The sun is setting and the day is late, as they walk over this wasteland of hate. Their music is grimy and raw, just like their natural habitat. But sometimes, they feel the lure of a rather different sound – one that is cool and rational, if somewhat bleak; maybe a bit like the layout of their housing estate. Our guest writer Andrea Napoli, who runs the coldwave label Avant! Records, investigates the missing links between skinhead and post-punk.
When I was 16 or 17, I went through a skinhead phase back in my hometown of Como, a small Northern city in Italy mostly famous for its beautiful lake. However, if you’re into Oi – and I assume you are if you’re reading this – you may also know Como for local bands such as Asociale and Erode.
I don’t remember how exactly I got into it, all I know is that I loved all the proper bands and the outfit was there too: cropped hair, Fred Perry polos, Gazelle trainers, oxblood Harrington jacket.
It only lasted one year, this whole full-package thing. I’ve always been kind of reluctant to buy into a full-on look or uniform, mostly because I felt like it didn’t allow for other sides of my personality to come out. How can one be a skinhead and listen to, say, the Gun Club or Pussy Galore, I wondered? Or Joy Division?
Life went on and much more music came in, although that never really led me to hang up my Perrys, my Harrington or my Ben Shermans.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been digging up Oi again, and I noticed a great deal of new bands, each with its own sound, in fact mixing various angles of the subgenre like never before. Some of them, like Battle Ruins and Berzerker Boyz, flirt with Boston HC and NWOBHM, Bilbao’s Cuero brings some late Darkthrone punk metal vibe to their fierce Oi, and others still, mostly in France, have a colder sound.
This made me wonder: an Oi and metal crossover is not without precedents (e.g. British late 80s skins, some Samurai Spirit Skinhead stuff) and intuitively makes some sense: Oi can be macho, metal can be macho, there you go; but can there be a match between Oi and the dark side of post-punk?
Remember the 80s, when goths were mocked if not straight beaten-up by skinheads? I wasn’t there (I actually was, but I was like 7, so yeah…) but everyone who was can tell you about it. And it was true in Italy as I’m sure in any other country, simply because the testosterone-driven temperament of the skinhead couldn’t be further from the emotional, intimate attitude of early goths.
And yet, more than one group today has hints of post-punk influence to their Oi. Or so it seems. So I wondered: is this an angle we missed when spinning our whole skinhead mythology? Has it always been there in some way? What could have been if this had actually happened, instead of just being something that someone (me) might ruminate about 40 years later?
Here I’ll try to find out what.
Let’s go back to the early days and meet the first band, the one that more than any other – possibly unconsciously – merged the aggro attitude of the skinhead with a darker, sombre sound: Blitz.
The New Mills band is mostly famous for its debut album, which is universally recognised as a milestone of the subgenre. And rightly so, Voice of a Generation is a true Oi masterpiece. And yet, taking a closer look one can’t but notice some unusual elements. The throbbing bass and the sharp guitars on ‘Bleed’ are so drenched in ‘chorus’ effect they actually sound like a post-punk song from the same period. The first half of ‘Nation on Fire’ is an upbeat jam one might easily mistake for one of the many dub-influenced UK post-punk acts. Not to mention the cover of Lou Reed’ ‘Vicious’, an artist your average skinhead band would probably not appreciate, let alone cover. So yeah, we can all agree that Voice of a Generation is a true Oi masterpiece, but it should be given credit for being more than just that, especially when compared to more straightforward-sounding bands such as The Business or The Last Resort.
It comes as no surprise then, or at least it shouldn’t, what happens next. A mere few months after the release of their debut album, the band ‘completely’ changes its way. Boots and braces are apparently gone, dark shirts and short bleached hair are in. The new wave sound now kicks in openly: it’s a ‘New Age’. Probably the ultimate Oi/wave song, with a perfect balance of street-like vocals in the Oi tradition and almost darkwave-sounding music. One of my all-time favourites.
