Pseudo Skins!

“Pulling on the boots and tightening up the laces
Shaving their heads and strapping on the braces
There you are a skinhead, looking for a fight
Skinhead, skinhead, running through the night

Skinhead, skinhead, running through the night
Making lots of trouble, starting lots of fights
Skinhead, skinhead, getting really pissed
Skinhead, skinhead, tatted on my wrist!”

An Oi song from the film Romper Stomper. A remarkably authentic one, in fact, despite the vocals being delivered in a kiwi twang rather than yer actual cockernee and the abhorrent racism in one of the verses. Many people would be surprised to know that the song wasn’t actually by a “real” Oi band, but was composed by John Clifford White and performed by “The Romper Stomper Orchestra” who also did the more atmospheric/classical musical elements of the film.

Both Romper Stomper and the similar American History X were hugely misunderstood by both the extreme right and the supposedly revolutionary left.

On the one hand, nazi boneheads bemoaned their portrayal in the films for various minor reasons, and berated hollywood for not having the “guts” to use real “white” “power” music in the films. (It needs to be restated that “white power” music is a completely retarded concept which I guess given its fanbase is only too fitting. First of all it should go without saying that the music’s roots are in rock ‘n’ roll which is hardly Wagner, is it? Secondly the whole concept of “white power” is redundant. The last time I checked, virtually every person who had any power over me, whether in my job, or in terms of world, national or local politics was white through and through.)

On the other hand, supposed revolutionary socialists (in the guise of the SWP front group the Anti-Nazi League mk 2) organised pickets of cinemas showing Romper Stomper on the grounds that it glamourised nazism.

Both films show boneheads as almost completely without redeeming features, doomed to utterly wretched lives and violent deaths. Only a total fantasist would see any of this as worth aspiring to, which probably says more than enough about both sets of critics.

Having said that, perhaps the “bogus” nature of the Romper Stomper soundtrack isn’t actually all that surprising. For a scene which is riddled with demands of supposedly “authentic” white working class culture, Oi (and its degenerate nazi offspring) has seen a fair few sta-prest magpies in its nest.

In terms of nazi boneheads, Stewart Home’s Cranked Up Really High: Genre Theory and Punk Rock notes the privileged upbringing of Jonathan and Paul Bellany aka Burnley as the sons of a reknowned painter. But enough about those with stiff right arms, we have bigger and more interesting fish to fry here…

The Back on the Streets EP was compiled by Garry Bushell and released on Secret Records (with distribution by Virgin) in 1982. Unfortunately I haven’t got a copy, but that’s never stopped me spouting my mouth off before so I don’t see why this should be any different. It looks like your standard punk/oi various artist EP – DMs, a bit of pavement, superb band names like “Angela Rippon’s Bum” and classic track titles such as “Where’s Dock Green” and “The Way It’s Got to Be”.

Of particular interest is the group Skin Disease, whose track “I’m Thick” features lyrics consisting in their entirety of the title repeated 64 times. The group were based in Burnley and had been in correspondence with Bushell in his capacity as Oi-cheerleader at Sounds for some months. Bushell covered them in the paper and invited the northern oiks down to London to record the track – their first (and it turned out, only) outing on vinyl.

Some months later it turned out that “Skin Disease” were actually a spoof Oi band formed by Chumbawamba (before they had released any of their own material on vinyl):

“We used to write leters to Garry Bushell, we got a good dialogue going with him. We hated everything he stood for, the letters were full of bullshit saying things like ‘we’re a skinhead band, one of us is in hospital after breaking his leg against a policeman’s head and that kind of thing. It was just for the joke of seeing what Garry Bushell was into. He took it all in and wanted us on the next LP. “

“We were in a dilemma because we wanted to parody the whole Oï thing, and we had planned to go really over the top on the macho-violent theme , but some people may have taken it seriously, so it ended up as ‘I’m Thick’ repeated 64 times. “

(Interview in Maximum Rock’n’Roll #14)

For anarchists like Chumbawamba, parodying the reductive working class images portrayed by Oi makes perfect sense. For a multinational corporation to use skinheads in a postive way as part of their branding strategy in the early 80s makes no sense whatsoeover. But that is exactly what Weetabix did.

“Just one titchy bit of toast?
We gotta put them straight
We’re the weetabix (yeah!)
We don’t like breakfast fit for sparrows
Nothing to ’em mate
We’re the weetabix!”

“The Weetabix” made their debut in TV adverts for the hugely successful breakfast cereal in 1982.

They were:

Dunk (the leader)
Crunch (the muscley one)
Brains (the, uh, brainy one – you can tell that because he wore glasses)
Bixie (the girl, clearly and unambiguously signified by her eyelashes and bow, because that is the essence of the female form, is it not?), and
Brian (who I think was the token “little kid” in the gang. His role was mainly to shout “OK!” in an annoying voice – presumably inspired by the bloke of out Madness who would shout “Oi!” and other stuff in the manner of JA deejays)

The gang were dedicated to the extermination of “titchy breakfasts” and there was a distinct hint of the old ultra-violence in their “If You Know What’s Good For You” catchphrase. In the early 80s the skinhead cult was huge, and associated with all sorts of yoof-culture moral panic in the tabloids. Which means this ad was either an astute way of winning the target audience’s hearts and minds, or some kind of bonkers coke-fuelled recuperative initiative aimed at clawing back sales lost to accursed rivals such as Quaker Oats and their Honey Monster.

