It seems strange that a series of arse-kicking punk albums with a bevvy of ‘orrible ‘erbets on ’em should’ve had so much poetry on them. But they did.
The Oi! albums weren’t what people now often assume them to be. Oi! music now is pretty much piss-poor heavy metal sung by bald blokes but in the early 80s the albums had a surprising diversity and a rambunctious sense of humour. I was always on the reggae end of skinhead but the albums were hugely popular with the punks, skinheads and low lifes of the day.
Garry Bushell, who was at the heart of compiling the Oi! albums, worked on Sounds music paper, there are quite a few ranting interviews and reviews from there on the blog. The music papers came out weekly, and Sounds was the liveliest and had great coverage of punk, reggae and metal. The paper had a great sense of humour and a boisterous team of writers, in fact I think Garry WAS several of the writers.
I knew and gigged with quite a few of the bands and most of the poets. There’s some pretty sound social comment to be found in the music too: The Angelic Upstarts’ Last Night Another Soldier and their crucial I Understand, Blitz’s Nation On Fire was one of the songs of the ’81 riots that swept the country, Five O’s early poke at gentrification Dr Crippens, and both Prole and Burial consistently relevant and rocking.
What I liked about Oi! at the time, and it’s lost I think, was that it was a such of a mix of proletarian music, humour and attitude. You’d hear The Clash, Dennis Alcapone, Thin Lizzy, Gil Scott-Heron, Curtis Mayfield, Cock Sparrer, the Cockney Rejects AND the 4 Skins all played at some of the early Oi! piss ups.
I asked Garry why there was so much poetry on the albums. That there was amuses me as it pisses off both the knuckledraggers and the quackademic poets and brings a spark of joy to the pint swiggers and decent folk.
Many thanks to Garry for taking time to write a few words:
It happened by accident really. After Oi The Album came out, Garry Johnson sent me a copy of his DIY poetry collection The Boys Of The Empire. I thought it was brilliant, crackling with attitude and smart lines: ‘Born in a city of tower blocks/Alcatraz without the rocks’…
To be honest he had me with Dead End Yobs: ‘But even if you make it, certain people will say/ “You’re still no good and you’ll be no other way/Cos you don’t talk proper, yer accent ain’t true blue/You was born in an ’ouse in ’Ackney with an outside loo.’
I had put Barney Rubble on the first Oi! album – ‘I like beans, I like sauce, I like sexual intercourse’. But that was just throw-away; just a laugh. Garry was serious, and his kind of street-poetry echoed what the bands were doing. It was a different way of saying the same thing.
He felt exactly the same about it – ‘Oi is the voice of the dispossessed’, he wrote ‘a battering ram for the oppressed.’
So I met him down the Old Kent Road in early ’81 and absolutely loved the bloke. He was a real character; a proper speed-freak, as down to earth as a manhole cover, and sharp enough to realise that class not race was the real divide.
His words were a window into a teenage world of unemployment, violence and little blue pills; of dead end yobs in stolen wheels.
Garry had been into reggae and glam rock before punk; Bowie was his real hero, but he identified with the new bands totally.
For him Oi was “about real life, the concrete jungle, the Old Bill, being on the dole, fighting back, having pride in your class and background.”
He was a bit nervous about performing live – I had to physically push him on stage once at the Deuragon Arms – but the words were always spot on.
He was also funny, and bitterly anti-establishment. His work went from The Ballad Of The Young Offenders to Suburban Rebels and threw in digs at Hitler, Churchill and the Royals along the way.
If the system was stacked against us, so what? “Sod the system,” he said. “Gotta rise above it.”
Some people did moan about having poems on a blue collar punk album, but most of the feedback was positive. The other year I had a doorman down in Bournemouth who was almost moved to tears by the memory of Gal’s contributions to those records; and I still get bands all over the world asking to get in touch with him because they want to put his poetry to music.
Including Garry on those albums inspired a lot of other street poets to come forward – Oi The Comrade, Pierre the Poet, Attila got involved for the fourth Oi album, Terry McCann, Little Dave, Jimmy Mack, Phil Sexton, Mick Turpin, Swift Nick, Dave the Boil. Not all of them were good, but we put them on to encourage others.
I loved Seething Wells too, especially for Tetley Bittermen, and included him in a spread on ranting poets in Sounds, along with Garry and Little Brother in January ’83.
As well as being an angry funny ranting genius, Steven also represented a left-wing skinhead tradition that was also generally over-looked by the mass media. He was a member of the SWP, as I had been, back when the party had a sense of humour and weren’t so keen on rapists.
When I was a kid I wasn’t exposed to much working class poetry apart from Pam Ayres.
We probably did Tennyson at school but the only proper poet I was really aware of before the brilliant John Cooper Clarke was Jeff Nuttall, the anarchist poet who wrote Bomb Culture, which I read when I was about 15 and which helped open my eyes to new ideas as well as occasionally baffling me. I didn’t discover Shelley until years later.
So why did I encourage the Oi poets? Because I thought it was worth it; because a great poem can have more impact than a thousand words of rhetoric and because I thought the best of these angry backstreet poets were part of a working class poetry tradition that dates back to the Chartists and which sadly we seem to have forgotten.
PS. The only problem with Garry was he wanted to be a singer – and he sang worse than I do. I encouraged him to give up his band (the Buzz Kids) and concentrate on the poetry, which he did, but this didn’t stop him recording ‘If Looks Could Kill’ for one of the later Oi! albums, a memory that pains the lugholes even to this day.