What Were '80s Skinheads Really Like?

Skinheads in Chelsea
Skinheads in Chelsea
Derek Ridgers

The boots, the grimaces, the shiny baldness and bad intentions are all hallmarks of the skinheads we know and loathe in OC. We've also laughed at plenty of the ass beatings they've endured over the years on their plummet to near-extinction behind the Orange Curtain. But tracing the origins of this culture of white power stupidity dates back to the decrepit back alleys, town squares, and clubs of London and nearby coastal towns in the late '70s. No longer were skinheads a subset of working class youth obsessed with Jamaican culture and soul music. It had become a movement fully infected by Nazi ideology, fueled by rhetoric and a sharp hatred of minorities, homosexuals and foreigners. Despite the need to portray some clench-fisted standoff with society, it appears many of these little fuckers were quite the attention whores.

One night in 1979, a group of young skins approached English photographer Derek Ridgers who was busy trying to chronicle kids in the New Romantics movement at the time. They asked him to shoot some photos of them and invitied him to hang with them in the South End of London over the Bank Holiday. This eventually turned into a five-year project for Ridgers, who began shooting the skinheads regularly. Before long, he'd infiltrated their world with a single camera and a genuine interest in what made them tick. Many of the images have also been used in his various exhibits chronicling skinhead culture. In his photo book Skinheads: 1979-1984 (released last month on Omnibus Press), Ridgers' old photos are able to expose a number of truths about the movement as it existed in London at the time. Were they as tough as people thought? No. Did they really believe in the racist slogans they spouted? Mostly. Were they a serious threat or just a bunch of hopeless kids turned into folk devils by the media? Ridgers says that's up to you to decide.

The collection of 100+ photos peers into the everyday lives of these bands of roving teens and young adults. Even if you detest racist skinheads (um, duh!), you'll be hard pressed not get momentarily sucked into their world full of extreme views, contradictions, hormones, bravado and bullshit. We recently spoke to Ridgers about his photos.

London Skinhead, 1984
London Skinhead, 1984
Derek Ridgers

OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): If you had to describe the basics of a skinhead in London in the 1980s, what are some key traits of the people you captured in this book?

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Derek Ridgers: Usually they're working class kids, and often kids who have been excluded in their young lives from all kinds of things like school or other institutions. They don't get on very well with their parents. From an appearance point of view, obviously they have to have short hair. That has changed, during the time skinheads have been around. When I was a teenager, a skinhead was someone who had hair about a quarter to half-inch long. By the end of the '70s into the '90s, skinheads hair was short or they had none at all. They would usually have Levis jeans rolled up at the ankles. They'd have suspenders, Ben Sherman shirts, Dr. Martin boots or some kind of work boot and they'd usually have bomber jackets or Ambercrombie overcoats. Women would usually have the same kind of things but they'd have short hair but with a long fringe bangs that were long at the sides and long at the back and short on top.

One of the other parts of the fashion of a skinhead is also the look they give you on camera. Those tough guy stares.

There was definitely some bravado there. They wanted to let people know they were hard and not to be messed with. But really they're not very often hard at all, it's just a front. They can be quite aggressive, but usually when you find one or two they're not very aggressive, at least not to me.

Skinhead Girls in Brighton
Skinhead Girls in Brighton
Derek Ridgers

In your book you describe the sort of disconnect between the ideology and image skinheads were trying to portray and who they were when you isolated them from the group and got to know them. Did many of them came off as regular teenagers instead of these ardent believers in white power?

I'm not an apologist for their political views or extreme views about immigration or anything like that. A lot of these people had those extreme views and I wanted to interview them and take lots of photos and let those speak for themselves and just let people make up their own mind about who these kids were.

Leicester Square 1981
Leicester Square 1981
Derek Ridgers

How did you manage to embed and make them comfortable with you shooting them? Was that hard to do?

When I started photographing them, I was an office worker, I worked in the advertising business and I was really just a keen amateur. I think I only had one camera. I only had one or two lenses. I wasn't all that much older than some of these skinheads and my process of getting to know them was just having a genuine interest and not to patronize them. I got along quite well with them. Very few of them were ever aggressive towards me. They were quite pleasant and friendly. I know that's not their reputation and they're not like that with everybody, but they were fine with me.   You seem to make it a point not to photograph them fighting. Why is that?

The thing is, I hardly ever saw any fighting anyway. Just a few scuffles. At the Seaside in London there's a lot of them and they're looking to fight other groups, like bikers or mods. But it wasn't so much fighting as it was running around making a spectacle of themselves.

Do you notice any of the styles captured in this book still prevalent today in London or anywhere else you've been recently?

I might see guys once in a while on their own dress like skinheads. But it's really very rare to see young kids now dressing like skinheads. I'm often asked If I could see this style coming back, but no--not really. Chances are if it does come back in a big way, it'll be recolonized by the far right and I don't think that would be helpful to anybody.

Was it a struggle to try to remain objective in your coverage of these kids and their subculture?

I don't really know that anybody could. I tried to be but as soon as I finished and started showing my work to people, they said "well, of course you can't be objective." I admit, I liked a lot of these kids as people, I just didn't like their views. A lot of them were just young kids that probably didn't know what they thought, they were just saying things they'd been told to repeat. Some of them were quite sweet, actually.

Skinhead Girl Carnaby St., 1988
Skinhead Girl Carnaby St., 1988
Derek Ridgers

Have you reconnected with any of them over the years after the publishing of your book?

We did a signing at a gallery and there were three guys and a women from the book who turned up for that and I've been in touch with a few others, probably a dozen. I emailed a few more but I didn't get responses. It's easy for them to find me. I don't want people to think I was friendly with the skinheads when I needed them and then after that I didn't wanna know. I'm still interested in what they're doing.

Photographer Derek Ridgers
Photographer Derek Ridgers

Did you learn any lessons from photographing them?

If I had my time again, I don't think I would've done it, actually. I think I was naive about how dangerous it could've been. I was very lucky. I don't particularly want to talk about it in an interview or anything, but there were some very violent and unpleasant people hanging around with these skinheads. And the fact that I came through unscathed is pure luck. After a year or so, I found out what might have happened and what some of these guys had planned for me. And it was just complete luck. I think I must've had a guardian angel on my shoulder. If I knew then what I know now, I would never have started.

See also 10 Punk Albums to Listen to Before You Die 10 Goriest Album Covers 10 Most Satanic Metal Bands

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