Oi!, Pub-Punk, and Street Punk’s Rocky Beginnings in the UK
by Erin Christie
The UK’s music scene has had a massive influence on American culture, namely in our attempts to translate and/or recreate what they started over on our turf. The 1970s proved to be a pivotal time for music worldwide, and especially for punk, as evident through the countless sub-genres that were pumped out of the UK alone during this time.
Figuring out where punk had its start in the UK is a difficult task to manage when considering just how many punk classifications there are. For example, when one thinks of the word “Oi!,” one might imagine a slightly drunk bloke tumbling out of the pub and attempting to smack someone with a sloppy right hook. What first comes to mind certainly isn’t the fact that this is the name for a genre of punk-infused music. Oi! began in the 70s, defined by brash carelessness and brute force, and created a wave of controversy. As Alexis Petridis of The Guardian wrote, as many remaining fans of Oi! believe, it is “the genuine sound of Britain’s streets in the late 70s, populated by artists [Gary] Bushell championed when the rest of the music press concentrated on ‘bands who dropped literary references you wouldn’t have got if you didn’t have a masters’ degree and wrote pretentious lyrics.” There is one ethos of punk, notes writer for The Guardian, Alyssa Kai, “the punk world is for everybody: anyone can sing, anyone can play, anyone can listen, anyone can participate.”
For the early days of punk, the pub became (and still is) the perfect place to get a taste of the live music being generated from your area. To describe the trend, “pub rock” was born, specifically identifying the unique breed of sound that one can only truly experience within the cramped, dimly lit, booze-blind haze of the bar down the street. I discovered this genre due to the Australian band The Chats’ own description of themselves via their Spotify. Noted for their self-proclaimed “zero fucks attitude,” their live shows are notorious for their chaos, emphasized by the alcohol consistently coursing through their veins (note their Instagram handle: @thechatslovebeer).
Even if they don’t see themselves as such, many of our favorite acts began as pub crashers, if not simply DIY legends taking advantage of the opportunity to reach an audience (no matter how drunk they might’ve been whilst in their presence).
“Bathe me in blood and call it a christening!” Charlie Steen, the lead singer of the band Shame, shouts on their track, “The Lick,” coming close to drenching the audience in proximity with a coating of spit. Live, Shame isn’t afraid to cause a ruckus and to do so unapologetically, encouraging the audience to make an absolute scene and take swings at audience members at their left and right (all in good fun, of course). I fell in love with their light-hearted, fun-having approach to their craft when I saw them for the first time, not to mention their absolutely killer releases.
Similar in nature, bands such as England’s IDLES, Fat White Family, and Iceage (among others) are keeping the tradition alive, as signified by the brawl and thrash they encourage.
In the early days, shows housing acts of this genre would end in absolute carnage. Of a 1980s Birmingham gig for the Cockney Rejects (a band signed by Bushell), Jeff Turner (former frontman) recalled in an interview with Petridis that, “There was a lot of people cut and hurt, I got cut, my brother [Rejects’ guitarist, Micky Geggus] really got done bad, with an ashtray, the gear was decimated, there was people lying around on the floor.” That event, in which Turner recalled “all 300 Brummies were trying to attack [them]” subsequently ended their career as a live band. We’d like to think despite today’s crowd, that people aren’t so reckless (but is this really the case)? Street punk, in essence, is a genre defined by the art of the brawl, and that doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.
Punk, even in terms of American branches, has typically been synonymous with tom-foolery and hooligan-like activity, if not with a flair for the dramatic. Bands like the Cockney Rejects, the Angelic Upstarts, The Oppressed grew popular due to their lack of a fuck given. Unfortunately, that lead to controversy when Oi! and the rest of punk became the soundtrack of the far-right (notably, skinheads and football hooligans). The violence that Oi! bands were associated with attracted the “white power” crowd, giving them an excuse to take out their unwarranted anger under the guise of being “punk.” Despite their efforts to squash this—noting that when they would appear, the Rejects took it upon themselves to make sure that they didn’t feel welcome and entered scuffles with them—it was a hard trend to drop. Oi! soon fell to an early death, misunderstood and misused, and punk as a whole was defamed.
Efforts were taken up to reunite punk with socialist principles to remove the skewed and false image that the movement had gained. Bushell, in particular, spearheaded these attempts, “trying to shape the movement, trying to stop the culture of violence, talking about unemployment benefits, working with the Right to Work campaign, prisoners’ rights gig—I thought we could unite punk and social progress” (Petridis). These efforts remain in place: as punk has grown since the 70s, very little is the same aside from its core principles. As of now, other subcultures have spawned in the process, encouraging inclusivity, intersectionality (and feminism), and praising diversity, though a lot of progress still needs to be made. An important read presents itself in Alyssa Kai’s full article, entitled, “If punk is the ultimate anti-establishment scene, why is it still run by all these white men?” If we truly want punk to be regarded as it is intentioned, it’s going to take more than anti-establishment lyricism to get it there. Needless to say, I’ve got my steel-toed boots on and I’m unafraid to fight as many white guys as I encounter, all in the effort to avenge the “punk” name.
Punk, though it’s had its fair share of controversy, remains a cornerstone of the UK music scene, a means by which artists can brave the cookie-cutter preset and make a riot. As evident throughout its spread into the US, marked by flamboyance, a similar sense of dramatism, and a flair for violence, punk made a home for the outcast and the little accepted. More modern-day approaches to the genre continue to make strides in the right direction, again drawing attention to bands such as Shame, Iceage, Fat White Family, and more, for inspiration and hope that if punk can outstand the ranks, it might be able to prevail for another few decades to come.