Symond - On a postcard sold by Merc from its Carnaby Street store on the 1980s
Symond Lawes is pretty much a lifelong Skinhead who has been fully immersed in the "Boots n Braces" culture since being attracted to the looks and sounds of the movement as a 13 year old kid.
His striking style and image saw him portray Skinheads in TV shows and Films such as The Bill, Doctor Who and a even voiced a Gangster Torturer in the PlayStation 2 game The Getaway.
He was also the face on a highly popular Postcard sold in Merc's Carnaby Street store during the 1980s.
Symond's involvement with the Skin culture has not dwindled with age and Symond is now the brains behind The Great Skinhead Reunion. Now entering its 6th year, the event, held in Brighton on the first weekend of June (Friday to Sunday), attracts skinheads of all ages, colours, genders and style with as Symond eloquently puts it "the only rule was no factions 'Skinhead =Skinhead' if you are, or have ever been a Skinhead, then you don't need anything explained" .
An undisputed face from an often misunderstood and misinterpreted subculture that has remained deeply associated with a British way of life, Merc was honoured to catch up with Symond to learn a little bit more from a true Skinhead.
He talks of his life, his views on today's scene and the Great Skinhead reunion which is bring increasing amounts of like minded people to the South Coast each June for Ska, Sunshine and Sharp Dressed Shenanigans !
Symond today, still razor sharp !
Tell us about your involvement in the Skinhead Subculture ?
I have been involved in the Skinhead subculture since I was a 13 year old kid, growing up on an estate in High Wycombe, a rough London overspill town. I discovered a subculture which has kept me going through life's ups and downs, I suppose it's like a religion, in that a real skinhead has 'Suss' a belief system and way of living, but I think more like a soldier that signed up to a regiment, and learned to be part of a unit, in which you would lay your life on the line for your friends.
I suppose its also partly down to the fact my best friend growing up, was a dyslexic obsessive genius photographer called Gavin Watson, and spent every waking hour photographing my mates and me, those pictures have been published worldwide, and have come to represent, in many ways the British working class Maggie Thatcher's, Skinhead Britain. So its obvious for anyone to see my genuine Skinhead history, all there in print, and something I could never escape, even if I wanted to. I like the think I have earned a respect across the world for my passion and commitment to a subculture, which has been attacked since its inception, by negativity.
An early Gavin Watson photograph that captures a moment !
It's a tough thing, but it fills me with pride, when I go to Europe and see thousands of young people dressed in the clothes we chose and following a subculture we created. We were never cool, or this seasons fashion, we wore what we could afford, took the styles from earlier Mods and Skinheads of the late 60's. But mixed that with a punk rock attitude, and the violent expression from the 70's football terrace, to create the most notorious of all the Fashion youth subcultures, Britain has ever produced.
Over time I drifted away from the uniform and image for a time, to have kids, travel and move away from the violence of the 80's. But the connection to my friends never left. It was a dangerous time, and anyone who has experienced battle, will tell you, the bond of brothers never leaves. So the Skinhead stayed in my heart and tattooed on my body forever.
What first attracted you to the scene ?
Well its been a life long thing really, I first became a skinhead at the height of punk rock, in 1978. Punk was the music I loved, which was such an exciting time for British music and culture, I loved the free expression and attitude which the bands were singing about, especially Sham 69 and the Sex Pistols, Anarchy in The UK and Kids are United. I really believed we were part of a revolution happening right now, which would bring down the establishment, and fuck up the class system. But I guess Punk style being hyper fashion of the time. Skinhead was much more working class council estate, there was no fashion industry cool in being a Skinhead, all you needed was a shaved head and a pair of boots, as time went on we developed the clothing styles, adapted and changed as it went, from the early Mod Italian suit and Toniks of 79 2tone, to the Oi! Bootboy look of 82, our clothes mostly came from jumble sales, or a trip down to Carnaby Street, or the Last Resort in East London.
It was just working class kids with attitude, expressed on the football terraces. Hated by many, understood by few.
How does being a Skinhead impact on your everyday life ?
At my age now, being a skinhead doesn't have much affect on my life, but its amazing the interest people have, from all walks of life. I am constantly explaining the subculture, when I mention that I run the Great Skinhead Reunion, but the fact I live in Brighton these days, Skinhead is very much part of local history, from the Mods and Rockers of the 60's, through the bank holiday bootboy era of the early 80's, when we all came down to cause chaos and fight with each other on the beaches.
