By Matthew Worley
According to the Daily Mail, Oi! records were ‘evil’. According to the Socialist Worker, Oi! was a conduit for Nazism. According to the NME, Oi! was a means to inject ‘violent-racist-sexist-fascist’ attitudes into popular music.
The year is 1981, and on 3 July the Harmbrough Tavern is set ablaze in the London borough of Southall. Trapped inside the pub are three bands aligned to the Oi! movement initiated the previous year from within the pages of the Sounds music weekly. Therein, by contrast, Oi! is defined as a form of ‘working-class protest’, a ‘loose alliance of volatile young talents, skins, punks, tearaways, hooligans, rebels with or without causes united by their class, their spirit, their honesty and their love of furious rock ‘n’ roll’. Oi!, for most of those involved with it, was punk without the art school pretensions; a street-level music that sought to align working-class youth cults in the face of welfare cuts and growing unemployment. And there lay the rub. For Oi! comprised skinheads; and by 1981, skinheads were being recruited as foot-soldiers for the British far right, both the National Front and the British Movement. An Oi! gig in Southall, therefore, where a large Asian community had previously felt the brunt of cowardly racist attacks and witnessed the violent aftermath of an NF election rally in 1979, was a red-rag to a community fed up with being on the defensive and ready to respond. And respond the community most certainly did.
The events of July 1981 have forever tainted Oi! Caught in the reductionist media snare, Oi! fell into an equation the broadly read: Oi! = skinheads = racism. In truth, however, Oi! was a rather more complex phenomenon. Though its lyrics and imagery tended to combine social resentment and patriotism in a way that provided a potential pathway to and from the far right, Oi! also contained a class awareness and a cultural heritage that suggested it was far more than a musical wing of the NF or BM. Indeed, many involved in Oi! actively (and literally) fought back against right-wing attempts to appropriate their music, a struggle that led eventually to the NF setting up its on ‘white power’ scene circa 1983. Rather, Oi!’s focus and lyrical preoccupations reflected tensions inherent within the socio-economic and political realities of late 1970s and early 1980s Britain. Like the punk culture from which it emerged, Oi! provided a contested site of critical engagement that allowed voices rarely heard in public debate to articulate a protest that cut across existing notions of ‘left’, ‘right’ and formal political organisation. More specifically, it revealed and articulated processes of political and socio-cultural realignment directly relevant to the advent of Thatcherism and collapse of the so-called ‘consensus’ that informed British politics from 1945.
As this suggests, an analysis of the bands, audience and ephemera associated with Oi! reveals much about class identity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, offering a snapshot of working-class youth in a period of significant socio-economic change. Notably, too, the debates that surrounded Oi! were informed by realignments on-going within British politics, both in terms of youthful disengagement from the political mainstream and the ‘cultural turn’ generated by a growing emphasis on ‘new’ spheres of struggle (race, gender, sexuality, youth, culture, language, consumption). Put bluntly, the politics of class were being overtaken by what some on the left called a ‘consciousness of oppression’ located in personal identity. This, in turn, shifted attention from the socio-economic to the cultural and, in the process, served to scramble some of the class and racial certainties that had once underpinned the politics of left and right. As the left became associated with students and ‘minority groups’ that made headway on questions of race and identity, so sections of the far right set out to ensure that the ‘grass-roots movement of workers and leadership of the working class does not rest with the communists and left but with the right’. In amidst all this, Oi! was caught in the crossfire: a medium for working-class protest interpreted as a recruiting ground for fascism.
Oi! then was not a vehicle for ‘evil’, Nazism or any other sort of ‘ism’. Its protest was made in primarily class terms, with its working-class origins serving as a common denominator across those associated with it. True, politics – along with youth cultural identities and, on occasion, football rivalries – provided points of tension. But the bands, poets, writers and audience associated with Oi! forged a class-conscious version of punk that sought for a political and cultural impact that looked beyond the rarefied confines of the students’ union, Daily Mail and NME.
Matthew Worley is a professor of modern history at the University of Reading. He is the author of several books and articles on British politics, and is currently writing a study of British youth culture and politics in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His article “Oi! Oi! Oi!: Class, Locality, and British Punk” is available free in Twentieth Century British History for a limited time.
Twentieth Century British History covers the variety of British history in the twentieth century in all its aspects. It links the many different and specialized branches of historical scholarship with work in political science and related disciplines. The journal seeks to transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, in order to foster the study of patterns of change and continuity across the twentieth century.