|Hated by many, understood by few, the skinhead cult is a very different animal to that portrayed in newspaper headlines. Skinhead Nation takes you on a journey through the back streets of the UK, America and Europe to hear the skinheads' own story.
|Bring Back The Skins
The Big Apple Bites back
A day in the life of the skinheads of New York
Among The Mugs
The media and skinheads - ignorance really is the mother of prejudice when it comes to journalists and our cult
Bring Back The Skins
The origins and history of the skinhead cult from the late Sixties to early Seventies
No Mean City
The story of the Spy Kids skinhead crew from Glasgow in the UK
Here Comes Johnny Reggae
Skinhead fashion and style from the original skinhead clothing to today's skinhead cult
Violence In Our Minds
The story of the Tilbury Trojan Skins, a skinhead gang from Essex, England
The skinhead cult and the extreme right
Neither Red Or Racist
The story of the non-racist skinhead scene in Oslo, Norway
One Law For Them
The truth about Oi! music, the Southall riot and more
Tougher Than Tough
skinhead violence and aggro
No One Likes Us
The story of the anti-racist and non-poltical skinheads of Berlin, Germany
Us And Them
The divided nation that is the skinhead cult today
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in 1969, following a gig in Birmingham, reggae legend Laurel Aitken found
himself being arrested and remanded in custody till the following Monday. He
had fallen behind on his payments for a paternity claim, and was facing a
£200 fine or six weeks of prison food. The only person he could contact
to help him was the owner of Pama Records who duly arrived with the money to
get him out - and a recording contract. Laurel had little choice but to sign on
the dotted line, and so began his fruitful association with Pama, and in
particular its Nu-Beat subsidiary.
The story of Jamaican music is littered with as many such tales as it is classic songs. Thanks to a whole host of reasons, from bad business deals to a largely apathetic music press, Jamaican music also boasts far more than its fair share of unsung heroes. And if everybody played by the same rules, the name of Laurel Aitken would be up there in bright lights beside those of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker.
Although born in Cuba in 1927, Laurel emigrated to Jamaica with his family when he was eleven years old, and quickly became involved in the local music scene - busking in the streets, entertaining tourists as they stepped off the cruise liners and singing in the numerous and very popular talent shows of the day.
By the late Fifties, Laurel Aitken was one of Jamaicas best loved recording pioneers, having been the first local artist to top the JA hit parade with Little Sheila / Boogie In My Bones (R&B), a single that remained in the charts for over a year. Such success brought him to England in 1960, where he went on to record hundreds of tracks, including Mary Lee for the newly formed Melodisc label and Boogie Rock, the first release on the now legendary Blue Beat label.
He continued to work throughout the Sixties, including spells as a recording artist with Ska Beat, Dice, EMI, and Graeme Goodalls Rio label, but it was with reggae that he was to have arguably his finest hour. Songs like Landlords And Tenants, Jesse James, Scandal In A Brixton Market and Pussy Price, all of which appeared on Nu-Beat during 1969 and 1970, are classics of the era and are guaranteed to pack any dancefloor at skinhead reggae dances to this day. In addition, Laurel emerged as one of the UKs leading producers of reggae music, and was much sought after, not only by Pama, but also by their much bigger rivals, Trojan.
Although receiving little to no chart action in the UK (he came closest with the release of another gem, Its Too Late on Trojan in 71), Laurel was selling thousands upon thousands of records at the time. This was true of other reggae artists too, but since most of the sales were through small independent shops they were not included in the returns that would have given them the chart success and radio airplay they most certainly deserved. Its interesting to note that the music press showed next to no interest in Jamaican music at the time, dismissing most of it as crude and boring, and radio stations rarely played it until Trojan smashed its way into the charts towards the end of 1969 with a more commercial reggae sound.
Trojans success was very much on the back of the base support afforded to the music by the West Indian communities of the day and by the growing hordes of skinheads who could be found dancing away to the sounds of Jamaica at ballrooms and youth clubs throughout the country. Songs like Symarips Skinhead Moonstomp (Treasure Isle), Skinhead Jamboree and Skinhead Girl (all to be found on the bands Skinhead Moonstomp album which has recently been re-issued as a CD by Trojan complete with original sleeve featuring a black and white shot of Blackpool skins), Skinhead Revolt by Joe The Boss (Joe), Claudettes Skinheads A Bash Them (Grape), and Laurels own Skinhead Train (Nu Beat) paid tribute to the fact that it was the skinheads who gave reggae the leg up it needed to reach the mainstream music market.
