Unseen skinhead memorabilia sheds light on Britain's most controversial subculture

Unseen skinhead memorabilia sheds light on Britain's most controversial subculture
Skinhead: An Archive — Ditto Press publish new book full of skinhead ephemera collected by London punk and culture historian Toby Mott.

Toby Mott may well have the biggest collection of skinhead memorabilia in the world.

Growing up as a punk in London in the late 70s and early 80s, Toby was not so much a part of skinhead subculture as a punchbag for it, but – fascinated by its crude and immediate energy – he absorbed the ephemera around gigs like a sponge.

Looking through his collection in recent years Toby realised he had a coherent body of material relating to this controversial and distinct group and teamed up with countercultural imprint Ditto Press to put together a book Skinhead: An Archive, which reproduces the DIY artwork and details some of Toby’s first-hand experiences of the time.

We caught up with Toby to find out what exactly skinhead was all about and why it continues to fascinate culture heads.

When you were collecting this material from gigs did you know it was special?
Yeah, I mean at the time there wasn’t really a large amount of this information so I would keep all the flyers and stuff like that from punk gigs, because I was really a punk, but I ended up collecting everything else that also crossed my path. Having an identity as a punk, or whatever subculture you aligned yourself with, you collected all the artefacts and you incorporated those into what you wore, or your haircut or whatever – your bedroom would be covered in that stuff – and I just used to file it all away and I just developed this trove of material that I’ve added to over the years and now it’s like a reference archive of subcultures.

Was it only looking back through that material that you realised you had this coherent body of skinhead stuff?
Yeah and that was a group that hadn’t really been looked at. It had been looked at by people in photography projects – by people like Nick Knight or whatever – but I didn’t want to do that I wanted to show the material generated from the culture itself, which is kind of quite crude. It’s quite different to punk although it comes from a similar period and similar energy. So then I got together with Ditto and we went through the material and saw that there was a story be told just using that material and not using a voice from outside trying to explain what it was.

In what ways was it different from punk?
Punk was pretty sophisticated and I guess, with Britain being such a class-based society, it was pretty middle class. People had the language of Dada and they knew the references they were making like John Heartfield and collage and all that sort of Cabaret Voltaire stuff. Whereas skinhead, you could really say was an authentic voice of the working class. And they rejected any kind of academia or artsy education. So in that spirit it’s much cruder and much more immediate than punk and it’s less knowing. It is really quite distinctly different. But they employed the same means of reproduction, like xerox.

There was an openly racist element to skinhead. But some bands who identified as skinhead said they only used the racist aesthetic for its power/energy, and not its politics. Do you think there’s ever a way to reclaim something like a Swastika?
I think if you use something so toxic as a Swastika it’s going to be impossible to shed off its historical meaning. So when people employ that kind of imagery it’s for the effect of its history and its associations. The gay community co-opted the skinhead look, which is an interesting dynamic. They took the image of the oppressor – because skinheads were, on the majority, racist and homophobic (although it seems under that surface some of the skinheads were actually gay, like one of the foremost right-wing skinheads Nicky Crane who eventually came out) – and in the 80s there was this re-identifying and young gay men dressed as skinheads. So it all got very confusing, and that’s an interesting element and that’s what the book explores.

Do you think there’s anyone interesting at the moment referencing the imagery and sounds of skinhead culture – do you think the culture is still evolving? Or do you think it was a moment in history that has passed?
I like to look at these things purely as if we were looking at Roundheads and Cavaliers or something. There is a contemporary skinhead identity but on the whole it’s very right-wing or revivalist, which doesn’t interest me particularly. I like the high point of the culture – when it was first emergent in the late 60s/early 70s and then what we really like to delve into is that 1980s period associated with Oi! music and then into gay culture. Obviously there is some sort of contemporary skinhead culture, but that’s of no particular interest, because we would have covered it in its earlier incarnations. I like to look at these things from a sort of safe distance.

Why do you think it has such an enduring appeal though? It’s co-opted by fashion and music endlessly?
I think particularly with skinhead culture it’s authentic and it wasn’t commercial. Even punk, even at the time, in 1977, it was grabbed by popular culture, and was on Top of the Pops or whatever. But skinhead never really had that. It’s always been underground, it’s always had these dark connotations. And then apart from that it’s something that really is authentically working class. And it never did manage to move into art school or coolness like that, even when it entered into the gay subculture, it never really went overground. It’s kind of militaristic and fetishistic. There isn’t really a lot of room for self-expression if one chooses to be a skinhead, it’s pretty much like a uniform.

Do you think things like This Is England pushes it into the mainstream more?
It’s always been there in Britain. It’s always somehow being referenced. A movie like This Is England will take it because it’s an archetype of white working-class alienation. It’s always been there and it’s often used in movies because it’s a good example of that.

Where did the actual fashion come from – polos, braces, DMs?
Initially it was quite loose, in around 1969. It was quite a loose like, which you can see in the book. And hair wasn’t even as short as in the 1980s. As it kept evolving, because it never disappeared, and when it’s reemergent in the 80s it had really become a code. And everything was kind of prescribed – how many eyelets in your boots, the width of your braces, very particular brands you could wear. Even by 78 there was a very, very austere and rigid set of rules that you bought into if you were a skinhead. And I think in a way that appealed to the gay community when they subverted it.

Also, I would never say it was a fashion, it was an identity. It was always anti-fashion. And it was never fashionable, as in it was never a high-street look. You had to seek it out from small, underground shops. It was never above ground.

What’s your favourite piece from your archive?
I like the Nicky Crane ‘Strength Thru Oi!’ poster because it embodies everything about skinhead and yet all the time he was gay, and also neo-Nazi – a very conflicted sort of persona.

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 14.01.04

Do you feel like the archive is complete?
No I always add to it if I find something of interest. The other day I found some Weetabix skinhead badges! In the 80s they did a whole television campaign with Weetabix, using skinheads. So there are always new bits and bobs that come in.

Did you have many altercations with skinheads?
Yeah I did, always, I’ve written about most of them in the book. Most of my experiences with skinheads were negative. Just like being beaten up at a Sham 59 concert – just because I was a punk. We weren’t rivals, because punks didn’t really buy into that, but we were often their victims. It’s not like I have a sympathetic view of them.

There were girl skinheads too. What was it like for them?
Yeah, very much so. It was just about where you grew up, it was very much a sort of council estate thing. They definitely had a place within that culture, and a very distinct look.

In a way do you think girl skinheads were more empowered within that subculture than within wider culture at the time?
Oh yeah definitely. They weren’t pushed to the sidelines. That’s how it was back in those days. I think people were – I don’t want to say liberating – but they were making their way in the world.

Do you think you see that less now?
Oh I think it’s very not like that now. Everything’s very sexualised and commercialised.

What’s next for you?
We’re doing a Thatcher meets rave culture project – ’79 to ’91. More will be revealed as and when!

Find out more about Skinhead: An Archive at Ditto Press.

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