Being a Skinhead now has become a very positive thing in my life, in many ways. When I travel abroad, recently I went to Brazil, and the Skinheads of Sao Paulo treated me like a long lost friend, they couldn't do enough for me, and made my time there amazing. In Germany or Sweden, I am always welcomed as a friend by total strangers, just because of our Skinhead connection. Its truly a worldwide family of rogues.
Throughout the 1980's and into the 90's I was often employed, playing the role of a Skinhead on British television and film. Sure in the early days if got me unable to enter pubs and clubs. Has had me a fair share of street attack. But all part of the fun times.
In action in Dr Who !
What are your memories of Merc Clothing ?
Being from west of London, we spent most saturdays stomping round the west end and Camden Town. Carnaby Street was always the first port of call. Tube to Oxford Circus and a wander down there. Along Carnaby street was the flea market, which often had second hand clobber, and then a few small shops, Cutdown, The Cavern, and of course Mercs. Which was always run by Jimmy, a chinese guy. It was always a real hub for skinheads. They sold the clothes we wanted, the Harringtons, stapress and button downs. I think I bought my very first Gingham from them, cut the sleeves off and had it tailored to fit my skeletal figure, or 'Wirey' as I referred to myself. The amount of raw eggs I nicked off the milkman, to try and fatten up, I wont tell you about. But Mercs not only stocked the clothing, they sold all the latest underground record releases, often bands that had done it all themselves and had made 50 vinyl’s. The fanzines, written and left at mercs to spread the word of what's going on around London. It was a Mecca really. But didn’t get the publicity the the Last Resort got from the East End. London and the surrounding areas had huge Skinhead numbers through out the first half of the 80's. But by the later end, things were dropping off, many outlets moved onto selling stuff for casuals or the next 'fashion' but Mercs stayed true, well into the 90's. Even in later years, whenever in the West End I would pop in there, just to check they were still in business, and funnily enough, I once found a bunch of postcards, with pictures of me being sold in there. The girl working there gave me one, when she realised who I was, hope she never got sacked for that. The last shirt I bought from them, was when I went in there with Poly Styrene from Xray Spex and she chose me a nice tonic shirt, that was in 2008, when we were organising the sell out gig at the Roundhouse.
How do you deal with the negative impression some people associate with the Skinhead movement.
The negativity, has been mostly fuelled by the media, and the odd political group that comes and goes, as its tried to cash in on the sheep mentality they have always tried to promote, for their own gain. We have always been an easy target, as we were mainly uneducated working class council estate kids, not much different then the Hoodies and Chavs of today, that are branded worthless dole scrounging dope heads.
At the time we played up to their branding stereotypes and told them to fuck off. It's a fact the media paid young kids to seig heil, as it sold a lot more newspapers than 3000 kids dancing to 2tone.
Playing up for the media !
Young angry kids were a very easy group to manipulate, and the fact that Britain was in a major recession in the 70's, the fall of empire, anger from our parents, who had lived through World War 2, and then seen devastation of industry, the cold war, IRA attacks and all sorts of chaos. Britain was a volatile place.
The simple fact is, the, the media was run by clueless middle class, with the sole purpose of selling their bullshit and political agendas, and sadly lapped up by equally clueless public. Then as it was exported by the media, Hollywood found its baddy antihero, we replaced the Apache Indian. And from that, young angry people across the world thought thats what a 'Skinhead' meant.
To be very honest, the bulk of negativity I get these days if from a tiny minority, within the internet Skinhead scene, known as the 'Keyboard warrior', who are on some constant politically based witch hunt, or the cocaine snorting bullyboys desperately trying to factionalize and divide the scene. The other one is some companies try to distance themselves from any mention of 'Skinhead'. Whilst organising The Great Skinhead Reunion in Brighton, I was asked by various venues to change the name of the event, for them to agree to use their venues. So I told them that 'If a Skinhead pound note is not acceptable for you, then get Fucked!' I have never been one to drop the principles I have always held as a Skinhead.
A few times, since we started the skinhead reunion, we have had media contact from people looking for an Exposé. One Dutch TV company wanted to send an investigative journalist the other year, and this year some photographer asked to come and mingle, and then when I saw his website, it was all 'Rise of extremism across Europe' Sorry mate, Fuck off with a capitol 'F' It does shock me, that even in 21st century they think they can come and mug us off again.
How long have you been involved in the Great Skinhead Reunion in Brighton ?
The Great Skinhead Reunion began in 2011. The reason I decided to do it, was the fact that 5 of my very dearest Skinhead mates died in quick succession. I had left my home town many years ago, and had lost touch with my old crew. But going back to the funerals, really made me realise how important these guys were to me. And every funeral we all promised to meet again in happier times, the final nail, was when one of the lads died, who had been suffering 10 years of PTSD, after his friend had been shot and died in his arms.
