Strength Through Oi!? Assessing the Fitness Benefits of Punk’s Knucklehead Stepchild

We used "science" to see if listening to Oi! would help a runner, a CrossFitter, and a Pilates instructor perform better.

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Apr 23 2014, 6:00pm

In 1981, Decca Records released Strength Thru Oi!, a compilation album featuring 22 bands associated with the Oi! offshoot of UK punk rock. The title was reportedly a play on Strength Through Joy, an early LP by the Scottish group the Skids, though some charged curator Gary Bushell with co-opting a popular Nazi slogan. Bushell denied the accusations, but either way, the record was meant to introduce Oi! as a style of music capable of invigorating listeners—fortifying their bodies, minds, and souls.

The title may have been tongue-in-cheek, but music and exercise have long gone hand-in-hand, and with that in mind, we asked three New York City fitness enthusiasts to experiment with an all-Oi! soundtrack during their workouts and help us answer the question of whether one truly can gain strength through Oi!

Our methods, it must be pointed out, were quasi-scientific at best, as this music is—and this is no knock—some of the absolute dumbest shit imaginable.

Background

In its original incarnation, British punk rock was deceptively simplistic. Genre figureheads the Clash and Sex Pistols were intelligent, self-aware 20-somethings who’d been to art school and attained a set of skills—squatting, figure drawing, discussing politics while drinking and speeding—that left them with few viable career options. Thanks to svengali managers like Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes, these and other unemployable dole collectors were able to form rock ‘n’ roll bands, and while the music was fast and loud—three-chord 50s rock played with all the anger and frustration you’d expect from underachieving young people—early punk anthems like “God Save the Queen” and “Career Opportunities” bristled with a covert idealism that belied the subculture’s nihilistic reputation.

As exciting and influential as it was, punk was artistically limiting, and by the late 70s, the music had run its course. The Sex Pistols broke up, the Clash branched out into classic styles like reggae and R&B, and other bands—the Damned, the Stranglers, etc.—plugged in synthesizers and joined the ranks of the emerging post-punk and new Wave groups. The music grew artsy and pretentious, and that led to the birth of Oi!—the only style of music whose name is always capitalized and followed with an exclamation point.

Pioneered by groups like Sham 69 and Cock Sparrer and championed by members of the UK skinhead subculture—a movement initially free of racist connotations—Oi! is proudly working-class music. Its blunt, borderline-idiotic songs center on drinking, fighting, football (soccer), and, “Hey asshole, I’m not gonna waste my life working at your factory.” Musically, it was and is ’77-style punk stripped of all subtlety. Because the choruses sound like football chants, every song is an anthem, even if it doesn’t have much to say. Oi! gobs in the face of just about everything—the government, banks, the military, teachers, parents, people who don’t like Oi!—and that makes it adaptable and timeless. The music has permeated all corners of the globe, and “Oi! Oi! Oi!” sounds pretty much the same in any language.

Experimental Method

For the purposes of this study, we enlisted three individuals from different age groups with unique workout habits:

Kristen, a 32-year-old Pilates instructor, graduate student, and punk fan who hopes to make the synthesis of music and exercise an integral part of her practice once she becomes a doctor of physical therapy.

Spencer, a 28-year-old proponent of CrossFit—a popular exercise philosophy based on high-intensity interval training, weightlifting, and other extremely demanding exercises.

Francis, a 40-year-old runner, computer programmer, and member of the South Brooklyn Running Club.

All three were given an eight-song Oi! soundtrack composed of the following songs:

Cockney Rejects, "Bad Man"
Cock Sparrer, "Riot Squad”
The Business, "Suburban Rebels”
Red Alert, "We've Got the Power”
Blitz, "Fight to Live”
4 Skins, "One Law for Them"
Sham 69, "I Don't Wanna"
The Templars, “New York”

The Oi! mix leans heavily on UK genre favorites from the late 70s and early 80s, though the final selection, “New York,” is a 1994 cut by the Templars, an American band formed in Long Island. “New York” was selected for geographical reasons, as we were interested in finding out whether (a) US Oi! songs stand up to their British antecedents and (b) whether an NYC-centric song might have added emotional resonance with our participants. (Note: None of the selections—and indeed, no aspects of this study—have anything to do with racist strains of the Oi! or skinhead subcultures. We like our punk rock dumb, not ignorant.)

Each participant was asked to rate each song on a scale from 1 to 10, as well as offer a score capturing Oi!’s overall usefulness as a workout aid. Through a series of follow-up questions, we were able to further analyze the athletes’ attitudes toward the music and garner their expert opinions regarding its pros and cons. Again, because we’re dealing with music that’s defiantly lugheaded and generally resistant to evolution, our methodology is extremely suspect and bound to provoke anger in real scientists and medical practitioners. It’s only marginally smarter than what a gang of drunken skins might sketch out on a barroom napkin after their ninth round of Guinness.

Results

Assessing Oi!’s overall fitness benefits, our participants submitted scores of 8 (Kristen), 8 (Francis), and 4 (Spencer). That averages out to 6.3—a respectable number only Spencer would likely argue with.

