BUSHELL ON THE BLOG
Feb 16. Don Letts's documentary The Story of Skinhead is repeated on BBC4 tonight. Don genuinely wanted to tell "the real story" of the world's most misunderstood youth cult and in fairness he got the early stuff right. Unfortunately he got Oi all wrong. Don admits he didn’t like or “get” Oi music and is happy to recycle the usual tired media myths about the Southall riot of 1981. According to the film, a few Oi bands deliberately chose to play the Middlesex town in order to provoke its large Asian population into rioting. Why would they have done that? Don could have asked any of the bands who were on the bill that night, most of them are still alive. He could have asked the paying fans. Instead he lazily recycles old footage. Don tells me, on film, that the bands should not have played “an Asian area”. But the bands came primarily from inner city London and had always played multi-racial areas (including Peckham and Hackney) without a sniff of racial conflict. All of the trouble at Oi gigs up to that point (Ladbroke Grove, Southgate) had been football related. Had the bands deliberately set out to provoke chaos, they would not have booked a gig on the fringe of West London on a night that West Ham were playing at home in East London. They certainly wouldn’t have brought women and kids along.
Let’s get this in perspective. No-one died at Southall. It wasn’t the US hip hop scene. It wasn’t Altamont. Most Oi gigs, and there have been thousands, were and are trouble free. Yet Oi is still uniquely demonised by the mass media because of this one show. The line goes – Oi was just for skinheads (it wasn’t) and all skins were Nazis (they never ever were – although many jumped on the bandwagon after the Mail etc misreported that night). Yes TV can illustrate that analysis with historic footage of young kids making sieg heil gestures. But that’s misleading. Far-right skins were the news story, so that was the kind of shot the news crews went for. (TV history is shaped by the footage available, that then gets recycled, hence the line repeats...) There were thousands of left-wing skins at Right To Work, RAR and ANL events at the time but they weren’t filmed because they weren’t “the story”. There were also the so-called Skin Fein republican skins, pro-Labour skins, the Ladbroke Grove Skins and a vast majority who weren’t interested in politics at all. None of them were ever interviewed by the Daily Mail. As a consequence the narrative established by post-Southall news coverage had a negative effect all over the world. (To underline my point the News of the World once ran a shock horror news ‘exclusive’ about the threat of pro-IRA Nazis on the basis of the views of just one far-right nutcase! No-one ever spoke to the anarchist skins...)
British skinheads weren’t angels. The majority liked a scrap. Most were hooligans, many were thieves. Quite a few ended up in borstal. Their language was largely illiberal. Their views probably wouldn’t ever make the basis of a Guardian editorial. But it is an out-right lie to claim they were all rightwing extremists, and a bigger one to suggest that Oi was. No Oi bands were involved in the neo-Nazi Blood & Honour scene which was launched years later in 1987. Back in 1981 Oi bands hit back at the media smears by doing anti-racist gigs... another fact that is rarely reported. There were violent clashes between Oi bands and neo-Nazis, which the master-race lost. And if you're going to make a show about skinhead politics then surely there should have been some mention of the Redskins, the Blaggers ITA and Red Action’s Oi shows – if only for balance? Don is sniffy about the music not being Jamaican but the biggest skinhead act of all time were the rock band Slade (even if their image was contrived and they quickly ditched it). Besides it's beyond patronising to write off a scene as diverse and long-running as Oi, which stretches from the sublime (Cock Sparrer, Blitz, the Business, the Cockney Rejects) to the ridiculous (Barney Rubble, Splodge, The Toy Dolls etc) via ranting poets, artists and novelists in such an off-hand fashion. Viewers should have been told about the wealth of protest songs that came out of streetpunk, such as National Insurance Blacklist, Work Or Riot, Two Million Voices and Jobs Not Jails (that slogan taken from a socialist skinhead protest march in Sheffield in the summer of 1981). They should have been told about Nellie The Elephant and Two Pints Of Lager & A Packet Of Crisps. They should have learned how Oi influenced bands all around the globe, including Rancid and the Dropkick Murphys. Oi has been maligned and written off for more than three decades, yet it still survives, with scenes everywhere from Indonesia to the States via Russia, China, Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Malaysia and Scandinavia.
