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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 April 2007, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Under the skin
Gavin Watson's friends
Photo by Gavin Watson, courtesy of PYMCA gallery

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The skinhead movement is about to be reconsidered in a new film and a photographic exhibition. The menace and violence linger in the memory, but is it time to reassess the culture and its appeal in a more complex way?

It provided some of the most powerful youth imagery the UK has ever known. The shaved head, Doc Marten boots, braces and tight, bleached jeans made up a peculiarly British fashion that was exported around the world.

It was a look that became associated with the violence and racism of the late 70s - unfairly, according to its supporters. But the simmering menace added to its allure.

Now the movement, which came to the UK in two waves between the late 60s and mid-80s, is about to place its size 11s firmly back in the mainstream media.

1970s/80s SKINHEADS
Dress: Knee-high boots, flying jackets, Ben Sherman shirts, severely shaved head
Music: Two-Tone record label, The Specials, Cockney Rejects
Football: Attended matches en masse and named terraces like Chelsea's Shed
Difference to 60s skins: Coarser look, less influenced by mods and Jamaican ska

An award-winning, rites-of-passage film by Shane Meadows, called This Is England, hits cinemas at the end of the month. It's set in Thatcher's Britain of 1983, with mass unemployment and the Falklands War. A bullied boy joins a skinhead gang which is subsequently infiltrated by racists.

Meadows, who based the film on his own childhood in the East Midlands, says it's easily forgotten that the skinhead movement came about through the white man's love of black music.

A photographic exhibition which opened in London this week makes a similar point. Gavin Watson's portrayals of life as a teenage skinhead in High Wycombe show a racially diverse subculture that drew him in aged 14.

"Ultimately, it's difficult to explain the attraction, as it is for anyone deeply passionate about music, style and fashion," he says. "It's like asking 'why do you love your wife?' There was a lot of love involved and a lot of passion involved."

Robert by Gavin Watson, courtesy of PYMCA gallery
Mischief or menace?
"There was a spiritual and mystical part of being a skinhead that is unfathomable," he adds.

One theory he offers is that fathers hard at work could not provide the role model older boys could on the street.

What his own father did give him, however, was a camera, when he was 15 and about to be kicked out of school.

Over the next decade he took 10,000 photographs which offer a unique insight into a hidden, and often misunderstood, world. Watson's interest in it ended when rave culture took over, although he says the fun had by then been replaced by macho posturing.

Part of the initial attraction was being hated. "We were absolutely vilified. People were scared of us and wanted to beat us up. It was part of that stress of being a child - there's always a meltdown going on."

The racists were laughed at in the pub, he says. And there was violence but it plagued all communities at the time, not just the skinheads.

But while black culture was generally respected for its influence, other ethnic minorities were not so lucky. Gerry Gable of anti-fascist group Searchlight says the skinheads were the enemy in the late 70s and made up about 80% of the so-called "Paki-bashers" who roamed Brick Lane.

Class nostalgia

"The far-right political groups were looking for any kids that were alienated and these kids were putting on the [skinhead] uniform and going to the gigs. The two recruiting grounds were "Oi" music and football violence."

There was an attempt to recapture a sense of working class solidarity and identity in the face of a tide of social change
Bill Osgerby
Bill Osgerby, a professor of media, culture and communications, says the penetration of National Front can be over-played.

He thinks the appeal of being a skinhead was complex and differed from person to person - there were racist dimensions and anti-racist ones.

"It's unfortunate that the racist elements have become such a by-word for skinhead culture. The media has played its part in this, but by the same token it's clear the fascist element has always been fairly vocal in skinhead culture. The sad bit is that the more enlightened, anti-fascist aspects have not better promoted themselves."

Doc Marten

Class nostalgia played a big part too, he says. "In the late 70s and early 80s, working class culture was disintegrating through unemployment and inner city decay and there was an attempt to recapture a sense of working class solidarity and identity in the face of a tide of social change."

Cultural critic Dick Hebdige wrote an influential essay on the subject in 1982, called "This is England and They don't live here".

