With his brutally frank demeanour and unyielding opinions, Garry Bushell is indubitably Marmite of a man. Journalist, TV critic, political activist, he’s turned his hand to presenting, boxing, and has been nicknamed the “Godfather of Oi”. Love or hate him, With Guitar’s Nina Cresswell hopped onto the Oi-ship to look into misconceived skinhead culture and the life of the man at the throne of the scene.
Reminiscing his youth, Garry describes punk as a breath of fresh air. “It all started in 1976. I was twenty. I saw the Clash, the Jam, the Buzzcocks, Gen X and later Sham 69 and was blown away by the excitement of it all. The Clash in particular were “my” band, because I was an active socialist back then and they were an angry alternative to punk’s nihilism.
When I got in to the rock press in 1978, after doing my own zine, it was – apologies for the cliché – a dream come true. NME said punk was dead, but I could see it wasn’t. I was going out seeing exciting, vibrant, different bands every week – the Ruts, the Skids, the Members, the Subs, the Special AKA (who I saw play their first ever gig that year) the Angelic Upstarts …it was a fantastic time to be young.”
“All Oi was, was working class punk.” Garry explains, “A lot of the first punks pretended to be working class but weren’t. They were brilliant but they told lies. They talked about tower blocks and dole queues but didn’t come from that background. Oi was the real thing. The Upstarts were socialists from South Shields, the Rejects hated all politicians, because they’d grown up under corrupt Labour councils. They both had raw power and real conviction (and convictions).”
“I had 48-hour police protection once after death threats from Muslim extremists…the NF published my home address, and I got beaten up by the British Movement in the 100 Club. But hey-ho, some people deserve to be offended.”
The nazi minority affiliated with this subculture spurred prejudice against those in the Oi scene, and assumptions of Garry’s stance and beliefs. On the contrary, the main problem with the early gigs was the football violence. Oi was also stigmatised because it was a working class movement, for “skins, punks and herberts”. Rather than being Nazis, the Rejects battered the British Movement on two separate occasions and the ICF destroyed them as a force in East London.
“The week before the Southall riot we held a conference to support the Right To Work Campaign….you look at those early albums and show me any Nazi bands on them. There weren’t any. But Oi bands did record Work Or Riot, Jobs Not Jails, The National Employers’ Blacklist, Solidarity, 45 Revolutions, The Real Enemy, Last Night Another Soldier… and they did sing about lager,” Garry smiles, “pork scratching’s and transvestites.”
Ironically, the only people to give the subculture a fair press at the time were the Guardian and Red Action, who put on countless Oi gigs. “The truth is always a lot more complicated than the Daily Mail version of events,” Garry explains, “and don’t forget that the Mail was motivated to smear Sounds because we were owned by their rivals, the Express group.”
The media’s depiction of skins had major influence on public opinion. In a Sunday Times feature with numerous skin photographs, the famous shot of black and white Sheffield skins marching together against unemployment wasn’t included. “Even if Oi had been just for skins, it’s ludicrous misreporting ignored the apolitical skins, the Left-wing skins.” fumes Garry, “Yeah there were BM skins and NF skins but there was also the League of Labour Skins, Skins Against The Nazis, Skin Fein etc.…there were black skins, Asian skins, Greek skins, mixed race skins.”
A large part of Bushell’s early career was working for rock magazine Sounds. He was there for the birth of 2-Tone, New Mod and even the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. “It was just the best time ever,“ he reminisces, “U2 came to give me their demo tape, I went to the US with the Specials and the Selecter, I went on the road with Blondie, The Jam, Sham, Sex Pistols, Motorhead, I got to meet Joe Strummer who loved my tattoos…it was indecently exciting; and one day I should write a book about it before my brain entirely dissolves.”
His career as a journalist gave him the opportunity to meet some impressive names. Interviewing Ozzy Osbourne was an experience he’ll never forget. “He shaved my eye-brow off, and I was lucky. Other people left Ozzy with no hair, or a pocket full of urine, which doesn’t sound like much fun now, but at the time…” Garry chuckles, “I was with him in Fort Lauderdale once and woke up at 3am to find the hotel apparently under attack from people firing mortars. It turned out to be Ozzy launching stage pyrotechnics at the fifth floor. He really was as funny and unpredictable and dangerous as people say.”
After discovering and managing a string of bands, including Twisted Sister, Cockney Rejects and The Blood, Garry praises MySpace for finding new bands all the time: “I just heard the debut album from Dub City Rockers which is terrific. I like Buster Shuffle, Spinnerette, Krakatoa, Exile Parade, Wonk Unit, loads of terrific foreign bands like Stomper98,and I can’t believe Skaville UK are unsigned.”
Punk’s not dead, and Garry continues to gig with own band The Gonads. “Nothing stays the same, and punk can’t be the same, nor can Oi. But punk values could and should be constant. Punk’s DIY ethos matters, punk’s tradition of protest and excitement matters. What doesn’t matter is what form it takes. It isn’t punk just to dress like it’s still 1977 and churn all the same three chord anthems. You’ve got to develop or make way for something new. That’s why the Gonads now call ourselves an Oi-Tone band (Oi, Ska, Cockney culture), and take a few risks with the music.”
“It’s inevitable that symbols that were once deemed dangerous will eventually be sucked in to the mainstream and repackaged for the mass market.” Garry continues. “Camden is awash with Che Guevara t-shirts, but how many people who wear them know or care how many people he killed?”
Such remarks from Garry have led to serious objection in the past: “I had 48-hour police protection once after death threats from Muslim extremists, the NF published my home address, and I got beaten up by the British Movement in the 100 Club. But hey ho. Some people deserve to be offended.”
He takes no prisoners, is unscrupulous with his opinions, and his killer one liners have resulted in countless turmoil. But what is it that’s got him where he is today?
“Punk,” says Garry, “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it; my whole career is Joe Strummer’s fault!”