"Trouble in the Town": Skinhead Reggae
“Skinhead reggae” has come to mean a subgenre of reggae with influences taken from ska and rocksteady as well as soul/R‘n’B, often with fast Hammond organ leads and danceable beats, loved by adolescents of the British working class. But reggae itself became popular among white British youth after ska and rocksteady had receded, more or less as skinhead became an identifiable subculture in the United Kingdom, in 1968, peaking in 1969, and then disappearing into seudehead, glam/glitter, etc., by the early 70s. Therefore, it is something of a misnomer to speak of “skinhead reggae” as separate from the early reggae that was popular amongst white kids, because those white kids were nearly all skinheads. It was not until at least a year or more into the close association between the musical form and the fashion that the tunes now inextricably linked to the subculture by their lyrics began to emerge. Many of the skinhead reggae songs were covers or else more well-known early reggae/ska/rocksteady tunes that had been reworked, sometimes with new lyrics specifically about skinheads.
Symarip’s “Skinhead Moonstomp,” possibly the most classic (and one of the most primitive) skinhead reggae song uses the music from a Derrick Morgan tune called “Moon Hop.” Symarip, it’s worth noting, was the well-known band the Pyramids under a pseudonym due to contractual obligations. From the shit-fi perspective, some of the finest examples of skinhead reggae—the primitive iteration of a genre conceived through stripping away ska’s and rocksteady’s flourishes—are those 45s obviously made solely for the purpose of cashing in on the trend. As with most shit-fi music, reckless abandon and crapulence figure highly into the shitasticity. So a few drunken/stoned Jamaicans fooling around in a studio, riffing on the concept of “skinheads,” and trying to get the tape to the pressing plant quickly, before the trend was dead, actually led to some of the best sides in the genre. At the time, poor distribution meant that these 45s were often impossible to find outside of the big cities, even as kids were lapping the tunes up over the airwaves and in the dancehalls. Over time, these shitty sides rose to the top because skinheads, being skinheads, could not quench their thirst for songs explicitly about their wily ways. Thus, what might, under alternate circumstances, be considered exploitative is actually the quintessence of skinhead reggae. It’s dumb, simple, crude, often improvised, fun.
The slightly dulled edge endemic to much of the reggae recorded from 1968 to 1971 or so in Jamaica—resulting from in-the-red live recordings and poor-quality tapes and gear—making the sound more brittle and sinewy, sometimes void of a middle range, does not automatically qualify it for the attention of Shit-Fi, but it sure helps. Unfortunately, I must note that what much of the UK-recorded reggae of the moment lacks in lo-fi-delity, it makes up in celebratory idiocy; thus, the majority of the songs below originated in London.
Here's a primer on some of my favorite skinhead reggae tunes.
Desmond Riley "Skinhead A Message to You"
Desmond Riley’s “Skinhead A Message to You” must have been a crowd pleaser in the dancehalls when it came out. (Recorded in London in 1969, it was one of the first songs to call on skinheads by name.) An infectious and dumb tagline “bop bop ba doo” gets stuck in your head, and maybe if Riley and the local constabulary had their druthers, so too did the message of wearing your boots with pride but not hurting nobody. The song seems to hope, and explicitly say, that this reggae music should’ve kept the kids dancing rather than fighting. Yet one can extrapolate that this tune was recorded far enough into the nascence of the skinhead subculture that the bootboys’ self-destructive menace was at the fore for all involved parties. Gotta make that cash, Riley must’ve thought, but I hope I don’t get my arse whooped when one of these dancehalls explodes into a bovver wonderland. One other thing: “Don’t call me skinhead, my name is John, John the Baptist”—not sure exactly what that’s about except that he’s maybe telling us that none of the original skinhead reggae artists was a skinhead.
