‘New Punk Convention’ at the tail end of 1980 with the Upstarts and Criminal Class. It ended in disaster as Poplar Boy West Ham fans slugged it out with a smaller Arsenal crew led by the then infamous Dave Smith who followed the Upstarts.
In March 1981, Infa-Riot played the Acklam Hall in West London with Millwall skinhead band the Last Resort. Tooled-up local Queens Park Rangers supporting skins and straights besieged the venue looking for West Ham. At one stage they tried to smash their way in through the roof. Ironically, most Hammers Oi fans were safely in Upton Park at the time, watching their boys battle a Russian team.
The model of the sort of gig the bands wanted came in February 1981 with the second New Punk Convention, this time held at the Bridge House with the 4-Skins headlining (and introduced by the king of rude reggae himself, Judge Dread). The pub venue was packed far over capacity with a motley crew of skins, working class punks and soccer rowdies drawn from the ranks of West Ham, Spurs, Millwall, QPR, Arsenal and Charlton. There wasn’t one ruck all night.
This gig set a precedent for peaceful co-existence that lasted even when Oi! shifted venues to Hackney’s Deuragon Arms. It was living proof that Pursey’s old dream of the Kids United could happen. But united for what? It was around this time that I and the leading bands entered into a conspiracy to pervert the course of youth cult history. We held a conference to plan the way the Oi! movement could develop in a positive, united manner. The idea was not only to arrange gigs and set up an Oi! record label, but also to plug away at the central theme of the folly of street kids fighting each other over football teams. We wanted to give Oi! a purpose by playing benefit gigs for working class causes.
At the time I was living on the Ferrier estate in Kidbrook, South East London, as was Frankie ‘Boy’ Flame. And bands frequently made the pilgrimage here to stay in our maisonette while they were playing London or just to shoot the breeze in the Wat Tyler pub. Some petty jealousies and band rivalry existed, but the Oi! scene was far more united than any other youth cult in British history. We tried to build on that.
The first Oi! conference was a small affair attended by reps from the Rejects, the 4-Skins, Splodge, Infa-Riot, the Business and the Last Resort, the latter two being the latest recruits to the burgeoning movement. The Business were then known as ‘pop-oi’ because of their tuneful anthems. They came from Lewisham, South London. They were fronted by Mickey Fitz, who like guitarist Steve Kent, had attended Colfe’s Grammar School in Lee (as I had done) and had developed a terrace following which peacefully included West Ham, Chelsea and Millwall. Kent was a truly talented musician. The Business were managed by West Ham vet Laurie Pryor who was also known as Ronnie Rouman.
The Last Resort were a skinhead band from South London via Herne Bay, Kent, based around the Last Resort shop in Petticoat Lane, East London and financed by the shop’s owner Michael French. They too saw Oi as being bigger that skins. “Oi is uniting punks, skins and everyone,” growler Millwall Roi told Sounds in their first interview. “Now we’ve just gotta get away from football.”
Lee Wilson of Infa-Riot agreed. “Oi is the voice of street kids everywhere,” he said. “That’s why we’re gonna grow, that’s why we’re gonna win.” And Oi was growing all the time. By spring, as I was compiling the second Oi compilation “Strength Thru Oi” for Decca (released May ’81) over fifty bands had aligned with the movement, including the Oi/ska squad the Buzz Kids whose singer, Garry Johnson’s lyric writing far outshone his vocal ability. He’d already had some lyrics published in a poetry collection by Babylon Books called “Boys Of The Empire”. I encouraged him to ditch the band and branch out as Oi’s first entirely serious poet. Johnson’s humour and his bitterly anti-establishment verses added yet more credence to Oi!, as did the plethora of good fanzines that had sprung up around it – the best being Rising Free, Ready To Ruck (which became New Mania) and Phase One. In June a second Oi! conference was held in the Conway Hall at Red Lion Square, attended by 57 interested parties including reps from bands all over the country. There was much concern voiced about the movement’s violent image, which was felt to be unjust. The sublime Beki Bondage from the Oi-bolstered punk band Vice Squad complained that the aggressive skin on the front of ‘Strength Thru Oi!’ made the movement look too skinhead orientated. Everyone agreed. And once again conference voted unanimously to back pro-working class campaigns. Ron Rouman was delegated to write to the Right To Work Campaign that week to set up gigs. The main themes of the day were the need to unite working class kids, and stick together. Punk Lives called it “a glimpse of the future Oi! could have had.”
