Thursday, 9 June 2011

So Scratched Into Our Souls #3: Hard Skin - First Day Angry Song

"STOP THINKING START DRINKING!" - Hard Skin, First Day Angry Song

A couple years ago I had the idea for an essay about pastiches that represent a perfect example of the thing they're pastiching, examples of art that embraced the self-awareness of post-modernism, but rejected the sniffiness of tone that can characterise works of that nature and embraced the silliness and honest joy of the things they were making. I had a big long list of these, and I can't remember all of them and I've lost the notebook they were in, but a few that I can remember include:

  • Dr Hook and the Medicine Show's Shel Silverstein penned Sylvia's Mother, a lovelorn teenage break-up song that highlights the absurdity of how seriously young love is taken by the people involved, but also works honestly as one of those teenage love songs because there is an honesty to the melodrama in those situations.
  • Alan Moore's Tom Strong, pulp comics which knew pulp comics were stupid a lot of the time, full of odd ape obsessions and laughable over-the-top villains, but still got the reader invested fully in the characters who stumbled into these battles with Nazi seductresses in flying machines and what-not. (Actually, pretty much everything Alan Moore has ever done.)
  • Warren Ellis' Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., a massive silly celebration of the purity of comics where people get punched and then explode with its tongue set firmly in cheek.
  • Hal Duncan's Escape From Hell!, a sacrilegious b-movie in 140 pages that had you cheering all the way.
  • Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, a sharp satire on the excesses of 60s counter-culture and also the ultimate avatar of its joyous reckless abandon.
  • Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, a really great detective novel where the narrator comments on how many detectives in detective novels get knocked unconscious as he gets knocked unconscious.
  • Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead.

I abandoned the essay, both because I was incredibly lazy, and I realised that this is such a dominant tone nowadays—a reaction against irony that retains the awareness of your situation that gave birth to the studied irony in the first place—that I was probably writing a book and I didn't have any argument beyond "Hey, look, this is a thing that happens" and that this wasn't a new phenomenon either, there are examples I mentioned just now from 35 years ago and I could probably dig up earlier ones pretty easily, maybe that scene in the classic film noir Rififi that comments on the chiaroscuro aesthetic and underworld obsessions of such films using a shadowplay and song in a club that all the characters visit. I'm sure it goes back much further. (Don Quixote?) But anyway, the point I'm getting to here is that this Hard Skin song I'm talking about falls neatly into that tradition, being as it is a parody Oi! song that is also a great fucking Oi! song.

People get really pissy about Oi! these days. When I asked a DJ at a punk rock night for some Cock Sparrer he said "We don't do Oi." and gave me a look like I'd just asked him if I could shit on his chest. This despite the fact he'd just played Off With Their Heads and they're basically just Cock Sparrer with the working class apolitical anger swapped for introspection and self-loathing.

**If you know what Oi! is and have a brief idea of its history, you can skip the whole next bit. Just press Ctrl+F and type in 'twattitude' and that'll quickly get you to round about the place I actually finally get around to discussing the song.**

I have talked before about the way punk rock borrows and appropriates parts of other styles and cultures that fit its aesthetic, The Clash seizing on bass-driven threat of ska and reggae, World/Inferno incorporating the swirling madness of cabaret and swing. What Oi! did was to take the speed and noise of punk rock and imbue it with the choral emetic that is a football ground terrace chant. It is a great thing to be among people singing the same song. Whether it's the away-end singalongs of "Who's the bastard in the black?" and "We only sing when we're fishing" on one side or Sham 69's "There's gonna be a borstal breakout!" and the Angelic Upstarts' "We're the kids on the street. We're the kids that you meet." on tother. Whatever you're singing, if it's en masse it's pretty thrilling.


The other reason why people dislike Oi! include the supposed far-right tone to the music, because it was explicitly working class and this was a time when a number of working class youths were seduced by the vainglorious xenophobia of the National Front (see Shane Meadows' fine This is England which is set a year or two later but still applies). Oi! bands generally fit into a few categories.

  • Avowedly apolitical like Cock Sparrer. Watch Your Back sets out their philosophy perfectly: "Everybody's talking about revolution/Everybody's talking about smash the state/Sounds to me like the final solution/Right wing, left wing, full of hate" Concerned almost solely with the travails of working class youth and instilling pride in people stuck in shit jobs and on the dole. See also: The Cockney Rejects
  • Slightly political stuff like Sham 69. They do deal with the topic of politics now and then, but always from the perspective of a dumb kid stuck in a situation beyond his control. There's generally more pity than preaching. Sham 69 played Rock Against Racism. They were anti-cop (George Davies is Innocent), anti-war (Ulster is a song of sympathy for all young people caught up in the old old Troubles). Generally just concerned with the emotions and pursuits of bored, confused young people from the shabbier side of town, and this can lead them into political songs, but just as often will leave them singing "HURRY UP HARRY, WE'RE GOING DOWN THE PUB!" See also: Infa Riot, The Business, The 4-Skins.
  • Punk Pathetique like The Toy Dolls. Not quite Oi! A related genre. Goofy working class humour. An absolute refusal to take absolutely anything seriously. See also: Splodgenessabounds, The Notsensibles, The Macc Lads.
  • Left-wing Oi! like Angelic Upstarts. The Upstarts were redder than a fucking matador's hanky. See also: The Burial, The Oppressed.
  • Right-wing Oi! like Skrewdriver. Skrewdriver's first album was apolitical. Then Ian Stuart junked the rest of the band, hired new people, kept the name and started pumping out disgusting white power bullshit. Also slightly more centrist but still right wing bands like Combat 84 that also fucking suck. The whole RAC (Rock Against Communism, not the breakdown company) shite. Completely fucking stupid pricks who obviously never heeded the cry of "In the real 4th Reich you'd be the first to go" from DK's Nazi Punks Fuck Off and continued to espouse a morally and logically bent philosophy which was in fact aimed at capitalising on their localist insecurities and destroying everything they really loved. Utterly despicable bollocks. See also: a bunch of bands I have never bothered to learn the names of because fuck them. Fuck them.

