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Oi! – The Truth by Garry Bushell
“We stand for
punk as bootboy music. Oi! is working class, and if you’re
not working class you’ll get a kick in the bollocks.” – Stinky
“Loud, raw and violent, Oi-Oi is the
musical battle cry of the skinheads, and like them it pulls
no punches.” News Of The World, 1981.
“Oi expresses an us-against-the-world
attitude, it’s the continuation of the tradition which has
its roots in the Teddy Boys of the 1950s.” – Simon Frith,
sociology lecturer at Warwick University, 1981.
“This generation won’t keep quiet/Work,
work, work - or RIOT!” – The Business, Work Or Riot,
All you kids, black and white/Together we
are dynamite” – Angelic Upstarts, Kids On The Street,
“Oi! is working class, and anything
that is part of, and comes from, the working class has got
to be mostly good.” – Mick O’Farrell, Red Action,
“Wankers had out leaflets/They never
ever let it be/I don’t care what they say/But they better
not come near me….” –Cockney Rejects, Fighting In
The Streets, 1979
put the blame on us/And they tell the public lies/But that
don’t mean that we have lost/Cos our spirit never dies..” –East
End Badoes, The Way It’s Gotta Be, 1982
"What we want’s the right to work/Give
us jobs not jails/Don’t throw us on the scrapheap because
your system fails.” –The Gonads, Jobs Not Jails,
"45 Revolutions on my stereo, not one
revolution on the streets .” – Blitz, 45 Revolutions,
“The voice of Oi is unity/No 'them
and us' just you and me/Think how strong we could be/United
against society'” – Garry Johnson, United, 1981
LET’S hear it for Oi! - the most exciting, despised and misunderstood
youth movement of all time.
After 21 years we’re still winding up the mugs.
Back in 1981, Oi! managed to outrage all shades of polite middle
class opinion, right, left and centre.
To this day the hippy Left perceive Oi as a kind of cultural cancer.
To the establishment, Oi was an upstart from a tower block slum who
wouldn’t keep in line. He was raucous and obnoxious, a human hand-grenade
with a menacing disregard for authority.
At best, Oi bands and their fans were viewed as gurning barbarians
gleefully pissing in the coffee house latte. At worst, they were
seen as modern day brown shirts responsible for the riots in Southall,
Toxteth and the rest. Either way, Oi was too hot to handle.
To the fast-talking wide-boys who adopted its name however, Oi
was something else entirely. Stripped down to basics, it was about
being young, working class and not taking shit from anybody. It was
anti-police, anti-authority but pro-Britain too. A lot of the Oi
kids liked a fight, and yeah, this is no whitewash, there was a far
right element among them but this was 1980 when the far right were
polling 15 – 20 per cent of the vote in inner-city wards. It would
have been a miracle if there hadn’t been NF sympathisers in the audiences.
What matters is 1) Oi never suffered from Nazi violence the way
Sham 69 and 2-Tone had; the ag that blemished those early Oi! gigs
was strictly football related. 2) Oi's legacy is a world-wide street-punk movement which is vocally pro-working class and against racism, unemployment, state bureaucracy and repression.
Discovered in the summer of ’81 (well into its second wind) by
a mass media rocked to its foundations by weeks of riots and youthful
insurrection, Oi found itself on the sharp end of the sort of tabloid
crucifixion usually reserved for the more macabre mass murderers.
Corrupting its meaning, the same media immediately tried to bury
it. Inevitably their version of events was as watertight as a kitchen
colander in a tropical monsoon. They said Oi was for skinheads (but
it was always more than that), that all skins were Nazis (and only
a minority ever were) and that therefore Oi was the Strasser brothers
in steel-capped boots (but the bands were either socialists or cynics…)
To really understand Oi, you had to be there….
Oi’s roots were in Punk, just as Punk’s roots were in the New York
Dolls, but they weren’t the same animal. For starters Oi was the
reality of Punk and Sham mythology. Punk exploded between 1976 and
1979 because stadium rock had been disappearing up its own jacksie
for years. The album charts were full of po-faced synthesizer twiddlers
and pretentious singers belting out meaningless pseudo-poetic lyrics.
Punk seemed different. It was raw, brutal and utterly down to earth.
Punk sold itself as the voice of the tower blocks. It wasn’t. Most
of the forerunners were middle-class art students. The great Joe
Strummer, whose dad was a diplomat, flirted with stale old Stalinism
and sang about white riots while living in a white mansion. Malcolm
McLaren and Vivienne Westwood tried to intellectualise punk by dressing
it up in half-inched Situationist ideas, all the better to flog their
over-priced produce to mug punters.
Sham 69, from Surrey, were the first band to capture the growing
mood of disillusionment. Street punks were disgusted both by the
proliferation of phoneys and posers and the Kings Road conmen with
their rip-off boutiques. But how much did Sham’s Jimmy Pursey really
know about borstals, football and dole queues, and how much was he
feeding off the people around him? The Last Resort’s Millwall Roi
might have overstated the case but he summed up a common attitude
when he wrote ‘I wish it was the weekend everyday/But Jimmy Pursey
didn’t get his way/He liked to drink but he didn’t like to fight/He
didn’t get his fucking homework right.’
Cockney cowboys? As Julie Burchill once observed: “It must have
been a bloody strong wind the day the sound of Bow Bells reached
The Oi poloi didn’t need Punk’s proletarian wrapping paper – invented
backgrounds and adopted attitudes, accents and aggression – because
they really were the cul-de-sac, council estate kids the first punk
bands had largely only pretended to be. The forerunners of Oi! were
bands like Cock Sparrer, Menace, Slaughter & The Dogs and the UK
Subs although none of these bands were as successful as Sham whose
raucous brand of football chant punk dented the Top Ten three times.
Before he went potty, Jimmy Pursey gave the kiss of life to the
two bands who defined the parameters and direction of original Oi – the
Angelic Upstarts and the Cockney Rejects.
Singer Tommy ‘Mensi’ Mensforth and guitarist Ray Cowie, known as
Mond, formed the Upstarts in the summer of ’77 after getting blown
away by the Clash’s White Riot tour. Childhood mates, they had grown
up together on the Brockley Whinns council estate in South Shields
and later attended Stanhope Road Secondary Modern school (Mensi got
expelled from the local grammar school at thirteen for delinquency.)
Mensi worked as an apprentice miner after leaving school. Forming
the band at 19 was his escape route from the pits. Mond worked as
a shipyard electrician right up until their first hit. The Upstarts’ original
drummer and bassist quit after violent crowd reactions to their first
gig in nearby Jarrow, to be replaced by bakery worker Stix and bricklayer
Steve Forsten respectively. The band were also soon to recruit the
services of Keith Bell, a self-confessed former gangster and one-time
North Eastern Countries light-middleweight boxing champ, who as manager,
bouncer and bodyguard was able to maintain order at early gigs on
the basis of his reputation alone.
The Upstarts soon attracted the attention of the Northumbria Police
Force, who haunted the band’s early career like a malignant poltergeist.
Police interest stemmed from the Upstarts’ championing of the cause
of Birtley amateur boxer Liddle Towers who died from injuries received
after a night in the police cells. The inquest called it ‘justifiable
homicide’. The Upstarts called it murder, and ‘The Murder of Liddle
Towers’ (b/w ‘Police Oppression’) was their debut single on their
own Dead Records. Later re-pressed by Rough Trade, the song’s brutal
passion was well received even by music press pseuds, although not
by the Old Bill who infiltrated gigs in plain clothes. Charges of
incitement to violence were considered. Only the Upstarts’ mounting
press coverage dissuaded them. For their part the band were uncompromising.
They appeared on the front cover of the Socialist Workers Party’s
youth magazine Rebel soon after and accused their area police of
being largely National Front sympathisers.
Official police action might have been dropped but unofficial harassment
continued unabated. Mensi claimed he was constantly followed and
frequently stopped, searched and abused by individual officers. The
band blamed unofficial police pressure for getting them banned from
virtually every gig in the North East of England – via the promise
of raids, prosecution for petty rule breaking, opposing licence renewals
and so on. The Upstarts got the last laugh though when in April ’79
they conned a Prison Chaplain into inviting them to play a gig at
Northumbria’s Acklington Prison (where ironically Keith Bell had
finished his last sentence). 150 cons turned up to see a union jack
embellished with the words ‘Upstarts Army’, a clenched fist, the
motto ‘Smash Law And Order’ and a pig in a helmet entitled ‘PC Fuck
Pig’. The band hadn’t managed to smuggle in a ‘real’ pig’s head (they
usually smashed one up on stage) but the cons revelled merrily in
the wham-bam wallop of rebel anthems like ‘Police Oppression’, ‘We
Are The People’ (about police corruption), and a specially amended
version of ‘Borstal Breakout’ retitled ‘Acklington Breakout’.
