It seems like every other skinhead event is presented by a clothing company these days, and this was Brutus’s turn. The brand managed to assemble a fine Oi! line-up to celebrate its 50th anniversary. As to their shirts – they are, of course, authentic gear with neat three finger collars. Some of the colours are a bit too garish for my liking, but I do rather fancy the one pictured below. Now, if I could only bring myself to splash out 50 quid for a new shirt instead of hunting down a vintage one for the same price…
Punks had two other gigs to choose from that night – 999 and Chelsea at the 100 Club, Anthrax at the Silver Bullet – so the audience was almost 100% skinhead, save a smattering of punk girls who evidently knew where the action was.
Perhaps I didn’t catch enough of the Arch Rivals from Plymouth to pass a qualified verdict, though my impression was that they were solid. Excitement levels noticeably grew when North London heroes Crown Court made an entrance – a band so challenged in the publicity department it didn’t even occur to them to advertise the gig on their Facebook page.
Since the 1990s, Oi! music has undergone substantial professionalisation, and the results often lack the grittiness, rawness and bite that made the genre what it was in the first place. The audience-friendly musical approach is augmented by do-gooder lyrics such as Evil Conduct’s ‘Working Class Heroes’, which depicts workers as a docile servant class asking for nothing more than a little bit of respect. In other words, the white equivalent of ‘Uncle Tom’.
In an interview with Vice, Crown Court guitarist Charlie aptly likened the musical side of this trend to “Green Day with boots and braces”. In the same interview, bassist Nick attested American newcomers Vanity a “definite Chiswick vibe”, and the same could also be said about Crown Court’s antidote to eviscerated plastic Oi!
Let’s be a bit less euphemistic, however: with its sneering vocals, spiky Fender guitar sound, and chords that sometimes echo Pete Townshend’s, Crown Court’s hard driving “Chiswick vibe” resembles the Count Bishops or 101ers less than it does All Skrewed Up and Menace. There are traces of other 1970s street punk bands, though, and this reviewer is sometimes reminded of early UK Subs. Listen to Crown Court’s ‘We Made You’ back to back with the Subs’ ‘Brand New Age’ or ‘Young Criminal’ to see where I’m coming from.
What’s more, the empathetically lo-fi production of their Trouble From London demo and two EPs isn’t a million miles away from the early, ‘pure brickwall’ sonics of the mighty Templars. Cliched comparisons aside, there’s also something else going on here. Crown Court’s fast tempos and hectic garage punk riffs make for a dish that would not have been served in the exact same fashion twenty years ago. The intensified cross-pollination between different subgenres that has since occurred is manifest in their sound.
Crown Court’s set was short, brutal, and carried by a charismatic frontman. One imagines this is what early 4-Skins gigs at the Bridge House might have felt like. Speaking of which: as sussed readers know, Oi! gigs are rarely sites of sartorial elegance. Tight bleachers and union jack t-shirts abound – and, in some cases, denim jackets covered with so many patches they resemble those worn by Saxon fans in the 1980s. In light of this, Crown Court bassist Nick deserves a special mention: sporting an immaculate Ivy League collegeboy haircut, oatmeal crew neck jumper, and indigo Levi’s, he was a strong contender for the Hoxton Tom award as ‘best dressed bassist in Oi!’
Crown Court certainly live up to their credo that “Oi ain’t nice” (read with a cockney accent). Now that they’ve defined their style and sound, they might want to hone their songwriting skills and knock out a couple of classic tunes, too – not to mention more frequent Facebook updates. They have a lot of potential, and I expect to be blown away by new material when they open for the Cockney Rejects in April.
Next up was the ‘Brutus house band’, Grade 2 from the Isle of Weight. Now, many will have seen the Brutus advert starring Grade 2 singer, Sid Ryan, and some might have scoffed at it. For although the brand wears its skinhead colours with far more pride than the likes of Ben Sherman and Fred Perry, one can’t help the impression that it presents a somewhat bowdlerised picture to suit contemporary sensibilities. Yes, it would have been very nice indeed if “embracing diversity” had been the core value of the skinhead subculture. Alas, I can’t say this has unproblematically been the case.
In any event, there isn’t much left to be desired when Grade 2 hit the stage. Although these newcomers originally started out as a regular punk band, they now embrace classic 1980s Oi! Presumably because of their very young age and one band member’s floppy hair, some idiots on the internet dubbed them ‘emo skins’. I beg to differ. They’re young. They’re hungry. They’re working class. They close their set with a cover of ‘Real Enemy’ by The Business. What’s not to like? It shows well on London skinheads, then, including many who were around ‘back in the day’, that they gave Grade 2 such a warm welcome at the Fiddler’s Elbow.
Although I can’t hear it in their recordings, some of their live songs had a melancholic undercurrent not dissimilar to Komintern Sect – which they may well have acquired second hand via Lion’s Law. Their playing was tight and professional, and their set perhaps a bit too long for my tastes – I preferred Crown Court’s short and sharp blitzkrieg approach, which had more of a ‘statement’ feel to it. Another minor point of criticism is the ‘broken Britain’ message of lyrics such as ‘Who Rules The Streets’: “I don’t feel safe anymore, I can’t even leave the front door”, complains Sid, as there are “gangs everywhere”.
Look, I’ve never been to the Isle of Weight – maybe it’s a violent hellhole on par with South Central LA. But I do live in one of the most impoverished boroughs of London, and I never have trouble leaving the front door. You’re supposed to be a skinhead, after all – a centered, unafraid type. ‘Who rules the streets’, meanwhile, sounds like the cowering noises of someone who spends his life hiding under the bed cause he’s been reading the Daily Mail too much. Though borrowing from the 4-Skins’ ‘Chaos’, the attitude of the song is diametrically opposed to the original.
Pedantry aside – well done, boys, looking forward to see you play in London again. The last band on were London Oi! core stalwarts Gundog aka ‘the Bruno band’, who broke up in 2001, but reunited especially for this event. Unfortunately, this is where my memory of the event gets too hazy to pass competent judgement, although I do remember a cover of ‘Nation on Fire’ by Blitz, as well as generally being well entertained.
For my money, Crown Court emerged as the clear winners of the evening.