Various Artists – Oi! The Albums
18th September 2020
New boxset containing all six of the original Oi compilation albums from the 1980s, spanning 1980’s Oi The Album to 1984’s The Oi Of Sex…LTW’s Ian Canty admits a vested interest and travels back to his teenage years…
I’ll try and keep this as brief as possible, as I expect you’re a lot more interest in the music than my life story, but I feel I should firstly give some background. Two Tone was what really me into the skinhead style, which I favoured in the early 1980s. The whole look was easily maintainable on a first job budget, stylish like mod but less faddy and expensive. I was far more interested in looking sharp than looking for aggro. For me skinhead was also a great gateway into other things, not the “closed shop” it might have seemed on first sight. Instead it opened up other types of music for me to delve into. For instance, if liked the soul that was part of the scene, you’re probably going to liked a bit of funk too. If you dug the reggae that was a staple of skinhead sound and style, there’s ska, rocksteady, dub etc to explore.
This set me on the course of discovery that’s still going on today, but back at the dawn of the 80s I was a skin and still a big fan of punk too. The initial “across the board” surge of punk had launched fine outfits with wildly different sounds, from the reggae rhythms of the Ruts to the breath-taking metallic clang of the original Subway Sect. Unfortunately this had narrowed down to two stark choices by about 1981 – either Crass or Oi.
Looking back on it, the whole thing seems totally preposterous and incredibly stupid, two sets of bands playing similar music carping at each other. But that’s how it was then, with skins causing trouble at Crass gigs and anarcho punks looking down their nose at anyone not totally in tune with their world view. Daft on both sides really. I knew Crass and other bands of that ilk had plenty to offer in their lyrics, but only Conflict and the Subhumans seemed to have the music skills to back them up, in my view back then anyway. Oi, being a whole lot more musical, street level and direct, simply appealed to me more (though I kept on buying the odd anarcho single – I wasn’t that daft to write it off completely).
Oi was principally the idea of Sounds’ journalist Garry Bushell, a notion that sought to differentiate between newly formed punk outfits and the 1977 bands who by the 80s had mellowed out. These new groups were putting the rhetoric of punk as working class street rebellion into reality and soon thoughts turned to a compilation, bringing these acts together under one roof. Sounds had form of “sponsoring” albums, like for instance the Stiff sampler Can’t Start Dancing in 1978. So Oi! The Album could be seen as part of the same series of cheap and cheerful collections that came out under the paper’s banner.
Issued by EMI (as was the next Oi LP), the biggest record label in the land at the time, Oi! The Album still sounds pretty good today. A big part of this is down to the two main bands featured, the Angelic Upstarts and the Cockney Rejects. Both defiantly working class, the Rejects supplied the hammer and the Upstarts the passion. The Rejects title track is suitably anthemic and their other offering Here We Go Again also cuts the mustard with some great guitar work. Though the Upstarts weren’t hitting the business end of the national charts by 1980, they were still an alternately fierce and thoughtful proposition as witnessed by Guns For The Afghan Rebels and Last Night Another Soldier. The 4 Skins, a band consisting of Rejects mates/roadies, post two of their best tracks in Wonderful World (with Micky Geggus on guitar) and Chaos and Peter And The Test Tube Babies’ Intensive Care was a witty follow-up to Vaultage 78’s Elvis Is Dead.
Cock Sparrer’s Sunday Stripper is pure Faces-style pub rock that could have sound-tracked an episode of The Sweeney. But it does possess an irresistible bounce that saw it become a favourite of garage goddess Holly Golightly. At this stage in their career I’ve a notion that the Exploited were sporting skinhead cuts pre-mohawks. Their selections Daily News and I Still Believe In Anarchy are basic rants that do what they are intended. Jeff Turner’s spoof band the Postmen are good fun and their off-key musical palette fooled John Peel into giving them a session as an up and coming post punk band.
Less positive is Isubeleeeene, an irritating novelty pop track by Splodge and Desert Island Joe, the sped-up voices quickly wearing thin. Barney And The Rubbles’ Boot Boys pales in comparison to Slaughter’s 1977 Where Have All The Boot Boys Gone? and includes some pretty dopey lyrics too. That said, Oi! The Album is one of the best of the series, probably only outstripped by Carry On Oi! (but we will get to that later).