When the 4-Skins, the Last Resort and the Business played a gig at the Hamborough Tavern in Southall six days later, the riot that surrounded it and the acres of hysterical newsprint that ensued drowned out that possibility, and any chance of Oi getting a fair hearing, for good.
WHEN THE shit hit the headlines during 1981’s summer of discontent, I sincerely believed that the truth would out. That the smears against the Oi bands would be laughed at in the same way that the slurs against the Sex Pistols and The Clash had been. The whole idea that the bands had gone into Middlesex to provoke a race riot was absurd. We’d been talking strike benefits, not NF marches. No Oi band had sported swaztikas like the Sex Pistols had done. No Oi band had sung lyrics like “too many Jews for my liking” as Siouxsie Banshee did. No Oi band had lifted their name from the SS like Joy Division had done…
What contributed to Oi’s undoing however was the movement’s utter hostility to the middle classes in general and the trendy left in particular (see the Garry Johnson/Business anthem ‘Suburban Rebels’). So as well as incurring the wrath of the right-wing establishment, Oi also alienated the left-wing of the middle class media whose backing had seen the punk bands through their own particular backlash and who were later to defend rap and hip-hop which were far more violent than Oi had ever been, and anti-semitic to boot. Besides me, there was no-one else in the media to defend the bands. Very few rock journalists had ventured into the East End to see the gigs. (Indeed the idea that the NME was ever THE punk paper is a complete myth. That paper rubbished Anarchy In The UK and their first review of The Clash suggested they "should be returned to the garage, preferrably with the motor running." Parsons and Burchill loved Joe Strummer and co for their politics alone.)
The Oi! bands and their fans were guilty of that most terrible of crimes – being white and working class with chips on their shoulders.
Ironically Alan Rusbridger, now the editor of The Guardian was the only journalist to give the Oi bands a fair hearing…
The superficial evidence against Oi seemed strong – the Southall riot and ‘Strength Thru Oi’. The Oi! gig at Southall’s Hamborough Tavern had been arranged by West London 4-Skins’ fans fed up with having to travel to the East End to see the shows. The press painted sinister pictures of skinheads being ‘bussed’ into a predominantly Asian area. FACT: there were just two coaches hired by the Last Resort who hired coaches to transport their away-firm of fans whenever the band played anywhere outside of South London. TV and radio reports gave the impression of skinheads battling Asian youths and the Police. FACT: the Oi fans were all inside the Tavern enjoying the gig when the first Asian petrol bomb sailed through the window. The cops were protecting the Oi kids. The press said the peaceful Asian community had risen spontaneously to repulse right-wing invaders who had terrorised the town. FACT: there’d been just one abusive incident involving young skinheads from Mottingham, Kent, in a chip shop earlier in the evening. “They probably asked the geezer how many rupees a packet of chips cost,” Max Splodge later shrugged.
The sheer quantity of petrol bombs used by the Asians indicated they’d been stockpiling them for some days before. The young Asians were definitely on the offensive. Young white Oi fans were assaulted by Asian youths on buses going TO the gig, and a minibus containing Business fans from Lewisham and radical poet Garry Johnson was attacked by Asians wielding swords without any provocation (see Johnson’s book The Story of Oi for full details). In fact the apparently placid Asian community was to riot again within the week with no ‘outsiders’ to pin the blame on.
The idea that the bands had gone to Southall to deliberately provoke a race riot just to be able to cash-in on the ensuing publicity is just daft. It goes completely against everything they’d been trying to achieve for the previous eight months. The 4-Skins manager Garry Hitchcock said “If we’d really wanted to go to Southall and smash it up, we’d have come with geezers – and left all the birds and the kids behind”.