Hot Rod All Stars "Skinhead Speaks His Mind"
Might as well cut to the chase here. “Skinhead Speaks His Mind” is to skinhead reggae as “Bummer Bitch” is to punk rock. (This gang also wrote “Skinheads Don’t Fear,” another classic.) Electric jug, James Brownisms, uber-simple and spare reggae guitar, and lyrics even a crop-top eighteen sheets to the wind could remember: “skinhead / skinhead / skinhead / skinhead / skinhead / skin / yow / sock it to me, skinhead,” etc. One almost has to wonder whether the Hot Rods were taking the piss, because surely the mind of a skin has room for other pertinent topics (the four Bs, perhaps? Birds, boots, bovver, booze…not necessarily in that order). Anyway, this one is killer. “Skinheads Don’t Fear” has a more stomp-on-the-downbeat reggae feel, no lyrics, and no electric jug. Leaving out that instrument circa 69 was probably to make sure no one would confuse skins with hair-farming middle-class peaceniks.
Tommy McCook and Stranger Cole "Last Flight to Reggae City"
Lest I give the false impression that all skinhead reggae sides had the word “skinhead” in their titles, let’s take a listen to Tommy McCook and Stranger Cole’s “Last Flight to Reggae City.” The flutes in this one call to mind a line from Ronald Reagan’s favorite poet, John Gillespie Magee, Jr.: “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth.” I picture a bootboy magically flying on gossamer wings from the humdrum council flat toward a Caribbean idyll that would, of course, be known as “reggae city.” Gotta get on that last flight, #007. (Incidentally, several skinhead reggae tunes date themselves to a zeitgeist moment of James Bond worship by mentions of 007.) The idea of a “last flight” wasn’t as menacing in 1969 as it had become by 1975, after the fall of Saigon. Skinheads definitely imagined themselves putting their booted feet up and maxin-and-relaxin, not dangling from landing gear, on this flight. The MC reveals the one-off, live nature of these tunes when he says, “This is your captain, Captain Streggae from Reggae City.” I guess nothing rhymed with reggae that day. “Your estimated flight will be two minutes and forty-five seconds and you’ll be flying at forty-five RPM.” Bliss.
The Charmers "Skinhead Train"
Just beneath the aforementioned "Skinhead Moonstomp" in the list of brilliantly incompetent improvisational rhymes about skinheads sits yet another track about conveyances: "Skinhead Train." Maybe it was something about the transnational character of skinhead reggae that inspired songs like these. The insistent commands offered by the Charmers' MC, however, don't make the Skinhead Train sound as welcoming as the Last Flight to Reggae City. If we imagine the former as headed to Babylon and the latter to Zion, the difference in sentiment between the songs becomes scrutable. But skinheads really only ever wished to ride the train to the terraces—and perhaps Brighton on a bank holiday weekend. Zion wasn't so far away after all.
Joe the Boss "Skinhead Revolt"
“Skinhead Revolt” by Joe "the Boss" Mansano has a great trombone line as well as an exceedingly skank-friendly interplay between the guitar and organ. The only lyrics to this mostly instrumental side are the titular ones. Great concept, themselves stolen for the title of a compilation LP released by Earmark, which is essential for fans and abecedarians alike. I like how the organ solo gets louder and quieter and louder in the middle. It’s tough to say if that’s artistic expression or studio hi-jinks at work. Either way, I approve. Tunes this great must’ve soothed the savagest of shaven-head beasts, but I can understand why licensing hours would have led to violence in the streets. You just don’t want a song like this to end.
Claudette and the Corporation "Skinheads A Bash Them"
Though the subculture centered around a macho look, and its pulp literature, typified by Richard Allen’s books, was shockingly misogynistic, some of the finest reggae tunes were sung by women. I suppose it all makes sense psychoanalytically. “Skinheads A Bash Them” by Claudette and the Corporation is yet another ode to the finer points of skinhead life, built around a simple, upbeat reggae guitar line interspersed with saxophones. Claudette’s excellent singing brings this laconic tune up a flight or two from the basement of shit-fi exploito-skin-reggae, and this one seems to bridge two of the primary categories of early reggae, Hammond organ–led dance tunes and the “toasting” drunk/stoned style. (A third common style is soul/R‘n’B covers played reggae style.) One also appreciates the sentiment herein, as Claudette asks why the shaven-head cohort "a bash them,” with the “Paki-” implicit. Another of Claudette’s dance tunes is called “Queen of the World,” and it’s infectious.