The Daily Mirror splashed with ‘Punks Rock A Jailhouse’ (wrongly
identifying me as the band’s spokesman.) The Prison Governor and
local Tories did their nuts, with Tynemouth MP, the appropriately
named Neville Trotter, condemning the gig as ‘an incredibly stupid
thing to allow’. Only Socialist Worker printed a true record of the
gig, quoting Mensi telling prisoners they’d be better off in nick
if Thatcher got elected that summer, and urging punks to vote Labour
as ‘Thatcher’s government will destroy the trade union movement’.
(In reality Mensi’s brand sub-Scargill patriotic socialism was far
removed from the SWP’s revised Trotsky-lite posturing).
The band’s salty populism and savage post-Sham punk attracted a
massive following of working class kids in the North East, the self-styled
Upstarts Army, while the power of their debut single convinced Jimmy
Pursey to form his JP label with Polydor. The Upstarts were the label’s
first signing and also their first sacking after a jumped-up Polydor
security guard tried to push the band about. He took on Mensi in
a one against one fight and went down like the Belgrano. Polydor
dropped the band. They never bothered to ask for Mensi’s side of
the story. Soon after the Upstarts signed with Warner Brothers. Their
second single, the Pursey produced ‘I’m An Upstart’, was released
in April ’79, charted, and was chased hard by the ‘Teenage Warning’ single
The Cockney Rejects were also the real deal, this time the sons
of dockers from London’s East End, but their music wasn’t political.
Thirty years of lame Labour local government had stripped them of
any world view except cynicism. Their songs were about East End life,
boozers, battles, police harassment and football.
I met them first in May ’79. Two cocky urchins adorned in West
Ham badges bowled into my boozer spieling back-slang and thrust their
tatty demo tapes into my hand. Like them it was rough, ready and
suffused with more spirit than Mystic Challenge. I put them in touch
with Pursey who produced their first demo tape. These songs re-emerged
as the Small Wonder debut ep ‘Flares & Slippers’ which included the
essential guttersnipe anthem ‘Police Car’ (‘I like punk and I like
Sham – I got nicked over West Ham…’). It sold surprising well and
earned them the NME epithet of the “brainstorming vanguard of the
East End punk renewal”, (although the student-orientated rag was
later to virtually ignore Oi! until its arrival in the headlines
forced their hand.)
The kids were the Geggus brothers Mickey and Jeff, the latter soon
known to the world as Stinky Turner. Both had been good boxers – neither
of them had ever been put down in the ring, and Jeff had boxed for
the England youth team. They had little trouble transferring their
belt onto vinyl. The Rejects’ story began in the summer of ’77 when
seventeen-year-old Mickey was first inspired to pick up a plectrum
by the Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’. Incubating in back garden performances
in their native Canning Town as The Shitters, the Rejects only emerged
as a real group after council painter Mickey recruited twenty-one-year
Vince Riordan as bassist in 1979. Previously a Sham roadie, Vince
(whose uncle was Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie) had marked time with loser
band the Dead Flowers before he heard the Cockney call. Drummers
were to come and go with the regularity of a high-fibre diet until
Stix transferred from the Upstarts in 1980.
Live, the band hit like a mob of rampaging rhinos, with Mickey’s
sledgehammer guitar the cornerstone of their tough, tuneful onslaught.
Schoolboy Stinky was a sight for sore eyes too, screwing up his visage
into veritable orgies of ugliness, and straining his tonsils to holler
vocals best likened to a right evil racket. I was the Rejects’ first
manager – although those stories are best left for another book -
and I stayed with them until Pursey and I had negotiated an EMI deal
for them. After that, I bowed out to let a man I assumed was a pro
take over. He was Pursey’s manager Tony Gordon, who went on to handle
Boy George (in the management sense). So little was money my motivation,
that my price for signing the band over was a £100 meal at the Park
Lane Hilton (I went with Hoxton Tom and our wives – Tony begged us
to get him a receipt). In retrospect Gordon was bad for the band.
They really needed a Peter Grant figure, someone tougher and smarter
than they were, to keep their energies channelled in a more umm,
Under Tony Gordon, the Rejects’s career soared briefly then crashed
and burned. After getting evicted from Polydor’s studios for running
up a damages bill of £1,000, the band got stuck into serious recordings
with Pursey at the production controls. Their second EMI single ‘Bad
Man’ was superb, like PiL on steroids, but it only made the fag end
of the charts. Their next release, a piss-take of Sham called ‘The
Greatest Cockney Rip-Off’ did better, denting the Top 30. Their debut
album ‘Greatest Hits Vol 1’ did the same, notching up over 60,000
Unlike the Upstarts’, the Rejects’ first following wasn’t largely
skinhead; in fact at first skins didn’t like them. Stinky’s school
pals the Rubber Glove firm aside, The Rejects crew came from football
and consisted largely of West Ham chaps attracted by Vince’s involvement
and disillusioned Sham and Menace fans. Famous faces included Gary
Dickle, Johnny Butler, Carlton Leach, Andy Russell, Andy Swallow,
Hoxton Tom, Binnsy, H and Wellsy. Even as early as November 1979,
their Hammers support was so strong that mass terrace chants of ‘Cockney
Rejects – oh, oh’ were clearly audible on televised soccer matches – to
the tune of Gary Glitter’s – Hello Hello I’m Back Again’.
Many of the East End Glory Boys swelled their ranks a little later,
realising for the first time that here was a band exactly the same
The first stand-alone Oi scene developed around the Cockney Rejects
and their regular gig venue, the Bridge House in Canning Town, East
London. It became the focus for an entire subculture. In 1980, this
was the LIFE!
None of these faces were “Nazis”. Most of them weren’t political
at all, beyond the sense of voting Labour (if they bothered to vote
at all) out of a sense of tradition. A tiny percentage was interested
in the extremes of either right or left. As a breed they were natural
conservatives. They believed in standing on their own two feet. They
were patriotic, and proud of their class and their immediate culture.
They looked good and dressed sharp. It was important not to look
like a scruff or a student. Their heroes were boxers and footballers,
not union leaders. Unlicensed boxing was a big draw, as were the
dogs and stag comedians like Jimmy Jones and Jimmy Fagg. They liked
to fight around football matches – the West Ham ICF (Inter City Firm)
were fully represented at most local Rejects gigs. The young men
oozed machismo, but some of the women were just as tough. But they
weren’t mugs. These were bright kids and a surprisingly large number
of them have gone on to carve out successful businesses in fields
as diverse as the music industry, pornography and clothing manufacture.
They’re the ones who didn’t end up in jail of course.
They related to the Cockney Rejects because at the time at least
the Rejects mirrored their audience. Rarely in rock history have
a band and their followers been so identical.
The Rejects and the Upstarts had plenty in common – shared management,
shared experiences of the Old Bill, shared class backgrounds – and
were soon identified (by me) in the music press as the start of something
different, a new more class conscious punk variant, which was known
at first as ‘Real Punk’ or ‘New Punk’ and which had little in common
with 1979’s self-styled punk rockers in their second-hand images
and wally bondage pants. It was a pairing they obviously approved
of with both bands frequently jamming together at each other’s gigs.
Unlike Sham, the Rejects had little Nazi trouble. They wrote off
the threat from the British Movement (we called them the German Movement)
in their first Sounds interview. “We can handle them,” said Stinky. “If
anyone comes to the gigs and wants to have a row, we’ll have to row.
Pursey couldn’t do that. We’re not gonna take no bollocks.”
Strong words that they had to back up the first time they played
outside of the East End, supporting the Upstarts at the Electric
Ballroom in Camden. When a large mob of BM skins started harassing
punks in the audience, the Rejects and their twelve-handed entourage
(including two of the fledgling 4-Skins) took ’em on and battered
them. Mickey Geggus commented: “Our gigs are for enjoyment. No one’s
gonna disrupt them or pick on our fans. Troublemakers will be thrown
out – by us if necessary.”
