Jan 202012

Among our regulars, I’m calling on Happiness Stan to help explain England’s late-1960s skinhead movement. If there are other Townspeople out there who have something to add that I haven’t already learned from that beacon of accurate and original reporting, Wikipedia, please chime in.

How did a rock subculture rooted in an appreciation of Jamaican and African-American music become associated with right-wing politics? Did anyone who lived through this era note a shift in how skinheads were perceived within the rock community? I’ve read that the skinheads were an outgrowth of the mods. How did that shift take place?

In 1969, when the hippie-styled members of Ambrose Slade chopped off both their shoulder-length locks and the “Ambrose” part of their band name was their timing a bit off, or was this only a good idea for a very brief period? I ask because a year or so later they were looking like the glam band American rock fans had only a faint idea about through their 1970s prime before 1980s Hair Metal bands adopted them as forefathers.

The 1970 Slade album I just bought, Play It Loud, with them in their skinhead finest, has some solid, hard-rocking numbers and avoids overtly goofy songs and song titles with kitschy misspellings. Were there other badass, post-mod skinhead bands at that time that Americans wouldn’t know existed? I like how Slade at this brief moment in time retains the sensibilities of a high-energy, fat-free mid-1960s band while being just a little tougher and cruder than their predecessors. They come off like The Jam or Sham 69, at times.

Just a year later Slade would embrace Little Richard-influenced excesses that would typify ROCK music in the early ’70s.

The records I have by this version of Slade have their moments, but they’re all so stupid and lacking in anything worthwhile or related to the human experience. They only seemed to tap into their brief, menacing vibe of the best songs on Play It Loud in their choice of covers:


  5 Responses to “Please Explain: The Late-1960s Skinhead Scene and Early Slade”

  1. Happiness Stan

    Noddy Holder’s autobiography, “Who’s Crazee Now”, is a great read, more essential even than Ian Hunter’s “Diary of a Rock and Roll Star” for anyone craving an understanding of those times. It has been several years since I read it, but as far as I can recall the band went down town without telling Chas Chandler (their manager) what they were intending to do and he threw a fit when they got back. The skinhead look lasted for about as long as it took for their hair to grow again, and about a year or so later they were all stacked platform boots and hats with mirrors on, the look which those of us who remember them fondly over here know and love.

    Generally speaking, I don’t think that the majority of skinheads were intelligent enough to consciously align casual violence against people with no voice in society with right-wing politics, but it was not hard for those who understood the process known as thinking to align thugs kicking black people for pleasure with politicians of the right whipping up xenophobia to cloud their mishandling of the economy – a point to which I’ll return.

    I was too young to have any handle on the sixties turf wars, and am equally puzzled by the origin of the skinheads), although I grew up in Hastings where the first mod riots happened when I was not quite two years old, and every bank holiday weekend huge contingents of motorbikes and scooters turn up and drive along the seafront, although I don’t think there’s any trouble any more.

    The town (and most of the south-east) was, with the exception of a few families who by and large got on with and were liked by their neighbours, exclusively white, and racism was something exercised by ones parents but that youngsters growing up there were not really aware of – although it was certainly the case that folk in other parts of the country suffered greatly from its evils. As teenagers we would have to travel several hours by train to protest against racism on marches which generally ended up with a free gig by an assortment of punk and reggae bands, which was a pretty good way to spend a day.

    From the early sixties to the early eighties there always seemed to be factions feuding over music over here, the rockers became Teds and fought with the Mods, everybody picked on the hippies, there was a respite while no-one could be bothered to get animated about school kids into Glam, although the skinhead offshoot the Suedeheads embraced that genre and probably fought each other when no-one was looking, before the rockers returned a couple of years later to have a go at the punks. The skinheads sort of aligned with punk, but their casual vicious racism came up against guys like Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 who were prepared to stand up and challenge them, and they went off to create Oi, a really nasty little genre which it was fairly easy for even stupid people to eventually see was not a good thing to be aligned with.

    As soon as I was old enough to think about it I was also puzzled by skinhead culture, and why a group of people who professed to love the music of the blackest of black culture of the time should spread hatred and violence towards the communities whose cultures originated the music they danced to all weekend, although the development of an atmosphere of casual violence around themselves seemed to be more of an attraction than the music, and it’s much easier to pick on people who would not be listened to by the police (who as late as 1999 were described as being “institutionally racist” by the McPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, whose killers have only just been brought to justice this month) than to set about stockbrokers, bankers or ladies making tea at the Women’s Institute.