Phyllis Dillon "Woman of the Ghetto"
A bit late (1971) and more on the rocksteady side of the spectrum, Phyllis Dillon’s version of Marlena Shaw’s “Woman of the Ghetto” nevertheless is, as they say, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Any true Jack the Lad knows that this song narrates the daily life of his long-suffering mum. Rarely has the intersection of class consciousness and gender consciousness been expressed with such verve.
Laurel Aitken "Skinheads Are Wrecking the Town"
A recent discovery for me, thanks to skins with computers (waiting on their Giro, blogging down the job centre), is “Skinheads Are Wrecking the Town.” This primitive mash-up, avant la lettre, of Desmond Dekker’s classics “Licking Stick” and “Shanty Town” is actually by Laurel Aitken, even though the terrible-quality mp3 circulating online lists the auteur as unknown. It’s a novelty. And it doesn’t match either of its forebears, but it’s dumb and it’s about skinheads wrecking the town, so it rates as shit-fi skinhead reggae.
King Horror "Loch Ness Monster"
A sub-sub-sub-genre of skinhead reggae, at least judging by the available retrospective compilations, is zoologically themed joints. I’m not quite sure what, other than general fearsomeness, was behind these tunes, but “Zapatoo the Tiger” by Roland Alphonso, complete with growls, “Brixton Cat” by Rico & The Rudies, and “Loch Ness Monster” by King Horror are some examples. The latter is particularly silly, as it begins with a not-very-blood-curdling shriek, followed by King Horror warning about the dangers of said beast from the depths. I suspect the instrumentals for these tunes were written before the themes were, and they used the first idea that popped in their heads. One gets the feeling the tunes were not built to last—intended to be played in dancehalls for only a few weeks and then forgotten. That they live on is one of those quirks of subculture history. Still, the music in these tunes is not intrinsically shit-fi, it’s just that it’s accompanied by such odd toasting. Two other tunes that might fall into this category are “Funky Duck” and the James Brown–influenced “Funky Chicken,” meant to be accompanied by specific dances à la Macarena, Electric Slide, and Twist. Sadly for those with number-1 crops across the land, the reggae version of the Funky Chicken dance never seems to have quite taken off. I wonder why.
Sir Collins & the Black Diamonds "Black Panther"
In 1969, a song called “Black Panther” could not have just been a tune about a large feline. With its roars, similar to those of “Zapatoo the Tiger,” the black cat in question, who is also met with the refrain “Power” throughout the song, was clearly meant as an homage to the fierceness of the Black Panther Party. Beyond its notable, touchy, subject matter, which nevertheless receives the typical skinhead reggae treatment—it’s rendered silly and incoherent—this song’s fidelity stands out. It is likely an example of a riddim recorded in Jamaica and then overdubbed in London, and the musty sound evokes what we associate with Jamaican reggae of the moment. The track’s flipside, “I Want to Be Loved,” which sounds more like it was recorded in London, calls for worldwide unity between blacks in Jamaica, Africa, etc. Pretty powerful stuff beneath a veneer of jubilant party music.
GG All Stars "2,000 Tons of TNT"
If you and your firm were going to blow up the nearest cop shop, you might need a couple pounds of TNT. If you were going to blow up every bleedin’ Bobby from Brixton to Bournemouth, Edinburgh to Cardiff, 2,000 tons of TNT might cut it. “The boss of every explosive.” (As a result of this song, TNT should have a place on the Periodic Table of 69 Antisocial Elements.) "2,000 Tons of TNT" could be the quintessence of baldheaded reggae, with tentative flute playing; bog-standard, out-of-tune guitar work; and seemingly improvised lyrics. Boss, indeed. I like how the song is a bit too long, too.
GG All Stars "Barbarus"
So: “Barabus” (Barabbas?) might be the best skinhead dancehall tune of all, from any standpoint. I defy you smartly dressed boys and birds not to stomp your boots as this one, also courtesy of GG All Stars, plays. Pardon me while I go off, play a round of darts, shave my head, and then cry into my pint glass at the sheer perfection of this song. Turn it up!
