5 Interesting 1980s Subcultures: From Goth to Punk to Skinheads

The 1980s was a revolutionary time that produced fascinating new subcultures defined by music and fashion.

Feb 3, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
1980s subcultures goth punk skinheads

 

As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, Western culture underwent a rapid change. Music tastes shifted and surrendered to hard, crashing beats, atonal noise, synthesizers, and many other new sounds. Fashion changed, too, as more outlandish looks were displayed in order to buck the socially accepted norms.

 

In both the US and the UK, conservative governments prompted a backlash from many parts of society, wishing to make a statement through their music, clothes, and art.

 

This was the era of punks, skinheads, glam metal, goths, and hip-hop.

 

1. Punk

punks big hair
Punks. Source: Shirley Baker via Huck

 

The 1980s is perhaps most famously known for its punk subculture. It came as a result of feelings of rebellion against the establishment and cultural norms, which many young people felt were conservative and restrictive. The band Sex Pistols, formed in 1975, was a defining feature of punk, informing the cultural movement’s music, fashion, and political ideologies. Although the band lasted only two and a half years, its influence had a lasting effect and generated the punk movement that would sweep the United Kingdom and last for decades, well past its heyday of the 1980s.

 

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Seeing a dystopian future created by corporate greed, punks were nihilistic and, unsurprisingly, anti-corporatist. They were anarchists and anti-monarchists. The latter ideology was undoubtedly influenced by the Sex Pistols’ anti-monarchist song “God Save the Queen,” released to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. The song shot to no.1 on the NME charts and No.2 on the official UK Singles Chart used by the BBC.

 

god save the queen
The cover for “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols. Source: The Telegraph

 

Other famous punk bands that had their start in the late 1970s and rose to fame in the 1980s in the United Kingdom and the United States were the Misfits, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, The Damned, The Clash, Black Flag, and Bad Religion. Siouxsie and the Banshees also had its start in the punk scene.

 

Despite the political stance of the punk movement, there were also punks who associated themselves with Nazism rather than anarchism. These elements within the movement were shunned rather than accepted by other punks.

 

As the popularity of this anti-establishment culture grew, it spread across the Atlantic and received significant traction in the United States as well.

 

punk rockers photo
Punk rockers. Source: Chris Killip via Dazed

 

Punk fashion naturally reflected the beliefs and actions of the punks that wore it. Ripped jeans and leather jackets adorned with spikes were common, as were Doctor Marten’s boots or other similar army boot styles. Perhaps the most striking feature decorating many punks from the 1980s were mohawks, gelled into spikes and often brightly colored. Like the music with its purposefully offensive lyrics, many items of clothing were considered for shock value and designed to provoke outrage among the more conservative members of society. More permanent options like tattoos and piercings were also extremely popular.

 

The historical development of the punk scene was also one that was not gender restrictive. Equality was an ethos deeply rooted in punk culture. As a result, many women found freedom within the movement, with many picking up instruments and microphones and becoming punk icons themselves. Examples include Poly Styrene, frontwoman for the band X-Ray Spex, and Viv Albertine, the guitarist for the Slits.

 

As it evolved, punk culture gave rise to many individual forms of punk music, such as new wave, post-punk, and pop-punk. These were all prevalent throughout the 1980s, and as the decade came to a close, it was clear that the punk movement had had an incredible effect on cultures around the world. It continues to have a powerful and dedicated following in countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, and many others.

 

2. Goth

alien sex fiend
Goth rock band Specimen with Nik Fiend of Alien Sex Fiend, circa 1983. Source: Mick Mercer via The Guardian

 

The goth subculture evolved out of the post-punk offshoot of the punk scene, which departed from the unrefined punk sound. The post-punk label was a broad genre of music that emerged from the punk scene, as many bands experimented with different types of music and instruments that were not found in the original punk sound. This included electronic music, jazz, funk, and dance music. The development of alternative styles of music, incorporating different sounds and production techniques, created a host of new subcultures, with goth being one of the most influential and popular.

 

Although the term “gothic-rock” had been used since the late 1960s, it wasn’t until over a decade later that it became synonymous with a cultural movement. The F Club in Leeds and the Batcave in London were two prominent points of origin for the goth culture. These nightclubs drew in the goth crowds and the goth bands, boosting the subculture to new heights.

