BOXSET REVIEW: Oi! The Albums (Captain Oi!/ Cherry Red Records)

If ever a genre of music really didn’t help itself, it was Oi!, the working class strain of punk which emerged at the tail end of the ’70s. Where the original punk music had been born in art schools, Oi! came from the rough-arsed council estates and football terraces.

Garry Bushell, a columnist with the then-influential weekly music paper Sounds, coined the phrase “Oi!” (after a familiar London greeting) to describe what he called a new breed of punk, and although his intentions were good, it all went wrong, in spectacular fashion.

This sturdy clamshell-boxed set, featuring 121 tracks by 68 different artists, compiles the six albums released between 1980-84, by which time the scene had largely run its course, and been well and truly demonised by the mainstream media.

Oi! didn’t do itself any favours, with song titles and lyrics frequently glorifying violence, which might have been the reality of life on the estates the bands came from, but played into the hands of the tabloid press.

Oi! The Album came first, in November 1980, featuring top-notch tracks from Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts, The Exploited, 4-Skins, Cock Sparrer, Slaughter & The Dogs and Peter & The Test Tube Babies.

I remember hearing this as a teenage punk, being thrilled at some of these new bands, and trying to get as many of their proper releases as my pocket money would allow.

Key tracks: Cockney Rejects – Oi Oi Oi; Terrible Twins – Generation Of Scars; Angelic Upstarts – Guns For The Afghan Rebels/Last Night Another Soldier.

But just as Oi! was gathering momentum, the brown stuff hit the fan, big-style, with not one but two kicks in the nuts for the burgeoning scene.

First, a second compilation, Strength Through Oi! was released in May 1981, adding groups such as Infa Riot, The Strike, The Last Resort and The Toy Dolls to established favourites like 4 Skins and Cock Sparrer, as well as marking the first appearance of punk poet Garry Johnson (a Cockney version of Manchester wordsmith John Cooper Clarke).

Trouble wasn’t far away, however; the media were quick to make the link with the Nazi slogan ‘strength through joy’, and Bushell had some explaining to do. He claimed it was a pun on the recent Skids’ album Strength Through Joy, and said he was unaware of any darker connotations.

He found it harder to explain the presence on the cover of British Movement skinhead Nicky Crane, who was currently at her Majesty’s Pleasure, doing a four-year stretch for racist violence. It later emerged that he had Nazi tattoos which had been airbrushed out, and the press had their new public enemy – skinheads. It didn’t matter if they were racists or not, anyone with a close-cropped skull was tarred with the same brush.

If that wasn’t bad enough, in July 1981 there was a now-infamous riot at the Hambrough Tavern in Southall, where a pub due to stage a gig by The Business, The Last Resort and 4-Skins was attacked and burnt to the ground as tensions between right-wing skins and local Asian youths boiled over.

It was the beginning of the end for the movement really, as from now on the press painted all skinheads as National Front supporters (which wasn’t true).

Key tracks: 4-Skins – 1984/Sorry; The Strike – Gang Warfare/Skinhead; Cock Sparrer – Taken For A Ride/Running Riot.

Undeterred, a third volume, Carry On Oi!, emerged in October 1981, adding some excellent new bands like Blitz, The Partisans, The Business and Red Alert to the tried and tested (Peter & The Test Tube Babies, Infa Riot, 4-Skins, The Last Resort).

It hit No.4 in the then-important Indie Charts, and it seemed that perhaps Oi! hadn’t quite hung up its Dr Martens boots just yet.

Key tracks: The Business – Suburban Rebels; Blitz – Youth; The Partisans – No U Turns; The Last Resort – King Of The Jungle; Red Alert – We’ve Got The Power.

Disc four is Oi! Oi! That’s Yer Lot, originally released in September 1982. Reggae legend Judge Dread makes his first appearance in the series, along with another punk poet, Attila The Stockbroker and ‘one-man Chas ‘N’ Dave’ Frankie Flame. Established Oi! acts were repesented by The Business and The Oppressed, as well as new bands like Crux, Attak and The Oppressed.

Five tracks originally recorded at the album sessions but later released on the Back On The Streets EP are included as bonus cuts. The inclusion of The Strike and East End Badoes would certainly have improved the original album, which was divided into ‘a punk side and a drunk side’, and they’re welcome additions here.

Key tracks: The Business – Real Enemy; Crux – Liddle Towers; The Warriors – Horror Show.

November 1983 saw the fifth part of the series, Son Of Oi!, which featured live cuts from old favourites Angelic Upstarts and Cock Sparrer, as well as The Business and 4-Skins, alongside newer bands like Vicious Rumours, Prole and Maniac Youth.

Despite not being a patch on the albums which had gone before, and containing a lot of tracks that could in no way be described as Oi!, it somehow managed to make No 11 in the Indie Chart.

Key tracks: The Business – Out In the Cold; Cock Sparrer – Chip On My Shoulder (live).

They should have left it at that really, but someone decided it was a good idea to make another album, hence the release of The Oi! Of Sex (a title previously rejected by Bushell) for the final instalment in August 1984.

Old stagers Cock Sparrer were the standout name here, and there was a smattering of new bands – The Burial, ABH and Rat Patrol – but the quality control had plummeted, with too many ‘studio bands’ – ie members of the South London and East End cliques messing about with their mates, and contributing little of any musical value.

There was also a creeping tendency to include more ‘punk pathetique’, and Bushell admits in his sleeve notes that he should have diversified to include bands from abroad. (That’s Your Lot did originally include Revenge by Black Flag, whose singer Henry Rollins contacted him to donate the song as a gesture of solidarity. Sadly, for licensing reasons, it’s not included here).

Key tracks: Cock Sparrer – The Sun Says; Prole – Destination Room 101.

Oi! would resurface in the ’90s in the US, as street-punk, thanks to the likes of Agnostic Front and the Dropkick Murphys, who cited the original British bands as big influences. And it speaks volumes that some of the better ones featured on these sets (eg Cockney Rejects, Cock Sparrer, Angelic Upstarts, The Last Resort and The Toy Dolls, are still playing live and releasing new material today.

Cockney Rejects remain a popular live draw today. Pic: Gary Welford.

Although you won’t see any of them on TV nowadays, nor any of the many who were inspired to follow in their bootprints, Oi! is alive and well, and although there were gigantic mis-steps along the way, these albums chart its birth, progress and fairly rapid demise.

As a means of helping bands find audiences, and vice versa, they started out fine. But they would never shed the shadow which surrounded Strength Thru Oi!, or survive the creeping tendency to include more ‘punk pathetique’, poetry and general mucking about.

The first two albums are well worth seeking out, and the third’s not half bad. Three is, of course, the magic number, and maybe they should have quit while they were ahead, instead of continuing to flog a rapidly expiring horse. 6/10.

Gary Welford owner