Subcultures, pop music and politics: skinheads and "Nazi rock" in England and Germany

Subcultures, pop music and politics: skinheads and "Nazi rock" in England and GermanyRight-wing extremist rock music--so-called "Nazi rock"--is one of the most problematic of popular musical genres. Emerging from the skinhead youth subculture in Britain at the end of the 1970s, and spreading to the continent and across the Atlantic in the following decade, it has served as accompaniment to a rising tide of racist and anti-immigrant violence in Germany, and become a focus of recruiting for the radical right world-wide. Yet as a generic category, "Nazi rock" is inherently unstable. A phenomenon that is at once artistic and political, it sits uneasily across analytical boundaries. The area of overlap between music genre and political content is, for one thing, far from complete. Rightwing extremist ideas are not strictly confined to skinhead rock music, but have found their way into a variety of other musical genres and youth subcultures. (1) The spread of Nazi rock beyond its original social boundaries--it is no longer simply "skinhead music"--means that the genre and the skinhead subculture are, if still intimately linked, by no means synonymous. Conversely, the various genres that make up "skinhead music" are by no means exclusively right-wing. Although Nazi rock arose out of the skinhead subculture, the subculture is--as will be seen--heavily divided about the meaning and value of the genre. (2)

The original skinhead movement of the late-1960s was a multicultural synthesis organized around fashion and music. The first skinheads were offshoots of the British "mod" subculture of the early 1960s. The mod was stylish, dedicated to cultivating the right look; upwardly mobile, very likely the son or daughter of a worker moving up into the white-collar realm of the bank or advertising firm. Above all, the mod was a music fan, obsessed with dancing to American soul music at all-night parties. (3) From the 1960s, the split implicit in the mod scene--between its working-class origins and its upper-class pretensions; between its subcultural subversiveness and its obvious appeal for boutique-owners and advertisers--began to widen. With the mod subculture swerving ever closer to the commodified, Carnaby-street hippie style of "swinging London," certain mods began to emphasize the more proletarian aspects of the look, cutting their hair shorter and replacing dandified suits and expensive shoes with jeans and heavy boots. These no-frills "hard mods" prefigured the arrival of the first skinheads. (4) Whereas appreciation for black culture--above all American soul music but also Jamaican ska--had stood at the center of the mod way of life, the skinheads took the connection a step further; their reference point was a local symbol of cool, young Jamaican immigrants who modeled themselves on the authority-defying "rude boy" of the Kingston ghettos. The clean, hard look of these transplanted "rude boys" fit nicely with the stripped-down elements of the hard mod style, and their evening wear echoed the earlier mod emphasis on expensive suits and nice shoes. But by far the most critical element in the symbiotic relationship between skinheads and black immigrants was music. Skinheads embraced the reggae music of Jamaican performers like Desmond Dekker as their own. Reggae artists and labels, in turn, actively courted the skinheads, producing songs and albums aimed at this young white audience. The resulting genre--"skinhead reggae"--fueled the rise of the skinhead subculture while jump-starting the careers of many Jamaican performers in Britain. The identity of the original skinhead was thus constructed in dialogue with black immigrants and organized around music created by black performers. (5)

The decline of the original skinhead subculture by the early 1970s, and its rebirth later in the decade under the influence of punk rock, opened the way for new influences. Not only did fresh musical genres arise around which skinhead identity could coalesce--above all so-called "street punk," or "Oi!" music--but, for reasons to be discussed below, right-wing politics became fashionable and were embraced by increasing numbers of skinheads. This politicization--which became prominent at the end of the 1970s and reached a peak in the early 1980s--produced a crisis of identity in the skinhead scene. A schism developed between--on the one hand--right-wing skins ambivalent toward, or dismissive of, the subculture's black roots, and--on the other--left-wing or "unpolitical" skins who upheld these roots as being central to skinhead identity. The conflict between the two sides in this debate became a struggle to define the essence of the subculture, a fight over authenticity. (6)

Music played a crucial role in this process in two ways. First, music appreciation--specifically, knowledge of the reggae classics around which the skinhead subculture was originally organized--became, for one group of skinheads, a litmus test for authenticity. Second, genre itself became a contested site. On the one hand, the skinhead revival of the late 1970s crystallized around a punk-infused revival of the Jamaican sounds of Ska (a precursor to reggae) centered on the Two Tone label and bands like the Specials and Madness. These multiracial bands were explicitly political in their support for racial unity centered on appreciation for music. Yet their fortunes were inextricably linked with the skinheads who embraced them, yet all-too-frequently wrecked gigs with politically-inspired violence. On the other hand, the skinhead version of punk rock--Oi!--arose to supply the basis for the creation of an explicitly political style of skinhead music. Although the majority of the Oi! bands considered themselves "unpolitical," by providing an artistic forum for skinheads to express their own ideas, Oi! became a mirror of the left-right divide within the skinhead scene. It was out of this polarization that the genre of "Nazi rock" developed, and through it that successive iterations of the struggle for skinhead identity were played out.

A second site in the struggle over authenticity was personal style. The original skinhead subculture was created out of distinctive elements of clothing organized around the cropped hair: Tight Levi's jeans or StaPrest pants, Ben Sherman button-down and Fred Perry tennis shirts, work boots, suspenders (braces), and Levi's or Harrington jackets. Suits modeled on those of the Jamaican rude boys were often worn in the evening, but day or night, the skinhead look was hard, masculine, and working-class. With his boots, sturdy clothing, and cropped hair, the skinhead became, in the words of Phil Cohen, a "caricature of the model worker." (7) Like the "right" music, the "right" clothing signified taste and authenticity. But as new influences crept into the skinhead subculture during the revival of the late-1970s, style, like music, became a source of conflict as well as unity. In order to match the shock valued of punk, these second-generation skins--many of them themselves ex-punks--took the style to new extremes, emphasizing the threatening aspects of the look at the expense of the sharp stylishness prized by the original skins. Boots became taller, military surplus MA-1 jackets replaced earlier more "civilian" looks, tattoos--previously confined to the arms or torso--began to crop up above the neckline, and hair became shorter to the point of baldness. These changes in style mirrored, to an extent, changes in the content of the subculture, with the more extreme looks coming to signify affiliation with the radical right. (8)

Reacting against this trend--which they considered a bastardization of the original skinhead style--numbers of skins began to stress the cultivation of the "original" look, making fashion, like music, a litmus test for authenticity. Violators of the proper codes were not skinheads, but "bald punks," a category to which racists--who, in the eyes of purists, failed completely to understand what the subculture was about--were likely to belong. The connection between right-wing politics and "inauthentic" modes of dress was personified in the figure of the "bone head," a glue-sniffing, bald-headed supporter of the extreme right, sporting facial tattoos, a union-jack T-shirt, and "the highest boots possible." (9) Although the emphasis on correct style was not explicitly political, it grew--like insistence on the subculture's black musical roots--out of a concern with the authentic sources of skinhead identity. As such, it was heavily associated with the attempts of left-wing and so-called "unpolitical" skins to "take back" the subculture from the radical right in the early 1980s.

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Subcultures, pop music and politics: skinheads and "Nazi rock" in England and Germany
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