“People ask why the Oi bands played Southall,” commented Hoxton Tom, “but you’ve gotta remember, in them days any gig was welcome. No one thought for a minute that there’d be trouble there. The Business had played Brixton before. The Last Resort had played Peckham, we’d played Hackney often and they’re all areas with large black populations, and yet those gigs were always trouble free. Oi had to break out of the East End to have any chance of growing.”
To the mass media, the events of July 4th were manna from heaven: Yobs. Immigrants. Anarchy. The Thin Blue Line… But the Oi crowd were reluctant participants. As soon as it was obvious real havoc was brewing, the Oi bands attempted to negotiate with the Southall Youth Movement through the police. They didn’t want to talk. “We didn’t want trouble,” said Tom, “but that’s all they had on their minds”. Under attack, the Oi-polloi had no other option but to fight a defensive rear-guard action and retreat. The Hamborough Tavern was razed to the ground. And the press distortion began. According to some reports right wing hate leaflets had been found in vans the following morning – the same vans that had been torched. Were the leaflets printed on asbestos? Hacks even descended on the Bridge House and tried to bribe kids into sieg-heiling for their cameras. One was kicked out of the pub by Si Spanner who was Jewish. But who cared about the truth? Storm-trooping skins made shock-horror headlines.
The fighting at Southall could have been worse. Scores more Oi! fans were turned back by the police before they’d even got to the gig, including Indian workmate of Hoxton Tom’s (the press never mentioned the few black, Asian and Greek kids inside the Tavern). Ironically, reports of a race riot on the radio induced mobs of West London bikers to rush to the scene eager to stand alongside their old enemies, the skins, against the Asians. The cops turned them back too.
I take full responsibility for ‘Strength Thru Oi’. I gave the album its title. But it was never knowingly a pun on the Nazi slogan Strength Through Joy. Let’s be honest, who knew? How many people my age were that up on Third Reich sloganeering? The Skids had released an ep called Strength Through Joy earlier that year, and that’s what I based the pun on (asked later, Skids singer Richard Jobson – now a dapper TV movie reviewer - said he’d taken it from the Dirk Bogarde’s autobiography). It was either that or The Oi Of Sex which I dismissed as too frivolous. Doh!
Selective quotes from my sleevenotes were used by the Daily Mail to fit their theory of Oi’s ‘brown shirt’ philosophy. Naturally this meant they had to omit the favourable mentions of black sportsmen, including Jesse Owen, the American athlete who’d triumphed so dramatically at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The fact there wasn’t a single racist lyric on the album didn’t seem to matter. Criminal Class’s ‘Blood On The Street’ actually made the point that black and white youth faced the same state oppression.
The biggest argument they had was the picture of the aggressive skin on the front cover. This turned out to be Nicky Crane (a gay Nazi who later died of AIDS). Here’s the truth: the original model had been West Ham personality and then body-builder Carlton Leach. Carlton had turned up for one photo session at the Bridge House that didn’t work. He never turned up for the second one. Under looming deadline pressure I suggested using a shot from a skinhead Xmas card which I believed was a still from the Wanderers movie. In fact it had been taken by English skinhead photographer Martin Dean. It wasn’t until the very last minute, when Decca had mocked up the sleeve that the photo was sufficiently clear to reveal Nazi tattoos. We had the option of either airbrushing the tattoos out or putting the LP back a month while we put a new sleeve together. Said Splodge manager Dave Long: “Blame it on youthful impetuousness but the wrong decision was made. It was a mistake, but it was an honest mistake. There’s nothing else on that LP or in Oi that could possibly be construed as dodgy.”
Another crucial point the critics skipped over was that it wasn’t only me who hadn’t realised the picture was of Nicky Crane. The far right hadn’t either. That album had been out for two months before the Daily Mail ‘exposed’ it (and me!) and yet not once had it been referred to in right-wing publications. It was a bitter irony. Me, at that point in my life a dedicated socialist (used to having “Bushell is a red” chanted at me at gigs), accused of masterminding a right-wing movement by a newspaper that had once supported Mosley’s Blackshirts, Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, and appeasement with Hitler right up to the outbreak of World War Two…
In retrospect I think I’m more embarrassed by Crane being a poof.
