The Cockney Rejects’ 1980 performance at Birmingham’s Cedar Club remains unnoted in the annals of rock history. It warrants no mention when music journalists compile the 100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock, nor the 100 Craziest Gigs Ever, which seems like a terrible oversight. In fairness, no one is ever going to rank the show by the East End quartet – then enjoying chart success with a punk take on the West Ham terrace anthem I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles – alongside Jimi Hendrix at Monterey in terms of musical brilliance. Still, it has its own claim to historical import: by all accounts, it was the most violent gig in British history.
“I’d seen quite a bit on the terraces or outside football grounds, but this was carnage,” says Jeff Turner, today an immensely amiable decorator, then “Stinky” Turner, the Cockney Rejects’ teenage frontman, cursed with what his former manager Garry Bushell tactfully describes as “a bit of a temper”. Turner continues: “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. Carnage.”
The problem was football-related. “Most of the punk bands at the time, they had their ideals – the Clash, Career Opportunities, political stuff, fair play,” says Turner. “When I was a kid, my thought for punk rock was that it could put West Ham on the front pages.” To this end, the band – affiliated to the club’s hooligans in the Inter City Firm – had appeared on Top of the Pops in West Ham shirts. “After that, everybody wanted to fight us, but you couldn’t back down,” says Turner. “Once you were defeated, it would have opened the floodgates for everybody.”
So the Rejects and their party fought: “Twenty Cockneys against … well, not all 300 Brummies were trying to attack us, but I’d say we were trying to fight off 50 to 100 people.” In the aftermath, Micky Geggus was charged with GBH and affray, and the Cockney Rejects’ career as a live band was, in effect, over. An attempt to play Liverpool later that year ended after six songs “because there was 150 Scousers trying to kill us”, while a subsequent gig in Birmingham was aborted by the police: “The old bill got wind of it and escorted us on to the M6,” says Turner. “At the time, I was gutted, but now, I think, thank God for that. Someone could have died.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising the gig has been swept under the carpet of musical history: after all, so has the genre the Cockney Rejects inadvertently inspired. Thirty years after Bushell – then a writer for the music paper Sounds, as well as the Rejects’ manager – coined the term “Oi!” to describe a third generation of punk-inspired working-class bands playing “harder music on every level, guitar driven, terrace choruses”, it remains largely reviled or ignored in Britain.
In the eyes of its remaining fans, Oi! is the “real thing”, the genuine sound of Britain’s streets in the late 70s, populated by artists 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”. Bands such as the Cockney Rejects, the Angelic Upstarts – Marxists from South Shields managed by a man Bushell colourfully describes as “a psychopath – his house had bars over all the windows because people had thrown firebombs through it” – Red Alert, Peter and the Test Tube Babies. It briefly stormed the charts. The Angelic Upstarts followed the Cockney Rejects onto Top of the Pops, while Splodgenessabounds made the Top 10 with the deathless Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please. But today, if the general public have heard of it at all, they tend to agree with the assessment once offered by journalist and broadcaster Stuart Maconie: “Punk’s stunted idiot half-brother, musically primitive and politically unsavoury, with its close links to far-right groups.” It is, asserts Bushell, “without a doubt, the most misunderstood genre in history”.
The problem isn’t really to do with the music, although protracted exposure to the oeuvre of Peter and the Test Tube Babies – home to Student Wankers, Up Yer Bum and Pick Your Nose (and Eat It) – could leave all but the hardiest soul pleading tearfully for a few literary references and pretentious lyrics. The problem is Oi!’s adoption by the far-right as its soundtrack of choice. It wasn’t the only part of street culture to attract the attentions of the National Front and the British Movement in the late 70s and early 80s. Losing out at the polling stations thanks to the rise of Margaret Thatcher, the NF had instigated a programme of “direct action”: it would attempt to kick its way into the headlines at football matches and gigs. Chart bands such as Sham 69, Madness and the Specials had concerts disrupted.In 1978, seig-heiling skinheads caused £7,500 worth of damage at a Sham 69 gig in London.
But it was to Oi! that the far-right was most attracted, not least because it attracted both football hooligans and the re-emergent skinhead movement – two groups the NF’s direct-action programme targeted for recruitment. “We played a gig in Camden, we saw these Nazi skinheads beating the shit out of these two punks,” remembers Turner. “They’d managed to wreck Sham 69’s career, but us with our following” – the ICF was then headed by Cass Pennant, whose parents were Jamaican – “we weren’t going to have it. We just went down and absolutely slaughtered them. We declared to them that if they ever set foot where we were again, we’d decimate them.” And so it proved. “Neo-nazis confronted the Rejects again at Barking station,” remembers Bushell. “They basically told them, ‘We’re going to come to your gigs, we’re going to do this and do that.’ The Rejects crew battered them all over the station. They didn’t come to the gigs after that.”
