‘We are everything that scares curtain twitchers’: the bands resurrecting the spirit of Oi!

The hardcore movement grew from working-class angst in the late-70s, but got tainted by racist aggro. Now a new wave of bands are reviving its cathartic anger – without the far-right associations

“Did you think this is a nice genre? It’s not,” says Trevor Taylor, singer with the formidable guitar band Crown Court. He is talking about Oi! – the ultra-aggressive post-punk musical movement that is enjoying a resurgence worldwide. Specifically, Taylor is referring to the capacity for many of the original early-80s Oi! bands to break up abruptly when members were sent to prison.

“Oi! is violent, tough, ugly music made by people from that background,” Taylor says. “I’m not trying to justify armed robbery but these things are part of the picture when you grow up in this shit, whether you want them to be or not.”

Crown Court are leaders of a youthful “new Oi!” scene, steeped in the same hard social realities as the trailblazing 80s groups such as the Last Resort and Cockney Rejects but ultra-modern in attitude. The band’s 2016 debut album, Capital Offence, injected fresh spirit into a movement that was regathering its sense of self-worth in the UK after decades of criticism and claims of far-right sympathies.

“My dream is to get on the BBC or something,” says Taylor. “These punk surges come in waves and I’d love to be part of the next boot up the arse. But we won’t change, we won’t beg for it. In a very politically charged moment we are probably everything that scares a curtain-twitching middle-class family.”

Jeff Geggus of the Cockney Rejects performing at Rebellion festival, 2016.
Jeff Geggus of the Cockney Rejects performing at Rebellion festival, 2016. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

As well as being the new face of Oi!, Crown Court are also at the forefront of the modern skinhead scene – a subculture inextricably linked to Oi! and similarly reviled thanks to years of headlines about violence and ultra-nationalism. “You’re demonised just like that,” says Taylor, clicking his fingers. “Quickly, assumptions are made just for being young, working class and a skinhead. It is annoying but I will never grow my hair and never hang up these boots.”

Inspired by the early brutal punk songs of Sham 69 and Menace, Oi! bands such as Angelic Upstarts, the Rejects, the 4-Skins and Last Resort went harder and more aggressive still, becoming popular among a growing slice of disfranchised (and often unemployed) youth in the early years of the Margaret Thatcher era. There were music press front covers, Top of the Pops appearances, John Peel sessions and Top 40 hits. Derbyshire band Blitz, a rare non-London outfit on the scene, became the apogee of Oi!’s early “brickwall” sound, and their debut album made the Top 30.

This explosive, early-80s Oi! movement – with more than 40 avowedly working-class bands and a handful of polemicist poets involved – came to an ignominious end in 1981 after a riot at a gig in Southall, west London, that featured the 4-Skins, Last Resort and the Business. The pub venue was burned to the ground by anti-fascists from Southall Youth Movement, predominantly made up of young Asian men, part of a wave of riots that swept through inner-city areas in England that summer.

Southall’s legacy – with 61 police officers injured and 70 people arrested – would prove disastrous for Oi!. The gig was interpreted by some as being a deliberate provocation in one of the most racially diverse areas in London. Among the Oi! scene it was no secret there was a vociferous and violent racist element, often tied to the National Front or British Movement. The Southall Youth Movement had been formed in 1976 in the wake of the stabbing of a local teenager by a National Front-inspired gang. In 1979 the anti-racist protester Blair Peach was killed in a riot that ensued when the National Front decided to hold an election meeting in the area. On the night of the Oi! gig, there were reports of skinheads acting up in local shops, rumours circulating of abuse aimed at women and elderly people, of windows smashed and racist slogans chanted and spray-painted on buildings.

The press coverage of the incident, including a damning NME cover story, portrayed Oi! bands and their fans as far-right sympathisers. The impression was compounded by an Oi! compilation album, Strength Thru Oi!, put together by music weekly Sounds. Its compiler, the music journalist Garry Bushell, claimed he was unaware of the album title’s similarity to the Nazi slogan Strength Through Joy (he said it was riffing on the title of a Skids record), but the press didn’t see it that way, especially when the young skinhead on Strength Thru Oi’s cover was exposed as Nicky Crane, a well-known member of the British Movement then serving a four-year stretch for racially aggravated assault. The Daily Mail accused Sounds, which at the time had begun to outsell NME, of being a “skinhead bible of hate”.

“It’d be hard to write about Oi! without mentioning Southall or the Strength Thru Oi! cover,” says Matt Worley, professor of modern history at the University of Reading, who has written widely on the subject. “It’s an integral part of the history, but for it to become the determining factor of Oi! is missing the bigger picture.”

Daryl Smith of Cock Sparrer at Rebellion festival, 2016.
Daryl Smith of Cock Sparrer at Rebellion festival, 2016. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

In fact, several Oi!-associated bands had actively countered the racist element among their fanbases: Sham 69 played for Rock Against Racism, anti-NF songs were recorded by the Angelic Upstarts (with Their Destiny Is Coming) and Blitz (Propaganda), and anti-racism was explicit in much of the recorded Oi! poetry such as Garry Johnson’s poem United, which featured on the 1981 Carry On Oi! compilation. “Oi! wasn’t an inherently racist or neo-Nazi scene; its principal focus was class and included many who would see their politics as left-leaning,” says Worley. “There was lots of patriotism, of course, and flag-waving, but even that was often couched in class terms. No one actually seemed to listen to the music or what the bands said in the press. They just projected their prejudices on to Oi!.”