Southall proved the catalyst for a spate of anti-government riots and there was no doubt where the Oi! bands stood on that issue, with the 4-Skins, Blitz and the Violators celebrating the popular uprisings with songs like ‘One Law For Them’, ‘Nation On Fire’ and ‘Summer of ‘81’.
In Sounds and in his book The Story of Oi, Garry Johnson called on black and white youth to unite to fight the Tories. Sounds and I started libel proceedings against the Mail, while the Oi bands now shaped up to deal with a problem that had never seemed and issue before – Nazism.
Naturally the far right loved it. YNF organiser Joseph Pearce (brother of Soft Cell’s Stevo) popped up in the press out of nowhere claiming that the Oi bands were the musical wing of the National Front. Pearce had never even been to an Oi gig.
Out of journalistic interest, I surveyed skinheads in the Last Resort shop on the Sunday after Southall. Most of them cited some immigrant ancestry from Irish to Pakistani through Russian Jew. Last Resort fan Khalid Karim from Leytonstone who was half-Pakistani swore he had never been hassled at any Last Resort gig. ‘Gappy’ Eddie from Poplar claimed to personally know at least thirty ‘non-white’ skins, including West Indian skins from Hackney, Brixton, Ladbroke Grove and Walthamstow, a half-Pakistani suedehead from Dalston and another half-Pakistani skin called Rob from Wimbledon who I remember was always at Oi gigs taking pictures. Sixteen-year-old Nicky Holder from Lewisham named other non-white skins – Gary Singh from Belvedere, West Indian Colin McClean from Lewisham, Arab skin Mushti from New Cross, and a huge black Orpington skin called Sanya. Jewish skinhead Tony Stern from Epping claimed to know “loads of Jewish skins and no one gets any trouble, where are all the ‘Nazi’ skins now, that’s what I wanna know.” Danielle Lux, from an orthadox Jewish family, was always down at the Hackney gigs. She is now something important at Channel 4.
When Socialist Worker ran a report based on the Mail article, it was inundated with letters from socialist skins and punks complaining how out of touch it was. Sheffield skins wrote to Sounds to say that the month before 500 black and white skinheads had marched together in protest against Unemployment and police harassment bearing placards proclaiming ‘Jobs Not Jails’. SWP skin poet Seething Wells was outraged by the all-skins-are-nazis line, pointing to the literally thousands of Northern skins and rudies who had swelled June’s anti-Nazi Leeds Carnival. He might have mentioned Liverpool’s ‘Skin Fein’ republican skins too.
It was harder to get the truth into the nationals. A freelance journalist called John Glatt came and spoke to skinheads at length and filed a sympathetic report to the News Of the World. His copy was slashed and distorted to make a cheap sensationalist slob story.
Even if Oi had just been a skinhead phenomenon it was dishonest and dangerously lazy journalism to suggest that anything more than a small minority of skinheads at this time were Nazi sympathisers.
The Oi bands realised that simple facts weren’t enough to win the propaganda battle. They had to prove their protestations of innocence. Garry Hodges went on TV to say that the 4-Skins would play an anti-racist gig as long as it was organised by an independent body, although the band split before it occurred under the tremendous pressure and after just one more gig – advertised as country band the Skans! - at a Mottingham pub. The Business declined to play RAR gigs for the old ‘RAR as Trot front’ reasons, but instead put together their own unwieldy named ‘Oi Against Racism and Political Extremism But Still Against The System tour with Infa-Riot, Blitz and the Partisans. Infa-Riot played a Sheffield RAR gig and Blitz played at the Blackburn leg of the Right To Work March.
After Southall, a few of us met up with Red Action, a working class street-fighting splinter from the SWP, to clear the air about Oi. Their leading member Mick O’Farrell even contributed a poem to the fourth Oi! album sleeve. It was a short-lived union, however. Although they called themselves socialists, Red Action were led by Irish nationalists and we disagreed passionately about Ulster and the Falklands.
