Around 9 on a recent Friday night, the Echoplex is filling up quickly with skinheads. Men sport closely cropped hair — sometimes with a parting cut — while the women wear either shaved patches up top or mod hairstyles. Button-down Ben Sherman shirts, rolled-up Levi's 501s or permanent-press trousers known as Sta-Prest are popular on both sexes. A sizable minority, meanwhile, are in their nattiest: well-tailored, slim-cut suits or mod dresses with boots or loafers. On the smoking patio, old friends reunite over cigarettes and beer, showing off new tattoos, talking about jobs they hate or maybe sharing war stories about old shows, old bands and old fights.
They're here to see Jamaican reggae legends The Gaylads and Brenda Holloway, the first Los Angeles Motown artist. As Holloway takes the stage, small groups skank in circles, with some couples paired off and dancing close, face to face.
L.A.'s skinhead scene has been around for decades but has gotten particularly popular during this latest revival in the past few years. Unlike the skinheads you've seen on TV, the L.A. scene is not only anti-racist, it's overwhelmingly Latino. Though scenesters are into punk and Oi!, early reggae and obscure soul records dominate their collections. At least once a month, several hundred people turn out for old Jamaican stars or mostly forgotten Motown singers. DJ nights at Fais Do-Do in Mid-City offer superdeep cuts of early reggae and “Northern soul,” a neologism for American soul tracks first popular in Northern English dance clubs in the early '70s. The Rocksteady Lounge at Silver Lake's Akbar, a gay pub, offers a more intimate monthly affair with no less drinking and revelry.
Skinheads range from teenagers to middle-aged scene veterans. Their boots get an extra coat of polish for a night out, but otherwise they leave for work in the morning looking the same as they do for the club. Unlike the East L.A. punk scene, skinheads aren't preoccupied with rebelling against The Man, and the police aren't always busting them up. Instead, they're focused on the simple pleasures of beer, music, friends, dancing and fashion. Women are as much a part of it all as men, and there's always a good chance for romance.
This working-class subculture grew out of the British mods of the late 1960s. Ten years later during a punk-oriented revival, the neo-fascist National Front targeted English skins for recruitment. This cleaved the scene into two groups: racists, known as “boneheads” (or “glue sniffers”), and “traditional skinheads,” also known as “sussed skins.” While the former degenerated into fascist street gangs, the latter remained true to the skinheads' original ethos of beer, boots and monster beats.
Boneheads look like old-school racist rednecks in wifebeaters and combat fatigues. Traditional skinheads, however, look more cultured, with a preference for Italian scooters (rather than cars) and high-priced polos — a basic Fred Perry costs around $80. A suited and booted traditional skin easily could be mistaken for an extra on Mad Men, if his hair were longer. Strip off the tattoos and sideburns and they're positively clean cut.
Los Angeles might have the biggest skinhead scene in the country, though cities like San Jose, Portland and Boston have sizable contingents. There's no distinction here between Latinos and whites, though the latter are a distinct minority. Skinheads live all over L.A. County, but their hot spots are in Mid-City, Echo Park and Silver Lake.
One particularly devoted enthusiast is Mark Morales, a 35-year-old psychology researcher at USC, who promotes soul and reggae events. He's at the Echoplex tonight but doesn't have much time to party, as he's working not only as DJ but also stage manager and liaison for a video crew taping the event. Having grown up in East L.A., he became obsessed with the ska-revival label Two Tone as an adolescent, before falling in love with early Jamaican classics.
A stocky, easygoing guy who's quick with a smile, Morales hasn't donned skinhead gear in years, but he's an influential scenester, bringing top Jamaican acts of yesteryear and obscure soul players to spots like this one and downtown's Alexandria Hotel. Being a skinhead “is not just a look, like rockabilly or mod or whatever,” he says. “There's a working-class mentality to it that other scenes don't have.”
Indeed, you'll find folks with occupations like line cook, warehouse clerk and assembly-line worker in the crowd. Step into a skinhead's home and you're likely to see memorabilia from years past, such as vintage housewares, posters from original 1960s releases and records too scratched to play. Further, skins tend to marry and reproduce within the cult: Melrose shop Posers Hollywood even sells Fred Perry and Ben Sherman baby clothes.
And though this retro-obsessed crowd voraciously consumes tunes that originated in Jamaican shantytowns and American tenements, it's not protest music per se.
Instead, it's a document of downtrodden people keeping their collective heads up through hard times. Lyrical themes include colonial oppression (“Israelites” by Desmond Dekker), romance (“The Tide Is High” by the Paragons), sex (the list of dirty reggae tracks runs a mile long) or nothing at all (nonsensical songs like “Skinhead Moonstomp” by Symarip).
This complicated musical evolution began with American R&B singers like Fats Domino and Huey “Piano” Smith, who inspired early Jamaican ska, which evolved into rocksteady, then reggae. The first British skinheads embraced these sounds during tough economic times in late-'60s Britain; more than 40 years on, traditional skinhead tastes haven't changed much.
But don't listen for “Redemption Song” at these parties. Though Marley is beloved, skins prefer him with the classic Wailers lineup that includes Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. In fact, skinhead parties feature beats and bass that bear more resemblance to a good hip-hop break than what most people think of as reggae.
Unlike many other musical subcultures (punk, for example), skinheads don't usually “grow out of it.” Some have been around since the early 1980s and are pushing 60. Their preferred look — sharp, smart and clean — certainly helps them to age gracefully, but Morales believes something else keeps people in the fold. “It's that attitude: the idea that I work for all my shit. Nothing has been given to you, so you're proud of the stuff you have.” It's not just about wearing the right clothes or having the right records in your collection; it's about representing your working-class way of life.
Morales gets a bit of downtime when Holloway takes the stage, though he's still on the job, so there's no time to grab a drink at the bar. His eyes darting about the room, he looks over the scene that has shaped him since he was an adolescent. He's living proof that what makes a skinhead is not what you wear — or even how your hair's shorn — but what you've got in your heart.
Check out the skinhead scene June 9, when reggae legends The Pioneers perform at Los Globos.