Skinheads vs. boneheads: the battle over a working class subculture

The image of the skinhead is for many associated with violent neo-Nazis. Footage of shaven-headed thugs covered in nationalist symbols taking to the streets and attacking immigrants, refugees or members of other oppressed groups is all too familiar.

Committed to the “fourteen words” (we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children), these dangerous bigots openly wear their hate on their skin. But these boneheads – as they’re referred to by anti-racist skinheads – represent a complete break with genuine skinhead history, culture and traditions.

Originating in the mod scene in Britain, the “hard mods”, as they became known, were working class and by the late 1960s had formed a subculture.

Whereas the mods had traditionally favoured more fancy and expensive attire, the skinheads developed a look that centred on short hair, work boots and braces, reflecting fierce pride in their working class heritage.

They could be seen at football matches, in pubs, on the streets and at live music venues. Along with northern soul – adaption of Black American soul music popular in northern England – the favourite music of skinheads was the reggae and ska that had been brought to Britain by Jamaican immigrants in the post-war era.

Skinheads mingled with the Jamaican “rude boys’” and “rude girls” (slang for disaffected Jamaican youth) who gathered in these venues and who contributed not only to their musical tastes but also to much of the apparel that would become standard for skinheads around the world. The skinhead was thus born of a fusion between white working class youth and Jamaican immigrants and their music.

Given the importance of Jamaican culture to the skinhead tradition, boneheads are an affront to the genuine skinhead tradition.

As Roddy Moreno of Cardiff skinhead band The Oppressed puts it, “If you’re a racist you can’t be a skinhead, because there’d be no skinheads without Jamaica”.

While aggression and outright violence is a regular part of many skinheads’ lives, organised racism is not something associated with them. So what happened?

The 1970s brought the end of the post-war boom and the return of damaging recessions to Britain. The right wing exploited this situation. By the mid-1970s, the fascist National Front (NF), founded in 1967 by a former member of the earlier British Union of Fascists, had grown into a dangerous political force.

Its members recruited on the football terraces, targeting alienated youth and angry young men, who they encouraged to blame immigrants for society’s ills. They also took to the streets to show their strength and intimidate their adversaries, most notably immigrant communities.

Frequently, they were challenged by anti-fascists. This culminated in the 1977 “Battle of Lewisham”, where around 500 NF members were prevented from marching by several thousand anti-racists.

Only a minority of angry and alienated youth were drawn to the right. Most expressed their outrage and disillusionment in other ways, most notably when punk rock exploded onto the music scene in 1976. With anti-establishment lyrics and a look designed to shock, punk resonated with large numbers and spread quickly from London to the rest of the UK and from there to the world.

Sneered upon by the mainstream, punk rock allowed those struggling on the dole to attend live shows for a fraction of the price the big acts were asking. It also meant people could form their own bands, irrespective of their musical ability.

This coincided with a skinhead revival, with many of this second generation of skinheads attracted to punk bands, particularly those that played a brand of punk rock that would become known as “Oi!”. With its heartland in working class suburbs, Oi! has been called the music of the dole queue.

With a hard-edge sound and lyrics that reflected the realities of working class life, by the early 1980s it was firmly entrenched as a favourite among the new generation of skinheads.

The National Front saw the hard, young, angry skinheads attracted to the Oi! scene as potential recruits. Unfortunately, many were recruited. In 1982, Skrewdriver, formerly a punk band, was resurrected as a right wing “skinhead” band and produced songs with far right, racist lyrics.

They played benefit gigs for the National Front and supported Rock Against Communism, which had been formed in opposition to the successful Rock Against Racism shows that many other punk and Oi! bands had supported and performed at.

Skrewdriver were and still are the most notorious white power “skinhead” band. Its front man, Ian Stuart Donaldson, formed Blood & Honour in 1987 with the aim of promoting neo-Nazi concerts. Killed in a car crash in 1993, Donaldson is revered to this day by boneheads around the world.

Although it varied from country to country and city to city, many remember the 1980s as a time when boneheads regularly caused trouble at shows, with the threat of violence ever present.

Most bands associated with the Oi! and skinhead scene continued to reject far right politics throughout the decade, and many fiercely opposed them.

Bands such as Sham 69, the Angelic Upstarts, The Oppressed and the Cockney Rejects made it clear from the start that they wanted nothing to do with the far right.

Punk poet Garry Johnson, who featured on several Oi! compilations summed it up: “Working class whites have more in common with working class Blacks than with middle class whites”. His poem “Boy About Town” called the fascists “the enemy of the working class”. In other words, it was your class position and not your skin colour that should determine which side you were on.

Despite this, the mainstream press labelled all skinheads and Oi! Bands as fascist, including those that were openly hostile to far right politics. This was used as a slur against both the subculture and the working class it was part of.

The Cockney Rejects in particular copped this treatment even though their policy was that the far right was not welcome at their shows (they had belted the shit out of fascists on more than one occasion).

Indeed, many associated with the scene were explicitly left wing. The Angelic Upstarts espoused socialist politics. The Redskins, which included members of the Socialist Workers Party, played a brand of soul music with lyrics that supported working class struggle. Their album title – Neither Washington Nor Moscow – was the slogan of the SWP during the Cold War.

In response to the boneheads, in 1987 a group of anti-racists in the New York Oi! scene formed Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) to reassert genuine skinhead culture. Bands like The Press, a New York Oi! band, threw their support behind the idea. SHARP skinheads physically fought boneheads to keep them out of shows.

A couple of years later, Roddy Moreno of The Oppressed redesigned the SHARP logo and promoted the concept in the UK. It continued to spread throughout the world in the years that followed.

Today, there is an international network of bands and individuals that embrace the SHARP ethos. Some also identify as RASH (Red and Anarchist Skinheads), a more overtly left wing current that emerged in the 1990s among skinheads wanting to be more explicitly political.

It’s true that “skinheads” with far right politics have to be a part of the skinhead story. But it’s also true that their views do not represent the majority of genuine skinheads, who want nothing to do with such politics. SHARP has played an important role in making boneheads feel unwelcome and reasserting the genuine skinhead tradition. This tradition is above all a working class subculture.

The working class draws its strength from unity and solidarity, not the hatred and racism that the right foments. Those who use our differences to divide and weaken the working class have no place in skinhead subculture. Fuck the boneheads!

Paul DM is a long time socialist and a skinhead in Brisbane. He is the guitarist and vocalist for anti-fascist Oi! band Permanent Revolution.