Bushell points out that there was “a Nazi subculture all the way through punk. Malcolm McLaren started it all with the swastikas, which thick people saw and thought, ‘Oh, they must be Nazis.'” There were white power punk bands, too – such as the Dentists and the Ventz, which were formed by the “Punk Front” division of the National Front, in lieu of real punk bands showing any interest in promoting white supremacy. It was a trick the NF would be forced to pull again when Oi! bands resisted their overtures – the party recruited a failed punk band from Blackpool called Skrewdriver and repositioned them as the musical voice of the neo-Nazi movement. “It was totally distinct from us,” says Bushell. “We had no overlap other than a mutual dislike for each other.”
Bushell’s latterday career as a gleeful provoker of the liberal left, writing for the Sun and the Daily Star, probably hasn’t done much to help public perceptions regarding Oi!’s political affiliations. When Oi! was at its height, however, he says he was a Trotskyist who did his best to infuse the movement with socialist principles. He organised Oi! conferences and debates, “trying to shape the movement, trying to stop the culture of violence, talking about doing unemployment benefits, working with the Right to Work campaign, prisoners’ rights gigs – I thought we could unite punk and social progress.” Not everyone was receptive: “Stinky Turner was at one debate, and he didn’t contribute much, apart from the classic line, ‘Oi! is working class, and if you’re not working class you’ll get a kick in the bollocks.'” He laughs. “Perfect! That was what the Rejects were all about.”
Trotskyist or not, Bushell also managed to exacerbate the problem, not least by masterminding the unfortunately titled 1981 compilation Strength Thru Oi!. “I didn’t know!” he protests. “I’d been active in politics for years and had never come across the phrase ‘strength through joy’ as a Nazi slogan.It was the title of a Skids EP.”
To compound matters, its cover featured a photograph of a skinhead who turned out to be the delectable-sounding Nicky Crane, who – nothing if not a multi-tasker – managed to combine life as a neo-Nazi activist with a secret career as a gay porn star. “I had a Christmas card on the wall, it had that image that was on the cover of Strength Thru Oi!, but washed out. I honestly, hand on my heart, thought it was a still from The Wanderers,” Bushell says. “It was only when the album came through for me to approve the artwork that I saw his tattoos. Of course, if I hadn’t been impatient, I would have said, right, fucking scrap this, let’s shoot something else entirely. Instead, we airbrushed the tattoos out. There were two mistakes there, both mine. Hands up.”
Much worse was to follow. A July 1981 Oi! gig featuring the 4-Skins and the Business in Southall – the scene of a racist murder in 1976 and the race riot that ended in the death of Blair Peach in 1979 – erupted into violent chaos: 110 people were hospitalised, and the venue, the Hambrough Tavern, was burned down after being petrol bombed. Depending on whose version of events you believe, it was either sparked by skinheads attacking Asians or Asian youths attacking gig-goers: either way, the Southall riot stopped Oi!’s commercial progress dead. The Cockney Rejects found that shops refused to stock their new album, The Power and the Glory: “I’d sung a song called Oi Oi Oi and all of a sudden there’s an Oi! movement and I didn’t really want anything to do with it,” says Turner. “This awful, awful shit happened in Southall, we were never there, and we got the rug pulled out from under our feet. I went from the TV screen to the labour exchange in 18 months.”
An inflammatory article in the Daily Mail exacerbated the situation further: “We never had an problems with Nazi activists at our gigs until after the Mail’s piece,” says Bushell. “Only then did we have people coming down, thinking it was going to be this rightwing thing, When they discovered it wasn’t, that’s when the trouble started. I was attacked at an Upstarts gig at the 100 Club by about 20 of them. I had a knife pulled on me at Charing Cross station.”
That should have been that, had it not been for Oi!’s curious afterlife in America. Steve Whale – who joined the Business after Southall and struggled on through the 80s, repositioning the band as “street punk” – unexpectedly found himself in possession of a US recording contract with Bad Religion’s label Epitaph, lauded by bands including Boston’s Irish-punk stars the Dropkick Murphys and the extraordinarily influential California band Rancid. Jeff Turner has just returned from a tour of Japan: “Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya. I haven’t got fortunes but I’m able to do that. That’s all I can ask for, it makes me happy.”
“I had Lars Freidricksen of Rancid come in and sit in the pub round the corner from my house, welling up, telling me if it wasn’t for Oi! he might have killed himself as a teenager,” says Garry Bushell. “I thought, ‘Fuck me, it’s really had an effect on these people.’ I’m not proud of the way Oi! was misunderstood, but I’m proud of the music, proud of what it started, proud of what it gave punk.”
In Britain, he concedes, the genre’s name is still blackened in most people’s eyes. “There were people in 1976 saying punk had to be a Nazi thing because of the swastikas. The difference is, those bands had rock journalists on their side. The Oi! bands only had me.” He laughs, a little ruefully. “I did me best.”