Music History 101: A History of Skinhead Culture (And How Nazis Appropriated It)

Written by Shelby Joy Leone



Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins

Recently, my fellow KXSU reporter, Madeline Thomas, wrote an article called “Punk So White” in which she discussed the inherent whiteness of today’s punk culture. She argued that though our coffee tables and blogs are filled with pictures predominantly of white punks, it is undeniable that:

“punk modeled itself after reggae and blues, genres born as a means of survival and solidarity. It is the attitude of punk that truly matters, not the face of the movement. Nevertheless, that face needs to be more ambiguous, less obnoxiously white. POC have been involved in punk since the beginning whether that presence was made obvious would have been up to curators who likely white-washed coverage of the genre’s uprising.”

This article sent Madi and I into a long discussion about why punk is misunderstood as the property of whiteness. To answer this question I argued that we have to delve into the deep and complicated history of the skinheads. So, lets educate ourselves, shall we?

After the second world war, there was an economic boom in England. The middle class youth of the time were free to spend this excess cash any way they liked, which resulted in the flamboyant decadence of the mods. Mods were consumerist, fashionable, and privileged (think early Ed Sullivan Show era Beatles). While this style became wildly popular, it left out those in the British working class. Thusly, working class mods developed a style that was more accessible to their lifestyle, exchanging the typical narrow mod suit for levi jeans and button down shirts with large boots. Both looks were sleek, simple, and easily identifiable, but the working class mod style was, undoubtably, more practical. Over time, more and more aspects separated the two groups, such as the choice of the working class mods to shave their heads in direct rebellion against the long hair of the hippies. Soon, the culture was distinguished enough to earn its own name, which was originally “peanuts”. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the term “skinhead” was introduced into the popular vernacular. The roots of this movement lie, surprisingly, in Reggae music.

Photo by Gavin Watson | Ska Dance Hall, Photographer Unknown

The late 1960s marked an era of cultural mingling in London. Jamaican immigrants mixed in with the white working class, and along with them, came their culture. Both groups felt disenfranchised by the decadent mods, and thus they found a common ground in the dance hall scene, where new styles and sounds of the caribbean mixed with the peanut kids of England. Dance halls began to fill with bluebell, soul, rocksteady, and of course, reggae music.

Kids of all races and backgrounds flooded these dance halls, and due to the developing popularity amongst white youth, musicians developed a new genre called “ska”. Ska was tailor made for the skinheads who grew up in these dance hall, and mixed together reggae music with the sounds previously enjoyed by white british youth. While Britain in the 1960s overall showcased a much more racist society, by all accounts, this scene was at its core, multiracial. The scene around these halls was thriving, and as the culture developed, so did the uniform.

As the original members of peanut/skinhead culture turned more towards the long hair and flared jeans of the seventies, english jocks began to take over the skinhead scene. Soon, a Harrington jacket, some suspenders, and a pair of Doc Marten combat boots were practically necessary to be known as a skinhead. Both white and black teens enjoyed these styles.

With this history in mind, how did “skinhead” become synonymous with “racist nazi”? Well, these fashion statements became cultural identifiers, and the public began taking note. Much like the youth cultures of the mods, hippies, and rockers, skinhead culture and its influence began to scare authority figures, especially when the scene began to show signs of violence. The working class appeal of the culture allured a large following of northern working class Englanders who loved two things: sports and beating the crap out of each other. This wave of skinhead traveled in large packs, often causing commotion at local football games, defending their favorite team to the end. Soon, it became custom for games to end in all-out fights. It is important to note that this wave also included people of color, but with the rise of violence due to sporting rivalries, fights about football matches sometimes devolved into race wars.

Book Cover

The main turning point came in the form of a book by author Richard Allen entitled Skinhead, which depicts a young London teen whose life is fueled by violence against authority, minorities, hippies, and… well… anyone who didn’t agree with him. This book, filled with racist and violent themes and messages became the bible for new skins. Despite his outward racism, the protagonist’s love of football, skinhead fashion, anti-authoritarian message, and hatred of the police won him the adoration of the youth who shared his passions and strifes.

Additionally, politics came into the forefront of the skinhead scene, thus prompting a group called the Nationalist Front to obtain a distinct influence on the culture. The Nationalist Front is, according to Wikipedia, a far-right and fascist political party in the United Kingdom. Their main focus was on white, specifically British, nationalism in a time where working class whites felt as if they were being “pushed out” of society. The frustrations of an entire economic class needed someone to blame, and people of color were the perfect scapegoat. The class and racial identity of skinheads became tribal, and the violence between groups rose.

The “Young National Front” specifically targeted skinhead teens at football matches. There, they would sell Bulldog, the newspaper/propaganda written and edited by members of the YNF. It is estimated by the former editor of this paper, Joseph Pearce, that they would successfully sell copies to at least 10% of each football crowd. The YNF also owned members-only discos, thus encouraging some skins to join and attend weekly meetings simply to have somewhere to hear music on saturday nights. Skinhead and YNF became unitary in the minds of these working class kids, and unrecognizable to the skins of the first wave. But by the mid 1970s, skinhead had faded into the background. That is until punk revived it.

