Sunday, July 12, 2009

ESSAY: "Seems To Me..."

This specific subject has been one that I have had interest in covering for some time now. While conversing with a friend of mine about joining the team and contributing to Uprise Direct, I poised to him the subject of writing an essay regarding it. His age and geographic location give him an obvious disposition in providing a better perspective than I. So please allow me to introduce Chris, the newest writer at Uprise Direct; and his brief essay on the comparison of the scene in the United Kingdom and other musical leading nations.

Seems To Me...

"Seems to me there’s nothing new anymore,
Seems to me it’s all been done before,
Seems to me it’s just the same old scene"
~lyrics by the 4 Skins

The U.K., universally considered the birthplace, and once the forefront of the R.A.C. music scene, has in recent years begun to lag behind comparable scenes in the U.S., Europe and Australia. While other scenes have flourished and expanded, incorporating a wider variety of musical genres and thus having a wider range of appeal to get the message out there, the U.K. has remained firmly wed to its Oi roots. Few if any bands have deviated in the last two decades from the formula set in place by the early White Noise Club and Blood & Honour bands, and simultaneously, despite the contraction of the U.K. RAC scene, Oi continues to enjoy widespread popularity within that scene. Still centered firmly on its Skinhead traditions, the U.K. scene remains exclusive and unwavering, virtually unchanged in two decades. But is this exclusivity a sign of firm loyalty to the traditions of RAC or a stubborn refusal to accept that music has moved on. While no one can take away from Oi and its place as progenitor and firm backbone of the scene and wider movement, yet, a closed scene is not necessarily a healthy scene.

In the U.S. and in recent years across Europe, newer forms of Nationalist and pro-White music have taken hold, specifically in the form of Hardcore or ‘Hatecore’. Harder edged distortion and percussion driven bands have mixed old-school hardcore and some metal influences to create broader appeal than was once thought possible. Outside the old limitations of the Skinhead Oi scene kids are being exposed to the message with which they previously would have had no contact. While America has produced some top quality "traditional" Oi bands, this new wave made inroads into the broader hardcore scene. With American Skinheads already established within this scene, the crossover of influences was not a dramatic shift. This scenario was repeated in Europe, though in a different fashion. As homegrown Oi bands gave way to American influenced bands, whose fans embraced this relatively new genre, in the U.K., this new brand of RAC created little or no stir. Up till now even, bands here have retained the traditional Oi sound.
The U.K. scene however, is a complex animal. Rife with a form of zealous pride and a strain of Puritanism, the Oi scene was always music by Skinheads for Skinheads. The backbone, heart and driving force behind the whole movement was Skinheads and the RAC scene was their rallying point. Skins who would spurn the various Nationalist parties would support the bands, show up in force for gigs and in many cases ally themselves with Skinhead-only umbrella groups such as the early White Noise Club or B&H. Through sales of record and merchandise, by actively supporting the bands, individuals did not limit themselves, back then, to one or other of the factions. They supported the broader scene. Bands could then individually support organizations or remain neutral. But in the 90’s the scene changed. After the killing of Stephen Lawrence (a black teenager killed by a group of Whites with no connection whatsoever to the scene) much media attention fell on the Skinhead scene; and in this case, negatively. Skinheads became, in many areas, absolute pariahs and word spread that many were moving across from the overt nature of the Skinhead scene to the football casual and dance scenes. Certainly there was a visible decline in numbers and activity, which has only seemingly been reversed in the last few years. As these old Skins dropped their colours, their brand of nationalism became more parochial and their interest in the Oi music scene declined. While many stayed on board and kept to their roots, the wider RAC scene suffered. It was in this light that the rise of the U.S. scene was regarded.