In explaining a common misconception about the title, he says that "They" does not refer to immigrants but educated, middle-class, white professionals who were deserting the rundown inner city areas skinheads shared with non-white immigrants.

David Beckham
A shaved head today has less meaning

And he sees an ambivalent psychology in the way skinheads gave voice to their class subordination, but at the same time chose to proudly re-enforce it - "throwing yourself away before 'They' do it for you".

Today there is little doubt the skinhead movement is appreciated for its contribution to British fashion and history, says Mr Osgerby, and the film and the exhibition will help to crystallize the way it vividly captured the time.

Another legacy is the way the style has been adopted by some gay men as an extreme form of masculinity. Marvin, a 33-year-old skinhead from Wakefield, says that is nothing new and part of the attraction is subverting what is considered "the norm".

"Feeling like an outcast for being gay or feeling like an outcast for looking a certain way isn't that much different."

This was England, a skinhead exhibition from the 1980s, is at the PYMCA gallery in London until 20 April.


A selection of your comments appears below.

A strong, vital look with its roots firmly in the sections of working class Britain which EMBRACED immigrants, their culture and their music. This image was sadly hijacked by fascists, but then recently has been turned on its head once again and adopted by homosexuals, the very subject of right wing vilification. It's a look which has over the years represented many sections of the political spectrum. So anyone who believes they can say exactly how every skinhead will behave is simply mistaken. Vive la skinhead!
jason, London, UK.

While the media likes to portray all skinheads as racists most of the skinheads I know have left wing political views. The nazi bone heads are just a small minority. Anyone remember the 80s skinhead band Redskins? - www.redskins.co.uk
Bazza, Boro

I would venture to say that nearly 100% of our local youth gangs and wannabe's have shaved heads now. Most of these are Hispanic and would have been the targets of the original skinheads. Generally, naturally bald males seem to be more mainstream than they ever were before. I wonder if the hair growth industry is suffering.
Doug K., Tijeras, NM USA

Some skinheads were bad. As a punk I was always taunted by them and threatened with violence. But I also knew lots of skins, they were good friendly people. So like most factions and sections of society there are good and bad. But the media has portrayed skins as racist, punks as glue sniffers, hippies as smelly, need I continue?
Gizz, West Country

When I was an eleven year old in 1981 I was repeatedly punched in the face by a HUGE skinhead who was at least three times my weight. Strangely enough even though I can still see the scars I never held any fear of this character type as I learned that anyone dressed anyhow can commit acts of violence against the smaller/weaker members of society. Skinheads were maligned and grouped as agitators because they really were all uniform.
Alistair, Edinburgh

It is funny because I hear all this about how skinheads were violent and anti-everything in the 70s - and they may well have been, at 25 I am too young to know - but the only ones I see now are the gay skinheads queuing to get into the Vauxhall Tavern.
Liza, London

Consett in County Durham in the mid 80s was a severe unemployment blackspot, skinheads were prevalent, as were those little red NF stickers, plastered to lampposts walls windows etc. The ska loving peaceful skinhead was as rare as a non white immigrant in our town. the skinheads who inhabited our streets were full-on violent racists. I'm not convinced that the 80s skinheads referred to were misunderstood, certainly not the ones I knew. I still see skinheads around now, mostly of the black music loving variety, they're completely different fashions in my view. I've no wish to get misty eyed over nasty times that produced nasty people.
Rico, Consett

Mod, Rocker, Punk and Skinhead are all part of Britain's culture and history. These trends are not just fads but real lifestyles that many people take very seriously. The stereotypical racist Skinhead was a media invention, the majority of Skins are peace loving hardworking educated decent people who love music and socialising
Phil Welsh, Dundee

The skin heads were racist and did not wait to ask you if you were a Pakistani or not before they beat you up. You just had to be non-white and they would chase you down and god help you if did not make it back to your house. This mindless violence was eventually stopped in my neighbourhood - not by the police of the 70s who were more racists than the skin heads - but by the next generation of the immigrants when we started fighting back. And as soon as we did that, the skin heads all but disappeared like a bunch of cowards.
Saeed, Bournemouth