 

siouxsie and the banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees. Source: Fin Costello/Redferns via The Guardian

 

As post-punk music evolved into the goth sub-genre, aggressive vocals disappeared, and goth music took on a dark and cynical style, with strong basslines and haunting vocals. The lyrics kept the nihilistic tendencies but focused on despair, isolation, and other depressing human emotions. Bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Adam and the Ants, the Cure, and Birthday Party, among others, helped define the style and the sound, while later bands such as Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim solidified the gothic music scene.

 

Along with the music, the culture drew heavily from artistic aesthetics, being influenced by various forms of dark mythology, including vampires, spirits, and ghosts. Gothic poetry became popular, and poets such as Edgar Allan Poe became associated with goth culture.

 

Literature greatly impacted gothic culture, especially the works of writers such as Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, H.P Lovecraft, Anne Rice, and Poppy Z. Brite.

 

siouxsie sioux photo ebay
Style icon Siouxsie Sioux. Source: eBay

 

Gothic fashion was characterized by black clothing and silver adornments, with an often macabre suggestion. Black nail polish, eyeliner, and exaggerated pale skin were particularly common with both men and women, as well as fishnet sleeves and leggings. The style also drew heavily from Victorian-era aesthetics. Latex, PVC, and leather are also very common materials found in goth clothing.

 

While the goth movement expanded, then went underground in the 1990s under the onslaught of techno and rave music, which became so popular in this decade that many subcultures were pushed to the sidelines, the movement splintered into various sub-genres of goth. Today, the original gothic style of the 1980s is generally referred to as “trad goth,” while other goth styles, such as romantic goth and cybergoth, became popular. All styles and genres saw a resurgence in the 2000s onwards as the rave and techno styles waned in popularity and teenagers looked toward the previous generation for inspiration. They thus invented new forms of goth, such as mall goths who liked the fashion but were not necessarily into the music. Eventually, this style developed its own culture based around emo, nu-metal, and industrial metal. The original goth culture is far from being consigned to history. It is still alive and well!

 

3. Glam Metal

van halen charts
Van Halen. Source: Fryderyk Gabowicz/picture-alliance/dpa/AP via Rolling Stone

 

Borrowing heavily from the fashion style of the 1970s glam rockers like David Bowie, Alice Cooper, KISS, and Queen, glam metal made its mark in the late 1970s and 1980s, influencing the decade with powerful metal ballads and an upbeat, anthemic style of metal.

 

Credited as a highly influential bridge between glam rock and glam metal, one could argue that the latter began with the style of guitar-playing popularized by American musician Eddie Van Halen or the mix of metal and rock created by the English band Def Leppard.

 

The first wave of glam metal came in the first half of the 1980s. Bands that influenced this half of the decade included the Los Angeles outfits Mötley Crüe, Quiet Riot, Great White, and W.A.S.P, and they ensured that Los Angeles was the wellspring of glam metal, while the East Coast produced Bon Jovi.

 

whitesnake cover image
British band Whitesnake. Source: IMDb

 

By the mid-1980s, glam metal was sweeping across the United States, helped, no doubt, by the televised music videos on MTV. The gaudy fashion of tight clothes, big hair, and make-up also appealed to MTV, which rose to prominence in lock-step with glam metal. In fact, it would be safe to assume that glam metal and MTV had a very direct and positive effect on each other and were partly responsible for the magnificent success the other achieved. With their drug-fuelled escapades with parties and prostitutes, these bands drew media attention, which only added to their popularity within the culture.

 

Designating the genre into which many of these bands fall has been subject to debate. “Pop metal” is a term that has also been used, and some people make delineations between pop metal and glam metal. The two, however, are very much intertwined, as was the culture they created. However, calling the genre “hair metal” was seen as an offensive term.

 

By the early 1990s, the glam metal scene gave way to the grunge bands of the era, as well as anything deemed “alternative” to mainstream pop music. The glitzy, gaudy pomp of the glam rockers was eventually replaced by the raw and gritty sounds of bands like Nirvana, Bush, Silverchair, Pearl Jam, and the Foo Fighters.

 

4. Rap and Hip Hop

nwa straight outta compton
N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton album cover. Source: IMDb

 

Often confused with one another, rap and hip-hop were significant parts of the American music and culture scene of the 1980s. Hip-hop is the cultural scene defined by four elements: deejaying, MCing, graffiti, and dance. Rap is a dominant style of music that emerged from the cultural scene.