Taylor is succinct in his summation: “I think a lot of the older faces have been burned dirty,” he says. “I know some really good geezers from that era.” As for the elephant in the room, the palpable sense of affront in Taylor’s voice tells its own story. He points out that he grew up among Caribbean and Turkish communities in Tottenham, north London, with family members who are Greek and Jamaican: “Listen, I do not have any political leaning in that way, in any shape or form. Me and my mates are all from very different ethnic backgrounds. We don’t tolerate dumb shit.”

For Worley, class remains the defining element of Oi!. “The thing that crosses boundaries and why you currently have Oi! scenes around the world, in places such as China and Taiwan, is class identity,” says Worley. “It links all Oi! bands.”

The hunt for a genuinely incendiary working-class guitar band is an evergreen topic, from Noel Gallagher’s “rock’s gone middle class” tirades to the Telegraph’s “The return of the great working-class rock band” feature that focused on Australian punkers the Chats and Amyl and the Sniffers.

Taylor won’t be drawn into making any bold claims for Crown Court but he is aware the climate is shifting in their direction. “I love the Chats and Amyl,” he says. “I like that they are pushing the pendulum towards us but they ain’t yob music. They ain’t followed by Kev from the pub who wants a lager and a laugh after a week of painting and decorating. I think to be truly a working-class rock’n’roll band or movement there’s got to be that link.” As an example, he points to the recent Liam Gallagher Knebworth gig he attended. “The majority of the crowd were young football lads absolutely going off their head,” he says.

Football “lads” and football violence have had a strong association with Oi!. Taylor is a longstanding face among the modern-day Tottenham hardcore following. “It’s a family there for me and I’d trade it in for absolutely nothing,” he says. “It’s my life.” And like some of the Oi! originals, Crown Court have a smattering of songs detailing a bristling sense of violence at matches among rival fans. The fury Taylor summons in these songs serves as a cathartic, almost desperate howl.

“It’s mad, I know,” he says. “But this isn’t me beating my chest, trying to be the biggest gorilla, it’s just my story. One of the most important men in history, Joe Strummer, said: ‘Sing about what you know.’ You listen to a Crown Court lyric or boil it down and pick apart words, that’s all something that’s happened in my life. There’s not a single one I didn’t write without a nod or a wink or a complete explanation as to what I was doing at that time.”

Taylor has been involved in the international Oi! scene since he was 15, and put Crown Court together in his late teens. “We came in at a really mundane part of Oi!,” he says, “and we tried to put that rock’n’roll bollocks back on it. I don’t want to speak ill of those on the scene at that time because they were nothing but bloody supportive of our band, but it was too polished for what we wanted. We liked the 80s lot: the Rejects, Business and Last Resort. We liked the dirty, the grimy, the ugly: music that reflected the fabric of where we’re from. We wanted to spit that back.”

Chubby and the Gang at the Kentish Town Forum.
Chubby and the Gang at the Kentish Town Forum. Photograph: Onstage Photos/Shutterstock

He drew inspiration from the Templars, the multiracial New York band who revived Oi! in the 90s and did much to keep the scene alive. “To this day, the USA’s greatest Oi! band,” smiles Taylor. “Talk about putting the rock’n’roll and the grit and grime back into it … they are a huge influence.”

Early, explosive gigs and powerful single No Paradise (“An anthem for growing up on the estate and seeing how that shit follows you around,” says Taylor) saw Crown Court inspire the beginnings of the “new wave of British Oi!”. Taylor, however, then put the band on hold, signing up to join the British army. He was stationed in Belfast, an experience that informed The Province, one of the most powerful songs on Capital Offence.

The momentum Capital Offence gave Crown Court was abruptly halted during the first long Covid lockdown, not least as three band members quit, two to form new bands: the Chisel and Chubby & the Gang. The latter have since gained major management, released an acclaimed debut album and recently supported Jack White. “They came from the hardcore scene and were desperate to have an attachment to the London Oi! scene and at the time I happily facilitated that,” Taylor says of his former bandmates. “I’m not here to talk shit so, listen: you want to play Oi! music, make sure you’re from a background that actually supports Oi! music. Don’t come to me as a middle-class wanker and try to be something you’re not; that’s all I’ve got to say about that.”

Crown Court’s post-pandemic 2021 comeback single, Sect Fifty Nine, reaffirmed their status among the new breed of UK Oi! bands making a name for themselves, such as Grade 2 and Clobber, an example of the growing hardcore/Oi! overlap. “The song is about me liberating motors and going for joyrides knowing that the cameras would be picking up the reg plate,” says Taylor. A summer 2022 EP by his side project Roughed Up showcased a growing talent for controlled musical aggression and commercial hooks.

While antipathy toward Oi! persists, the scene is in rude health. Most of the major British bands have re-formed and play to appreciative audiences worldwide. London stalwarts Cock Sparrer recently celebrated their 50th anniversary with two sold-out nights at north London’s Roundhouse. Annual punk/Oi! festival Rebellion attracts many thousands, while Oi Oi The Shop in north London’s Camden Market is a positive, thriving hub. More startling still are the burgeoning Oi! scenes that around the world, particularly in France, the US, South America and south-east Asia.

With a new album due out early next year and a US tour lined up, Taylor’s band remain the most likely to break out of the underground; the ones to prove Oi! is nothing to be scared of. Although maybe it’s best not to get too comfortable. “Everyone wants a rebel but no one wants a rebellion,” Taylor says. “England doesn’t like to empower the working classes. We are a smear on their society. If nice, prawn-sandwich families saw me singing about getting kicked to fuck on a nightbus they’d hide their children.”

What Have We Got? The Story of Oi! by Simon Spence will be published next year by Omnibus.

• This article was amended on 25 November 2022 to clarify a reference to the circusmtances of Blair Peach’s death.

Simon Spence

The GuardianTramp

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