The only other major run-in they ever had with the far right was
at Barking station the following February, and once again the master
race contingent got bashed. Most of the Rejects’ London gigs were
trouble free, especially the ones at the Bridge House, which was
to London Oi! what the Roxy had been to Punk. Managed by Terry Murphy
and his tough boxer sons, the Bridge never had a serious punch-up
or any sieg-heiling. No one dared step out of line against the Murphys.
Son Glen, the former barman, can now be seen playing George Green
on TV’s London’s Burning.
The Angelic Upstarts also fought – and won - a couple of sharp battles
against the far right. They played numerous Rock Against Racism gigs
too, including one at Leeds where the band sported SWP ‘Disband The
SPG’ badges. Like the Rejects their real ag came from other areas – principally
their manager, Keith Bell. Sacked by the band when he started to
knock them about, Bell and his henchmen set about trying to intimidate
Upstart fans, even assaulting people buying their records, before
threatening Mensi’s mother, smashing her house windows and making
threatening and abusive phone calls to her. Reprisal incidents included
Mensi and one time Upstarts drummer Decca Wade smashing one of the
Bell firm’s car windows and a midnight visit to Bell’s own home by
Decca’s dad, club comedian Derek Wade and Mensi’s brother-in-law
Billy Wardropper who blasted one of Bell’s henchmen in the leg with
a sawn-off shotgun. Hitting back, Bell threatened to kill Wade Senior.
Three of his cronies set fire to a stable belonging to Mensi’s sister
causing almost £5K worth of damage. In ensuing court cases both Bell
and Billy Wardropper were jailed while Decca’s dad copped a year’s
suspended sentence. Presiding Judge Hall told the Upstarts team: “I
accept that all of you suffered a severe amount of provocation, which
was none of your seeking. But at the same time I have a duty to condemn
the use of firearms, particularly a sawn-off shotgun.” The Upstarts’ recorded
their opinion in ‘Shotgun Solution’: ‘Shotgun blasts ring in my ears/Shoot
some scum who live by fear/A lot of good men will do some time/For
a fucking cunt without a spine’.
With the Rejects, football was the trouble. And it was understandable
because they’d been fanatically pro-West Ham aggro from the word
go. Even at their debut Bridge House gig they decked the stage out
with a huge red banner displaying the Union Jack, the West Ham crossed
hammers and the motif ‘West Side’ (which was that part of the West
Ham ground then most favoured by the Irons’ most violent fans). Their
second hit was a version of the West Ham anthem ‘Bubbles’ which charted
in the run-up to West Ham’s Cup Final Victory in the early summer
of 1980. On the b-side was the ICF-pleasing ‘West Side Boys’ which
included lines like: ‘We meet in the Boelyn every Saturday/Talk about
the teams that we’re gonna do today/Steel-capped Doctor Martens and
iron bars/Smash the coaches and do ’em in the cars’.
It was a red rag to testosterone-charged bulls all over the country.
At North London’s Electric Ballroom, 200 of West Ham’s finest mob-charged
less than fifty Arsenal and smacked them clean out of the venue.
But ultra-violence at a Birmingham gig really spelt their undoing.
The audience at the Cedar Club was swelled by a mob of Birmingham
City skinheads who terrace-chanted throughout the support set from
the Kidz Next Door (featuring Grant Fleming, now a leftwing film
maker, and Pursey’s kid brother Robbie). By the time the Rejects
came on stage there were over 200 Brum City skins at the front hurling
abuse. During the second number they started hurling plastic glasses.
Then a real glass smashed on stage. Stinky Turner responded by saying: “If
anyone wants to chuck glasses they can come outside and I’ll knock
seven shades of shit out of ya”. That was it, glasses and ashtrays
came from all directions. One hit Vince and as a Brum skinhead started
shouting “Come on”, Micky dived into the crowd and put him on his
back. Although outnumbered more than ten to one, the Rejects and
their entourage drove the Brummy mob right across the hall, and finally
out of it altogether. Under a hail of missiles Mickey Geggus sustained
a head injury that needed nine stitches and left him with what looked
like a Fred Perry design above his right eye. Grant Fleming, a veteran
of such notorious riots as Sham at Hendon and Madness at Hatfield,
described the night’s violence as the worst he’d ever seen.
Taken to the local hospital for treatment, Geggus had to bunk out
of a twenty-foot high window when ‘tooled-up’ mates of the injured
Brum City fans came looking for him. Back at the gig, the Londoners
emerged triumphant from the fighting only to discover all their gear
had been ripped off – total value, two grand. The next morning, the
Cockney contingent split into two vans – one that went on to the
next gig at Huddersfield, the other containing Mickey and Grant that
went cruising round the city looking for any likely punters who might
know the whereabouts of their stolen gear. Incidents that morning
in Wolverhampton Road, Albury, involving Geggus, three locals and
an iron bar, resulted in Mickey being charged with malicious wounding.
Eight months later, both he and Grant had the luck of the devil to
walk away with suspended sentences.
Maybe as insurance, in the summer of ’80, the Rejects played two
Bridge House benefit gigs for the Prisoners Rights Organisation,
PROP, arranged by me and Hoxton Tom with the help of Terry Murphy.
Tom’s aunt was involved with London PROP because his uncle, Steven
Smeeth, had been jailed for his part in George Davis’s doomed comeback
caper. The gigs were two of the best I’d ever seen the band play.
Brum had meant the end of the Rejects as a touring band however.
They had to pull a Liverpool gig when literally hundreds of tooled-up
Scouse match boys came looking for confrontation. Road manager Kevin
Wells was threatened at knife point. At first Mickey seemed to revel
in it all, acting like he was living out some Cagney movie. The band’s
second LP called, surprisingly enough, ‘Greatest Hits Vol 2’, reflected
his apparent death wish with sleevenotes boasting ‘From Scotland
down to Cornwall, we dun the lot, we took ’em all. On the song ‘Urban
Guerrilla’ he spoke these words: “Some folk call it anarchy, but
I just call it fun. Don’t give a fuck about the law, I wanna kill
someone.” Me? I think he meant it.
But in the long build up to the trial, a change came over Mickey.
He swapped his little blue pills for ganja and started to mellow.
Correspondingly, the Rejects’ music began to move away from hooligan
racket towards more mainstream rock. 1981’s ‘The Power & The Glory’ sounded
like The Professionals. 1982’s ‘The Wild Ones’, produced by Pete
Way, was more like UFO. And if 1984’s ‘Quiet Storm’ had been any
more laid back it could have been bottled and sold as Valium. 'The
Wild Ones' remains a great rock album, with stand-out tracks such
as City Of Lights; but the old fans were actively hostile to their
new sounds, while abysmal marketing meant potential new fans never
got to hear them. Stale mate.
The Angelic Upstarts lost their momentum in 1980 as well, getting
dropped by Warners in the summer. And although they were snapped
up by EMI, going on to release their finest studio album, ‘Two Million
Voices’ in April ’81, they barely played live and fans were getting
During 1980, hooligan audiences, especially in South East London,
found new live laughs in the shape of Peckham-based piss-artist pranksters
Splodgenessabounds, whose brand of coarse comedy and punk energy
scored three top thirty singles that year. Their debut single, ‘Two
Pints of Lager’ was a Top Ten smash. Tongue in cheek, I dubbed them ‘punk
pathetique’ along with equally crazy bands like Brighton’s Peter & The
Test-Tube Babies and Geordie jesters The Toy Dolls.
Singer Max Splodge insisted: “The pathetique bands are the other
side of Oi! We’re working class too only whereas some bands sing
about prison and the dole, we sing about pilchards and bums. The
audience is the same.’ Pathetique peaked in the autumn of 1980 with
the Pathetique Convention at the Electric Ballroom. West Ham’s bootboy
poet Barney Rubble was Man of the Match.
Elsewhere a second generation of hardcore Oi! bands had been spawned
directly by the Upstarts and the Rejects. The Upstarts inspired Criminal
Class from Coventry, and Infa-Riot from Plymouth via North London.
The Cockney Rejects inspired the ferocious 4-Skins, and Sunderland’s
Red Alert. Edinburgh noise-terrorists the Exploited also cited the
Rejects as their major influence. In London, a whole host of groups
sprang up around the Rejects too including Barney & The Rubbles and
Stinky’s Postmen combo. A movement was evolving at the grass roots.