There is a world of difference between skinheads and boneheads. The shaved-bald scruffs of later years were as distinct from the original skins in their fashion, their music and their views, as Mods were from beatniks. It’s a crying shame that extremist politics polluted street music. But it’s worth pointing out that the 2-Tone bands suffered far more from far-Right violence than the Oi bands did, largely because the Oi bands fought back. And why does no-one ask if Malcolm McLaren’s use of swastikas “to shock” years earlier might have attracted the extreme right into punk in the first place? There was a lot of questionable imagery floating around in the 1970s... starting with Bowie’s flirtation with fascism. Southall wasn’t a conspiracy, it was a cock-up, a comedy of errors. That’s all there was to it. The mass media’s treatment of it, however, compared to more violent incidents involving other cults, suggests that there is no-one that the puffed-up middle class hate more than the white working class. The famous Class sketch from TV’s The Frost Report comes to mind: ‘I look down at him because he is lower class’. But unlike dear old Ronnie Corbett, the Oi kids never knew their place.
Feb 15. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn met a Communist spy at the height of the Cold War, according to today’s papers. The revelation comes straight from the files of the Czech state security agency known as the StB. I don’t doubt it. We know Jezza’s judgement is lousy. My only question is what state secrets would a no-mates backbencher ever have had access to? (Comrade Corbyn’s codename was ‘Cob’; specialist subject: ‘Cobblers’).
Feb 8. George Soros, a billionaire financier, has spent £400,000+ to push policies in favour of the global elite – who’d have thought it?
Feb 5. R.I.P. John Mahoney, better known as Martin Crane in Frasier. I’ll write more about him in the TV column, but the curmudgeonly ex-cop was the perfect counterpoint to his clever but pretentious sons. One episode stands out in my memory – the night Marty took his boys Frasier and Nile to his favourite restaurant, a homely steakhouse called Timberland. Naturally the two food snobs took the pee all evening until Martin finally snapped. “All right,” he said. “That's it. I've had enough of you two jack-asses. I've spent the whole night listening to you making cracks about the food and the help. Well, I got news for you: People like this place. I like this place. And when you insult this restaurant, you insult me. You know, I used to think you two took after your mother, liking the ballet and all that, but your mother liked a good ball-game too. She even had a hot dog once in a while. She may have had fancy tastes, but she had too much class to ever make me or anybody else feel second-rate. If she saw the way you two have behaved tonight, she'd be ashamed. I know I am.” No other scene captures why Martin was so important to the sitcom’s success. He was utterly down to earth, a man of the people who brought the common touch and common sense to the show. If Frasier and Niles were its brains, Marty was Frasier’s soul. The brilliant writers, of whom Joe Keenan was the best, supplied Blackpool-born John with classic one-liners too. Like when Niles, talking about his nightmare wife, asked: “What’s wrong with Maris?” Martin replied: “I’ll start, Frasier can jump in when I get hoarse.”
Feb 9. We’ve re-launched the Benny Hill Statue Campaign. We need to raise just £60,000 to erect a larger-than-life bronze Benny in Southampton. So it only takes 6,000 of Benny’s fans worldwide to donate £10 a-piece and we’ll make the statue a reality.
And this time there is no artificial Kickstarter time-limit. The statue campaign is now linked to an HSBC bank account and you can donate via the PayPal button below. We will keep going until we hit the target. No-one involved will receive a fee except for the sculptor Graham Ibbeson. And no money will be wasted on admin or event organisers’ expenses. We will stage fund-raising events, big and small, later this year to help raise the cash. If we top the target, all extra funds will be donated to charity. In an increasingly po-faced and puritanical world, there has never been a better to time to honour this humble comedy genius who brought laughter to millions. You can donate any amount to the campaign via the button below, or on the campaign page.