During one of the non-performance scenes in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, The Band’s Levon Helm discusses the effect of place on music. Says Helm, “Near Memphis, cotton country, rice country, the most interesting thing is probably the music ... That’s kind of the middle of the country back there. So bluegrass or country music, you know, if it comes down to that area and if it mixes there with rhythm and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music. Country, bluegrass, blues music.” When Scorsese timidly asks, “Levon, what do you call that?” Helm emphatically replies, “Rock and roll!”
Let’s think of another melting pot of music. It’s the late ‘70s and punk has lain siege to England and the rest of the world. Although it is a new phenomenon, there are already grumblings that punk had sold out. Instead of killing the movement, a small subculture of bands, labels, and people begin a reinterpretation for the masses. They derive their sound from punk and rock and roll, but also from Jamaican ska and rocksteady and its English cousin, 2-Tone. The sound is the music of the working-class and becomes a voice for skinheads, the disenfranchised, and the disillusioned. The music is called “Oi.”
Oi was political, street, punk rock and for the few years that it remained unadulterated, was the best thing to come out of England since the original British punk invasion. Through bands like Menace, Blitz, and the Cockney Rejects, Brits had the perfect vehicle to express their displeasure with the conservative British government of Margaret Thatcher; with unemployment; with commercialism and materialism; and with elitism. The genius of these bands was in their simplicity and their duality—they rejected mainstream society and society rejected them.
But, punks grow up and grow old. In the words of Neil Young, some die and some fade away. Gavin Watson was one of the latter. Growing up in the London suburb of High Wycombe in the 1970s and 1980s, Watson not only saw the evolution of punk and Oi, but as a skinhead, was part of the scene. He grew up lower-class and pissed off and his life, expressed through words and photos, show us the genesis of Oi and just how easily a hard life and place can not only effect music, but create music.
His first effort was 2001’s Skins, a photo journal of the original, non-racist skinhead movement. Skins gave a glimpse into the inner sanctum of the British skinhead community before it was split into two by the right-wing ideologies of the British National Party and National Front.
This time, his gift to us is this collection of photographs, Skins and Punks: Lost Archives 1978—1985. This is a nostalgic album culled from the so-called “Box of Death”—Watson’s black briefcase packed with photos that he shared with the folks at Vice, which resulted in this book.
There’s a wonderful innocence about this book that should make all readers reminisce about the friends they thought they’d have forever and the events of childhood that define us at the time, but seem infinitesimally important as the years march on. In Watson’s clique, for example, there was no question of racism because no one really understood what it meant. He writes, “There were black kids in our skinhead gang. My older brother was gay. My girlfriend was mixed race. We were as far from being right wing as you could get.”
The purity is captured in a page six photo of Kelley, his “mixed race” girlfriend, who sits demurely on a bed, clothes either being put on or taken off, with a graffiti-scrawled wall behind her. Or in the photo of an unnamed skinhead and an owl on page 74 or “School play rehearsal, Hatters Lane, 1981” on page 103. There’s even a sense of probity that accompanies the second-to-last photo in the collection taken in 1989 after Watson and his friends take ecstasy and go to their first rave. As he writes, “It was the end of an era.”
What diminishes the whole project, unfortunately, can be summed up in one word—inconsistency. Though Skins was widely celebrated, it was also criticized for being a photo journal without much of a journal—simply not enough information to accompany the photos and explain how everything fitted together. The same can be said for Skins and Punks—a good photo journal, but not a great one, because it is frustratingly inconsistent.
First, there is too much missing information. The least Watson and the folks at Vice could have done was make sure that everything had a caption or at least, a title and year. But, some photos are accompanied by captions and titles and some are not. The result is a kind of rambling, photographic narrative on Oi and skinhead culture, which might be the point behind a punk-inspired coffee table book, but really diminishes the overall quality of the project. For example, there’s a beautiful photo of Watson in the foreground with melting icicles in the background. But, what year was it taken? And where?
The chronology of photos—or lack thereof—is also an issue here. There’s no rule that a photographic history of a band or a cultural event has to follow a certain order, but the disjointed sequencing of photos in Skins and Punks makes it almost a painful viewing experience. There’s a particular three-photo sequence that illustrates this well. First, we have a shot of a Black skin and a White skin both giving a “Seig Heil” apparently in 1980. The next photo jumps to 1985, where we see two skins breakdancing. And then it jumps back to 1981 and shows some lad, maybe Watson, sniffing glue.
Is a punk-inspired coffee table book selling out? Not if it earns its price tag. I will gladly pay 40 clams for a book of photographs if it’s packed to the gills with cool information, captions, and stories. Or, if the photos are so powerful and evocative that the photographer’s emotions as well as those of his subject(s) carry through their pages. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for Skins and Punks. What starts out as a great project, turns into a mess—poorly organized and edited and too damn expensive, which is a terrible shame because with some more work, the publishers could have had a clear winner on their hands.