Sham 69 | Photographer Unknown

In 1977, the Sex Pistols released “God Save The Queen”, thus bringing punk into the public eye. Skinheads, yearning for somewhere to go once more, started to attend these punk shows, despite their lack of enthusiasm for punk music and fashions, which, like that of the mods, were distinctly flamboyant and middle class. It was not until the band Sham 69 came around that skinheads found their place in punk. Their sound was distinct from the almost pop-like sounds of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, and appealed much more to the working class. Skinheads began to flock to their shows in local punk venues. By the late ‘70s, right wing politics found their way in once again by recruiting kids at Sham 69 gigs. Jimmy Pursey, frontman of Sham 69, began to speak outwardly about his disapproval of the racist ideologies held by these groups, and thus the mutiny began. Entire crowds started sieg heiling and often erupted in us vs them fights at Sham shows. Sham 69 eventually disbanded, and the racist identity of skinheads became the prevailing narrative.

From this scene, came Two-Tone. Two-Tone was a perfect mix of punk and ska, thus bringing together people of color and white skinheads once more. Skinhead fashion spread throughout both cultures, resulting in a revival of skinheads of color. Ironically, racist skins were happy to join in on the fun, attending the shows of black musicians and sieg heiling. Despite efforts to return to the subculture’s roots, thanks to media sensationalism, all skinheads were branded as racist, violent, and not to be fraternized with. The more they were talked about by media outlets—who plastered their periodicals with drastic headlines labeling all skinheads as Nazis—the more isolated and tribalistic skinheads became.

Photo by Jeff “STRESS” Davis

As a result of the disenfranchised nature of the new generation of skins, the genre of Oi punk was developed during 1980s. Oi came from the need for an outlet where new skinheads could rebel against the media’s hatred for them. This scene was once again dominated by whites, and were a tight group that rallied around white pride. In fact, “Strength Thru Oi!”, an Oi compilation album, released in by Decca Records 1981, was a play on a Nazi slogan “Strength Through Joy”, and featured Nicky Crane, a skinhead activist who was, at the time, serving a four-year sentence for racist violence, right on the cover.

The tiny differences in appearance (Oi kids tended to look more like soldiers than workers) did not help with the public’s lack of separation between non-racist skins and racist ones. Oi listener’s love of fighting (paired with, once again, the media’s love of a good headline) was a clear sign to any skinheads of color that they were not welcome. Where there were Oi shows, there was violence. Unemployment was high, and tensions between working class skinheads and police came to the forefront during the summer of 1981, when an Oi gig in Southall, a predominantly Asian community, ended in a race riot. As a result, the tavern where the bands were playing burned down, and the asian community was left destroyed and covered in racist graffiti. Oi music soon lost popularity and once again skinheads faded away.

But wait, there is more. From the destructive nature that the tensions between groups created, arose yet again two more groups of skinheads. First, the new neo-nazi sect of skinheads formed from the ashes of Oi—this time twice as racist. There was no hiding the nazi aspect of the new right wing, and they had no intention of hiding it either. They blatantly denied skinhead’s roots in black music, and instead focused on white nationalism based in nazi ideologies. In fact, “Blood & Honour” was the name of a neo-Nazi music promotion network and political group founded in the United Kingdom in 1987. Blood and Honour, by the way, was the slogan of the Hitler Youth. The other group, then, was SHARP, or skinheads against racial prejudice. Within SHARP, anti-racist skins began to mobilize and defend the original intentions if skinhead culture and vehemently disavowed their neo-nazi counterparts. Original peanuts came out of the woodwork to aid in this fight for understanding, and thus began the war over the label of skinhead, charged by the media’s misunderstandng. In some ways, Nazi skins were actually created by the media. Kids who had no idea about skinhead culture could read the headlines and news reports and decide to seek out the movement. Even though a vast, and I will say that again VAST, majority of Skinhead culture was about embracing reggae music, thanks to the media, Nazi identity and racism under the guise of “skinhead culture” spread to countries like Poland, Germany, and the U.S. In 1980’s America, television talk shows such as Geraldo, Oprah, and Ricki Lake featured skinhead panels to induce public shock and thus a rise in ratings.

By simply looking at the audience on this episode of Geraldo shows how divided the Skinhead scene was/is. Luckily, where the racism went, anti-racist movements followed to shut them down. SHARP and other groups fought vehemently against Nazi groups, and punk culture as a whole tried to separate the two types of skinheads. Today, public perception of skinhead culture is still controlled by the media, and thus the violence that neo nazi skins inflict are often what we think of when we think of skinheads. Despite this, it is important to note the existence of anti racist skins as well who readily preserve the intersectional roots of the subculture. So let us say this, all together now, for the racists in the back:

Punk began with black music.

Black musicians,

black culture,

and black experience

POC are the driving force of Punk.

Know your history, kids.

SHELBY JOY LEONE | Don’t be a racist, read a book | KXSU Music Reporter

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