I used to play a few places back then and youd see skinheads on the scene, remembers Laurel. You used to see a few in the dances, and it just grew. Ive been having a skinhead haircut since the Sixties so seeing skinheads coming into the dances with their short hair didnt mean anything to me. I used to be a skinhead and I still am, he jokes, as he takes off his trademark pork pie hat and displays a bald head.
Laurel continues to perform to this day. Even at the grand old age of 68, live on stage he is unbeatable, a superb entertainer. Whats more, he displays more stamina than most of the young pups in the audience when it comes to dancing around. His popularity today though is largely and sadly confined to the underground ska scene where he is given the respect a man who is known as the Godfather Of Ska and the High Priest Of Reggae deserves.
In fact, most of todays commentators on the reggae scene should be ashamed of themselves for not giving artists like Laurel credit for their contribution to Jamaican music. Whenever I do a show, if I see skinheads, I know Im going to have fun. If Im in the dressing room, resting or talking, I always ask if theres any skinheads in the audience, and if they say quite a lot, it makes me happy. The skinheads support the music and if someone supports you, youve got to like them. When I play ska, theres like two black guys there and the place is packed with white kids. A skinhead in Germany told me hed seen me six times at gigs - if a black guy sees you once, youre lucky.
Back in 1961, a 17 year old white youth by the name of Alex Hughes found himself at a blues party in a London cellar, listening to Jamaican music for the first time and enjoying his first ever taste of Red Stripe beer. The sounds being played were by artists like Derrick Morgan and Laurel Aitken and little could he have known then that he would not only go on to work with such musical legends - he was actually Laurels bodyguard for a period in the Sixties - but would eventually join them as a reggae great in his own right. As the Sixties picked up steam, Alex Hughes did a variety of jobs, including professional wrestling, debt collecting and working on the doors of various London clubs, and in particular The Ram Jam Club which regularly had 1,800 punters through the door despite selling no alcohol. As a bouncer, he was in as good a position as any to witness the birth of the skinhead cult.
The first time the skinheads came to right was during the mod time really, going back to the days of Geno Washington and the mods and rockers. Out of that evolved the whole skinhead thing. All of a sudden the hair became shorter. Obviously I had my hair cut short at the time because of the size I was and I was also a wrestler, putting a mask on my head and things like that. It was the mid-Sixties when I started to see them, probably about 66, but by 68-69 it was rampant. Bank holidays were the big thing - you could go to Margate and see them all milling around. But in fairness, when they talk about the trouble, Ive seen the press making them run up and down the beach, taking photographs and saying run this way, run that way. And then three days later youll see it on the front of the paper - SKINHEADS RUN RIOT.
From working club doors, Alex graduated to working behind the decks, and eventually started his own sound system. Weighing in at 22 stone at the time, and being a frightening looking character, he borrowed a name from a Prince Buster track and called it the Judge Dread Sound System. The way to make a name for yourself as a sound operator was to have Jamaican imports that nobody else had, so the newly christened Judge Dread would make regular trips down to Sheerness to buy records straight off the banana boats. He became more involved in the reggae music scene, and when he moved from London to Kent the Judge started promoting bands too. His biggest coup at the time was booking another skinhead favourite, Desmond Dekker, to play when he was at number one in the British charts with The Israelites (Pyramid). Previously, Alex had been the first white man Desmond had really met because Alex picked him up from the airport when he first visited Britain.
I came down to Snodland when my family moved down and I came across this little picture house-cum-bingo hall. There was a few discos in there and I decided to elaborate on that and so brought down the Coxsone Downbeat sound system and started having a few dances and things like that. After a while, I put on a few groups. The first one was The Coloured Raisins at the start of 1969, and at that time people in the area hadnt really seen black people before. So I not only introduced them to reggae in this part of the world, but black people as well. Then I had The Rudies down here, all nighters, other sounds like Neville The Musical Enchanter and then the ultimate was Desmond Dekker when he was at number one. You just couldnt move. If you can imagine, number one in the charts, 1969, the streets were packed. After that the Savoy became quite famous in the area, people travelled from miles away, and I had a few groups booked. And then one day the police turned up and there was a massive drugs raid and that was the end of the Savoy as we know it!