In late August 1981, I complied the third Oi! album, ‘Carry on Oi!’ Released by Secret Records in October 1981. Eager to stand by the bands, I reformed my own late 70s band The Gonads to contribute Tucker’s Ruckers to the compilation. On first release it sold 35,000 copies. Melody Maker’s review stressed that Oi’s intentions ‘weren’t to divide but to unite the working classes’. The same month The Exploited smashed into the top forty with ‘Dead Cities’ (shame about that Top Of The Pops appearance), while The Business released their superb debut single coupling ‘Harry May’ with ‘National Insurance Blacklist’ – an attack on the unofficial employers’ blacklist operated against militant trade unionists in the building trade. Paradoxically, the period from September ’81 to the end of ’82 saw the strongest ever Oi! releases thanks to Secret, and the excellent Malvern label No Future’s series of twenty-two singles from the likes of Blitz, the Partisans, Red Alert, Peter & The Test-Tube Babies, and Derbyshire ‘Clockwork Orange’ band the Violators. Punk Lives mag calculated that Oi sold over two million in the first four years (by 2001, total sales by Oi groups and groups influenced by Oi stand at well over eleven million).
Recognising its significance left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths wrote a play called Oi For England which was broadcast by the ITV in April 1982 as well as being taken round England on a tour. The play was more than a little far-fetched. It featured four unemployed skins in an Oi band approached to play a Nazi gig, and revolved around their arguments about it and the riot outside. What Griffiths seemed to be saying however was that in any group of skins, you’d have one susceptible to the lure of race and nation, one drawn to class struggles, and two who couldn’t give a toss about politics.
Unfortunately, Oi’s vinyl health during 1982 wasn’t reflected on the streets. The 4-Skins split, then reformed with drummer Jacobs on guitar, new boy Pete Abbott on drums, Hoxton Tom still on bass and roadie Panther (Tony Cummins) on vocals. Later Millwall Roi sang with them. But by then Tom was the only surviving original, and sales had slumped almost out of sight. They split for good in 1984.
The Rejects were dropped by EMI in ’81, disowned Oi for HM, and didn’t play again for over a decade. The Upstarts soldiered on, playing the US punk circuit in ’82 but musically they went down the khazi. Under pressure from EMI the Upstarts released a poor synth pop saturated sell-out LP ‘Still From The Heart’ that flopped miserably. (Infa-Riot tried a similarly doomed direction change, releasing an LP of unbelievably ‘ordinary’ rock in 1983 before finally breaking up the following year). The Upstarts were the subject of a Channel 4 documentary in 1984, but their chart success was long behind them.
The Last Resort never ever got to the singles stage, they weren’t allowed a life independent of Micky French’s boutique. What he wanted was a house band, a singing advert for his t-shirts. Before Southall he opposed moves to send the bands on a US tour – he wanted the scene to stay at the small club level. The cynical claimed he didn’t want commercial competition for ‘his’ skinhead clothes market.
Sadly the Resort suffered when their London fans smashed up a pub in King’s Lynn called the Stanley Arms. Virtually the same crowd were also involved in a BBC televised ruck with local skins at Benny’s Club in Harlow. Both incidents happened in January ’82, at a time when everyone else was trying to prove that Oi! meant more than rucking. The Last Resort split with French later in ’82 to re-emerge as The Warriors, but back then they were never sufficiently motivated to build on their potential.
The Exploited meantime had shed their skin look, adopting a mutant Mohawk image and becoming the darlings of the Apocalypse Now punk revival. Singer Wattie went on to close down two thirds of Western Europe to other punk bands by smashing up dressing rooms. Losing gifted guitarist Big John (to Nirvana!) along the way, the band play on to this day.
