Original London Skinheads

Well, what can you say about the good old, bad old, skinheads?

Quite a lot, surprisingly. The successive waves and types of 'Skinheads' that have emerged since the originals got started in London in the late Sixties not only went global, but proliferated into a whole load of different types we won't go into here. For our purposes now we'll say only this: the original skins, working class kids from London with short hair and a strong sense of style with no particular label attached to them, were more successfully exported from the UK than the Ted, Mod and Rocker subcultures that preceded them, and became an object of fascination for people in the 'cultural studies' game into the bargain.

Not all of these studies are worth reading today, but the first and best of them - John Clarke's dramatically titled 'The Skinheads and the Magical Recovery' - is. Published in 1976, the essay argues that the first Skinheads were attempting to deal with a situation of community and economic decline by 'reaffirming' core values of traditional working class culture, and that this affirmation was expressed in dress, style and appearance - i.e. was, basically, a symbolic, rather than a ‘real’ attempt to recreate some aspects of the fading ‘parent’ culture. The preoccupation of the early Skinheads with style, social values, territory and tribal football supporting based on an ideal of industrial-proletarian masculinity represented their attempted ‘magical recovery of community’.

Clarke also puts emphasis the Skinheads' feeling of exclusion from the existing ‘youth subculture’ (dominated in the public arena by the music and styles derived from the ‘underground’, understood as middle class) and response to this of returning to an intensified ‘Us-Them’ mentality. This, of course, is where some people would say the trouble began. As the Seventies wore on , Skinheads became associated with racist violence and 'far-right' politics etc. and this carried over into the Eighties and beyond.

But for some of those involved in the first wave the it was all about style, music and attitude, and there are plenty of old timers who will argue that the racism thing has been retrospectively and wrongly put on the Sixties originals, who were just working class kids - black ones included - wanting to dress up, have fun and dance, mostly to Jamaican music of course. You can find this argument strongly represented in this documentary by Don Letts - who seems much gentler here than he was in the early Seventies, running amok in the playground and corridors of our secondary school.


And you can read the book that contains Clarke's chapter at the link below. Warning: here be jargon.


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