Take a trip through the origins of oi.
Bootboys in Coventry, 1969
They called them smoothies, bovver boys, hard mods or simply: bootboys. Working class kids growing up in Britain's socially stratified milieu during the late 60s/early 70s with a disdain for anything reeking of the upper or middle classes. They had an affinity for close cropped or mod-length hair, steel-toe boots (huge asset in street fights), straight Levi jeans or Sta-Prest trousers, suspenders (braces) and buttoned-up shirts alongside a penchant for short, simple and loud guitar based tunes with anthem-like choruses, strongly prevalent in the glam rock hits of the day. It is those shouted choruses, like chants on the stadium terraces, cheering on the footy team, that resonate as a primal call to arms. The aristocracy had organised and codified football, but it was the lower classes that played it. Bootboys became synonymous with violent encounters between rival football club supporters, with many participants being sent to hardened juvenile detention facilities called Borstal "schools."
The following is a soundtrack of sorts for the years '69-'74, when these bootboys lived and breathed these tunes. Disclaimer: the term proto-oi! is not a revisionist attempt to claim that this is, sonically speaking, what came to be known as skinhead oi!. Bands like Cock Sparrer/Sham 69/Cockney Rejects and the like are responsible for that. I will postulate that kids who became skinheads in the late 70s and 80s heard these tunes in their pre-teen years and were subconsciously influenced by them as well as seeing older brothers/cousins dressing up in boots and braces along with being surrounded by football culture. The glam rock influence would appear to be the complete antithesis to the bootboy ethos, what with its flamboyant and androgynous fashion sense, but sharp, catchy bootboy glam songs underpinning a basic rock 'n' roll beat proved to be a source of future reference for the no-fuss, pure impact sound of the skinhead oi! brigade in the decades that followed. Put yourself in the mindset of a teenage yob in that time period: Your school grades aren't exactly stellar, and the prospect of Borstal or a dreary factory job awaits you. All you can look forward to is listening to loud tunes, dressing sharp, being one of the boys, rooting for your local team, and waiting for the weekend drinking benders, 'cause everyone knows Saturday night's all right for fighting.
Crunch - "Let's Do It Again"
The bovver boot crushing the Crunch logo on the front cover of this 45 record from 1974 exemplifies the bootboy glam sound to a T. Handclaps, dirty rock 'n' roll swagger, massive hooks and a chorus that proclaims: “Clap your hands, stomp your feet!”. Imagine the weekend teen dances at a council estate in London’s East End: the kids decked out in Harrington or Crombie jackets, Cardigan/V-neck sweaters, flat-fronted slacks or jeans, buttoned-up shirts, hair cropped with a #2 or #3 grade clip guard (short, but not bald) and, of course, the prerequisite steel-toe boots. All the better for stomping the dance halls or rival mobs and doing it all over again the following weekend, as this riotous tune proclaims.
Jook - "Different Class"
Take some '66 Pete Townsend power chords, lyrics about going down the terraces on a Saturday night with mates looking for a "punch up" as played by a band composed of flares and braces wearing bootboys and mods; then you have a basic component of the skinhead oi! ethos in it's embryonic stage. Jook put out five glam and power pop-tinged singles between '72 and '74 & a posthumous EP in '78, from which this 1974 song is taken. They clearly wrote from direct experience, in the language of their brethren in the Different (working) Class: "Doc Martens and Crombies [overcoats], all tooled up as well. If you come to cheer, you better stay clear, you'll sign your own death knell."
Neat Change in 1968
Neat Change - "I Lied to Auntie May"
Arguably the first skinhead band to release a 45 record in 1968, Neat Change was composed of West London bootboys who were just as likely to be in the audience as on stage. By the time of this release, the quartet had actually altered its sound from the hard soul sound it had been playing in mod clubs for years, with a notable months-long residency at the world famous Marquee club packed with hundreds of skinhead fans. The 45 goes for more of a pop-psychedelic sound. Their menacing look was a sharp counter to London’s freewheeling psychedelic swinging scene, something that was definitely noticed by then-Slade manager Chas Chandler, who came around with the prospect of managing them. But nothing came of it. The only noticeable outcome was Slade’s decision to go the skinhead route based on Chandler’s suggestion by '69. At which point Neat Change had broken up due to bad management and a lack of concrete musical direction.
West Ham - "Forever Blowing Bubbles"
"Forever Blowing Bubbles" was a Tin Pan Alley hit from the early 20th century that became the official anthem for West Ham United. One of oi!'s leading lights, the Cockney Rejects, immortalized the song on a 45 from 1980, but legions of bootboys had previously sung it at the top of their lungs on the terraces, especially directed at supporters of their traditional rivals from Millwall. The feeling of camaraderie, massive singalong choruses, and cheering your lads on against a common enemy are all vital components of oi! music's DNA and subsequent blueprint.