What was seen from here, initially identical to the U.K. scene, soon deviated from what was seen as "ours." Images of Skinheads following hardcore bands, which appeared to many here like hardcore kids, did not sit well. A somewhat dismissive attitude towards the American scene developed. Though this was not universal, and bands like Brutal Attack and No Remorse definitely benefited from the American audience and influence, it was widespread. As recently as four years ago, on returning from my first visit to the States with a batch of copies of the Project Schoolyard Vol. 1, a sampler with classic U.S. bands such as H8Machine and Bound For Glory, I decided to share the wealth and distributed them amongst the lads. The almost unanimous reaction was "How can you listen to that heavy metal shite?" Since then, while anything from Section 5 to Brutal Attack is welcome, American bands now compose about 90% of my CD collection; which is regarded with something between hostility and suspicion. Given that most modern Oi bands have clear metal roots, Condemned 84 being a prime example, and that most Nationalist Oi has little left of the original garage punk-like spirit of bands like The Diehards, this reaction to metal-influenced American bands seems out of place. The ballads for which many of the larger Nationalist bands became famous show a clear lineage leading to metal. Early streetrock style Oi could not have given birth to tracks like Skullhead’s "Barking of the Dogs" or Brutal Attack’s excellent CD "Keeping the Dream Alive" which is entirely melodic re-workings of old BA classics. Even Oi Godfathers Last Resort included a cover of Agnostic Front’s "Gotta Go" on their 2006 "Resurrection" CD. Some bands on the other side of the Atlantic, whose roots lay firmly within the American hardcore scene, carried with them a sound that was more accessible in the U.K.. Most notable amongst them was Youth Defense League. With a pedigree established within the NYHC scene, YDL nonetheless appeared on two UK Oi compilations. Step 1’s "U.S. of Oi," and Link’s "Oi Glorious Oi." In the latter case, they were featured alongside a slew of the well known U.K. stalwarts and an American Oi band, The Kicker Boys; the inclusion of an American band with universally acknowledged hardcore credentials seemed like a risk. Yet the song "Turncoat" merged seamlessly with the other tracks, an outstanding American contribution which while clearly divergent from what was being produced in the U.K., had an obvious appeal to the exclusively Skinhead Oi fan base here. However, the resistance to any apparent divergence from tradition continues here.

While this template cannot be applied universally across the U.K., it is certainly not unique to us. Many Skinheads in the U.K. would sooner make an appearance at a ska gig than a hardcore show and in fact anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the same faces who turned up for the early RAC gigs were also in attendance at Bad Manners and Prince Buster shows in the 80’s. The ska scene at that time was also almost universally Skinhead-dominated.

While it would not seem to be necessary for hostility toward new or to non-native bands, but for many they simply do not see how new genres can be embraced without diluting the wider scene. And the truth of the matter is that many see no reason to break with the Oi-only nature of the scene. While hardcore is enjoying a wave of interest in the U.K., the commercial success of London band The Gallows being testament to such interest, it has made little impact on and is unlikely to inspire the RAC scene. With Skinheads still at the centre of the musical side of the movements here, attempting to create an entirely new Nationalist scene around hardcore would be a risky move. So without the hard work of the people who made the Oi scene what it was in its prime, without that core, it would be an effort of questionable success. The preference for a small but "pure" or elite scene over a broader "diluted" scene seems likely to continue.

Certain assumptions have to be made in this piece. While, as stated before, there may be variations region to region, in the popularity and influence of newer musical genres in the wider scene, there is little in the way of evidence of widespread acceptance. The U.K. has yet to produce any significant waves in the non-Oi genres with any homegrown bands. An argument has been that Tattooed Mother Fuckers have elements of the newer edgier sound to their music, but at the heart of TMF lies with traditional Oi and many of their tracks would be musically comparable to existing U.K. bands and have not strayed far from the existing roots of RAC music.

So what of the future? No one, to the best of my knowledge, has made a concerted effort through the existing RAC groups to popularize the newer forms of music in any dramatic way. So it is possible that that with their support, or with the creation of an entirely new umbrella grouping of music, an expansion of the musical movement would be possible; but this is really about winning hearts and minds. The bands exist, the labels produce their music and make it accessible to fans here in the U.K., but the interest really needs to be there to warrant such and the scene here would need to embrace the new waves of bands. Which in many cases are far from new in their other countries.

The real question is how long will Oi alone sustain the scene here and if younger generations will even take to it? All the while this is with a seemingly older Skinhead population that seems to have little drive towards any dramatic change. It may transpire that the change comes from without instead of from within, coming from the newer hardcore fan base in the U.K. becoming politicized, in which case we will have been left behind in a cultural shift in the Nationalist music scene; most likely to our detriment.

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