The physical effects of half a bottle of Merrydown Cider were impossible to ignore any longer. There was no choice. I had to go. I had been putting it off for as long as I could but…… I crossed the still largely empty dancefloor of the Manor Ballroom, Ipswich’s (that is Ipswich, England for our international readers) prime punk rock venue du jour, and the intensity of the fumes increased from ‘unpleasant’ to ‘downright toxic’ as I entered the Gents toilets. But not for the reason you might expect.
I suppose I had better give you some background. Ok, come back with me to April 1983. Myself and three punk buddies, aged about 16 I guess, had gone to see a show starring Peter and the Test Tube Babies, with a few local bands as support. At the time, they had released one seminal album, the live set ‘Pissed and Proud‘, and were about to unleash their first studio album, ‘Mating Sounds of South American Frogs‘, as well as a crackingly commercial single, ‘The Jinx‘. But in those days, punk was very, very factional, and the Test Tube Babies had made the mistake of licensing two of their songs to a compilation LP released by British journalist Garry Bushell, the genre-defining ‘Oi! The Album‘. I say mistake – this was actually a pretty successful album in commercial terms. But the genre it defined created an albatross around the necks of many of the bands featured on it, which took the Test Tubes years to shake off.
Oi! you see, for those of you who were not around at the time, was an unpleasant cocktail of the seamier end of punk rock, a bit of heavy metal, and an unhealthy dose of the ‘new’ skinhead culture. It was a label subsequently attached to bands such as The 4-Skins, Cockney Rejects, The Last Resort, The Business and many others. Now whilst some of these bands were simply pub rock played a bit faster [Oi!’s principles, such as they were, seemed to be drinking lots of beer and fighting], others had, at least, associations to unsavoury causes, the far right movement being the main worry. You have to remember that in those days in the UK, things were very tough. Massive youth unemployment, the threat of nuclear war, crackdowns on civil liberties by the emboldened Tory government of Margaret Thatcher – these were all realities at the time. And so, against the backdrop of race riots in many major cities, the far right movement had attached itself to the skinhead culture and thus to Oi!, where it saw gigs and records as effective recruiting tools.
Anyway, back to the toilets in the Manor Ballroom. The reason I mentioned the ‘fumes’ issuing from therein was because another essential punk and skinhead accessory of the day was glue sniffing. Evo-Stik was the most popular, because it was sold in big aluminum cans with a screw top lid. Not that I ever participated willingly, but this night saw me ingest quite a lot in a passive way. So, the toilets were full of skins, lounging around, plastic bags full of glue pressed to their faces as they inhaled the deadly, toxic fumes in search of a high. Polished Doc Martens, bleached jeans and M-15 flight jackets were the order of the day dress wise, and one or two of these charmers casually traced a finger along the blade of a flick knife. Now, even during the day, in the town centre, you would normally avoid a group of skinheads. They were often vicious, violent individuals, and in my local town, some of the older ones would proudly sport swastika tattoos and sell the National Front magazine, ‘Bulldog’. But here, drunk and high on glue, these guys were even more unpredictable – and in an enclosed space! Alright!
You know that feeling, when you’re in the toilets trying to take a leak and you’re so uneasy that everything just kind of locks up? Well that’s what happened here. And of course, the longer I stayed, the more inevitable it became that I would be engaged in conversation. Which is what happened. I put on my best front and acted as tough as I could, because punks and skinheads, although loosely associated by the bands they followed in some cases, were not at all averse to a good old tear up at any opportunity. The skinhead questioning me was, I think, being friendly, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. I just got my ass out of there as quickly as I could, and he was distracted by being passed a bag of a rather fine single estate Copydex.
Returning to the relative safety of my buddies outside the venue, we continued our slightly aloof, dismissive attitude. We weren’t going to let a load of skinheads ruin our evening. The usual array of punks were beginning to arrive and we felt more at ease amongst this scene. Some of the punks knew some of the skinheads, and so a sense of calm was restored. The first support band had kicked off by now, a regrettable Oi! band from our local town as I recall, and a small group of skins were doing their violent pogoing, arms around shoulders dance, laying into anybody foolish enough to try and join in. We decided to go down the road and get some food from the chip shop.
Youth was pretty tribal in those days. We were dressed in our standard uniform of the time – some band t-shirt or other, jeans and nondescript trainers. We got our food, and just as we walked out of the chip shop, a group of Mods happened to walk past [Mod of course being the other 1960s youth cult undergoing something of a renaissance in the early 80s after the release of the film Quadrophenia]. Without a word, they laid into two of us. I remember that the guy who kicked me was wearing those boxing boots which were popular with scooter riders back then. Scalding hot chips flew up and rained in a graceful arc through the air and onto the pavement. We didn’t really get much of a beating – we didn’t hang around long enough.
Outnumbered, we ran back in the direction of the Manor Ballroom, where we encountered the full pack of skins, obviously getting a breath of fresh air after their glue sniffing session. Seeing us clearly ruffled, they adopted us under their wing immediately. “Tell us who done it” they urged us. We explained. Eyes darted and conspiratorial nods shot around the group. Suddenly blades glinted in the sodium glare of the street lights. “Come on, let’s get ’em!” they called, and our problem then was trying to get out of going with them on a long and unpleasant trek around town looking for some victim to beat and stab.
Eventually, we were dismissed as unworthy and off the skins went, bouncing into the night with their shaven heads and their boots. After that, we went back inside, caught the Test Tube Babies, danced, had a ball, and as I remember there was little if any trouble. A few skinheads remained, but even then they were friendly as the ‘pit’ [although we didn’t call it that, because that was an American term which would arrive in a year or so] was good natured and people would pull each other up when they slipped on beer and everybody fell in a stinking, sweaty heap.
But there were other shows where folks weren’t so lucky – wherever a band associated with Oi! played, you would normally find trouble and many venues simply ended up banning any band who seemed to be associated with this scene. Oi! as mainstream entity fizzled out soon afterwards, going underground and catering only for those dedicated to their fighting. We felt a sense of relief that it passed.