It has long been known that music has the power to inspire emotion into the hearts of audiences, this fact has been utilised historically by politicians, activists, military leaders, musicians and film makers as a way of manipulating the subconscious of the listener into considering a certain ideological message to be more credible.
“Plato worried that music might generate lawlessness; new types of song and forms of music that were created within a society, or music that came from outside, could have a direct impact on the entire society.” Negus (p. 200)
Words that on their own have little effect on those who hear them attain new significance and meaning when spoken or sang over a piece of music. The political sentiment or intent of the artist is sometimes manipulated and assigned new political meanings by those who wish to benefit from the ideological power music has.
“In 1987 Imagine was collectively sung at a Conservative party conference in Britain to greet Margaret Thatcher – one of Britain’s most right-wing leaders, who led one of the governments least sympathetic to social democratic principles since the Second World War.” Negus (p.195)
John Lennon’s Imagine is largely recognised as an expression of socialist values; however it was effectively used in an opposing political context by the Conservative party. This can be seen as an example of the Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony in which those with power adopt a variety of cultural symbols to promote their own ideological message. In Britain during the 1970s and 1980s there was a great deal of music associated with both left and right wing politics. Both used the issue of racial tension as a way of rallying support for their causes.
The Rock Against Racism (RAR) concerts started in the 1970’s and were associated with punk rock and reggae music, the movement claimed to be a response against racist organizations but was also clearly an attack on opposing political values. “It was a movement formed in reaction to rising xenophobia and racism fuelled by Nazi organisations like the National Front.” (RAR website) popular punk musicians such as Tom Robinson, The Clash and X-Ray Spex were aligned to the movement, however all of those were renowned for the belief in left wing politics. The movement attracted its following through talk of racial equality and ending violent attacks, but beneath these honest objectives was the hidden intent to subvert Marxist politics to a generation of young and impressionable music fans.
“RAR strengthened the idea that rock music could be about more than entertainment, and in a sense provided the inspiration for similar campaigns in the 1980s” Shuker
A rival movement Rock Against Communism (RAC) was started in 1978 which also used music to communicate a political message to young people. RAC concerts were usually held in opposition to rival political groups such as Anti-Fascist Action and the Anti-Nazi League. They were often headlined by Skrewdriver, the most well known of right wing punk rock bands but also featured other prominent musical groups.
“white supremacist organizations like the National Front in the UK have used punk to attract new recruits:” (Shuker)
The RAC was loosely associated with organizations like the National Front, and appealed to working class, white rock fans who were opposed to the communist propaganda prevalent in rock music at the time. RAC bands and their fans were concerned with social problems like unemployment and the increasing immigrant population.
“Europe what have they got to do to make you come alive?
What has happened to the heritage that once was yours and mine?
A capitalistic economy, the communists rule the streets
The old people aren't safe outside, what solution do we seek?” Ian Stuart
Skrewdriver – Europe Awake (1984)
The political divide within punk resulted in disturbing outbreaks of violence which prevented bands such as Sham 69 who attracted fans from both political ideologies, from playing gigs. Sham 69 were able to acquire a wide fan base because their lyrics were based on personal politics and the issues that working class people of Britain are familiar with such as drinking, football, unemployment and a general mistrust of all politicians. This was noticeably different from Tom Robinson, Billy Bragg and Skrewdriver who were vocal about their political ideologies and used music as a way of trying to influence others and align them to their own ideology.
Other bands started to do the same and eventually a sub-genre of punk was formed known as Oi! the creation of which was credited to journalist Garry Bushell who intended to help launch a genuinely working class punk movement with the emphasis on skinheads. Oi differed from punk because it attracted more of a skinhead audience, creating rock music with specific relevance to the British working class. However like Sham69, the non political movement attracted a problematic fan base.
“A big problem with skinheads was despite their fondness of Jamaican music, many 60s/early 70s skins were, paradoxically, racist. To Bushell and the majority of the ‘New Breed’, skin was much more innocent, an affirmation of working class pride” Terrorizer#96 January 2002
The movement was subject to much criticism and was accused of being racist. Although there were political Oi! bands such as The Oppressed and The Angelic Upstarts who were both vocal about their socialist beliefs, the majority of Oi! bands were proud of their anti-political message that suggested people could make their own decisions without aligning themselves to a preconceived political ideology. The movement undeniably attracted a partially racist audience which resulted in a riot in Southall July 1981 after members of the local Asian community set fire to the Hamborough Tavern which was hosting an Oi! concert featuring The Business, The Last Resort and 4 Skins, none of whom were racist bands. The bands went to organizations such as RAR in an attempt be cleared of the racist tag assigned to them by misinformed media correspondents, like those working for the BBC, but they faced difficulties.
“One such difficulty arose in 1981, when a concert was organized under the banner of ‘Oi! Against Racism’ [...] Proponents of Oi, who defended it as working class music, not white music, wanted to polish its tarnished image through links with RAR. But RAR were wary of such moves, and they turned down a suggestion for a gig under the RAR banner in Southall; the bill was to have included a reggae band, An Asian group, and the 4 Skins […] RAR were suspicious of both the interests of the organizers and of the motives of the 4 Skins, and made their own counter suggestion: an Anti-Racist Skinhead concert in Sheffield, where local skinheads had been vocal in their denunciation of racism. RAR also suggested that none of the Southall bands be involved, preferring an Oi group with proven support for RAR.” (Street, 1986,)
This is evidence of the hidden motives of musical organizations like RAR and ANTIFA. Their intention was not merely to eliminate racism from youth culture, but to use this goal as a means to rally support for an exclusively communist movement whose festivals had no room for bands that merely wanted to express their support for anti-racist causes. Such events have come under media criticism for failing to make any progress in race relations in Britain as a result of their policy only to preach to the converted.