“On the musical-taste front, I’ll caveat all of my below thoughts with the fact I acknowledge I have really eclectic (read: lame) taste in workout music,” Spencer says. “A random workout playlist is equally likely to contain Metallica, Eminem, Britney Spears, Beastie Boys, club music, classic rock anthems, 90s rock, and miscellaneous Top 40 from the last one to two years. It’s not inconceivable something from Les Mis sneaks in as well. Which is all to say (1) my girlfriend never lets me pick music, and (2) I seriously doubt I’m the general Oi! demographic.

“That said, I was excited to try working out to something new. And now that I have I can confidently say I do not enjoy working out to Oi! I seriously could not differentiate these songs while they were playing; it all sounded like a cat from the East End of London being beaten with a Stratocaster.”

Spencer cites the “cool accents” and fact that the music is “better than speed metal” as its major selling points. The cons, he says, are that it “does not provide the workout fuel of James Hetfield/Adam Levine.”

“Not liking it makes me feel like I’m yelling at kids to get off my lawn,” he says.

Relative to the other test subjects, Spencer’s preferred form of exercise involves arguably the most intense physical exertion, and his testimony would seem to refute the idea there is, in fact, strength to be derived through Oi! The music may, however, have benefits for people involved in activities like running, where a steady rhythmic pulse helps offset fatigue. Unfortunately, our findings suggest, the positive effects are negated when the music gets too fast, and any Oi! worth its salt is way the hell too fast.

“Overall, Oi! music has an aggressive upbeat beat that can give your mind something to stay focused on during an intense workout,” says Francis. “I found myself looking forward to the songs with more catchy hooks. The cons of Oi! music was that I found the tempo too fast for running, so it was hard to stay relatively in synch with the music. It felt like some of the songs were urging me to run faster than I could or wanted to during the workouts.”

Oi! might also be good for the core muscle groups, as Kristen has emerged from the experience “definitely inspired to create a Pilates punk playlist.”

“This genre has the ability to inspire energy and hard work which is great for a high abdominal endurance type of workout that is Pilates,” she says.

In terms of individual song scores, the Templars fared best, suggesting that hometown pride plays a role in enjoying Oi! This is not surprising, given the music’s association with packs of loutish London lads getting blitzed and head-butting one another at their local pubs and football stadiums. Oi! is tribalistic, and songs are pegged to specific cities and neighborhoods in a way that first-wave British punk wasn’t. All three athletes were asked to pick a favorite lyric, and Kristen’s comes via the Templars: “New York City is where we wanna be!”

“NYC is always a motivating factor,” she says.

Cockney Rejects and Cock Sparrer also proved popular among our participants, achieving average scores nearly as high as the Templars. Both “Bad Man” and “Riot Squad” have anthemic qualities that, while found in all eight selections, are arguably more pronounced, and that might explain the scoring.

The song-by-song ratings are below. The first number is the total score, followed by the average in parenthesis.

The Templars, "New York": 24 (8)
Cockney Rejects, "Bad Man": 22 (7.3)
Cock Sparrer, "Riot Squad": 21 (7)
The Business, "Suburban Rebels": 19 (6.3)
Red Alert, "We've Got the Power": 16 (5.3)
Blitz, "Fight to Live": 16 (5.3)
4 Skins, "One Law for Them": 14 (4.6)
Sham 69, "I Don't Wanna": 13 (4.3)

“I liked Cock Sparrer’s ‘Riot Squad’ the best—I think because I found it had a catchy beat and interesting lyrics,” says Francis. “Also, the tempo wasn't too out of synch with my running pace.”

Conclusions

Having crunched the numbers, taken a close look at the anecdotal responses, and consumed a six-pack Newcastle Brown Ale, we’re prepared to draw the following conclusions.

1. Oi! does not make you physically stronger—at least not in any way that might prove useful to hooligans looking to throw heavier objects through storefront windows or smash the jaws of street-fighting adversaries with fewer swings of their meaty fists. According to Spencer, “there wasn’t much of an energy boost for me from the music. My brain mostly seemed to tune it out after awhile. But, again acknowledging my terrible taste in music, I could easily see someone throwing down hard to this stuff. There’s clearly a ton of energy to the songs and some real anger and passion behind the lyrics, which I think could drive some solid gym time if a listener liked the sound of the music itself. And had any clue what the lyrics were.”

2. If you listen to Oi! while running or doing Pilates, you might slice your mile time or strengthen endurance in your legs, abs, hips, back, and arms. But after you take the lyrics to heart, go to the pub, and knock back a half-dozen pints of stout, you’ll likely undo whatever good you’ve done your body. That goes double if you get into a brawl on your way home, and if you’re really an Oi! fan, you will get into a brawl on your way home.

3. Oi! is far too boneheaded to warrant scientific study—even a half-assed one like this. This whole thing might have been a complete waste of time. Wanna fight?

Kenneth Partridge is not a scientist, but he plays one on the internet. Keep up with his research on Twitter - @kenpartridge