The Pioneers "Reggae Fever"
“Skinhead braces and big boots is the talk of this town.” The paradox I loved about punks and skins hanging out on the street 25 years after the peak of skinhead reggae the was how our outlandish appearance was certain to attract the attention of norms, rival subcultures, and tourists yet nothing was more execrable to us than tourists taking our picture. But, percentage-wise, a tourist was far more likely to get chased down by a gang of bootboys and have his or her camera smashed (and if that was the extent of it, said tourist was lucky). The days of skinheads ruling the streets of the Lower East Side, as much as the “ruling” part was a fantasy in the heads of the skins and those—like me—who feared them, are incontrovertibly over. It’s been nearly 15 years since I’ve heard of a gang of skins forcing a punk rocker to pay a toll to pass their throng on the sidewalk—my 16-year-old buddy once convinced such a gang he was a veteran, what with his army surplus jacket and combat boots, which commanded such respect from the skins that he was allowed to pass for free. So, no, I do not lament the ebb of right-wing thugs who counted among their achievements having smashed up an anarchist bookstore, along with numerous gaybashing attacks, and other nefarious activities. But I must say that the changes in New York City I have witnessed in the days since my teenage years, of which the disappearance of the skins is a small but visceral microcosm, have profoundly shaped the way I think about the city. In the most basic way, it’s this change that animates everything I plan to do with the rest of my life: studying the shifts in the urban social landscape under neoliberalism. The Bowery becoming a safe playground for tourists, rather than the seamy boulevard upon which skins chased and beat them, was not a natural or inevitable process. What’s more, the failure of those booted-up 'n' suited-up kids with self-proclaimed “working-class pride” to mount anything like a coherent riposte to capitalists or cops was not wholly their fault, as much as it breaks my heart that the skins violently opposed anarchists and leftists, rather than finding common cause with them. Today, their mutual absence, the streets’ silence—where what’s missing is all their inchoate ideas spoken brashly—demonstrates how much they had in common, how interdependent they really were. (A shift onto the web is no substitute.) It sometimes seems the numbers of new high-rise condominiums are inversely proportional to the city's numbers of street-urchin subculture kids. Our own self-destructiveness—skins’ and punks’ alike—played a huge part in our collective disappearance from the public’s eye. But it merely abetted the destiny the city’s leaders already had in mind for us, and for so many other street kids.
Anyway, the orotund, baritone singing about newspaper headlines in which "skinheads are always at their very best” in “Reggae Fever” is of course ironic. Skins’ febrile best will always be the worst in the estimation of polite society, but, removed from the fear that used to characterize my youthful encounters with skinheads, it is—compared to the city’s welter of conspicuous wealth, the sheen on risk management and its exclusion and incarceration—as pretty a scene as I can envision.
Silver Stars "Last Call"
There are roughly two types of people in the world: those who hear the words “last call” shouted on a regular basis and those who don’t. Skinheads on the whole fall into the former category. The homosocial nature of skinhead gangs means that even if you lads don’t go home with the top bird, you’ll still have your male companions. And if one of your male companions wants to end the night with a Guinness-breath make-out session, well, the point of waiting until last call is that most potential witnesses have left by then anyway. I’ll end here. I hope, if you weren’t already familiar, I’ve opened your eyes to some of the dirty joys that lurk in the subterranean realms of “skinhead reggae.”
1. Big up to DJs Marvelous Hagler, Johnny Metro, and Agent Jay—Crazy Baldhead Soundsystem. Also, I hope I have not given the wrong impression: in the civilized world (ie, not the US), there are tons of left-wing skinheads. In the US, their numbers are relatively few, but eternal thanks and respect to my bred’ren and sist’ren in RASH (Red and Anarchist SkinHeads).
2. There are four essential compilations of skinhead reggae. Some overlap occurs between them, and sound quality varies, but you need them in this order:
“Skinhead Revolt” LP (Earmark)
“Trojan Skinhead Reggae” 3xCD (Trojan)
“Dawning of a New Era” 2xLP (Earmark)
“The Skinhead Sevens” 8x7" (Trojan)
Coincidentally, that’s the reverse order for quality of liner notes and overall packaging.