“The last festival of this ilk that I attended, in Burgess Park in South London, was a wonderful day out – but I do not recall a single person uttering to their skinhead mate; “It was a good thing I came today. I was racist but now I’ve seen the light.” Instead, what I saw, among the youths on a day out with their mates, were thousands of middle-class white folks patting themselves on the back for being so tolerant.” Taylor, The Guardian
The Oi! movement became a taboo subject in media and journalism circles after being tarnished by the right wing image associated with what was in fact a small minority of fans. The music itself outwardly opposed racism as is evident from the lyrics.
“It doesn’t matter if you're black or white, it’s not your colour that makes it right.”
The Business – Spirit of the Streets
However it was vocal about its mistrust of politicians from both sides.
“Vote for Maggie Thatcher or Tony Benn, you’ll always lose you’ll never win.”
4 Skins – Manifesto (1982)
The racist element was exaggerated by left wing organizations who were threatened by a movement that encouraged young people to question the left wing hegemony in anti-Thatcherite politics. But it was the media’s demonisation of Oi fans as racist skinhead yobs that led to a moral panic and ultimately censorship of the music from broadcast, performance and distribution. There are eye witness accounts of journalists from The Times paying crowds of young skinheads to seig heil for the camera so that the photograph would support the accusations made so frequently in reports. Cohen explains how a moral panic may arise around the emergence of a youth subculture.
“A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to be defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.”
(Cohen, 1980: 9)
BBC news broadcasted an expose on Oi! interviewing the 4-skins and doing their best to depict the movement as a dangerous and racist one. Only DJ John Peel leapt to the defense of the movement, pointing out that unlike 4skins, popular acts such as Joy Division did use Nazi imagery and slogans in their lyrics but were not attacked by the media. The focus of the program, other than the Southall riots, was journalist Garry Bushell’s compilation ‘Strength thru Oi!’ (1981) which shop keepers were arrested for attempting to sell after it was learned that the title was a play on the Nazi slogan ‘strength through joy’ The bands on the compilation were not racist but the lyrics did encourage violence against police officers which contributed to it being banned.
The movement was therefore attacked by left wing movements and media for accusations of racism, but also attacked by the right wing conservative government who banned the music from being sold, broadcast or performed in Britain. Oi! is comparable to rap in the fact that the controversial issues raised by young musicians were attacked by both the right and left wing.
“In 1990 rap music became the main target of the anti-rock, pro censorship lobby. The new genre had already been attacked from the left for its sexism and homophobia, and was now criticized from the right for its profanity and obscenity.” Shuker (page 267)
Like gangster rap, Oi! music was criticized for advocating violence and general encouragement of criminal activity (theft, benefit fraud, football violence). Unlike rap, oi music rarely glamorized violence, and condemned the use of guns. Oi! described how those born into poverty must adopt violent behavior in order to survive; it also has a strong sense of community and family values which generates the patriotic element of the movement which some misinterpreted as fascism. If the movement were right wing in the institutional sense then it would have been unlikely that the Conservative government would have opposed it. The movement was above all else a reaction against Margaret Thatcher and the conservative government of the 1980’s.
“Margaret Thatcher the stupid bitch
Takes from the poor and gives to the rich
She thinks we can’t see her plan,
To kill the spirit of the working class man,
Make us redundant; put us on the dole,
Put us in prison without parole.”
The Last Resort – We Rule O.K.
The fact that the bands were so critical of the conservative government and left wing activists is probably the most likely reason that the movement was so viciously slandered and attacked by the respective camps. This is why two opposing political ideologies were able to unite in the common purpose of banning an art form that encouraged intellectual working class independence and a coherent national identity for British youth. The climate of fear generated by the media was required in order to rally public hatred against the movement.
“a moral panic takes place within what Gramsci defines as a developing ‘crisis of hegemony’, arising out of a particular historical context where the dominant class is endeavouring to win domination and consent through ideological means.” Shuker
Although claiming to be non-political the politics of the genre were clear, they were an expression of the real activities that young men were occupying their time with in 1980’s Britain. The way the media, government and certain leftist political organizations tried to censor the movement is comparable to the efforts of the Nazi party attempting to ban jazz music in Germany during World War Two.
“The Nazi party were particularly concerned about the influence of jazz, which was considered to be a ‘degenerate music’ […] The Nazis began further to regulate the repertoire that musicians used in performance and also monitored and controlled the catalogues of songs that were printed and distributed by music publishers.” Negus
By this definition the actions of the Conservative government and of ANTIFA and RAR attempting to regulate freedom of expression through music are more comparable to the actions of the Nazi party than those of the young men who expressed criticism of the government and other political organizations through the medium of Oi! music.
Cohen, S (1980) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Oxford: Robertson
Street, J. (1986) Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music, London: Blackwell
Taylor, A. Music Festivals against racism give everyone a grand day out – but are they any use? Monday May 29, 2006 The Guardian
Negus, K, (1996) Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction. Polity
Shuker, R, (2002) Understanding Popular Music. Routledge
Selzer, J(January 2002) Under the Skin. Terrorizer issue number 96
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
4-Skins – ‘The good the bad and the 4-skins’ Secret Records, 1982
The Last Resort – ‘A way of life’ Captain Oi! 1982
The Business – ‘The anger and the truth’ Hellcat records, 1997
Skrewdriver – ‘Hail the New Dawn’ LP.’ Rock-O-Rama. 1984