Back in ’82, Blitz and The Business had clearly emerged as the new vanguard Oi desperately needed. Blitz specialised in belligerent boots ‘n’ braces brickwall Oi - pure youth anthems like ‘Fight To Live’ ‘Razors In The Night’, and the haunting ‘Warriors’. Their debut LP ‘Voice Of A Generation’ went top thirty and was the Oi LP of ’82 but they were never that hot live. A disastrous gig at the Hammersmith Clarendon at the end of ’82 was the beginning of the end. In ’83 Blitz split in two, their former engineer Tim Harris taking over from the popular Mackie as bassist (Mackie later formed the short-lived Rose Of Victory with Blitz guitarist Nidge Miller) and pushing the band into trendier synthesiser sounds with scant public appeal. They didn’t last into ’84.
The Business split and got punkier. Guitarist Steve Whale (ex-Gonads) contributed greatly to their harder sound. They were haunted by politics - internal and external. To back-up their ‘Blacklist’ song, Business manager Ron Rouman and the Oi organising committee (an ad-hoc body set up after Southall) met with blacklisted building worker Brian Higgins and other trade union militants to organise a big pro-union benefit gig. But the band bottled out and sacked Rouman, replacing him with bikers’ pin-up Vermilion Sands. Deprived of Rouman’s drive and terrace connections, the band fell apart. The Business reformed in 1984 and were smart enough to realise you had to tour to survive (ironically they signed to Rouman and Mark Brennan’s Link Records). They have been playing ever since to growing audiences, especially in the USA where they inspired another Oi wave.
Back home though, Oi as we first knew it died at the end of ’82. It never had room to grow, and its vanguard fell apart ignominiously. To paraphrase Mao, it was like a stream, when it’s moving it stays healthy, but when it gets blocked up and stagnant all the shit rises to the top. The Oi stream was definitely blocked up. And the poor quality of the new combos showcased on the fourth Oi LP ‘Oi Oi That’s Yer Lot’ (produced by Mickey Geggus and released by Secret in October ’82) confirmed it. The new bands were either too unoriginal, too weak, or (in the case of Skully’s East End Badoes, too limited in their appeal to a square mile of Poplar) to mean anything.
And when great Oi-influenced bands did break through in ’83 they all fell at early fences. Croydon’s Case were cracking – they specialised in a ballsy brand of high-octane pop fresher than Max Miller chewing polos in a mountain stream and were fronted by the exceptionally expressive Matthew Newman. Case attracted acclaim from most quarters (including the Daily Mirror and Radio One) but fell apart when Matthew swapped the stage for domestic bliss with Splodge co-vocalist Christine Miller. Similarly, Taboo rose from the ashes of the Violators and specialised in non-wimpy pop. But the band split when wonderful, vivacious vocalist Helen decided to get pregnant and leave.
Finally there was The Blood, one of the best Oi bands ever to come out of Blighty. Emerging out of the wild excesses of Charlton’s Coming Blood, The Blood’s debut LP ‘False Gestures For A Devious Public’ was an invigorating blend of Stranglers, Motorhead and Alice Cooper influences which hit the UK Top Thirty and was voted one of the year’s best by the Sounds staff. On stage they were awesome and OTT in equal measure. They filled blow-up dolls full of butchers’ offal and cut them up with chainsaws. And their lyrics were a cut-above the usual, with lines like ‘The Pope said to the atheist, "In God’s name I do swear, you’re searching blindly in the dark for something that ain’t there"/The atheist said to the Pope: "There ain’t no getting round it, you too were searching in the dark for nothing…but you found it".’ But the band were lazy bastards who never wanted to tour, and the days when you could scam your way to chart success were long gone.
Cock Sparrer reformed in ’83 and recorded the LP they always should have made, ‘Shock Troops’ (Carrere), but they never had chart success in the UK again. Modesty forbids any mention of the Gonads, considered by many to be the finest Oi! band of them all (see Back & Barking for the proof in handy CD form).
At the fag end of ’83, Syndicate Records launched a new series of Oi! albums which lacked both the bite and the sales of the originals – ‘Son of Oi’ was nudging up to the 10,000 mark when Syndicate went bust in December ’84, that bankruptcy itself a reflection of Britain’s shrinking Oi market. The two best new bands were Burial and Prole (the latter a studio creation put together by me and Steve Kent). Scarborough’s Burial cited Oi and 2-Tone as forebears and mixed the sounds of ska and rowdy bootboy punk in their set. The only Oi! band to have any success were the Toy Dolls who scored a top ten novelty hit with their version of ‘Nellie The Elephant’ at Xmas 1984.