What happens with Second Empire Justice (nomen est omen?) should be known to everyone by now. The band gets no approval for its new sound, skinhead audiences see them as posers and sell-outs; the band records a few more songs, like the astonishing single ‘Solar’, and quickly disbands. If it was predictable that skinheads weren’t going to like this new Blitz, one might just wonder why people into post-punk didn’t pick up the band instead. Probably for the same reason that every youth subgroup is so into its own shit it doesn’t even notice what’s going on just outside. Another missed chance.
Another band that has always had an eclectic approach to their punk is undoubtedly Angelic Upstarts. After a first fistful of street punk records, in 1982 Mensi’s band released the album Still from the Heart, whose main single ‘Never Say Die’ sounded almost like a New Order track. While still featuring proper combative lyrics in the Upstarts tradition, the song featured bubbly drums, magnetic synths, and guitars as thin as paper tissue, all echoing as if recorded inside a disco ball. An unusual recipe for sure.
After this, they would gradually return to a more punk sound, but outside influences such a new wave, synth-pop, soul and reggae would stay with the band for years to come.
It must be said, though, that probably no band succeeded in merging the two aspects we’ve been discussing here with such perfect results as Blitz. This doesn’t mean our story ends here, of course.
Digging deeper into No Future Records catalogue, there are plenty of similar gems waiting to be unearthed. The label is, or should be, known for its bleak-sounding punk bands well assembled on its key compilations There Is No Future… and A Country Fit for Heroes. As Blitz were going through a new wave phase during their last days as a band, other groups that were also on No Future – coincidentally? – did the same. Hell, the label even launched a sublabel named Future for its more ‘mainstream’ releases. So let’s see.
The Violators’ last single in the 80s, Life On The Red Line, features reverb-laden guitars, slap-bass and echoing drums like a proper new wave band. Red Alert’s last EP recorded in the 80s, There’s A Guitar Burning!, features more mod-oriented songs like the title track, but also a piece like ‘Tranquility’, which seems to have more in common with The Cure that with any Oi band.
Screaming Dead were a goth-punk band from the get-go and yet there they were on the same record label as bands like The Partisans and Peter and the Test Tube Babies. Another example that springs to mind is the first Oppressed full-length, an album whose (alleged) drum machine and distorted bass sounded so odd that they wouldn’t have felt out of place on later releases by darkwave bands.
At the same time, the exact opposite political faction to the later SHARP band from Wales was on the move too. If the far-right was ready to infiltrate the Oi movement, it certainly tried the same with post-punk and new wave, although with much less success.
In fact, the first No Surrender! compilation by punk-cum-RAC label Rock-O-Rama contained not one but two explicitly post-punk/darkwave acts. I’m talking about Tony Wakeford’s stopgap solo project Above the Ruins and the very short-lived (luckily, one might add, given the lyrics) racist new wavers Final Sound. I don’t want to give these acts any more spotlight than strictly needed for the purpose of this article, so just go check them out yourselves if you want. The music is very good. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the lyrics and the ideology behind them.
Moving outside the UK, the first country where one might land – if not Italy – is France.
Here, a fresh batch of street punk bands functioned as a liaison between the early days and the next decade, with groups like R.A.S., Komintern Sect and Snix leaving their mark for us to see still these days. But even more specific aspects of the French sound can be found.
The main reference here is obviously Camera Silens. With their tense bass and buzzing guitars, the band led by Gilles Bertin were the natural disciples of Blitz, but pioneers Swingo Porkies and obscure minor acts such as Dem (Des Elephants Mauves) played their part too in mixing Oi with new, different flavours, be it rockabilly, new wave or just a more generic 80s rock sound.
What’s more, the fact that many French Oi bands featured saxophone (a typical 80s pop instrument) in their songs led Italian second-wave skinhead band Klasse Kriminale to do the same. Fun fact: another Italian alternative band using sax that first springs to my mind is Diaframma, new wave legends from Florence, and their hit single ‘Siberia’.
Of course it was the eighties, and you would find a sax on any given album, from Bruce Springsteen to Prince, but this only proves my point. Oi was not so impenetrable to sounds from other music styles and fads as one might assume today.
