Let’s kick off with a 16 July 1969 article about a bunch of Somers Town skinhead kids, originally published in Rolling Stone magazine and transcribed by persons unknown. Here, the usual tales of bovver, aggro, and tribal warfare are interspersed with obscure stylistic references to “spade haircuts”, “Cherry Boots with steel toe caps and a yellow trimming” – supposedly not Dr Martens – and “Stomper boots” with “high backs, big steel toe cap, and everything”. Note also that the article claims boots were “still worn” with mohair suits on the weekends, albeit highly polished – a combination whose existence many 1969 veterans steadfastly deny.
Some casual, if unpleasant, racism is saved for last, which I’m afraid was widespread in British society at the time and not exclusive to kids who followed the skinhead fashion. There are even references to what appears to be a minor ‘race riot’, with kids smashing windows of Asian restaurants in Drummond Street near Euston station, thus prompting Asians to consider forming armed self-defense groups.
Were they just playing it up for the benefit of the press? Who knows. What is undoubtedly true, though, is that reports like this served other kids as a blueprint. They started to believe that statements such as “we can’t stand the pakis” encapsulated the kind of attitudes they had to adopt when jumping on the skinhead bandwagon.
The kids’ political naivety clearly shows, however. One wonders what the likes of the National Front and Conservative Party would have made of policy suggestions such as this: “I don’t know why we don’t fucking give them back Ireland if they give us back Camden Town”.
Finally, it is worth noting that a different crop of the same photo was used in the Radio Times article, ‘A Hell’s Angel is real agro to a Skinhead’:
Anyway, enjoy the Rolling Stone article now.
“They are the people you may see on the fringe of things, at free concerts shouting out for their favourite football team when everyone else wants to listen to the music, hanging around outside of the Roundhouse trying to annoy people with long hair, or you may see them just hanging around on the street. They are the kids who have short cropped hair, wear boots and levis with braces. They don’t really have a name as such, outsiders call them crop-heads, prickle heads, bullet-heads, spike-heads, thin-heads, bother boys, or agro boys.
The lack of a name is strange, for most groups of people with an image of their own eventually get a name, Mods, Rockers, Hippies, Heads. ‘We are not mods really. Some people call us Mohair Men because we wear suits at the weekend, mohair men waiting for the agro. We’re just sort of stylists really because we keep in with the styles.’
The thing that they are known by is the gang and the area they come from. Like Mile-end, the Highbury, the Angel. The gang will have a hardcore of members with the rest of the bullet heads in that area supporting this gang against gangs from other areas. ‘There’s about 30 of us here from the Town (Summerstown), you know, King’s Cross and all of them areas. If we ever got into trouble, the geezer’s down there’d back us up; like there was 120 over the Hampstead Fair, geezer’s we knew, and everyone would back us up if we was in trouble.’
Trouble is the key activity of the gangs. Known as a ‘bit of agro’ – a bit of aggravation. Trouble can start at some event such as a football match, a free concert ‘like up Parly Hill’ or at just about any other time. At the Hampstead Fair ‘all the rival gangs, they all meet up there. Holloway, Highbury, and all them mob, like, and they all stick together, they’re all one mob and we’re the other mob.’
Trouble starts in several ways. It may be planned days ahead over some rivalry between two gangs, or it may just break out over some small incident. ‘You just see a face you don’t like. You know, I mean we get a bit of aggravation with the guys up there. All you hear all the time is the Holloway’s looking for you, the Highbury’s looking for you: and everytime we go there and pull someone about it and say ‘what’s all this trouble with the Town?’, no-one knows nothing about it. So every now and again, like, when people say ‘we hear the little Holloway turned you over’ we can’t have that like, so we have to go up there and turn them over.’
Each gang seems perpetually on the alert for some trouble. Sometimes months will go by without a fight, then suddenly there’ll be a fight every night. ‘We are friends with no-one, no joke. There was a time when we couldn’t go out of our area like unless we were thirty handed. We fucking hit every crew from right round here, up that way St. John’s Wood, The Edgeware Road, Tufnell Park, Archway, Burnt Oak, Mile-end, Kilburn, Holloway, Highbury, just sort of everywhere. We just sort of, about eighteen months ago, went made didn’t we, for about three weeks, getting into fights and whacking crews. We whacked someone from nearly everyone of them areas and they was all after us. There was a lot of agro then.’ That was the time when someone in a car came after the Town with a shotgun. There was some uncertainty as to whether it was a shotgun or an airgun, and if it was a shotgun, whether it had real or blank cartridges. ‘The guy with the gun thought we’d all run like and hide but he came a bit unstuck ‘cos we didn’t. We stood there and fucking waited for it. We he can only shoot two of you can’t he.’ The outcome was that they threw dustbins under the car making it skid up the pavement into a brick wall, then threw bottles. ‘The geezer with the gun, got knocked out, and they says they’d never come down no more, cause they’re all made down that Town.’