I called it Oi!
Oi! was and remains a Cockney street shout guaranteed to turn heads.
Stinky Turner used to holler it at the start of each Rejects number,
replacing the first punks’ habitual ‘1,2,3,4’. Before him “Oi! Oi!” had
been Ian Dury’s catch-phrase, although he’d probably nicked it from
Cockney comic Jimmy Wheeler whose catchphrase had been “Oi, Oi that’s
yer lot.” Entertainers Flanagan and Allen first used “Oi!” as a catchphrase
in their 1930s variety act.
As I was compiling ‘Oi! – The Album’ for EMI (released in November
1980) more like-minded combos sent demo tapes from all over the country.
There was Blitz from New Mills, The Strike from Lanarkshire and Demob
from Gloucester. But the first real challengers for the Rejects crown
were the 4-Skins. They made their debut supporting the Damned at
the Bridge House in ’79 with Micky Geggus on drums. The 4-Skins developed
through various line-ups playing low-key London pub gigs sporadically
before arriving at their definite line-up towards the end of 1980:
Gary Hodges, vocals; Hoxton Tom, bass; Rockabilly Steven Pear, guitar;
and John Jacobs, drums. There was a real charisma about the band,
and their raw brand of barbed-wire roar was blessed with a driving
dynamism. Their stand-out song was ‘Chaos’, a horror movie fantasy
of urban chaos and skinhead takeover. But most of their three minute
blasts of fury concerned unemployment and police harassment (‘ACAB’, ‘Wonderful
World’), the horrors of war (‘I Don’t Wanna Die’), thinking for yourself
(‘Clockwork Skinhead’) self-pride (‘Sorry’) and class (‘One Law For
Both the 4-Skins and Infa-Riot were emphatic about the need to
learn from the Rejects’ mistakes and get away from football trouble.
The 4-Skins favoured no one team (Hodges was West Ham, Hoxton, Spurs,
Steve, Arsenal and Jacobs, Millwall) and no one political preference
(Hoxton was a liberal; Steve left Labour; Jacobs apolitical; and
Hodges was a reformed right-winger very pro anti-unemployment campaigns).
Infa-Riot were the same, professing no football affiliations. Mensi
wrote their first Sounds review and he and Jock McDonald got them
their first London gigs. Musically, they were a lot like a lither,
wilder Upstarts. Like most Upstarts-influenced groups Infa-Riot played
gigs for Rock Against Racism (an apparently noble campaign that was
actually a front for the extreme Left SWP). Criminal Class played
RAR gigs too, and a benefit for the highly suspect Troops Out Of
The 4-skins refused to play RAR gigs, not wanting to be poster
boys for Trotskyism.
The Oi! bands converged to publicly thrash out their stance at
the Oi debate held at Sounds in January 1981. Everyone agreed on
the need for raw r’n’r, and the sense of benefit gigs, but there
was a heated difference of opinion on politics. Stinky Turner was
violently against politics and politicians. Mensi argued that Labour
still represented working class interests and claimed that “the Tories
still represent the biggest threat to our kind of people”. It was
the same divide that had always separated the Rejects and the Upstarts.
They managed to be agree about reclaiming Britain’s Union flag for
the people and, erh, that was it.
Although a few black and immigrant kids were into Oi, it was mostly
a white working class phenomenon. The West Indian kids into Oi were
cockney Blacks like the now famous Cass Pennant who’d rejected the
pull of Rastafarianism and reggae. No Oi! band professed racialist
or Nazi leanings (in fact Demob had two mixed race boxers in the
band) and the teething trouble that dogged early gigs was all to
do with the football legacy bequeathed by the Rejects. As Punk Lives
commentated later “Anyone who went to Oi! gigs could tell you you
didn’t get sieg-heiling at them…ironically Madness and Bad Manners
had most trouble with Nazi skins at the time. All Oi! went on about
For the first half year of Oi the movement there were only two
bad incidents of gig violence, both around Infa-Riot. The band headlined
the first ‘New Punk Convention’ at the tail end of 1980 with the
Upstarts and Criminal Class. It ended in disaster as Poplar Boy West
Ham fans slugged it out with a smaller Arsenal crew led by the then
infamous Dave Smith who followed the Upstarts.
In March 1981, Infa-Riot played the Acklam Hall in West London
with Millwall skinhead band the Last Resort. Tooled-up local Queens
Park Rangers supporting skins and straights besieged the venue looking
for West Ham. At one stage they tried to smash their way in through
the roof. Ironically, most Hammers Oi fans were safely in Upton Park
at the time, watching their boys battle a Russian team.
The model of the sort of gig the bands wanted came in February
1981 with the second New Punk Convention, this time held at the Bridge
House with the 4-Skins headlining (and introduced by the king of
rude reggae himself, Judge Dread). The pub venue was packed far over
capacity with a motley crew of skins, working class punks and soccer
rowdies drawn from the ranks of West Ham, Spurs, Millwall, QPR, Arsenal
and Charlton. There wasn’t one ruck all night.
This gig set a precedent for peaceful co-existence that lasted
even when Oi! shifted venues to Hackney’s Deuragon Arms. It was living
proof that Pursey’s old dream of the Kids United could happen. But
united for what? It was around this time that I and the leading bands
entered into a conspiracy to pervert the course of youth cult history.
We held a conference to plan the way the Oi! movement could develop
in a positive, united manner. The idea was not only to arrange gigs
and set up an Oi! record label, but also to plug away at the central
theme of the folly of street kids fighting each other over football
teams. We wanted to give Oi! a purpose by playing benefit gigs for
working class causes.
At the time I was living on the Ferrier estate in Kidbrook, South
East London, as was Frankie ‘Boy’ Flame. And bands frequently made
the pilgrimage here to stay in our maisonette while they were playing
London or just to shoot the breeze in the Wat Tyler pub. Some petty
jealousies and band rivalry existed, but the Oi! scene was far more
united than any other youth cult in British history. We tried to
build on that.
The first Oi! conference was a small affair attended by reps from
the Rejects, the 4-Skins, Splodge, Infa-Riot, the Business and the
Last Resort, the latter two being the latest recruits to the burgeoning
movement. The Business were then known as ‘pop-oi’ because of their
tuneful anthems. They came from Lewisham, South London. They were
fronted by Mickey Fitz, who like guitarist Steve Kent, had attended
Colfe's Grammar School in Lee (as I had done) and had developed a
terrace following which peacefully included West Ham, Chelsea and
Millwall. Kent was a truly talented musician. The Business were managed
by West Ham vet Laurie Pryor who was also known as Ronnie Rouman.
The Last Resort were a skinhead band from South London via Herne
Bay, Kent, based around the Last Resort shop in Petticoat Lane, East
London and financed by the shop’s owner Michael French. They too
saw Oi as being bigger that skins. “Oi is uniting punks, skins and
everyone,” growler Millwall Roi told Sounds in their first interview. “Now
we’ve just gotta get away from football.”
Lee Wilson of Infa-Riot agreed. “Oi is the voice of street kids
everywhere,” he said. “That’s why we’re gonna grow, that’s why we’re
gonna win.” And Oi was growing all the time. By spring, as I was
compiling the second Oi compilation “Strength Thru Oi” for Decca
(released May ’81) over fifty bands had aligned with the movement,
including the Oi/ska squad the Buzz Kids whose singer, Garry Johnson’s
lyric writing far outshone his vocal ability. He’d already had some
lyrics published in a poetry collection by Babylon Books called “Boys
Of The Empire”. I encouraged him to ditch the band and branch out
as Oi’s first entirely serious poet. Johnson’s humour and his bitterly
anti-establishment verses added yet more credence to Oi!, as did
the plethora of good fanzines that had sprung up around it – the
best being Rising Free, Ready To Ruck (which became New Mania) and
Phase One. In June a second Oi! conference was held in the Conway
Hall at Red Lion Square, attended by 57 interested parties including
reps from bands all over the country. There was much concern voiced
about the movement’s violent image, which was felt to be unjust.
The sublime Beki Bondage from the Oi-bolstered punk band Vice Squad
complained that the aggressive skin on the front of ‘Strength Thru
Oi!’ made the movement look too skinhead orientated. Everyone agreed.