This will be true for the nineties as well, just no longer in a cool way, in my opinion.
So yeah, the nineties – what a headache! Boneheads mistaken for skinheads, bands mixing Oi with the American hardcore fashion of the day (both New York and Californian), especially in the second half of the decade. Baggy jeans and hoodies, part even of the skinhead dress code…
The only band I can think of that displayed an attitude similar to the one we’ve been discussing so far is Paris Violence, with their strong 80s influence and their drum machine-driven punk. Some might love it; I’m not their best connoisseur, but I do give them credit for what they’ve done.
But maybe there was more to it. Maybe I am forgetting someone?
There was one band, oddly enough from my very hometown, that carried the darkest sound of Oi from the early days and that band is Erode. The combat combo from Como, Italy is mostly famous for its one and only full-length album Tempo Che Non Ritorna, but it’s really the first two 7-inch singles that always got me the most. Songs like ‘Terre Di Nessuno’, ‘Europa’, ‘Stalingrado’ with their oppressive-sounding bass and cawing guitars had an ominous feeling that reflected both the bleakness of the streets of a small province town in those days and the kind of gloom one might just as well attribute to a goth or post-punk band. If you haven’t yet, go check them out now.
After that, you could say that 20 years passed by without a trace of a darker version of the Oi sound. I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong, so be all means, do let me know if I am.
That being said, let’s fast-forward to today. As I said at the beginning of this rambling speech, nowadays there are a lot of bands that feature the dark side of Oi in their songs, possibly like never before. Bands that you already know if you paid attention to the current punk underground. Bands that nonetheless absolutely deserve to be cited, especially in an article like this.
It must be said that 90% of them are from France, so here we go.
Syndrome 81 play a classic, but at the same time peculiar type of early hardcore-meets-street punk with a very dark atmosphere. Check out a few of their great tracks such as ‘Contre Vents Et Marées’ and ‘Dans Les Rues La Nuit’. But the release we need to stress here is the ‘La Rouille Du Quotidien’/’Pulsions Électriques’ 7-inch, with the A-side being a nervous pogo hit and the B-side a totally unexpected electro beat-driven coldwave cut. The perfect continuation to Blitz’s Second Empire Justice, 33 years later.
Another great group that perfectly balances rabid punk and gloomy sounds is Litovsk, a band from Brest (La Grise) just like Syndrome 81, with whom I think they share members as well.
They actually are a post-punk band but songs of theirs like ‘Nergenst’, ‘Gewoon Mee’, ‘Ce Qui Ne Fut Pas’ have such an anthemic power that might just as well lead back to Oi again. And in case they needed to be even more explicit about this, check out their I’ll Never Forget You 7-inch single. The A-side is one emotional little punk gem, the B-side is the same song again (I guess), this time re-done with a coldwave slant: misty synths, mechanical drum beats, recited verses. Another great example of how typically goth-maybe-even-emo gloom and typical punk aggressiveness might just find and love each other.
More French bands worth checking out are Kronstadt, Bromure if you’re in for full saxophone treatment, and Squelette, whose ‘Intro’ track to their latest 7-inch EP sounds no less than like an outtake by The Cure themselves.
But while France might be the leader of dark-sounding Oi and punk, other countries have their own relevant bands.
Greece can boast Chain Cult, who may not be Oi at all, but do check out their best single ‘Isolated’ and tell me you’re already singing along with your index finger pointing up.
Colombia’s Dead Hero have just covered ‘Solar’ on their split 12-inch with Ultra Razzia from Canada, and I think we can all agree that’s not an obvious Blitz song to cover for an Oi band, can’t we?
Italy’s own Iena come from Florence, a city musically famous for its mid-eighties new wave scene, and while they don’t really have a dark sound (rather an aggressive, compact one) their lyrics deal almost exclusively with death in all of its gruesome aspects. Something not even the most gothic band would dream of.
All this leaves me wondering: what could have really been if music subgenres didn’t just constantly fall victim to their own stereotypes, as happened way too often with Oi, with punk and with goth?