Great interview with an original Skinhead from Leicester:
They wanted to look their best. To stand out from the crowd. And in their Brutus shirts, Sta Prest trousers or Levi jeans, braces, Harrington jackets and Frank Wright loafers, it was job done. But it was the hair that defined them – or the lack of it.
When Saturday came, they would perfect their look with a trip to Trio’s barbers in Woodgate for a number two crop. These were Leicester’s first skinheads.
They took their influences from Jamaican rude boys and the mods, honing their own look, music and lifestyle. They weren’t interested in race or politics, just looking good and having a great time. That meant reggae and soul music, football and a decent punch-up.
One of those who sat in Trio’s chair was Mark Wilson, of Braunstone Town. He’s 53 now but he’s lost none of his passion for the skinhead movement which has had him hooked since his early teens.
“My first memory of it was being on holiday on the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1969. The Israelites by Desmond Dekker was on the radio.
“What can I say? I loved the sound. The skinhead scene was just starting to take off and by the time I was another six months older, I was a fully committed member to the cause.”
The movement had started in London months before, but it wasn’t long before the skinhead scene was alive and kicking in Leicester, too.
These early skinheads immersed themselves in Jamaican rude boy culture, especially the music, which covered ska, rocksteady, and early reggae – before the sound and lyrics became more focused on black politics and the Rastafarian movement. Soon Mark was spending every penny he had on the best clothes he could buy. His parents allowed him £4 a month in return for a few errands and jobs around the house. With that money, he would carefully save for his next item of clothing.
“I had to save up for the things I wanted,” he said. “Most of us did, as we relied on our parents because we were still at school. Some of the older lads had jobs and they spent all their money on clothes.”
A Ben Sherman short-sleeve shirt with button-down collar cost around £2.50; a Brutus or Jaytex shirt, £1.60.
“It had to be an Oxford weave Ben Sherman,” said Mark.
“And Brutus had the best checks – window pane, the bigger, the better.
“My first Crombie coat cost me £8. I had to save for a while for that.”
For anyone not yet working, with a steady wage coming in, this smart look was not easy to achieve – but there was a certain determination about the skinheads which made sure they got the look they wanted.
“It is a way of life,” said Mark. “The shops knew want we wanted. We would shop in places like Irish in Silver Street in the city centre and Scotneys in Blackbird Road.
“The shoe shop opposite Irish sold Frank Wright’s, they were the best brogues or loafers to have.”
But while the teddy boys and mods had dressed up to be admired, the same wasn’t true of the skinheads.
“We would all be looking at what each other was wearing, and we would comment on a new colour gingham shirt or Harrington jacket as we all liked wearing the same sort of thing,” said Mark.
“But people in the street wouldn’t look at us because of the way we looked, with our cropped hair. They were worried we would attack them if they made eye contact.”
Being part of the skinhead scene soon brought obvious connotations. Cropped hair became shorthand for trouble. People assumed they were young thugs who were always on the look-out for aggro. “Well, we were,” said Mark. “That was the problem.”
But accusations of racism have always been flatly denied by the original skinheads. There was a perverse kind of egalitarianism about their violence – they’d duff up anyone.
“We were a group of young lads wanting to flex our muscles,” recalled Mark.
“Asians got bashed, gays got bashed, teenagers who weren’t like us got hit, too. If we attacked someone, there was no logic behind it other than they were vulnerable.
“I can’t say I’m proud of it,” he said. “It was certainly nothing to be proud of.”
“We were never racist. How could we be? We had West Indian friends within the scene, who I’m still friends with 40s years on.
“We loved the rude boys and wanted to be like them. They had attitude. They made us want to look better. We were working class and wanted to be like they were.”
The stigma of racism has haunted the skinhead movement since the 1970s when far-right groups including the National Front adopted the skinhead look and mainstream national newspapers started using the term skinhead in reports of racist violence. But the original skinheads were interested in neither politics nor black and white. It was a working class subculture at heart. In fact, the original skins may have cut their hair short for a good reason – long hair can be a liability in engineering and manufacturing jobs. It was also a big disadvantage in the scraps they tended to find themselves in (or start). But mainly, those early skins simply wanted to distance themselves from the lank-haired look of middle class hippies. Peace, love and understanding was the last thing on their minds.