And once again conference voted unanimously to back pro-working class
campaigns. Ron Rouman was delegated to write to the Right To Work
Campaign that week to set up gigs. The main themes of the day were
the need to unite working class kids, and stick together. Punk Lives
called it “a glimpse of the future Oi! could have had.”
When the 4-Skins, the Last Resort and the Business played a gig
at the Hamborough Tavern in Southall six days later, the riot that
surrounded it and the acres of hysterical newsprint that ensued drowned
out that possibility, and any chance of Oi getting a fair hearing,
WHEN THE shit hit the headlines during 1981’s summer of discontent,
I sincerely believed that the truth would out. That the smears against
the Oi bands would be laughed at in the same way that the slurs against
the Sex Pistols and The Clash had been. The whole idea that the bands
had gone into Middlesex to provoke a race riot was absurd. We’d been
talking strike benefits, not NF marches. No Oi band had sported swaztikas
like the Sex Pistols had done. No Oi band had sung lyrics like “too
many Jews for my liking” as Siouxsie Banshee did. No Oi band had
lifted their name from the SS like Joy Division had done…
What contributed to Oi’s undoing however was the movement’s utter
hostility to the middle classes in general and the trendy left in
particular (see the Garry Johnson/Business anthem ‘Suburban Rebels’).
So as well as incurring the wrath of the right-wing establishment,
Oi also alienated the left-wing of the middle class media whose backing
had seen the punk bands through their own particular backlash and
who were later to defend rap and hip-hop which were far more violent
than Oi had ever been, and anti-semitic to boot. Besides me, there
was no-one else in the media to defend the bands. Very few rock journalists
had ventured into the East End to see the gigs. (Indeed the idea
that the NME was ever THE punk paper is a complete myth. That paper
rubbished Anarchy In The UK and their first review of The Clash suggested
they "should be returned to the garage, preferrably with the motor
running." Parsons and Burchill loved Joe Strummer and co for their
The Oi! bands and their fans were guilty of that most terrible
of crimes – being white and working class with chips on their shoulders.
Ironically Alan Rusbridger, now the editor of The Guardian was
the only journalist to give the Oi bands a fair hearing…
The superficial evidence against Oi seemed strong – the Southall
riot and ‘Strength Thru Oi’. The Oi! gig at Southall’s Hamborough
Tavern had been arranged by West London 4-Skins’ fans fed up with
having to travel to the East End to see the shows. The press painted
sinister pictures of skinheads being ‘bussed’ into a predominantly
Asian area. FACT: there were just two coaches hired by the Last Resort
who hired coaches to transport their away-firm of fans whenever the
band played anywhere outside of South London. TV and radio reports
gave the impression of skinheads battling Asian youths and the Police.
FACT: the Oi fans were all inside the Tavern enjoying the gig when
the first Asian petrol bomb sailed through the window. The cops were
protecting the Oi kids. The press said the peaceful Asian community
had risen spontaneously to repulse right-wing invaders who had terrorised
the town. FACT: there’d been just one abusive incident involving
young skinheads from Mottingham, Kent, in a chip shop earlier in
the evening. “They probably asked the geezer how many rupees a packet
of chips cost,” Max Splodge later shrugged.
The sheer quantity of petrol bombs used by the Asians indicated
they’d been stockpiling them for some days before. The young Asians
were definitely on the offensive. Young white Oi fans were assaulted
by Asian youths on buses going TO the gig, and a minibus containing
Business fans from Lewisham and radical poet Garry Johnson was attacked
by Asians wielding swords without any provocation (see Johnson’s
book The Story of Oi for full details). In fact the apparently placid
Asian community was to riot again within the week with no ‘outsiders’ to
pin the blame on.
The idea that the bands had gone to Southall to deliberately provoke
a race riot just to be able to cash-in on the ensuing publicity is
just daft. It goes completely against everything they’d been trying
to achieve for the previous eight months. The 4-Skins manager Garry
Hitchcock said “If we’d really wanted to go to Southall and smash
it up, we’d have come with geezers – and left all the birds and the
“People ask why the Oi bands played Southall,” commented Hoxton
Tom, “but you’ve gotta remember, in them days any gig was welcome.
No one thought for a minute that there’d be trouble there. The Business
had played Brixton before. The Last Resort had played Peckham, we’d
played Hackney often and they’re all areas with large black populations,
and yet those gigs were always trouble free. Oi had to break out
of the East End to have any chance of growing.”
To the mass media, the events of July 4th were manna from heaven:
Yobs. Immigrants. Anarchy. The Thin Blue Line… But the Oi crowd were
reluctant participants. As soon as it was obvious real havoc was
brewing, the Oi bands attempted to negotiate with the Southall Youth
Movement through the police. They didn’t want to talk. “We didn’t
want trouble,” said Tom, “but that’s all they had on their minds”.
Under attack, the Oi-polloi had no other option but to fight a defensive
rear-guard action and retreat. The Hamborough Tavern was razed to
the ground. And the press distortion began. According to some reports
right wing hate leaflets had been found in vans the following morning – the
same vans that had been torched. Were the leaflets printed on asbestos?
Hacks even descended on the Bridge House and tried to bribe kids
into sieg-heiling for their cameras. One was kicked out of the pub
by Si Spanner who was Jewish. But who cared about the truth? Storm-trooping
skins made shock-horror headlines.
The fighting at Southall could have been worse. Scores more Oi!
fans were turned back by the police before they’d even got to the
gig, including Indian workmate of Hoxton Tom’s (the press never mentioned
the few black, Asian and Greek kids inside the Tavern). Ironically,
reports of a race riot on the radio induced mobs of West London bikers
to rush to the scene eager to stand alongside their old enemies,
the skins, against the Asians. The cops turned them back too.
I take full responsibility for ‘Strength Thru Oi’. I gave the album
its title. But it was never knowingly a pun on the Nazi slogan Strength
Through Joy. Let’s be honest, who knew? How many people my age were
that up on Third Reich sloganeering? The Skids had released an ep
called Strength Through Joy earlier that year, and that’s what I
based the pun on (asked later, Skids singer Richard Jobson – now
a dapper TV movie reviewer - said he’d taken it from the Dirk Bogarde’s
autobiography). It was either that or The Oi Of Sex which I dismissed
as too frivolous. Doh!
Selective quotes from my sleevenotes were used by the Daily Mail
to fit their theory of Oi’s ‘brown shirt’ philosophy. Naturally this
meant they had to omit the favourable mentions of black sportsmen,
including Jesse Owen, the American athlete who’d triumphed so dramatically
at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The fact there wasn’t a single racist
lyric on the album didn’t seem to matter. Criminal Class’s ‘Blood
On The Street’ actually made the point that black and white youth
faced the same state oppression.
The biggest argument they had was the picture of the aggressive
skin on the front cover. This turned out to be Nicky Crane (a gay
Nazi who later died of AIDS). Here’s the truth: the original model
had been West Ham personality and then body-builder Carlton Leach.
Carlton had turned up for one photo session at the Bridge House that
didn’t work. He never turned up for the second one. Under looming
deadline pressure I suggested using a shot from a skinhead Xmas card
which I believed was a still from the Wanderers movie. In fact it
had been taken by English skinhead photographer Martin Dean. It wasn’t
until the very last minute, when Decca had mocked up the sleeve that
the photo was sufficiently clear to reveal Nazi tattoos. We had the
option of either airbrushing the tattoos out or putting the LP back
a month while we put a new sleeve together. Said Splodge manager
Dave Long: “Blame it on youthful impetuousness but the wrong decision
was made. It was a mistake, but it was an honest mistake. There’s
nothing else on that LP or in Oi that could possibly be construed
Another crucial point the critics skipped over was that it wasn’t
only me who hadn’t realised the picture was of Nicoli Crane. The far
right hadn’t either. That album had been out for two months before
the Daily Mail ‘exposed’ it (and me!) and yet not once had it been
referred to in right-wing publications. It was a bitter irony. Me,
at that point in my life a dedicated socialist (used to having “Bushell
is a red” chanted at me at gigs), accused of masterminding a right-wing
movement by a newspaper that had once supported Mosley’s Blackshirts,
Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, and appeasement with Hitler right
up to the outbreak of World War Two…The Mail's ferocious attack on Oi! - later disowned by Simon Kinersley, the journalist who wrote it - was obviously related to the fact that Sounds was owned by their rivals - the Daily Express group.