The inevitable merchandise deluge followed shortly after, with badges, mugs, bowls etc. Whilst discussing this piece with my parents I was hugely excited to find that my Dad still has a “neet weet” t-shirt to do the gardening in.

The gang even appeared in their own computer game, although actually this isn’t saying very much as anyone with a hint of media presence had their own computer game in the 1980s. The Thompson Twins had a particularly shit one for the ZX Spectrum if I remember rightly.

Perhaps inevitably the Weetabix Crew’s righteous proletarian credentials could not withstand the glare of media attention. Maybe the Weetabix advertising agency got cold feet, or maybe the fame went to the Bix’s heads as with so many working class kids thrust into the spotlight before them. A set of badges produced after those shown above were notable for their lack of aggression – or braces:

As their fame grew, so did the budgets. The gang got to meet Harrison Ford in an “Indiana Jones” film tie-in, and later hooked up with Spielberg via ET. Towards the end of the decade, their style had evolved to take in breakdancing and electro, but it was clear that there was some rewriting of history going on at Weetabix which would eventually spell disaster…

In the depths of my brain is a memory of Steven Wells ringing up Weetabix as part of an NME feature on youth cults and being told firmly that the Weetabix Crew were not skinheads and had never been skinheads. It is this sort of revisionism that lead to this horrific book cover:

The crew, once proud street hardened youths used to “having a laugh and having a say” are now reduced to pantomime dames for the delectation of The Man and his sales figures. It is no surprise that, after their triumphant reign throughout the 80s, the Crew were replaced by another pantomime dame in the safe, traditional form of Robin Hood for Weetabix’s first ad campaign of the next decade.

Nowhere is the class basis of UK society more evident than in the subsequent trajectories of the crew. Weetabix had auditioned a plethora of aspiring actors for the roles, but all of these, with one exception, had failed to live up to the streetwise image the company was seeking. The majority of the gang were picked up by talent scouts fresh from the streets and schools of Crawley, a “new town” 30 miles south of London.

After his 15 minutes of fame, Crunch returned to working the doors of London clubs and pubs. He did some time for ABH during the 90s (he maintains to this day this arose from a case of self-defence), which gave him the opportunity to study for a degree with the Open University.

Brains set up his own business flogging mobile phones by mail order, but lost everything he earned through an ill-advised start up company in the early 00’s. He now works in retail, and has become a Jehovah’s Witness.

Bixie is now a mother of four, who still lives in Crawley. She sometimes appears as a “vox pop” in 80s nostalgia shows, and was nearly shortlised for last year’s “I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here”.

Dunk was always the odd one out of the gang. His father was a high ranking diplomat, which lead to Duncan growing up in Pakistan, Thailand and Hong Kong. He later studied at RADA and was quite successful as a bit part actor in west end theatres.

Duncan was placed to appear in a small speaking role in a prestigious production of “As You Like It” at the RSC when the Weetabix contract loomed. He is now the executive director of several highly successful media consultancies. His past clients include Glaxo-SmithKline and Sony. He is said to have worked for the office of Charles Kennedy during this year’s general election. He owns several houses in Gloucestershire, Barcelona and New York state .

Brian’s story is the saddest of all. As the youngest of the group he was the least well equipped to deal with the demands of fame and fortune. After the gang was disbanded, he went on to sign a lucrative modelling contract, but later went seriously off the rails – spending all of his royalties on drug binges and extravagent parties. His Mayfair flat was repossesed in the early 90s after some irregularities with his taxes.

After a spell in rehab, Brian tried to drum up interest in a number of doomed projects. His proposal for a kids’ tv show “Brian’s Neat Wheat Rumpus Room” never made it to the pilot stage. His solo recording contract with WEA floundered after a number of (often violent) disagreements with record producers. Brian was then reduced to singing for his supper (or rather, repeating his “OK!” catchphrase ad infiintum) at soul-sapping PA’s in students unions and mecca ballrooms.

After a particularly badly received appearance at Shades’ nighclub in Leighton Buzzard, Brian was seen wandering down the central isle of the A505, clothed only in his trademark football scarf and DMs. Despite clearly being in a state of distress, he was banged up for the night at Dunstable police station before being discharged the following morning. Two days later, the remains of Brian’s dead body were found in a cheap hotel in Hastings. He had committed suicide by drowning himself in a bowl of milk.

Since then skinheads have largely faded away, with the occasional Ben Sherman shirt and sideburns testament to a raucous youth. You’re much more likely to find boots and braces down Old Compton Street than anywhere else (or down Carnaby Street as euro-skins search desperately for times long gone).

Standing in Victoria Station yesterday, two twentysomething skinheads walked past with Cock Sparrer t-shirts, turn ups on their jeans and “England” tattoos on their heads. They couldn’t have looked more anachronistic if they’d been turned out as teddy boys…