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Geek obsession: Oi!
Why it’s daunting: Skinheads. Yes, Oi! is a subgenre of punk rock played predominantly by skinheads. And depending on what kind of experience you may or may not have with such folks (or what kinds of movies you’ve watched about them), your view of Oi! may be duly influenced. Of course, not all skinheads are racist; the working-class youth movement began in England in the late ’60s and originally had reggae as its primary soundtrack. Oi!, however, didn’t rise until the following decade, when a chunk of the punk subculture chafed at the pop and/or art trends that had begun to proliferate in the movement. For better or worse (but mostly better), Oi! was punk’s first roots revival.
Adopting the look of their spirit-of-’69 forbears—shaved heads, boots-and-braces, and the mod menswear of Fred Perry and Ben Sherman—the skinheads of the late ’70s and early ’80s pulverized punk back down to its pulp: simple chords, chanted choruses, and streetwise lyrics celebrating the joys of booze, adrenaline, and petty hooliganism. True, racism did creep into Oi! almost immediately—but the majority of the music is either apolitical or avowedly antiracist. Still, the stigma stuck, and a vibrant stretch of the punk spectrum wound up becoming unfairly marginalized, if not outright disowned. Which is too bad, seeing as how Oi! is responsible for some of the best punk rock ever made.
Possible gateway: The Business, Suburban Rebels
Why: The Business wasn’t the first Oi! band, but by the time the group released its debut album, 1983’s Suburban Rebels, it had come to embody everything that made Oi! great. Led by the irascible Mickey Fitz, The Business mixed fun-loving drinking songs with serious (if never tedious) examinations of what it meant to be young, poor, and not particularly awash in opportunity in South London at the time. Fitz and company also dipped into the occasional political screed, even going so far as to cover the über-leftist tirade “Do They Owe Us A Living?” by the anarcho-punk band Crass. Honestly, though, The Business has never really shown the level of intellectual curiosity it takes to be a truly political outfit. Fitz just shouts ’em like sees ’em. In that sense, Suburban Rebels isn’t just one of Oi!’s catchiest and most forceful albums, it’s also one of the genre’s most accessible. And songs like the title track still epitomize what Oi! is all about—up to and including the telltale “Oi! Oi! Oi!” chorus.
Next steps: There’s an unheralded and surely unwitting architect of Oi! who deserves to finally get his due: John Cale. In 1977, the former Velvet Underground member produced the debut single by a snotty young British band called Sham 69—and on it, Cale took the buzzing, wall-of-distortion overload he used on The Stooges’ self-titled debut eight years earlier and applied it to the faster, leaner attack of Sham. The result was “I Don’t Wanna,” a song whose simplicity, severity, and savagery helped inspire not only Oi! in England, but hardcore in America. Incendiary leader Jimmy Pursey had a hard go of it when skinheads—including many racist members of Britain’s right-wing National Front—unofficially adopted his band in the late ’70s, but Pursey’s bratty, hook-laden snarl was able to cross all ideological borders. (Cale, on the other hand, may never know that his place in the Oi! pantheon has been secured.) Sham made a number of good albums, but singles were its strength—start with Punk Singles Collection ’77-’80.
Formed in 1972 as a more Slade-influenced group, Cock Sparrer had been around far longer than Sham 69 by the time the latter kickstarted Oi!. But in 1977, Cock Sparrer issued a pair of singles that solidified the nascent Oi! sound. Tighter and more tuneful than most Oi! bands, frontman Colin McFaull and crew brought a love of classic-rock sturm und drang to its anthems of the downtrodden. Cock Sparrer didn’t get a full album properly and widely released until 1982’s classic Shock Troops, at which point many of the bands it had influenced were already hardened veterans of the Oi! scene. Still, Cock Sparrer remains one of Oi!’s elder states-groups, as well as the creator of some of the movement’s most infectious songs.
Blitz may have been the first major Oi! band to reject the Oi! Label. After coming together in 1980 with a half-punk, half-skinhead lineup, the group sought to distance itself from some of the baggage that came with the tag. Which is ironic, seeing as how Blitz is one of the most ferocious Oi! bands ever produced. Its 1982 debut, Voice Of A Generation, may be the perfect Oi! album, if not the easiest to digest at first. So raw it practically bleeds from the speaker, the disc is packed with belligerently defiant yet deceptively well-written shout-alongs. In one of the most interesting career trajectories of any Oi! band, Blitz wound up morphing into an excellent, hard-edged new-wave band by the mid-’80s—which may just be more proof that the group always had a little something extra up its sleeve.
Oi! was still bubbling under the surface until 1980, when Cockney Rejects gave the movement its name. “Oi! Oi! Oi!,” one of the band’s singles from that year, is the song that stuck in the consciousness. It helped that the Rejects were young, lovable, football-fanatical scamps rather than the typical skinhead tough-guys. The bouncy outfit released two albums in 1980—cheekily titled Greatest Hits Vol. I and Greatest Hits Vol. II—but it’s the second one that stands out as a terrace-stomping masterpiece.
Oi! and Two-Tone ska came of age at the same time, and with the reggae legacy of skinhead culture, it was only a matter of time before the two of them collided. Or at least kind of: The 4-Skins was the first outfit to credibly scramble Oi!’s rowdy assault with updated Jamaican rhythms and the pop sensibility of Madness. Not all the songs on the band’s classic debut, 1982’s The Good, The Bad & The 4-Skins, bear traces of ska, but the album as a whole is a testament to the glory of musical miscegenation.
Oi! has always been a distinctly British phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean a slew of American bands haven’t tried their hand at it, the earliest and most notorious being Washington D.C.’s Iron Cross. But the true keepers of the flame in the States are The Templars. For 20 years the New York outfit has been solidifying yet expanding Oi! by injecting everything from ’60s mod to lo-fi garage into the formula. But it’s the group’s most conventionally Oi!-styled album, 1994’s The Return Of Jacques DeMolay, that makes for the best entrée to U.S. Oi!.
As with any album that attempts to distill an entire movement, there’s no single Oi! compilation that’s an easy fix. Of the dozens of such discs that exist, though, one is the closest to be essential: 1980’s Oi! The Album. Compiled by music journalist Garry Bushell, also singer of the comedic Oi! band The Gonads, Oi! The Album codified and brought a bit of solidarity to the movement when released. Containing prime cuts by heavy-hitters like Cockney Rejects, The 4-Skins, Angelic Upstarts, and the proto-Oi! outfit Slaughter & The Dogs (a band Morrissey once tried out for), it remains a vital document of the burgeoning scene—even if some of the featured groups, like The Exploited and Peter And The Test Tube Babies, aren’t Oi! at all.
Where not to start: The less said about racist Oi! bands, the better. Curiously, though, some of the more stridently antiracist Oi! bands aren’t the best place to start, either. Despite no dearth of ambition, The Redskins suffered from a mismatched mix of Oi! and Northern soul, not to mention the tendency to sacrifice the music to the message. The Burial did a better job at a similar hybrid, but on the whole, most Oi! bands that formed later than the early ’80s aren’t the ideal introduction. Another place that serves as a less-than-perfect entry point: street punk. While Oi! and street punk overlap to a certain degree, the latter is often simply used as a euphemism for the former. And while successful bands like Dropkick Murphys and Rancid have always been happy to skim some elements from Oi! here and there, they’d probably be the first to tell you to go listen to some real Oi! first.