Southall proved the catalyst for a spate of anti-government riots
and there was no doubt where the Oi! bands stood on that issue, with
the 4-Skins, Blitz and the Violators celebrating the popular uprisings
with songs like ‘One Law For Them’, ‘Nation On Fire’ and ‘Summer
In Sounds and in his book The Story of Oi, Garry Johnson called
on black and white youth to unite to fight the Tories. Sounds and
I started libel proceedings against the Mail, while the Oi bands
now shaped up to deal with a problem that had never seemed and issue
before – Nazism.
Naturally the far right loved it. YNF organiser Joseph Pearce (brother
of Soft Cell’s Stevo) popped up in the press out of nowhere claiming
that the Oi bands were the musical wing of the National Front. Pearce
had never even been to an Oi gig.
Out of journalistic interest, I surveyed skinheads in the Last
Resort shop on the Sunday after Southall. Most of them cited some
immigrant ancestry from Irish to Pakistani through Russian Jew. Last
Resort fan Khalid Karim from Leytonstone who was half-Pakistani swore
he had never been hassled at any Last Resort gig. ‘Gappy’ Eddie from
Poplar claimed to personally know at least thirty ‘non-white’ skins,
including West Indian skins from Hackney, Brixton, Ladbroke Grove
and Walthamstow, a half-Pakistani suedehead from Dalston and another
half-Pakistani skin called Rob from Wimbledon who I remember was
always at Oi gigs taking pictures. Sixteen-year-old Nicky Holder
from Lewisham named other non-white skins – Gary Singh from Belvedere,
West Indian Colin McClean from Lewisham, Arab skin Mushti from New
Cross, and a huge black Orpington skin called Sanya. Jewish skinhead
Tony Stern from Epping claimed to know “loads of Jewish skins and
no one gets any trouble, where are all the ‘Nazi’ skins now, that’s
what I wanna know.” Danielle Lux, from an orthadox Jewish family,
was always down at the Hackney gigs. She is now something important
at Channel 4.
When Socialist Worker ran a report based on the Mail article, it
was inundated with letters from socialist skins and punks complaining
how out of touch it was. Sheffield skins wrote to Sounds to say that
the month before 500 black and white skinheads had marched together
in protest against Unemployment and police harassment bearing placards
proclaiming ‘Jobs Not Jails’. SWP skin poet Seething Wells was outraged
by the all-skins-are-nazis line, pointing to the literally thousands
of Northern skins and rudies who had swelled June’s anti-Nazi Leeds
Carnival. He might have mentioned Liverpool’s ‘Skin Fein’ republican
It was harder to get the truth into the nationals. A freelance
journalist called John Glatt came and spoke to skinheads at length
and filed a sympathetic report to the News Of the World. His copy
was slashed and distorted to make a cheap sensationalist slob story.
Even if Oi had just been a skinhead phenomenon it was dishonest
and dangerously lazy journalism to suggest that anything more than
a small minority of skinheads at this time were Nazi sympathisers.
The Oi bands realised that simple facts weren’t enough to win the
propaganda battle. They had to prove their protestations of innocence.
Garry Hodges went on TV to say that the 4-Skins would play an anti-racist
gig as long as it was organised by an independent body, although
the band split before it occurred under the tremendous pressure and
after just one more gig – advertised as country band the Skans! -
at a Mottingham pub. The Business declined to play RAR gigs for the
old ‘RAR as Trot front’ reasons, but instead put together their own
unwieldy named ‘Oi Against Racism and Political Extremism But Still
Against The System tour with Infa-Riot, Blitz and the Partisans.
Infa-Riot played a Sheffield RAR gig and Blitz played at the Blackburn
leg of the Right To Work March.
After Southall, a few of us met up with Red Action, a working class
street-fighting splinter from the SWP, to clear the air about Oi.
Their leading member Mick O’Farrell even contributed a poem to the
fourth Oi! album sleeve. It was a short-lived union, however. Although
they called themselves socialists, Red Action were led by Irish nationalists
and we disagreed passionately about Ulster and the Falklands.
In late August 1981, I complied the third Oi! album, ‘Carry on
Oi!’ Released by Secret Records in October 1981. Eager to stand by
the bands, I reformed my own late 70s band The Gonads to contribute
Tucker’s Ruckers to the compilation. On first release it sold 35,000
copies. Melody Maker’s review stressed that Oi’s intentions ‘weren’t
to divide but to unite the working classes’. The same month The Exploited
smashed into the top forty with ‘Dead Cities’ (shame about that Top
Of The Pops appearance), while The Business released their superb
debut single coupling ‘Harry May’ with ‘National Insurance Blacklist’ – an
attack on the unofficial employers’ blacklist operated against militant
trade unionists in the building trade: 'Job chances seem very thin/It's a losing battle we must all win/The C.B.I. are winning keep down the pay
Mysterious people calling early in the day/The 'x' has appeared, another lost life/No tears are shed for the children and wife/The dailies ignore it, or treat it with tact/
Still when have they been know to report fact?/In our country so fair and free, so say the holders of the economy, there is a monster said not to exist: They call it the employers blacklist...'Paradoxically, the period
from September ’81 to the end of ’82 saw the strongest ever Oi! releases
thanks to Secret, and the excellent Malvern label No Future’s series
of twenty-two singles from the likes of Blitz, the Partisans, Red
Alert, Peter & The Test-Tube Babies, and Derbyshire ‘Clockwork Orange’ band
the Violators. Punk Lives mag calculated that Oi sold over two million
in the first four years (by 2001, total sales by Oi groups and groups
influenced by Oi stand at well over eleven million).
Recognising its significance left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths
wrote a play called Oi For England which was broadcast by the ITV
in April 1982 as well as being taken round England on a tour. The
play was more than a little far-fetched. It featured four unemployed
skins in an Oi band approached to play a Nazi gig, and revolved around
their arguments about it and the riot outside. What Griffiths seemed
to be saying however was that in any group of skins, you’d have one
susceptible to the lure of race and nation, one drawn to class struggles,
and two who couldn’t give a toss about politics.
Unfortunately, Oi’s vinyl health during 1982 wasn’t reflected on
the streets. The 4-Skins split, then reformed with drummer Jacobs
on guitar, new boy Pete Abbott on drums, Hoxton Tom still on bass
and roadie Panther (Tony Cummins) on vocals. Later Millwall Roi sang
with them. But by then Tom was the only surviving original, and sales
had slumped almost out of sight. They split for good in 1984.
The Rejects were dropped by EMI in ’81, disowned Oi for HM, and
didn’t play again for over a decade. The Upstarts soldiered on, playing
the US punk circuit in ’82 but musically they went down the khazi.
Under pressure from EMI the Upstarts released a poor synth pop saturated
sell-out LP ‘Still From The Heart’ that flopped miserably. (Infa-Riot
tried a similarly doomed direction change, releasing an LP of unbelievably ‘ordinary’ rock
in 1983 before finally breaking up the following year). The Upstarts
were the subject of a Channel 4 documentary in 1984, but their chart
success was long behind them.
The Last Resort never ever got to the singles stage, they weren’t
allowed a life independent of Micky French’s boutique. What he wanted
was a house band, a singing advert for his t-shirts. Before Southall
he opposed moves to send the bands on a US tour – he wanted the scene
to stay at the small club level. The cynical claimed he didn’t want
commercial competition for ‘his’ skinhead clothes market.
Sadly the Resort suffered when their London fans smashed up a pub
in King’s Lynn called the Stanley Arms. Virtually the same crowd
were also involved in a BBC televised ruck with local skins at Benny’s
Club in Harlow. Both incidents happened in January ’82, at a time
when everyone else was trying to prove that Oi! meant more than rucking.
The Last Resort split with French later in ’82 to re-emerge as The
Warriors, but back then they were never sufficiently motivated to
build on their potential.
The Exploited meantime had shed their skin look, adopting a mutant
Mohawk image and becoming the darlings of the Apocalypse Now punk
revival. Singer Wattie went on to close down two thirds of Western
Europe to other punk bands by smashing up dressing rooms. Losing
gifted guitarist Big John (to Nirvana!) along the way, the band play
on to this day.