Third World War - "Working Class Man"
The legendary Third World War formed in 1970. The engineer on their self-titled debut LP famously declared: "I want a no-bullshit working class band, I've had enough of this pseudo-peace crap." He got that and more: the attitude prevalent on the album sounded a death knell to the utopian hippie dream with lyrics laying out the day-to-day plight of workers with no time for pretense or idealistic rhetoric. The tunes are straight forward, bluesy-tinged rockers sung with an everyman voice. This would prove to be hugely influential to the subsequent class conscious oi! and punk bands that strove to give a voice to the underpaid, overworked masses teeming with unfulfilled ambitions.
Iron Virgin - "Rebels Rule"
Scottish rockers Iron Virgin started out wearing Clockwork Orange garb, then changed to American football player outfits with chastity belts and released this quintessential Bootboy Glam song. A defiant pose calling for kids to rebel (“Get Up, Stand Up!”) set to thunderous drums & galloping riffs, it’s a mystery why this 45 from 1974 never made the top of the charts. Maybe the band’s name was too controversial, especially when aiming this material at glam’s pre-pubescent target audience. Only people from their near circle or in the know were privy to this rebel sound, but American producer Kim Fowley must have been paying attention, as he “reworked” this tune into the Runaway’s “California Paradise” from 1977’s Queens of Noise.
Elton John - "Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting"
If working is the curse of the drinking classes, then (Sir) Elton John and his frequent songwriting collaborator Bernie Taupin, created one of the most devastatingly accurate portraits of disaffected British youth, by way of this unhinged rocker from 1973. It may look strange for someone of Elton’s stature to be associated with this street genre, but Bernie’s background growing up with juvenile hooligans lends credibility to the subject matter. Familiar concerns - drinking, fighting, dysfunctional family life, anti-authoritarian behavior and living for the weekend - figure prominently in the lyrics. It's the last two lines that land this song in the bootboy hall of fame: "I'm a juvenile product of the working class, whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass."
Fresh - "Borstal Theme"
I would frequently see Fresh's 1970 Fresh Out of Borstal LP in the bins during my record collecting days, and judging by the gritty black and white cover of three authentic looking bootboys, plus the Borstal tag, I'd figure this is gonna be the hardest skinhead oi! record ever. The music inside didn't pan out that way; it's heavier on the funky horns or percussion driven instrumentals vein, but the back story behind it is top notch. A big time record producer created this concept album based on the trials & tribulations of young British delinquents. Studio musicians provided a soundtrack for the spoken word efforts of three former guests of the Borstal system. The result is a true to life account of life in and out of this now-abolished reform school in what is arguably, the first appearance of actual skinheads on a full length LP.
Sweet - "Rebel Rouser"
Sweet were one of the pre-eminent glam rock bands between ‘71-'74. They put out one UK chart topping single after another, splitting the difference between catchy bubblegum pop and hard rock. Beloved by bootboys at the time, the song's the pro-juvenile, anti-authoritarian lyrics as well as drummer Mick Turner’s (RIP) thunderous, martial opening beat were widely imitated on countless oi! stompers to come. Influential oi! label Vulture Rock Records was originally named the "Steve Priest Fan Club" as a tribute to Sweet’s flamboyant and at times controversial bass player.
Mott the Hoople - "One Of The Boys"
These northern country lads recorded the ultimate glam anthem (and now, classic rock staple): "All The Young Dudes". The B-side to the gender-bending, David Bowie-penned classic is this upfront rocker aimed at teenagers and their ever-present struggle against the adult world. Mott singer Ian Hunter's limited vocal range was an asset that made the band accessible to the average bloke, who not only related to the lyrics but could see themselves singing them, absent any high-mannered, stylised vocal delivery. The slashing chords and lyrics depict a rock star’s confession that after all the trappings of fame, at heart he’s still one of the nameless kids that dreamed of stardom, just waiting to be thrust back among them.
Slade during their skinhead phase in 1969
Slade - "Wild Winds Are Blowing (Live)"
There were two main styles within the glam rock movement of the early 70s: the more art school influenced glitter of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, et al and the loud, straight forward “clap your hands and stomp your feet” swagger of Sweet, Mud, Hector and these unruly rockers, Slade. Starting out heavily R&B and Motown-influenced and tracing their origins to the mid-60’s, by 1969, Slade had briefly adopted a skinhead look on the advice of their aforementioned manager Chas Chandler. Legend has it that Chandler was inspired by local skinhead outfit Neat Change and football hooligans (not that Slade were slouches in that department, having rough individuals like singer Noddy Holder in the band). Slade’s tough-as-nails image, the unmistakably raucous vocals, basic no pretense rock 'n' roll sound all proved to be a vital soundtrack for many a bootboy’s formative years.
Marching on Together - "Leeds United"
Another prime example of a super catchy football anthem meant for massive singalongs, this original composition released as a 45 record in 1972, was actually sung by the then-members of Leeds United & their supporters. The lyrics stress loyalty, strength in numbers, pride in the pack and your squad; attributes every aspiring Bootboy worth their weight in steel toe capped Bovver stompers ought to take to heart and emulate.
Freddy Alva has never been to Borstal.