Review: ‘Packing a Punch – Brief History of Skinhead Zines’

Packing a Punch is that rare thing: a documentation of 80s British skinzines completely without celtic crosses or crude drawings of glue-addled ‘super skins’. And it isn’t a coffee-table book either. Instead, it’s brogues, Jaytex and razor partings all over – the focus is on what the author considered the rightful heir of the original skinhead, namely the ‘sussed skin’ of the 1980s. This scene, from which George Marshall also emerged, was based around zines such as Spy Kids, The Bovver Boot, Tighten Up and The Suedehead Times. And the little book at hand that guides us through their evolution is a kind of zine too, written by someone who was part of it all. He’s still around today and as committed as ever.

The history kicks off with Skins, the original croptop zine edited by a Chelsea FC and Sham Army skin named John Smith from late ‘79 or early ‘80 – the exact date is hard to establish – and printed by the Last Resort shop in the East End. While reporting on contemporary stuff such as the Southall ‘81 riot, Skins also had an acute sense of tradition: there was always room for Motown, reggae and original skinhead history in its pages. Skins ran for five issues, the contents of which are all listed individually – a treatment awarded to all zines discussed in Packing a Punch.

The story continues with zines like Skins International, Boots & Braces and Ready to Ruck. Interestingly, an illustration from C. Ryan’s Boots & Braces zine of 1982 invokes the “spirit of ‘69”, thus coining a phrase a few years earlier than you’d have thought. These zines are a mixed bag in that they continue to cover all aspects of the scene from Trojan to Oi and Skrewdriver. Then, from “around late ‘82 to early ‘83, the same time Skrewdriver reformed”, according to the author, a divide becomes apparent: some zines move towards the nascent RAC scene and adopt a nationalist, racist tone. These are of little interest to Packing a Punch. While not written out of history altogether, their names are confined to the last page, where we find a small list of ‘Nationalist Zines’ (only 16 of them are listed – not sure if that’s all there was or whether this is just the ‘cream of the crap’). Says the author, “I’ve decided that I will look at the sussed side of things, as that was the scene that I was part of” – i.e. zines that continued to follow Oi, while also staying true to the reggae, soul and sharp style traditions, with names like Crop Top and, of course, Hard as Nails.

In terms of numbers, the ‘sussed’ scene was small compared to the mainstream skinhead crowd orbiting around the second wave of Oi and RAC – think of it as a nationwide network convening at relevant events rather than mobs of local kids hanging out on street corners or outside bus garages. Even so, it played an important role in those pre-Sprit of 69, pre-internet years, showing that to be a skinhead in the 80s, you didn’t have to wear heavy-metal spandex jeans and fetish Martens while barking along to Brutal Attack.

That doesn’t mean that the ‘sussed’ scene was a humourless bunch of sixties purists, though: Roddy Moreno’s entire Oi! Records output, including albums such as Condemned 84’s debut, was enthusiastically received in the pages of these zines – and in the sartorial department, the idea was to keep it hard & smart, to breathe the spirit of ‘69 rather than reconstruct that mythical year’s precise getup like an archaeologist. Most importantly, as the author stresses, zines were the glue that kept the scene together in those days – a source of information that no croptop worth their salt could do without.

The author of Packing a Punch has done god’s work compiling all this information, and the result is a small encyclopaedia of British ‘true skinhead’ zines, each of which is given an introduction outlining its history, an issue-by-issue contents breakdown, and plenty of illustrations. To top it all off, he has interviewed some movers and shakers of the zine scene, e.g. Chris Butler of Tell Us the Truth and Arthur of Skinheads Don’t Fear.

While the graphic style was not uniform across all zines, it’s still possible to make out an overall ‘sussed’ aesthetic that emphasised sharpness – and when the current wave of Oi bands is done copying illustrations from Last Chance, maybe it will be time to revive this aesthetic once again.

Or maybe not. Because, truth be told, the historical context has long since expired: today’s zines and bands draw on edgy graphics and sounds from the past while divorcing them from their political context. A band that takes its musical cue from Bunker 84 might consist of socialists or centrists. You’re every bit as likely to meet a sharply dressed, soul-loving racist lunkhead as you’ll encounter true sartorial aberrations on the other side of the fence. What’s more, nowadays your average racist lunkhead is unlikely to be any kind of skinhead at all. So the times when drawing lines of demarcation through style or taste was possible, or indeed had any relevance, are probably over.

Packing a Punch clocks in at 200 pages. It came out a fair few months ago, and I’m not sure there are still copies available. If you bought one at the time, well – you couldn’t have spent your 10 quid (plus P&P) better. Otherwise ask at toasttu@aol.com

Matt Crombieboy

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