Back in ’82, Blitz and The Business had clearly emerged as the
new vanguard Oi desperately needed. Blitz specialised in belligerent
boots ‘n’ braces brickwall Oi - pure youth anthems like ‘Fight To
Live’ ‘Razors In The Night’, and the haunting ‘Warriors’. Their debut
LP ‘Voice Of A Generation’ went top thirty and was the Oi LP of ’82
but they were never that hot live. A disastrous gig at the Hammersmith
Clarendon at the end of ’82 was the beginning of the end. In ’83
Blitz split in two, their former engineer Tim Harris taking over
from the popular Mackie as bassist (Mackie later formed the short-lived
Rose Of Victory with Blitz guitarist Nidge Miller) and pushing the
band into trendier synthesiser sounds with scant public appeal. They
didn’t last into ’84.
The Business split and got punkier. Guitarist Steve Whale (ex-Gonads)
contributed greatly to their harder sound. They were haunted by politics
- internal and external. To back-up their ‘Blacklist’ song, Business
manager Ron Rouman and the Oi organising committee (an ad-hoc body
set up after Southall) met with blacklisted building worker Brian
Higgins and other trade union militants to organise a big pro-union
benefit gig. But the band bottled out and sacked Rouman, replacing
him with bikers’ pin-up Vermilion Sands. Deprived of Rouman’s drive
and terrace connections, the band fell apart. The Business reformed
in 1984 and were smart enough to realise you had to tour to survive
(ironically they signed to Rouman and Mark Brennan’s Link Records).
They have been playing ever since to growing audiences, especially
in the USA where they inspired another Oi wave.
Back home though, Oi as we first knew it died at the end of ’82.
It never had room to grow, and its vanguard fell apart ignominiously.
To paraphrase Mao, it was like a stream, when it’s moving it stays
healthy, but when it gets blocked up and stagnant all the shit rises
to the top. The Oi stream was definitely blocked up. And the poor
quality of the new combos showcased on the fourth Oi LP ‘Oi Oi That’s
Yer Lot’ (produced by Mickey Geggus and released by Secret in October ’82)
confirmed it. The new bands were either too unoriginal, too weak,
or (in the case of Skully’s East End Badoes, too limited in their
appeal to a square mile of Poplar) to mean anything.
And when great Oi-influenced bands did break through in ’83 they
all fell at early fences. Croydon’s Case were cracking – they specialised
in a ballsy brand of high-octane pop fresher than Max Miller chewing
polos in a mountain stream and were fronted by the exceptionally
expressive Matthew Newman. Case attracted acclaim from most quarters
(including the Daily Mirror and Radio One) but fell apart when Matthew
swapped the stage for domestic bliss with Splodge co-vocalist Christine
Miller. Similarly, Taboo rose from the ashes of the Violators and
specialised in non-wimpy pop. But the band split when wonderful,
vivacious vocalist Helen decided to get pregnant and leave.
Finally there was The Blood, one of the best Oi bands ever to come
out of Blighty. Emerging out of the wild excesses of Charlton’s Coming
Blood, The Blood’s debut LP ‘False Gestures For A Devious Public’ was
an invigorating blend of Stranglers, Motorhead and Alice Cooper influences
which hit the UK Top Thirty and was voted one of the year’s best
by the Sounds staff. On stage they were awesome and OTT in equal
measure. They filled blow-up dolls full of butchers’ offal and cut
them up with chainsaws. And their lyrics were a cut-above the usual, with lines like 'The Pope said to the atheist, "In God's name I do swear, you're searching blindly in the dark for something that ain't there"/The atheist said to the Pope: "There ain't no getting round it, you too were searching in the dark for nothing...but you found it".' But the band were lazy bastards who never wanted
to tour, and the days when you could scam your way to chart success
were long gone.
Cock Sparrer reformed in ’83 and recorded the LP they always should
have made, ‘Shock Troops’ (Carrere), but they never had chart success
in the UK again. Modesty forbids any mention of the Gonads, considered
by many to be the finest Oi! band of them all (see Back & Barking
for the proof in handy CD form).
At the fag end of ’83, Syndicate Records launched a new series
of Oi! albums which lacked both the bite and the sales of the originals – ‘Son
of Oi’ was nudging up to the 10,000 mark when Syndicate went bust
in December ’84, that bankruptcy itself a reflection of Britain’s
shrinking Oi market. The two best new bands were Burial and Prole
(the latter a studio creation put together by me and Steve Kent).
Scarborough’s Burial cited Oi and 2-Tone as forebears and mixed the
sounds of ska and rowdy bootboy punk in their set. The only Oi! band
to have any success were the Toy Dolls who scored a top ten novelty
hit with their version of ‘Nellie The Elephant’ at Xmas 1984.
As British Punk degenerated after its ’81 boom, the skinhead scene
became a political battleground and turned sour. The cream of the ’81
generation went Casual. A few even turned rockabilly. Meanwhile Nazi
kids who’d never been part of Oi started turning up at the gigs,
obviously attracted by the media’s ‘reporting’. When they found the
truth was different, they turned nasty: Garry Johnson was beaten
up by Nazi skins in Peckham. I was attacked by a mob of fifteen Nazis
(not skins) at an Upstarts gig at the 100 Club. Si Spanner was stabbed
by the same nazi who’d tried to stab Buster Bloodvessel. Attila The
Stockbroker, the left-wing Oi poet/wally, was whacked on stage in
North London. Infa-Riot were attacked at the 100 Club by Nazis. You
get the picture.
In East London, it was a different story - the British Movement
were taken out of the frame by the Inter City Firm. In early 1982,
Skully and other Oi regulars had organised a march protesting about
the jailing of their fellow ICF member Cass Pennant. The BM threatened
individuals, putting pressure on them to cancel this "march for a
nigger". The following Monday the ICF had been planning to take on
Tottenham fans (as West Ham were playing Spurs that night). Instead
they confronted and smashed the East London neo-Nazis who were drinking
in the Boleyn Arms. They were never a significant presence on the
West Ham terraces again, but they remained a problem elsewhere.
When they couldn’t find Oi bands to toe the master race line, the
neo-Nazis created their own nationalist skinhead bands around the
Blood & Honour banner. Skrewdriver, the veteran punk band first featured
on Janet Street-Porter’s punk TV documentary in 1976, came back as
skinheads and were the cornerstone of the new hate-punk sound. Opposing
them were a raft of equally extreme Trotskyist bands and performers,
like the Redskins, the Newtown Neurotics, Attila and Seething Wells.
Quietly, and apart from all the polemics, a small, smartly dressed
alternative skinhead scene developed underground. Hard As Nails fanzine
reflected this growing trend. It was run by two young kids from Canvey,
Essex, both Labour Party members. But they insisted the mag was about
style, not politics. They had some cross-over with the scooterist
scene which flourishes to this day, with thousands subscribing to
George Marshall’s marvellous Pulped mag and enjoying a drip-feed
of classic Oi CDs from Mark Brennan’s splendid Captain Oi!, the world’s
leading punk re-issue label.
This fine volume will tell you the rest of the story in detail.
In my view, the British Oi scene didn’t really perk up until Link
Records came along in 1986, and gave a platform to bands like Section
5 and Vicious Rumours. But Link couldn’t reverse the decline. In
Britain Oi fizzled out and turned to shit for many a barren year.
But the fuse we lit went on to detonate explosive scenes around the
globe. For the past two years Oi! has been booming in Malaysia (where
they angrily insist that Oi is not about black and white uniting,
it’s about black, white, yellow and brown). There is even an underground
Oi! scene in Red China.
Oi had taken off in most European countries by the mid-eighties.
But the Yanks made the music their own. Oi was always viewed for
what it was in the States: a distinctive brand of street-punk. It
was hardcore bands like Agnostic Front who first invited the Business
to play there. The first US Oi bands were formed in 1981. The torch
was carried later that decade by great bands like Warzone and The
Press, the socialist Oi! band from New York whose anthem Revolution
Now was directly inspired by the Gonads. But the US of Oi! really
took of in the 1990s, with inspired outfits like Boston’s own Dropkick
Murphys, plus The Bruisers, the Anti-Heroes and The Reducers. One
of the best Oi-influenced bands were Operation Ivy, whose ska-punk
numbers were punctuated with oi-oi terrace chants (this has become
a ska-punk tradition). Operation Ivy became Rancid, one of the hottest
of the 90s punk bands. Another major US punk band NOFX played Oi
songs and were unashamedly influenced by Blitz and the Partisans.