Some of the action is centred around football, for most of the gangs support some team. But little of the fighting is with other supporters of London teams. Instead it is with supporters of teams from the North and Midlands. The Shed boys are those who support Chelsea (see the slogan ‘Shed’ painted on the walls) who watch the match from the Shed, one of the stands on the ground. Any who is not a Shed boy goes into the Shed is liable to get a kicking. Some of the fighting with other supporters takes part after the match, like at Euston when after a match you can see the crowds of bullet heads roaming in the streets nearby. Other things may follow the match, like kicking in shop windows and taking the cigarettes, or the time a crowd went up to Parliament Hill after a match and threw bottles at the Fleetwood Mac.
The clothes and the walk all fit in with the hard image. The usual gear is levis worn short with braces, tee-shirts, v-necked sweaters orcardigans in blue, khaki, brown, mustard or green. An innovation is the v-necked short sleeved sweater that doesn’t quite reach the waist so there is a hint of braces. Sometimes there are tattoos and sometimes gold signet rings worn two or three at a time. The cropped hair started coming in about three years ago and is probably copied from the spade haircut. And then there are the boots, the most important part of the gear. There are different types of boots and the styles change just as they do with shoes. Members of one gang tend to buy the same kind of boots. The boots probably arrived because a lot of bullet heads were wearing them for work, along with levis, and they’d come home from work in these clothes and what’s the point of changing if you are only going to stand round on the street corner. Then a style developed. ‘Like me, I didn’t start wearing them, we not really, because I thought, well I couldn’t half land a good kick with them, I bought them because everyone else did.’
The boots are one of the symbols of the hard image, and of course are very useful for fighting with. If you go out in your boots you are wearing a very handy weapon that is not so obviously a weapon like a knife. Even when the gang gets dressed up in their mohair suits on a Saturday night the boots are still worn, but then they will be highly polished. The trousers of the suits are worn short like the levis in order to leave room for the boots.
The boots are different colours and the favourite ones change over time. When it first started everyone was wearing tuf boots, Big T with the rubber sole, ‘then these boots came out, they call them Cherry Boots, Cherry Reds, with a toe cap like and sort of yellow trimmings. Then the black ones of these, then Monkey Boots which lace all the way up, and then Doctor Martins came out. Now there’s some new ones, with high backs, they’re just called Stompers, big steel toecap and everthing.
The walk too expresses the toughness. Its a sort of bouncy swagger with the shoulders spread broad. Its a ‘here I come stand out of the way’ walk. When there’s a group going somewhere walking is done in a long crocodile in single file, all hunching along behind the guy in front.
Most of the time seems to be spent waiting for something to happen, a bit of aggravation or a ‘caper’. During the week there is little else to do but hang about on the street, in cafes or Youth Clubs (if they haven’t been barred). Usually its the case that a few members of the gang have been barred from a club and so the rest don’t go because they don’t want to split up. The weekend is when it all happens. Those that are working have money and so maybe there is drinking or dancing at clubs. Clubs are not so popular as they used to be a year or so back. Then it was the Tiles and the Scene and other clubs round Wardour Street. A few now may make it down to Birdland. The weekend may also be the time for a caper down to the coast, Southend, Clacton or Brighton. Sundays it may be the Lido for swimming and a film in the evening if there is something on that they fancy, like a cowboy. Clint Eastwood goes down big. Strangely so did The Graduate. Tough films are liked best. Sometimes there are parties when peoples parents are away. Drinking mainly and the occasional smoke or pills.
The thing is that most do not have money to do much, especially during the week. If you’ve got a job and you’re not drawing just your £2 10s. 0d., from the Youth Employment the wage is likely to be around £10 or £15 a week, in labouring, apprenticeships and unskilled jobs. It is like they are in between everything. Not long out of school with a bit of money but not enough to go drinking in the pub every night, and in any case there is the age problem in pubs for most are between 15 and 17. To young and not enough money to buy cars or scooters. Sometimes someone will have a firm’s van which will be used to bomb off to the coast at the week-end. Too old to get much out of youth clubs. The girls they grew up with are now going out with older guys and only a few of the gang have girls. In some gangs girls are important. Squabbles over another gang’s girls may be a source of aggravation. But with other gangs girls are conspicuously absent and if some gets a girl he spends more time away from gang activities.