By the end of the year, the Judge was working for Trojan Records and its artists booking agency as a debt collector. It was while working for Trojan that he decided to take the B side of one of the records he used to play, Little Boy Blue, and go into the studio and record a demo. It only cost him seven or eight quid and was never intended for release, just for his own benefit. One day though, he was in the Trojan office and he was playing the demo to the band Greyhound when the managing director walked in. The MD asked if the song was one of theirs - at the time Trojan were releasing an amazing 40 or so singles a week - and when he heard it was Alex, he suggested releasing it.
Prince Buster had scored a massive underground hit with his Big Five, and to capitalise on that success Judge Dreads debut single was re-named Big Six and released on the Big Shot label in 1972. It was an instant hit, selling over 250,000 copies in the UK, mainly to the ethnic market - and amazingly enough it charted in Jamaica too. Most people assumed that Judge Dread was black and when Trojan took him to an EMI sales conference and they saw he was in fact white it helped secure a distribution deal that would see Big Six reach number 11 in the charts without any radio airplay whatsoever.
Judge Dread then took the art of rude reggae to new heights, with a string of top thirty hits including Big Seven, Big Eight, Je TAime and The Winkle Man. Like all Judge Dread releases, they were instantly banned by radio stations because of their saucy lyrics, but that just added to their appeal and helped guarantee their success - although the powers that be didnt always acknowledge this success thanks to pressure from the nations moral guardians like Mary Whitehouse. Big Seven was selling something like 70,000 copies a day and should have gone straight in at number one, but got no higher than number five.
In 1973, following his appearance at the Ethiopian Famine Disaster concert alongside Bob Marley and Desmond Dekker, Judge Dread released a cover of Clancy Eccles Molly as a charity record to raise further funds. Incredibly it too was banned by radio stations because of the Dread connection - it was obviously more important to keep the Judge off the airways than it was to help feed the starving millions. Eleven years on though, and the very same radio stations were falling over themselves to promote the Band Aid project. Such is the sick world we live in.
By the mid-Seventies of course, the skinhead cult had hung up its boots en masse, but it certainly hadnt been forgotten by Judge Dread. In 1976, he released his Last Of The Skinheads album on Cactus. On it was the classic ode to days gone by and a demand to return to them in the shape of the song, Bring Back The Skins. It remains arguably the finest reggae cut in honour of the cult ever released. I decided to write that song, not knowing at the time that it would become the skinhead national anthem. You can forget your Skinhead Moonstomps because Bring Back The Skins actually depicts what it was all about. The days when people would go down the Palais, and probably they would have a fight and dance to reggae all of the night. The whole way of life was more permissive then too so of course youd blag a bird, so the song actually relates to what went on in 69. The greatest thing about it was that a few years later, the 2 Tone thing came along and the whole thing was revitalised again.
The Judge remained both a recording and performing artist until his death in 1998, and like your Laurel Aitkens and your Desmond Dekkers and your Derrick Morgans, still commands a healthy skinhead following, not just here in Britain, but throughout the world. In fact, its actually quite ironic, but if you want to know about the true greats of reggae history today, youd be better off asking a skinhead than a black kid with Jamaican roots.
Chris Prete, who runs The Official Trojan Appreciation Society as well as supplying the label with top notch release projects and sleeve notes to match, is one such skinhead who is a walking encyclopaedia on the subject. Chris first became a skinhead when he was 11 or 12 years old, mainly because all of his mates were skinheads and he liked the sharp, clean image. There werent many people who werent skinheads or who didnt have long hair. You were either one or the other, or at least thats how I saw it at the time. And in London, it seemed to be mainly skinheads.
Chris and his mates would imitate the older kids who were also skinheads, roaming the local streets in gangs named after pubs, street corners and the like - the Acre, the Estate, the Queensbury. It was the older skins who first introduced him to reggae - Derrick Morgans Tougher Than Tough was one of the first records Chris heard - and he has been captivated by the music ever since. His Trojan collection boasts over 1,000 singles and 400 albums - he also had a lot of Pama releases too, but sold them to concentrate on his first love, Trojan. There are plenty of skinheads out there who would give their right arm for a tenth of the sounds Chris keeps neatly sorted by label, from Attack to Upsetter, the latter of which he ranks alongside Downtown and Trojan itself as the top names in skinhead reggae. Personally though, he rates the Duke Reid and Treasure Isle subsidiaries as the icing on the Trojan reggae cake.
