As a youth cult and subculture, skinheads, their fashion and music, have been the subject of numerous books and documentaries, some favourable and others not so.
This is an on-going, decade by decade, attempt to catalogue in 500 words or less the most notable (our own Research Unit, if you like), starting with Richard Allen’s Skinhead in 1970 and ending on ST Publishing’s output until the turn of the century.
This takes us through fiction (from mass market pulp to graphic novels), sociology texts, affectionate histories of reggae and even a play. We haven’t delved into (for obvious reasons) foreign language texts or the more ‘true crime’ end of things, nor band bios (however sympathetic they may be).
If we’ve missed anything, let us know and we’ll either put it right or send Joe Hawkins round for wasting our time.
Text: Andrew Stevens
Richard Allen, 1970 (New English Library)
Skinhead is brilliantly evocative of its time and place in early 1970s Plaistow, East London. The taut prose forms a concrete understanding of the milieu and mores of the post-mod boots and braces culture of British working-class youth and its social impact.
The first few Skinhead titles were published at at a time when Clockwork Orange copycat violence was allegedly being meted out as quickly as municipal tower blocks and concrete car parks could be erected for it to take place in (a murder case of the time saw “sensational literature” cited in mitigation). Further dark episodes in the nation’s psyche, such as the Black Panther murders, were not far behind. Further evidence of the New English Library’s (NEL’S) former reputation is the reported existence of a Buckingham Palace Library-stamped copy of Skinhead, since the Queen’s own interest was piqued by the ensuing tabloid outrage.
No passing seventies youth cult was spared the NEL treatment: bikers, punks, football hooligans and even Kung Fu. The Skinhead series was temporarily halted each time to take into account shifts in the zeitgeist, be it life on the long-haired campus left against a backdrop of Angry Brigade bombings and wider militancy (1971’s Demo, a “masterfully-researched probe” according to its cover) or the latest manifestation of accelerated and manipulated teenybop (Glam, 1973).
The less-than-PC portrayal of Skinhead’s protagonist Joe Hawkins and his cohorts’ acts of violence and rape, not to mention far from casual (but never organised) racism, in Richard Allen’s work (‘Richard Allen’ was in fact an ageing hack by the name of James Moffat rather than the ear-to-the-ground bard of the terraces imagined by fans) cause many to blanche today. At the time these elements simply added to the series’ allure and profitability.
By the end of the cycle, 1980’s Mod Rule (the protagonist Joe Hawkins’ rape plot bastard offspring on this occasion, naturally), Moffat was understandably burnt out and NEL cut their losses accordingly – the imprint went on under a change of ownership in 1981 as a solidly mainstream thrillers and horrors concern. As risible as the plots and violence became, parody and pastiche weren’t far behind, affectionate or otherwise.
Here we can count the satirical poise of artist Stewart Home, the best-selling Victor Headley of Yardie fame, not to mention the Football Factory’s John King’s own Skinheads novel of 2008 and the entire Attack! Books roster.
The Paint House: Words from an East End Gang
Susie Daniel, Pete McGuire (eds), 1972 (Penguin)
For a decade almost, The Paint House was, in fact, the last word in a non-fiction sense (alongside the likes of Richard Allen’s output for the New English Library) on skinhead for the book-buying public at large. The book’s reputation has, as a result, proved problematic in that it has been seen by some as a ‘template’ or ‘how to guide’ of holy writ, serving an arbiter of what is or isn’t ‘skinhead’, such as the disdain shown for reggae (being “beyond the uniform”) by some of those interviewed, entirely atypical of the East End at the time.
This is to some extent set up by the editors, who simultaneously deny it as “any attempt to be a sociological work” while being “the skinhead’s truth about skinheadism”. Though anyone prepared to sit through the cod sociology could find something to takeaway in the rich sartorial descriptions around Crombies, Ben Shermans (“coloured and patterned, never white”) and oversized Levis (not to mention cherry red bovver boots all bought from the same “inexpensive shoe-shop” on Cheshire Street).