Incidently the world’s largest organised tour against racism happened
recently in the USA, featuring bands like Less Than Jake and The
Toasters, and was sponsored by the Moon Ska label which is now run
by rotund Oi stalwart Lol Pryor.
In April 2001 I walked into the Virgin mega-store in Caesar’s Palace,
Las Vegas, and was delighted to find a joint Business/Drop Kick Murphys
CD not just in the racks but being played on the store PA system.
Upstairs in the book department the latest issue of Spin magazine
had put together their Top 50 most influential punk albums ever.
Oi! – The Album, the record I had compiled for EMI 21 years previously
was in there with these words: ‘The white riot becomes a soccer riot:
Oi! was punk dumbed down to a hilariously catchy chant and a knee
in the bollocks.’ Not perfect but at least there wasn’t a sniff of
any Nazi nonsense…unlike in Britain where apparently professional
journalists like John Sweeney of The Observer feel free to trot out
same old lies without ever checking the facts.
Posers who work for Kerrang and Metal Hammer still refuse to write
about the Business even though they gleefully write about bands who
cite South London’s finest as their inspiration.
And even last year, CD manufacturer Disctronics declined to re-press
well-known “Nazi” CDs like ‘Oi Oi Music’ by The Oppressed (the world’s
leading anti-fascist Oi band!) and ‘100% British Ska’.
Yeah, we still wind up the mugs.
The latest miscreant is Robert Elms. His book, The Way We Wore, starts
with a lovingly accurate depiction of skinhead fashion in the sixties
but goes on to dismiss Oi out of hand. Yet it’s clear from the text
that Elms has no personal knowledge of the Oi scene, had never been
to any gigs and has only a tenuous idea of when Oi happened and which
bands were involved in it.
It’s an odd book. Elms, an LSE graduate, lost his father at a young
age and clearly looked up to his tougher brother Reggie and his skinhead
pals with something approaching misty-eyed hero worship. He's hot
for hooliganism (“working class teenage boys liked to dress up; working
class teenage boys liked to fight”), and praises its “violent brilliance”.
Yet strangely although gang warfare and terrace culture are fine
in 1969, kids just like his brother's gang ten years later are completely
Elms admits (crassly) that he was attracted to punk by the awful
rip-off fashions created by Vivienne Westwood; and by the politics
of the Clash (nothing wrong with that). The music never really came
in to it. To him, Oi was an ugly “monosyllabic” thing (unlike those
colourfully polysyllabic cults such as Mod, Punk, Goth, Ted etc.)
He manages to link the Southall gig with the death of Blair Peach,
who was killed by the SPG more than two years before, simply because
they happened in the same town. He writes that the “predominantly
Asian area…was set alight during a riot at an Oi gig in a pub,” disingenuously
failing to mention who was throwing the petrol bombs and who was
doing the rioting…
Inevitably by the early Eighties, Robert was closely associated
with the New Romantics (i.e. the camp clown end of British youth
cults) and was busy writing pretentious poetry for Spandau Ballet.
In fact, Elms gave them their name – taken from Spandau prison which
housed one Rudolph Hess. That kind of Nazi flirtation is so bold
and decadent, don’tcha know? Spandau wrote some quality pop songs,
of course, and I have to admit to a tinge of jealousy regarding Elms’s
love life (he dated Sade), but his views on Oi are laughably poor
journalism. Besides, it’s hard to be lectured by someone who finds
Blue Rondo A La Turk more exciting than Cock Sparrer, and Steve Strange
more noteworthy than Hoxton Tom. Make your own mind up which has
the most lasting worth.
Will Oi ever become respectable? I doubt it. But I do know this:
the movement that NME once said I had “invented” is still going strong
as it enters its third decade. And the message is still the same
as it always was.
Oi’s self-definition of ‘having a laugh and having a say’ got it
right on the button. The laughs were ten a penny for Jack the Lads
knocking back pints and pills and pulling at the pubs, rampaging
at the football grounds and revelling in rebel rock’n’roll at the
gigs. Oi reflected that, but it also cried out against the injustices
weighed up against the young working class. In that sense Oi was
a real voice from the backstreets, a megaphone for dead-end yobs.
At its best it went beyond protest, and dreamed of a better life:
social change; the kids united.
© Garry Bushell; 13th May, 2001
A version of this piece appears in George’s Marshall book A Nation
Essential discography, the classics, 1977 - 1983:
Cockney Rejects: Police Car, Bad Man, The Power & The Glory, Subculture,
Oi Oi Oi, Ready To Ruck, Fighting In The Streets, War On The Terraces,
Join The Rejects (Get Yourself Killed)
Cock Sparrer: Running Riot, England Belongs To Me, Take 'Em All,
Chip On My Shoulder, Argy Bargy, Sunday Stripper, We're Coming Back,
Watch Your Back, Taken For A Ride.
Angelic Upstarts: The Murder Of Liddle Towers, Last Night Another
Soldier, I'm An Upstart, Teenage Warning, Police Oppression, Never
'Ad Nothing, Shotgun Solution, England, Guns For The Afghan Rebels.
The 4-Skins: Chaos, Sorry, Wonderful World, 1984, One Law For Them,
Evil, ACAB, Brave New World.
The Last Resort: Working Class Kids, King Of The Jungle, Violence
In Our Minds.
The Blood: Megalomania, Stark Raving Normal, Gestapo Khazi, Such
Fun, Mesrine, Se Parrare Nex.
The Gonads: I Lost My Love (To A UK Sub), SE7 Dole Day, Jobs Not
Jails, Tucker's Ruckers Ain't No Suckers, Eat The Rich, The Joys
Of Oi, Got Any Wrigleys, John?
The Business: Harry May, Suburban Rebels, Product, National Insurance
Blacklist, Smash The Discos.
Blitz: Razors In The Night, Someone's Gonna Die, 45 Revolutions,
Warriors, 4Q, Youth, Never Surrender.
Splodgenessabounds: Two Pints Of Lager & A Packet Of Crisps Please,
We're Pathetique, The Butterfly Song, Two Little Boys, Delirious.
Vice Squad: Stand Strong, Stand Proud. Infa-Riot: Each Dawn I Die.
Peter & The Test-Tube Babies: Maniac, Transvestite. The Partisans:
Blind Ambition, No U-Turns. Case: Smiling My Life Away, Oh! Prole:
Chasing Rainbows, Never Say Die. Garry Johnson: Dead End Yobs. The
Strike: Gang Warfare, Skinhead. The Exploited: Army Life, Class War.
The Toy-Dolls: Deirdre's A Slag, Frankie & The Flames: On Yer Bike!
Albums: Various Artists: Oi The Album, Strength Thru Oi, Carry
Cockney Rejects: Greatest Hits Volume One. Blitz: Voice Of A Generation.
The Business: Suburban Rebels. The Gonads: Old Boots, No Panties.
Menace: GLC RIP - the Best of. Angelic Upstarts: Two Million Voices.
The Blood: False Gestures For A Devious Public.
Modern Oi classics, recommended: Dropkick Murphys: Barroom Hero,
Discipline: Everywhere We Go, Resistance 77: Run Run Run, The Gonads:
Unky Bunk, Lars Frederiksen & The Bastards: Skunx, Dropkick Murphys:
Your Spirit Survives, Cockney Rejects: Fists Of Fury, Splodgenessabounds:
Parallel Lines, Beerzone: Strangle All The Boy Bands, Millwall Roi & The
Last Resort: We're Gonna Get You; Combat 84: It's Kickin' Off, Dropkick
Murphys: Boys On The Docks, Maninblack: New York New York USA
Albums: Various Artists: The Worldwide Tribute To The Real Oi; Various Artists: Addicted To Oi; Various Artists: Give 'Em The Boot 1 - IV; Deadline: Getting Serious.
Pre-Oi street punk classics. Sham 69: Song Of The Streets, Hey
Little Rich Boy, Rip-Off, Borstal Breakout, Red London, I Don't Wanna,
Tell Us The Truth, Ulster Boy. Menace: GLC, Last Year's Youth, Screwed
Up, I'm Civilised, Carry No Banners. Slaughter & The Dogs: Where
Have All The Boot Boys Gone? UK Subs: Stranglehold. The Ruts: Babylon's
Burning, Staring At The Rude Boys. The Lurkers: Total War. The Skids:
Into The Valley.