the world's biggest collection of skinhead ephemera is going on display

Calling all Boot Boys, Smoothies, Sorts, and Knuckle Girls...

by Matthew Whitehouse
08 April 2016, 7:15pm

"It's sort of that old Millwall FC slogan, 'No one likes us, we don't care,'" says Toby Mott, of the short lived, and even shorter haired, British subculture that hasn't always made it easy on itself. A young London punk -- he spent his 14th birthday at legendary nightclub The Roxy and was an extra in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, no less -- Toby has spent the last thirty-odd years amassing what is general considered to be the largest collection of punk ephemera in the world. But it's the skins that he finds really interesting.

Feeding directly into the energy of the late 70s punk scene, the skinheads (a revival of their rude boy-enthralled, 1960s incarnation), were a mix of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions: Ska-loving racists and right-wing homophobes whose bomber jackets, Dr Martens boots and buzz cut hairstyles were famously appropriated by the gay scene. It's little wonder Toby (along with Sex Pistol's designer Jamie Reid and publishers Ditto Press) had enough material to make an entire book on it. The best bits are on display at Newcastle's NewBridge Books from today until May 6, but if you can't make it, fear not! Toby kindly shared some of his favorite pieces below. 

How did you become involved in skinhead culture?
Well, I've got this punk collection and I've done lots of projects around punk. But I've also always been fascinated with this kind of moment, around the time of punk, when these two cultures mixed. Because, well, it was aggressive, it was much more regimented in its dress code and it was much more brutal. At that time I was collecting all the punk stuff, which I was surrounded by and was involved with, then a lot of the bands from that sort of street punk, as it was called, or Oi! movement, became adopted by skinheads. So I started collecting stuff relating to skinheads too.

What were the differences between a punk and a skinhead?
The interesting thing about skinheads is they are the true working class youth culture. Punk was open to everyone, of course, but there was also a large middle-class aspect. Whereas, to my knowledge, there weren't really any middle-class skinheads. It just wasn't a thing. So that's why the cultural aftermath left behind by skinheads really is what punk used to say it was about: that DIY culture around council estates and stuff. Of course, punk was about that, but skinhead culture really was about that. And in some ways that's why they gravitated towards that right wing kind of politics. The height of the skinhead revival would have been around the second wave of punk, which was was very politicized with Anarcho-Punk etc. And the other side of that coin was the skinhead, Neo-Nazi thing. But then that mutated into a gay identity too.

That's the interesting thing, isn't it? That something so associated with the right could be so embraced by the gay community…
I know! It's bizarre. And now when you see a skinhead, if you're walking through Shoreditch or something, you wouldn't think they were members of the National Front! That's the whole point of the book really. A lot of people are, like, "How could you do a book about awful right wing, racist movement?" and you go, well, actually there's a whole other side to it that people aren't aware of.

Do you think that's because we perhaps over intellectualize punk and don't really do the same thing to skins?
Yeah. Skinhead's like the brute cousin, kept in the cellar. When people talk punk they talk about a high point of British popular culture, this great kind of swelling of the working class rising against this awful, grey and dreary Britain. This explosion of energy, that was supported by all the music papers. But no, you don't talk about skinhead culture like that! And we're not exactly heralding it either… I see it more as this class of people who were losing their identity and their work through Thatcher's embrace of the free market economy. That's why that uniform of the worker, which is what skinheads started fazing in, became fetishized really.

I wanted to ask what the difference between punk ephemera and skinhead ephemera is. Is there a very noticeable difference in how it's presented?
Yeah, the skinhead stuff really is crude. Obviously punk was embraced by the big record companies, so you had people like the The Clash, it was on Top of the Pops, it mutated into New Wave etc. But skinhead culture never had that happen to it. I didn't think, to my knowledge, any skinheads went to art school, whereas plenty of punks did. So skinheads weren't informed about Dada or typography or Bauhaus or anything. The way it looked was the way it looked! That's what I find very appealing about it.

What were the first things that you actually got? Would it have been gig flyers?
Yeah, it would have been Sham 69, who were basically a punk band that were adopted by skinheads. Then you had bands who were skinhead bands, like the The 4 Skins, the Cockney Rejects, Cock Sparrer. And then you've got that whole, racist White Noise like Screwdriver or No Remorse or Brutal Attack. Their names said it all, really. But then you have Bronski Beat and that whole sort of electro-skinhead, gay dance music thing! It's weird with skinheads. You can take your pick really. Because then there was the whole kind of anti-racist kind of thing. SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), red or communist skinheads.

Do you know how much stuff you have in your collection?
I've pretty much lost count. But I think if this exhibition was exhibiting, like, 120 pieces, covering all aspects. So each aspect is a chapter of the book. We go from the original skinheads in '68, and then we've got girl skinheads, fascist skinheads, anti-racist skinheads etc. And then Skinsploitation because then you had all those trashy paperbacks.

Why do you think the interest in them endures?
The thing about skinheads is it's now such a global phenomenon. I mean, there are skinheads everywhere. You know, a lot of it is unsavory, it has to be said, the more militarist, right-wing stuff. But then you've also got skinheads in Japan and Korea, in Latin America, in Mexico, where there's a huge anti-fascist skinheads movement. So it's become this sort of global identity for the marginalized. A bit like being a goth, but without the make-up.

Skinhead: An Archive is at NewGen Books, Newcastle till 6 May, with a panel discussion taking place tomorrow (Saturday, April 9) at 3pm.

Sex pistols
Toby Mott
ditto press