WHEN singer Desmond Dekker’s song Israelites rose to the top of the British national chart in 1968, a particular demographic was responsible for its runaway success. They were called Skinheads.
These rebellious white youth from working-class backgrounds had embraced Jamaican music which hitherto had been played in small West Indian venues throughout London.
Dekker first made the British chart in 1967 with 007 (Shanty Town). The following year, his Poor Me Israelites was released in England and became popular in the West Indian underground scene.
In 1969, it was picked up by the Pyramid label owned by Australian Graeme Goodall, who had worked for years as an engineer at Federal Records in Jamaica. Re-released as Israelites, the Leslie Kong-produced song went to number two on the national chart, thanks to the Skinheads.
Authors Michael de Koningh and Laurence Cane-Honeysett revisited the impact Jamaican pop culture had on the Skinheads in their book, Young, Gifted and Black: The Story of Trojan Records.
“The Skinheads’ passion for reggae music was invaluable in pushing the music out of the smoky clubs and independent record shops and into the mainstream of popular music,” they wrote. “It was the massive buying power of the boots-and-braces brigade at the tail-end of the decade (1960s) that moved reggae units and elevated unknown Jamaican artistes to transient stardom.”
At first glance, the Skinheads could be intimidating. As tribute to their working-class roots, they wore steel-tipped Doc Martens boots, Levi jeans and sported close-cropped hairstyles.
They identified with the rude boy culture that found its way to London through Jamaican immigrants from Kingston, and embraced the music of ska performers like Derrick Morgan, Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken and The Pioneers.
Through interviews with record label owners, Cane-Honeysett and de Koningh discovered that the Skinheads were also bad news for business. They were known to assault British middle and upper-class youth, action which hurt Jamaican-owned companies like Pama Records, owned by Harry Palmer.
“When reggae began to establish itself in the charts, the Skinheads came along and ruined it. We lost half our accounts because shops refused to stock reggae,” Pama said in a 1973 interview.
Though they helped make songs like Niney Honess’ Blood and Fire a minor hit in 1971, the Skinhead fascination with Jamaican pop culture peaked in 1969 when Rastafari and black consciousness became dominant themes.
The Skinhead movement swiftly declined in the 1970s with the rise of Bob Marley and other Rastafarian message singers. They paved the way for the Punks, another restless, militant group of white youth who found solace in Jamaican culture.