A collection of singular accounts from the Collinwood gang (13 of which are named on the cover), framed as a “cooperative” in that benighted social democratic era, The Paint House revolves around the youth centre in Bethnal Green of the same name (who liken their East End territory to West Berlin against Tower Hamlets Council’s attempts to create a “new image” for the area through “mixed development” of the old docks). Routine tales of Paki-bashing, trouble at the football and buttoned-down collars felt by CID (anyone’s who’s heard the Fresh Out of Borstal LP will have the idea) take place alongside flowcharts of social mobility as defined through class and authority.
As the editors point out in their introduction, the book was conceived of as an entirely different project, an examination of ‘skinheadism’ in London commissioned by an opportunistic publisher in 1970 to an optimistic three-month deadline. The author and publisher’s hopes alike were dashed by an equally opportunist thief who stole the manuscript from an unattended van in Belsize Park, leading the author to instead rattle off a collective oral history assembled from members of a youth cult already showing (by their own admission) signs of expiry.
The book itself, a Penguin Education Special, being entirely redolent of the burgeoning interest in urban sociology by that UK press in that era, could be considered alongside Michael Young’s Family and Kinship in East London (Penguin, 1957), that earlier influential “deep” study of post-war community and resilience in Bethnal Green (this also acknowledged by the editors).
A fairly sympathetic hearing was given, in turns surprising but also perhaps not, by the November 1972 edition of Gay News, which argued the book shows “we are all people”. Reviewed alongside another Penguin Education Special, A Last Resort? Corporal Punishment in Schools, author Doug Pollard praises the “committed book” and asks “Who can blame [the skinheads] for using violence to get their own way?”
The Skinheads and the Study of Youth Culture
John Clarke, 1975 (University of Birmingham)
Following on from The Paint House, sociologists were not done with the skinhead during the 1970s, even if it had morphed into bootboy rather than self-identified skinheads, ripe for the late 70s revival. In the celebrated 1971 documentary on Tyneside skinheads, All Dressed Up and Going Nowhere, the late Prof. Stanley Cohen (Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 1972) could be relied upon throughout to weigh in on why the Scotswood Aggro Boys felt compelled to beat up rival gangs of skinheads and the hairies of the Throckley Mob.
Although included here as a ‘Skinhead Classic’, this is in fact not a book, but a ‘stencilled monograph’ published loose-leaf by the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCS, often referred to the Birmingham School, a la the Frankfurt School of Adorno and Marcuse) of Paul Gilroy (There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, 1987) and the late Stuart Hall (and closed by its parent institution to much protest in 2002). Unusually for a skinhead text, originally presented at the ‘National Deviancy Symposium’ of 1973, copyright is printed as belonging to the Department of Education and Science (if anything, more the bane of many truanting skinheads’ lives).
By the author’s own admission, the paper is “not really about skinheads” but rather a “theoretical approach to the analysis of youth culture”. As such, it’s probably not worth poring over the paper (a PDF is attached for interested readers to consider its post-structuralist analysis), its intent and conclusions, but rather to examine its source materials.
The paper itself is heavily reliant on quotes from The Paint House, as well as “conversations with a number of ex-skinheads in Birmingham”), the author suggesting that changes in the East End labour class structure had been mirrored in inner-city Birmingham. Beyond this, the paper considers football as working-class culture (amid commercialisation) and, quite distinctly, that of youth culture, referencing an earlier CCS paper on territoriality as subcultural identification by Phil Cohen (‘Subcultural conflict and working-class community’, 1972) with skinheads representing “a systematic inversion of the Mods – whereas mods explored the upwardly mobile option, the skinheads explored the lumpen”.
Other than dipping into departmental colleagues’ papers and relying on the transcript-like Paint House, Clarke also mines sports and entertainment writer Hunter Davies’’Skinhead Special’ chapter in The Glory Game (1972), where like Bill Buford (Among the Thugs, 1990) years later he embeds himself among the pack on an away day (as with the Paint House, Spurs fans had their uses).
Though hailed for its originality since (yet occasionally chided for its lack of commentary about the racism on and off the pitch), Clarke contends that Davies’ “passive, rational analysis” lacks perception around the unity of the crowd through physical and emotional experience. When asked to elaborate on why the group enjoyed away games, one skinhead remarked “More cunt. We always stay the night there and chase their birds.”
Click here for PDF: John Clarke Skinheads
Next: the 80s