Oi!

Cockney Rejects

Oi! is a working class subgenre of punk rock that originated in the UK in the late 1970s. The music and its associated subculture had the goal of bringing together punks, skinheads and other working-class youths (sometimes called ‘herberts’).

The Oi! movement was partly a response to the perception that many participants in the early punk rock scene were, in the words of The Business guitarist Steve Kent, ‘trendy university people using long words, trying to be artistic…and losing touch.’ André Schlesinger, singer of The Press, said, ‘Oi shares many similarities with folk music, besides its often simple musical structure; quaint in some respects and crude in others, not to mention brutally honest, it usually tells a story based in truth.’

Oi! emerged after the perceived commercialization of punk rock, and before the soon-to-dominate hardcore punk sound. It fused the sounds of early punk bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, The Clash, and The Jam with influences from 1960s British rock bands such as The Rolling Stones, the Small Faces, and The Who; football chants; pub rock bands such as Dr. Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods, and The 101ers; and glam rock bands such as Slade and Sweet. Direct precursors to the first Oi! bands included Sham 69, Cock Sparrer, and Menace, who were around for years before the word Oi! was used retrospectively to describe their style of music.

In 1980, writing in ‘Sounds magazine,’ rock journalist Garry Bushell labelled the movement Oi!, taking the name from the garbled ‘Oi!’ that Stinky Turner of Cockney Rejects used to introduce the band’s songs. The word is an old Cockney expression, meaning ‘hey’ or ‘hello.’ In addition to Cockney Rejects, other bands to be explicitly labeled Oi! in the early days of the genre included Angelic Upstarts, The 4-Skins, The Business, Blitz, The Blood, and Combat 84.

The prevalent ideology of the original Oi! movement was a rough brand of working-class rebellion. Lyrical topics included unemployment, workers’ rights, harassment by police and other authorities, and oppression by the government. Oi! songs also covered less-political topics such as street violence, football, sex, and alcohol. Although Oi! has come to be considered mainly a skinhead-oriented genre, the first Oi! bands were composed mostly of punk rockers and people who fit neither the skinhead nor punk label.

After the Oi! movement lost momentum in the United Kingdom, Oi! scenes formed in continental Europe, North America, and Asias. Soon, especially in the United States, the Oi! phenomenon mirrored the hardcore punk scene of the early 1980s, with Oi!-influenced bands such as Agnostic Front, Iron Cross, and Anti Heros. Later American punk bands such as Rancid and Dropkick Murphys have credited Oi! as a source of inspiration. In the mid-1990s, there was a revival of interest in Oi! music in the UK, leading to older Oi! bands receiving more recognition. In the 2000s, many of the original UK Oi! bands reunited to perform and/or record.

Some fans of Oi! were involved in white nationalist organizations such as the National Front (NF) and the British Movement (BM), leading some critics to identify the Oi! scene in general as racist. However, none of the bands associated with the original Oi! scene promoted racism in their lyrics. Some Oi! bands, such as the Angelic Upstarts, The Burial, and The Oppressed were associated with left wing politics and anti-racism. The white power skinhead movement had developed its own music genre called ‘Rock Against Communism,’ which had musical similarities to Oi!, but was not connected to the Oi! scene. Timothy S. Brown identifies a deeper connection: Oi!, he writes ‘played an important symbolic role in the politicization of the skinhead subculture. By providing, for the first time, a musical focus for skinhead identity that was ‘white’—that is, that had nothing to do with the West Indian immigrant presence and little obvious connection with black musical roots—Oi! provided a musical focus for new visions of skinhead identity [and] a point of entry for a new brand of right-wing rock music.’

The mainstream media especially associated Oi! with far right politics following a concert by The Business, The 4-Skins, and The Last Resort on the fourth of July in 1981 at the Hambrough Tavern in Southall, London. Local Asian youths threw Molotov cocktails and other objects, mistakenly believing that the concert was a neo-Nazi event, partly because some audience members had written National Front slogans around the area. Although some of the skinheads were NF or BM supporters, among the 500 or so concert-goers were also left-wing skinheads, black skinheads, punk rockers, rockabillies, and non-affiliated youths. Five hours of rioting left 120 people injured—including 60 police officers—and the tavern burnt down. In the aftermath, many Oi! bands condemned racism and fascism.

These denials, however, were met with cynicism from some quarters because of the ‘Strength Thru Oi!’ compilation album, released in May 1981. Not only was its title a play on a Nazi slogan—’Strength Through Joy’—but the cover featured Nicky Crane, a skinhead BM activist who was serving a four-year sentence for racist violence. Critic Garry Bushell, who was responsible for compiling the album, insists its title was a pun on The Skids’ album ‘Strength Through Joy,’ and that he had been unaware of the Nazi connotations. He also denied knowing the identity of the skinhead on the album’s cover until it was exposed by the ‘Daily Mail’ two months later. Bushell, a socialist at the time, noted the irony of being branded a far right activist by a newspaper that ‘had once supported Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts, Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, and appeasement with Hitler right up to the outbreak of World War Two.’

Another subsequent source for the popular association between Oi! and a racist or far-right creed was the band Skrewdriver, a first wave punk act that had broken up in 1979. Lead singer Ian Stuart Donaldson was recruited by the National Front—which had failed to enlist any actual Oi! bands—and reconstituted Skrewdriver as a white power skinhead act. While the band shared visual and musical attributes with Oi!, Bushell asserts, ‘It was totally distinct from us. We had no overlap other than a mutual dislike for each other.’ Donaldson and Crane would later go on to found a magazine, ‘Blood and Honour,’ and a street-orientated ‘skinhead’ club of the same name that arranged concerts for Skrewdriver and other racist bands such as No Remorse. Demonstrating the ongoing conflation of Oi! with the white power skinhead movement by some obervers, the ‘Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations’ refers to these groups as ”white noise’ and ‘oi’ racist bands.”

Tags:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s