Graded on a Curve: Cockney Rejects:
Oi! Oi! Oi!

It’s hard to think of an American equivalent to Britain’s Oi! Movement, which at the turn of the eighties produced a slew of working-class bands that produced great sing-along anthems that provided the soundtrack to the ultraviolence associated with the football hooliganism (a wonderfully benign term for taking a steel bar to somebody’s head) that was causing panic in the more sedate ranks of British society.

American hardcore bands like Minor Threat and SS Decontrol had their crews, who looked for fights at shows and generally found them, but they were pussies compared to the unbelievable brutality associated with the English football firms and the Oi! bands linked to them. In his amazingly good book Among the Thugs, Bill Buford describes how one fan headbutted a police officer, then proceeded to literally suck one of his eyes out its socket and bite it off. Now that’s mayhem.

Sham 69, Cockney Rejects, Cock Sparrer, the 4-Skins—unfairly or not, all were in some way associated with or linked to both football hooliganism and the violent antics of the right-wing British Movement, aka the National Front. Most were innocent or relatively so on the first charge, and totally innocent on the second. Take the Cockney Rejects, one of the few influential bands (whose cries of Oi! before songs led British journo Gary Bushell to give the movement its name) linked to a specific football club (West Ham United).

While their defiant songs dealt with both street- and football-associated violence, their own fighting was generally precipitated by audience members who supported other football clubs. Or, on one notably large-scale occasion, by British movement members. In short, it’s sheer slander to assert that so much as a single Oi! band—while they may have had their share of right-wing fans, and perhaps even some sympathy for such fans—in any way espoused fascist or racist rhetoric. On the other hand, a handful of Oi! bands were actively left-wing and anti-racist.

The Cockney Rejects were founded in 1978 in the East End of London—formerly the turf of the notorious firm run by the Kray brothers, Ronnie and Reggie—by another pair of brothers, Jeff and Micky Geggus, who finally found the rhythm section they wanted in Vince Riordan on bass and Andy Scott on drums. The result is tumultuous history, with the band fighting National Front members on one hand and denying assertions in the press linking them to the National Front on the other. The band vehemently denied any connections with fascism and racism, and contemptuously referred to the British Movement as the “German Movement.”

As for their sound, the Cockney Rejects shared the same characteristics as their fellow Oi! bands. Big bad guitar riffs played at punk velocity, a snarling front man with a prominent Cockney accent, and catchy sing-along choruses constituted your basic formula, although you might hear a deviation now and again. Take the Rejects’ Oi! Oi! Oi!, a 1997 compilation LP released in a metal tin in a limited edition by the suspiciously named Harry May Record Company. It chronicles the band’s most successful years—namely 1979 through 1981—and opens with “Bad Man,” which features the razorblade guitar riffs of Mick Geggus—you could almost mistake him for The Edge—and proceeds to go aggro on your ass. It’s not—as one might expect—a paean to some heroic hooligan but a condemnation of an asshole, and ends with vocalist Jeff Geggus singing, “You’re dirty, you’re no good, you’re a rotter/And we all know that, you’re a bad man.” “I’m Not a Fool” starts a bit more slowly, but then kicks in like the Sex Pistols, with Geggus singing, most likely in response to prejudice directed towards his band’s unschooled working class roots, “I’m not so ignorant/I’m not a fool.” And it comes with a raucous guitar solo that makes up for its lack of subtlety. As for “East End” it could be a Slade song, what with its regimented handclaps and in your face vocals, to say nothing of Geggus’ rawk-us guitar riffs.

I’m no fan of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” the Rejects’ cover of the antiquated Broadway/music hall standard that serves as West Ham United’s theme song. It includes lots of chanting and is in effect one big sing-along, and is not as annoying as it could be, considering that it dates back to 1919 and was recorded by everybody from Doris Day to Spike Jones. I’m no boot boy, but if I were I think I’d petition for a cooler theme song, because singing this one would make me feel like a real berk. Unlike “Bubbles,” “West End Boys” is all about football-inspired mayhem, with Geggus defiantly singing, “We’re not the North Bank/We’re not the South Bank/We are the West Side Upton Park.” This bit of geographical profiling over and done with, Geggus gets down to the ugly business of busting heads, singing, “Steel cap Dr. Martens and iron bars/Smash their coaches or do’em in their cars.” Like most Oi! bands, the Cockney Rejects would probably tell you they were merely chronicling the violence happening all around them, rather than inciting or encouraging it, but it’s a fine line, that one. Regardless of the position you take, “West End Boys” is one great big chant, with Geggus jumping in to provide the gory details, and it has a guitar solo I like to boot.