And if the skinheads weren’t picking on others, they were fighting among themselves.
In a tight-knit community such as Leicester, groups of skins would actively stay away from each other in order to dodge trouble.
“We used to avoid going out in the city centre on a Saturday night if we could,” said Mark. “I was from Glen Parva. We tended to avoid going into Leicester itself as we would attract trouble from the townies, or other skinheads.
“They knew that we were from outside the town and it was an excuse to pick a fight.
“We would stay out of town and stay around Blaby and Glen Parva instead.
“I would go to school discos and youth clubs or try to get served at the George at Blaby and the County Arms in Glen Parva.
“If we did head into town it would be on a Monday night to the Palais, Humberstone Gate, for the music. On a Monday, it was soul and reggae with a bit of pop.”
By late 1969, the skinhead movement was all the rage across the country.
Future glam band Slade temporarily adopted the look and young people were learning more about the sub-culture as books by Richard Allen put the skins at the heart of his stories, selling copies in huge numbers. His work told in graphic detail the life of a character at the heart of the scene in pulp fiction works like Skinhead and Skinhead Escapes. Football and football violence was a big part of the scene. Dressing for the match was important.
For a skinhead who paid obsessive attention to detail about the way he looked, being part of a huge crowd at Filbert Street on a Saturday afternoon was a way to be seen. In those days it was an even better place to lock horns with lads from other cities.
Mark said: “We would go to Trio’s to get our heads cropped with a razor-parting before the game.
“The barber’s shop is still there but it is called something else now.
“At Filbert Street, we would unite in the Spion Kop and, of course, we’d be ready for a good scrap with the visiting support after the game.
“If there were no away fans to fight, we’d end up fighting among ourselves,” recalled Mark.
Football may have divided the skins, but music united them. The reggae sound had spread from the Jamaican community in Brixton and found a devoted following among skinheads who already had a love of soul music.
“I got into reggae in 1969,” said Mark. “It hooked me in a big way. Reggae, and also Tamla Motown.”
“Essential albums at the time included Tighten Up Volume 2 – a classic skinhead reggae music compilation on the Trojan record label – and Tamla Motown Chartbusters.”
These records would be spun at house parties across the city.
Mark recalled: “A lot of the music in the charts at that time was soul music or Tamla Motown.
“For example, tracks from Chairman of the Board, You’ve Got me Dangling on a String, and songs such as Freda Payne’s Band of Gold – there were lots in the charts.
“Reggae was slightly different. It didn’t do well in terms of radio play. We had to search it out but it was accessible in record shops.
“We used to go into Brees in Churchgate and use the listening booths there to hear the new releases.
“We would spend hours in there and it used to do in the heads of the women who worked there.”
By the 1970s, loyalty to the ideals of the original movement was still strong. However some were letting their hair grow a little, becoming known as Suedeheads.
The clothing was still as slick as ever – the brogues, loafers, suits and the jeans-and-sweater look, with a button-down Ben Sherman or Brutus.
“By 1972/73, the skinhead scene was beginning to lose its popularity,” Mark said. “We were starting to look for something else.
“In 1973, we were hanging out in places like the Captain’s Cabin in the Old Dirty Duck, which is now Leicester Pride in Granby Street.
“By chance, one night we were in the Barley Mow in Granby Street and the sounds drifting down from upstairs were Northern soul records.”
Mark found a new love in Northern soul. To this day, he DJs at Northern soul events. But he stayed true to his skinhead roots, keeping a look he has worn now for four decades – as a schoolboy, an apprentice hosiery mechanic and businessman.
“I was managing director of a knitwear business,” he said, “so at times being and dressing like a skinhead made it quite interesting in meetings.
“For that reason, I never really got tattoos but a lot of my mates had full sleeve tattoos.”