As British Punk degenerated after its ’81 boom, the skinhead scene became a political battleground and turned sour. The cream of the ’81 generation went Casual. A few even turned rockabilly. Meanwhile Nazi kids who’d never been part of Oi started turning up at the gigs, obviously attracted by the media’s ‘reporting’. When they found the truth was different, they turned nasty: Garry Johnson was beaten up by Nazi skins in Peckham. I was attacked by a mob of fifteen Nazis (not skins) at an Upstarts gig at the 100 Club. Si Spanner was stabbed by the same nazi who’d tried to stab Buster Bloodvessel. Attila The Stockbroker, the left-wing Oi poet/wally, was whacked on stage in North London. Infa-Riot were attacked at the 100 Club by Nazis. You get the picture.
In East London, it was a different story - the British Movement were taken out of the frame by the Inter City Firm. In early 1982, Skully and other Oi regulars had organised a march protesting about the jailing of their fellow ICF member Cass Pennant. The BM threatened individuals, putting pressure on them to cancel this "march for a nigger". The following Monday the ICF had been planning to take on Tottenham fans (as West Ham were playing Spurs that night). Instead they confronted and smashed the East London neo-Nazis who were drinking in the Boleyn Arms. They were never a significant presence on the West Ham terraces again, but they remained a problem elsewhere.
When they couldn’t find Oi bands to toe the master race line, the neo-Nazis created their own nationalist skinhead bands around the Blood & Honour banner. Skrewdriver, the veteran punk band first featured on Janet Street-Porter’s punk TV documentary in 1976, came back as skinheads and were the cornerstone of the new hate-punk sound. Opposing them were a raft of equally extreme Trotskyist bands and performers, like the Redskins, the Newtown Neurotics, Attila and Seething Wells.
Quietly, and apart from all the polemics, a small, smartly dressed alternative skinhead scene developed underground. Hard As Nails fanzine reflected this growing trend. It was run by two young kids from Canvey, Essex, both Labour Party members. But they insisted the mag was about style, not politics. They had some cross-over with the scooterist scene which flourishes to this day, with thousands subscribing to George Marshall’s marvellous Pulped mag and enjoying a drip-feed of classic Oi CDs from Mark Brennan’s splendid Captain Oi!, the world’s leading punk re-issue label.
This fine volume will tell you the rest of the story in detail. In my view, the British Oi scene didn’t really perk up until Link Records came along in 1986, and gave a platform to bands like Section 5 and Vicious Rumours. But Link couldn’t reverse the decline. In Britain Oi fizzled out and turned to shit for many a barren year. But the fuse we lit went on to detonate explosive scenes around the globe. For the past two years Oi! has been booming in Malaysia (where they angrily insist that Oi is not about black and white uniting, it’s about black, white, yellow and brown). There is even an underground Oi! scene in Red China.
Oi had taken off in most European countries by the mid-eighties. But the Yanks made the music their own. Oi was always viewed for what it was in the States: a distinctive brand of street-punk. It was hardcore bands like Agnostic Front who first invited the Business to play there. The first US Oi bands were formed in 1981. The torch was carried later that decade by great bands like Warzone and The Press, the socialist Oi! band from New York whose anthem Revolution Now was directly inspired by the Gonads. But the US of Oi! really took of in the 1990s, with inspired outfits like Boston’s own Dropkick Murphys, plus The Bruisers, the Anti-Heroes and The Reducers. One of the best Oi-influenced bands were Operation Ivy, whose ska-punk numbers were punctuated with oi-oi terrace chants (this has become a ska-punk tradition). Operation Ivy became Rancid, one of the hottest of the 90s punk bands. Another major US punk band NOFX played Oi songs and were unashamedly influenced by Blitz and the Partisans.