So the excitement comes from the action. But even that is avoided by some who can’t afford any more nickings. ‘Like that’s why we don’t go down the coast at the holidays no more. We’ve got too many up against us as it is. If you’ve got a lot of previous you’re doomed you are. If a copper gets hold of you and he recognises that you come from the Town you’re doomed to a fucking good hiding before you ever get near that nick.’ Like other groups there is the feeling that you get caught for the wrong things. That the bust is always the phoney one when you are not guilty. ‘We used to be really fighting all the time and they could never get any of us. Then they really started coming down, nicking you for just being there. Then a lot of it died down cause we gave a couple of them a good hiding. These two blokes came at us so we went at them, then one starts shouting that he was a police officer. It was too late then.’ The arrests are for insulting behaviour or assault. ‘I got one for using an offensive weapon. I got a good hiding off all these students and I got a nickering for it. I threw a bottle at them when they run. One of the geezer’s got his nose cut off.’
As well as the gang fights there are fights between just two people. In a team fight between gangs anything goes but if two people fight and it looks fair they are left to it. ‘You get one geezer fighting another geezer, it’s a straightener like, he might be looking for so and so and he might go up and say ‘right you, a straightener, then we leave ‘em alone.’
Some of the gangs like the Highbury and the Angel have leaders but many of the smaller gangs have different leaders for different activities. Some people are listened to more if an event is planned. Someone will organise something ‘like going to Southend for the weekend or a crew going out and whacking someone.’ Then of course there are those that are the best fighters. ‘There are fighters and then there are cranks, madmen. Like Tony. Everytime we have a fight some cunt he just wants to stomp them into the ground. He goes mad and starts shouting ‘Stomp Stomp’. You know that cunt what was on the floor at Ally Pally. Tony had this huge broom pole and was stomping him for five minutes.
‘We had a bit of agro up there like.’ There are other targets as well as rival gangs. The targets are other easily identifiable groups such as students, Pakistanis and Greeks. Weirdos and students they cannot understand. ‘What I hate about weirdos is that the majority of them is students. We’re paying for them to go to their colleges to get educated so they can help us run the country, it may not be my taxes but everyone contributes like, if it weren’t for them your tax would go down even if it was just a penny. Then those fucking peace demonstrations. The’re all shouting about fucking love and peace and that then they go down Grosvenor Square smashing windows and we get a bill from the Americans; we fucking owe them enough dough as it is.’ The feeling is that if weirdos want to dress strangely and be dirty ‘they’re right states they are, right two and eights’ then they are entitled to get done over. One way to get a weirdo is to jump him if he does not move off the pavement out of the way of the gang, or to wait in the entrance tunnels of the tube and to rush at him and jostle him. Sometimes landing a few kicks. ‘Weirdos is no fun to jump though because they don’t fight back, they just curl up while you kick them.’
Weirdos are also hated because they are friends with foreigners – Bubbles (Bubble and squeaks – Greeks) and ‘them Black Irishmen from the north – Pakkis.’ ‘We can’t stand the Pakki’s – we all went down Drummond Street one night, down the road that is, like its all infested with Pakkis. About fifty of us went down fucking putting bottles through their restaurants and that was a good laugh that was. It got in all the papers, how the Pakkis were asking the police if they could arm themselves and form vigilante groups.’ And of course the Irish. ‘I don’t know why we don’t fucking give themback Ireland if they give us back Camden Town.’
Strangely they don’t dislike West Indians. It might be because they dig the West Indian Music and dance their dances. Double D – Desmond Decker, Arthur Connely, Roland Owl, Otis Redding, The Ethiopians, The Skatallites, Buster, The Untouchables, and Max Romeo. Sometimes a bit of bubble gum creeps in but mostly its Blue Beat, Ska, Rock-Steady and Reggae Music. The Blacks are admired by the gangs. ‘Like they were the first with the short hair. They’re alright the Rude boys. Rudies hang out with Rudies mostly, and with white girls, and Black fight Blacks and Whites fight Whites and that’s it.’