To me skinheads and reggae go together. You cant separate them. Its a basic music, simple and not complicated. Its got a hook with the bass beat, and once you start getting into the music, its hard to walk away from it. The deeper you dig, the more good things you discover. It really is amazing that so much good music has come out of a small island like Jamaica.
Its not just the original skinheads who feel this way about Jamaican music. It is as popular today among skinheads as it has always been. Its hard to describe, says Jacquel, a skingirl from Edinburgh in Scotland who now lives in London, but its a really good feeling if you hear a good song and you really get into the rhythm and want to get up and dance. Its something that affects you, and thats why I like reggae and rock steady because it touches your soul.
Toast, a skinhead from Ramsgate who produces Tighten Up skinzine agrees. I think it should be remembered that skinheads put reggae into the British charts. If it wasnt for skinheads and the movement in 68, 69, I dont think reggae would have made it into the charts. Maybe Bob Marley wouldnt have got to where he got to if it wasnt for the white working class youth.
Another one time skinhead who has since devoted his life to the appreciation and celebration of Jamaican music is Gaz Mayall, son of blues man John Mayall. Gaz is not only the proud owner of one of the largest collections of Jamaican vinyl anywhere in the world, but for over a decade now he has been willing to share its joys at his weekly Gazs Rockin Blues, Londons longest running club night (currently to be found at St. Moritz in Wardour Street every Thursday night).
Skinhead was a fashion thing, it was a music thing, it was about dancing, and it was about sex. Youd go to a party, put a sound system in and buy a load of beer, and all the girls would be looking at the boys, and all the boys would be looking at the girls, and within ten minutes youd have a big fat skinhead chick sitting on your lap! Youd be listening to Big Five and your own big five would be right there! 99½% of all the people who were skinheads between 68 and 71 have some great memories. It was just the vibe of the times. Great music and great style.
When you talk to anyone who was a skinhead during the original era, the memories come flooding back as if it was yesterday. I was the first skin in the area, says Stuart, who brought the skinhead fashion to Bridlington on the East coast of England from his native Leeds. I got quite a few strange looks at first because everyone had long hair, permed hair, and was into Mungo Jerry, that kind of music, and I was into reggae and all the opposites. Then I got involved with two scooter clubs from Leeds, one called The Lulus and the other The Incas, and after a few years the full length of the seafront was full of scooters with the mirrors on, cradle back rests. There were hundreds of skinheads here in the summer, but in the winter there was maybe a dozen.
At the time, most people no doubt thought that Stuart and the other Bridlington Skins would amount to very little, but nothing could be further from the truth. People marked you as a villain or a con or a thug, that sort of thing. Since then Ive had my own pawnbrokers shop, Ive had a jewellers shop, Ive got my own 44 bedroom hotel with a pub, cabaret club, Ive been a promoter, sang on the Motown Show with The Temptations, The Four Tops, Judge Dread . . . A lot of my friends are now in business, theyve all got on and theyve all been skinheads. Theyre as good as anyone else. The media treat skinheads wrong, just like they treat a lot of people wrong. People should go by personal value, not face value. You should never judge a book by its cover because theres good and bad in all.
Its been over 20 years since Stuart was a skinhead, but he still sees himself as belonging to the skinhead cult, almost as if it is something that stays in your blood forever. A feeling shared by many others who have given part of their life to being a skinhead. I once went to a works party, and it was a smart affair so I turned up in a tonic suit, loafers and Bennie. Anyway, this lady came up to me and said, Is that a Ben Sherman shirt? She was in her early forties, but from the collar alone could tell what make of shirt it was. It turned out that her husband, a bank manager no less, had been a skinhead first time around, and still refused to throw out his old shirts even though they no longer fitted him. I then spent the rest of the evening drinking and talking with him, as he reminisced about skinheads in his home town of Gateshead.
I was also stopped by a policeman once, and just thought it was yet another Noise Up Skinheads day. But no, this bobby had seen my Trojan Skins patch, and couldnt stop talking about how he used to be a skinhead into reggae, how he collected Trojan, joined the Trojan Appreciation Society, still had the members medallion, and so he went on. As Stuart says, You never really get out of it. Its you.
