Retro Heaven

Lost in Translation

Don Lett’s ‘Skinhead’ Documentary….

Musician, film director and DJ, Don Letts’ wonderful Skinhead documentary for BBC4 offered a powerful insight into the skinhead subculture, its roots, popularity, demise and rather sad revision. As a black man, Letts sought to find out why the original skinhead doctrine which embraced black music and West Indian immigrants to the UK became a far-right, white-power movement now popular across Europe.

It is a fascinating story told by those who were there in the 1960s, those who adopted the clothes, haircut and dance moves to feel part of a movement in line with the tide of cultural change which swept through the decade. Letts shows how so little of the original skinheads mantra has been realised or indeed ignored to suit today’s incarnation. Skinhead proper was never racist, nor intended to be. These were young working class men and women wanting to enjoy themselves and feel a sense of identity along with it.

One must consider the music of choice to understand the original movement; originating in London circa 1969, they were an off-shoot of the mods of the early to mid sixties, they wanted to emulate the Jamaican rude boys and took to the music of soul, ska and rocksteady. But fashions change and many of the original skinheads either moved on or became part of the football hooliganism plague which began in the early seventies and would continue to be a blight on the game for decades to follow. So the image of the skinhead morphed into a violent, thuggish subculture. The advent of punk saw a return to the shaved heads of the boot boys, in came bleached denims, Dr Martens boots and bomber jackets. The days of sheepskin and Abercrombie coats, pork pie hats and two-tone suits became all but a distant memory and gigs were little more than a staging post for fights, aggressive dancing and heavy drinking.

Today’s incarnation makes a mockery of its founding fathers; insular, extreme in their aggression and attitude to non-white immigrants, the beats of early reggae and ska drowned out by hardcore punk. It is sad to see the movement reinvented in such a way as to now demonise anyone who follows skinhead proper. Originals and true revivalists condemned to a never-ending denial of racist beliefs through identity theft, pure and simple. Because that is what it is. Any subculture can change direction over the years but to become the absolute opposite to what it originally was cannot, in my view, be anything other than theft.

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