The cover and indeed title of Strength Thru Oi! (taken from a Skids record apparently, but also a Third Reich slogan) were really the mistakes that couldn’t afford to be made. A photo of Nazi Nicky Crane was used on the cover and this was something Oi and the bands associated with it struggled to overcome for many years after. Added to that the riot around the ill-fated Business/Last Resort/4 Skins gig at the Hambrough Tavern in Southall two months after the album’s release and you had a musical movement that seemed to have issued its own suicide note. EMI swiftly withdrew the album and severed their connection to all things Oi.
Splodge compound the tedium of Isubeleeeene here with an awful and unnecessary sequel. They partially redeem themselves on the more uptempo We’re Pathetique, but with that title they were asking for trouble. Garry Johnson’s rough but good poems were undermined by the lesser than stellar Barney Rubble efforts and the Shaven Heads’ pointless so-called Acapella Delight. There is some good street level punk rock on offer here though, with two more punchy 4 Skins numbers in Sorry and 1984. Another goodie is Cock Sparrer’s far punkier track Taken For A Ride (We Think You Don’t), which along with 1977 Decca single Running Riot makes a better case for their “founding fathers of Oi” tag.
Also this record launched some new bands to the series. The Strike offer the memorable Gang Warfare and Criminal Class’ Blood On The Streets has equal impact, loping along with gravelled-voiced menace. The two Infa Riot tracks are fast and furious and the Last Resort’s Working Class Kids has a great line about former street punk hero Jimmy Pursey. The long career of the still existent Toy Dolls is kicked off by Coronation Street send-up Deidre’s A Slag and She Goes To Fino’s. Overall one can’t avoid the conclusion that with a different cover and title this could be remembered as a tidy 80s punk collection, rather than by those negative overtones.
With “seaside postcard” cover art and a raft of new groups, Carry On Oi! (released on the Secret label) was the necessary antidote to the furore created in the aftermath of Strength Thru Oi!. Bands like Blitz, Red Alert and the Partisans weigh in with fab contributions and breathed new life into the scene (and in the Partisans’ case at least, youth too). The Business made their debut on this one with a classic in Suburban Rebels and the more standard pop/rock of Product. They quickly became the preeminent band of the genre with an amended line up. Carry On Oi! opens up with a decent reggae version of the Dambusters’ theme and soon we’re amongst the churning riffs of Arms Race by the Partisans and Infa Riot’s Each Dawn I Die, both among those bands’ very best efforts.
Blitz were really on the rise at the time and both Nation On Fire and Youth are simple but very powerful statements. I think it is fair to say Peter & The Test Tube Babies contributions are a bit more problematic this time round and though the Ejected would go on to record the minimalist classic Have You Got 10p, their two offerings here East End Kids and What Am I Gonna Do are decent shoutalongs and nothing more.
The Last Resort sound more akin to proto-punk/underground rock bands of the early 1970s than anything else on King Of The Jungle (even more so on Freedom off their album). Which perhaps is logical bearing in mind bass player Arthur Kitchener’s past in prog/psych act Second Hand. The 4 Skins’ Evil is another brutal kicking of a record and with Red Alert’s power-packed SPG and a bonus cut from them in future album title track We’ve Got The Power, Carry On Oi! is the most consistently satisfying album of the series and this set.
Oi! Oi! That’s Yer Lot was meant to bring the curtain down on the series and despite featuring some good bands and the rather surprising inclusion of US hardcore legends Black Flag (unfortunately their track Revenge has been expunged from this reissued version), this was the weakest entry so far. Part of that is down to the “Pub” side of the original vinyl LP, which is padded out with an ancient Judge Dread track The Belle Of Snodland Town and Arthur And The Afters’ pretty awful pub rocker Arthur’s Theme, which feels completely out of place.
Still the record does get off to a strong start with Real Enemy by the Business, which is probably the best track on the whole LP and Dr Crippens by the more obscure Five-0 isn’t bad either. The Last Resort had to ditch their moniker in order to be able to play gigs when they were blacklisted after the Hambrough Tavern riot. Horrowshow, cut under the new Warriors name, was a pretty good effort that wasn’t to be followed up as the band split for good soon after. Subculture put out the respectable Loud And Clear EP after appearing on here with Stick Together and the spry White Flag by the Oppressed is lively enough too, an early sighting of an important band.
I’ve always rated Attak and Big Brother by them is another bass-heavy goodie, but there’s far less to get enthusiastic about on the flipside side of this album. Attila The Stockbroker’s Willie Whietlaw’s Willie is at least funny and memorable, but apart from that and Coming Blood’s lively Such Fun the whole side is a bit lacklustre. Listening in this set after Carry On Oi! brings its shortcomings into sharp focus. It’s hard to get away from the feeling that the compilers had one side of tough punk rock ready to go, but nothing much to fill up the second. It made sense at the time for this to be the finale of the series, as things were visibly running out of steam.