Skinheads got a bad rap in the early 80's but I had a variety of experiences with them. The Grassroots coffee bar in Cardiff was where they hung out at that time. They were witty but if a mod came in there was the inevitable scrap. However, I remember being surrounded by twenty middle class kids who were going to fill me in ....who stepped in but a large skinhead who saved me from taking a hiding.
Simon Jones, Auckland

As a white middle class kid growing up in 1980s suburbia I had very little experience of prejudice. That was until (primarily for financial reasons) 12 years ago I began shaving my hair off. I then noticed starkly that I was treated with either suspicion or respect by pretty much everyone i came into contact with and have been ever since. It amazes me what a statement cropped hairs seems to make. I have also been accused of being a racist/fascist/thug/hooligan etc none of which is true. I am a gentle giant (honest). But I would not grow hair again for anyone. I learn a lot about people I meet by the way they judge me and it is very revealing about THEIR brand of prejudice.
Chris, London

On the topic of exporting Skinhead fashion/culture. I was travelling in northern Malaysia in 2003 and was waiting at a station when three Vespas turned up with 6 local lads in full skinhead garb. They had it down pat. Swastika tattoo on forehead, red braces, Fred Perry and Ben Sherman shirts, three-quarter bleached levis cut to the tops of their DMs. I was admiring how well they got the look and wondering where these guys in rural Malayisa would have got their references when I realised they were staring back at me none to pleased. There followed a rather intimidating 30 minutes with a language barrier in the way that was only resolved by supplying them with Marlboro Lights and singing a couple of "Specials" numbers to try and convince them I too was once one of the brethren (not helped by my wife reminding me that I was actually a parka wearing Mod in the 80's). Happy days
Paul, Crowthorne, UK

Much prefer a Skinhead over a hoodie, anyday!
Sandie Seward, Basildon U.K.

My personal experience of the skinhead with the bleached jeans and the braces has always for me been associated with the alternative gay scene. Walk down Old Compton Street today, and you will see quite a few good examples. Those guys don't really look that menacing - but put a football shirt on them and it's a whole different story.
Colin Leadbeatter, London, UK

I remember walking to Cubs aged about nine in the late sixties. My route took me down a long alley and one night there was a gang of skinheads in front of me. I hung back and one of them spotted me and started taking the mickey, saluting and shouting dib-dib-dib. Then they realised they were scaring me and their attitude changed completely. They ushered me past them, and sent me on my way with some friendly reassurances. It was an important early lesson that you can't necessarily judge by appearances.
Neil Hoskins, Aylesbury, UK

Damn, I hate men with shaved heads and the entire skinhead look, almost as much as I hate mullets. Last thing I want is all the men around me to look like that again. But the music.. aaahhh, the music! I loved, and still love ska. Hopefully this will mean its return.
MB, London

Growing up in Dublin during the late 70's/early 80's my friends & I were all Skinheads. We listened to & collected Jamaican music, Ska, Rock-Steady & Reggae, on record labels like Trojan & Studio 1. We loved the music, the look, the culture. We used to get the odd funny look when we'd turn up for a UB40 gig but once we explained to people the origins of the Skinhead movement they were amazed. In our early twenties we were part of the group that formed S.H.A.R.P. (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) & we met many Skinheads from all over the world with a similar vision & passion. Hopefully through exhibitions & films like these the true message of the Skinheads can be portrayed. One of love of Afro-Caribbean culture, music & style. Long live the "Spirit of '69".
Stephen, Dublin/Ireland

I seem to remember a rally held in Sheffield in the early eighties where some Ne'er-Do-Well Euro minister came to show solidarity with the poor downtrodden skinheads of the area. The skinheads ended up going on a rampage chanting we hate the rockers and breaking into shops. Truly a triumph for the "spiritual and mystical" skinheads. "Is it time to reassess the culture and its appeal in a more complex way?" What a load of revisionist clap trap, they were and are violent thugs and any time I wonder if maybe I'm being unfair to them, I can check out the scar tissue and realise I'm not.
Nick G, Worcester




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