 

While hip-hop had its roots in the 1970s with the emergence of stylized rhythmic music and rapping popular in the Bronx, during the 1980s, it spread and became a dominant force among minority groups in urban centers in the United States.

 

1980 was kickstarted with the first certified gold rap song, “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow. It helped bring the genre to public attention. In 1982, the electronic sound of the Roland TR-808 drum machine was used in Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock.” The sound was instrumental in defining the sound of hip-hop for the rest of the decade.

 

A string of famous acts followed these events as rap music began to chart. Some of the bands with big hits included Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Run DMC, LL Cool J, N.W.A, Public Enemy, Ice T, The Beastie Boys, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, and Boogie Down Productions, among others. The music also inspired artists in the UK, as the genre also became popular in Europe. MC Duke, She Rockers, and the London Posse all had influence in the genre being spread throughout the United Kingdom.

 

salt n pepa
Salt ‘N’ Pepa screencap from the “Push It” music video. Source: Salt-N-Pepa/Youtube.

 

Of course, the music would evolve beyond the 1980s, with the emergence of gangsta rap and other forms that would push the genre to new heights of popularity, continuing in strength to the present day, where hip hop still holds a dominant grip in the world’s music industry.

 

During the 1980s, hip-hop culture greatly advanced. This included widespread graffiti, especially tagging, which still draws widespread attention (much of it from the police). While some hip-hop artists, such as Grandmaster Flash, question the link between graffiti and hip-hop, others have explained it as the visual representation of hip-hop culture.

 

During the 1980s, hip-hop fashion was characterized by striking colors. Loose-fitting white shirts accompanied tracksuits, gold chains, and Kangol bucket hats. Large sunglasses were often added to the look.

 

5. Skinheads

skinheads 2nd wave
Amanda Betterton and Susan Newman sporting the Chelsea haircut, a popular fashion within the skinhead movement, 1981. Source: Derek Ridgers via Dazed

 

Emerging from the 1960s working class, the skinhead movement was a statement against the upper classes. Their style was smart yet practical, with jeans, button-up shirts, boots, and shaved hair. Although reaching its peak in the 1960s, the skinhead movement faded in the 1970s and emerged again in the 1980s as a powerful and attractive movement that appealed greatly to the working class. The movement rejected conservative values and was motivated by solidarity with the working class. This movement was also heavily influenced by mod and Jamaican rude boy styles and music. In the 1980s, however, the apolitical stance was rejected by many skinheads and was replaced by a neo-Nazi ideology.

 

In the second wave of skinhead culture from the late 1970s and early 1980s, the punk movement would have influence, and the skinheads evolved with elements from the working class punk subgenre known as oi!. This dynamic spread throughout the United Kingdom, where it originated, and then to the United States. Bands such as Cockney Rejects, Combat 84, and the 4-Skins in the UK typified the Oi! genre popular with the skinheads while in the States, U.S. Chaos, The Press, and Iron Cross, among others, came to prominence.

 

mediadrumworld british skinheads
Nationalism and Nazism became popular within the skinhead movement of the 1980s. Source: Kim Rennie/Media Drum World

 

Many skinheads tried to distance themselves from what was happening and rejected the right-wing trend. Left-wing beliefs continued within the skinhead subculture but were subject to media generalizations that branded all skinheads as neo-Nazis. Bands within the oi! movement typified this stance. This prompted a right-wing response, and another genre of music was born that was more in line with their political stance. Rock Against Communism was born as a genre of music, with the most notable band being Skrewdriver, which evolved into a neo-Nazi outfit.

 

The far-right wasn’t the only direction skinheads took. The working class movement also found itself attracted to the far left, and movements sprang up directly to counter the rising tide of right-wing actions. Red Action, Anti-Fascist Action (AntiFa), and Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) were born of this dynamic. The phrase “All cops are bastards” was also coined in 1982 with the 4-skins song “A.C.A.B.”

 

Music, fashion, and politics came to characterize movements during the 1980s. Britain and the United States were the breeding grounds for these movements, and surviving the decade, they went on to influence culture for years after, some still existing in force to this day. The cultural movements of today can surely owe much of their existence to the foundational growth of the movements of the 1980s.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.