Attached to this disc is the Back On The Streets EP, which were offcuts from the album itself. Chumbawamba’s spoof I’m Thick credited to the Skin Disease name is probably the most well known selection here. Victim by the Strike may be the only one of the five featured on the EP that should have made Oi! Oi! That’s Yer Lot instead, though Venom’s Dock Green is a bit of lo-fi punk fun.
A quick rethink later and Son Of Oi emerged towards the end of 1983 on the Syndicate independent label. Pieced together from newcomers’ recordings, archive tracks by Oi legends and dodgy studio outfits, this haphazard approach somehow made up for a more even and better listening experience than the last Oi LP. Certainly having the Upstarts’ classic I Understand, a spirited “live” version of Chip On Your Shoulder by Cock Sparrer and a rare Out In The Cold by the first Business line-up didn’t hurt.
The 4 Skins, now headed up by Roi Pearce of the Last Resort, sounded a whole lot better than their Secret album on their track On The Streets and Vicious Rumours’ This Is You Life is pretty zippy too. NY band Kraut, buoyed up by ex-Pistol Steve Jones on guitar, impress with Onward from their great debut album An Adjustment To Society.
Of the made up studio aggregations Prole might have had a future if they had been a bit more honest about their origins. Generation Landslide is a good bit of punk rock & roll with a HM guitar solo that isn’t that far from what the Manic Street Preachers came up with 10 or so years later. The Paranoid Pictures track Tomorrow’s Whirl is a decent Siouxsie copy and Violent Playground by the mysterious Clockwork Destruction does a fair job at approximating the Blitz/Attak sound.
In sleeve note accompanying this set Garry Bushell is a touch negative about the poets, but I feel they helped give the last two Oi albums of the 1980s a more accessible feel – their different accents helped to extend Oi out from East London archetype. I really like the Phil Sexton/Mick Turpin’s Joe Public and Attila’s Andy Was A Corporatist rap over the Newtown Neurotics’ Mindless Violence is spirited and with a real message that resonates today.
Less impressive are the Alaska Cowboys, L.O.L.s Choir, Oxo’s Midnight Runners and Lager Top Blues by the Gonads, though in fairness Jobs Not Jails is the best thing they ever did. The Oi! The Robot track Manifestoi! is a quite fun electro parody and although Son Of Oi! is far from perfect, it did give a decent shot of energy to what was really a dying scene.
Final album in this set The Oi! Of Sex was released a year later and marked the end of the road. Though it had a couple of great tunes in Nick Toczeks’ Britanarchists’ scathing Stiff With A Quiff (Pete Doherty must have been paying attention!) and Cock Sparrer’s acidic tabloid condemnation The Sun Says, elsewhere it fell a bit short. The two Prole contributions are fair without being quite of the same quality as their Son Of Oi! offering and you could say the same about the Vicious Rumours tracks too, though they’re solid enough. The studio acts aren’t up to much this time round and Rat Patrol’s flute and slap bass rap Rat Trap is a real oddity.
Burial from Scarborough show a lot of promise though on the jumping ska beat of Old Man’s Poison and the more punky Friday Night, though they had gone far more pop-orientated by the time of their sole album A Day On The Town in 1988. I feel that Bushell is a bit harsh in the sleeve note on Garry Johnson’ set closer If Looks Could Kill, granted he didn’t quite have the singing voice to pull off a piano ballad, but fair play to him for trying something different. Overall The Oi! Of Sex wasn’t quite strong enough to spawn any subsequent Oi albums, so that was that.
This new set gives you every album in one big box. There’s nothing new here that hasn’t be already released on the separate album reissues over the years and I have to say that this set is rather lazy in that respect. Captain Oi! issued a CD collection called Oi! The Demos around 20 years back and that definitely had some tracks by the Postmen, Terrible Twins, Burial and Subculture that could have been appended to the relevant albums to spice things up a bit. Even just adding that LP to the set would have been something.
Times have changed and Oi has gone on to become an international scene, influencing a few big selling bands along the way. This is something unthinkable when the last of these records was released back in the 1980s. Housed in a clamshell box, the first Oi album was a good one, Carry On Oi! the very best and Son Of Oi! a good effort to get things back on the rails. The others have a some key tracks on each, without being quite as consistent. If you’re looking for sophistication, you’ve very much come to the wrong place, but if you’re looking for a crash course in hard-nut UK 80s Punk, this is it.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here