Monday, November 29, 2010

American Oi! How the Underground Took to a British Phenomenon

When a style of music crosses the Atlantic, gets thrown through the underground and returns it becomes something that cannot be classified with any ease.  It generates countless argument, debate and animosity between followers and practitioners alike with the original bands getting lost in discussions of politics and values.  In the early 1980s American Punk music returned from England in the form of Oi!.  The reformatting of punk into Oi! occurred with the Business and others and then carried over to the States and landed in the form of Iron Cross in Washington D.C., Negative Approach, often referred to as NA, in Detroit, The Effigies in Chicago and many others to form the underground’s harshest musical movement. To the many people that followed the original bands, this movement was about something other than just music.  It was about fun, a feeling of belonging, and pride and respect for working class mentality, not about racism and hatred.  Then the racist Right Wing came in and placed the entire movement of Oi! on the side of the Neo-Nazi and White Power movement in the eyes of the press and to the majority of people.  The infiltration of the underground, by White Power advocates, led to the downfall of the American Oi! movement.  Today, American Oi!, much like its beginning, has retaken the underground with music and bands based on pride and value in the working class, not racist priorities.
When bands that were situated within the working class environments of America started to play music, they played with a feeling of disgust to the yuppie class of the 1980s and were determined to assert working class ideals into the music world.  According to Sarah Thornton in The Social Logic of Subcultural Capital, “Subcultural ideologies are a means by which youth imagine their own and other social groups, assert their distinctive character and affirm that they are not anonymous members of an undifferentiated mass” (185).  The underground bands aligned this character with a focus on working class pride and community responsibility.
The issue of pride is one of great concern for many people.  What does it mean to take pride in yourself, your country, your family, your friends and those that surround you?  The answer formed the basis of American Oi!  If you listen to the lyrics and feeling of the first bands they fall into all of these concepts.  Negative Approach’s, now classic song “Ready to Fight” states, “We won’t take any shit and we’re not about to leave.  Just cause you don’t like who and what we want to be. Who are you to say what’s wrong and what’s right.  If it’s what it takes, we’re ready to fight.” While lyrics from Iron Cross’ “Crucified for our Sins” state, “They don’t know our feelings, only desperate cries.  They see the nation through distorted glass.  They’re only here because of Racist views.”  These short lyrics, from two of the most covered bands, demonstrates first the non-racist view of the groups and second, the way that the youth following was separate from the mainstream and important because of it. 
 The significance of this movement was the way that the bands and fans shared a common connection through the issue of pride. Will Straw, in his essay Communities and Scenes in Popular Music states, “The manner in which musical practices within a scene tie themselves to processes of historical change occurring within a larger international music culture will also be a significant basis of the way in which such forms are positioned within the scene at the local level” (3).  When American Oi! bands tied themselves to a British underground that was based on working class ideals they rose in popularity. Bands often began by covering songs from British artists such as Sham 69, The Blitz and Angelic Upstarts, and added an American grit and strength to them.   Iron Cross and Negative Approach are considered the first American instances of Oi! and led the charge of support for the working class youth in American cities and suburbs. 
Negative Approach began by covering British Oi! songs playing Blitz’s “Someone’s Gonna Die” and “Never Surrender” and “Borstal Breakout” by Sham 69.  NA’s guitarist Rob McCulloch states, “At the time here in the US the media hadn’t got a hold of the whole racist skinhead thing and it wasn’t something we were focusing on.  It seemed as if the whole Detroit scene really embraced the Oi! bands” (Arsehole).  Forming in 1981, around the same time as Iron Cross, Negative Approach used the energy of the hardcore scene and played an even harsher style rooted in the feel of Detroit and punk rock.  They already had a strong following of rough, street savvy kids, and Oi! led the band into a different world.  Lead singer John Brannon forced his band through the underground and didn’t care about anyone or anything in the way.   The start of NA was in reaction to the Detroit “punk” scene being too watered down and ineffective, as they put it too “arty.” 
Negative Approach formed in an effort to play music that people of their age would relate and react to.  They started playing in clubs that were not used to the sound or format and were quickly shunned, but the kids reacted.  Brannon states, “People were thoroughly upset by those early sets we did.  All our songs were averagely 30 seconds long and the set would only last about 10 minutes.  The dudes from the older, more established “rock” bands in the area were offended we had the nerve to go on a stage and do that.  But the kids dug it and that’s all we really cared about. We knew it had to be done” (Rettman).  This no remorse attitude was what carried the entire movement forward. 
Who the first, purely, American Oi! band was is argued over in countless bars and clubs but many agree that Iron Cross from Washington D.C. led the charge and defined the scene from the beginning.  With their first Skinhead Glory E.P. Iron Cross smashed their way into the underground.  What is extremely important about this group is their stance on upholding working class values and denigrating White Power thoughts and philosophy.  Sab Grey, original lead singer of the band, is extremely adamant about this fact and continues to perpetuate these ideals through the creation of books and movies.   The band began in an effort to just have fun.  Grey states, “Politics didn’t matter.  We were all on the same page anyway.  We all knew the system was shit.  We all knew they lied and we just wanted to have a good time anyway.”   Iron Cross led the way for many hardcore bands as well and inspired Dischord Records and bands such as the Minutemen and Minor Threat.
 In the early 80s imagery played a large role within the punk scene.  It still arguably does, but was influential in the split between politics.  The images of the Swastika and other Nazi symbols were taken and used as a form of rebellion against the established order.  The term Iron Cross and the image of an Iron Cross is obviously a reference to the German army but the band and its followers used the image as a comment on the way their society was turning towards that mentality, which often led to extreme disputes about the bands politics.  Sab Grey discusses this by saying, “Yes well it wasn’t exactly the brightest thing to do in retrospect.  But I will say that when we were sitting around choosing the name the main objection to it was that we thought it sounded too metal.  The thought of fascist connotations didn’t occur to us.  And let’s remember when we started there were NO Nazis or right wing elements in the scene.  NONE!”  Images of power were then co-opted by the scene in an effort to realign there meaning. 