Incidently the world’s largest organised tour against racism happened recently in the USA, featuring bands like Less Than Jake and The Toasters, and was sponsored by the Moon Ska label which is now run by rotund Oi stalwart Lol Pryor.
In April 2001 I walked into the Virgin mega-store in Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, and was delighted to find a joint Business/Drop Kick Murphys CD not just in the racks but being played on the store PA system. Upstairs in the book department the latest issue of Spin magazine had put together their Top 50 most influential punk albums ever. Oi! – The Album, the record I had compiled for EMI 21 years previously was in there with these words: ‘The white riot becomes a soccer riot: Oi! was punk dumbed down to a hilariously catchy chant and a knee in the bollocks.’ Not perfect but at least there wasn’t a sniff of any Nazi nonsense…unlike in Britain where apparently professional journalists like John Sweeney of The Observer feel free to trot out same old lies without ever checking the facts.
Posers who work for Kerrang and Metal Hammer still refuse to write about the Business even though they gleefully write about bands who cite South London’s finest as their inspiration.
And even last year, CD manufacturer Disctronics declined to re-press well-known “Nazi” CDs like ‘Oi Oi Music’ by The Oppressed (the world’s leading anti-fascist Oi band!) and ‘100% British Ska’.
Yeah, we still wind up the mugs.
The latest miscreant is Robert Elms. His book, The Way We Wore, starts with a lovingly accurate depiction of skinhead fashion in the sixties but goes on to dismiss Oi out of hand. Yet it’s clear from the text that Elms has no personal knowledge of the Oi scene, had never been to any gigs and has only a tenuous idea of when Oi happened and which bands were involved in it.
It’s an odd book. Elms, an LSE graduate, lost his father at a young age and clearly looked up to his tougher brother Reggie and his skinhead pals with something approaching misty-eyed hero worship. He’s hot for hooliganism (“working class teenage boys liked to dress up; working class teenage boys liked to fight”), and praises its “violent brilliance”. Yet strangely although gang warfare and terrace culture are fine in 1969, kids just like his brother’s gang ten years later are completely written off.
Elms admits (crassly) that he was attracted to punk by the awful rip-off fashions created by Vivienne Westwood; and by the politics of the Clash (nothing wrong with that). The music never really came in to it. To him, Oi was an ugly “monosyllabic” thing (unlike those colourfully polysyllabic cults such as Mod, Punk, Goth, Ted etc.) He manages to link the Southall gig with the death of Blair Peach, who was killed by the SPG more than two years before, simply because they happened in the same town. He writes that the “predominantly Asian area…was set alight during a riot at an Oi gig in a pub,” disingenuously failing to mention who was throwing the petrol bombs and who was doing the rioting…
Inevitably by the early Eighties, Robert was closely associated with the New Romantics (i.e. the camp clown end of British youth cults) and was busy writing pretentious poetry for Spandau Ballet. In fact, Elms gave them their name – taken from Spandau prison which housed one Rudolph Hess. That kind of Nazi flirtation is so bold and decadent, don’tcha know? Spandau wrote some quality pop songs, of course, and I have to admit to a tinge of jealousy regarding Elms’s love life (he dated Sade), but his views on Oi are laughably poor journalism. Besides, it’s hard to be lectured by someone who finds Blue Rondo A La Turk more exciting than Cock Sparrer, and Steve Strange more noteworthy than Hoxton Tom. Make your own mind up which has the most lasting worth.
Will Oi ever become respectable? I doubt it. But I do know this: the movement that NME once said I had “invented” is still going strong as it enters its third decade. And the message is still the same as it always was.
Oi’s self-definition of ‘having a laugh and having a say’ got it right on the button. The laughs were ten a penny for Jack the Lads knocking back pints and pills and pulling at the pubs, rampaging at the football grounds and revelling in rebel rock’n’roll at the gigs. Oi reflected that, but it also cried out against the injustices weighed up against the young working class. In that sense Oi was a real voice from the backstreets, a megaphone for dead-end yobs. At its best it went beyond protest, and dreamed of a better life: social change; the kids united.
© Garry Bushell; 13th May, 2001