    As a child I was steered away from anyone who looked remotely like a skinhead by my mother, and after having spoken to quite a few of them in my teenage years developed an equally prejudiced view that intelligence and niceness seemed in a directly inverse proportion to the amount of hair sported (natural baldness was excused).

    This theory was rocked with the arrival of punk, although the sporting of cropped hair and braces was still a giveaway, but from about 1980 this theory no longer held – one of the lasting legacies of punk in the UK has been that young people in Britain seem a lot less racist (and sexist and age-ist) than had been the norm before. It still goes on, obviously, and probably always will, but at least racism on the grounds of colour is not so regularly spoonfed to babes in arms as the norm these days. (It’s getting pretty nasty for Eastern Europeans who have come to Britain at the moment, and our right-wing Government seems all-too-keen at the moment to stir up xenophobia as a distraction from their inept fiscal policies).

    I was sent on a course recently and met a man from Bradford Council who blamed all of the country’s ills on a particular minority, and it had been so long since I’d heard an otherwise apparently civilised person talking like that I was initially somewhat bemused, but at least knew that thirty years on I was now on safe ground telling him that he was talking out of his backside.

    There certainly was a good deal of racial tension in Britain in the period building up to Slade wandering down to the end of the road to get their hair cut: a politician with a reputation for frightening intelligence called Enoch Powell made a speech in 1968 in Birmingham (of which Wolverhampton from which Slade hailed is practically a suburb) in which he quoted a Biblical passage describing blood filling the River Tiber to describe what would happen if immigration was not curtailed, and the speech is considered a historical turning point for the worse in race relations in Britain. There has been a great deal of revisionism attempted over the speech, claiming that Powell was too clever by half and obfuscated his point with the use of complicated language, but I’ve just re-read it and it’s still not pretty, and remains quite clear in what it is expressing.

    There have been refreshingly few overtly racist bands (I can’t off the top of my head think of any, although Skrewdriver were notorious rather than popular and were given a very wide berth by everyone I associated with) who have made any breakthrough in this country, and many who have been prepared to challenge racist factions in their audience.

  2. Stan delivers! Excellent stuff, my friend. Take that, Wikipedia.

  3. tonyola

    Wow. Stan, you really ought to be writing a music column somewhere (if you aren’t already). Now can you explain to me the English infatuation with Mari Wilson in the early 1980s?

  4. Happiness Stan

    Thanks Tony, and Mr M!

    As for Mari Wilson – no, baffling at the time and equally so now. I think that “English infatuation” is possibly putting it a bit strongly, I can’t remember her being particularly prominent – she was fairly easy to overlook pop fluff, although pleasant enough compared to the true horrors that were Culture Club, the Thompson Twins and Kajagoogoo, and like them more of a staple on TV variety shows for a couple of years than anything with pretensions to serious rock credibility.

  5. Hello
    when skinheads started they were not a racist group, it was just working class kids that liked a lot of ska bluebeat,soul and mod stuff and had a look. It was a fairly aggressive look and got hijacked a lot by people with other motivations amongst which was an element of racist violence but that violence was by no means solely directed at people with darker skin. This was a time of extreme casual violence where I grew up in east London (and most places), going to the toilet in a boozer was fairly risky sometimes and gigs would erupt into mass brawls regularly especially if you went to see 999 or Sham when skins would try and ‘control’ the place and act as a group taking on all comers. It was tricky because they were easy to identify as a group so became a gang although they by no means all knew each other . There was no CCTV or security anywhere really – just violence and anarchy. It was pretty exciting mostly to be honest as long as you were young, able to fight, run (lots) or talk your way out of it (mostly) although it was often bravado and handbags. There were a lot of amphetamines around in those days and it made for crazy nights. As well as speed there was a lot of desperation and nihilism – 50 years later I am still struggling with my inherent nihilism from that time although I also look back fondly on it ha ha.

    Mari Wilson was never that big really although Neasden’s finest was popular in my house. I live opposite e bloke that was in her backing band the Wilsations and am obliged to drop little nuggets like ‘just what I always wanted’ into the conversation every time I see him in the pub. I love seeing him in the vids from the time with shiny big lapelled jackets

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