The use of these symbols was often conflicting, even in the scene and members that chose to wear a Swastika or other iconography were often segregated at shows or, at worst, beaten.  As the racist right infiltrated the scene these are the youth that were easily swayed.  When a youth culture that was based on aggression decided to focus that aggression on these members, they were ostracized and pushed towards other versions of power.  The White Power band Skrewdriver started it all here and gave these members a voice, and a fist, within the scene.  Grey continues this thought by stating,
“…skinheads were actively targeted by members of the far right.  The far right when my band started consisted of a few mal contented clowns who dressed up in brown shirt.  The Nazis seen in the film the Blues Brothers in fact.  They realized that this wasn’t going to work (duh!) and at the same time saw a large group of young people who were dissatisfied and went after them.  They gave them someone else to blame, which of course is far easier to do than to look within yourself and make improvements.”
This power of coercion found its way amongst all forms of youth culture and drove many people to reevaluate their participation within it. 
To successfully function in the underground, Oi! bands had to form an identity that was distinctly linked to the violence and strength found within the scene.  These bands formed in an effort to describe the everyday life of kids on American streets.  The striking difference was in the way the audience took to the American bands.  The shaved heads that started coming to shows increased and certain hardcore bands developed an extreme popularity within the growing skinhead scene.  “…skinheads in America were first viewed in the 1970s and early 1980s as a group rooted in the youth music scene and not as a strongly politically oriented collection of young men,…” (Moore 7).  The main reason for this popularity was in the way the bands constructed their identity. 
The beginning of Oi! both in England and America was apolitical and focused solely on kids interacting with their immediate surroundings.  Their identity was founded on what was important to them.  According to Gary Bushnell in Oi!- The Truth, “They believed in standing on their own two feet.  They were patriotic, and proud of their class and their immediate culture.  They looked good and dressed sharp” (5).  Although the statement refers to the English side of things, American skinhead culture began in just the same way.  The influence was not from politics but from pride and internal working class values. The pride in America issue was quickly used by the White Power advocates to turn many people to their cause and the American pride issue continues to signal incorrectly, to some people, racist attitudes.  The reasons for this are extremely varied and led musicians and fans to question the intent behind statements on albums and throughout the scene. 
White Power bands and institutions began influencing the scene in England through the British National Party but when the music came to America it was mostly apolitical, until the White Power elements saw the way that the British youth clung to the music and message of hate that was espoused by bands like Skrewdriver and others.  At that point groups like White Aryan Resistance, the Aryan Nations, World Church of the Creator, and others like Robert Heickt began to infiltrate the scene. It began in a simple way through the distribution of literature with the message of white pride and separatism and grew into a significant force within the underground and mainstream of society.  The main issue here is that American Oi! began with non racist bands playing a style of music that was a bit slower and harsher than the punk they were listening to. 
These implications of racism and hatred are a key element in this discussion.  Youth in America have never been so easily taken by a group of people.  Why?  Some sociologists argue that youth cults develop because of a breakdown of the family structure and the failure to find adult role models.  This may be true in some cases but not every skinhead comes from a broken home without a father, or male role model.  Theodor W. Adorno’s pivotal study Philosophy of Modern Music suggests another possibility, “…no work of art can thrive in a society founded upon power, without insisting upon its own power” (216).  What that power consists of is controlled by the members of the scene, except when the media takes over.  When such power contains extremely negative connotations the intent of the art becomes questioned.   
The power of Oi! music stems from its focus on aggression and outlook on life.  The way that people react to the groups and the followers suggests that the message is not always clear.  Contemporary bands still encounter this duality and often have to fight against preconceived notions of racism and hatred.  By continuing to promote a music that represents pure street level ideals and working class pride, contemporary Oi! bands continue the traditions of NA and Iron Cross and uphold the beginning feeling of Oi!. 
 The racism found in all of America is problematic and continues to challenge the way many people construct their identity.  It is not only within skinhead circles that this problem exists.  The way that the media has manipulated the image of skinhead demonstrates the extreme power of the image of racism being linked to youth and fear.  The beginnings of the skinhead movement in both England and America were non racist and apolitical.  The blatant use of the young to manipulate the underground is one of the most offensive and appalling things that has happened in the past decades.  As the racist right continues to perpetuate these thoughts the term skinhead and the truth behind it continues to get buried deeper and deeper in lies.  The music known as American Oi! cannot continue to be linked directly to the racist right and must remove itself from this infiltrating force. 

Works Cited
Adorno, Theodor W. Philosophy of Modern Music. Verlage, Hamburg. 1958. Continuum International: New York and London. 2004.
Areshole, Stuart.  “Negative Approach Interview.” Game of the Arseholes. 4. 2000.
Bushnell, Gary. Oi!- the Truth. Access date 22 February 2009.
Grey, Sab.  Personal interview. 23 February 2009.
Moore, Jack B.  Skinheads Shaved for Battle: A Cultural History of American Skinheads. Bowling Green State University Popular Press: Bowling Green, OH. 1993
Rettman, Tony. “The Detroit Hardcore Scene.”  Swindle.  12. 2006
Straw, Will. “Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music.”  Cultural Studies 1991. 5, 3.
Thornton, Sarah.  The Social Logic of Subcultural Capital.  Club Cultures: Music Media and Subcultural Capital. Wesleyan University Press. New England, Hanover and London. 1996.

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