My friend had got a bad drug habit, and had begged for my help, which came too late for him. I realised there must be Ex Skinheads all over Britain going through the pain I was suffering, so I took the bull by the horns and invited all Skinheads from everywhere, young and old, black or white. My only rule was no factions 'Skinhead = Skinhead' if you are , or have ever been a Skinhead, then you don't need anything explained.
What can people expect from the weekend ?
On the first weekend of every June, Friday-Saturday and Sunday, since 2011, Brighton has seen an ever increasing number of Skinheads and their lovely Skinhead Girls invade Brighton. Boots, Braces, pristine clothing and a cheeky smile. Attracting scene members from right across the globe, to Madeira Drive, overlooking the beach.
A full three days of Skinhead related entertainment is laid on. DJ’s playing hyper rare vinyl, from the early days of Jamaican Ska, through to modern day Street Punk and Oi. Live bands hit the stage of the Volks bar each night. With various aftershows happening until the early hours, to keep the party buzzing, and this year a beach BBQ on the Thursday 2nd June.
Who would be your dream line up for the weekend ?
To be honest each year we get a mass of bands ask to play, some old Jamaican acts as well as brand new Europeans, but we are very restricted by budget and capacity. Its impossible to afford the flights, hotels and everything for foreign bands, without ruining the event we have , without hiking up ticket prices, so its basic mathematics. Its a full years work for me, and always a juggle as to who to book. I always programme a cross genre line up, to celebrate the full history of skinhead, the main thing is to have bands that are passionate about the Skinhead subculture, and its future.
Of course if I had the money there’s some people like Jimmy Cliff, the 4Skins and loads of others I would love to entice with a full envelope. The thing that sometimes disappoints me is the bands that dont want to play a 'Skinhead' event, even though they have a large Skinhead following, through fear of being pigeon holed by faceless nobodies, and fear jeopardising the lucrative European mainland bookings, where the festivals use 'Punk Festival' as their title.
The only way that skinhead will survive and move onto a new generation is to stand united. We have always had the odds stacked against us. From fighting streets gangs as kids, getting battered and bruised by police, schoolteachers and parents. The media keeping us out of employment, and in the modern day, the negative attitudes of the faceless internerd. We have outlived the cold war, the IRA, recessions and many foes, including the News of the World and Maggie Thatcher.
What sort of people does the event attract , is it a mixture of Old and Young ?
We literally attract all sorts, just yesterday I booked up a young 16 year old girl, who has just got out of hospital, after a suicide attempt. We have a few older guys fighting cancer, who have focussed on the Skinhead Reunion, to overcome many personal problems, another girl today coming from Germany, who has a family court battle on the Monday after the event, and needs a break away for a few days, to overcome her anguish.
As well as the big bulk of fun loving party animals, who want to drink some beer, listen to the music they love, and to celebrate who they are as Skinheads.
Skins for life
What are your hopes for the events future I hope we can carry on each year?
I would never have dreamed 6 years ago that we would have succeeded to this point, of establishing a world renowned event, the friendships and relationships created, the huge growth in the British Skinhead subculture, back on the streets, so feel quite proud of where we are, my hope is for it to continue, and for those that have opposed us, from within the scene, to realise where we are coming from. Its about our culture, that the rest of the World don't give a flying fuck about. Of course if I had a magic wand, I would love to have a big festival at which I could fully afford to have all sorts of entertainment and cultural aspects represented, to show the world what the Skinhead really is.
What is your favourite Skin head look and outfit ?
Well that varies a lot, but I dont think you can beat a nice button down shirt, shining Brogues or boots and a quality pair of Stapress. With a Crombie
Quick fire fives
5 skinhead icons.
We don't really do icons, but the people I respect through their musical influence, who never turned their back on skinheads, Gary Hodges, Laurel Aitkin, Micky Fitz, Roy Ellis, Daryl Smith
5 skinhead anthems.
Too many to list...4-Skins-Wonderful world,
Symarip- skinhead Girl, The Business -Suburban Rebels, Madness – Bed and Breakfast Man, Last Resort- Violence in our minds. Cock Sparrer – whats it like to be old
5 Skinhead accessories
A good brass Knuckle ;)
Follow Symond's newly improved website at
Grab tickets for the Great Skinhead Reunion here: http://www.subcultz.com/2015/10/great-skinhead-reunion-brighton-big-6-2016/
Words By Richie Kyle
Still in the saddle !