So yeah, there was far-right Oi!, but it definitely wasn't in the majority, Oi!'s political spectrum covered all the laces of the rainbow,* the idea of its right-wing nature springs both from the often social conservative tendencies of the working class they represented (which always have been reinforced by the pandering and patronising centre-right tabloid rags) and the loudness of the right-wing motherfuckers (also focused upon by the lovely scaremongering tabloid rags), and additionally from the fact that the first big Oi! compilation was named Strength Thru Oi!, an unwitting pun on the Nazi slogan Strength Through Joy. Garry Bushell, the journalist behind the compilation, is not a Nazi. He is a fucking twat though, but there is no totalitarian intent or jackboot fetishism to his twattishness, it's just pure and unbridled smug twattidude like a big pint pot full of piss you're forced to drink every time he pops up on a clip show discussing the few seconds for which he was relevant.

Anyway, let's get to the song. Hard Skin, members of another great comedy punk band called Wat Tyler, put out this glorious fucking self-deprecating singalong. Taking the working class and ramping up the silliness until it's approaching Pathetique levels, but it doesn't really have any actual jokes, it just completely overdoes the straight-laced (black) simplistic approach to life as a series of dog races, pub binges and trips to the dole office with no wish to aim for broader horizons. It's stupid and apolitical, it glorifies drinking and pub-culture at the same time that it rips the piss out of it (The Zatopeks' The Boy Done Good does the same thing in a much more wry and subtler fashion, but fuck subtlety), it's a song which uses the word 'cunt' seventy-eight times. This is the chorus of First Day Angry Song:

"Spent all day in the fucking pub, cos I'm a cunt, a cunt, a cunt, a cunt, a cunt cunt. Pissed my giro up the wall, cos I'm a cunt, a cunt, a cunt, a cunt, a cunt cunt. Spent all day in the fucking pub, cos I'm a cunt, a cunt, a cunt, a cunt, a cunt cunt. Pissed my giro up the wall, cos I'm a cunt, a cunt, a cunt, a cunt, a cunt cunt."

This sort of casual profanity should be familiar to anyone who has spent significant time in a drinking establishment of the sort depicted here. Groups of (mostly) men turning the air so blue, everyone is a cunt, everyone is a wanker, all swearwords are simultaneous rueful descriptions of self, friendly reaffirmations of intimacy, a barrier against strangers and genuine threatening hate speech ready to be directed at anyone who threatens their self-satisfied camaraderie. You can call your friend a cunt but at the same time punch someone in the face if they call your friend a cunt, walking a myriad of complex social tightropes with each profanity dropped casually, each 'fuck' or 'prick' with its own little set of nuances, bellowed angrily at a football game on the TV, let slip smoothly in a laughing demand for a cheapskate friend to finally get a round in, growled menacingly through gritted teeth at the unfortunate sod who just spilt your pint and dozens of other uses sitting in a complex web between these ones. Hard Skin, who are as a parody Oi! band one-step in and one-step out of this mindset, get the idiocy of this steadfast narrow-mindedness, but also appreciate the homeliness of a local pub. They simultaneously use the word as a friendly self-deprecating nod at these idiosyncracies, the "Alright, I guess it's this cunt's round." as you get up to go to the bar, and as angry denunciation of the stupid fucking wastrel who blows all their benefits on beer and betting, the "YOU ARE A USELESS FUCKING CUNTSCRAPE!" bellowed at a drunken prick who's forgotten he was supposed to pay the gas bill. And both these conflicting usages are aimed both inwards and outwards, screaming "I'm a cunt!" at someone is probably just as threatening as screaming "You're a cunt!" at them. And that seems to me to be one of the major parts of punk rock, taking your flaws, acknowledging them, knowing that they're stupid but also knowing that they're a strong and essential part of yourself, using them as armour so you can spit in the face of the world as much as you use them as a platform to be angry at yourself, a weapon to dig and lever into all the chances you missed to pull yourself out of this comfortably depressing little mire.

Also, swearing is just fun. Anything which you're not allowed to do on TV is. Especially if, as I discussed earlier, you're doing it in unison with dozens or hundreds of other people. Now I'm gonna stop thinking and start drinking.

*Interesting factoid: Not sure how true this remains, but for a long time you showed your political affiliation as a skinhead by the colour of the laces on your Doc Martens. White = White Power. Red = Socialist/Communist. Black = Apolitical/trad. Pink = Gay. Something like that. There were more but I can't remember. EDIT: According to one of my knowledgable anti-Nazi friends, it's also a fascist fashion thing. Apparently if you're an acknowledged Nazi then red laces means you've spilt blood in the race war. What charming people.

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