“War on the Terraces” is a big blustering number, with a crowd repeating Gettus on the chorus (see title) while his brother pumps out a gigantic and ominous riff on the guitar, and ends with said crowd cheering and whistling. “Oi! Oi! Oi!” opens with a great bass and features Geggus singing the movement’s call to arms. It’s an aggro anthem pure and simple, as Geggus sings, “They all try to ignore us, but we won’t let ’em win/The wankers try to put us down, but we will smash them in/ Cause we all say, that they’re full of shit” etc. “The Rocker” is notable chiefly for its great guitar solos, which put the boot in as Geggus sings an ambiguous ode to a rocker who rides a big chopper, says, “’Man,” I’m into Motörhead’,” and “says he’s into peace and love.” “We Are the Firm” opens with some very un-Oi! guitar and features lots of sing-along vocals. It’s pure bravado, like most of their songs, and invents the term “Backstreet Boys” when the boy band were still in their diapers. “We Can Do Anything” is unremarkable in that it fails to distinguish itself in any way from the LP’s other tunes; not so with “Are You Ready to Ruck,” which comes at you guitar first, includes the sound of breaking glass, and is a sort of chanted terrace riot in miniature.

As for “Hate of the City,” it’s a ferocious attack on the upper and business classes, with Geggus singing, “Mindless thousands are wearing three piece suits/While I get done for wearing steel capped boots/So work work you office jerk/I know you’re just like me/The only difference is you don’t care/And I just wanna be me.” Meanwhile, “Where the Hell Is Babylon?” is a satiric put down of all that Rasta talk about Babylon; introduced by a reggae singer, it features Geggus wanting to know where Babylon is, because it sounds like fun. “Flares and Slippers” is a put down of a guy wearing wide-bottom jeans and slippers, and concludes “Are you smart?/No no no.” Unfortunately it lacks the lyrical detail that might have made it a classic like “Police Car,” which opens with Geggus screaming, “Freedom! There ain’t no fuckin’ freedom!” before the bass and drums kick in, followed by a basic guitar riff. “Police car!” shouts the choir, and it kinda reminds me of Black Flag, and would be the greatest song about police cars ever if it weren’t for Stiff Records’ Larry Wallis’ great “Police Car.” “I Wanna Be a Star” leaves me cold; these boys’ bread and butter is assault and battery, not fame and fortune, and on this one the mask slips and you’re confronted with just another bunch of wankers trying to seize the brass ring. Then again the whole thing could be tongue in cheek, in which case forget everything I just said.

“Dead Generation” is a bit generic; Geggus sings, “Now you know what I’m talking about/A dead generation for you” but its hard to know exactly what he means. As for “Man’s Life in the Army,” Geggus employs some unusually quiet vocals, but the football chanting is there, as is that omnipresent guitar. “Motorhead” is chiefly distinguished by its breakneck pace and Geggus’ frantic guitar, which perfectly suits his brother’s vocals, which also sound less brash and brassy than on the band’s other recordings. As for closer “Greatest Cockney Rip Off” it’s a stroke of genius—the Rejects parody Sham 69’s “Hersham Boys,” and throw in some insane musical hall piano—complete with discordant vocals—while they’re at it. And it ends with a raspberry, which when all is said and done is the way all great songs should probably end.

Cockney Rejects leave me divided; as I mentioned previously, it’s a fine line between chronicling violence and helping incite it, and the jury on the Geggus boys’ intentions is still out. I for one hate their tribalism, just as I hated the tribalism associated with harDCcore; but that said, they have given us a lot of great primal tunes, all blood and guts and sinew and rage, and listening to them is a great way to blow off some steam. But there’s a big difference between blowing off steam and sucking the eyeball from a cop’s head, and that was the milieu the Cockney Rejects occupied in their most productive years. Me, I like ‘em, but from afar. As in I’m glad there’s an ocean between us. I’ve been kicked in the head by a Doc Martens at a DC hardcore show and it’s no fun. But mankind is a complicated animal, and I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a part of me that wouldn’t mind putting the boot in, under the proper circumstances. Which I suppose is what the Cockney Rejects and their Oi! Movement compatriots have to teach us; we’re all boot boys in the end, engaging in some very vicious aggro, even if only in our heads.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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