Not so long ago, Stuart appeared on a TV programme, over an incident where he had caught one of his employees stealing from hotel rooms. Knowing that the police would do very little about it, Stuart had set up a video camera in a room and caught the bloke in the act. Then together with his son, Stuart grabbed hold of the thief, took him to the basement and extracted a confession. Locals who are equally fed up with nothing happening to petty criminals saw Stuart as a vigilante, and he was praised in the local paper. However, the TV documentary tried to make him out as a thug who took the law into his own hands - as if the toerag hed given a job to didnt deserve a good slapping. Just as Stuart still sees part of himself as belonging to the skinhead cult, very few skinheads reading this will think he did wrong. You dont let people shit on you and get away with it.
I consider myself a skinhead even although I dont look like one now, says Rob Hingley, echoing the feelings of countless ex-skins. I looked like one in the past, but I think its more of a mental state of being in a movement thats been around since 1967, and being proud of your working class heritage, being clean and tidy, and having respect for people around you. Its a proud badge of working class courage, thats how I see it. I might not look like a skinhead anymore, but its in my heart.
Graham, another original skinhead from Bridlington, has never hung up his boots. To this day he can be found working the doors of nightclubs with a cropped head and wearing his crombie coat and boots. I first became a skinhead in 1970. It was after wed seen some of the older lads like Stuart and we thought, that looks good. We couldnt afford the Doctor Marten boots or the Ben Shermans so we just made do with army boots, granddad shirts, and as we could afford it, we bought the clothes. You felt ten feet tall when you put your boots on, you felt really good, felt somebody.
Brian Kelson has also remained true to the skinhead faith more or less since first signing up in 1970. It was work all week, so come Friday night youd put on the gear and go up the pub, leave the scooters at home, have a few beers, decide who was going to drive. We used to go up a local nightclub and there was always a big mixture of people - blacks, skinheads, and all the lads from the smaller towns - so there was always a lot of trouble. That was just the sort of place it was. If we got bored, wed go to a disco in a smaller town and theyd immediately see you as alien because you were dressed differently - short hair, suits, sta-press, whatever - while they were just average boys about town. Youd ask the DJ to play some reggae - theyd always have Al Capone, Israelites - and youd start dancing and talking to some of the girls, and you could guarantee the local lads would come over. You were different, coming into their club, dancing to strange records, chatting their girls up, so it would always kick off. Then, it was just a laugh, great fun. Youd always end up having a punch up. Everything would go flying, chairs and tables and whatever, you against them, a big divide down the middle. Because you were dressed differently you attracted trouble and people thought you were looking for it.
Theres nothing like being in a gang, recalls Lee Thompson, who would go on to find fame and fortune with Madness, a band who were at least partly responsible for the return of ska in the late Seventies and the reason behind a new generation of school kids shaving their heads and lacing up a pair of boots. I first saw skinheads in about 68 and I thought, I like that. There was a pair of flares laid out in front of me and a pair of Doctor Martens and for some reason the Doctor Martens appealed to me more than the pair of flares. Plus the people I knocked about with were that way inclined - shaved heads, jackets . . . it was a good year for fashion. We used to knock about Parliament Hill Fields and we were called the Highgate. The leader of the gang was Dave Nash and the next in line was a chap called Dennis and they must have only been five foot three, but they looked eight feet tall. We used to do stupid things like smashing windows and that. There was a bowling green next to us where old people used to enjoy their Sunday afternoons and one day we went over there with our steel combs and carved our names in the bowling pitch. They had to take the whole thing up and re-lay it.
Britain has given birth to countless youth cults since the Second World War, but few come close to challenging skinheads who represent the greatest of them all. And thats particularly true of the original skinhead era. At the time, communities were being demolished to make way for high-rise flats and jobs were being replaced by machines, and somehow the skinhead cult, with its style, passion, power, defiance and aggression, seemed to be the perfect celebration of working class pride. Skinheads worked hard and played hard. They went cap in hand to nobody. They were smart, clean and sussed. To be a skinhead was to join in the celebration, it was about standing together with your mates, it was about being somebody in a world of nobodies. At face value it was just another fad, but its roots were so powerful and meant so much to those involved in it that the cult has stood the test of time for nearly 30 years now.
1970, on holiday somewhere down south, I first saw a gang of skinheads running riot around this seaside town, remembers Nidge Miller, later of Oi! band, Blitz. A week later I had my head shaved, got my boots, my braces and a shirt. Almost everyone was a skinhead really. Back then you were a skinhead or nothing.
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